We finish up our story of Bursledon Brickworks Museum volunteer Bob Palmer, with a quick…
Bang Bang all change.
Being born in the Royal Naval Hospital Gibraltar, to a Gibraltarian mother and English father who was serving on the Rock as a member of the Royal Artillery, was the beginning of a life defined by movement, military service and a love of dogs …
Two years in Gibraltar, three in Malta, and five more in Shoeburyness, South East Essex, was the start to filling up a passport from a very early age. One of Tug’s earliest memories was arriving in Southampton by Troop Ship Empire Orwell, en route to Shoeburyness Barracks, after spending his first five years abroad. Pulling alongside the jetty, his eyes grew as big as saucers as he was greeted with his first sight of a steam train. Now, in reality, it was most likely only a small shunting engine, but to an impressionable young lad from a foreign land, it might as well have been an alien. His second abiding memory from that time was of him, as he describes it, ‘kicking off’ in a local shop. It seems that mum was insisting on an overcoat for the winter. Tug, of course, had other ideas. Why would anyone in their right mind want such a thing as an overcoat? He never got cold. Welcome to England young man. He says “It was a good early childhood. My playgrounds were the beaches and barrack in which we lived; every family had a wage and every child had two parents. My mission in life was to bury every dead thing I found and re-home every stray dog I encountered. Mum was never impressed by the maggot ridden carcasses I would take home and most of the dogs were, regrettably, not strays”.
One night in late 1962, the Shoeburyness Army camp shook to its very foundations. The Wilson family, minus the two brothers, who by now had both joined up being five and ten years older than Tug, respectively, were living in Army quarters when the Cuban missile crisis was responded to by the British Government of the day. The entire Thunderbird regiment, fully booted and spurred, along with some of the heaviest artillery and trucks that the army possessed, laden with national servicemen, moved out wholesale en route to Germany. This strategic and political response was in preparation for what, at the time, had all the potential to be the beginning of another world war, but with even worse consequences than the previous two. The sight must have been quite something to behold. The spectacle, rumbling out of the barrack gates all night long, certainly held the young Tug in total awe as he excitedly clutched his mother’s hand as they watched. I bet he would have won the prize for ‘what I did in the holidays’ composition at his school. Fortunately, as history tells us, the crisis was averted and common sense, of a sort, prevailed in the end.
The youngest of three brothers, Tug was probably destined to take the King’s shilling one way or another. Guns always figured in his early life, and I don’t mean the over the shoulder ‘bang bang you’re dead’ kind. I mean BIG guns. The sort that invading hoards tremble at, and the wildlife packs its bags and decides, ‘bugger this for a game of soldiers, I’m going to elope’. Dad was a Gunner, elder brother Ron was a Royal Navy Gunner, the only brother that preferred to get his feet wet at sea rather than on land, and Brian, the middle brother, started out as a Gunner, but transferred to the Royal Engineers. There was no parental pressure to join up, but in all honesty, in the same way that moths are attracted to light, they all followed the drum.
So, on the morning of 7th September 1967, dad waved fifteen-year-old Tug off on the train, making his way to the Junior Leader Regiment at Bramcote, about ten miles north of Coventry. Why such a young age? I’ll let Tug explain that one. “To join the Royal Marines you had to be 16, which was far too long for me to wait. The Royal Air Force Regiment was worse with a starting age of 17 and, anyway, if I’d joined the RAF my dad would have disowned me. I didn’t really fancy the Royal Navy because I am not good on lumpy water, so it was always going to be the Army. The only decision that needed to be made was ‘which Regiment?’ I never ever considered a civilian job. I lived in barracks, I played in barracks. In Germany I attended a service school. The whole of my life experience, up to that point, had revolved around service life. It was just a natural progression to follow my brothers.”
By joining up at fifteen, Tug joined a system that had a mandate to train young boys to be ‘the future Senior NCO’s and Warrant Officers of the British Army’. It did so by instilling a sense of self-discipline, team spirit and tradition in all of those that stayed the course. One such tradition was the use of trumpets and bugles as instruments of communication. Each call was addressed to someone, instructing them to do something. Every boy soldier that entered the gates of Bramcote was taught to play a trumpet. This was primarily because the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery (a ceremonial saluting battery based in London) required a regular supply of trumpeters. Some were good players, others not so good. Tug considers himself to have been in the latter group.
