YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 5. First Leave, The delights of Wagga Wagga and the Fight.

First Leave.  After six weeks we had four days leave to go home if we wanted to, funnily enough I did. Three of us now hardened recruits decided to hire a six seater Cessna to fly back to Queensland. We couldn’t fly out until the second morning, then a gruelling stop start flight through rainy weather to home. I’m sure the pilot failed kamikaze school and decided to terrorise passengers instead. I’d never flown before so it was a – shit I’m scared – to yeah man bring it on. Shit I’m scared won out for most of the trip. There were two fuel stops and we bolted for the loo at each one. After touching down at Eagle Farm in Brisbane we kissed the tarmac after scrambling out of Von Richtoffen’s death trap. The olds were there to meet me and I recounted my tales of life at Kapooka. They weren’t impressed.

I found out that a dance was on at the local ten pin bowling club. Out with the razor, aftershave and civvie clothes, “Where’s your uniform?” – “Well Dad, I’ve been in it for weeks, I want a change.” – “Wear it or else.” So I wore it. I stood out like an Amish farm hand in an Apple store. In 1969 with a huge backlash against the Vietnam war, Herman Munster had a better chance of getting a shag that night than I did. Having a haircut like a billiard ball with a fungal growth didn’t do much neither. *Huge sigh* The remainder of my leave only dragged me back into the family dynamic, seeing my younger brothers and sister again became the only highlight of my journey home.

The Delights of Wagga Wagga. Yes Victoria, there is a Wagga Wagga ( Aboriginal for the place of many crows ) it’s a widespread town that grew from the wheat and wool trade, situated on the western slopes of the Great Divide it straddles the Murrumbidgee River. That’s the tourist stuff over with. For servicemen it was a garrison town that gladly took your money and kicked you in the nuts when you had none left. Both the Army and Air Force have had training units there for eons and they provided a lot of business to the town. I can only talk about then, now it’s grown up a little. What it all boiled down to was, the locals didn’t fancy all those randy young men chasing their daughters. They could have had a point, shopkeepers and publicans would take your cash and treat you like dirt. (Like carrion crows)

I was sure Wagga had the longest main street in the known universe, the Sturt Highway ran straight through it. The army, bless them ran a shuttle service to the railway station in the top end of town, which was as far away as possible from the earthly delights. Talking of which there were some entrepreneurs in the place. One enterprising type ran a mobile brothel out of a VW camper van. I walked past it one night parked near the river, and it looked a little manky.  A couple of tired young blondes in hot pants and chequered shirts sat on a mattress giving some semblance of a smile. The bedding had seen waaaay too many customers. I well remember the old man recounting this one, Prostitute, “Hello soldier, want something you’ve never had before?” – “What have you got, Leprosy?” You get the drift, besides we’d been shown the VD movies. It doesn’t take many WW2 movies of soldiers with huge chancre sores and devastated penises to put you off sex for a little while.

Three likely lads, myself, JC and GT decided that lunch at the local Rugby League club followed by the match would be a swish day out. This club had silver service. Crisp white tablecloths, napkins, table service. Everything was going swimmingly until the soup was served. We were having a great time, indulging in a few laughs until JC told a joke while I had a mouthful of tomato soup. The choices were simple, swallow and choke to death or let bright red, hot soup spray in all directions out of my nostrils. In my dress uniform, white tablecloth in front of me – well – it wasn’t pretty. I looked like my throat had been slashed, it even went onto the people at the next table, terrible. What passed for a maître d came over and said very slowly and eloquently that we could finish our meal then piss off and don’t come back. I like straight talkers.

The Fight. When I fist started the Army series I mentioned that we were all young men in the platoon. After some close scrutiny of the platoon photo I see there were a few ‘old’ blokes who had come from overseas to join up, or re-enlisted. In general everybody got on, well, except maybe for Jacko and his flamethrower mates. I’ve mentioned the two recruits who began interrupting my sleep with their jibes and insults and how I ignored them. It grew out of proportion and as Popeye said, “This is all I can stands, I can stands no more.”

Over here the term Poofter means Homosexual. In my naiveté I didn’t know what it meant until an older soldier set me straight. Then there was the four letter word for that most beautiful of women’s parts. Now I was confused, how could I be one and the other? Young Laurie had a lot to learn. The closer we came to marching out the more intense the chiding. As you may remember we were in three storey buildings and our platoon lived on the second floor. At the end of each floor stood the ablutions, it went from narrow hallway to a wider foyer, with steps leading down. I’m not skiting, or big noting myself this was one of those defining moments in life and I’m telling it like it happened. A man, well in this case a boy has to stand up for himself. Some things you can’t run away from or talk yourself out of.

