Nine Lives, for Ferdinand Maxwell

From the life of Ferdinand Maxwell

By Erica Masserano

1, 2: Barbados

What Barbados is like? Summer throughout the year, sunshine every day. I was born there in 1941. Growing up there is a lot better than what I see the kids doing who grow up here. My dad was police and my mom was a tailor, making dresses for weddings, bedspreads, embroidery…  I had one younger brother and two older sisters, so I had to look after them, and they had to do what I say! We went to school – 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock. My favourite subject was History. When school was finished, we played, all together, boys and girls. I liked it when we made lorries out of cardboard packages, and then we put different bits under them to make the wheels, and dragged them around; I used to make kites as well,  make them then sell them, made quite a lot of money! ‘pon a Sunday, we go to church, ‘pon the morning; from 9 o’clock in the morning, then until 3 we had Sunday school, and at 7 you had the last service at church. Even on holidays you always had something to do: football, family visits. Sometimes I ran with my friends to the beach at 4 in the morning. When I grew up, I worked for the government in Barbados as an engineer. Then I worked with buses, on these ramps that lift the buses in the air so you can work on them underneath. Once, I was working on these buses with big wheels, and I’ve got to fix a tire. But the gauge wasn’t working and too much air went in, so the tire exploded. The heavy metal clamp jumped up into the air, and when it fell, it hit me right on the head! I’m lucky to be here, anyhow.

But Barbados ain’t that big. I grew up two miles from Bridgetown, the capital. There are many big ships there, we got quite a lot of tourists even then, and now the cruise ships come, even more. My brother was 17, and he decided he was going to come over here, and he said, why don’t you come too? So I enlisted. I was 18. You want to see the world, you have to find a way, and the army is free. There were quite a few people who enlisted, many people before me and after me. We were very young, and we didn’t have nothing to worry about, because Barbados is very peaceful. And so in 1962, they flew me from Barbados to here. It was six hours on a plane.

3: England

From the plane, I saw these buildings and these lights and this smoke coming out of funnels on the roofs. We landed in London, and then took a train to Yorkshire, in the countryside. There are no trains in Barbados, just buses, and this was the first big train I saw; it looked like something new and shiny, like the toy train I had when I was a child. We were all together, British soldiers from everywhere, to complete military training for six months. Every day can’t be the same in the army. Sometimes you woke up and you had to carry something for a hundred yard, then you had to climb a wall, then you had to pull somebody in a stretcher over the wall.

It was nice to be with the people with Barbados; when you get to it, everyone was nice to us, but they did put us in a place by ourselves. But there was one guy from a different regiment, one day he came over and introduced himself. We got to train together, and so after a while they start to understand us, they get to know us. The British lads, they love the pub; the ones from Barbados, they love the pub. So after a while they started telling us, come on, let’s go down to the pub. Sometimes, if I didn’t have money, they said don’t worry about it, sit down and enjoy. We get on. I think those guys, it was their parents telling them to keep far from us, and then they come and find out that we are all the same; friends, living like brothers.

4: The Mediterranean

Gibraltar is one big mountain. The apes, they got up the mountain by the night, and you had to go and blow up the old guns by the night; they were dangerous! I liked Gibraltar, but there is nothing much to do there, so we go to across the border to Spain every night, to La Lìnea. We went over the border to see the Roman ruins, and we caught the ferry to Morocco in Algeciras and travel down the coast all the way to Casablanca. Then we had a call that there was trouble in Libya, so we had to go there by plane.

In Libya, we had to fix the tanks because they got damaged; and sometimes you’d be working, working, and there’d be scorpions and poisonous snakes. We had a big water barrel and the snakes would come and find to drink the water, and we’d go to drink the water and find snakes…! But you know, you get used to it. I was there for about 9 months. We didn’t meet a lot of people from Libya, we were in the camp working all the time. In the end, I got 13 weeks off; I got a job at a book factory because my money going. I enjoy. Well, it was a job. It makes the money to keep the fat on the body.  This was all in 1962.

5: West Berlin

What a great place. I love Berlin. I was there for two years and it was the best posting I ever had, because people were friendly, and they laugh, and it got a lot going on. In the winter we had exercises with the Americans and the French in the snow, but I enjoy. It was 1963, and Berlin was divided. We had to go to the Spandau prison, a big prison where the British and then the Russians and then the French and then the Americans took shifts. Hess and Speer; Hess was Deputy (Führer) in the last war. You never talked to any of them, just keep an eye on them, give them rations, and in the morning bring them out to exercise and so on. It was great, I enjoy. There was a train for the army as well, going to East Berlin. It had to have a guard, so sometimes I did guard duty. I loved it, going there in the morning then coming back. East Berlin was different; you could see the police and the army going up and down, up and down. You don’t see that much people moving up and down. But you can’t let nobody get on the train in East Berlin, and you couldn’t get off the train and look around.

I had the time to go out and see my friends. Oh, yes. The Barbadians, the Jamaicans, those from Trinidad, we were all friends. We went to the American sector, because we made friends with the Americans there, and they had a big dance hall, and there’s many working girls there. But we had to make sure we got back to camp by 6, or the person in charge would mark you down as absence of leave; the lieutenant caught me only one time, and then I did get punished, had to wash the plates and clean the potatoes for two weeks. So I swore I never again would get caught. But of course I kept going! They couldn’t find me and I’d come through the back door and my friends would say, oh, he’s been there the whole time!

