My enlistment into the Royal Air Force started on 18 August 1953 when I reported to the recruiting office in Leeds just three weeks after I had returned from the RAF Aircrew Selection Centre at Hornchurch. Soon there were seven of us sitting around in a small room rather reminiscent of a doctor's waiting room. There was no sign of the recruiting officer, just a sergeant and a clerk beavering away behind a counter at one end of the office. We each had a suitcase into which we had packed what our joining instructions had listed as "essential items". From time to time we gave each other a watery smile but we didn't talk. What could we say to each other? Not for us conscription for National Service. We knew why we were there: we had all volunteered to serve as regular airmen for at least three years in the RAF. Eventually, one lad, who happened to be the first in alphabetical order on the list of names, was called to the reception desk where the sergeant handed him a railway warrant.
"This is a railway warrant for the seven of you to travel from Leeds to Bedford," said the sergeant in a loud voice so that we could all hear. "It's your very first job in the Royal Air Force, laddie, so try not to lose anyone on the way!"
Less than an hour later we were leaving Leeds Midland station on a crowded LMS express train bound for London Euston, squeezed into a single compartment that was designed for six. After passing through Sheffield and Leicester, we got off at Kettering where we changed onto a waiting local train which deposited us at Bedford railway station at about 5pm. There we met up with dozens more like us and in due course we were taken on to RAF Cardington in an RAF coach. As we entered the camp, I looked around and thought, "That's it then. My new life starts here."
We, and at least a couple of hundred others, congregated in a large hall where we were issued with thick 'hairy' blankets, a tin mug, a knife, fork and spoon, and our bed numbers. It was all remarkably friendly and efficient. As part of that process, we were divided into groups. Each group was allocated to a specific barrack hut and we were led by a uniformed airman to our hut. It had 22 beds and there were 22 of us, but there was no picking and choosing for prime position. We dropped our suitcases onto our allocated bed and then followed our escort to the Mess Hall where some late afternoon tea and sandwiches had been laid out. So far, so good.
At 7.30pm, still on Day 1, the same airman collected us again and led us in a gaggle to a gymnasium for a short medical examination. We learned later that this type of medical was called an FFI - Free From Infection. We took all our clothes off, apart from underpants, and stood in a line on top of two long, low benches while a very young looking Medical Officer passed in front of us. As the MO approached each of us in turn, a flight sergeant with a pace stick under one arm ordered us to drop our pants and call out our name. The officer then closely inspected our genitals, moving them up and down and from side to side with the pointed end of a pencil which he also used to make notes on a clip board. He was, he told us in response to some brave soul who asked the question, looking for signs of what he called "unmentionable diseases". He probably thought we didn't know the correct word! When he'd inspected all of us, and apparently found that we were all clean, he told us to get dressed and sit down on the benches.
The MO then gave us a talk about ET rooms. ET rooms were, he told us, early treatment rooms. There was one located behind the Main Guardroom at all RAF stations. Inside we would find a cupboard containing a selection of medicinal creams that could be used in confidence, in accordance with the instructions written on the packets, at any time if we thought we might have contracted an unmentionable disease and were too ashamed to report sick. Anyone who might have been wondering what an unmentionable disease could be, had probably cottoned by then. The MO said there was a book in every ET room that each visitor was required to sign with his number, rank and name, and the date of the visit. He assured us that the sole purpose of the procedure was to keep a record of what had been used so that the medical materials could be replaced. Pull the other one, we thought!
We learned later that FFIs always took place on return from leave when airmen, but not officers apparently, were deemed to be in greatest need of them. ET rooms remained a feature of RAF life for many years but I never heard of anyone admitting that he had been inside one. The only time I can remember going inside one was when I was the Orderly Officer somewhere and it was on the list of things I was required to do. All the tubes and packets on that occasion were unopened and there were no names in the book. If such rooms exist these days, the Orderly Officer's inspection probably includes a check on the 'best before' date on the packets.
Apart from the FFI in the gymnasium, everything at Cardington seemed to take place inside long, low huts that stood on stilts and were accessed by a short flight of wooden steps at one end. Because we'd not yet had any training, we couldn't be marched from place to place so we were permitted to move in a loose gaggle. We looked at each other in surprise; this was not what we'd expected but everywhere we looked we saw other groups like ours moving around the station. The enlistment procedures were so well organised that there were never any collisions although we occasionally had to wait a few minutes while the previous group left a particular location.
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