I arrived back at HMS Collingwood and was given my accommodation. It was a four man mess-deck in a quite new block. As I was on a refresher training course I had a fairly relaxed routine of tuition during the day, and evenings to myself. I was required to form part of the duty watch once every four days but, as a PO I had little to do other than supervise the new recruit trainees who actually did most of the donkey work. Every Wednesday afternoon was a half day for sports and we could choose any sport we wanted to. I hated running but loved football so, that is what I did. Learnt about electrical and hydraulic systems, played football and, as long as I wasn’t duty watch, I went home at the weekends. I was actually managing to get home about every other weekend. I found another guy who lived in Chatham who drove home every weekend, so I would get a lift from him and pay him fuel money. Things weren’t as bad as I had thought they would be.
About two months into the course, on a Monday morning the sports list came around as usual. You had to select which sport you wanted to do each Wednesday so they could check that you actually went and didn’t disappear into the nearest pub for the afternoon. I looked forward to the football each week and as the list was passed around to me I had my pen poised. Another submariner ,Smudge Smith, passed me the paper with a look of disgust. I cast my eyes over it only to see it was a directive rather than a list.
‘Inter Departmental Cross Country’. It said. ‘All personnel under training will take part in the inter departmental cross-country competition this Wednesday afternoon. The race will take place over a six mile course in the local area and will be strictly stewarded by the Physical Training Staff. All are to take part. No absences accepted without the signed permission of a course supervising instructor or medical certificate. All ratings to muster on the parade ground at 1400 hours prompt. Absentees will be disciplined.’
I looked at Smudge who, like me, was a lazy, twenty cigarettes a day, and seven pints a night man. I didn’t do running, it was against my religion. Smudge looked devastated, as though he had experienced a death in the family.
“Good God, Pedro. They can’t be serious can they?” He asked with a look of desperation.
“I think they are mate.” I said.
“Dickinson, Smith, do you have a problem we need to know about?”
I looked up. It was the Chief Petty Officer Instructor speaking.
“No Chief, we were just discussing the advantages of transistors over valves in electrical equipment.” I said.
“Bulls**t. Pay attention and leave your idle chatter till lunch time.”
“Yes Chief. Sorry Chief.”
I returned to my books and tried to concentrate on the lesson. At last lunch came along and Smudge and I spent the entire break trying to come up with some way of getting out of the cross country. You would have thought that the combined brainpower of two naval technical ratings could have come up with something, but no. It looked like we would were going to have to bite the bullet and run. I spent the following thirty six hours trying to find an excuse not to run. I reported to the sick bay and complained of everything from piles to yellow swamp fever. The morning sick bay clinic was packed with men trying to find an illness which would allow them to miss the cross country. Obviously somebody had had a word with the medical orderlies. I even saw one bloke coming out on crutches with the MO shouting after him.
“The exercise will do that torn ligament good. You get out there and do the run. You’ll see, you’ll enjoy it.”
The guy on crutches passed me muttering, “ If it’s that bloody enjoyable why isn’t he volunteering to do it then…. the little scab-lifting bastard.”
Come the Wednesday morning I finally began to accept the fact that I was going to have to take part. All the previous day and all that morning it had rained non-stop and now it was blowing a real hooligan with sleet in the air. I was thrilled by the possibility of it all being cancelled due to inclement weather. No such luck.
“Okay, that’s it for the forenoon, off you go to lunch and good luck in the run this afternoon. See you all tomorrow morning.” The Chief was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He didn’t have to do the run. He could go to his cosy home and slip into bed with a nice warm wife. It was alright for him. He wasn’t going to have a massive coronary in the middle of some bog on the outskirts of Fareham was he? I ate very little for lunch. Just before 1400 there was a knock on the door of the mess and there stood Smudge resplendent in his best running kit. Slowly and without much conversation we made our way to the parade ground which, at HMS Collingwood was huge, almost a quarter of a mile along each side.
