Thursday, 11 December 2014

Dispatches from the RHC: Gerry Farmer on life, love and laughter

Blog post by Kate Monro.  Kate is an author, journalist & researcher and our current writer-in-residence. Her aim is to search beneath the surface of our traditional military history and tell more personal stories about the lives of our soldiers. 

Chelsea Pensioner Gerry Farmer

Gerry Farmer, as he is about to reveal, has special powers. If he shuts his eyes, he can relive any moment of his eighty-one years in full Technicolor detail. The funny thing is that if I shut my eyes and listen to Gerry, I can have an imaginary conversation with Michael Caine. Gerry was born in Bethnal Green, Mr Caine across the way in Rotherhithe. The similarity and cadence of their shared cockney twang is unnerving in a pleasing fashion.

But this is not all that binds these two characters together. Both Gerry and Michael, or Maurice Micklewhite as he was known, were born in 1933 and conscripted into the army in 1952. They both joined the Royal Fusiliers and at the tender age of 18, travelled further by sea than most of us will in a lifetime. It took five weeks to sail from London to Korea by boat and when they did, these two young men found themselves attending not just an ‘emergency’ but a full blown conflict.  The Korean War is often referred to as the ‘forgotten war’. Sandwiched between the Second World War and Vietnam, hidden from view in a pre-internet age, thousands of miles away in a country that people knew little about, a phenomenal amount of civilian and military lives were lost. So many different countries were involved that it is impossible to give a precise figure but let me put it to you this way: the figures are in the millions.

On a cheerier note, although they were not in the same company and their acquaintance was passing, Gerry remembers Morris Micklewhite revealing his acting ambitions to his fellow soldiers. ‘This seemed a bit funny to us’ Gerry recalls. ‘It was a lovely thing to want to do but it wasn't known to us’. Maurice Micklewhite may just have told his fellow soldiers he was planning a trip to Mars; such was their limited experience of life and the potential for exciting opportunities open to young men (or women) in 1952. One turned 18, became an adult and grabbed whatever job you could.

Speaking of work, Gerry might be an 81-year-old man now but he’s not sitting around twiddling his thumbs. He is a prolific writer. ‘I'm like a lending library around here’ he says of the growing collection of stories and books he pens and lends to his fellow in-pensioners, some of whom are quite irate when he kills off a character that they like.

‘I see the beauty in something like a flash of lightening and a thunder clap’ says Gerry. An ex-soldier with the heart of an artist, he also has useful information to impart about marriage. With 58 years practice under his belt, he knows what he’s talking about:

I was named after an actor called Gerald Du Maurier that my mum liked. I stuck with Gerry because Gerald wasn't the sort of name to go into the Army with. Well that’s what we thought. Bethnal Green was a poor area. We were poor. But would you believe it? We came from the posh part. The other side of the tracks and my mum really thought we were something. I was always in a sailor suit.
Gerry and his mother

I didn't want to go into the army. Not at all.  I’d started training to be a leather cutter but when you became 18, all the boys had to go into the forces and they kept your job open for you. We did six weeks training at the Tower of London. My father wasn't happy about that. He kept saying ‘wait until you get in the Army. You’ll be miles away’ because he was convinced my mum treated me too well. When the envelope come and it said ‘Tower of London’, he said ‘that’s not the Army. You can see it from here’. Which you could.

It wasn't a war to begin with. It was called an ‘emergency’. An ‘emergency’ is something that mothers didn't worry about so much and that’s what they said for a year and a half but it did become a war with a lot of casualties. We were never told we were going to Korea but we had an idea because we spent time in Germany digging trenches you could sleep in. We couldn't believe it. One minute we were young kids and the next I’d be out on patrol with four boys I was at school with. There were some tough boys in the Army but most of us wanted to do the job and go home.

I've never been in a lift since I came out of the Army. I used to blame it on my wife because it was terrible for a man to say ‘I can’t get in a lift’ so I’d say ‘my wife don’t like lifts’. She used to moan at me but I put it to her like this: I will get in but we have to take two spiders in a jar and let them out on the floor.

‘No way would I get in with spiders in the lift’ she’d say. ‘Well that’s how I feel about the lift’ which proves it’s a phobia. The reason I got claustrophobia in the Army is because I went out one night in a jeep with four guys. We’d been hacking away some telephone wiring in a valley. It was dark and we couldn't smoke but suddenly we must have been seen because mortar bombs started flying over. I was the driver and we got blown off the hill, rolled over and landed upside down in the Samichon River. The jeep sank to the bottom and we were trapped. I know that’s what did it because I didn't have a problem before.  I never knew it had affected me until I came home, got into a lift and thought I was going to die.

