Read Irfan Shah’s inspirational story about John Shackleton retirement adventure as The Ambulance Man.
Why couldn’t a 77 year old be this active?
'What had conditioned me to be taken aback by someone going out on an adventure more usually associated with someone half his age? The challenge to people’s perceptions of seniors quickly became a theme that I felt could be explored in a documentary.'
Many Retirees are more active than their parents were, and are excited to reconnect with the adventure and volunteering experience of their youth.
Meet John Shackleton, a mild mannered septuagenarian who drives old ambulances into war zones.....
I had been searching around restlessly for ideas for a new documentary project when I came across John’s story whilst channel hopping one night last year. A five minute piece on a local TV channel gave me a brief introduction to ‘Shack’ and his wonderful work.
This mild mannered 77 year old from a small town in North Yorkshire in England had been buying up old ambulances, filling them full of medical supplies and driving them into war zones, disaster areas and other places of great need.
For the last 20 years, John has gone on 44 of these incredible adventures, travelling to places such as Kosovo, Afghanistan and Georgia, crossing continents, dodging armed insurgents and delivering much needed medical supplies to the innocent victims of bloody conflicts and natural disasters everywhere.
It seemed such a winning idea for a doc – and as John lived 40 minutes from me, it seemed a no brainer – and so the idea for The Ambulance Man was born.
The Ambulance Man is a real life road movie which will follow John on his new trek across to Ukraine in May 2016, and will splice together footage of his travels with interviews from his friends and family.
One thing so inspiring about Shack was the verve and the energy he displayed, sweeping me and my producer into his house and showering us with hospitality and anecdotes, before rushing off an hour later to another appointment somewhere else. I caught myself feeling surprised by this – but why? Why couldn’t a 77 year old be this active?
What had conditioned me to be taken aback by someone going out on an adventure more usually associated with someone half his age? The challenge to people’s perceptions of seniors quickly became a theme that I felt could be explored in the doc.
Shack has always had an adventurous life – from his mountaineering to his work for the Royal Air Force defusing unexploded Second World War bombs – and retirement had been no barrier to further exploits.
Seeing the conditions of so many people from Eastern European countries, particularly those emerging from Soviet rule, John had been prompted to make the first of what became over 40 trips to various destinations in Europe, and beyond.
For example, John and his team of volunteer co-drivers went to Armenia with a fully-equipped ambulance, and specialised equipment, designed to educate children about earthquakes, three years ahead of an expected disaster.
This equipment included a variation of the game Twister, aimed at showing children how to move their bodies within a confined space, in case they became trapped in rubble. The ambulance was donated to charities there and Shack and co made their own way back to England – a process which over the years has seen John do everything from hitch-hiking to riding mules to the nearest airport.
His longest and toughest trip was in 2007 when he and one fellow driver took an ambulance all the way over to Nepal, a journey which saw them witness many terrifying incidents such as arson attacks and the unwelcome attention of wild dogs and tigers.
Conditions were grueling – bad roads meant that the back bumper and tyres were torn to shreds and the drive saw them experience areas of political unrest where they were under a constant threat of attack
"I'll be honest with you” he told a local newspaper on his return
'This trip has been the worst journey yet. It's been very tough. At the moment, I'm thinking 'never again'. But give me a fortnight and I'll be fine!
We had to deal with so much. I've never seen such poverty.”
John is indefatigable. And it’s that spirit of retirement adventure that we will be trying to capture for the doc. And this spirit isn’t just displayed whilst on the road; it’s something you sense whenever you talk to him. And more than that, there is the hard earned wisdom that he’s accrued over the years, and that I believe will make his adventures easier not harder. He has a sense of context that has come with having got through some pretty tough times – his advice to me was that most obstacles that we’ll meet on the trip will be overcome with a prayer and a smile. And I believe him.
And I’ve no doubt that I am going to learn a lot that I simply wouldn’t learn from someone half his age. You can find out how we all progress at www.facebook.com/theambulanceman Consider this an invitation to meet a very special man.