We stood there having a last cigarette, shivering in the freezing wind while, all around us, fit, athletic looking men carried out stretching exercises and warmed up for the race. They were very professional looking in their pristine running shorts, trainers and silky running vests. I looked at Smudge. He was wearing a crumpled T-shirt with the picture of a large breasted semi-naked model on the front and the slogan “Been there, shagged that” on the back. His feet were clad in a dirty pair of naval issue plimsolls with a split down one side of the right foot and his shorts were khaki and held up with a piece of sailmakers twine. I didn’t look much better than him either. He was smiling and I thought he must have had a couple of stiff shots of rum before he came out.
The PT staff began calling everyone into line in preparation for the off. The course had been publicised on the notice boards in all mess-decks and had obviously been designed by a sadistic bastard who hated sailors. A starting pistol went off and there was a huge rush towards the top of the parade ground. Smudge grabbed me by the arm. “Just hang on and let the crowd get away. I’ve got a plan.” He said with a grin. At the top of the parade ground was a long straight road leading to the main entrance of the establishment and the course then took the runners across the road and onto the sports field before meandering off for miles across the surrounding fields. We hadn’t even got to the top of the parade ground and I was gasping for breath. Smudge, who was six foot one, just loped along beside me, a cigarette in his mouth and a stupid grin on his head. What the hell was he up to?
Eventually we reached the main gate, we were already last and my lungs and throat were burning. I could feel my face glowing and my arms and legs were bloody freezing in the chill wind. The runners in front of us reached the main gate and disappeared from view and, as we exited the gate behind them they were already across the road and nearly at the sports field. I was suddenly spun off my feet and my shoulder nearly wrenched from its socket. I felt myself being dragged along and my hip bounced off a wall as my face hit a wooden post. I suddenly realised what the hell was going on. Just outside the main gate was an old latrine block, never used but still standing. Smudge had pulled me inside and was pushing the dilapidated wooden door shut behind us. He had obviously planned this for some time as he produced a long piece of four by two timber, which he used to jam the door shut. From the cistern above the toilets he produced two bottles of beer and from under one of the sinks he produced a pack of cards and a crib board.
“There you go Pedro.” He said, passing me a bottle and a bottle opener. “Fill your boots mate.”
He slurped from his bottle of beer and explained the plan.
“It’s easy Pedro me old mate. All we do is wait here until the runners come back, then we join in. Nobody will know we haven’t run the entire course and we get to sit here, play cards and have a few beers while they leg it around the country side like a bunch of lunatics. What do you think?”
I had to admit, I was impressed. It was a bit chilly sitting in that old latrine block but that was so much better than running a six mile cross country race. The time passed, helped along by the odd hand of cribbage and the occasional beer and, eventually we heard the slip slap of wet training shoes on the tarmac as the lead runners crossing the road began to make their way towards the finishing line. We waited until a suitable number of runners had gone past, after all, we didn’t want to look like Olympic athletes, and then we prepared to join in with the field.
“Right Pedro, you get rid of that piece of timber so we can get out.” Said Smudge.
I turned around to move the obstruction and was hit by a freezing cold cascade of water from behind. “What the f***!” I turned around to see what was going on and immediately received a stinging slap to the side of my face. Smudge had gone nuts. Having put down the water bucket he’d become a homicidal maniac and was attacking me. “What the hell…” Whack. Another slap to the other side of my face. My head was reeling and my vision was blurred.
“Come on then Pedro, hit me now.”
I looked at Smudge who was standing there with his face thrust towards me. Water was running from his soaked hair.
“Smudge, what the bloody hell are you on, what’s all this about?” I shouted.
“Pedro, you’re really not devious enough for this game are you. If we go out there dry as a bone and fresh faced they’ll know we haven’t been running. The water will make it look as if you’ve been sweating and if we slap each others faces it will make our cheeks red and we’ll look hot and bothered. Now come on and hit me.”
