Ron Knief's Memories of Menwith Hill and England
Left - "Ron Knief in his Class A's after Basic"
Center - Ron and John Beauchamp at their
shared one room flat at 31 Mornington Crescent
Right - "Ron drinking tea at 31 Mornington
Crescent (this is the picture he sent to his mother)"
I was stationed in Frankfurt with the HQ USASAE and traveled with various teams throughout the European Theater to tune DF sites and eventually joined the Field Station Installation Team. Then I had the opportunity to go to Menwith Hill for six months TDY in 1960 and jumped at the chance. I left with Bob Peel while the rest either drove personal cars or left from other German locations. We flew in one of the first 707 jet flights from Frankfurt to London. London in those days was still in its post war phase and all the public places were either poorly heated or not at all. There seemed to be smoke everywhere as this was not long after they started to get rid of bituminous coal for heating. Not coincidentally this marked the end of London's famous fogs as the smog consisted of very damp air which coalesced around the coal smoke particles and formed the world famous "pea soup" fogs London was noted for. When I later moved to London for 6 years I talked to Londoners that said in the early days before converting to electric heat, the smog would get so bad you quite literally couldn't see your feet even when shining a "torch" down at them. Traffic would halt during these smog attacks and people would grope blindly down some streets completely unaware of any land marks to find their way home with. They would feel along fences and buildings to get their bearings. London, was in fact, referred to (and still is by some) as "Big Smoke." Restaurants there and in Harrogate often had the silver ware so poorly washed that there would still be food on them. The sugar bowls and mustard would have hair and cigarette ash in them. I was not at all impressed.
We spent the night at a hotel right across the street from the NCO club in Lancaster Square in London and had an electric heater on the floor for the sole heat and there was construction dust all over the bed spread but it was all we could get at that time of the evening. When I toured the country in 1976-1977 I always sought out old inns to stay at that were historic, charming or simply old and loved those places. But I must admit carrying a lot of shillings and 5 new pence pieces and feeding those damned things was a bit wearying. The next morning we boarded the Flying Scot which was a premier British Rail train. It was a first class train from London to Edinburgh which made only one stop and that was at the famous spa, Harrogate. There was no heat on the train and this was in early March and quite cold. We had our feet jammed under the base board where the steam line for the brakes were located to keep them warm. The car we were in (we were alone for the whole trip) didn't have conventional seats as most trains had, instead there were individual wing back arm chairs as one would find in a living room. There were four chairs grouped around each table all of which had a setting of good china. I counted 13 pieces of silverware at each setting all of which went "tinkle tinkle tinkle tinkle" the entire bleedin' way to Harrogate. I spent the entire time separating them so they wouldn't "tinkle" together. Nothing was fastened to the floor as this was a first class service and stops were gradual as were the starts although they were quite high speed trains.
Supposedly Harrogate had more millionaires per capita than any other city or town in the entire British Empire because of the people who came there for the "waters" the spa offered or those who retired there. If you haven't "taken the waters," as the Brits say - DON'T! The water has a high sulphur content, which is purported to aid in it's curative properties but also gives it its rotten egg taste. It was, and is, quite a nice town however and due to its wealth is well kept up and has a lot of very attractive gardens.
The 13th Field Station at Menwith Hill was still under construction and we spent our time stringing thousands of wires and installing the equipment in racks and testing and setting it up. Our NCOIC was a Master Sergeant William? Cook who was revered by all of his team as he treated us so fairly. We well knew it was commensurate with our performance on the job and we all worked hard for that guy. Another Sergeant was SFC Boushaw who ended his career in the Army while I was still in. He was quite a character and often showed up for work with grass stains on his knees.
The first day we were there we had to run down town to see where the action was (for what it was worth). We were told that most of the girls hung out at this coffee shop whose name escapes me. There was a basement to the place and there was recorded music, I don't recall if it was a juke box or what. Anyway the very first day I went to the place there was a familiar face staring out of the front window of the coffee shop, it was a buddy from Fort Devens, John Beauchamp. It was quite a surprise as I had no idea he was there. He worked in ops and had seen the message from Frankfurt saying that our crew would be arriving so he knew I was on base. We arranged to rent a room together up at 37 Mornington Crescent where we took our dates and generally stayed on week ends. We usually didn't have a problem with scheduling our stays as he worked shifts and I was on straight days.
