Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Basic Training |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Basic Training


National Service was designed to turn boys into men and make the Yellow Peril think twice about moving south. It was universally known as Nasho — a typically Australian diminutive. Once you were in it, four years went by before you were out of it: there was a three-week camp every year, plus numerous parades. But the most brutal fact about Nasho was the initial seventy-seven-day period of basic training, most of which took place at Ingleburn. Each new intake of gormless youth was delivered into the hands of regular army instructors who knew everything about licking unpromising material into shape. When we stepped off the bus at Ingleburn, they were already screaming at us. Screaming sergeants and corporals appeared suddenly out of huts. I stood clutching my Globite suitcase and wondered what had gone wrong with my life. While I goggled at a screaming sergeant, I was abruptly blown sideways by a bellow originating from somewhere behind my right ear. Recovering, I turned to face Ronnie the One.

His real name was Warrant Officer First Class Ronald McDonald, but he was known throughout the army as Ronnie the One. Responsible for battalion discipline, he had powers of life and death over all non-commissioned personnel and could even bring charges against officers up to the rank of captain. His appearance was almost inconceivably unpleasant. A pig born looking like him would have demanded plastic surgery. His brass gleamed like gold and his leather like mahogany, but the effect was undone by his khaki drills, which despite being ironed glass-smooth were perpetually soaked with sweat. Ronnie the One dripped sweat even on a cold day. It was not just because he was fat, although he had a behind like an old sofa. It was because he was always screaming so hard. At that moment he was screaming directly at me. ‘GED YAHAHCARD!’ Later on a translator told me that this meant ‘Get your hair cut’ and could generally be taken as a friendly greeting, especially if you could still see his eyes. When Ronnie was really annoyed his face swelled up and turned purple like the rear end of an amorous baboon.

For the next eleven weeks I was running flat out, but no matter how fast my feet moved, my mind was moving even faster. It was instantly plain to me that only cunning could ensure survival. Among the university students in our intake, Wokka Clark was undoubtedly the golden boy. Already amateur middleweight champion of NSW, he was gorgeous to behold. But he couldn’t take the bullshit. What happened to him was like a chapter out of From Here to Eternity. They applauded him in the boxing ring at night and screamed at him all day. That summer the noon temperature was a hundred plus. Ronnie the One would take Wokka out on the parade ground and drill him till he dropped. The reason Wokka dropped before Ronnie did was simple. All Ronnie had on his head was a cap. Wokka had on a steel helmet. The pack on his back was full of bricks. After a few weeks of that, plus guard duty every night that he wasn’t boxing, even Wokka was obeying orders.

You couldn’t fight them. Even the conscientious objectors ended up looking after the regimental mascot — a bulldog called Onslow who looked like Ronnie’s handsome younger brother. It was like one of Kenny Mears’s games of marbles: nobody was allowed not to play. I could appreciate the psychology of it. The first task when training new recruits is to disabuse them of the notion that life is fair. Otherwise they will stand rooted to the spot when they first come up against people who are trying to kill them. But my abstract understanding of what was going on impinged only tangentially on the concrete problem of getting through the day without landing myself in the kind of trouble that would make the next day even more impossibly difficult than it was going to be anyway.

Something about my general appearance annoyed Ronnie. There were a thousand trainees in the intake but I was among the select handful of those whose aspect he couldn’t abide. I could be standing in a mess queue, Ronnie would be a dot in the distance, and suddenly his voice would arrive like incoming artillery. ‘GEDDABIGGAHAD!’ He meant that I should get a bigger hat. He didn’t like the way it sat on top of my head. Perhaps he just didn’t like my head, and wanted the whole thing covered up. The drill that I had learned in Boys’ Brigade saved my life. When it came to square-bashing, it turned out that the years I had spent interpreting Captain Andrews’s commands had given me a useful insight into what Ronnie was likely to mean by his shouts and screams. When Ronnie yelled ‘ABARD HARGH!’ I knew almost straight away that it must mean ‘about turn’. Thus I was able to turn decisively with the many, instead of dithering with the few.

On the parade ground Peebles drew most of the lightning. So uncoordinated that he was to all intents and purposes a spastic, Peebles should not have been passed medically fit. But since he had been, the army was stuck with him. After a month of training, when Ronnie shouted, ‘ABARD HARGH!’ nine hundred and ninety-nine soldiers would smartly present their backs and Peebles would be writhing on the ground, strangled by the sling of his rifle. For Peebles the day of reckoning came when he obeyed an order to fix bayonets. This was one of Ronnie’s most frightening orders. It had the verb at the end, as in German or Latin. In English the order would have sounded something like: ‘Bayonets ... fix!’ Bellowed by Ronnie, it came out as: ‘BAHAYONED ... FEE!’ The last word was delivered as a high-pitched, almost supersonic, scream. It was succeeded on this occasion by another scream, since Peebles’ bayonet, instead of appearing at the end of his rifle, was to be seen protruding from the back of the soldier standing in front of him. After that, they used to mark Peebles present at company parade every morning but lose him behind a tree on the way to battalion parade, where he was marked absent.

