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Larry takes it all in his stride after a tough journey through the years
DURING his 85 years, Larry Smith must have run thousands upon thousands of miles in the relative privacy of a gym treadmill.
On Sunday he will run a mere 300 metres through Blackhall Colliery, pounding the streets of a village he has never previously set foot in. But, for once, the eyes of the world will be upon him.
The great-grandfather will be the oldest torch-bearer to carry the Olympic flame through County Durham and will briefly be in the glare of the world’s media spotlight. It is an honour which might make younger men nervous, but Larry remains calm.
‘‘I don’t normally run on roads, but running 300 metres isn’t much of a challenge. I suppose, when I think about it, I’m quite excited inside, but I just take it in my stride.’’ Larry has learned to take much in his stride during his lifetime.
Born in 1927 into a family of six, his childhood was spent in Sunderland during the Depression of the 1930s and he was just 12 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The family lived in White House Cottages in Hendon, right next to the railway lines which led to the docks, and Larry remembers watching the tanks being brought down the lines to be loaded onto convoys for Russia.
His two elder brothers had already been called up and, at the age of 14, Larry had just left school and was working as a delivery boy while waiting for his engineering apprenticeship to start.
That life was to change in a split-second around 11pm on November 7, 1941.
He remembered: ‘‘Sunderland had a pretty bad time, there were regular air raids and when the sirens went we used to scatter.
‘‘But sometimes we wouldn’t go into the shelter and that particular night me and my father stayed in the house while my mother, my older sister, my sister’s friend and my younger brother went down to the shelter.
‘‘I didn’t hear the bomb coming and the next thing I remember is being trapped under the ruins.”
In that moment, his 48-year-old mother Madeline, his 18-year-old sister, also called Madeline, and his eight-year-old brother Edwin were killed. His younger brother William and Madeline’s friend, who was visiting the family at the time, were the only survivors.
‘‘You don’t get over it, you just live with it,’’ he said. ‘‘At 14, I was probably old enough to appreciate the tragedy of what had happened, but not yet old enough to sort yourself out.
‘‘About a year later I went to visit my dad. I knocked on the door and eventually when he didn’t answer I looked through the keyhole. He had his head in the gas oven. He never got over the trauma.’’ ORPHANED at the age of 15, Larry was brought up by his grandmother. He started his apprenticeship as a marine engineer and shortly after the war married Vera, his wife of more than 50 years, and the couple had two daughters.
However his own call-up to the Forces resulted in an early brush with Olympic glory when Larry played an unexpected role in the 1948 London Games.
Several of the Olympic events, including the modern pentathlon and equestrian competitions, were held at Aldershot garrison and Tweseldown racecourse and Larry, then doing his National Service stationed at Farnborough, acted as a marshal at a number of the events.
‘‘Our Sergeant Major came in and said ‘you, you and you, come with me’ and so we went. We were in khaki so you were just a number and did what you were told.
‘‘We spent a couple of days as marshals on the cross country course, guiding the runners around, pointing the direction around the course and general marshalling.
‘‘It was just after the war and it was known as the Austerity Games – I think some of the runners even made their own gear.”
His National Service over, Larry returned to his native North-East and completed his apprenticeship before going on to work in the shipyards and armaments factories on the Tyne. His job involved installing and testing radar, missiles and weapons systems on board new warships and submarines. It was sensitive work at the height of the Cold War, which occasionally meant going out on sea trials as far as Iceland, all the while shadowed by Soviet ‘trawlers’.
In 1972, he moved to Portsmouth on a brief secondment as a station engineer at a naval research establishment, but ended up staying seven years.
During his career, he worked on some of the best known vessels in the British Navy, including HMS Bristol, the Royal Yacht Britannia and the ill-fated Sir Galahad, which found unwanted fame during the Falklands War.
Twenty years ago he came back, setting up home in the village of Pittington, near Durham City, but it was only when Vera passed away – and he was diagnosed as having diabetes – that he took up running.
He said: ‘‘I lost my wife and I was sitting around feeling very sorry for myself. So, for a birthday present, the family bought me membership of a sports club.’’ For the last ten years, he has trained on the treadmill and in the pool at Bannatyne’s Health Club near his home and occasionally at the Abbey Leisure Centre, in Pity Me.
‘‘I go pretty much every day,’’ he said. ‘‘You aren’t necessarily training all the time, a lot of the time you are talking – it’s a social thing, having a chat and a cup of coffee.’’ It was his granddaughter who nominated him to carry the Olympic torch and the news came as a shock for a man who is modest about his achievements and his work for charity.
‘‘I thought it was a tease when I got the letter. It came at Christmas and I thought someone was playing a joke. I can’t see why they chose me, everyone else seems to have done so many things for charity.
‘‘I will enjoy it, hopefully people will have fun and perhaps seeing an old crock like me running at 85 will help people realise what they can do.’’