I think I went a bit over the top because by the time I’d finished Smudge looked as if he was about to lose consciousness. “Thanks Pedro.” He said through streaming eyes. He licked a small droplet of blood from the corner of his mouth and moved to the door. He opened it a crack and looked out.
“Right, just wait for a gap and then, when I say go, go.”
There was a small pause and then, “GO.”
We burst out of the door. It was timed to perfection. The runner in front of us had just turned the corner out of sight and the next placed man was nowhere to be seen.
“S***, hang on a minute.”
“What’s up now Smudge?”
“Our plimsolls, they’re not muddy, quick, rub them in this.”
He had found a small grassy patch of mud and moss against the wall of the outbuilding and we frantically dirtied our plimsolls before jogging around the corner, gasping and panting as though we were on our last legs. As we ran through the main gate I could see stretched out in front of us, all the way to the parade ground, gaggles of sweating and knackered sailors who had just spent the last hour running around the local bogs and swamps. Smudge and I plodded down the main road towards the finishing area where the PT staff had erected one of those rope funnels that force you into single file to be counted as you cross the line.
Smudge and I really put on quite a show. We sprinted the last fifty yards or so, doing our best to beat each other to the line. Smudge just pipped me at the post as we thundered down the last few yards. We slowed to a gasping amble and gave our names to the PTI. We walked slowly through the remainder of the rope path, hands on hips, gasping for breath and bent at the waist, dragging in great lungfuls of air. The fifty yard sprint had done for both of us and we didn’t need to pretend now. The PTI who had taken our names trotted past us, looking at us as he passed.
“Well done lads, bloody good effort.”
Smudge looked at me and grinned, we’d showed them, we’d fooled them all. As we exited the ropes a slim athletic looking Lieutenant was watching us. “Dickinson, Smith, brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Report to me.”
I was worried. Had we been rumbled? We made our way across to where he was standing. I had still some way to go before full recovery and Smudge was so far gone he had even given up trying to light his cigarette.
“Yes Sir,” We both said in unison.
“I’m bloody impressed with your performance. I look forward to next week. We’ll do really well I feel with you two on the team.” Said the officer with a grin.
“I’m sorry sir, I don’t fully understand.” I said.
“Next week, HMS Drake.” He said raising his eyebrows.
“Sir, I don’t quite understand what you mean.” Said Smudge.
“You two were the first home in your age group, so you have achieved automatic selection for the annual cross country match against HMS Drake, in Plymouth, next week. It’s a much tougher course than this, with plenty of hills and rivers. I think we will do really well this year. I’ll contact your course instructor tomorrow to arrange for you to be released for the run.” He said and, with that, turned on his heel and almost skipped with delight back to the finishing line. I looked at Smudge. His jaw was wide open and the still unlit cigarette was dangling from his lower lip. I’m sure I could see the lip trembling. I thought he was going to break down and cry. “Smudge,” I said, “You are an absolute ******* dickhead.” "Don't start on me mate, an hour ago you thought it was a bloody terrific idea," retorted an angry Smudge.
In Plymouth the next Thursday at about 1600 hours, Smudge and I were trying to explain to the young Lieutenant.
“But forty minutes, forty minutes, how could you have been that far behind their last man?” He asked, pleading for an explanation.
Smudge and I were covered from head to foot in mud. Smudge was practically foaming at the mouth and had pulled a thigh ligament and I was in the middle of a racking coughing spasm as I tried to draw breath into my exhausted body.
“Sorry sir.” said Smudge. “I think it was that curry they served up in the Senior Rates dining room last night. We were both up all night with stomach pains.” “ I think we might have been de-hydrated sir.” I chipped in.
Again he presented us with his back as he walked away shaking his head. All I could hear him muttering was, “Forty bloody minutes behind, forty bloody minutes…. absolutely f****** unbelievable.”
It was a very lonely coach ride back to Portsmouth that night. I don’t think anyone said a single word to either of us on the whole journey. We were definitely persona non grata with the skimmer sporting organisers. Still, at least they never asked us to run again. On second thought, not one of our most successful dodges I would have to admit.