Early Life on Bute
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These are excerpts from the story 'Early Life Incidents' by Alexander A. Macdonald
Alexander's father James McIntyre Macdonald was born in Glasgow on 18th August 1898 and his father Alexander Macdonald came from the Isle of Skye.
James arrived at Quebec aboard the S.S.Metagama on the 10th June 1921 and settled in Toronto where he married at Calton St United Church, on 2 June 1923. With the depression in the early 1930s the family (Father, mother and three boys, 7, 2, and 1 years) returned to Scotland (for work) aboard the Duchess of Athol in the spring of 1923.
We moved to 12 Balbeg Street in West Drumoyne, Glasgow in 1935. It was a new house and equipped with a bathtub. We all went by paddle steamer to Port Bannatyne (henceforth only referred to as the 'Port'). At that time we rode the open electric streetcar to Ettrick Bay. Each of the cars was decked out with flags and bunting. When we reached the bay there was a beautiful beach, which sloped so gently you could walk out for 100 yards and only be in water six to eight inches deep. There were donkey rides, carnival games, tearooms and ice cream vendors. All the rails were removed from the track in 1940 to be used for the war effort. They didn't help much, as late as 1994 they are stacked in one of the town yards in Rothesay. At one point in time there were streetcar tracks from Rothesay to the 'Port,' they are in the same yard (and we won the war). It seems a shame, that so many people gave up pots and pans to be melted down for the war effort, and this source was neglected.
On holiday to the 'Port' in 1935 my father, brothers and I went for a sail aboard the 'Sheila' with Grandpa. The 'Sheila' was built at a shipyard in Glasgow by Grandpa, who in his earlier years had sailed under canvas all over the world. Being from the islands he knew seamanship and would more than likely have been a boson rather than an A.B. or deck hand.
With Grandpa at the helm we set sail and when we were in the headwaters of Loch Striven we met up with a whale. This was a long time ago (before Willie of Free Willy fame), and in those days whales were to be feared, I think with good reason. Whaling was still prevalent and these intelligent mammals may have seen us as a threat. It looked as if it had an attack modus operandi, but grandpa thought the shiny brass plates fastened to the keel were acting like a lure to the beast.
It (the monster) kept diving toward us and we boys were quickly shunted below decks. There were three portholes on each side and even with jumping from side to side, only caught a few glimpses of the monster. Grandpa had seen many whales and said this was a big one. In fact he turned the boat in tighter circles than the whale, our enemy, could manoeuvre. We kept dodging for fifteen minutes and a paddle steamer coming into the port scared him off. The noise and splashing of a paddle steamer was quite emphatic in an area that is used to absolute quietness.
I remember Grandpa's gaunt expression and pursed lips over his concern for us. My mother related the story many times without changing the text: - "Your father, had he been in charge, would have headed straight for the pier and the boat would have experienced problems by accident or design from this adversary. She thought highly of my Grandpa, but nobody thought very much of the small inboard engine aboard the "Sheila", which never really worked in problem situations. In fact I never saw or heard it work! My mother told me that she held both of her in law parents in high regard and that my Grandfather was, to her, a true highland gentleman. The term "gentleman" was limited to only a few mortals during my mother's lifetime of approvals.
In the early autumn of 1937, my father was advised of an upcoming promotion, which would mean us moving to London. Due to his illness, the move never occurred, and he passed away at the beginning of the following year.
In 1940, my Grandma gave up the house she rented in Port Bannatyne and my mother signed on and we were together again as a family. Bill went to Rothesay Academy, I to Rothesay Public School and Ken to the Port Bannatyne School. He was mad, because he and I had always gone to the same school. When we first settled in a Port Bannatyne, before troops and salvage companies arrived, it was a quiet place only interrupted with the sounds of nature, the chirping of birds at the back of the house and the waves rustling pebbles on the shore - boring stuff for wee boys.
