My friend Lee Harper was a Signaller undertaking a 2 week arduous ‘cadre’ course on the cold Catterick training area that anybody who has served there knows is rather cold in January. Lee, along with myself and 30 or so other young Royal Signals soldiers were trying our best to get through all the military training, fitness tests and field exercises that our instructors were putting us through in order to get a ‘good pass’ on a course that might help us to get promoted. We were mostly nineteen or twenty, and a keen bunch of fit young lads. What I remember best to this memorable couple of weeks is a puddle! Of all things, a small frozen puddle that still brings a smile to my face twenty years later. I suppose I should tell you why…
It was in the early hours of a cold morning that myself, Lee and 6 of our friends were lying down in the corner of a wood watching the simulated enemy activity from our hastily formed ‘Observation Post’. There was snow on the ground and everywhere was frozen. Four of us took turns to watch the area to our front from our hidden vantage point whilst the other 4 rested a little further back into the wood in our ‘admin area’. In the admin area you could get into your sleeping bag and go to sleep which was welcome as we were all tired, however in the Observation Post you had to be as professional as you could by moving covertly and silently into position, lying on the floor on a ground mat willing yourself to stay awake so that you wouldn’t miss anything that might happen such as a vehicle driving past on the track to our front, enemy soldiers patrolling past or God forbid.. someone digging a hole in a sinister way up to no good.
We rotated individually through the Observation Post and the admin area so that there were always fresh eyes coming on the position which involved packing your kit into your rucksack in the admin area, putting your helmet and webbing on and then silently creeping forward to the Observation Post with your rifle where you took your turn on watch. On this quiet and cold night, myself and two buddies were already established in the Observation Post and were watching our fronts, writing down any goings on in our notebooks and being as professional as we could. Our buddy Lee was making his way to the front to join us and another buddy had gone back to the admin area to get some sleep. We were shivering with cold and although memory doesn’t quite serve me right, I suspect wondering why we were there and what all the normal people in civilian society might think if they could see us just lying there in the snow in the early hours of a morning when normal people were asleep. Lee arrived to our right, and was creeping to our side where he would quietly lie down, when we heard what seemed like a ‘loud’ CRACK! Three faces looked at Lee immediately and saw that he had put his right food into a frozen puddle with the majority of his boot sinking into freezing water! Lee’s face was one of shock, disbelief and frustration and there was no disguising his bad luck as he would now have to creep back to the admin area following a piece of string we had laid through the trees to avoid getting lost in the dark. He would then have to open his rucksack and take out his spare socks, take off his ‘wet’ boot, remove his ‘wet’ sock, dry his foot and probably massage some warmth into his foot, put on his new ‘dry’ sock and put on his right boot after possibly putting some polish on it to attempt to dry it out as best as possible prior to then putting his webbing and helmet back on and making his way back to the Observation Post. No words were said, as we all knew what had to be done and were glad it had not happened to us. Whilst the 3 of us watching this incident take place at the front remained professional in that we remained on duty and continued watching our fronts, all 3 of us saw the comedy of the moment and were struggling not to laugh out loud which Lee had noticed but could not find it in himself to join us by smiling back.
Twenty minutes passed, and the three of us continued to watch our front. We heard Lee moving through the trees making his way back to the front again – getting closer and closer until he was literally behind us to our right. And then to our utter amazement, ‘CRACK’… our dear friend Lee put his other foot in another frozen puddle! His boot sank all the way into the frozen water. All 3 of us young lads this time could not contain the laughter, and the more we tried not to, the more we could be heard - laughing our heads off as silently as we could! Lee’s face was a picture. Utter disbelief and frustration at his uncanny bad luck and the realisation that he was going to have to undergo the whole lengthy procedure of going back to the admin area to change his boot again. As he moved off again, we could hear him muttering to himself – swearing at his bad luck and cursing puddles which made us laugh more.
The rest of the night continued with no further stepping in puddles and we all managed to get some sleep prior to dawn breaking and our transition to new activities and tests. Some of the patrol may have forgotten that small incident with the frozen puddle and how much comedy it provided us on that snowy night but I never did. It stuck with me over the years and made me smile when I relived it in my mind every now and then – usually winter when I saw similar frozen puddles and told my wife or my kids the story I have just told you. They had heard it before but still smiled as I did my best to relive the events of that night and attempt to convey Lee’s face or mutterings as he realised he had somehow managed to find what must have been the only other frozen puddle in our little area and how typically for young soldiers that rather than show sympathy to his predicament we had laughed knowing that if it was one of us standing in the puddle we would have been treated to the same reaction. ‘Squaddie Humour’ at its best.
I have told Lee’s parents my little story too, as I write to them each year and recently saw them at a Reunion for the unit we served at back then. The Reunion was also for our friend Lee because sadly he died during our tour of Bosnia a year or so after the Cadre course when he stood in the puddle. I wish he was still around today because I would love to hear him relive the event and have no doubts it would become funnier over time as stories such as this often do. He was the best soldier of them all was Lee! Keen as mustard and a full of fighting spirit. Born to be a soldier it was all he was ever going to be. He would have gone far! Everybody who knew him misses him. He was the best!
Look after yourself my old mate Lee!
Till we meet again!