The Perils of Drinking Port. I only ever drank two alcoholic drinks before enlisting, the first one my sister and I drained the ’empty’ sherry bottles at our parents anniversary party. I was 10 at the time and the second was a beer with the Old Man the day before I left to enlist. I had heard beer referred to as piss and didn’t believe it could taste like that. How wrong was I? You know those adverts where they show old-fashioned breweries and outside there are several huge draught horses hitched up to wagons? After my first glass of beer I knew straight away that the horses provided the amber fluid. However as the years have passed and my palette has matured I have come to the conclusion that it is only the stallions that provide it.
You had to be at Kapooka for a few weeks before you were allowed to drink in the wet canteen, and wet it was. When the term swilling beer is used my thoughts go back to those halcyon days of recruit training. At 17 I was still underage for consuming alcohol, I loved a double sarsaparilla or a coke and sneaked in a vodka or two. That was enough for me, for a while. Some blokes let the ferret run with a vengeance and I can still hear the laboured strains of vomiting drunks. It’s fine if they are outside, it’s when they stagger through the barracks sharing their largesse with everybody that it becomes tiresome. The canteen hopped every night after dinner, quite a few of the blokes seemed to live there and suffered badly the next morning.
I learnt many valuable pub lessons there: Don’t walk in with your hat on, if you kept it on after the count of seven you had to ‘shout the bar,’ and that’s a lot of drinks. Loose change on the edge of the pool table wasn’t ‘lost’ and you could upset a few blokes when you picked it up and used it. My apparent ignorance and the intervention of a kind soul saved me from six blokes who wanted to ‘beat my effing head in.’ It’s a small world, he came from the same town in England and I never saw him again after that. Ah, the kindness of strangers. If you turned your empty glass upside down on the bar it meant you wanted to fight everyone in there, you soon turned your glass up the right way. I think these rules were made up by people who were shy and had trouble meeting other folk.
One night I stayed back at the barracks to catch up on my housework: polish boots and brass, scrub webbing, iron, wash, sew. At ten o’clock a huge commotion took place at the far end of the hallway, yelling, screaming, spewing. Then, “Get him a doctor Sarge he’s dying.” – “He’s not dying, he’s pissed now shut up and put him to bed.” Sound advice and maybe we can all get some sleep. Then it started, I’ll come back to draught horses. For those who have never owned a horse let me tell you one thing, they fart. A lot. Loud, sonorous, disturbing farts. We’ll call the unfortunate ‘dying’ drunk, Jacko. A tall, gangly youth with a shock of blonde hair and from what I could gather a horse’s bowel. It went like this, “Ohhhh, I’m dying. Please Mum where are you? Bluuuurt! My head hurts ohhh I’m dying.”
By this time I’m curious and stand in the doorway of my room to watch the proceedings, Jacko’s room is directly opposite and his bed faces the door. The Duty Sergeant comes back after a worried delegation of recruits race to his office and annoy him, “Undress the stupid drunken bastard and put him to bed. If he does die then come and tell me.” His mates drop him on the bed and begin to strip him off, Bluuuuurt! Bluuuuurt! After the ewwws and oh God’s someone says, “Let’s light his farts.” When a drunk has a good idea and announces it you know it will end badly. It’s a fact of life. Another drunk grabs Jacko’s ankles and pulls them up to his head, giving one and all a view of his white skinny arse encased in even whiter underpants. “Who’s gotta match?” Several boxes of them are shoved at him, “Okay, wait for it, wait for it.” Bluuuurt! Strike, a tiny flame then a huge orange and blue one, inside Jacko’s underpants. Bright enough to light up the faces of the eager audience.
Luckily for Jacko, he’d drunk a pint bottle of port wine on his own, this provided him with enough anaesthetic to forestall any pain. As the smell of smouldering underpants filled the air someone threw a blanket over him and they beat a hasty retreat. Before reveille the following morning I was up and getting my toiletries together, I heard Jacko’s door slam and a pitiful groaning. I looked out and there he was, still in his undies, towel over his shoulder and walking gingerly towards the ablutions plucking at his rear going, “Oh my head – oh gee that hurts.” The real screams sounded when he reached the toilet. He walked around like a honeymooning bride on a horse ranch for the rest of the week.
Bull Ants. Army sergeants are omniscient, they know it all. Even if they are wrong they know it all. Now that’s clear let’s move on. The first few weeks are spent exercising and drilling you into shape, moulding you into little chocolate soldiers. Knowing that by now you will do exactly as you are told. There are a few smells and sounds that bring those far away days clearly to mind, beside poor Jacko that is. One of them is the smell of eucalyptus trees on a hot day, the oil in the leaves leeches out and the air is redolent with it. Everywhere you went on the camp the trees stood tall. Next the sound of cicadas, millions of the buggers, chirruping away all day. The smell of a storm approaching when you’re in the middle of a navigation exercise, then the icy cold rain hitting your hot body, soaking you to the skin. Then there are Bull Ants.