We kept the kitchen window open in the summer and little Robins (no relative of the Canadian Robins) would come in pairs for crumbs of bread left on the sill. We would also have a family of Blue tits (titmice) like up on the sill. Mother, father and three young. The Robins became quite bold and would, if only one or two people were present, join us at the table for tea, pecking at the crumbs. My mother had names for each of them but I can only remember "Spindle Shanks." He was a character. He had long and knobbly knees. My mother said she didn't know what the scratching sound was until she discovered that the bird was following her on the floor from room to room.
These kind of episodes only happened when there were only one or two people in the house. Indeed, there were many times when it was so quiet that it was suggested you could hear the ropes hit the water as the ferry left the mainland several miles away.
The public (grade) school in Rothesay was several blocks up High Street (and I do mean up) past the Castle and at a steep slope. To run down from school you would have to frequently brake your gait or all control would be lost.
We (a few poor children) were given tickets, by the school authorities, for lunch at a soup kitchen down High Street towards the Castle. We were hungry and the soup, though good, became a bit boring. The fact that there were two containers of sheep skulls, right by the door, ready for the garbage, did not bother us. Thursdays however, they served mince (ground beef stew) and potatoes. This we really liked - burnt or not. It was quite frequently burnt!
Ken and I were also given bus tickets back to Port Bannatyne. They knew we delivered milk in the town in the morning and had no use of extra tickets. With the tickets was the stipulation that they could only be used certain hours to or from school. My mother cautioned us not to mention these facts, I think because she would be considered a poor provider and she had considerable (deserved) pride. She often went without so we could be fed. I don't think Ken or I ever thought we were poor except for occasional money shortages. Sometimes we did not have a penny for the gas meter, which made it more awkward for light or cooking. As time passed, conditions improved with our paying guests, whether holidaymakers or billeted personnel.
One day when making the 'braked' run down High Street from school I felt a pain in my side. The same thing as we used to call "a stitch in the side." I was only twelve at the time and when I arrived home the pain had still not subsided. My mother and I went by bus to Rothesay and walked to a doctor's house on Front Street towards Craigmore. I was diagnosed with acute appendicitis and the doctor made us go, by taxi, to the hospital up High Street quite a bit past the school. He followed and operated on me that night.
They had run out of chloroform and gave me ether. They inverted a sieve over my mouth and nose, told me to count to one hundred, and dripped ether on the sieve. I think I was out for two days. When I regained consciousness I was in a room whith three commandos. I was the only kid in the hospital and was quite sick until discharged about two weeks later. It should be mentioned that the commandoes, paratroopers etc. were not war casualties. They had a variety of injuries mostly caused by vehicle accidents. They all helped to cheer me up and, when I started eating shared any goodies with me.
Having lost so much weight, I was sent to Tighnabruaich to recuperate at the house of one of my father's cousins. Tighnabruich is on the mainland about twelve miles from Rothesay in the Kyles of Bute. I had a radio in my bedroom, which I listened to endlessly. The only station I could receive was from the highlands in Gaelic, but it was then that I first heard "Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue." Within two weeks I was well enough to go home, but missed my two aunts doting on me - and the radio.
The S.S. Volendam was towed into Port Bannatyne and beached on a sandy shore in the bay, I think in 1940. It was said that it had hit a British Mine when leaving with evacuees to Canada. Shortly after that a floating dock was posted to the port. The first year we were in the Port, an elderly Aunt Barbara (I think on my Grandmother's side) was sent to live with us. She was a pleasant enough old soul, but her mind wandered quite a bit. She was taken ill and bedridden after about eight months with us. I don't know the illness, but she was, I think, in her late 70s. She passed away one night in the hole in the wall bed in the kitchen. Our cousin Kenneth Macdonald came and lived with us about a year.
My mother operated our place as a boarding house for a few for the Glasgow holiday crowd till the autumn of 1940. We then started to have personnel from the London, Liverpool Salvage Co. billeted with us. Between them and the Royal Navy they operated the floating dock and 3 tugboats. The 'Zeehund' was the biggest and was equipped for boom laying. The 'Sleet Boot Zeelieu' was the best looking, very rakish. These two tugs were diesel and flew the Belgian flag. The third was a French steam tug called the 'Rene la Besnaraise.' Powerful but not elegant.
Any ship that was hit by enemy fire on the British side of the North Atlantic and could be refitted or repaired was either towed or limped their way into our bay. At times there were five or six anchored out in the bay awaiting their repairs.
About the same time as this was going on the U.S. Construction Battalion was building a base at Ardyne Point on the mainland by Loch Striven and named it 'Hoppers Pier.' This we could see from our front windows together with all salvageable vessels being brought in. Loch Striven is where the charioteers and then midget submarines, manned by 2 and 4 men, did all their training. They managed to put the German battleship 'Tirpitz' out of action later, when consigned to action.
There was and is only one row of houses on the shore road in our area and we were almost directly in front of Port Bannatyne pier. Beyond the back of the house and yard were a stone wall and the back road, then the Kyles Hydro Hotel woods. Only part of the smoke stack was visible from our windows. This hotel was taken over by the admiralty for Naval Intelligence and given the name H.M.S.Varbel. I have heard that Winston Churchill was there on at least one occasion.
To add to the island's population, several of the stately homes were commandeered by the navy or the army. The naval ones were all given names like H.M.S. Brontosaurus - I can't remember the others - there were perhaps twenty between the Port, Rothesay and Craigmore. Then we started to get thousands of troops, with guns, tanks, Bren Gun Carriers, Rocket Carriers, jeeps, motorbikes, trucks and ambulances. Infantry, commandoes and paratroops trained on the island for 'D' Day.
Rothesay Bay was home to the small aircraft carrier "Argus" for about a year, then the submarine depot ship 'Cyclops' which left after about 2 years and was replaced by the sub mother ship 'Forth.' My brother Ken flew from the Argus as a Sea Cadet at the age of 12. We learned to identify quite a few subs from their silhouettes. At times Rothesay Bay was cluttered with 5 or 6 naval vessels, but for the most part it was just the sub depot ship with up to 6 or 8 of their flock being serviced at a time. When mock invasions were staged, there would be 30 or 40 landing craft also.
In the late 1942 the island became home to at least 200 Polish army officers who were billeted at homes in Rothesay and nearby villages. Then we seemed to have an influx of sailors from the Netherlands, France, Australia and Scandinavia for brief periods; any where from a few days to two weeks. It should be mentioned that the island was still the summer holiday resort for the Glasgow and Greenock peak periods; the local residents were outnumbered by about seventy to one.
In Port Bannatyne there were three boat sheds that rented out rowboats for the holidaymakers, with or without fishing tackle and bait. Each had 12-20 skiffs or rowboats that were moored a short distance from the shore at low tide. One or two were kept at the slip and when a boat was rented oars and bailing can would be ferried out together with the 'Go-for.' The boats were sound but usually had to be bailed of rainwater and we were the 'go-fors.' Ken and I both worked there at 'Stewarts' who happened to be our next-door-neighbour. We didn't get paid money, but when business was slow we could take boats out on our own and became quite skilled. (The only drawback was that in scrambling from boat to boat we sometimes fell in the sea).
This could only happen twice in one day because we would run out of dry clothes. There was only the kitchen fireplace for heat and drying. No electricity, one cold water tap in the kitchen. Besides the kitchen, there was a washbasin and pitcher on a stand in all the rooms. Gas lighting, stove and gas fireplaces in bedooms and dining room. The toilet, shared with the Stewarts, was in a small room on the first landing.
We had several chances to row out and see first hand the ships that were waiting in line to go on the floating dock. For a few years we divided our time: on the shore in front of our house having jellyfish fights, looking for sea urchins, starfish, octopus, eels, razor fish or an array of other wonderful things, or in the Hydro woods and at the boat slips. Each a whole different learning experience.
Starting in late 42 we had quite an assortment of men billeted with us. The first few were civvy divers from the salvage company. We only accommodated one at a time in those days. The last to live at our house had been the draughts (checkers) champion of Wales and I would sit and play him for hours. He taught me many moves and I at the time could beat anyone - but not him. The engineer of the 'Rene' tug stayed with us for a while, I don't remember the dates, and so many came and went that I could stretch the time frame to 10 years rather than 4 years.