I travelled more on holiday from the army, went to Copenhagen and Sweden. I loved Copenhagen; the people were great, came out of the hotel to carry all my luggage, and the women…! Yeah, women – I never did have the time to make myself a family. But that’s ok. I enjoy; people that I meet during my travels is nice. Even on Christmas, in Berlin, a lady and her husband came up to me on the bus and asked, what are you doing tonight? We would like to invite you.  Or another time, this lady invited us to this party at her house, and she had free food and drink for everybody. The Germans, war had made them very hungry, and they asked for food, but the British said, no, no. But we from Barbados, we know hungry, and we give food to them.

If I picked up any German when I was living there? Yeah, yeah. A few.

6, 7, 8: Yemen

In 1966, that was the first time that I was in combat, the civil war between North and South Yemen. I was a first class soldier; I had some guns to look after. I was there for nine months. I saw the desert: the heat melted the soles of the boots. It was too hot to do anything in the morning. And it also had scorpions!

We had a Land Rover and we had to go round and round and make sure that everything was in order. I was to go on at 7 o’clock and it had two recruits who asked me, can we go on at 7 o’clock? And I said it was fine, I said it because they were new. And they went down by the big gun, and less than fifteen minutes, one were killed by two grenades. They were in the Land Rover, and they get shrapnel; the second one get lucky. As I said, it was my turn to go. And they switched me. And another time, I was on a roundabout, and we have a machine gun tower. The police was chasing two guys in a car. A soldier tried to shoot them, but he left the safety catch on his gun on, and that’s just as well, because I was standing right in front and he would have ended up shooting me in the mouth!

Another time, two of my friends cross by the same road they were accustomed to using, and they got blown, blown, blown. One of them was a good friend of mine, a close friend of mine. Quiet fella. Bad luck, it was.

I was doing sports in the army; lots of athletics, and back in Berlin I was the champion of the 400m run in the army games. But one day, I was playing football, and it hurt; it was the ligaments, and I had to spend 13 days in the infirmary. That was the only injuries I had. I left the army and come to live in London again. But there is still war now in Yemen.

9: London

My whole life in London I’ve been living around Kensal Rise, Latimer Road… It was easy to find friends there. When I moved to London it was good, but there was also fighting with them English guys they used to call the Teddy Boys, fighting with our boys. You got to be careful, ‘cause if you got over the road at a certain time you might get yourself involved. But if they can fight, we can fight too. A friend of mine once got attacked three to one, but he was a tough guy so he fought them all off. I was never in the middle; I wouldn’t have lived long. It’s a lot better now; you can walk ‘pon the streets and nobody will interfere. People are more friendly.

My first job in London, I was an engineer, a mechanic. Then I was inspecting garages, making sure they had heat. I had another bus mechanic job as well, and I worked for the board of transport. I never had trouble finding jobs, but I did once work with three Australians at the same place, and they ask me how much money I get so I tell them. And they tell me, they’re cheating you, because we are getting more money than you and we can’t do your work. So I go to the big chief and I ask, why did I get the short end? And he says, I will drop their pay. But I didn’t want their pay dropped, I wanted mine to go up, so in two weeks’ time I was out of there. I was never out of work for long, though one of the garages I worked, Mistress Thatcher close it down. My last job, I was there for twelve years, near the docks; worked with pumps, fans, everything. I enjoy the challenge; taking it apart, seeing which ones are the good and the bad parts, I love it. Even now, sometimes they ask me to come down and work with them, and every Christmas they have something for me. It’s nice to have a job where people appreciate you, but it is good to be retired now; I’ve been retired for 8 years now.

I live in a flat, been living there over 12 years, and my good friend and her daughter live next door. I can sleep all day, get up when I want. I come down to Pepper Pot several times a week. The rest of the time I visit friends in Kilburn and other places, nearly every Friday and Saturday we go to the dances.  I dance to everything, soca, Bob Marley, everything. But no ballet. Sometimes I go see other army guys at the army hotel in Waterloo, cheap for the army people, or to a club in Brixton where we meet. Sometimes I am going in uniform. One of my friends from the army named Cumberbatch was buried last Thursday, and the church was packed. When we meet with the other veterans, we don’t talk about the war; we prefer to take it easy. But it’s not because I have a problem talking about it. It’s better than keeping it inside.

I still go to the Carnival as well, don’t spend much time there now but go watch the floats and the people enjoying. Too much crowds now, and the police up and down, up and down. I just come for the show. I enjoy. I do think about going back to Barbados; I would live there, it’s my number one. But it’s changed; big houses down there now, and instead of using the bus there are cars everywhere now. I like living in London; sometimes is good, sometimes is bad. You got to keep away from the bad and enjoy the good. I have seen a lot of places, went to Boston to visit family, went to see the Niagara Falls and it really is the eighth wonder of the world; all this water, coming from different angles! But I would like to go back to Barbados and retire there sometimes. The best thing in life is traveling, and I’m free.

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