20th July 1969. One of the defining moments of the twentieth century. However, I seem to have missed it. The moon landing was one of those news items where you are supposed to remember where you were when it happened, like JFK’s murder or Winston Churchill’s funeral. Except that I can only guess with hindsight what I might have been doing at the time.
The first footprints of a human on an extra-terrestrial body were televised all over the world and seen by an audience of perhaps two billion. I did not have a television; somehow I missed the event. Perhaps it was faked; perhaps all those people were duped.
I was twenty years old and my first year at Leeds University had ended a month previously. I was living in the house I shared with two other students. It was a very small terraced house in a row of about ten in a cobbled street that went nowhere, ending in a patch of grass surrounded by high walls, an incongruous oasis in that red brick desert.
Despite the technological advances which would put two men on the moon, our primitive house did not have a fixed bath and the toilet was in a shed outside. The landlord eventually installed a bathroom but at the expense of my bedroom which was reduced to the width of a double bed.
With the term’s work over, and my student grant spent, nearly three months of leisure and utter penury awaited me. There was little prospect of a job. Despite the relatively full employment of the 1960s, many businesses slowed down during the summer. Some even closed completely as their workers trooped off en masse to their traditional boarding house holidays in Scarborough, Skegness or Blackpool.
There must have been several hundred students scrambling for the few jobs available. It was not difficult for the presentable ones but I was scruffy and hairy; I would not be a suitable front of house or office worker. I considered the possibility of leaving the city for agricultural work but eventually it came to me. A minibus would turn up early in the morning at a road junction in the Hyde Park area where many students lived in the half-empty terraced streets.
The chosen few would be taken to Union Cold Storage, a food refrigeration processor in south Leeds. There we would wait for lorries to arrive from Lincolnshire where they had been loaded with the newly ripened harvest of garden peas. My job was to inspect them as they flowed past me on a conveyor belt, picking out the remnants of stalks, twigs and pods. I had no idea where they had been before me, or even where they had been podded. Nor did I know where they went after me and my colleagues but I assumed they disappeared into a deep freezer.
Mind destroying work but the money was good, especially when you could do double shifts. On one shift, I spent eight hours holding a ladder, a rudimentary health and safety role, on guard for maintenance workers clambering on the roof. The work was intense but it would end soon, once all the peas were ripened and had been picked. Between us we probably processed a high percentage of the UK supply of frozen peas for the coming year.
It was all over within two weeks. But I had earned enough money to pay my rent over the summer vacation and enough to buy a one-way flight to Italy.