Tug started life as an Artillery Battery Surveyor, with the primary role of surveying gun positions. He soon realised that this was not his true vocation and switched to gunnery or, as Tug says, “as far as I was concerned there’s no point in joining the gunners and not being on the guns”. Every gunner has to have two trades, so he tried his hand at signals, but as he struggled with morse code, his second choice became that of driver. He spent two years at Bramcote until the completion of basic and specialist training. He passed out of training having attained the rank of Junior Regimental Sergeant Major of his intake, for which he is rightly proud. This set the way for the career that followed.
The journey from Tug’s first posting with the Royal Horse Artillery in Germany, through to his last posting, as a Lieutenant Colonel at the Royal School of Artillery (Larkhill), encompases a wealth of experience and achievements. Tours of duty in Northern Ireland during the early 1970’s and locations as diverse as the Hebrides and Cyprus, or Sandhurst and Iraq, have all been added into the mix during a career spanning four decades.
It was while serving in Germany that he attended a course, for three months, at the Royal School of Artillery where he met the love of his life, Jan. He says that he knew right from the very first sight that she was the one for him. Added to which, he always got extra chips, as she was one of the regimental cooks. They married in 1973. Next year, 2013, Tug and Jan celebrate forty wonderful years together. Personally, I think that Jan deserves a campaign medal of her own.
As soon as the opportunity arose, Tug would take his own dog with him on his postings. ‘The Hebrides for instance was a fantastic place to live. The weather was wild, the locals were smashing, and the opportunity to walk for miles with my Labrador, Barny, while watching for whales, seals and other wildlife, was not to be missed’.
1997 was to be an important date in Tug’s career, although he was not really fully aware of it at the time. With up to 50 NCOs of various ranks, and around 350 recruits under his command, the impact of being able to influence the management and style of instruction, on such a large scale, was sowing seeds that would pay dividends further down the line. Helping others to achieve is something that Tug has always enjoyed, and there are few better environments to achieve this than when delivering instruction. He feels that his own early poor experience at school was reversed when he entered the services. Here, he met instructors that helped him to understand the subjects by making the instruction they were delivering relevant. He had always tried to do the same when instructing, and now had a golden opportunity to develop the skills and understanding of every young instructor within the battery. This helped to reduce the course dropout rate and saw instructors qualifying for promotion.
If you had to name two experiences at opposite ends of the spectrum, these following two would fit the bill: In 1998 he was part of a multinational team in the deserts of Iraq, as a United Nations Observer, and then, in 2001, was drafted in to assist with the Foot and Mouth outbreak in the rural areas of the UK. Stepping out for what was supposed to have been two days on reconnaissance with only a toothbrush and a change of underwear, resulted in three months supervising the disposal of 36,500 beasts across Staffordshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. “It was one of the most difficult things I ever did” said Tug. “Having to destroy infected animals, and many more that were not, but were deemed to be a risk, left farmers and communities devastated”. From one Government body to another with widely different mandates and teams.
In 2002, Tug took command of the Episkopi Support Unit in Cyprus, a joint unit staffed by Army, Navy, Air Force personnel, with MOD and locally employed civilians. One of the memories from that time, which he considers to be one of his best achievements in this post, was the setting up a ‘Families Hashing Club’ [Wikipedia description of Hashing] for downtime recreation. Tug, a keen ‘hasher’ at the time, applied to join the existing club. He was appalled, however, to discover that membership was restricted to males only. This was staggering, especially in, as Tug says, ‘our so called enlightened times’. He decided, therefore, to set up his own Hash club. He describes the first hash as an almost chaotic affair, with women pushing children in push chairs, dogs running around, and general confusion – but the Happy Valley Hash was born to the sound of laughter. It went from strength to strength and was booming by the time he left Cyprus two years later. The second memory is that of finding Annie, a starving stray dog, who was wandering the countryside. After some food and a large helping of TLC, she developed into a magnificent Hungarian Visla. At the end of the tour they returned to the UK together, where she fitted in well with his other two dogs and became a firm friend of Jan, his wife.
And so, after forty hectic years, Tug steps back off the train at the other end to tackle the next chapter of his life. Not so much a destination as a change of lines. After completing a compulsory resettlement program in 2007 he joins ‘Civvy Street’. In his own words “I left with the vague idea of working for myself. I had no firm plans and wanted to keep my options open. Service life had equipped me with many transferable skills, but at the top of the list are genuine good people skills and an enjoyment of instruction. The general idea was to work for someone else for about three years, while picking other people’s brains, before starting my own business”. What shape that would take or where it might be was still open for discussion.
