YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, Prelude and Day One.

PRELUDE. For those who have followed my blog from the first entry on A Policeman’s Lot, you will probably realise that my life appeared to have been full of violence. I consider myself to be a quiet unassuming type of bloke who would rather do a good deed, who walks away from conflict only reacting when it is necessary. Yet lurking beneath the surface is this person, someone I don’t really know at all. The following will probably give some insight into why violence followed me, or, did I follow it?

Turning seventeen was indeed a milestone in my life. Leaving school at the primary level to start work when I was thirteen didn’t rate highly on my list of things to do. After being fired from the Woollen Mill for sustaining an injury I worked for twelve months in a service station as a sixteen year old. I had risen up the ladder indeed, of course the service station was a six-mile walk away, definite training for what would be coming. I worked my bum off on that job, one young Lad on an eight pump driveway servicing a major highway and next to the biggest RAAF base in Australia, whew. I’m aching thinking about it. It taught me many things that would set me in good stead: customer service, working a till and some bookwork, dealing with a wide variety of people, learning early that some young women could be the biggest teases when sitting in a car. For those who have read Mountain of Death, Grace teases and flirts with a young attendant while he washes the windscreen, leaving him a hormone soaked wreck. Now you know where it came from. The one thing I did learn that no sixteen year old should have to, and that is how to fight for my life.

The man who owned the service station had his fingers in more pies than a baker. Being an interstate truck stop a huge variety of cargo came through the place. In my time there I was offered the opportunity to purchase amongst other things, .45 Colt pistols, tyres, rifles the list goes on. Naturally he didn’t particularly care about who he hired on as casuals’. I started at 1pm and finished at 9pm. At 6pm a RAAF chap came on for a couple of hours to fill in for meals. The best part about this job was indeed the food. Truckers had huge appetites and the mixed grill could feed a small family: steak, sausage, bacon, tomato, eggs, a lamb chop and toast. I had that every night, hmm. Sitting down to this hearty repast I ignored the beeping coming from the driveway. A customer stood by his car waving, I pointed at the office and went back to my meal. Beep, Beep. Mouth full of steak I trotted out and filled the tank and returned to the office. My relief, let’s call him Boofhead sat out the back drinking beer with the mechanic. I gave him the forks, called him a lazy bastard and returned to my meal.

Back on duty I returned to the front office, the mechanic called me into the store-room where I sat up on a counter with my back against the wall. He nodded out to the driveway, “What was that all about?” – “He’s here to fill in while we eat, not drink beer and leave me to do his work.” (I’ve always had a big mouth.) A little about Boofhead is needed here. His job in the RAAF was that of Air Defence Guard, basically Infantry who guarded airstrips in war zones. He’d served in Vietnam and now spent his time drinking himself to death. His party trick to impress the girls was to crush fruit juice cans in one hand, this was in the day when they were made of steel. My height and built like a tank he didn’t seem to like me. The next thing I know Boofhead appeared in front of me holding an 18-inch screwdriver in his right fist above my head. His face was contorted in rage and I sat there shocked, grasping my throat in his left hand he brought the screwdriver down. Grabbing his left wrist with one hand to try to remove it from my throat I managed to get my left hand around what I thought to be the more dangerous mit. When someone says they hung on for dear life I understand where they are coming from.

I could see the mechanic standing behind him doing nothing, then things got a little hazy. Naturally, he was choking me to death. Not content with choking he bashed my skull against the shelf on the wall behind me. Boofhead made two of me, thank God for adrenalin. I couldn’t stop the choking but I managed to keep him from stabbing me. The mechanic finally grew a set of balls and began to pull him away and I woke up on the floor feeling a trifle ill. End result, the mechanic wouldn’t back me up when I reported it to the local police, “It didn’t happen officer.” They didn’t seem interested reckoning that I was big enough to look after myself. Boofhead found himself transferred and charged for working a second job after my old man got in someone’s ear at the base. There is some justice.

