In memory of my father, Commander Roy Titchen, who passed away suddenly on new year’s eve, I am republishing a post initially published on my old blog back in November 2006.
My parents have been visiting, and a fascinating story leaked out from my dad while we were cooking the porridge. My mum couldn’t see what all the fuss was about – but she didn’t realise I had never heard this story before.
My dad used to be an officer in the British Royal Navy, and in 1962-3 he was posted on HMS Jaguar as the weapons engineering officer (WEO). It just so happened that he also had an experienced, mature assistant for training, so he wasn’t as occupied as he might have been with the guns, cannons, torpedoes and whatnot, especially in peace time.
The ship was on its tour of duty for a year, with a crew of 200. They visited Gibraltar, Malta, Jordan (Aqabah), Kenya (Mombassa), South Africa, Mauritius, the Falkland Islands, Uruguay (Punta del Este) and Tristan da Cunha. A floating community with not a woman on board (except for a minor incident off Punta del Este, involving a storm in the middle of a cocktail party, where half the crew was ashore and half the shore was on board and the ship had to move back out to sea before it had time to ditch all of the Uruguayan beauties).
Of course, there are plenty of jobs to do in a community where nobody gets to go home after office hours. My jaw dropped as my dad explained to me that he was also responsible for the wardroom food and finance (but not the wine – that involved all sorts of tedious auditing…). Rather typically (for my dad) he also made it his business to write his name and the date in the dust on the walls, as a message to the steward, who was somebody else’s responsibility.
He was also Education Officer, teaching maths and science (the Supply Officer taught English) to the sailors who were studying for their ‘O’ levels. And Sports Officer, organising and playing cricket, tennis, rugby, football and hockey. Wherever the ship put into port, he refereed rugby matches between the local clubs at weekends.
When he left the UK, he took with him a pre-production model of the very first Moulton bicycle, famous for its small wheels and rubber suspension. The ostensible purpose was “climate trials”, but of course the real reason for taking a revolutionary prototype bicycle on such a journey was to see whether it was sailor-proof… Dad (a 17 stone rugby player) must have looked like an elephant on a tricycle. But he rode that bike out every time he went ashore, and the postman used it in the dockyard to collect the mail.
Talking of the absurd, as the cherry on the cake, my dad played the portable organ (“the collapsible pandemonium”) at church services on Sundays. Not to mention having to play the role of counselor to the men in his charge… The only thing I bet he didn’t do in this amazingly integral life, was meditate… “I did too!!” he replied, grinning: “I examined the backs of my eyelids, horizontally on my bunk after lunch every day!”
The more my dad talked the further my jaw dropped. I guess all the officers on that ship had a similar variety of roles. I find it hard to imagine any employer these days being able to rely on such versatility in their staff: the unions would never allow it. But then, perhaps that’s life in the forces for you. I would certainly like to think that the challenges facing humanity as we head into our common future on spaceship Earth will force us to expand our personal repertoires and look around to see what all else needs doing.