Red Hill School and me (by Mike Lacey)

I arrived at Red Hill School during the early summer, a few weeks before my 12th birthday. My parents drove me there and dropped me off, leaving after a while and I was alone for, perhaps, the first time in my life and I was homesick; very homesick.

It was not really the first time, although it certainly felt like it; the first time had been a few months before when I had spent a month at a convalescence hospital recovering from the effects of meningitis, an illness that was a milestone in my life. Before meningitis I had been ahead of my peers in school, seemingly without effort. After meningitis I was woefully behind and unable to comprehend much that the rest of my class was learning; I had simply missed too much in the several months away from school that illness had handed me.

As my difficulty was recognized, my mother arranged to take me to tutors, provided by the Council, who were supposed to help me with my missing Maths and English knowledge, I am not sure that they did; my spelling was terrible and maths remained a mystery. I think each visit was about 30 minutes in total and I went twice a week. After a while it was decided that my best chance would be to go to a special school where I could get focussed attention.

Apparently there were two options, the first choice of school did not have an immediate opening and so it was that I went to the second choice; Red Hill.

The school was more a building site than a school when I arrived on 2nd August 1956 (due to construction of the new wing), but it didn't matter that much, I was not interested; it was all very foreign to me and I felt abandoned. Pupils came and went, throughout the summer and I was surprised to realize they smoked actively and swore with considerable fluency; both activities I had been brought up to reject. And the summer dragged on; and I was miserable. The only silver lining on the horizon was school secretary Phyllis Mills who showed kindness and consideration and would give me an encouraging smile.

Even now, as I try to remember, not much stands out from that time, or indeed my whole time at Red Hill. After a while summer passed and lessons started, although lessons were little more than a distraction, to me.

My very earliest memories are of aeroplanes. When I was two, or three, we lived in Aberdeen, or more precisely, Dyce, close to the RAF station there. My dad used to take me for walks around the airfield and I would wave happily at the aircraft, from my pram, as they taxied by around the perimeter track.

At Red Hill, once the school part started, I discovered Andrew 'Foggy' Cleare. Foggy liked aeroplanes too, and made models of them; models that flew, even though some looked as if they wouldn't. There was no place like Foggy's shack at Red Hill; it was, to me, more Aladdin's cave than a shack and I guess I must have bothered Foggy incessantly.

I didn't like the headmaster, Shaw. I don't suppose he liked me either. His only interest seemed to be in asking me about my dreams, or blaming my parents for my situation. I didn't really remember much of what I might have dreamt and if I did, it was none of his business anyway.

As time passed, I became more familiar with Red Hill and made a few friends, friends like John Welch, who seemed kind and I somehow identified with him. Stanley Barr who brought a guitar to school - and I found I wanted to play a guitar too; eventually I did and I was part of the Band that went up to London to play at the music teacher's "real" school. Chris Burkill kindled an interest in electronics and John 'Rookie' FitzSimon an interest in cars, especially the dream of modifying Austin Sevens.

The Matron, MOF, lanced my knee when I had "Housemaid's Knee", but she was not particularly concerned when I fell out of the "Big Fir" and sprained my ankle. Morley Gayton told me about the tides in the Bay of Fundy, little knowing that one day I would go there; he also read Swallows and Amazons and Out of the Silent Planet… PD taught me some English appreciation and in many ways eventually became my mentor, but I never learned anything from Ivor Holland - he expected me to know long multiplication, and I didn't.

After spending the best part of three years in the most Junior class, under PD's direction I advanced 3 classes in one year. Then, shortly after the 1961 Easter Holiday when I was refused a pass to go to London to take part in The Messiah, a presentation I had been practicing in the Easter holiday, I decided to go anyway and sold my radio to finance the trip - I wonder now who bought it.

Sneaking out of the East Attic dorm in the early morning, I made my way to Maidstone and caught the train to London. Getting off at Victoria Station, I was surprised to hear my name called and turned to face - Shaw, who was accompanied by his wife.

"Lacey, what are you doing here?" He demanded.

I must have mumbled something about The Messiah that fell on deaf ears.

"Well, Lacey… don't bother to come back" Shaw instructed as he marched off, leaving me to wonder how he could possibly have been there and how I could explain this turn of events to my parents.

So, ended my days as a pupil of Redhill School; in less than a minute.

Subsequently, perhaps unfairly, I have thought little of Red Hill or the people I had grown to know, and who knew me. As I concentrated on other things the memories faded as time passed, but things that had caught my interest at Red Hill thrived; things like Guitar, Electronics, Mechanics and, of course, Aviation. I remembered Foggy when I built and flew my own aircraft and it was aeroplanes that took me to College in California to study Aeronautics. There, the Professor of the Aeronautics department, Art Scholl, who was also the US Aerobatic Champion, invited me to go to work for him and I entered the world of Aerobatics and Hollywood flying.

Aviation also allowed me to become the top salesman for an American aircraft manufacturer (Beech Aircraft Corporation) in 1989 and 1990 when I worked for Lord Hanson and later for Galaxy Aerospace/Gulfstream in 1999. And when I flew around the world in an Astra SPX, corporate jet, I assumed I was flying in Foggy's footsteps.

In 1987, I was back in the UK and, for reasons that I cannot explain, I drove to East Sutton to see if the school was still there. It was and there was a reunion planned; I went, but do not remember recognizing anyone, except Lawrence Mills, who was still living in Holland's old house. I don't know that he recognized me.

Shortly thereafter, I went back to Canada for another 10 years, returning to England only following the 9/11 World Trade Centre terrorist attack, which stood corporate aviation and my career on its head. In the summer of 2003, not long after returning, I had a phone call. It was John Welch asking, on behalf of Terry Wilson who lived within a few miles of where I had lived in Canada;

"Are you the Mike Lacey who went to Red Hill School?"

I had to admit it was, indeed, me and he then told me about a reunion that was being planned and, thinking it would be nice to see Squish and some of the others who were little more than fleeting figments of memory, I agreed to attend.

I don't know if I would have had the career I have enjoyed, without going to Red Hill; perhaps not. Equally, I don't know that I met the fabled intelligence quotient ascribed to Red Hill pupils; perhaps not. But, I do know that the kindness shown to me when all else was dark and fearful by the school secretary, Phyllis Oliver, who was a little shaft of sunlight at a midnight moment in my life.

Michael J Lacey (September 2009)
RHS 1956-1961

Commercial Pilot
Aircraft Maintenance Engineer
Executive Aircraft Salesman
Winner: Olive Ann Beech Award 1989
Walter Beech Award 1989
Olive Ann Beech Award 1990
Walter Beech Award 1990
Beechcraft Executive Salesman Award, 1991
Galaxy Aerospace Sales Achievement Award 1999