Note: Although the events described in this RAF story are all true, the characters are composites of people I knew while serving.
Cpl John Spicer placed the receiver of the telephone back onto its cradle and let out a long forlorn sigh. He’d just had a call from Cpl Jones at RAF Coningsby who had just told (warned) him of the imminent arrival at 16MU Stafford of SAC ‘Sugar’ Spooner.
“He’s a complete wanker,” said Jones, “and he can’t be trusted to do anything.”
“He can’t be that bad,” replied Spicer, “No-one’s that bad.”
“Honestly mate, he’s a fucking idiot. He’s just been given a twenty-four hour posting. He’ll be with you tomorrow.”
A twenty-four hour posting was usually reserved for an airmen or officer who really should had known better, but had all the same become inextricably involved in an undesirable sexual relationship that, once out in the open, could seriously affect his performance (at work) or bring the RAF into disrepute. Examples of this are:
1. Shagging the Station Commander’s wife,
2. Shagging your Squadron Commander’s wife,
3. Shagging your Flight Commander’s wife,
4. Shagging your colleague’s wife,
5. Shagging your best friend’s wife,
6. Shagging the wife of a local dignitary, or
7. Shagging a local girl and getting her pregnant.
These were, of course, not offences unless the culprit perpetrating any (or all) of these deeds was caught, as it were, with his pants down. Most airmen who indulged in these nefarious activities never got caught and after seventeen years in the RAF they were awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, affectionately referred to by its recipients as the Undetected Crime Medal.
Sugar Spooner’s twenty-four hour posting did not fall into any of the categories above. His transgression was of a non-sexual nature and therefore much more serious. He had been found out and held responsible for an almighty fuck-up at work.
The morning after he had been on duty, Sugar was asked by Sgt Evanson in charge of the Receipts & Despatch (R&D) Section if all the items for the Early Bird had been picked up and if there had been any problems. Different areas within the UK had their own Early Bird, which was a large container lorry that travelled from unit to unit in the early hours of the morning picking up any packages that were for onward transportation to other units within that area.
Sugar gave Sgt Evanson a gormless, confused look before asking, “What items?”
“What items? What do you mean what items?” said Sgt Evanson, beginning to lose his temper, “The fucking big pile of boxes that were over there last night!” He pointed over to an empty area of floor where the boxes he and his staff had spent the day before packing and raising the paperwork for.
“Errmm,” said Sugar.
“So, let me get this straight,” said Cpl Spicer as he showed Sugar to the Crew Room, “you unpacked all the boxes the day staff had packed and put everything that came out of them back into stock and raised receipt paperwork for every item?”
“I didn’t know,” whined Sugar.
“But didn’t you check the labels on the boxes?”
Sugar didn’t say anything. Spicer shook his head and said, “Well OK, we’ll leave it there. You’ve got a new start at a new unit – just don’t fuck it up this time.”
“I won’t, sir. I won’t let you down.”
“You’d better not. And don’t call me sir. I’m a Corporal, not a fucking officer. I work for a living.”
16 Maintenance Unit at RAF Stafford was the main Depot for the whole of the Royal Air Force and was spread over an area of about five square miles. It was made up of six satellite sites, each containing different types of equipment and a main site where the Density Activity Centre (DAC) was situated. The DAC was a massive building that housed a huge Receipts & Despatch area, along with several offices and approximately seven miles of racking within its three storeys. Everything that was going anywhere eventually came through the DAC.
Most jobs in the DAC were boring, repetitive and soul destroying – especially those on the second and third floors which had low ceilings and no natural light. During the long winter months the staff who were employed there came to work and went home in darkness. They all wore brown dust-coats and had wild hair and mad staring eyes and after a few months they began to bear more than a passing resemblance to the inhabitants of the TV series Fraggle Rock.
Fortunately for Sugar, he was working on the first floor.
Unfortunately for Spicer, Sugar was working for him.
And unfortunately for both of them there was a Station Commander’s inspection on the following day.
The floor had recently been painted with a new coat of red oxide paint and everything that the CO would find offensive had been hidden away. The only thing that needed to be done in preparation for the next day was to tidy up the pipe rack.
The pipe rack was, as it’s description suggested, a rack full of pipes that were moulded in such a way as to fit directly into the area of an aircraft where they could perform the tasks they had been designed for. They were used to carry different products throughout the various systems of the aircraft – fuel, oxygen, nitrogen, hydraulic oil – and were very delicate, so when Spicer showed Sugar the pipe rack and asked him to straighten up the pipes it was probably, in retrospect, not the best choice of words to have used.
When Sugar returned an hour later after completing his task, Spicer asked him if everything was all right.
“Well it was until they started snapping,” Sugar informed him.
“Sorry, Sugar, they started what?”
“Snapping – you know, as I was straightening them out they started snapping.”
Spicer felt his heart begin to race as the blood rushed to his head. “They started to what?” he yelled.