My kit, not my drill, was what got me into trouble. For once in my life I had to make my own bed every morning, without fail, and lay out for inspection my neatly polished and folded belongings. Since the penalty for not doing this properly was to have the whole lot thrown on the floor and be obliged to start again, I gradually got better at it, but I never became brilliant. National Servicemen had to wax and polish their webbing instead of just powdering it with blanco. It was a long process which bored me, and the same fingers which had been so tacky at woodwork were still likely to gum up the job. The problem became acute when it was my platoon’s turn to mount guard. Throughout the entire twenty-four hours it was on duty, the guard was inspected, supervised, harassed and haunted by Ronnie the One. The initial inspection of kit, dress and rifle lasted a full hour. Ronnie snorted at my brass, retched at my webbing and turned puce when he looked down the barrel of my rifle. ‘THASSNODDAGHARDRIVAL!’ he yelled. He meant that it was not a guard rifle. ‘ISSFULLAPADAYDAHS!’ He meant that it was full of potatoes. I looked down the barrel. I had spent half a day pulling it through until it glowed like El Dorado’s gullet. Now I saw that a single speck of grit had crept into it.

In the guardhouse we had to scrub the floors and tables, whitewash the walls and polish the undersides of the drawing pins on the notice board. When we went out on picket we could not afford to relax for a moment, since Ronnie could be somewhere in the vicinity preparing to do his famous Banzai charge. At two o’clock in the morning I was guarding the transport park. It was raining. Sitting down in the sentry box, I had the brim of my hat unbuttoned and was hanging from the collar of my groundsheet, praying for death. I had my rifle inside my groundsheet with me, so that I could fold my hands on its muzzle, lean my chin on the cushion formed by my hands under the cape and gently nod off while still looking reasonably alert. I had calculated that Ronnie would not come out in the rain. This proved to be a bad guess. I thought the sentry box had been struck by lightning, but it was merely Ronnie’s face going off like a purple grenade about a foot in front of mine. I came to attention as if electrocuted and tried to shoulder arms. Since the rifle was still inside my groundsheet, merely to attempt this manoeuvre was bound to yield Peebles-like results. Ronnie informed me, in a tirade which sounded and felt like an atomic attack, that he had never seen anything like it in his life.

The inevitable consequence was extra kitchen duty. I can safely say that I did more of this than anybody else in the battalion. While everybody else was out in the donga learning to disguise themselves as anthills and sneak up on the enemy, I was in the kitchen heading a crack team of cleaners composed of no-hopers like Peebles. The kitchen was as big as an aircraft hangar. All the utensils were on an enormous scale. The smallest dixies would be four feet long, two feet across and three feet deep. Lined with congealed custard and rhubarb, they took half an hour each to clean. The biggest dixie was the size of a Bessemer converter and mounted on gimbals. I was lowered into it on a rope. When I hit the bottom it rang like a temple gong. After the kitchen sergeant was satisfied that the dixie was shining like silver he pulled a crank and I was tipped out, smothered in mashed potato.

It must have been while I was inside the dixie that I missed out on the chance to volunteer for Infantry. That was how I found myself in the Assault Pioneers — the one specialist course that nobody sane wanted to be on, since it involved landmines, booby traps and detonators. In the long run the lethality of the subject proved to be a boon. National Service was winding to an end by that stage — ours was to be the last intake — and the government didn’t want any mother’s sons getting killed at the eleventh hour. So instead of burying mines for us to dig up, they buried rocks. While our backs were turned, they would bury a hundred rocks in a careful pattern. We would move through the area, probing the earth with our bayonets, and dig up two hundred. It wasn’t as glamorous as being in, say, the mortar platoon, but I came to appreciate the lack of excitement, especially after we were all marched out to the range and given a demonstration of what the mortar specialists had learned.