After a couple of hours of repetitive rifle drill even the calmest recruit can be stirred. SLR rifle at the shoulder I moved along the corridor towards my room, with Heckle and Jeckle following close behind. Spewing their epitaphs and laughing at me they weren’t prepared for the turning of the worm. From the shoulder position the rifle can rapidly be used to disable an opponent, Gripping it tightly I turned and rammed the steel plated end into Heckle’s midsection, giving off a huge Huh, he bent forward in perfect position for the upward stroke of the butt, straight to the underside of his chin. It gave off a satisfying click.

It was on. As is seen in dozens of army films the crowd gathers and the cheering begins. I still only have flash memories of it, one of Heckle’s cronies snatched my rifle away and ran to the nearest window and hurled it out onto the footpath below. He came back and three of them stuck into me. I can still see JC, his big blonde head above the throng dragging one of them away, holding him in a headlock and showing him the error of his ways. The sea of faces became blurry and faded away, the world only existed for me, Heckle and Jeckle. Years of bullying and abuse from my father came to the surface. I saw his face, then those of other men who had paid him to abuse me flashed through my mind. A rage, incubating for years hatched somewhere in my gut and pushed me on. Heckle was a Golden Gloves boxer, a middle weight I think. Jeckle, after several hard jabs to the face fell back and became swallowed up in the crowd.

It doesn’t take long for word to get around about a fight, apparently the ablution block and stairwell became choked with spectators, a hooting, jeering mob baying for blood. Oh didn’t they get blood and not all of it mine. Two young, fit men can go for quite a while and nobody was stopping us. I only found out later that the platoon staff were well aware of the bullying and were waiting for a reaction from me. Heckle could fight, he had years of experience and fought in the orthodox stance. I had years of rage inside and was a Southpaw. We boxed on. He kept hitting my face, I didn’t care: broken nose, still stood up, black eye, still there, two bottom teeth hanging out of my mouth by the nerves, still standing. ( I had endured a severe beating off my father when I was 16. He gave his all and I took it without fighting back until I fell unconscious to the kitchen floor, where he sank the boot in until mother dragged him away. ) I think it may have frightened Heckle, he had after all given his best. I fought street dirty with my thumbs, the heels of my palms, fists, knees, feet and head.  Eye jabs, elbows to the throat, punches to the balls, it went on. Nobody was ever going to put me on the floor again.

Then, “Alright Corporal break this up.” The platoon officer had turned up, two corporals pulled us apart, still punching. A disappointed crowd dispersed and someone came back with my rifle, it had hit the pavement barrel first and bent it slightly. Heckle’s mates carried him back to his room, there wasn’t an inch of his face that didn’t have a knuckle mark. Did I feel good? You bet your sweet patootie I did: my head hurt, I had blood here and there, it hurt to open and close my mouth, and putting two teeth back into their sockets wasn’t the highlight of my day. I walked away with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that nobody would ever bully me again.

The tannoy crackled into life and the platoon Sergeant called me over to his office. Walking past Heckle’s room I looked in, he writhed in pain on his bunk while his mates put cold packs on his face. Jeckle glared, although it’s hard to look mean when your face is lumpy. Sarge took one look at my face and sent me to the Regimental Aid Post. The post script for all of this is, we marched out on April Fools Day, it snowed, a lot. My family had travelled down for the parade which was something of a disappointment as it was held in the Drill Hall. We had a buffet lunch at the Wagga golf course and watched the snow come down. I must give credit where it is due, Heckle came over after a few drinks, apologised for the harassment and we shook hands. Jeckle held a grudge and didn’t come near me. No loss. Sadly Heckle was killed in action in Vietnam the following year, another soldier gone.

I never saw my two mates again, JC went to Signals, I went to Armour and I forget where GT went. That’s our barracks to the right and the mess hall behind. It’s funny how things get to you as you age, I feel quite melancholy writing the ending of this part of my life, this was taken 44 years ago and it feels like yesterday. *Putting tissues away* Next week it’s off to Puckapunyal, home of the School of Armour in Victoria. Three months of training and the emergence of Laurie Smith, finally becoming his own man. Hint about Puckapunyal, if the Creator of all wanted to give Australia an enema, guess where the nozzle would go? Until next week, Cheers, Laurie.

JC                                              ME                                        GT


Next week: Puckapunyal, Lightning and Radios.


4 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 5. First Leave, The delights of Wagga Wagga and the Fight.

  1. Raani York

    This, Laurie, is such a vivid description. To me it feels like I was there, watching!! It made me smile and feel and all emotional…
    Thanks for sharing this memory with us!!



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