The episode with the engineer, Bob McFarlane, I think is worth noting. The tug had a new captain and he wanted to see just how it handled. They were out for about two hours and Bob was changing gears and throttles from full astern - half astern - stop - slow ahead - full ahead, according to what the ringing and telegraph directed. He got fed up! And only once, when it rang 'slow astern,' he gave the engine 'full ahead,' not knowing that they were almost finished and coming into the pier. It was a powerful tug and sheared off one corner of the pier. The pilings of the pier were about 18 inches in diameter, but the boat was undamaged. He was not allowed on board for two days. He had been the sole survivor from a ship that was bombed. The bomb went down the stack just as he opened the engine room hatch to come off watch and was blown clear. He was rescued in a semi conscious state but still swimming. Not long after the collision with the pier he was moved to another base.
For a few days at a time, we had 2 soldiers billeted with us. Once we had Canadians and they were followed by Royal Engineers who did field clean up after manoeuvres. They complained about the mess the Canadians made of the battle area.
It was around this time when Ken and I built a raft out of driftwood. We didn't have many nails so we tied part of it together with pieces of rope and string. We borrowed my grandfather's sea chest, which we both used to sit on for meals at the kitchen table. After getting permission from Mother we embarked out to sea. No oars, no paddles! The means of propulsion was simple. With us both standing on one end of the raft it would settle down in the water and as soon as it went under we would jump to the middle. We would shoot forward about six or eight feet each time. The sea became a little rough with some white caps when we were about a quarter mile from shore. Between that, stresses by jumping back and forth and poor building technique, the thing (couldn't call it a raft any more) broke up. We lost the sea chest, but made it to shore without any problems by hanging on to some of the driftwood pieces.
Each house facing the sea front had a baffle wall about two and a half foot high with a gate in the middle to the walkway. These walls were to protect the small front lawns or gardens from the sea. If there was a storm during high tides, waves would hit the seawall - cross the verge of grass - cross the sidewalk - road and other sidewalk and be almost spent before hitting the baffle wall. If cycling on the shore road under those conditions timing had to be good, because the force of the waves would knock you off your bike or at least make you very wet.
When Ken became 10 years old and went to school with me in Rothesay, we both got jobs helping a farmer deliver milk from Port Bannatyne. About 3 miles in all but we started at 6:30am. The milk was delivered by can and poured into the customers ' jug that was left outside the door in most cases. The farmer had a two wheeled milk cart drawn by one horse. There were three large milk cans, each with a brass tap. They were located at the back of the cart and we had an assortment of cans from one pint up to two gallons. Most of the customers we had only took a pint, but one big house used two gallons and one quart a day. Quite often our clothes were wet through when we arrived at the school, but we dried out as the day wore on.
I had heard that you could deliver telegrams for the main post office in Rothesay and thought I'd give it a try. At age thirteen I was hired. Two problems - the bicycles were in good shape - the tires were not flat, but out of the six available none had working brakes. The second problem was to figure out the address. Many houses had similar names, but could be ten miles apart. Names of houses such as Ardmore without any other direction, but in Rothesay were quite common. The problem was that Ardmore was not in Rothesay and could be the one in Ardbeg to the north of Craigmore or to the south. I only recall delivering three telegrams during my hire, two of which were complicated and the other was to H.M.S. Varbel right behind our house. The delivery to the Varbel was interesting. I didn't get past the lobby, but it was the first time in recollection I had ever seen a lift. (elevator). Still I don't know why I should have to deliver a telegram to a hub of communications such as the Admiralty.
When I turned fourteen, I gave up the milk deliveries and went to work full time for Crawford's fruit and vegetable shop. The only fruit they had were apples (local) in season, but they did have sidelines in the back shop. One was making bundles of firewood for kindling. There was a special clamp to put the ten inch pieces in and they were tied with twine and the clamp released. Even with this exercise you had to drive another piece into the middle to tighten the bundle. The wood was delivered to the shop cut and chopped to size. The second sideline was to precook and pare or skin beetroot, which was done in a big caldron with its own coal fire and flue. The cooked peeled beetroot sold well. I rather liked being in the shop, whether peeling beetroot or making up bundles of firewood, at least it was warm and dry. The hard part was dragging a sack of dried peas that was almost twice my weight at the time and then loading them into a bin.