The mortars in question were the full three inches across the barrel — not the two-inch pipes that had little more than nuisance value, but really effective weapons which could throw a bomb over a mountain and kill everything within a wide radius at the point of impact. A thousand of us, including the colonel and all his officers, sat around the rim of a natural amphitheatre while the mortar teams fired their weapons. All looked downwards at the mortars with fascination, except for Ronnie the One, who was down with the mortars looking upwards, tirelessly searching for anyone with too small a hat. Team after team loaded and fired. The bomb was dropped into the mortar and immediately departed towards the stratosphere, where it could be heard — and even, momentarily, seen — before it dived towards its target, which was a large cross on a nearby hill. You saw the blast, then you heard the sound. It was a bit like watching Ronnie having a heart attack on the horizon.

Every team did its job perfectly until the last. The last team was Wokka Clark and Peebles. They had to do something with Peebles. If they had put him in the Pioneers he probably would have bitten the detonator instead of the fuse. It went without saying that he could not be allowed to drive a truck or fire a Vickers machine gun, especially after the way he had distinguished himself on the day everyone in the battalion had had to throw a grenade. (One at a time we entered the throwing pit. The sergeant handed you a grenade, from which you removed the pin. You then threw the grenade. When he handed Peebles a grenade, Peebles removed the pin and handed the grenade back to him.) The safest thing to do with Peebles was team him up with Wokka, who was so strong that he could throw the base plate of a three-inch mortar twenty yards. All Peebles had to do was wait until Wokka had done the calibrations and then drop in the bomb. He must have done it successfully scores of times in practice. He did it quite smoothly this time too, except that the bomb went in upside down.

If you were to rig a vacuum cleaner to blow instead of suck and then point it at a pile of dust, you would get some idea of what those thousand supposedly disciplined men did a split second after they noticed the bomb going into the mortar with its fins sticking up instead of down. They just melted away. Some tried to dig themselves into the earth. Some started climbing trees. But most of us ran. I was running flat out when an officer went past me at head height, flapping his arms like a swan. Ronnie stopped the panic by shouting ‘HARD!’, meaning ‘halt’. The noise could have been the bomb going off, but since it was unaccompanied by shrapnel it seemed safe to pay attention. Everyone turned and looked down. Ronnie picked up the whole mortar, base plate included, shook out the bomb and handed it to Peebles. Silence. Wokka still had his hands over his eyes. Peebles dropped the bomb in the right way up. The mortar coughed. There was a crackle in the sky and a blast on the hill. Then we all marched thoughtfully back to camp.

By now I had made a career out of being a private. Having made the mistake of supplying all the right answers in the intelligence test (since it was exactly the same test that I had been studying in Psychology I, this was no great feat), I was at first put under some pressure to become an officer, or failing that an NCO. But it soon became clear to all concerned that I was a born private. I had revived my joker persona as a means of ingratiating myself with my fellow conscripts. I had no wish to lose their approval by being raised above them. Nor was I morally equipped to accept responsibility for others. But I did manage to get better at being the lowest form of life in the army. I was a digger. I learned the tricks of looking neat without expending too much energy. And although it would have been heresy to say so, I actually enjoyed weapons training. I had the eyes to be good at firing the .303 rifle, but not the hands. Yet I relished being instructed on it. And the Bren was such a perfect machine that there was avid competition to specialize. I never got to the stage of wanting to sleep with one, but must admit that there were times when, as I eyed the Bren’s sleek lines, I discovered in myself a strong urge to fiddle with its gas-escape regulator.

The weapons sergeants were all regular soldiers with combat experience, usually in Korea. There was virtue, it seemed to me, in listening when they talked. They were wise in their craft. Every few intakes one of them got shot by a National Serviceman. None of them wanted to be the one. After surviving a long encounter with half a million glory-hungry Chinese it makes no sense to be finished off by some adolescent pointing his rifle at you and saying, ‘Sergeant, it’s stuck.’ They were particularly careful when it came to instructing us on the Owen machine carbine. This was the same gun I had once carted around Jannali. The Owen cocked itself if you dropped it and shot you when you picked it up. It disgorged fat, 9mm slugs at a very high rate of fire and the barrel clawed up to the right during the burst. If due precautions were not taken, the man on the left of the line would mow down everyone else, including the instructor. The sergeants were very cautious about whom they put on the left, and always stood well to the left themselves. Some of them stood so far to the left they were out of sight. Without exception they refused to let Peebles fire the thing at all. They parked him behind his usual tree on the way to the range and faked his score.

I also enjoyed drill. Einstein once said that any man who liked marching had been given his brain for nothing: just the spinal column would have done. But I wasn’t Einstein. Since most of one’s time in the army is wasted anyway, I preferred to waste it by moving about in a precise manner. It was better than blueing my pay packet at a pontoon game in the lavatories. As fit as I would ever be in my life, I could fling a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle around like a baton. When I was ordered to volunteer as right front marker for the exhibition drill squad, I sensibly said yes. Saying no would have immediately entailed being lowered into the big dixie, so it was scarcely a courageous decision.