“Snap,” said Sugar, “you know, as I was strai . . .”
“I heard what you fucking well said – I just can’t believe you just said it. How many did you snap?”
“Well, I don’t really know, but . . .”
“A rough estimate – just give me a rough estimate.”
“Ermm, well I think almost all of them snapped.”
Spicer grabbed hold of Sugar’s collar and dragged him over to the pipe rack. The carnage that greeted his eyes was unbelievable. Sugar’s estimation was pretty much accurate - almost all of them were snapped into pieces, creating thousands of pounds worth of damage – but they did at least look tidy.
“Christ on a fucking bike,” Spicer said, “surely something must have told you to stop after the first one or two snapped in your hands.”
Sugar gave Spicer a blank look.
“You told me to straighten up the pipes.”
“It was a figure of speech, you fucking moron.”
“How the fuck am I going to explain this to the boss?”
“Ermm,” said Sugar.
“He did what?” yelled FS Gray, almost knocking over the cup of coffee on his desk as he sprang out of his chair.
Spicer was about to repeat what he had just reported when FS Gray said, “Don’t answer that. Is he a fucking moron or something?”
“It appears so, sir. He was sent here because of a huge balls-up at Coningsby.”
“Christ Almighty, what kind of people are they allowing in the Air Force nowadays? This wouldn’t have happened in my day.”
“It shouldn’t happen at all. The guy’s obviously mentally deranged.”
“Obviously. Right, send him in to see me in five minutes.”
“Are you an idiot?” asked FS Gray.
“Sir?” replied Sugar.
“I asked you if you were a fucking idiot.”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
“Oh, you don’t, do you. Well I think you are.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“And stop calling me sir. I’m a Flight Sergeant, not a fucking officer. I work for a living.”
Sugar smiled. “That’s what Spicy said, sir.”
“What did I just tell you?”
“When? What do you mean when? Just now – what did I tell you?”
“Ermmm . . .”
“I told you to stop calling me sir.”
“Yes, that’s right, sir.”
“Well, stop it then.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
Sugar Spooner had been the worst recruit RAF Swinderby had ever seen in its entire history as a basic recruit training unit. New batches of basic recruits arrived at RAF Swinderby every week to begin an intensive six-week course that taught them how to march in formation (square-bashing), how to shine shoes until they gleamed (bulling), and how to obey all orders without question (brainwashing). As one course left to go to their respective trade training units another one arrived. It was known as the sausage factory.
No one had ever been as inept and unaware of his surroundings than Sugar. He was useless at everything. He couldn’t even grasp the basic concept of rank structure and took to referring to anyone who was of a higher rank than him as sir. Parades were also a problem for Sugar because he was never able to march properly (putting the right foot forward whilst swinging the left arm shoulder high and vice versa) and instead he tick-tocked (putting the right foot forward and swinging the right arm shoulder high and vice versa) and was therefore constantly bellowed at by his Drill Instructors until they were red in the face with apoplexy. After three weeks they unanimously agreed to excuse him from all parade ground activities. They couldn’t work out if Sugar was very intelligent or inordinately stupid. They decided he was the latter. It didn’t matter either way – intelligent or stupid – he was the only member of his (or any other) Training Flight to be excused parades.
He spent twenty-four weeks at RAF Swinderby before the Drill Instructors eventually allowed him to go to his trade training unit after completing his six week course. It wasn’t because he’d passed – on the contrary, he had failed in every aspect. It was because they were sick of the sight of him and just wanted to palm him off to another unit rather than go through the complicated and traumatic procedure of discharging him as unfit for service.
They didn’t call RAF Swinderby a sausage factory for nothing.
Sugar had somehow been selected to be an Electrical Engineer. No one at RAF Swinderby was quite sure how this had happened, but when he arrived for his trade training he lasted two days before he was taken out and sent to a holding unit where he could be reassessed and re-mustered into another trade, one which would be far less demanding and dangerous to anyone in close proximity to him than that of Electrical Engineer.
He arrived at the Guard Room of the holding unit on a Friday at around 1800 hours and was informed by the Orderly Corporal that the Airman’s Mess was closed, but if he wanted something to eat he could go to the local chip shop which was only a short walk from the Camp Gates.
He was given some bedding and shown to his accommodation, after which he walked to the chip shop.
On Monday morning he was collected by a sergeant who was to be his assessor and taken to Station Headquarters to determine what trade he was suitable for. Throughout the assessment the sergeant was amazed at Sugar’s total lack of any modicum of intelligence or lateral thinking and after an exhausting interview he had all but decided that he would be a suitable candidate for the Supply trade. He instructed Sugar to go to the Mess for something to eat and he would inform him of his decision in the afternoon.
“I can’t sir,” said Sugar.
“What? Why not?” said the sergeant.
“I can’t. The Mess is closed.”
