I suppose it's because I have so much time on my hands these days, that all these memories come flooding back to me.
It was way back in 1970 when my ship was at Rosyth Dockyard having a small refit prior to going away for a two stint in The Persian Gulf. With this in mind we all took full advantage of any weekends clear of duty to go home, if we could afford to pay for the travel that is. I was lucky, as there was a clearance diver who was based at Rosyth who had a car and a girlfriend who lived up in Inverenss. So it only cost me half the petrol money and I was only twenty six miles from home when he dropped me off on the outskirts of Inverness.
One particular weekend sticks in my mind, for all the wrong reasons. It was March and the weather at Rosyth that Friday dinner time was quite pleasant. So I just put on a pair of jeans with a denim jacket, packed my usual weekend stuff into my hold-all and tied a spare sailors hat to the handle, as this often helped me to get a lift along the last twenty six miles of my journey home.
We set off in good spirits at one thirty in the afternoon, both looking forward to our weekends leave. The drive North in those days took around three and a half hours as this was long before the new A9 was ever built. It was a treacherous road then even in good weather, full of twisty bends and could be very frustrating if you got stuck behind slow traffic as there were not a lot of overtaking spots. The bloke who owned the car had already been involved in a nasty accident just a few weeks prior to this and I was unfortunate enough to be with him at the time.
It had happened on our return in the very early hours of the Monday morning. We were only a few miles from the dockyard when he fell asleep on the only stretch of motorway that there was on the whole journey. I had been feeding him coffee and jokes all the way down in an effort to keep him awake. I think it was because we were so close to the journeys end that I must have relaxed in my efforts, and the next thing I knew we were up on the embankment heading straight for the concrete support of a flyover!
I must have woke him up when I shouted 'look out'. He came to and just - with seconds to spare - managed to miss the upright, but this turned the car over and we slid back on the motorway on our roof. It slid right across the three lanes and smashed into the central barrier.
Luckily the motorway was quiet at that early hour of the morning and we didn't hit any other traffic. We both managed to crawl clear just before his car burst into flames. In fact this was the first time I had travelled with him since that accident as he had been waiting for his insurance claim to come through.
We were discussing the subject of his claim while driving North and then we noticed that the weather was worsening the further we drove. In fact what started out as a nice clear spring day was fast becoming a white-out blizzard! Yet, even as we kept going, neither of us even thought of turning back. Visibility was becoming so poor we could not even see the front of the car we were in! The snow was coming in on us so fast that the wipers could not keep up. Still we kept going ahead, all be it at crawling pace. We passed a few cars that had given up and pulled over into lay-byes. I remember us both saying that was not a good idea as it would not be long before hypothermia would set in once the car engine had been off for a while. I took a stock of what survival gear we had with us in the car while he kept driving and we were ok for blankets and food and we even had a flask of coffee that I had brought with me - probably remembering my last trip in his car! Anyway we just kept going into it.
Eventually we came to the outskirts of Inverness, some four and half hours later. I grabbed my hold all, confirmed with him my pick up time on the coming Sunday night and he drove away. I started to walk towards the A96 junction where I usually got a lift no problem. This day was different. It was blowing a gale, the blinding snow slowed me down and it was not long before I was soaked through and shivering. I kept on walking, I knew I had to, I remembered my training while with the mountain rescue team a few years earlier. I kept looking behind me, but no cars were coming. I was beginning to wonder if the road had been closed ahead of me and I never knew. The whole situation seemed impossible; it was like a different planet from what it had been earlier that day.
I kept walking trying hard to keep to the side of the road, but with all the wind and snow it was hard to see where the road actually was.
I was now totally convinced that the road was indeed closed, as I had now been walking for over an hour and never saw a single vehicle in either direction. Fear hit me just like the cold had earlier. I now knew that I just had to keep going and walk the whole twenty six miles home. It was just a matter of convincing myself that I could do it, although I knew deep inside that my chances were not good. For a start I was wearing the wrong clothes and was already shivering. I knew if I sat down and rested that I would be finished, but I was feeling ever so tired and had no idea just how far I had walked already. So I kept going, singing songs to myself and kept telling myself that I could do it. By trying hard to remember all the survival tips that I had learnt earlier, basically all I was doing was keeping my brain busy so that it could not tell me just how cold I really was.
Then I came to a wide open area that I knew, so now at least I had a fair idea as to just where I was. It was six miles to Nairn - I knew this because I had driven this road so many times before. My heart was pumping and I knew that if I could just walk the next six miles I would be safe. But six miles in those conditions, in my present condition, who was I kidding? All I had to do was keep walking but every step I took seemed to be smaller than the last one. I began to remember all the stories that the survivors had told us while I was doing mountain rescue. Along with all their feelings and frustrations, it was as if they were talking to me, urging me on. God knows I needed something to keep me going! Then I just fell. I remember thinking just how comfortable it was, to be lying down in the snow, at ground level, listening to the wind as it howled over me.
I knew I should get up but I just didn't have the strength, it seemed easier just to lay there. This was the worst part, the part I knew was coming. I had been told of this content feeling that sets in round about this time, by earlier survivors. It took all the strength I had to do it, but I got up and staggered for a bit. Then I saw a light coming from behind me. It was a car! It was all over the place as if it was looking for the road and soon I was in the lights. I just prayed to God that the driver would see me and not just drive by.
The driver did see me and, thankfully, stopped right beside me. The funny thing was I couldn't even open the door I was so cold. The driver leaned over and opened it for me and I climbed in. The first thing that hit me was the heat and the silence, as all I had heard for the last few hours was the howling wind in my ears. It took a while for me to adjust; I could see the drivers lips moving, yet I couldnt hear a word.
After a short while I came round and started to answer his questions about the road ahead and just how long I had been walking. It turned out that he was a travelling farm impliment salesman and had been at a farm house most of the day so didn't know that the road had, indeed, been closed behind him. As I began to warm up and regain my sense of direction, I was able to tell him about the road as we drove along - where the corners were, junctions and other information. It turned out that he was heading for Aberdeen but I told him that, if we were lucky enough to reach Forres, he would be better off staying the night. The road was only driveable as it was so close to the sea, but once you pass Forres the road goes inland and the weather would be worse, a local fact that I had learned in my youth.
In fact conditions were improving all the time as we drove and when we reached Nairn the road was passible. So we kept going and headed for Forres. It took a lot longer that normal as, although the road was passable, it was still treacherous. I was ever so relieved when we rounded the corner at the Findhorn Bridge and I saw the light at the top of Nelsons Tower, a well known landmark. We had made it and even though I was still shivering, soaking wet and exhausted, I was smiling.
When we got to my parents house, which was a guest house, I told my parents that George, my saviour, was staying the night and there would be no charge! After I had a hot bath and a change of clothes, I took George across the road for a well earned drink! My parents knew that I always had a drink when I got home, even though they did not really approve of alcohol, but this was indeed a special occasion.
During the rest of my weekend's leave I received a phone call from my mate the diver, who told me that all roads South were closed as were all rail routes. This meant that we had to contact our own ships and inform them of the situation, in case we got charged for being AWOL1.
So it turned out to be a small bonus for us both as we were both granted a further three days leave until normal services were resumed! I must admit this was great news for me as I would have hated to go through all that for just two nights at home.