Within a couple of days, my journey from civilian to soldier was complete. I had left the recruitment office with a chit, signed by the one armed soldier, telling anyone who read it that I was to be enlisted in the Army, and that I was travelling under the King's instructions to the reception depot.
It was there that I along with hundreds of other young men, waited patiently in line, first to undergo a brief medical exam - “...Have you ever been ill boy? No Sir. Do you play sports? Yes Sir, cricket and rugby, and soccer Sir. That will be fine Perkins, send the next man in when you leave...”.. and then to receive my uniform. The corporal behind the desk asked what size shoe I wore, but before I could answer, he had handed me a bundle of clothes, putting a pair of boots on top and was already looking to the next man.
I stood in what I would later learn is called the parade ground. But, to me at that point in time, it looked like the playground from my old school, minus the markings for hop-scotch on the floor.
A sergeant told us all to stand at attention. We did as we were bid....
“JUST WHAT THE JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH DO YOU CALL THAT??? YOU THINK THAT IS ATTENTION??.....” ….for the next hour, in the midday sun, we were called names of such vulgar profanity that one of the more timid looking men started to cry, which only singled him out for the sergeants special attentions. When we achieved what he deemed to be a passable acceptance of standing to attention, he started to separate us into groups of 30 men, and those 30 into groups of 10s. Suddenly, corporals were instructed to take a group of 10 and either beat, cajole, or instruct us in the ways of correct military wearing of uniforms.
“You, my lucky lot, have the good fortune to have been selected by myself, to become the finest soldiers that the king will ever know. But first of all, we can't have you looking like a mixture of dockers, farmhands, city folk, and what ever else you were before you signed yourselves into the Army. I am going for a smoke. When I come back in ohhhhhhhh, a generous five minutes, I want to see every man jack of you in uniform.” ...and with that, he turned and slammed the door of the barrack hut.
We dressed in silence. Too shocked to say anything. The uniform was thick and heavy, the material scratchy and smelled of mothballs. The shirtsleeves reached down past my finger tips, the trousers were almost 3 sizes too big, but when I had climbed into everything, I thought I looked rather dashing. It was the boots that were the problem. They were a good 2 sizes too big. The man across the way from me, seemed to be having the same problems with his boots, but in reverse.
“Excuse me, Sir? Are your boots too small for you?”
“What if they are sport?”
“Well, mine are too big. I was wondering, if you would like to trade yours with me, to see if they fit?”
The man looked at me for a few seconds. He looked like my uncle Sid, but only harder, and my uncle Sid was the hardest man I knew.
“What's your name lad?”
“Alex. Alexander Perkins.”
“...an' you're eighteen?”
“...No. I'm nineteen...”
“...lad, you should've said you're seventeen, then I may've believed you. My son's nineteen, an' you definitely aint nineteen. So. How old are you?”
The look in his eyes, made me realise that to lie would be foolish. Blushing, and trying to fight back tears, I confessed.
“I....I'll be sixteen in 3 months. But please, don't tell the sergeant, I want to fight for my country!”
“Don't worry lad, I wont say a word. It takes guts to do what you've done, join up like this. Pity, you don't realise what you've let yourself in for. But yes, I would like to see if your boots fit. Pass them over here, Mr Perkins who is nineteen. An' you can try mine on for size. My name's Alfred Roberts. You can call me Fred...”
He stuck out his hand, and it was as big as a ham joint. When he shook my hand, my entire arm bounced up and down.
The boots fitted, and when I had difficulty putting the webbing of the uniform on correctly, all the buckles and straps confusing me, it was Fred who helped me again.