I was provided with a bike and a slicker for the fairly constant rain. The so-called slicker was like a waterproof poncho with just a head opening. The material on the slicker had cracked through age and osmosis set in. The bulk of Scots mist or rain was deflected, but you still got wet. Again we had brake problems, which I think may have been attributed to overloading. When our brakes failed we would put a foot over the back mudguard and pull it down against the rear tyre. That worked with only one exception - the Serpentine.
The coastline around most of Scotland is steep and part of the island of Bute is no exception, being in the start of the highlands. Besides High Street there are no other streets that can go to the upper levels of the town in Rothesy except for the Serpentine. The Serpentine negotiated the steepest part of the town by a series of 's' curves snaking its way to about four more levels of housing. There was stairs and handrails on the right side of the Serpentine looking up. On the left - just open roads in tiers. Returning from a delivery at the top of the Serpentine. I noticed a horse and wagon at the next 's.' Horses couldn't hold a wagon on the hill so the driver put the horse and wagon sideways to lessen the load. I recognized the horse. We knew all the horses but this was the white one and I was worried it would bite at anything. I am not superstitious but I decided to brake as usual with the back mudguard. It became detached and flew off. I had no way to slow down- indeed I was gathering speed. I didn't want to risk a bite from the horse. There was only two feet between him and the wall and there was a road at the ess turn just before the horse and wagon and that was my only hope with the speed still gathering. I made the turn, the bike hit the wall, and I had a few road burns and was unconscious. A lady in a house at the scene saw what happened and poured a quarter cup of whiskey down my throat. The rims of the bike were so bent I could not ride it and I had to carry it back to the shop.
The only other thing of note with Crawford's was that he was owed money from one of the big houses. He had been after them for months and decided to let me try. He said every time you are in that direction go and see them. Suffice to say they got weary of me and paid up and there was two shillings extra in my pay that week.
One afternoon there was a knock on our door and when answered a voice, behind full beard and whiskers, said "I want billets for my men." At that particular time there was no one living with us so we were told that we would accommodate four. It was late December (about 21st. 1944 I think) and the newest, fastest, top-secret motor torpedo boat was doing trials when it had a mishap. Hence it had to be dry-docked in the local boatyard in the Port for repairs. The four gents, we were pleased to have, were a lot of fun, even if conditions were a bit cramped. They brought sugar, raisins, flour and I don't know what else from the boat's galley. My mother was happy and went on a baking spree, which we all enjoyed. They even brought us a few games and a new checker board (the old one they saw was pretty worn). That was the best Christmastime we had during the war.
One of the men asked me when I started with the milk run in the morning. An odd question! When advised of the time, he told me he was going to be on guard duty aboard the M.T.B. and asked me to come on board and wake him in the morning before starting deliveries. It was still dark when I arrived at the boatyard and managed to find the twenty-foot ladder propped against the side of a huge structure I guessed was the boat. I was fumbling my way about on deck when the guard approached me with a revolver in hand and pointed it right at me. I was scared! He was scared!
He had forgotten that he invited me and thought I could be a spy sent to conduct espionage. He didn't even have bullets in the gun to protect the vessel or himself. We all had a good laugh about it later and joked about it several times. I did get down to see the engine room and was amazed at the four Rolls Royce engines, two on each side, and one above the other. I heard that prior to the invasion the boat and the same crew sailed into enemy harbours, torpedoed ships and got away before shore batteries were fully alerted. I also heard that they only had one casualty, Sparks the radio operator who also doubled as a rear gunner. Sparks was the guard I was supposed to wake up.
A navy destroyer dropped anchor in the bay about a quarter mile from shore one summer (43 or 44). Ken and I were fairly good swimmers, in fact some days were spent diving off the pier and swimming. We decided we could, without any risk, swim to the destroyer. When we got close, sailors shouted to us and dropped a rope ladder over the side and we boarded. We were taken to the bridge and the commander told us, in no uncertain terms, 'not' to ever do that again. He then ordered a boat to be lowered and we were shipped back to the pier, or at least I was. Ken wouldn't get in the boat, but held on to the stern and was towed back. This was, in his opinion, completing the objective of the exercise.
