The First Week. There is nothing more daunting than fitting in with a variety of people in a closed environment, and like tiny gold nuggets in a pan we all fell to the bottom to congregate with others of our kind. People are drawn to each other whether it’s by personality, geography (where do you come from?) or just lucky enough to get the same room. The army doesn’t waste time, it utilises you for dozens of menial tasks. They have their schedules and while they sort out the course you fill in as storemen, cleaners, kitchen hands etc. Through all of this you are issued with your kit, boots AB, troops for the use of I pair, Trousers Jungle green, shirts the list goes on. “Excuse me Sergeant my boots are too big.” – “Don’t worry they’ll shrink.” – “Excuse me Corporal the shirts you gave me are too tight.” – “It’s okay they’ll stretch.” Believe me they didn’t. Then came, Hat khaki fur felt (KFF) the slouch hat, that iconic piece of kit that makes Australian soldiers stand out from the herd. Naturally they came with a high crown and had to be bashed into shape, this involved the use of hot and cold water. By the time we’d finished the barracks looked like a swim meet.
Yours truly in his slouch hat.
I didn’t realise how bloody stupid we looked marching back from the QM stores with our kit, until I saw the new platoon that marched in the following week. They reminded me of a movie where all of the Indians were trooping back from the trading post, wearing huge hats and carrying their trade goods. Most of the recruits hadn’t met the barber yet, of course being the sixties they all had long hair. The best piece of clothing I thought was the thermal undies that reached halfway down your thighs, very chic indeed. It’s okay being issued with this stuff, keeping it is the hard part. Mistake number one, don’t leave your washing unattended in the laundry, it will be stolen. I mean really, wearing someone else’s skiddy undies, or smelly socks? What happened to that tradition of Anzac mateship? I soon learned, stand guard on ’em.
When the army trains you it does so by numbers, and you have to sound them out. Each drill move works on them and when you were taught to dismiss for instance it went like this: from the halt position, platoon dismiss, 1 you turned to the right and your left heel raised off the ground, 2-3 you paused, 1 you brought your left foot up and jammed it into the ground, pause 2-3, march off three paces. Every movement numbered to perfection. So, when the whole platoon was being taken along between two medics who were giving you your shots for rare, unknown and scary diseases I don’t know why didn’t they like my ; in 2-3 inject 2-3 remove 2-3. Note to self the army had no sense of humour. I must add there was the obligatory fainting by several Recruits who disliked injections. The dentist next, I think he went to the same school as Doc Holliday. Although I imagine looking down the throats of hundreds of strangers without the benefit of having a cute assistant would become a grind.
The barber came in from Wagga a couple of times a week and brought an assistant, he wasn’t cute. They set up shop in the ablutions and wrought havoc on the shining locks of their victims. You had to pay for the benefit of having them ply their trade and they, no pun intended, gave a cut of the profits to the corporal. When it was my turn I ran my hand over my skull, there was just enough hair to stop me being charged. The army didn’t care for baldness, apparently the Queen owned you and she didn’t like baldies, lot’s of luck now Phillip’s lost his. It was considered to be damaging the Queens headgear or some such nonsense. “You’re next recruit.” – “But there’s nothing there.” – “You have to have a haircut, give me your 25 cents.” Sigh. I’ll give credit where it’s due the barber’s offsider, obviously a gun-shearer down on his luck ( not the best sheep shearer in the shed but the quickest ) managed to find a few hairs, although I don’t think there was 25 cents worth. So it went on, the relentless madness that was the army.
I was used to being yelled at, so I fitted in quite well. I did as I was told, when they said jump you jumped. Everything had to be done, no questions asked, it’s the only way to ensure that you react immediately without question. The funny thing was I loved it. After a couple of days of running around like blue arsed flies we were given our duties, I had about three days in the QM stores and the rest of the time in the kitchen. One notable event stands out though, I managed to go off base for a few hours. In the first six weeks you were confined to camp and only got out if you were dead or it was part of your duties. This day I worked on the laundry truck, we had some washing machines that needed fixing and a load of blankets that required dry cleaning. Happy as Larry I sat in the back amongst the blankets as we motored in to Wagga. The corporal had to do some shopping and we left the laundry until last. A huge establishment somewhere off the main street it had a large delivery bay that ended where the workers took their meal break. You need to understand that the only females we saw were a couple of women who worked in the canteen, and they were impervious to the charms and pick up lines of the hundreds of horny Lotharios. Let us set the scene as I relayed it to my mates back in the barracks that night, and yes ladies young men gossip and swap yarns.
“Well, you’re not going to believe this I sat and watched as this cute Sheila got undressed right down to her undies. She was so tall and beautiful, look I wasn’t intentionally perving, it just happened. No kidding, they didn’t see me sitting in the truck at first. There were three of them and one, the tall blonde had spilled something on her shorts. Her mates helped her get undressed and bloody hell wasn’t she nice. A real thin bra and those cottontail undies, then she saw me, you know what she smiled and turned towards me. I must’ve been blushing coz they all laughed and she took her time putting her clean shorts back on.” I went into some detail which is not for a family audience about the thin material of said underwear and its see through status. What you need to understand is, males, especially that age are in a constant state of hormonal turbulence. My only hope is that those in my audience don’t blame me now for their failing eyesight.
