One of the things that, I think, marks service personnel as different from civilians is the sense of humour difference.
For instance it’s typical of the forces to laugh at ourselves and be disparaging in the face of adversity – I think that is because of some of the things we have, at times, to face. I think that perhaps other trades and professions have it too, the most obvious of which is medicine, but that’s an aside.
We do banter in a way that I have seen would have made a civilian workplace scream ‘Equal Opportunities’ (and for that matter American armed forces personnel run). For instance, out in Saudi in 1998, I was fortunate to be able to take a trip over to get shown around an American F16, with a colleague of mine – Gill, who was a bit younger than me but was the same rank. She managed to talk one of the Americans into letting her sit in the cockpit. She clambered in and sat and beamed…and looked down at me where I was looking at the Radar…
Since we had worked together we had always given and taken banter in the way that all people in the RAF do, remarking about her being blonde and a bit dizzy. She used to take the mick out of my ‘posh accent’ and the fact that I was on crutches a fair bit with my dodgy knee. In the past she had joked about her ‘Waaf-ass’ and the size of her bum and so forth. I looked up at her in the cockpit and she said to me “How do I look? Cool or what?”
I took a step back and said, “You know what, I think you’d be better off in a Tornado. You look ok, but it still makes your bum look big…”
At this a couple of the American crewmen went into almost apoplectic shock. One was literally speechless. His mouth moved but no voice came out, another just said “You can’t say that!” His voice rising a couple of octaves by the end of the sentence.
Gill herself just laughed and said something like ‘shut up limpalot’ and went back to her sightseeing in the cockpit, but downstairs, between myself and the Americans, followed a long discussion about what you could say and couldn’t say. What you could get away with and what you couldn’t.
I think that even though time has gone on, banter has changed a lot in the forces. Things were said in the past that just are not acceptable now. Nicknames are prime examples. I remember one lad was given a nickname by the Corporal on my flight back in basic training that nowadays I just can’t repeat…and to be honest, even back then I think it crossed a line. People have become more careful about what they can say in work and what they can’t; a lot of the time rightly. Banter is a very dangerous ground, and what can be just a joke to one person is highly offensive to another. I only said what I said to Gill because I knew her very well, having worked with her for almost a year by this time. To do banter safely and in a fun way, you have to know the person involved really, REALLY well.
I’ve recently been on the end of a fair bit of banter at work myself. Since the Battle of Britain day, Tweeting like a 1940’s airman over on Twitter was picked up by the local media around Oxford and my ‘story and picture’ was in the local newspapers I’ve been getting a fair bit of good-natured ribbing. Several print-outs of the picture with ‘captions’ sent through the post and such like…but it is good-natured and funny…It’s an example of the humour that forces people have, and their creativity.
And it’s something that I’ll miss when I leave the RAF. I know others who have left have said that the banter is one of the things they miss and that they just can’t ‘do’ to the same level in civilian workplaces.
But the service humour isn’t always about taking the mick out of others, sometimes it can just be plain bloody funny simple humour. My for instance of this is when we were marching through Southern Poland, re-creating the ‘Long March’ of the Allied Prisoners of War in 1945. The PoWs were forced to march westwards ahead of the advancing Russian Army by their German captors. It was in one of the hardest winters in that century. The re-creation we did was to march 63 miles from Stalag Luft III to Spremberg in Germany. They did it in two-three weeks, we did it in three days, but then they did it on about 100 Calories a day, we had that many in a snack by the roadside as we walked along. But we followed their exact route through the countryside of Poland and Germany; through very sparsely populated woodland. Sometimes going hours without seeing a building or other people we spent one day marching on a tiny road through a forest.
To pass the time we talked and had crazy discussions – playing Guess the Person, the Yes/No game, Shag/Marry/Kill (eventually getting bored with trying to think of models and actresses we moved onto Shag/Marry/Kill with German World War 2 Generals. We even broke into song at one point, but that didn’t last long. We also played ‘I Spy…’ for a while.
‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with R…’
‘Yes, your turn.’
‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with T…’
‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with A..T…’
This stumped us and the answers became more and more stupid, as they do when you can’t guess what it is in I Spy…
‘Adventure Travellers?’ ‘Nope’ ‘A Town?’ ‘Nope’ ‘Avaricious Techie?’
‘Nope. Do you give up?’
‘Yes’ we responded.
This then went on, providing us with entertainment for the next 10 minutes…
A..B..T -‘A BIG Tree.’
A..T..T – ‘A Tall Tree’
A..D..T – ‘A DEAD Tree’.
It’s amazing how many combinations there were and how something, as I now write this, was just so stupid, kept us entertained and occupied as another mile went by through the snowy forest.
But it is that I will miss when I have to leave the services. The banter. The humour. The silliness. The downright stupidity…
But not for a while yet at least. Thankfully.