One day, we (Ken and I) decided we would go for a hike around the northern half of the island. There was only about five miles of road to a few houses at Rhuboadach then about twenty miles cross country hugging the shoreline. It was tough going and steep in some areas, the rest being very steep. We trudged through bogs, heather, and gorse and clambered over rocks, but it seemed worthwhile when at about the half way mark we were able to touch the painted rocks known as the 'Maids of Bute' in the Kyles of Bute. We finally made it to Ettrick Bay - only about three more miles to go and we now had a road to walk on. It was 10PM when we got home and we had left at 8am. We didn't go for any more tough hikes again.
These incidents were all connected by a relatively short time frame and some overlap each other. So I hope you don't mind jumping around with me as I recollect them. When I say 'we' I usually refer to Ken and I.
We were taught self defence by Commandos that stayed with us and Engineers showed us how booby-traps worked. From sailors we learned knots, semaphore, morse code and listened intently to all our guests as they told about diving (hard hat) salvage of war experiences. We were equipped to carry on the war if we were invaded. A leaflet was delivered to our door (which I wish we kept) stating not to resist if invaded, together with orders of conduct. This was shortly after the retreat from Dunkirk.
When we had the biggest influx of soldiers training, trucks, tanks and gun convoys would pass our house on the shore road in the late evening. Then we would have infantry marching in groups of about 20. When the sound of one lot was fading we could hear the next group becoming louder. All this to the sound of the waves on the shore was quite exhilarating, but would last about 2 hours, starting after dark till 12am.
In the morning, on our deliveries on the way to school, we would find clips of rifle shells by the roadside. As I remember it one shell in each clip was a tracer bullet. We used to pull out the bullets and remove the black powder or cordite. The black powder could be placed in a small pile with a thin trail leading to it. When the fuse trail was lit and set off the pile, it had an interesting effect. We were not alone. Other kids liked cordite the best and in public school the staff were always complaining about the smell of burning cordite. They never caught, to my knowledge, the culprits who would stuff their milk straws with cordite, twist one end and set it off like a rocket. The empty cartridges still had live percussion caps and we would throw them in the kitchen fireplace at home. They did no damage but went off with a bang. My mother was an avid reader of mysteries and sometimes later in the evening, when us kids would have gone to bed, the flames would reach unspent cartridges. Mother said it provided more intensity to whatever she was reading.
My brother Bill was a studious person, always with a book in his hand. He worked delivering groceries for Alexander's shop in the Port when going to the Academy. He went to sea as a cabin boy on the first repaired ship, the S.S. Lena Lucenback at age 14. So he was only in Port Bannatyne less than a year. He sent home an allotment from his pay each month until in 1943 when he was declared 'Missing in Action.' 8 months later he walked in the door unannounced. He had changed ships, because there were a lot of Germans on the crew and he thought they were making their way back to Germany.
The ship was sunk soon after he left and he changed again a couple of times and was just ahead of their sinking. He had sailed to Africa, the U.S., and Canada and in convoys on the Atlantic until he got home. He then shipped out again with the Maersk Line with whom he had sailed for a while. He learned to read and speak Norwegian fluently and could even imitate dialects from different parts of Norway. He came home again when he was 18 and applied for and received his U.S. Citizenship; then joined the U.S. Navy. When they realized he spoke other languages (he could get by in French) they taught him German in case they could use him as an interpreter. He was demobbed in the States and used New Orleans, Galveston and Houston as his homeports for sailing the world. He learned Spanish, some Italian, Swedish and Japanese. He could get by in many other tongues also, but spoke English with a southern American drawl.
I'd better finish up with the 'Bute' story and pick up the threads of latter years in chronological order.
When I turned 13, I started high school at Rothesay Academy, which was a pleasure for the most part. At the end of the school year I managed to be first in the class at seven subjects and first overall. As soon as I started at the Academy I got a job delivering to Crawford's, a fruit and vegetable shop on the Gallowgate in Rothesay. Two hours after school and all day Saturday.
