The story started in The Veterans Club, New Plymouth, New Zealand. Every story has to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as anywhere.
My daughter got married ten years ago, and about five years ago, she and her Husband moved to the other side of the world to give the two granddaughters a better life. Three years ago, we made the long trip, I think we were both as excitable as any child. In my time in the services, I had a year in the Middle East, but this was the first time east of Suez for my wife. You can leave HM Forces, but, do they ever leave you? Their address, Redcoat Lane, and me an ex Bootneck. Their house is next to the site, where in 1860, Royal Marines fought off Maori attack waves. In good British fashion, they were so impressed by the courage of the Maoris, that they buried them inside the consecrated British Church graveyard in the area. Who knows, perhaps victims of the battles could have perished on the site of their house.
The women fancied a shopping run, so, in good military fashion, I decided a wet at the Local Veterans Club might be educational. I was not wrong. Found myself cornered by two irate Kiwis, both in their eighties. Nothing against me personally, but, one had been in Crete in the last war, the other a P.O.W. after the surrender of Singapore. Not two of the best chapters in British Military History of World War Two!. I did not know a lot about either campaign, but they managed to change that. The passing of time had not decreased the bitterness. As an ex-Squaddie, I accept we all like a good moan. I felt I was helping out, letting them unload their frustrations on me. Another Club Member, about my age, name of Zak, rescued me after some time, I think he felt sorry for me. ‘ Ex Marine mate! Well then, there is a guy about your age, I know he was in the Marines about the mid sixties. How do I know? Well, I am in the Civil Service, and this fellow got help from the veterans board setting himself up. He lives down the forgotten highway, just the other side of Whangmamona.’ I thanked him for this information. I asked if he remembered the name. ‘Yeah, Chris Rock’, he told me. Well, well, fancy that, what a small world. Old Crocky lives here, I was with him in Aden for some time. Never a buddy of his, but our paths crossed several times, and he must remember me. Who would have thought it?
Naturally, full of excitement, I told my Wife, and we made our plans for a foray into the unknown. Fill up with petrol before you go onto the highway, we were told. If the weather becomes bad, turn round and come home. Have you got a visa? our Son in Law asked. Seems that the Politicians wanted to move Whangmamona into another province. The locals reacted by declaring independence, all 30 of them, and electing a billy goat as the President. Last year, about 10,000 revellers descended on the village to celebrate Independence Day there. Such fun they have here.
We blithely set out for our journey. Stopped at the way in Stratford. Liked the look of the place , so we had a look round. The Glockenspeigel clock is fantastic, but something else made a more profound impression on both of us. Between some shop, it seemed just an empty arcade. When we went in, however, we found it was dedicated to all the Service Personnel from the Stratford area who had died in battle. Hanging on the walls, there was a large framed photograph of each person who had fallen, accompanied by details of his service career.
We drove on. Both of us felt affected by the Stratford Memorial, it is a simple idea we should copy. It is so poignant. Around the twisty, steep curves of the forgotten highway. plenty of low speed, stopping at view points, the day had promise. I had been given directions at the Veterans Club to my destination. He is the only fellow for miles, wears a bush hat and overalls. Cant miss him. We parked up. My wife had plans to visit a local waterfall, while I went to meet my old Comrade. Happily, I went down the track, past an old shipping container and a hut. An unfriendly voice yelled at me, ‘This is private land. Beat it’. I turned. A guy in bush hat and overalls. ‘Chris Rock? I asked. ‘What do you want to know for?, was the riposte. Brian Carter, Chris. The Veterans Club told me about you. We were both in Aden in 66’. Something was wrong, that did not break the ice. He just stared at me. This just did not seem to be the same fellow. He just kept staring. Your service nickname then was Crocky I told him, but my voice was a it too weak and high. I was going to say he was in X Company, I was in Yankee, but it seemed pointless. I simply turned away. This was not the fellow I served with. As I walked back, he returned to putting up a fence post. My memory is notoriously unreliable. This fellow was a bit taller than me, but I am sure Crocky was a lot taller, not quite right marker height, but not far off. Passage of time can change appearance, but I was sure this Guy was an imposter.