Observe the Bull Ant, take a close look at his mandibles, they’re serrated, that’s never a good look. See his eyes? Evil, evil I say, no good will come of such a creature. Their venom is capable of bringing on anaphylactic shock in those with allergies. They’re probably all sergeants down in the nest.
Our Hero marching bravely off to do battle with the Bull Ants.
Bivouac brings up images of hundreds of troops under canvas, eating out of tins and looking rugged and ready. Nobody mentions ants, or spiders or snakes etc. We marched out to the bivouac area in the late afternoon with our packs and rifles, ready to repel some invading enemy. On arrival we were given a number and sent to look for the corresponding camp site, I think mine may have been 666, anyway I arrived at the steel picket sticking out of the middle of a Bull Ant’s nest. Thousands of the blighters streamed toward me, beating a hasty retreat I returned to the sergeant and told him of my predicament. Being the homespun, caring, loving bastard that he was he said, “Recruit does that picket have your number on it?” – “Yes Sergeant.” – “Well, that’s where you’re living tonight.” Gulp.
Returning to the still tumultuous nest I strung out my little tent, left my pack against a tree 20 metres away and returned to where we were being briefed. Our platoon sat around the sergeant listening to the orders for the night, I stood at the rear feeling a tad uncomfortable, and felt something crawling up my leg – inside my trousers. Fidget, itch scratch, then the pain hit. Yelling like an Apache I began dancing around and jumping up and down in a darn good imitation of a rain dance. ( stops and listens for the sound of distant thunder ) At the same time trying to get my pants off. The Sarge went to say something and stopped, seeing the obvious distress on my face. With the whole platoon and passers-by watching I dropped my daks and undies. Now one’s tackle is usually not flashed around in front of the blokes, I couldn’t have cared less, because there they were, three bull Ants. They’re about an inch long, you’ve seen the picture, evil incarnate. One had latched onto the head of my penis and two were doing their best to castrate me one bite at a time.
This could have been Karma for chuckling at the unfortunate toasting of Jacko’s nether regions, I don’t know. What I do know is it hurt. A lot. Now I don’t know if my audience were laughing at the sight of my genitalia, or the fact that I was in agony. Pulling at the ants only removed their bodies, their heads, mandibles intact remained in place. Still in the throes of my rain dance I continued to prance around, finally dislodging the last attacker. Then the swelling began, my very best little mate began to look angry and a severe itching took over. Trying to retain what little dignity I had left I dragged my trousers up and hobbled around. Somebody called for a medic and I had to show him my now hefty penis. He lifted it up with a tongue depressor ( no it didn’t go ahh ) and said, “You’ll be right, it’s only an ant bite.”
After dinner I attempted to engage in the activities, the swelling stopped and then I began to feel ill, really ill. It didn’t help my cause, nobody cared so I wrapped myself in a blanket and slept under a tree as far away as possible from the ants nest. I heard the tramp of feet as the ‘enemy’ approached, raising a quivering arm I pointed towards the camp and muttered, “They’re over there, now leave me alone.” Something of a Benedict Arnold I know but I was sick, I ignored the yelling and sounds of blank cartridges going off and came to the conclusion that, ‘War is Hell.’ You may or may not be happy to know that I recovered, with my savaged genitalia reasonably intact. Battle hardened now, he was ready for the rigours and dangerous situations that I would put him in over the years ahead.
I haven’t decided what next weeks Army blog will entail. There are many anecdotes floating around in my fevered brain, one that keeps popping up is bullying. I, like many people have first hand experience at being on the receiving end of these cowards who harass and drive their victims to the brink. School has always been the breeding ground of bullies, and I don’t think people realise that parents can also be the biggest bullies of them all. I had plenty of experience of the home-grown variety. My only experience at school happened when I moved to Queensland, the school I attended didn’t have kids who spoke in a strong Lancashire accent. Game on. King hit the first day, then attacked by five at a time for the following week. Mother intervened, she became a tad ticked off after three good shirts ended up as rags. Under the watchful eye of the sports instructor ( a bully himself ) and in the centre of the playground I knuckled them one by one until the last two refused to fight. No more problems there. I must have had stars in my eyes as I didn’t think it would be like that in the forces. Wrong.
From the first week of being allowed in the wet canteen it started, two other recruits woke me nightly and verbally abused me. They would stand behind me in the mess line and whisper obscenities, give me a little dig, try and trip me up. I ignored them and continued to do so until the second last week of training and that will be a story in itself.
Nest week: Physical Training, Route Marches and Bayonet Practice.