Then about the time I turned 14, my brother was thought dead, I quit the school to be the breadwinner for my mother and Ken. I was employed full time at Crawford's for a few short weeks. Often when I was doing deliveries by bicycle out toward Craigmore the superintendent of the indoor swimming pool and baths used to ride alongside me and would talk. He invited me to join his staff and I was happy to do that and get out of the inclement weather.
I was employed as a pond attendant (lifeguard) and it was a bit nerve wracking at age 14. I think the pool was over 30 foot wide and 60 plus long and during peak periods 300 were allowed in the building for swimming. Fortunately about 100 or more were lazing around on the deck or laying or sitting on the benches built in three tiers that lined two sides of the tile deck. There would be two guards on at these times, but we never saw anyone in trouble. With so much to watch they probably took care of each other.
The pond was 3'6" at the shallow end and was 11'9" at the deep end. The building itself was a grand structure with glass roof over the pool area, including the viewing balcony for spectators in street attire that clung to the four outside walls. Salt water was pumped in from the sea, filtered, chlorinated and heated by gas then pumped into the pool and recirculated through filters and chlorination balanced. There were many windows under the water with lighting for night swimming, 5 diving boards, one solid and one spring board at 1 metre, same again at 3 metres and a tower at 5 metres. I watched all the best swimmers and tried to copy them. Each was only good at one stroke only, whether it was crawl, sidestroke, backstroke or breaststroke. In the mornings before the pool was open to the public, Commander Woodrow used to come in and swim using flippers. He was the instructor for the Navy Frogmen and would shoot back and forth the length of the pool 8 times underwater on one breath. I became able to do two lengths underwater with a dive and then retrieve 5 pennies on the return length. No one I knew could do more than a length. The commander tried the flippers on me, but they were too big.
When there were only 6 to 20 people or kids in the pool, we sometimes had to make rescues, but just with poles from the side. I was there almost two years and only twice was there any unexpected problems. The first one was with paratroopers. The forces had special times and the public was not admitted. There were six men and, one after the other, they jumped off the tower sideways on to the second springboard and do a one and a half summersault dive. They were very good and I enjoyed watching them. The last one of the group had good style, but he made another sideward thrust off the springboard. The dive was perfect, but he landed on the tile deck with a kind of muffled crunching sound. We thought he was dead but no, they took him away by ambulance and he was a few weeks in hospital with a broken jaw and a dislocated shoulder.
Going back in time a little to 42 - 43 on the home front we were happy to have two sailors living with us from the floating docks, no less. George Bernard Willingham, who with his initials (GBW) described himself as Great Britain's Wonder. The other was Leonard Lofthouse or as he was nicknamed 'Lofty.' Indeed he was six feet plus! We had a lot of fun with them. G.B.W. with his quips and Lofty always getting into trouble. Lofty was the coxswain who ran the shuttle service to the pier from the floating dock. I should mention that this was a much bigger and newer floating dock that was reputed to having been towed from Australia where it was at the onset of war. If true, it would have taken the better part of a year to move it.
Our next boarder, believe it or not, was Captain Evans, commander of the floating dock. He was a nice gentleman. At Scappa Flow a German battleship was sunk during WW1 and the London, Liverpool Salvage Co. had enough technical know how to raise it and have it towed to the Port. It was the 'Derflinger' and was upside down. Divers spent weeks cutting away superstructure to get her on the floating dock, but after they had done as much as they could, the dock would have to sink one and a half feet below the design specifications. The Captain, quite rightly, was worried about this turn of events and related them to my mother. It worked out, and it was said that the rare (at that time) metals in 2 or 3 propellers would pay for the whole salvage operation including raising and towing. I think there were two props for each of the two shafts. It was a great success for all.
Most of the side paddle steamers from the Clyde Estuary were sunk during mine sweeping operations. We had been on many of them before and up till the first year of the war. In 1944, we had one such vessel come into our pier, just like she used to. The 'Jeanie Deans' looked tired, painted all grey and Para vanes on her decks. It was a shame to see a beautiful ship in such a condition. I think she too was sunk.