Gerry as a young man

They call it PTSD now but they didn't know about that in those days. When I finished up, there was an officer sitting at the table and he said ‘you’re discharged’. I walked out, stood at the door and I felt funny. I didn't feel right. So I went back in and I said ‘can I ask you Sir?’  He looked over his glasses, he wasn't really interested and I said ‘I don’t feel right, I feel ill and nervous’. He said ‘it’s what you've been through. That’s what it is but my advice to you is pull yourself together and get on with your life’.

Do you know what Korea actually means? It means ‘land of the morning calm’ and in the morning it was just like that. There was a low mist over the hills. It was beautiful. It’s quite a barren land though and the winters were freezing. Literally 43 degrees below on the Christmas I was there. You couldn't touch metal. Lorries froze up. You would wake up in the morning and couldn't open your eyes because the moisture on your eyelashes had frozen solid.

The army was great in a way because you ended up doing things that you didn't think you could. I could be blindfolded and take a gun apart and put it back together again. It was part of the training so that you could cope with the darkness.

I also liked it because I was good with people. I can talk and I like a laugh and a bit of banter and we was all from the same area in that regiment. We used to have a lot of fun and jokes. It wasn't all bad. There was fighting but there were boring times when you laid about in the sun, and the Chinese were doing the same but when it came to night time, I knew I had to go out in the valley and patrol and meet something or have a fight.

One night we were out on listening patrol when we heard footsteps and as far as that wall is there (my story teller points less than two metres away), a Chinese patrol went by. Now if we had even breathed they’d have shot us. They would have sprayed the place. It was only the undergrowth that protected us.

We’re still friends today, me and the guy I had that experience with. When he sees me now he comes and gives me a cuddle and I tell you what, we bonded that night. He says ‘do you remember?’ It was terrible but what it did was make you a better person than you really are. It made me more of a man than I know that I am. I am not brave but I went through that and I came out the other side of it and that's good isn't it. That what it did for me. I can be in here and hold my head up because I've seen a lot of action in Korea and I can be with all these guys here that have been in the war and I can feel good about it because I did something – something from nobody. They say don’t put yourself down but I keep saying I was only from Bethnal Green and guess what? I shook hands with Camilla on Founder’s Day. 

Most of us left Korea in the July but on the 12th June 1953, I got blown up by a mortar bomb. I was called to drive the Company Officer at 04:00 on this particular morning. At 05:10 we were driving to B Company. The Chinese could see us from the hills and they started mortar bombs. They were gradually getting nearer and the next thing I know, we got a direct hit. Luckily I didn’t have a seat belt on because otherwise I would have been trapped when we went over. I blew 40 yards away and the jeep about 20. It was a total wreck.

I was picked up by an American helicopter. I was lying there in another world. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't feel my left leg. I still can’t feel it all now. Guns were flying over our heads. When I woke up I could hear people talking foreign and I thought I had been captured by the Chinese but it turned out to be Norwegians talking in their own language.

I spent three weeks in an American Army hospital in Seoul and then onto to Japan to a British Commonwealth hospital where it took skin grafts, 3 operations and 2½ months to recover enough to get home.

I fell in love with the back of my wife. Can you believe that? I went to the factory to say hello to everybody and in the corner was Alice. She had auburn hair so I suppose that’s what might have done it but I fell in love with her without seeing her face. In fact I didn't know what she looked like for a week and then one day she came down the stairs and I thought ‘I have to try and go out with her’. It was pretty hard work. You know what it was like in the 50’s. It wasn't like now. It was hard to get a kiss in those days. The best part was that it suited me because it was romantic. It was something to look forward to. It was lovely.

If I shut my eyes, I can sit up in my berth when I'm a bit lonely, close my eyes and relive a day of any part of my life in colour. I can go out with my wife, I can go to Hastings or over to Devon just by shutting my eyes.  I can still see the first day I went out with my wife on our first date. The first time I sat outside the post office for 3½ hours at Bethnal Green Road because she didn't turn up I asked her the next morning, ‘what happened?’ And she said ‘I had something to do’. I thought to myself I am going to leave you alone now and a funny thing happened. You might know about this being a girl. There was a flirtatious girl in our office. I’d be cutting the leather and she would come down and lean over me to look at how I am cutting. I knew what she was on about. This particular day I picked her up in my arms and she was laughing and screaming and Alice came down the stairs, got half way and turned back. This friend of mine, he was a married man. He knew all about the things of life and he said to me ‘you've got her.

‘When you first came into the factory I didn't think you were all that’. That’s what my she said to me when I asked her years after. Later, I said ‘when you started loving me what made you love me?’ She said ‘you made me laugh’ and that was it. You make me laugh and when you think about that its good isn't it. Fifty-eight years of fun, laughter and happiness, three nice daughters and do you know what? It’s sad but it’s not sad because after 58 years, her last words on this earth were ‘I love you’. What more can you ask for than to be married 58 years to a girl that you love and she still loves you? Isn't that nice.
Gerry and his wife Alice

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