My method of learning mystified most of the other students on the course just as the School's method frustrated me. With the exception of the wing commander, the other students' schooling had been long after British schools stopped teaching English Grammar properly. Talking to my fellow students, especially in the early stages of the course, about adverbs, the accusative, dative, instrumental or genitive cases, or the difference between the perfect and pluperfect tenses, for example, was largely a waste of time. I continued to use my Linguaphone tapes right up until the end of the course, and beyond, and I firmly believe that without them I would not have passed the course.
I delighted in the 'aspects' of Russian verbs. For example, the English sentence 'I went to London' is capable of several interpretations which have to be inferred from the context. The Russian form, or aspect, of the verb 'went' in that sentence precisely indicates whether I went yesterday, a long time ago, regularly, or infrequently, or whether I remained in London when I got there and returned sometime later. Think how useful that is!
I was particularly fascinated by the many Russian verbs of motion. That same English sentence, 'I went to London', merely tells the listener that I went to London at some unspecified time in the past. In Russian, different verbs are necessary to indicate how I went: on foot, by train, by sail, in a car, on a bike, on skates, etc. Incidentally, we learned that one has to be very careful using the Russian verb 'to skate' (кататься - katatsya). Changing the first 'т' in the Russian word to 'к' (какаться - kakatsya) changes the meaning to 'to soil oneself' (to put it politely), which is an entirely different sort of motion. We giggled like teenage students when we learned that. Fortunately, I have never had the need to employ either of those Russian verbs - except here!
After a few weeks there followed several distractions in quick succession which made it well-nigh impossible for me to concentrate on learning Russian. I began to feel perpetually mentally tired, physically drained, and unable to concentrate on anything much. I endured it for a couple of weeks before I also developed a sore throat and swollen glands in my neck. By then quite alarmed, I went to see the RAF station doctor. She almost instantly diagnosed that I had glandular fever, an insidious complaint apparently correctly called infectious mononucleosis but sometimes referred to as 'the kissing disease'. The doctor confirmed her diagnosis with a blood test.
The trouble was that there is no real cure for glandular fever, just complete rest to help reduce the symptoms – and that's impossible to do on an intensive language course. I didn't tell anyone else what was wrong with me because it seemed such a silly complaint and, in any case, I was assured by the Medical Officer that it was not contagious. In spite of all my efforts, I continued to day dream in lessons. The staff and my fellow students presumably thought that I was getting lazy, or losing interest in the course.
A few weeks later there was another distraction when I had to consult the same Medical Officer again, this time with a suspicious lump in my right groin. She diagnosed that as a hernia, large enough to require immediate repair, and she referred me immediately to the RAF Hospital at Nocton Hall near Lincoln. The consultant decided that there was also a lesser hernia on the other side; he decided that an early operation was required to fix both. There were no NHS waiting lists at the excellent RAF hospital. As I was about to be wheeled off to the Operating Theatre, the Ward Sister came to me, clutching her clip board and said sternly, “Squadron Leader Cunnane, what is your operation for?”
I thought this might be a test to see if I was compos mentis as the pre-med injection was starting to take effect. “You know what I’m in for a BIH – bilateral inguinal hernia repair,” I said, repeating the surgeon’s description of what he had told me he was going to do.
“Then why have you signed for a vasectomy?” asked the Sister, triumphantly waving her clip board in my face. She turned to the RAF sergeant in the adjacent bed, “And why have you, sergeant, signed for a double hernia operation when you’re in for a vasectomy?”
When I came round in the hospital recovery room, the very first thing I did was check under the bed clothes that the correct operation had been carried out. Later, back in the ward, I was a little put out to be told by the senior surgeon I had dealt with earlier that the two grinning flight lieutenants with him, who looked to me like teenagers, had carried out my two hernia repairs. The surgeon told me that those two had done "a side each to give each of them some practice". I need not have worried about their skill because the repairs they made lasted until 2005 when repeat surgery was needed on one side – although the NHS made me wait for nine months for that.