The drill squad was one of the star items on the big day. Visiting brass and proud parents lined the parade ground. Dressed in white singlets, khaki drill trousers, gaiters and boots, ninety-nine strapping examples of bronzed young Australian manhood all took their time from me. We looked like an erotic dream by Leni Riefenstahl. Ronnie gave the orders in his usual mixture of Urdu and epilepsy, but by now I could read his mind. Miraculously dry-handed in the heat, I put the .303 through its paces. It was all a matter of not worrying. Just let the body remember. It wasn’t until the routine was over and we were marching off to a storm of applause that the thought occurred to me: they had done it. They had got what they wanted out of me. But on the other hand I had got what I wanted out of them. I had acquired my first real measure of self-sufficiency, which is something other, and quieter, than mere self-assertion, and probably the opposite of being self-absorbed.

That night the whole drill squad was given leave. Blazing with brass and polished green webbing, I got off the train in Sydney after sunset and headed straight for the Royal George, marching an inch above the pavement in my mirror-finish boots. There was a roar of scorn as I entered the back room. Cries of ‘Fascist!’ rose from all sides. But for once I was sure of myself. Nobody looking as unappealing as the Libertarians was in a position to sneer at the starched perfection of my KDs. Johnny Pitts flailed his guitar, launched into a few bars of some barely comprehensible protest song about American militarism and fell sideways. Grogan, saluting wildly, jumped up and down on a table. Once again he was clad in nothing but G-string Speedo and thongs. Spencer was pretending to be dazzled by my beauty. Everyone was in character. It all passed me by, because I had noticed that Emu was not present. Lilith Talbot was unaccompanied.

I suppose it was just my lucky night. Emu, it transpired, was somewhere in the Blue Mountains, hiding from some people who had threatened to dip him by the heels in Hen and Chicken Bay, a part of the harbour much favoured by grey nurse sharks. From the goodness of her simple heart, Lilith told me straight away that it would be a pity if we did not take advantage of this opportunity to complete my basic training. But it could happen only once, and there must never be a word to anyone, or my death would follow shortly upon hers. Did I understand that? Transfixed by the shape of her mouth, I nodded dumbly. We walked out of the room together — a sound tactic, since it looked too intimate to be anything but innocent. And if I couldn’t believe my luck, all those other helplessly doting males would be doing their best not to believe my luck either.

On the ferry to Kirribilli we sat on a bench in the prow. It was a warm night in late summer. The breeze would have ruffled Lilith’s hair if her hair had been less heavy. A junkyard of light, Luna Park spilled ladders of pastel across the water, the Big Dipper roaring like a wounded dragon. Under the deck of the Harbour Bridge, the ultraviolet beacon that guides the big ships through the dark sent out its cobwebs of lapis lazuli above our heads. I made Lilith look up at it. She let me kiss her. I didn’t know it was allowed. I kept expecting a squad of MPs to appear and place me under arrest.

But there was just us. Walking up the hill was like being shown into Olympus by a resident. Everything she had on must have weighed about two ounces all told. A pale-blue cotton dress and a pair of gracile high-heeled white sandals were all that I could see. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, but somehow everything was all right. It went on being all right when we got to her place. Really the house belonged to Emu. It was his one tangible asset. Lilith had a room in it of her own, although even here there were signs of Emu’s pre-eminence. A crate of empty beer bottles against the wall could belong only to him. The same applied to the 16 lb shot on top of the cupboard. In a previous incarnation Emu had been GPS shot-put champion.

Lilith opened the curtains towards where the sun would be when it came up. It seemed that nothing but darkness was there now. But when she turned out the light, there was still enough illumination to reach her. She took her dress off over her head and stood there while my eyes began the long task of getting used to seeing what before they had only imagined. For Lilith, her own beauty was a sufficient reason to exist. I would like to be able to say that we celebrated her loveliness together. In fact I hardly knew what I was doing. She was more tolerant than I was capable of realizing. I had no idea of delay, and would not have been able to do much about it even if I had. It was all too exciting. What an older and wiser man would have made last for hours was all over in seconds. I gave a spasmodic lurch and kicked the cupboard. The shot rolled off the top of it and fell into the crate of beer bottles. I was too pleased with myself to care. Lilith Talbot is among my fondest memories. And you can stop thinking that she’s a figment of my imagination. Of course she is.