The Zen of Dixie Bashing. (Zen, a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind.) For my readers in the U S of A the Dixie reference has nothing to do with below the Mason-Dixon line, it is a common term for pots and pans in the army. There were two good reasons for being on kitchen duty, one you missed out on roll call, two, plenty of food. The down side, you were up before sparrow fart and that’s early. Like everything the army did there was a method, stick to it and you were right. My job entailed the servery, then when that was over passing all the dirty plates back to the man on the dishwasher, no wimpy hand washing here. You could have run a small car through the thing. The amount of food that went through the place astounded me, we ate like kings. At least I thought we did. The trouble was some blokes ate like pigs, the tables were often littered with scraps or sauce from squeezing the plastic sauce bottles and sending the tops into somebody’s meal, or eye.
You can imagine the machismo going on here, every man and boy trying to find his place in the pecking order, it was no different in the kitchen. I worked one breakfast on the servery before the sergeant cook moved me to Dixie bashing. The dry cereal had to be emptied from their packets into the stainless steel servers, then doled out to the throng via a large ladle (or tongs for the Weetabix). The Kellogg’s corn flakes had a run of plastic toys, I collected them to send home to my little brother and one had fallen into the server amongst the flakes. Along comes Mister Machismo big noting himself to his mates, so being a jolly chap I ladled his cornflakes with the toy into his bowl, “There you go, something to play with.” Well, he wasn’t impressed at all, he flung the bowl at me and tried to climb over the servery. I tried to climb back over at him and began laying into him with my ladle. Well, they wanted fighters didn’t they?
So I graduated to the big sinks at the back of the kitchen and we’re talking big, big ass big. You could float a small fishing trawler in them and deep, if you dropped something in you had to call for Jacques Cousteau to retrieve it. There I stood in my jungle greens, huge rubber boots, a rubber apron that would’ve been used for a circus tent, oh yes and rubber gloves that reached your elbows. I felt like a walking VD prevention advert. I was then and am now, still of the opinion that the army trained cooks to burn food into pans. We’re not talking about a pan you put in your own oven with a little bit of pork crackling on the edges. We’re talking one the size of a landing barge with half a pig bonded to the metal by a nuclear blast. I suggested that this was the case to the sergeant cook, another man with a limited sense of humour. No amount of rubber protection stopped me getting soaked performing my duties, I ended up with a severe case of detergent navel. Back to the dixies. They breed somewhat like Tupperware left unattended in a dark cupboard. You would finish your labours, not unlike the twelve labours of Hercules, go outside and have a cuppa tea and a hat full of biscuits and then when you came back inside viola, another load. I would rather have cleaned the Stables of Augeas.
Of course your day ended after dinner and when the duty officer had made his rounds. He would inspect the kitchen to make sure it was clean and you would stand by your sink and wait. Now some of these Dixies were used in the Boer War and had built up a layer of old fat and residue on the outside, the stuff was jackhammer proof. The insides sparkled which was all that mattered, it went like this. Young Duty Officer, a 2nd Lieutenant who would rather be in the Officer’s Mess quaffing ale, peered at my name tag, “Hmm Recruit Smith, you haven’t done a very good job here, ( staring at bottom of baking pan like he knew what he was doing ) I think you should do it again, and this time put some elbow grease into it.” Me knowing enough to keep my bloody big mouth shut, nods sagely and mumbles, “Sir,” fills the sink, puts the wet rubber outfit back on, it feels kinda sexy by now, plunges pan into the depths and starts chipping away with spatula and steel wool. The cook, bless him comes over when the young Napoleon has left, “Go on, bugger off I’ll show him a newer one if he comes back.” There is justice. If there are any army cooks reading this I’d like to say g’day and thanks for the food. You did the best with what you had and except for a few you were great.
Chicken Man. At 6 pm two things happened without fail: The Last Post was sounded over the loudspeaker and God help you if you didn’t stand if you were sitting, or stop and stand to attention if you were outside. When you click on the link it takes you to a veterans affairs page, you will see the Last Post under music. Click on it and you can open or save it.
This beautiful piece of bugle playing was followed by, ‘Baaaawk Baaaaawk Baaaawk Baaaaawk, Chicken Maaaaan, he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere.’ Yes, The White Winged Warrior, Chicken Man the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known.
I’d never heard it before and it became a classic amongst the troops, after a few beers at the club there would always be a group trying out their own version or clever impersonations. It was radio at its looniest and you know I sometimes think I’d rather listen to, than watch some entertainment. It probably stems from listening to radio serials as a boy. This little anecdote came to me out of the blue and I thought I would share it for those who have never heard of The White Winged Warrior.
Next week: the Perils of Drinking Port wine and Bull Ants.