If we were having coffee, I would be proud to tell you about a most joyous and memorable event that I attended on Friday afternoon. Make yourselves comfortable and feel free to help yourselves to freshly-brewed refills at any time.
This may seem odd to you, but the joyous occasion that I am going to tell you about was the memorial service for an old Army friend of mine followed by a reception.
I first met Keith Fenton in 1976 at 42 Survey Engineer Regiment at Barton Stacey near Andover in North West Hampshire. He had completed almost two years of training at the Army Apprentices College near Chepstow. He had graduated top of his group. I had completed a few months of adult entry training at the Royal Engineers Training Regiments in Cove, near Aldershot. Of the five trades available in military survey, Keith had chosen to be a printer, printing and cutting the final maps. I had chosen to be an air surveyor, making maps from air photographs.
Our paths had crossed many times over the ensuing forty-two years. We had played hockey together. I was a skinny, speedy winger. Keith was a relentless, courageous goalkeeper. You have to be ether very brave, or completely crazy to be a hockey goalkeeper. Keith was both!
We also had many adventures over the years, some of which are best kept to ourselves.
Some of the best years that we spent together were when we were posted to Chepstow as instructors in the mid-eighties. A few of our colleagues from those times turned up on Friday and many fond memories were stirred.
One of those colleagues was Keith’s best friend from the day he joined the Army as an Apprentice in 1974 until the day he died: John Hambling, more commonly known as Geordie Hambling.
Geordie was Keith’s best man at his wedding and was strongly supportive throughout Keith’s awful illness, Huntington’s Disease, right up until his final minutes.
Keith had witnessed the deaths of his father, brother and sister from this terrible inherited disorder. As his condition worsened, he made the typically courageous decision to determine the time and place of his death. He went to Dignitas in Zurich with his best friend and his close family. He was totally in control and was able to enjoy the last days of his life as much as one can in those circumstances.
During the service, three friends and colleagues paid tribute to Keith, serving up some poignant anecdotes. There must have been over 150 in the congregation at St Lawrence’s Church in Hungerford. The service concluded with a rendition of Wings, the Corps march of the Royal Engineers, played by the band of the Royal Engineers. Following the service, we all moved on up the hill to the Royal British Legion for a buffet and drinks.
All of us were meeting old friends whom we hadn’t seen for many years. You can imagine the sharing and exchange of stories of days gone by. We had served together from the seventies onwards. Many had kept in touch throughout the decades, but I was meeting people whom I hadn’t seen for almost thirty years.
There were many familiar faces which I struggled to put names to. Everyone was in the same boat. Of course, we have all aged, yet many of us feel that we are still young. We were all tolerant, prompting each other into recognition.
I had a brief chat with Sara, Keith’s widow, just before I left. I was pleasantly surprised that she remembered the time when I accompanied them to view their first civilian house. That was a long time ago. She also told me that the Grenadier Guards Regimental Sergeant Major who had done his best to make our lives a misery at Chepstow but had been the unaware brunt of many of our jokes, had finally received his come-uppance and had been sent to prison.
It was a day of renewing old friendships, sharing some laughs, helping each other to remember old comrades who were not able to make it, and feeling proud that Keith had brought us together to share a joyous occasion in his memory.
It was a lovely day!
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