“No it isn’t. Who told you it was closed?”
“The man in the Guard Room told me that the Mess was closed when I arrived here on Friday night.”
“When did you arrive?”
“On Friday night.”
“I know you arrived on Friday night. But when on Friday night?”
“At six o’clock.”
“Well of course the Mess was closed then. The Orderly Corporal didn’t mean the Mess was closed permanently. He just meant that it wasn’t open at the time of your arrival.”
“Where have you been eating all weekend?”
“At the chip shop.”
“And what’s with all this sir malarkey? I’m a sergeant, not a fucking officer. I work for a living. Call me by my proper rank.”
Sugar thought about this for a moment. “Yes, sir.”
The sergeant rolled his eyes and sighed. “Look, just go to the Mess. It’s that building there,” he said, pointing to the large building that had AIRMAN’S MESS emblazoned over its entrance. “You got that?”
“Yes, sir,” said Sugar to the sergeant as he left the office.
“Jesus Christ,” whispered the sergeant to no one in particular.
Sugar arrived at RAF Hereford a week later to begin his basic Supply training course. He spent eighteen months there before completing his eight week course. The Trade Training Instructors eventually allowed him to go to his unit. It wasn’t because he’d passed – on the contrary, he had failed in every aspect – it was because they were sick of the sight of him and just wanted to palm him off to another unit rather than go through the complicated and traumatic procedure of discharging him as unfit for service.
They didn’t call RAF Hereford a sausage factory for nothing.
“Give him something simple to do,” said FS Gray to Cpl Spicer.
“I thought straightening up the pipe rack was simple.”
“Obviously not. In fact, give him something that doesn’t actually involve touching any equipment at all.”
“Well, there’s a set of racking at the back of the store that needs painting.”
“Perfect. That’s should be easy enough. There should be no chance of him fucking that up.”
What FS Gray and Cpl Spicer were about to discover was that Sugar could fuck anything up. Any task, no matter how uncomplicated, was ripe for fucking up if Sugar was in any way involved. When he was at RAF Coningsby he’d applied, for reasons known only to himself, to do a distance learning course in Chemistry and after setting fire to his room and almost burning the entire accommodation block down he was charged with wilful destruction of property and given three weeks Jankers (petty restrictions). He should, given the circumstances, have been fined, but after receiving several furious letters from the manager of Barclays Bank in Hereford regarding Sugar’s account and in particular the plethora of rubber cheques that had bounced their way to his desk, the Squadron Commander discovered that Sugar was under the misapprehension that as long as he had cheques in his cheque book he had money in his account.
Spicer provided Sugar with a tin of grey paint and a brush and showed him where the rack that required painting was.
“Right, Sugar, I’m trusting you with this. I’m going to Clothing Stores but I’ll be back in about half an hour to see how you’re doing. So don’t fuck it up.”
Spicer was not in the best of moods when he arrived back in the DAC and his mood was about to get much much worse.
“What the fuck is this!” he roared, when he saw the grey footprints on the newly painted floor. “Spooner! Where the fuck are you?”
Sugar appeared from behind one of the racks. He was covered from head-to-toe in grey paint and was leaving a trail of wet grey footprints as he walked towards Spicer.
“Stop!” Spicer yelled. “Take your shoes off now!”
Sugar looked at Spicer in bewilderment.
“Take your fucking shoes off, you moron!”
Sugar did as he was told, although he didn’t understand why. Nor did he understand why Cpl Spicer was so angry with him. Until he looked at his surroundings.
“Errmm,” Sugar said.
Spicer discovered that Sugar’s method of painting the racks was to paint the base first, then stand on the base and paint the struts and the underneath of the rack above. Paint dripped from his brush and onto his head as he did this and his shoes left footprints on the newly painted base. As he stood back to admire his handiwork he left grey footprints on the red oxide of the floor. Ten minutes into the job he decided to make himself a cup of tea, leaving a trail of grey footprints from the euipment racks to the tea room.
FS Gray went beserk.
An hour later, when he had calmed down after punching several holes in the plasterboard wall of his office, he told Sugar to go to his accommodation block and not to come back into work until he was sent for – which would most probably be never.
It was raining heavily when Sugar left the building and he tramped off back to his block with his head down and his hands in his pockets.
On his way there the Station Commander’s car drove past him. The car stopped suddenly and began to reverse. The flag was flying at the front of the car which indicated that the Station Commander was within. The car stopped and the Station Commander opened the door to forcefully remind Sugar that it was customary to salute the car if the flag was flying, but before he could say anything Sugar, thinking he was being offered a lift, climbed in and sat beside the Station Commander.
“Thanks,” he said cheerfully, “You can drop me off at the NAAFI, if you’re going that far.”
The Station Commander could barely contain his anger at the ignorant oaf covered in grey paint who was now sat beside him. “Do you know who I am?” he bellowed.
“Errrmm,” replied Sugar.