Tug attended a Business Link course and took note of the advice that said; ‘try to do what you are good at, or what you enjoy’. Based on this comment, Tug decided to accelerate his move forward on the self-employment plan. The missing piece of the puzzle, thus far, had been deciding what direction to take. As it turns out, it was probably written all along; madame destiny had just been waiting for all the planets to line up. Ever since he had been knee high, the family had owned dogs. Tug and his wife had always owned dogs. Ideas were taking shape.
Even before he had left the army he had taken an instructors’ course with the British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers, and assisted as an instructor at the Solent District Dog Training Club. In order to gain further experience with a wider range of dogs, Tug volunteered to work for the Blue Cross animal welfare charity and then obtained employment with them. His love of dogs and instruction were coming together, and the way forward was becoming clear. Next came a move to attend a canine first aid course, a Tellington Touch workshop and take a Diploma in Canine Psychology. He is currently taking his Advance Diploma in Canine Behaviour and providing one to one dog training.
One of the things that Tug is keen on, is giving back. When he first left the Army, seeking direction and wanting to fill his time as best as possible, he had been considering some form of voluntary work. On a visit to Crufts Dog Show, back in 2008, whilst wandering around the show stands, he chanced upon the Pets as Therapy (P.A.T) charity display. P.A.T is a national charity founded in 1983. It is unique in that it provides therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospices, nursing and care homes, special needs schools and a variety of other venues, by volunteers with their own friendly, temperament tested and vaccinated dogs and cats.
The timing coincided with the acquisition of a new member of the family, a border collie called Maddie. She was a dog that appeared to lack confidence and avoided human contact. However, as they trained together and a bond formed, it was apparent that Maddie had an excellent temperament. Tug approached P.A.T with a view to becoming a P.A.T visitor. Maddie was assessed to ensure that she had the desired temperament and, in August 2008, she became a registered P.A.T Dog.
They started off visiting care homes and then progressed onto special needs schools, a secure mental institute and, later, worked with a child psychologist to help a phobic child with his fear of dogs. En route, with his experience and general ‘can do’ attitude being recognised, Tug was asked if he would like to become an area co-ordinator for the Fareham area, whilst still staying as a P.A.T visitor. Jumping at the opportunity to get involved in such a worthwhile organisation, Tug set to with gusto. Starting out with around 18 local members, this has now grown, within the four years of Tug being at the helm, to 85 visiting owners and dogs. Tug is also a qualified temperament assessor for the charity and a registered speaker, providing group talks on the work of the charity and organising events throughout the year.
Tug says “Joining P.A.T provides people with the opportunity to give something back to the community, just by sharing their dog or cat with people who may be lonely, or disadvantaged in some way. It provides an opportunity to meet some smashing people, be they fellow volunteers or service users and, by doing so, you really can make a difference to people’s lives. Every visiting volunteer I know has a personal story to prove it. We also provide dogs to participate in the ‘Read to Dog’ scheme, which is a fantastic initiative that gives young children, who are reluctant readers, the opportunity to read to a dog. It works, believe me. The results are nothing but excellent.”
P.A.T dogs are not super dogs. Many are cross breeds, and many have come from various canine rescue organisations. They are just dogs that have a calm temperament and enjoy tactile contact. Any healthy, reasonable well trained family dog, irrespective of its breed or type, can become a P.A.T dog if they pass the assessment and age criterion. The details of the assessment, and what is required of the volunteer, can be viewed on the charity’s web site (details at the end of this article). In May 2011, the work of all the local volunteers was recognised when Fareham Borough Council kindly presented them with the Citizen of Honour Award, in recognition of their work within the community.
So what does the future hold for Tug? He says “I will continue to plead with people to think about what getting a dog really means and to promote doing so from a reputable breeder or rescue organisations such as the Dogs Trust or Blue Cross. If you buy a dog from a puppy farm you are doing nothing more than sponsoring animal cruelty. Pets as Therapy is a great charity, designed to provide animal companionship for people on a temporary basis, l personally would welcome the opportunity to do more community related dog work. Perhaps with offenders or young offenders as part of a rehabilitation program or, better still, as an early interdiction program to prevent the problem before it occurs. Having worked in a secure mental institution with Maddie, and watching watched the positive response, I can see the benefits that she, and others like her, can and do bring to the party. My aim is to continue improving my canine related qualifications in order to continue to build my business and apply for membership of the United Kingdom Register of Canine Behaviourists.” But as always I will keep my powder dry just in case other opportunities present themselves. I am always open to offers.