Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Coach and Horses

When we arrived in England in January, 1970, I reported for duty as Budget Officer at the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, UK, and my sponsor, Captain Troxel, had reserved temporary lodging for us in The Coach and Horses Inn, Melton. Our two rooms were upstairs above the Pub, one in the front of the Inn, the other in the back. Bruce, 7, and Scott, 4, got the front room, and Marilynn and I, and one-year old Jeffrey, took the back.

Both rooms were small, and since the Earth had experienced a quarter-century of global cooling, the rooms also were cold. That winter, all of England seemed cold and dreary. The UK was just then beginning to exploit its North Sea gas fields, and almost all of England was still using coal-fired fireplaces and furnaces for warmth.

Our rooms had small electric heaters, fueled by the shilling coins we fed into them.

We had breakfasts in our room. We set a box outside the window, and it stayed cold enough to keep the milk, cheese, bread, condiments, and a few other perishable items fresh. I had lunches on the base, and Marilynn and the boys would join me or have sandwiches in the room. Marilynn and I had almost all our dinners in the restaurant of the Coach and Horses. Before having our dinners, we would order dinner for the boys and feed them in their room, then go to the restaurant for a quiet, relaxing meal. I worked my way through the menu top to bottom (several times), but Marilynn had halibut every night.

I rode the bus to the base and back for several days, then bought a used 1962 Morris 1100 automobile.

On most winter days a noon walk was like an evening walk. The Sun, never seen, provided a feeble glow through the thick overcast, and brought little warmth. In the far northern latitudes of the UK, the Sun apparently rose after 9 am, and presumably set about 3 pm. The black of night briefly was interrupted by the dull grey of day.

The air was redolent of coal smoke, and the exteriors of buildings were grimy with soot.

I loved it.

My wandering soul was home. I had found where I belonged.

In retrospect, my reactions to England were probably what you would expect from someone who loved reading the adventure classics of English literature, and watching movies like “Twelve O’clock High,” “Mrs. Miniver,” and “Ivanhoe.” Even “The Quiet Man,” set in Ireland, made my heart yearn for an English home I had never known. Just a picture of a John Constable painting of the English countryside made my chest ache in longing to return to a place I had never been.

Marilynn, although not as smitten as I was with England, adapted quickly and enjoyed our new adventure, just as she had in Turkey six years earlier.

Our temporary stay in the Coach and Horses began to have the feel of permanence. Our arrival in January, 1970, followed the arrival of the 67th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, which had just been kicked out of Wheelus Air Force Base, Libya, by “Colonel” Muammar Gaddafi “Duck” in late 1969. Every house I hoped to rent had already been found and rented by someone from the 67th. While I was tied down working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, preparing the Fiscal Year 1971 budget – I arrived the same week its preparation began – the 67th AARS personnel and their families had plenty of spare time and resources to be very formidable house-hunting opposition.

One day I skipped lunch to drop in to the Base Housing Office to see if, by some miracle, something had popped up and gotten past the 67th bird dogs. Just as I reached the office door, I heard profanity muttered by an Air Force Chief Master Sergeant who was getting out of his car in the parking lot. Among the expletives (deleted) I heard him say something about how !@#%&*! it was that the Air Force would make a senior NCO and his family move again after they had just found a home and moved in a few months before.

“Excuse me, Chief,” I said, “could I beg a few moments of your time?”

I guess he noticed my 27-year-old face didn’t go with my 2nd Lieutenant bars, so he cordially explained he had just received reassignment to RAF Upper Heyford, near Oxford, to be the aircraft maintenance nanny for the F-111, a versatile swing wing tactical bomber due to arrive at Upper Heyford in September, 1970.

He had found a big, four-bedroom farmhouse in Saxmundham a few months before, was all settled in, and now he was going to Base Housing to let them know it would soon be available to rent.

“That won’t be necessary,” I assured him. “I’ll rent it.”

“Don’t you want to look at it?” he asked.

“No, it’s perfect,” I replied, and arranged to contact the owner.

The owners, the Underwoods of Bury St. Edmonds, seemed happy with the arrangement. I was happy to find the Underwoods would charge us the same rent as the Chief’s family, 52 pounds ($125) a month. The Underwoods assured me they would be delighted to continue driving to Saxmundham once each month to pick up the rent in pound notes, no checks please.

The Chief and his family were packed quickly by the Air Force and moved to Upper Heyford, and our household goods, which were sitting in storage at the Felixstowe docks, were delivered immediately.

We moved into The Street Farm, Saxmundham, the 16th of February, in the middle of the strongest (and only) snowstorm we experienced the five years we were in England.

The Street Farm was at the top of Street Farm Road, just a block off the A-12 highway (at that time; the A-12 has since been rerouted), behind the telephone building operated by the General Post Office, and past the office of the Suffolk Constabulary.

The Street Farm itself was a large, two-story farm house with four bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, two living rooms, a kitchen, dining room, pantry, bathroom, bonus room, and utility room downstairs. It had a large fenced yard with a garden in back, overlooked a pasture, and beyond it was barns, stables, and an old dairy no longer in use. On the other side of Street Farm Road was a smaller house for the farm’s caretaker and his family.

We lived there for four wonderful years.

(Please click on the highlighted text to bounce to the next installment about my baptism into Base Budgeting at RAF Bentwaters)

No comments: