Friday, 30 September 2011

The Sail Makers Needle And An Ear For Trouble.

The year is 1964. I am 16 years old, and I have just completed my training at Sharpness Sea Training School to become a member of the British Merchant Navy.
It has been twelve weeks of absolute hell. Make that ten weeks, the last couple of weeks were pretty easy going. Come to think of it, the last month wasn't that bad either. Or indeed to be honest the last couple of months. The first four weeks though, now that was hard going. I'm not even going to mention the hardship I endured in the first two weeks, although to be honest the very first week was an absolute nightmare, and I don't know how I got through it. Quite a few lads couldn't take it, and didn't even make it through the first week. I suppose coming from life in a children's home I was already institutionalised.
Actually looking back on it now, with the benefit of almost fifty years hindsight, the whole training thing was a piece of cake. But, well, you know how it is. I have been saying for years how bloody awful the whole experience was, and I must have come to believe it myself.
It was a little bit tough though, give me some sympathy, please: the food wasn't good for a start. Not to mention that they put bromide in the tea. Not that it made any difference to me, take more than bromide to tame this wild beast! Sorry I said not to mention that.
Anyway I passed with flying colours, to coin a naval expression, and am now a fully qualified cabin boy, which puts me on a par with the ships cat.
Fergie, who is my Mother's erstwhile boyfriend, or maybe not erstwhile, it is difficult to be sure with those two, and his drinking buddy, American Alex, have in their somewhat inebriated state decided, that now I have finished my training it is time for me to have my ears pierced. This was a common practice among trawlermen at that time. Obviously I am not a trawlerman, but they both are, and believe that it is for the best, as men do when they have been drinking whisky and beer. I am not keen to have my ears pierced, but sensibly I believe, make the decision not to argue about it with two drunken, and very tough guys.
Incidentally, American Alex was not a real American. He just had a yearning to be a cowboy. He wanted to be like John Wayne, who was his hero. He tried to sound like an American, but was not very good at it, and had a tendency to lapse into broad Glaswegian when he became excited. Nobody ever made fun of American Alex though, because in fact he was actually a lot bigger than John Wayne.
The ear rings that Fergie has bought for me are pure gold, and quite heavy. The reason I have to have them is in case I ever find myself far from home with no money. The ear rings are in effect, my fare home. Which seems to be a good idea. As Fergie explains, what it means, is that I can spend all my wages on wine, women, and song, and still get home. Brilliant!
American Alex, has been designated the task of holding my head still, whilst Fergie does the deed with a large needle which has only previously seen action sewing canvas. He is very clinical in his meticulous pre- op preparation. Firstly he dips the needle in his whisky. This is to sterilise it. Unfortunately he then wipes it dry on his hankerchief, which can be politely described as somewhat grubby. He then holds a potato, complete with mud, against the back of my earlobe. "Ready?" he asks.
"Will it hurt mu...? Ow! Ow! Get off me you bastard! That bloody hurts!"
Big as he is, American Alex struggles to hold my head still while Fergie fits the ear ring and then spits a mouthful of whisky over my ear, "that's the first one done," he announces, sounding rather pleased with himself.
As American Alex releases his grip, I take the opportunity to wriggle free, and dash for the door.
"What about the other one?" Fergie shouts after me.
"You can stick it up your arse!" I shout back through my pain.
I can hear them both laughing fit to burst as I hold my ear under the cold water from the outside tap.

My first ship. I report to the Bosun. He glares at me, "you can take that fucking thing out of your ear for a start. No girls on my ship."
Apologies for the use of bad language. This was taught as part of the curriculum at the training school. At least I think it was, they certainly used enough of it.


  1. Your powers of deduction are great. I have never heard an American lapse into Glagowian!

    I see no earring in you FB pic.

  2. 'It has been twelve weeks of absolute hell. Make that ten weeks, the last couple of weeks were pretty easy going. Come to think of it, the last month wasn't that bad either. Or indeed to be honest the last couple of months.'

    Laughed the socks of reading this, well all of it really. I do sympathise about the ear piercing but your description of the way it was done is hilarious.

  3. John, your reminecences of growing up are something to look forward to in every post. Some are quite entertaining and some can be painful, as this one - OUCH!

  4. You think your training was tough..I was a Wren!
    Say no more.
    Jane x

  5. You are brilliant at telling a tale. Are you sure you aren't Irish? (I know... don't get upset. It was only a joke.)

  6. John, Yet another fun read. You are a hoot!:)

  7. haha! I can just see you getting that ear pierced! My niece used to do something similar for all and sundry...only no potato! She used to give you a great 'clap' around the ears and while they were still ringing she'd push the sewing needle through...complete with you could turn it to keep the hole clear!
    Still sitting here laughing. Thanks for the memories! Maa

  8. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience on sails.