Mission not so impossible....

Face to Face

By Ruth Badley

Harrogate Advertiser

IT'S a rare sight to catch John Shackleton seated for any length of time - he was repairing !he roof when I rang to arrange this interview and a couple of questions in and he's already perched on the edge of his seat, as if ready for the off.

A live wire at 63, John Shackleton is the father of five grown-up children and to date, eight grandchildren. His second wife Maureen is, like her husband, a bundle of energy, warmth and good humour. The couple are clearly devoted to each other and the household seems a warm and happy place to be.

The ambulance parked in the driveway bearing an “Azerbajan or Bust” slicker indicates John Shackleton is not living the quiet life of retirement - not yet anyway. This is a man with a taste for danger and adventure combined with a strong impulse to 'give something back'.

For the past 13 years John has periodically left the comfort of his own family with the aim of making ordinary fife a little more bearable for needy people in Albania, Romania, Georgia and Turkey.

Working closely with Harrogate Rotary Club and helped by St Robert’s church and many supportive individuals and businesses, he has raised thousands of pounds to purchase second-hand emergency vehicles.

Packed with further donations of warm clothing, blankets, medical supplies, water cleansing tanks and incubators, John and his co-drivers have delivered the vehicles and distributed aid directly to the people who need it

For the duration of the journey the vehicle is a makeshift home for a three-man team - while one sleeps, one drives and the other navigates. The journeys are arduous. tedious and as John's family are only too aware, increasingly dangerous - even for a fit and fearless 63 year-{)ld.

"Of course ifs getting harder as I get older but who said life should be easy? When I see !he joy on people's faces as I hand them a warm jumper, or give a child a teddy bear, the ends justify the means.! have great religious faith and I just know I'm going to be alright. I'm a strong believer that when your time comes, it comes. My mother used to say to me, 'you'll never be rich, you'll be lucky and really, in all these trips, there has never been anything I couldn't handle:

John's knack for diffusing difficult situations was learned in the RAF. After completing his National Service he stayed on and served In the bomb disposal squadron for five years. His job was to disable unexploded 1000 pound bombs scattered over Europe. Those fitted with a liming device could have gone off at any moment

"If it started to lick it was a court martial offence to carry on, but often we did,” he grinned.

Tragedy did enter John's world when he first wife suddenly died at the age of 30 leaving him with three small children. "I was devastated. She was a beautiful girl and we had a wonderful marriage, as I have now. I am so lucky to have fallen in love twice - as I see it, I've had the perfect lfe..


John's ability to instantly connect with people, often through humour has got him out of several scrapes in Eastern Europe. On one occasion stem border guards with guns soon dissolved into helpless laughter when he emerged from an ambulance sporting an artificial leg in true Jake the Peg style.

Another time he was able to pacify a trio of desperate bandits with a pair of spectacles each. 'We were told not to stop under any circumstances but these men approached us with guns and it was a case of stop or be shot at. They could have wiped us out if they wanted but once they saw the box of spectacles and started frying them on I knew what to do. They chose a pair each and we parted the best of friends:

"Being a small bloke helps really because I’m clearly no threat to anyone and I make a point of not putting up a fight in any situation."

John and his fellow drivers were once held up on a mountain in Albania by a large group of local men carrying rocks. "They wanted what we were carrying. We simply stepped back and they emptied the truck. It was October; we had warm clothes, blankets, food and medicines. Their need was as great as anyone we were delivering to."

Despite John's many trips to devastated countries, he never gets used to seeing the misery of people denied the basic necessities of life. "I've seen suffering the majority of people will never see and it has left me mentally scarred for the rest of my life:

Suddenly his eyes fill as he recalls the appalling scenes of everyday life he witnessed in Bucharest in Romania.

"The saddest thing was the Aids babies and knowing as you held them they were going to die. I would return they next day to what they call a hospital - it was just a bare room - and ask about the baby I had held the previous day, only to be told it had died and had been hastily buried. The silence of the mothers and babies in that place was just awful.

"The other dreadful thing on that trip was the street children who live in the sewers - when they come up in the day, people spit at them. And to think some of these horrors are just three hours away from here by plane. 'When you see hardship like that it makes me very mad that people over here whinge about things that don't matter," he added.

The support and understanding of the family has become an increasingly important part of John's readjustment to normal life following such harrowing experiences though the initial impulse to spoil him with treats on his return has had to be curbed. "I am invariably poorly when I return, though never when I am there. It's as if I can't let myself be ill till I come home. There was one time when Mo took me out for a slap-up meal when I came back - several courses with fine wines and I just went mad with her. I just couldn't take it -I was still there in my head and just couldn't accept the luxury of it all. It was awful of me because she was just trying to be kind and she is so supportive of me. Now we take things a bit more gradually after a big trip."

His inspiration to continue his humanitarian activities are found in many of the photographs of the 'innocents' he has encountered. These include a 12 year old in Albania who had lost all his teeth through lack of nutrition but bravely returned John's warm smile and the babies, kept alive in incubators heated by 100 watt bulls.

"We delivered those incubators and a year later we went back to see how they were saving the lives of these tiny babies. I’d say it was one of the most worthwhile things we ever did." Photographs and mementos from his travels are highly prized, particularly the small tokens of appreciation, given to him by people who have so little to give. Hand- painted wooden spoons, badges, hats and drinking vessels all have pride of place in his home.

His lucky mascot, now pinned to his favourite cap is the RAF bomb disposal  squadron badge, bearing the motto: 'Out of evil, innocence'.   The cap and badge accompany him on every trip.