I met up again with my Wife. She sensed my disappointment. It was bothering me, my memory and the facts were disagreeing. My Wife pulled me out of it. ‘Come on! We have not travelled half way around the world to let something minor like this wreck our plans’. She was right. Had a great time with the family for the rest of the holiday. Bumped into Zak again, and told him what happened. He was philosophical. ‘ Look, Brian. Some chaps have to totally blank out their service life to start again fresh. Just forget about him.’
We settled back into the UK, and got on with our lives. Happily used our bus passes and our leisure time. Now and then I used to visit The Royal British Legion Club, and natter about the old days. Eventually, Crocky was introduced to the conversation. Different hypotheses were aired, depending on how much everyone had drunk. Our Corps was relatively small in the sixties, perhaps 9,000 at the most. As we signed on for nine years, most of us probably crossed paths somewhere or somehow. Also, trickle drafting was in fashion. If a unit was drafted, say, to the Far East, personnel were drafted individually to and from there over the years. You did not stay in the same unit the whole of your career, so, most people probably met.
Eventually, when we visited another British Legion Club, I bumped into an old Comrade. We passed a very happy hour ot two reminiscing over old times. And, yes, our memory of events, people and places were not identical. In fact, I think the term is perhaps diametrically opposed. My memory is a bit suspect, perhaps all ex Serviceman have it to some degree, especially in important events. I mentioned Crocky. We both seemed to have similar recollections of him, but I left it at that.
Some months later, my Wife had an idea. Why not go into Central Library, you can have an hour a day free of charge. You can surf the internet, and ask about old friends from the sixties. What a good idea! Shame that it took me almost an hour a day to get the hang of computing. Technically challenged I think is the phraseology. Anyway, I started going through the sites, and merrily emailing away. A lot of people I served with had found it hard going in civvy street. Then, I struck lucky. By a devious chain, I found out that Crocky had emigrated to Australia. I wondered if it was on a £10 trip that was popular then. All of a sudden, a thought struck me. My cousin had done that, emigrated to Ossie about the mid sixties. He was delighted about how cheap and simple it was. Reckoned he had been there less than two months when his call up papers arrived. Within six months, he was in Vietnam. I could not imagine Crocky falling for that one, and he would have been a bit too old for that, surely. Still, it could explain how he ended up in New Zealand.
Life carried on. I pottered about in the garden, pleasant trips to Hunstanton and Skegness. Just when I had forgotten all about searching for ex Squaddies in New Zealand, an email arrived. ‘Understand you have been looking for a Chris Rock, who served in the Royal Marines in the 1960’s. I understand he emigrated on an assisted passage to Australia in the early 1970’s, he found the UK unbearable, and fancied the outback. Unfortunately, he died of yellow fever, I think, between Cape Town and Freemantle.’ Wow, what to do next. Had the fellow I met impersonated him. Perhaps, under New Zealand law, he was their under false pretences, or in breach of something or other.
I emailed my Daughter, with all the facts I had. To be honest, I imagine she thinks I am round the bend, going on about this. A suspect memory was her diagnosis. To my surprise, she emailed me back fairly quickly. ‘Dad, it does not matter. Your Crocky was walking back late at night, probably under the influence, when a lorry went over him. He died instantly. Mystery over.
Well then, that is that. I could get on with my life with one mystery less. We went line dancing, visited the theatre, and enjoyed our little selves. One day, we went for a coach trip to Navy Days at Portsmouth, organised by our BL branch. Naturally, a refreshment break had been organised in the NAAFI at Pompey Dockyards. Veterans from other BL branches were there. I noticed a fellow, my age, looking hard at me. Just as we were about to leave, he came over. ‘Excuse me, I think I served with you,’ he said. ‘I think your name in Brian Carter, and you were in Y Company. I was in X-Ray, and my name is Chris Rock. Everyone called me Crocky’.
I was absolutely lost for words.