When life gives us murdering bastards, we learn how to kill. (That should have been about lemons and lemonade) My old man, for better or for worse had one thing going for him, he knew how to fight. I should know I found myself on the receiving end of his fists more often than I wanted. When other kids were learning how to play soccer and cricket he was teaching me the art of knife fighting and the rudiments of boxing, choker holds and where to disable your opponent. A week later I found myself at a local hall, two RAAF members with more black belts than you could count ran a Judo/Karate enterprise. For an extra couple of dollars they followed the old man’s request, “Teach him how to street fight.” Twice a week for six months I worked my arse off at the club and practised at home. I think my brothers were glad to see me go into the army.

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DAY ONE. I still have the photo of the day I left to enlist, I will not show it here. The old man decided that I should turn up in long shorts, knee-length socks, sandals and a shirt that looked good on elderly men and a pork pie hat. For those not familiar with this type of hat they are high-crowned with a short brim, this one was made of straw. My idea of fashion in the late sixties and his obviously didn’t match, the younger brothers who would be accompanying me to the city on the start of this great adventure also wore them, the OM didn’t. You may have guessed that he liked to be in control. I had to have a crew-cut the day before, (it didn’t matter, they gave me another one when I go there) and I had been well versed in the art of bed making, how to set out your wardrobe and get up too bloody early. He meant well, I think.

After the waves, hugs and handshakes from the family (my younger brother seemed delighted, he’d be getting my room) I arrived at the recruiting centre, signed up and took the oath then they bussed us to the interstate railway station.  A motley crew indeed and I knew that I would be in for a hard time with the looks and comments about the hat. (Sorry Dad, it went out the window from the train). At this stage Australia was still involved in the Viet Nam war and that’s why I joined. I’d heard all the war stories from the old man and without doubt I wanted some action. Oh the ignorance of children. We were a mixture of National Servicemen (conscripts) and volunteers ranging from 17 to 21 years old so you can imagine the scene when we boarded the train for Sydney. Naturally the army thought highly of their soon to be expertly trained jungle killers and put us in third class. The carriages were OLD, no, ancient. Each carriage had upright seating, then the end had half a dozen six seater compartments that ran off the corridor. These were used by the general public on this trip. The overhead luggage racks were cast iron and the seats came from a factory run by the Marquis de Sade. You get my drift, third class.

It didn’t take long after the trip started for the group to find its footing, it was divided into the rank amateurs – me and another bloke – the more mature, i.e. those over 18 and Doc. He turned out to be a Uni student studying psychology, who decided to get his conscription out-of-the-way and let the army pay for his course. Smart boy. He also turned out to be the only bloke who got laid on the trip. I hated him. There were several cuties in their late teens travelling together in a compartment. Of course Doc had the moves, the scotch and the glib tongue. He looked like Radar O’Reilly from MASH, and by the time we reached Sydney we all hated him. I always thought it something of a cliché in war movies, the smart guy who gets the girls. Doc could play cards as well. You can only sit up in a train seat for so long as it chuffs south through the night. One must sleep, the problem was, where? The carriage floor had been swept in late 1897 and then they missed a bit. The cracked leather upholstery found its way through my shorts and by the time I worked out what had happened, all the overhead luggage racks were full of sleeping recruits. I had a lot to learn.

Thankfully the train ride from somewhere near hell ended in Sydney’s Central station in the early morning. Like the cattle we had become, two Corporals herded us onto Greyhound coaches for the ride down to Wagga Wagga, where Kapooka, one of the Army’s recruit training battalions was located. Oh the bliss, the divine comfort of a coach, naturally Doc and his little gang of new cronies bolted for the back seat. I didn’t care, I had a window seat and a bag of Minties, more bliss. The ride dragged on and we motored into Kapooka after dark. We ambled and groaned off the buses and mingled together in a tangled group of tired wee lads. Then our tormentors for the next 12 weeks descended on us, like avenging angels in olive drab. Their uniforms were starched to the enth degree, boots glistened in the buses’ headlights and they roared. We tripped and fell, cursed and clamoured until they had us in a semblance of three ranks. Most of the soon to be bronzed ANZACS looked like the youths out of Henry Lawson’s poem, The Man from Ironbark – There were some gilded youths that sat along the barber’s wall.
Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all. At least they did in the gloom.

