I suppose it's because I have so much time on my hands these days, that all these memories come flooding back to me.
Sunday Morning Races
It always amazes me when I think back to these days as to how seriously we took our Sunday morning cockroach races. I remember that they would even swap watches with their mates just to attend them, and the betting was heavy as well at times. It was even normal for fights to break out if the race had an unlikely winner. The mess deck table would be cleared, and the lanes all measured and laid out with cigarette packets. Then all the competitors would arrive to our mess with their 'runners' tucked up neatly in their boxes.
The buzz of excitement would build up as race time drew near, this of course was annoying to any one who was trying to sleep after being on one of the night time watches, and the occasional shout of 'Shut up' - or words to that effect - would ring out, and the noise would drop suddenly. The atmosphere would be thick with cigarette smoke which made the stale air smell worse.
The race itself was always held in the mess square, a small open area for communal gatherings, so any watch keepers who normally slept within that area would swap bunks with some one in order to try and get some sleep.
Then, once everyone had registered, the race would commence. Heavy betting was placed on the outcome, so it was quite common for the noise to reach fever pitch during the race itself. This, of course, would wake all the people who were trying to sleep so, in the end, they would give up on their attempts for sleep and get up to watch the race. The rules were quite simple; the first cockroach to cross the finish line was the winner. Any roach that left its lane and climbed over the cigarette packet was disqualified immediately. However, if it went back on track before reaching the top, it was allowed to continue. The build up of noise during the race and especially towards the end of it, was tremendous. So we had to place a lookout at the bottom of our mess deck steps in case any unwanted guests could hear us from the Burma Way1.
I suppose looking back on it now, it was a silly little pastime yet, at the time, it was a great release for us as we would spend many weeks on patrol, being called to action stations at all times both day and night. This was wearing us down due to the lack of sleep and hot meals. Over a period of time any kind of release was needed as an atmosphere would build up on the mess and, at times, you could actually feel the tension. This would be made even worse if we never got a mail drop; then tempers would flair up at the drop of a hat. It's funny when you think back on some events in your life. We always seem to want to recall all the good times, and put the bad memories to one side and forget them. Yet they are still there, like data on your computer, they are the hidden objects. The ones that bring a smile to your face when you recall them are the good ones, and the bad ones are the when you wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and shaking.
I believe, even to this day, that our Sunday morning cockroach races saved our sanity. I mean, can you really imagine a group of full grown adult men getting all excited and even betting money on the outcome of a cockroach running across a table? A few years ago I would have said no way yet, after being there, living it and going through it, then my answer is yes.
No matter where you are on this planet or how educated you are, whether you are from a rich or poor family, if you are crammed into a small area where you live, work and sleep amongst a group of strangers for a long period of time your attitude and opinions will change. Some make good from the experience and use it as a bench mark to compare lifestyles. Others try to forget it altogether, as if it never happened, too ashamed to admit that they once got excited over a silly little cockroach race. They are the sad ones.