It is difficult to realise that the serious senior officers being interviewed on radio or television were once skittish young subalterns but I have it on good authority that they probably were, army officers being somewhat slow to mature. Before the Second World War officers could not marry before they were thirty without permission from their commanding officers. Subsequently the age was lowered to twenty-five. An indication of the youthful high spirits common to these trained killers could be observed during any Mess Night in the sixties. Following an excellent meal, with regimental silver gleaming, good wines and the passing of the port several times round the table (always to the left, don’tcha know?) the Loyal Toast would be proposed and after that there would be Mess Games. A common event was Mess Mountaineering, the objective being to travel all the way round the room without touching the floor. Another pastime was jousting. One man would go up into the ceiling cavity with a jousting stick – a billiard cue, perhaps – and those below would use their poles to try and dislodge him.
One evening the mess decided to re-enact ‘The Great Escape’ or more particularly the scene in which Steve McQueen rides his motor cycle around the perimeter fence, gathering momentum and eventually leaping the barbed wire. The challenge was to ride a bicycle at speed along a very long corridor, up a table called into service as a ramp against an open window, plunge through and attempt to clear the 8’ security fence outside. History does not recall if anyone succeeded. Performance was adversely affected by alcoholic intake – coordination was in inverse proportion to bravado - and memory was similarly affected. Most who managed to remain on course ended up straddling the wire.
On another occasion the Mess Night was held in an unfamiliar venue but the customary ‘Night-time parachute jump’ was scheduled to take place as planned. What the participants failed to realise was that they were not on the ground floor as usual and one or two of them suffered broken legs. Some (wives, sisters, girl-friends, mothers) might say they were lucky not to have broken more than legs.
With a change of command came a change in attitude to Mess Games. The particularly dull incoming commanding officer decided that Carpet Bowls would be a more suitable pursuit (was he dull or more mature than most??) He did not think through the many consequences of his decision and so discovered just how very fast bowls can travel and how much damage they can do.
Has the advent of female officers affected the conduct of Mess Nights? I imagine the tempering effect of young women who are generally more mature than their male peers may have changed the nature of any post-prandial entertainment.
Before I start sucking my teeth and claiming that I never did anything foolish/dangerous at any time in my life I need an honesty check and a jog to my memory. Too many years being ‘sensible’ as a parent and teacher of young children have dulled my adventurous nature, if ever I had one.