Individual Medley

There’s none so strange as folk”

My first job was as a Management Trainee for New Zealand’s largest meat processing company, Thomas Borthwick and Sons Ltd. It was big too. In New Zealand we killed 27,000 lambs a day, or near enough to one every second. I ended up working in London on new corporate acquisitions. I reported to the Group Chairman, Dr. Bullen, until he ran away to sail around the Mediterranean on his Nicholson 50 (an expensive British yacht) with our shared 25 year old secretary.

Bothwicks gave their trainees six months experience in each of the company’s departments, purchasing, processing, sales and finance. I began in purchasing and spent three months wandering around the central North Island of New Zealand buying lambs and cattle; a great job involving many stops for tea and scones (biscuits in the US) with heaps of strawberry jam and cream. The leading skills required were to count lambs in units of three as they ran by; you couldn’t keep up otherwise, and gauge their condition by feeling the muscle along their backbone.

The second three months were spent with my hand stitched leather brief case and custom made pin stripe suit in the New Zealand Head Office helping Peter, the company Stock Clerk account for each day’s 27,000 lambs. We made sure farmers were paid for the number, weight and grade of animal supplied. Peter was a quiet bloke; just the sort you’d expect to spend his days counting sheep. Being young and arrogant I wondered how he could continue sitting there every day in his wife’s badly knitted sweater doing such a boring job.

Then he told me he liked his monotony because it was so peaceful after the stress he had felt in World War Two. “Had he seen combat?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “I was torpedoed and sunk twice, once sailing from the UK to the USA and once off the coast of Nigeria.” After the Nigerian sinking he had survived in a life boat for a month before being rescued. By that time all six of his companions had died from thirst. Then I understood. After that maybe I’d happily count sheep too.

There’s none so strange as folk”

Several years later I was appointed General Manager of two meat plants in Scotland, one in Perth and the other in Sterling. We sold meat to the shops and stores in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Tom was the Sales Manager; grey hair, grey beard, successful, smooth, personable and could sell a pork chop in the local synagogue.

I didn’t have to ask him about his WW2 experiences. The first time we met he regaled me with tales about his time fighting in the Long Range Desert Group including details of his teams daring raid on Rommel’s desert Head Quarters. Death was his constant companion.

Several weeks later Tom came to Perth for a sales conference. At dinner he was the life of the party, entertaining us with his account of life as a First Officer in a Royal Navy submarine, protecting cargo ships on the dangerous Russian convoys. Several times he had avoided certain death in the Artic’s freezing waters.

On all that’s sacred, I am not making this up. Several months later I flew to London with Tom, for a Company dinner. Tom spent the flight telling me about the harrowing months he had spent in a Spitfire fighting the German Luftwaffe in the skies above London. He’d been shot down once over the English Channel and survived eighteen hours in the sea before being rescued.

There’s none so strange as folk”

Several years later I’d given up on the meat business to pursue my interest in coaching swimming. I coached at a pool in the United States that had a couple of lifeguards about the same age as me. They were quiet serious sorts of guys; probably interpreted the rules a bit too literally for my liking, but were good Democrats and that had to be a good sign.

I knew them for about two years before I discovered they both had served in Vietnam; one as a photo technician and the other as a helicopter door gunner. It took me a bit of probing to discover that even being a photo technician in the mess that was Vietnam was no guarantee of safety. One night a Vietcong shell passed through the technician’s hut and exploded in the hut next door. It seems living can be all about luck sometimes, dying can be too I suppose.

The door gunner’s life had been real scary; him shooting at people and them shooting back. One of his helicopters had crashed as a result of enemy fire. I once had to land an airplane in a barley field when the engine died at 9000 feet. That was frightening enough without having the local population shooting at me at the same time.

All that and here they were quietly working away looking after the local swimming pool. Like my Stock Clerk colleague I suspect they probably enjoyed and deserved the break.

There’s none so strange as folk”

I once coached at a pool that had another team a few miles up the road. Three swimmers from the other team decided to leave and swim with me. As is the case in most of the world they had the appropriate transfer forms signed and turned up to swim with their new team. Every coach knows such transfers backwards and forward are commonplace as swimmers and their parents pursue a normally futile search for greener grass. Their travels are not dissimilar to watching sheep run through a gate.

On each of these three occasions I received a twenty minute one sided telephone call from the other coach. He was not at all pleased that I had accepted the transfer forms. He would never do that. He would send the swimmer back to their home Club and ask them to sort out any difficulties with their old coach.

At the time I thought, “Yea right. What a load of rubbish.” but politely agreed that his position was a very honest one. No need to further excite his already high blood pressure risk.

A year later two swimmers left my team to swim with the team up the road. One of them had made the opposite journey a year before. Now we’d see whether the hour of telephone time had any substance. Would the two swimmers be sent back to attempt a reconciliation, or was this coach occupying his personal fantasy world. Was he coaching in the Long Range Desert Group, in submarines and in Spitfires above a burning London with just as much delusion as my Scottish mate, Tom?

I guess you already know the answer. The calls never came. Perhaps they weren’t needed. In his own mind, Rommel’s headquarters had been destroyed, the convoy had got through and London was saved.

There’s none so strange as folk”