Out of all three Permanent Vehicle Check Points, I preferred Alpha. This was set in the village of Bessbrook by a Presbyterian Church and an RUC Station. We’d walk out of the base. Well, we’d bimble out really – it would be 7 or 8 in the morning and we’d rack our brains for a route we hadn’t taken before. There’s only so many ways you can get to the Check Point without retracing a path someone else had already done. Patterns were difficult to avoid. We’d bimble out, because we were mid way through the tour and nobody had been hit, attacked or even verbally abused. They were pretty civil here in Bessbrook in the early 90s. You’d see the milkman go about his rounds, he’d give you a nod and a ‘morning’, and carry on. If we were lucky we’d get to see the sunrise over the mountain in the east, tendrils of light catching the corners of Bessbrook’s building. I’d be enraptured by the beauty of the morning light and then I’d get a quick whistle to catch up.
I liked the PVCPs for many reasons, much like the sangar duties, they were times of reflection and from a teenager’s point of view I had much to reflect on. There were girls I’d been writing to, the change in teams and I’d wanted to gain qualifications.
Mick Metcalfe was my new team commander, third time lucky, I guess. The second change from Team Commander Bill Waller was my call as I couldn’t stand another day with him, and he with me. I think he would have lost his mind had I been with him the rest of the tour and I can always remember him asking if I’d been sent to test him. I can always laugh about it now.
Mick radioed the Ops Room and did his handover with the off coming crew of the PVCP. I was on rear sangar and went through the inventory checks of usually stuff. There was no GPMG in the rear sangar, however there was one in the front. That was where Red (Redhead) had been sitting with his coffee one evening the previous month. Mick, now a Team Commander, had been on the Check point that evening with John Husband. Red was in the front sangar, nearest the RUC station when he’d spilt his coffee and jumped in reaction to an explosion of noise. It was quick, abrupt and rattled the bullet proof glass.
“FUCK!!” He shouted and screamed as his coffee began to burn his legs. He stumbled and fell back, put his hand out and stopped himself from crashing to the floor. Wait? Was that John? John! Screaming? Someone was screaming outside.He slid the bolt open and swung the door open, and then remembered something. His gat. He grabbed it and then lurched outside. “John! John! You alright? What the fu-...” He stopped. He could hear shouts in quick succession and the sharp, unmistakable sound of the cocking of rifles. John Husband and his team mates were pointing their weapons past him up Church Road to where the noise had come from. “Hello Zero this is Checkpoint Alpha, Contact, No Casualties. Wait. Out.” When John finished this he began yelling to Sloth at the rear sangar not to let anyone out. peered out to the front and quickly knelt down. He could see a haze of smoke wafting down the street toward the street light. Something had gone off. A bomb? He heard a car rev its engines, stall, re-start and then drive off. “Can you see anything!!?” John shouted to Red. “No. A lot of smoke and a car’s just fucked off.” “Stay there. Mick – stay here.” Together John and Ted walked 10 metres apart to the junction ahead. Church Road ended here at where Convent Gardens joined Abbey Terrace. It was here they saw the debris on the road. Sloth went on to the road. “Don’t touch anything!” “Don’t fucking worry John.” It had been drilled in to them, the soldiers, not to touch anything as it was likely to be booby trapped. “Got any mine tape, John?” Red asked as they were lit up from a maglite torch. A guy in a grey black uniform and peaked cap approached them. RUC. “Fucking INLA,” he said. “Useless cunts couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.” “Eh?” “We saw it on the camera,” the policeman said, “Got the fucker’s VRN. Traced to a M O’Donhue of Crossmaglen, not traced. Obviously stolen. The cunt that got out was gonna throw a grenade at youse.” “The explosion?” “The wee daft cunt dropped it and picked it back up and it went off in his hand. Serves the fucker right. Now he’s a member of the Red Hand Commandos.” The RUC man sniggered.
And that was that. The only real contact 88 Battery got in their Bessbrook tour. The culprits went straight to Newry Hospital where they were later arrested by the RUC. The cheeky fucker had the gall to say it was a British grenade and claim compensation. He hadn’t been INLA, but IPLO after all; the Irish People’s Liberation Army. Here’s the clipping from the local newspaper (credits go to the front sangar man for the clipping and the correction of names. Thanks Red.)
I was in the mill when I heard the explosion and to me it sounded like a shotgun going off. I didn’t think anything of it, but the next day I took part as a satellite patrol in giving security to the clearance Op on the junction the next day. From what I heard it was either the Battery Commander or the Battery Captain who puked at the sight of 2 severed fingers being pecked at by hungry crows.
At the PVCP you’d rotate your jobs, so it wouldn’t become too repetitive. One of the jobs was in the centre sangar and you’d check the cars coming in to the village.
I put my hand out and signalled for the car to stop. Slinging my rifle to my back I peered in. An unshaven driver blinked at me.
“Good morning. And how are you today?” I’d get different reactions to this question. Some just blind hated you for what you stood for. In some of their eyes it was an enforcement of ‘Foreign Policy’, but for many it was a way of life. Some of the ‘Players’ if you happened to get one were really pleasant to your face – they new if they were cunts they’d be pulled out and searched etc. And some were just plain nasty. You’d know you had someone special when you got a ‘PAXREP’ code on the radio and you’d have to check everybody in the car. The PAXREP would come from the VRN (Vehicle Registration Number) check and it would link to the owner of the car, who, sometimes wasn’t the driver. So if a driver had bought the car of somebody who had links to the paramilitaries then he’d have a shit time.
“I’m very well, thank you. Lovely day, isn’t it?” The driver smiled showing a Gold tooth and a set of yellowing front teeth.
“Got your driving license there?” I asked and the driver fumbled for his license, which wasn’t in a wallet, but in the dashboard amongst a load of paper. The car was a mess inside. He fished it out and handed it to me, flashing the gold tooth.
I walked a few paces away and did a ‘Plate Check’. My hand brushed my combat jacket pocket and I felt the mints. Mints? Ah.. yes. The mints!
I turned and smiled at him. Took out a mint and place it on the bonnet of the car.
“We’ve got to give it 30 seconds.”
The driver sat up and peered over the steering wheel at it. He wasn’t tall, I’d gathered that. “Wh… what’s that?”
“If it turns brown then we’ll need to search your car. For your safety.”
“It looks like a mint,” he said.
“I know. It’s a chemically tipped tablet that reacts to other chemicals.” I looked at my watch. Thirty seconds was up. “That’s it. Looks okay to me.” I took the mint and handed back his driving license.
I did that a few times with hilarious results, but the best one was the Satellite prank. I’d get the driving license and hold it to the sky. When asked what I was doing I said I was getting the details checked out by the overhead satellite. Some of them believed me as well.
At PVCP Charlie, which was at the other end of the village we would recognise the regular people who’d come in to the village in the early hours of the morning. Many of them were commuters from Newry and were managers of businesses in Bessbrook. One of them was the manager of the Spar shop. I argued with him that the Spar’s Jelly Babies weren’t as good as the Berty Bassett version. He disagreed and vowed to prove it. Lo and behold the next day he brought a bag of Spar Jelly Babies which I ate on my 12 hours off that day. The following morning I told him they were just as good and no different. That was the way it was for 90% of the folk coming in and out of the village, just your average joe public wanting to get about their lives with as little impact as possible. In Bessbrook that proved to be difficult due to the incessant drone of helicopters. It was, after all, the busiest Heliport in Europe.