– My RAF Journey Part 7
I was called to the Squadron Commander’s office after around three months. In his blunt Scottish diatribe, Sqn Ldr Leighton addressed me in a 60-second monologue – the gist of it was this: “You lack attention to detail, Martin. Your work is shoddy. The DS (Directing Staff) have to read your exams and essays in cursive. British officers don’t write in cursive. Your writing style is infantile and express yourself as a layman. Pull it together. You are dismissed”.
I knew I was headed on a trajectory to oblivion, no matter how hard I was trying. How does one address something as broad as ‘Attention to detail’? And I had only ever written in a cursive style.
Serendipity stepped in. In my then interest in philosophy, I had recently encountered the essence of Zen and its emphasis on attention to all things with fullest engagement. I delved into consciousness of every action, no matter how trivial. I redesigned every letter of the alphabet from scratch – easier said than done, as handwriting styles are strongly linked to personality – and practiced relentlessly. I can still write in two distinctive styles to this day. I kept a mini notebook in my pocket and wrote down every word I was unfamiliar with and studied them in a dictionary at night. I took note of the military use of grammar, strung my sentences into more coherent formats and started reading copiously to improve my writing skills. I had to turn this corner, or I was done.
I related most to the NCOs: tough as nails, down to earth and typically with twinkles in their eyes. They were preparing us to be their bosses: they knew it and we knew it. But they made sure we were under no illusion about the respect they demanded for the duration: “I will call you ‘Sir’ and you will call me ‘Sir’, but you will mean it”, was their constant reminder. Unlike the aloof stuffiness the DS, the NCOs were warm, engaging and relaxed. Their remit was to toughen us up in body and mind to ensure we were properly grounded and kept ‘Real’. They wouldn’t hesitate to induce physical pain and set bizarre challenges to be overcome. But there was always a subtext to it: a game to be endured to build strength of character.
A word about culture shock. I had only ever lived in Africa and found everything about the UK to be foreign – especially the stringency of the College’s discipline, regulations and endless nuances – steeped in tradition going back to the RFC and before then, inherited from the Royal Navy over centuries. The way I framed it in my mind at the time was: these people have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two arms and two legs, but that’s where the similarities ended. Nothing else seemed common or familiar. By contrast, I was a complete anomaly to the establishment and my peers. “This is Martin from the colonies”, is how I was introduced. I was, in turn, an exotic curiosity.