Monday, July 17, 2006

John Harper Remembers Singapore - Part 7: RAF Changi Scouts

When we lived in Cleveleys in the UK I had put my name on the waiting list to join the Cubs group. However, because I was friendly with a boy who had been thrown out for bad behaviour my name never seemed to make it to the top of the list. So when we moved from Lloyd Leas to Wittering Road and the Scout Hut was just over the road from the old Changi Post Office at the end of Wittering Road my father put our names down for the Cubs. He came back a week later and told me that there were spaces in the Scouts and that I would be allowed to join although I was not quite yet 11 years old. I went along to my first meeting and joined Kestrel patrol, shoulder flash colours Blue and Green. It was the start of a long involvement that was memorable, challenging and most of all enjoyable. I can still remember those early days of learning to tie knots, simple first aid, starting with the four basic points of the compass N,E, S and W expanding it to 8 Points with NE, SE, SW, NW and then further subdividing the compass to give the points in-between NNE, ENE, ESE, SSE, SSW, WSW, WNW and NNW, learning all those symbols and all about contour lines so that you could read a map and setting it to magnetic north. These were amazing days and I soaked it up like a sponge. It wasn’t too long before I had passed my Tenderfoot badge and underwent my investiture into the movement. Then started the work on my second class badge with more knots, lashings, and first aid.

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1954 photo of scout activity. Collection of National Archives of Singapore

Although we were only there for a few more months we were present for a few events. One was a fund raising event in the field next to the old post office. There were many different stalls set up where you paid money and tried to win it back by overcoming the challenge that had been set. There were all the old favourites like the bendy copper wire circuit with the copper loop that you had to negotiate around the bends without touching the bent copper wire and completing the circuit causing the buzzer and lights to light up. Funny, you never seem to see that nowadays. Then there were the coin rollers where you won a prize depending on which card you managed to land your coin on cleanly. Probably the most fantastic contraption was the rolling horse made of small metal barrels mounted on a central shaft with well lubricated bearings. The idea was to get from the horse’s tail where there was a fixed barrel over the rotating barrels to the fixed barrel by the head. Not many people managed to do it. I think that the only one who did was an airman who managed to do some sort of leap frog movement that leapt him over the rotating barrels. He had several tries before he managed to perfect his technique and probably spent more than he eventually won.

One night we all caught a bus over to RAF Seletar for a campfire singsong. There were benches all around the fire built up in tiers so that everyone could get a good view of the fire. I think that all the Scout Groups from all the armed forces stations on the island had been invited and it was a really big occasion. I can’t remember all the songs but I do remember, Ging Gang Gooley, You’ll never go to Heaven, Quartermaster’s Stores. The Yanks are Flying Fortresses at Forty Thousand Feet was a particular favourite with its gory refrains about jumping without a parachute and being scraped up off the tarmac like a lump of strawberry jam.

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Old Map of Changi Area

Without a doubt though, the biggest event we ever had was what was known as a "Soap Box Derby" on the hill of Cranwell Road. It was organised by the Scouts leaders and boys and their fathers built carts with pram or pushchair wheels and the boys raced them down the hill. I managed to scrounge a set of pushchair wheels from somewhere and my dad got a steering mechanism put together in the station workshops that bolted onto a lightweight plywood frame. That was then painted up in Kestrel Patrol colours with broad bands of Blue and Green. In preparation for the event one of the Wing Commanders who was associated with the Scout Group arranged for road closures and diversions. Traffic approaching from the city direction met a road closure sign at Calshot Road just by the swimming pool at Selarang and was diverted along Changi Road and past the guardroom to emerge and turn right by the Astra Cinema. There was a similar diversion in the opposite direction. There was a happy, competitive atmosphere as we lined up for the race. Each cart was allowed a pusher to get you started and my mother was my pusher, and could she push. I flew off very quickly and was just in the lead for a while. Unfortunately there were quite a few casualties, including myself. I was in the lead as we had built a really slick, lightweight and streamlined cart with small pushchair wheels. I was really flying down the hill and the tyres must have overheated and expanded off the wheel rim and my cart just turned over and I ended up in the grit and clay at the edge of the road with badly grazed elbows and knees. So it was home for a quick bath full of antiseptic and then straight round to sick quarters near the guardroom to get bandaged up. I think I was in bandages for about a week that had to be changed daily but no lasting damage was done apart from some scars that took a few years to go.

Detail map of Sop Box Derby Area

My scouting continued when we moved to RAF Tengah but as they say, “that is another story” and I think some it was covered in my piece on leisure time.


Anonymous said...

To John: credits must be given to your dad for inspiring you to be a adventurous scout at a young age. By letting you getting hard knocks, he was actually preparing you to face the future with confidence.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of my time when we had slopes in our private estate. participants included the "angmo" kids, Malay and Chinese boys.

We did the same kind of derby race using KLIM Milk wooden crates. Sometimes we made use of the F&N bottled drinks packed in a wooden crate from the provision shop. The small wheels taken from the pram and for the steering wheel we took that cars that were in the motor shop. The 2 pedals (for pushing) came from the bicycle pedals. One thing though: never had brakes. In our private estate these were "small time derbys".

The big derby was at Lorong 4 Bukit Gombak; now Gombak Drive leading to MINDEF. If you take a drive to Gombak, you can well understand the dangers: very steep, road narrow and at the foot was the Malayan railway Level Crossing.

That's where I got this scar on my waist to remind me of the derby.

Lam Chun See said...

Maybe this is racial bias, but I find that compared to Westerners, we Asian parents tend to be over-protective.

JollyGreenP said...

I think that over protectiveness is not confined to Asian parents. I think it is a geberal trend around the world. When I think back to when I was seven I had to see my brother Tom to and from school whilst my mother took my youngest brother to the infants school which was in a different road. we also played out on waste ground and explored a lot more than young kids seem to do now. As teenagers we often went off on bike rides for long distances and camped out overnight. Nowadays in the UK most parents would not even think of letting their children do half the activities we did unless they were heavily supervised. I think some of this is caused by the climate of fear generated by the UK press in their reporting of horror stories involving abduction and murders of children. The other factor that I think that makes children less adventurous is the high level of entertainment they can get without leaving the house. When we were young, TV was just starting to become common place, computers, videos and DVDs were unheard of. This menat that we very much had to make our own entertainment and not be baby sat by the electronic wallpaper.

John Harper

Victor said...

I regret that my scouting days were not as colourful and eventful as yours, John.I remember a campfire with girl guides from another school though. It was only natural - I was at an age when I was beginning to take interest in the opposite sex.

Lam Chun See said...

Peter. Didn't you say before you you had a Chestnut Derby?

Looks like scouting is good for inter-racial interaction. Just look at the 1954 photo which I took randomly. There is a mixture of different races. John's ready acceptance of other races must have been influenced by his scouting experience.

Anonymous said...

The slope in Bukit Gombak reminds meof our carton boxes which we opened up, sat on them and slid down the slopes around Princess Elizabeth housing estate(Now Hill View).This was around the early 70's. Not the same as Peter and John with their derbies, but we had great fun.

Anonymous said...

Your scout group "connect" to which girl school? We came from 2002 Kestrel Patrol.

Our scout outings more than cmapfire - went to Kota Tinggi & Jason Bay also. All the Buayas suddenly can strum the guitar...can sing also.One of the buaya is now Minister of State (censored!!!!).