My Time In The Wavy Navy – Niamh Calderwood
It’s our responsibility in life to know the difference between our dreams and our parents’ expectations of who we will become.
At some point in the eighties, a girl and a boy met each other at a disco for two units of the Sea Cadet Corps, the Royal Navy branch of the Ministry of Defence’s many Cadet Forces, which still exist today as “non-violent and non-political” youth organisations. Originally the girl was a member of the Girls Nautical Training Corps, but after a while they merged with the boy Sea Cadets and suddenly girls and boys were allowed to parade together, in the same unit! *Shock*
Sometime after that, Able Cadet Mam and Leading Hand Dad fell in love and were married at 19. The couple had their first child at 21 (Me!). By that time, my Dad had been a Royal Navy marine engineer for five years, and my Mam who qualified as a typist after school, and then a healthcare assistant, moved from job to job, doing all she could to balance the pressures of taking care of a new born and keeping the family solvent whilst her husband was at sea.
My early memories are of living in a small downstairs flat near the river, spending a lot of quality time with my grandparents and aunties whilst my Mam worked to keep us afloat, and us both getting very excited when Dad came home for short periods of time. Somewhere along the way, my Dad took voluntary redundancy from the Navy, and put his training to use in the civilian world as a refrigeration engineer (basically a highly skilled and slightly elitist combination of a plumber, an electrician and a gas engineer).
He worked away a lot, but not as much as he did back when he was at sea for months at a time, so he had a bit more time for me and my little brother.When I was old enough to start working he took me out on a couple jobs and had me working on the tools and carrying heavy equipment. I quickly found it wasn’t for me. I’m not adverse to work, but I’m not made for spending my days on rooftops or squeezing myself into dark spider-riddled crawlspaces to install Mitsubishi Split Units. My Dad could tell it wasn’t my cup of tea. He didn’t hold it against me, he just stopped taking me out on jobs. The boys club of refrigeration engineering had no place for me.
Back when I was 12 I became a cadet at the suggestion of my folks. I stayed in for a couple of years, sailed the channel to France, marched in a few parades and was a member of the armed guard for a Naval inspection at our unit. I enjoyed it, but then I started getting heavily involved with the drama department at high school. My Commanding Officer was very understanding when I told him I wouldn’t be attending parade nights anymore because I was in the school pantomime. In hindsight, I don’t think he was at all surprised. I thought that would be the end of my nautical days.
After high school I went straight to drama school, and started working in the theatre. Some years later, I was working an event in which I was playing a costumed character in a parade which was led by the Cadet Forces. I bumped into some officers from my old unit. Curiosity got the better of me, and I soon found myself looking into rejoining the cadets as an adult instructor. I was 24 when I finally got round to walking along to the local unit. I had a chat with the Officer in Charge and he was happy to welcome me aboard. After a series of induction courses I was back in uniform. I got involved with the cadet band, I taught a few classes on bends and hitches (knots), and I spent a weekend in an Army barracks out in the cold, marching up and down the parade ground with a scarier looking rifle than the one I marched with as a cadet.
Then I started losing interest. It slowly stopped feeling like the exciting opportunity to give back to the community and stay active and waterborne that I had thought it would be. Work commitments overlapped with parade nights, I became increasingly unreliable as an instructor, and in the end I had to step down. All in all, I spent about a year and a half as an instructor, and if I’m being honest I wasn’t very good at it, but I had to try. If I didn’t I would have always wondered, looking back at my memories of being a cadet through rose-tinted glasses and wondering what could have been had I not gone down the path of dressing up and doing silly voices for money…
Now I write. That’s my job, my mission, my purpose in life. And I can draw on past experiences for inspiration and development. There was a time in my teenage years when I imagined myself at sea, serving in the Navy just like my Dad and his grandad before him. But now I know… I’m much more happy sitting at my desk, in my home by the sea, writing about boats, than I would be out there, crashing about on the ocean waves. Ready, aye, ready is the sea cadet motto, and aye, I’m ready to give up on that dream.