The following account covers the 5 years since leaving the Royal Liberty School and going to Venezuela, with emphasis on events which caused me to decide to emigrate to South America.
After leaving school in 1956, I went to Iceland for 6 weeks with the British Schools Exploring Society. There were six of us from the Royal Liberty School, Mike Elliott, Dave Jeffries, Brian Peaty, Ray Achurch, Wally Norton and myself. Out of a total of 50 boys from all over the UK, to have 6 selected from one school was a record. It was a fantastic experience and included 10 days camping on a glacier.
In October, I started at Queen Mary College, London University, to do a degree course in Mechanical Engineering. During the first term I applied to join the London University Air Squadron, but was turned down, then one weekend at Roomes,a department store in Upminster, there was a recruiting booth for a Hornchurch based TA section that was Airborne. The training was one evening a week, a weekend once a month and 2 weeks a year annual summer camp. The money was good and very welcome on top of my grant. The next Easter I went to the Army Parachute School at RAF Abingdon and did the 8 qualifying jumps to get my wings and Red Beret. This was another unforgettable episode. I had never flown before and my first flight ever in a Hastings required jumping out. The 4th flight was too windy to jump safely so I experienced my first landing. We also jumped from a Beverly which apart from the two side doors had a hatch in the floor of the tail. To exit one just had to step into the hole and let the slipstream carry one away.
After the first year at Queen Mary we were expected to do some on-the-job training during the long vacation which the Uni organised, so I found myself at Shellhaven oil refinery at the mouth of the Thames, for 6 weeks. There was an international group and we all stayed at a Hotel miles from anywhere, with nothing to do in the evenings except play snooker. Across the snooker table I became friendly with 3 dutch engineers from Delpht University. I marvelled at the fact that they could all speak English, German and Dutch fluently, but I only knew written French after 5 years and even then couldn't have a conversation. I secretly resolved to be able to converse in another language and so set of a chain of events which changed my life.
In the september of that year I spent 2 weeks in Paris in a cheap hotel on the 'Boul Miche' and started on the French. The following summer I asked for a vacation job in France and spent 6 weeks on a Shell refinery in Rouen, but before that I hitched-hiked with a schoolfriend down through France to Lyons, then with the train through the Alps to Turin. From there we hitched due east to the coast and down to Bari. From there across to Naples and back up to Paris in time to start the course with Shell. We spent 6 weeks on the road, camping every night and only spent about £30.
During this year I also started Spanish classes at night school in Hornchurh. The 4 years of latin came in useful.
After finals in 1959, four of us rented a "villa" in Benidorm for a month, so we drove down there in an Austin 10. Benidorm at that time was still a fishing village with only a couple of 4 story hotels. I met a frenchman with a beautiful daughter who took us to Alicante where I saw my first bullfight. At nights I used to go to a bar with real flamenco dancing and drank vast quantities of Anis on top of the wine we used to drink at lunch time. In fact it was only years afterwards that I was able to drink anis again. (The latins say that the Anis hangover is the worst) In Venezuela it became fashionable to drink Sambuca which the waiter then set on fire in the glass giving out a lovely blue flame. You had to remember to put it out before drinking! It was during this Spanish holiday that I became attracted to the latin life.
I had already accepted a job with Metropolitan Vickers in Manchester (later AEI) to do a 2 year graduate apprenticeship as a Mechanical Engineer. There was an intake of 40 British an 40 foreign electrical and mechanical engineers and we all got to know each other during the first 2 months in the training school. We then spent periods in various departments around the factory which was located in Trafford Park and had 23 thousand employees. I went through all the departments dealing with the design and manufacture of large steam turbines.
All this time I was under the shadow of doing National Service. The post graduate course gave deferment so I reasoned that as a graduate engineer with 2 years working experience, school cadet and TA experience, I could probably get a short service commission by signing on for 3 years with the airborne engineers and so make the most of it and get a better salary, but to my amazement, national service was cancelled 6 months before finishing my apprenticeship.
As part of our training we were allowed to spend time on an outside project, so I arranged to spend 3 months at Berkeley nuclear power station during its construction. We lived on site and were employed as inspectors, so I ended up inside the reactor inspecting a contractor welding stainless steel piping. The foreman was a great guy and we became friends. He had just returned from working in Peru as a welding supervisor and had married a well-off Peruvian girl and his stories really whetted my appetite for South America.
One morning at breakfast in the camp dining area, one of my pals was reading the Daily Telegraph when he said "Mike, here's a job for you" It was for mechanical engineers to work for an American company in South America! It was a tiny classified advert with a UK phone number. I met the manufacturing director in Manchester when he was on a machinery buying trip and was offered a job with a US textile Co with plants in four South American countries. I would start in Venezuela.
Jenny and I had been going out together for nearly two years and had discussed getting engaged, so we speeded things up and were married in Buxton on October 21st 1961. We had to wait for working visas, mine arrived first so I travelled to Venezuela on the 4th December and Jenny followed just before Christmas. She caught a Panam flight from London to New York which was full of American servicemen going home for Christmas. (In those days there were still large US air bases in the UK).
The plane was a gigantic party, so I was lucky to still have a wife for Christmas.
My contract was for 2 years with 2 months paid home leave at the end. The conditions and life style were so good that we stayed for 35 years. This was probably 10 years too long, but have no regrets.
What happened in Venezuela will be in chapter 2!