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Returning home for good a smart move

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Guitar man: Lionel Young set off for England as a teenager in 1950 to finish his apprenticeship as a carpenter at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

In his fifties, Lionel Young was running half-marathons and racing in 10Ks — he thought he was fit.And then one day, while cleaning up his kitchen, he felt a strange twinge in his ankle.He passed out. When he woke he was in the Intensive Care Unit of King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.Doctors there, unable to tell what was wrong with him, sent him to Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston.“They decided I’d had a spinal infarction,” the 86-year-old said.“It was something like a stroke. They thought a blood clot had travelled from my ankle and got so far and then dissolved. But in travelling it damaged all the nerves in my leg. I couldn’t do anything. I was helpless.”His years of running aided a fast recovery. Over a period of many months, Mr Young worked his way back to good health. Forced to give up on running, he turned to the gym.“You just have to persevere,” he said. “The lady at the gym said I didn’t need to do a lot of heavy lifting. She suggested just doing stretching exercises. I try to keep active.”He grew up in Bob’s Valley, Sandys. “When I was about 11, my mother, Anita Young Welsh, married and moved to St George’s,” he said. “I cried. I didn’t want to move to St George’s. I was a Somerset boy.”His aunt, Emily Herbert, took him in and he visited his mother on weekends.“Aunt Emily used to take in clothes to wash for people,” Mr Young said. “She taught me how to iron them. And when I came home from school I couldn’t just go out to play. I had chores, like weeding the garden and feeding the hens.”At 15, he joined an apprenticeship programme at Dockyard that schooled boys in such trades as carpentry, engineering and electrical work.Mr Young picked carpentry because his uncle was a carpenter, but after a year the programme ended. The boys were offered the opportunity to finish their apprenticeship at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth, England. His aunt said “no”. “I wasn’t like kids today who have been exposed to so much,” Mr Young said. “I was just a young fellow who didn’t know that much. My aunt said ‘you can’t go, you’re not old enough. You can’t look after yourself’. I was upset, because most of the other boys were going.”Hattie Gilbert intervened. She convinced his aunt that going to England was a good opportunity and she organised dances and concerts to help him and two other boys pay their way. Mr Young still remembers the day they left: September 10, 1950.“Our parents were all there,” he said. “We were all crying. We left on the tender and were sailing away. We could see them in the distance waving and waving. After that we just had to settle in and hope for the best. I was with 49 other boys.”He opened his suitcase and discovered his aunt had left a notebook on top of his clothes. “In this exercise book, she had lovingly written pages and pages of reminds like: make sure your shoes are always clean and don’t forget to wash under your armpits,” he said. “She was making sure I followed her rules. Sometimes she was hard on me, but I appreciated it. We were very close.” He had packed his guitar for the trip. Although he claims he was not very good, he and several other Bermudians played together as the Bermuda Quartet and The Portsmouth Melody Makers. They performed calypso standards at parties and dance halls across Portsmouth and in December 1952 took second prize on The Carroll Levis Discovery Show, a talent competition on BBC Television. He still has a receipt for their prize money: £16 8s — an astronomical sum considering the Dockyard was paying him £2 19s 2d a week.“I wasn’t a good player but I knew enough to amuse myself,” Mr Young said. “We used to have fun between us. ”After five years he returned to Bermuda. “When I first came home there was nothing happening and no work,” he said. “All the girls I had known had children. I had left a girlfriend in England, so I was ready to go back. My mother talked me out of it.”He met his future wife, Josiane, while visiting a friend on Tills Hill, Pembroke. “When I went to his house there were these people sitting outside his house talking,” he said. “Josiane was sitting on the wall. She was a pretty girl.”He started talking to her and even got up enough courage to ask her to a movie. She shot him down. A few months later he spotted her walking down Angle Street. “I stopped her and I said, ‘I was going to take a chance and go to your house,’” he said. “Of course, I was just saying that. She said, ‘You were coming to my house? Let’s go then.’ I said, my God ... my heart started thumping. “She introduced me to her family. Her father was a big, tall man. He was very serious. He asked who my parents were. That started the ball rolling and I never went back to England.”They were married on June 27, 1957, and have three children — Marisa Sharpe and Derek and Allan Young. Mr Young got a job in construction but it only lasted a few years before he was laid off. In his search for something more stable he landed a job with Customs, the third black man to become an agent. “A lot of the boys in the Dockyard Apprenticeship scheme ended up with other jobs,” he said. “Life was different then and you had to find a way to make yourself money and set yourself up. “I was able to get a decent wage working in Customs. I became principal officer. I got seconded after about 15 years to Immigration — they used to work hand in hand. When I finished my career I was officer in charge of the airport.”

Distant memories: Lionel Young with newspaper articles about the Dockyard apprentices (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Send off: Hattie Gilbert, centre, with the Dockyard apprentices she helped send to England. Lionel Young is second from left in the front row
Portsmouth Melody Makers: Malcolm Eve, Raymond DeShields, Brunell Swan and Lionel Young