This would be tough. I need to be robust to get through cancer. My thoughts drift to when I was nineteen. My elder brother, Marky, saw an article in the local newspaper entitled “Teessiders Can Take It” in bold letters. It was a recruitment drive for the local Parachute Regiment battalion – part of the Army Reserve (formerly known as the TA).
“You think you’re fit, but I bet you can’t get into the Paras,” Marky goaded.
I’d watched a documentary about the Paras a couple of years before and it looked hard. I thought about it for a moment. “Fuck it, I’ll give it a go,” I replied. We shook hands and smiled.
A doctor once said I had athlete’s heart as my resting heart rate was much lower than normal, about forty to fifty beats per minute. It’s a syndrome caused by sustained aerobic physical training and I’d done a lot of running for years. I decided to test my fitness on a local route of about three miles.
Beginning from home, I set off at a blistering pace on the road toward a country estate, then stormed over some hills in the direction of a village and powered back to the house. My lungs were bursting as I drilled down the home straight and hit my stopwatch at the finish. With hands on my knees, I coughed up blood and spat on the pavement. I looked at my run time. It was fourteen minutes and fifty seconds. I knew the battle fitness test for the Para reserves was to run a mile and a half in ten and a half minutes (reducing to nine minutes, forty seconds for the regular Paras). I’d worn trainers instead of boots, but I felt ready. It was time to step up to the plate.
I went to an open evening at the drill hall and saw an aggressive-looking soldier dressed in black DMS boots, green trousers, combat jacket and maroon beret with a badge over his left eye. He directed me up the musty stairs to a room. Loads of people were crammed in there, all dressed in civilian clothes. No one seemed to know anyone else, so we sat in relative silence. The dim light from the windows cast shadows on the oak-clad walls. After a while, Captain Dugmore, who looked in his early forties, entered and announced this course would not be easy.
“Listen in! This training is progressive, which means there’s going to be a gradual development of stamina and skills. The recruit cadre is split into three phases. First, will be the build-up of your physical training in terms of improving strength and speed, which leads to the intensive circuit training and longer runs, carrying heavier weight. In this time, we teach basic military skills such as weapon handling, first aid and map reading. Second, at the end of this training, your mental and physical determination will be assessed in P Company. Third, only a few of you will go to the Parachute Regiment depot at Aldershot. You must pass all three phases to earn the right to wear the coveted maroon beret and regimental cap badge. You’ll turn up every weekend and each drill night on Wednesday evenings. A lot of you will leave this course of your own accord – others will be binned – but we will fail most of the rest of you at P Company. Any questions?”
Silence around the room. We were led away to sign a few papers to begin the recruit course. First of all, we had to do a medical. I was given a quick check over by the doctor and passed. I was officially a Para recruit. There were a few weeks before the recruit course began and I was given a brief programme of runs for preparation. I set about doing the runs at an exhausting pace and threw in lots of other exercises for good measure. During this time, somebody told me “You’ll have to be able to run to be a Para.” If nothing else, I had endurance. But this was going to be a hard test. I still felt rock bottom after dropping out of Newcastle University, so I had to prove to myself that I could be good at something.