The coffee shop we went to nearly every night was on the left as you went up the hill toward the Cenotaph (the needle shaped 20' tall war monument). That was where we picked up our girls. There was a girl that was a "friend" of the gal I ended up dating most of the time. She was half Black her father being a U.S. sailor. She had the greatest looking pair in town and wore tight sweaters much to our delight. She was always competing with my girl for any guy my girl was interested in so that happened to be me at that time. I enjoyed it while it lasted. The Royal Gardens was the trysting site of choice as there were no hotels that would allow such dalliances in those days. The Royal Gardens was a place, as my buddy Bob Van Tassel once said, where "I took a walk in the park last night. I stepped on a man's back and a lady thanked me." There was giggling and squealing coming from the bushes, benches, under and it seemed even up in trees and even on the band stand - my favorite place as it had no dew on the floor because it was roofed. It was hard to find a good place some Saturday nights. We all carried hip flasks and I kept 151 proof Navy Demerara rum as I got more bang for the buck with it. We would buy cokes take a good swig out of the bottle and then fill it up
with the rum. It packed a pretty good punch!
When I think of the movie theaters I remember having to stand up for the national anthem "God Save the Queen" I always felt it an imposition since we had fought for our independence from the monarchy and I would always be the last to stand to show my "independence." I took my girl to a vaudeville theater in Leeds one Saturday afternoon and have always been so glad that I did as it was the only vaudeville theater and show I have ever seen. Of course the time had already passed in the U.S. for vaudeville. I paid 2'6" (35 cents) apiece for a private box which consisted of just the 2 seats and the box was high on the wall between the unwashed masses and the stage. We felt like royalty! I enjoyed the program. Britain has a long tradition of vaudeville and some of their most famous entertainers earned their marks on the vaudeville circuit. I took my gal to Knaresborough and saw the well of Mother Shipton. We took a double decker bus on a warm spring day and the journey across the English country side was memorable. I have a few good slides of Knaresborough and Mother Shipton's well. The well was an artesian well that was very high in calcium content and it dripped down over articles hanging in the mouth of this shallow cave and the water would run through the article which was usually of cloth as it had to be permeable. After a period of time the calcium that was left behind would collect and harden "petrifying" the article. There were a lot of Teddy bears if I remember correctly.
There was a cook on base who kept his girl friend in a large outdoor storage container alongside the mess hall. He would take food out to her and she slept there (with the cook for all we knew). I believe she had been there for some weeks by the time she was caught. One day my mouth started to burn while in the mess hall and it took me awhile to narrow the culprit down to the mashed potatoes! I walked up to the chow line and told the cook "Do you know you put red pepper on the mashed potatoes?" He smiled and said "Yeah, we were all out of paprika." I often wondered what the average Brit thought of us. We would get on the bus with these fish and chips on the last bus back to the base all drunked up every night and carrying the obligatory order of fish and chips. The fish being North Atlantic cod or haddock and the chips being the usually greasy mess. The fish was marvelous but making french fries were, and remain, a mystery to the British. You could hold one up and it would hang straight down from your fingers as they were so saturated with grease. The fish cost 6p (7 cents for a very large portion) and the chips thrupence (about 4 cents for a double handful wrapped in newspaper I remember. Anyway there was a law against eating on the buses and we would always be told about it by the conductor and we would just nod and continue eating. We always left this horrible mess under the seats of uneaten chips and crumpled newspapers. We were ambassadors of a sort I feel.
The security guard at the guard shack at ops was pretty sloppy. I guess it was to be expected as he saw the same guys going in and out every day. There were a few guys who would paste other pictures over their own including one guy who had Hitler's picture on his badge. Speaking of ops there was a guy from New Jersey with an Italian name who had a law degree (can't remember if he had passed the bar or not). Anyway he would get a bit upset at having to clean the officer's toilet in ops as, of course, they couldn't have civilians in there. One day a fresh new second louie came out of the john and this guy followed him out proclaiming in a very loud voice that there was the biggest turd he had ever seen floating in this commode. He said "It's this long (spreading his hands about two feet apart) and it's covered with hair and it's pulsating!!" This second louie got the brightest red while we fell about laughing, as the English say. Some of the other guys on the installation team were Donald Bornholdt, Jim McKenzie, Eugene Kester, Bob Peel, R.J. Van Tassel (picked up from Herzo base) and Daniel Whitehurst (who came out of Schlaumholder as Baumholdert was called in honor of the mud that was there).