On the left side of our pier the navy floated four rectangular steel boxes, each about 6' by 6' and 8' long. These were chained together to make a floating pier. About two weeks later we discovered their purpose when a mini submarine came alongside and tied up. Two naval officers disembarked and went up a ladder fastened to the main pier. Ken and I were in our swimsuits, quite a regular occurrence. As the officers were walking up the pier toward the road where a navy car was waiting to pick them up, we went under the pier. We then swam out and boarded the sub. We were spotted and the chase was on. The officers ran back down the pier shouting at us. We got back in the water and managed to elude them by hiding behind tanks and under the pier. They finally left and we made it home without being caught and felt satisfaction that we were probably the first civilians to be on board an operational mini sub.
On the Rothesay esplanade is the Winter Garden theatre situated in a beautiful setting of palm trees and a variety of shrubs and flowerbeds. The building was constructed of wood, wrought iron and glass with the latter in predominance. Because of the 'Black Out' the interior of the glass was painted black. At the height of the holiday season the 'Gardens' put on some good music hall shows, mostly in the burlesque style. They had headliners like Alec Findlay with supporting cast and chorus girls. During Matinee performances, cast members would scrape away part of the paint to determine the weather outside. Those in turn made good peepholes into the dressing rooms for such incorrigible types as we at age fifteen. One night when we were casually peeping, the shore patrol (eight men and one petty officer) came and stopped on the esplanade right by the 'Gardens.' We scrambled and hid behind bushes thinking we had been caught in the act. The boatswain's whistle sounded and the entire complement was dismissed to 'take a peek.' Such is the stuff life was made of.
At the age of sixteen, I joined the M.V. Gurli as a deckhand/ordinary seaman. Although all the crews on this type of craft were civilians they were considered to be an integral part of the Royal Navy. The Navy acquisitioned a large number of privately owned small boats or craft, thirty foot or more in length. These were pressed into service as liberty boats and or service boats to move stores, arms or whatever. Many of the boats had escaped from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Belgium loaded down with escapees from the German invasion. The Royal Navy, I heard, manned these craft, but being unused to smaller wooden boats managed to sink hundreds by accident during the first year of the war. They then decided to hire civilian crews with backgrounds in handling these strange craft. Although we were paid by the Navy we had to provide our own food and clothing. They hired fishermen or people familiar with the estuarial waters, but also hired boats, and crews of the boats, that escaped from the continent. Each of these crews spoke English, but on board talked in their native tongue, which made for a rich mosaic and I thought this was great.
The M.V. (motor vessel) Gurli had a Norwegian crew and I was happy about this because brother Bill sailed with Norwegians and considered them tops. When I arrived on board I was shunted below decks because they were just leaving for the first duty run to the base at 'Hopper's Pier'(this was the U.S. Base turned over to the Royal Navy) from Rothesay and I don't think they wanted me in the way. I was signed on as a deck hand/ ordinary seaman. The Gurli was sixty foot in length with heavy timbers, about 16' beam and deep draught. It was a North Sea fishing boat and had an immense hold for fish. It would have been fishing for a month or more in its heyday and they wouldn't return until the hold was fairly filled. There was access to the hold through the foc'sle and galley and the skipper and the mate had their own cabins built into this area. I should mention that the crew consisted of Skipper, Mate, Engineer, Cook and two Deck Hands, so only four of us shared the foc'sle.
Soon after we left Rothesay, a head poked through the hatchway. As yet there had been no introductions to skipper or crew. The head said to cook up the bacon for breakfast. "How much?" I asked. "All" was the reply. I had never seen two pounds of bacon before, except in butcher's shops. The galley stove was hot, indeed, perhaps too hot. Being used to only two or three rashers, this looked like half a pig. Even though I used the coldest spot on the red-hot stove, it was ready before they came down for breakfast. The bacon was quite crisp and they glared at me with every bite. That was one of life's failures, of which I have had enough to write volumes. They liked limp bacon: in fact I have seen them eat a slice of bacon raw as a treat. Not a good beginning and I was worried and stayed awake the whole night in my bunk.
I will publish the rest of this story if there is a demand for it.
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