The army is efficient and we all trudged up the stairs of our barrack block, to 1 platoon, A Company on the second floor. We were given our room numbers, dropped our gear on the bare beds and back out into the hallway. At 9 pm after a long, tiring ride they taught us the rudiments of saluting and gave us our regimental numbers. I can still rattle mine off without a thought. A dummy envelope had been pinned to the notice board with a name, Recruit John Bloggs, number – 1234567 and the company address to show us the format for envelopes. (One bloke copied it verbatim with the name and number, then complained for weeks that he hadn’t received any mail from home.) Eventually they let us go to bed, thunk, my head hit the pillow of my hastily made bunk. No dreams only a long dark train ride until I heard a bugle over the loud-speaker. If that wasn’t bad enough the duty corporal came down the hallway yelling and screaming at us to get out of bed, “Grab a sheet, hang onto it and get your arses out onto the parade ground, NOW!” We soon found out that by taking the sheet it prevented you from getting up early and making your bed. They didn’t want thinkers, that would be done for you. After roll call we were informed of what would be happening for the day. A set of jungle greens of varying sizes and a giggle hat had been left in our rooms. Naturally the Corporals had found the biggest and smallest uniforms, then left them in the rooms of the smallest and biggest recruits. I had trousers that ended below the knees and a shirt that Big Arnie could wear, and my giggle hat could have been used to net salmon. These were to be worn after showering and would be our uniform until the cheery and always helpful staff at the Quartermaster store attended to our every need.

I felt like I had fallen into an ant’s nest and scurried around with the rest of them. In our cupboards were a shaving kit and towel, “They’re yours, put your name on ’em or they’ll get stolen.” Then the rush for the ablutions, most of us had never shaved and with the issue razors it appeared if you didn’t have a steady hand you wouldn’t live to learn. Of course Doc sauntered casually around using his Remington electric shaver, tutting at a scene reminiscent of a vampire movie. It also wasn’t the place to be if you were bashful, a tad unnerving being naked in a room full of swinging dicks. We had one recruit who had been back squadded after hurting himself, the man was a godsend and gave us the drum on what we had to do. Breakfast next, what a sight. Imagine a mess hall big enough to seat a thousand men. And as I stood plate in hand, stomach growling it felt like 999 of them were in front of me. Over time men have bitched and whined about army food, I couldn’t complain at all. Toast, coffee, tea, four different cereals, cooked food, usually bacon, sausages, eggs and tomatoes. Squeal. The trouble was, you had to bolt it down, you didn’t sit back and chat over a cuppa discussing the nuances of snags versus bacon. You had a barrack block to clean.

Next week we’ll look at the First Week and the Zen of Dixie Bashing.

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16 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, Prelude and Day One.

  1. Pingback: Laurie Smith (a/k/a L.W. Smith) is my Guest Author and Blogger today: Medium, Healer, Ex Army, Prison, Police and Defence Security – a fascinating Crime writer and Blogger | Jane Risdon

  2. Pingback: YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW. A brief interlude. | laurie27wsmith

  3. liz blackmore

    Great post! I have listened to Randy relay his stories of his stint in the Army. It’s funny how many of you men share the same feelings and aprehensions but never share them DURING the first bit. I hope that someone who is thinking about or recently entered into the service reads this. Thanks Laurie!

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Liz, you are right we don’t share our feelings and such at first. It’s a little like a wolf pack. The jostling for leadership and the first signs of weakness, you’re turned on. Thanks so much for dropping by.
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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  4. Raani York

    This, dear Laurie, seems the perfect introduction to another great blog post series of yours. I love this post and I’m sure I’ll love the coming ones as well!!
    You’re such a GREAT writer!!

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  5. Pagadan

    My father said that when he was in the service (Coast Guard, WWII), the other men complained about the food, but he liked it. (He appreciated it…)

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  6. Jim Sellers

    Thanks for the visuals, Laurie, and many of them. How many years does it take for a frightening – in one case- and tormented -in the other- memory to become a gripping story?
    When I read this I think I’m there with you and then I think, I’m glad I wasn’t.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Jim, I thought I’d put in a bit more humour for a while and there’s more to come. You have a point, after 45 years I can write dispassionately about it, although I can still see that bloody huge screwdriver, yet I still can’t remember his full features. Torment on the other hand seems to stay. I’m glad that I gave you the opportunity to share a little of my life.
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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