There was a young kid 18-21 years old that was stationed at Menwith whose father was in the IRA. The family had emigrated to America but he retained his hatred of the British and had inculcated that hatred into the kid. Nicest kid you ever saw and everyone liked him but he was always getting into trouble down town with the local boys. He was sitting half bombed on the bench at the bus stop waiting for the last bus back to Menwith one night when a car full of local kids stopped and said "are you a Yank?" When he said he was they said "We hate Yanks," and started to drive away. Well he came off that bench like a tiger and ran alongside the car and caught up to it and spit in the driver's face. Who should be behind the car but the MPs. He was restricted for weeks. He then went to the EM club, where we hardly ever went, and proceeded to
get drunk one night. He tried to spin an upturned table on the end of his finger and kept dropping the table so he was 86ed from there. We would bring booze and beer back on the bus from town for him and he would get smashed and start running up and down the halls yelling and making a helluva fuss. We were usually bombed enough to go to sleep in spite of the racket. Actually we were up stairs and at the other end of a barracks where all the bad boys were billeted. After he got off suspension he was in the coffee shop half way up the hill on one of the main streets which I cannot remember and one of the locals came up to him with some thug they had imported from Leeds just to take care of this Irish American upstart. He was able to lick any one he come up against as he was very good with his fists although not a big guy at all. Anyway, he looked at this thug and popped him one and as the guy was on his way to the floor he hit him a couple more times before he hit the floor. That made his reputation and they didn't bother him again to my knowledge.
I guess Sgt Fox, the NCOIC of the base thought we were a bad influence and quarantined us away from most of the rest of the base. We never cleaned our barracks or the toilets or showers. I remember the urinals had a yellow crystallized coat of ureic crystals on them which we were quite proud of. Sgt Fox tried to get after us several times. It bugged the hell out of him that we were untouchables! He tried once and our NCOIC from Frankfurt (our boss) messaged USASAE and they sent a message back to Fox to let us alone, we never had any trouble after that. He particularly hated me and when I was shipping back to Frankfurt after my 180 day TDY he told me that he had phoned our First Sergeant (a personal friend according to him) and told him that I needed disciplining or something like that. When I got back to Frankfurt I was called in by the first shirt who asked what was going on. I told him Fox was frustrated by his not being able to have authority over us and the first shirt said "yeah, I've known him a long time and that's the way he is." He dismissed me. I wish Fox had heard the whole exchange.
One of my most vivid memories of the train station was of the day I left. I had not been there since arriving six months before. I was feeling very blue as I was having to say goodbye to my girl friend. I ordered a ham sandwich and thought it tasted a bit sweet so I opened it and the ham was rotten!! It shimmered with a slime on the surface. If you remember they didn't know what refrigeration was so everything just sat on the counter covered by a tea towel until it was sold whether it was the next day or the next week. I immediately pushed the sandwich away. Turned out it was too late. By the time the train got to London and I got to Heathrow airport I was sweating and had a distended gut, I had to unbutton the top several buttons on my fly. I was OK by the time I got to Frankfurt. A sympathetic English skycap at the airport said, when I told him I had food poisoning, that this was England and one had to expect that sort of thing. As an aside I ran across a Texas Instrument salesman at Heathrow that told me about the new solid state electronic devices that he had and how they had succeeded in getting as many as 7 of the devices on one chip with a lot of wastage. I wasn't very impressed, nor I think was anyone in those days outside of the semiconductor industry. Now the Pentium has millions!
After getting back to Frankfurt I still missed my Harrogate girl friend and wanted her to come to Frankfurt. She managed to get a ride with a GI and his family from Harrogate to Frankfurt (he was being transferred) and ended up there for the last 6 months of my enlistment. I managed to get her a job in the main PX in Frankfurt and eventually sent her back to Harrogate by train when I left. That was in March 1961. We met again in May of 1967 in London after my writing to her grandmother and inquiring about her. She had been married and had a boy. It wasn't quite the same however and we just didn't click again. I also had a German nurse that I had met on Frankfurt during the service come over to London and again it wasn't quite the same. I'm still single and expect and hope to remain that way. Eight years later I was in the snack bar of the Worms Germany PX as I was down there as a Tech Rep with Univac at the Army's Comm Center and this guy walks up to me. He asked if my name was Ron Knief, I said I was and I wondered who the hell he was and how he knew me. Turned out he was the GI that gave my girl friend the ride to Frankfurt. I saw him a total of 2-3 minutes at the time as he helped get my girl friends bag out of the trunk and we shook hands at the curb. The guy said he had the reputation of having a fantastic memory - he made a believer out of me!
I managed to tour virtually every corner of the UK when I went back to England in 1976-1978 and worked for International Computers Ltd. I had a company car and USED IT! I think there were only 2 or 3 counties I missed outside of Northern Ireland. Two in Wales and 1 in the far north above Aberdeen Scotland. I loved that country and the people.
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