Plaster changes. There isn’t a preamble this week, it’s time to get out of bed and they want me to have a nice new plaster, it appears that I am going to be sent back to Queensland to lurk around the outpatients ward at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane. I had been here for two months and I felt attached to it, the people, the staff, the Sally Army lady who had me making Paper Mache piggybanks, everybody. I don’t know if anyone has done a study on long-term patients and their attachment to a place. The head physio lady came around on this particular morning, no way was she to be confused with the graduates who tormented us. No she was more along the lines of the Gorgon, a hard-headed, no-nonsense, seen it all type of Gal. ‘Ah, Mister Smith, we are going to remove your plaster cast and give you a new one.’ It wasn’t doing much, it had all the stiffness of a wet noodle and a distinct *Sumo Wrestler’s Mawashi* odour to it. I was happy to see it go. Enter Igor with his huge snips and he chopped through that plaster like he was gutting a fish. Then the pain began.
Somebody neglected to put the stocking on my leg after surgery and the wet plaster had attached itself to every hair from above the knee down. Oh the joy of it all, by the time they’d finished ripping it off, my scrawny leg resembled that of a chicken’s with a nasty rash. ‘Don’t be such a softie, it doesn’t hurt it’s only a few hairs.’ See, that’s physios for you. They did however put a nice stocking on it for the new cast. After it had dried they brought a wheelchair for me, I was so happy I thought I would cry, freedom at last. Sitting in that chair I felt like a king, they gave me a board to put under my butt and it stuck out so I could rest my leg on it. That was the easy part. I hurtled out of the room and into the hallway, spun around and tipped it over. There I sat with the board and my heel jammed into the floor and the chair in the air. I took the chiding from her and moved sedately from room to room. My social life had taken a great leap. Now they could never find me for needles, so I had to report back to bed at meal times.
On my travels I stuck my leg in through the doorway of a single room. A bloke a little older than myself lay in bed with more plaster on him than any human should have. I’ll call him Tim. Tim had stepped on a landmine in Vietnam and had his legs shattered, along with a dozen other wounds. To save his right leg they were growing flesh and blood vessels, through a plaster tube from his left leg. It stunk, he couldn’t smell it anymore and staff only went in when they really had to. Seeing someone far worse off than myself gave me a new lease on life, so everyday I would visit him for an hour. He was making pictures out of coloured grains of rice, I would sit and sort them for him and we would talk about everything except Vietnam and Aussie Rules. I also met Jack, a WW2 veteran who served in the British Army with Wingate’s Raiders in Borneo. They were a commando force who used guerrilla tactics against the Japanese. When I asked the obvious question, ‘What are you in here for?’ He took off his pyjama top; the whole of his back was covered in black lumps of various sizes. These were pieces of shrapnel coming out of his body. Not wanting to drop his pants he assured me that the backs of both legs were the same, as was the back of his head. He too had stepped on a anti-personnel mine and he came into hospital every couple of months to get pieces removed. I felt even better. Then I wheeled into another six bed ward to meet a new patient. This bloke had lost both legs above the knees after stepping on a mine. His parents were there to see him and man, wasn’t he angry. He had been a footballer and was in peak physical condition, built like the legendary Steve Reeves. I wheeled up and said, ‘Hello.’ His terse reply of, ‘Fuck off.’ Sat me back a little, I know now that he was grieving for his legs and was pissed off with the world. Sad I know but I was trying to be a comfort.
I have to say that none of the ladies in this photo were the early morning kisser. They were however a great comfort in my time there, thank you so much.
One nurse kind of took a liking to me a week before I left. She would come in after lights out and we would kiss for a while then she would go about her duties. I had an early flight to catch and they woke me at 0400. While a Wardsman collected my belongings she climbed up and under the covers with me. My little heart trembled. After giving my lips a workout they wouldn’t forget for ages she ran off crying. I still don’t understand women. An army ambulance dropped me off at the airport and I boarded my flight to Brisbane. Once there and after they’d examined me I was off home on leave, still in plaster (my baggy uniform trousers covered it). I felt estranged from my family and didn’t like the vibe at all. I gladly returned to the outpatient’s barracks and avoided going home as much as possible. My mother wanted me posted up there; I wanted to get back to my Squadron. This wasn’t going to happen quickly at all, once the medicos get their sanitised hands on you they don’t want to let go. What irked the army so much was you couldn’t do anything but sit around or do physio. They like you to *look busy* so those who could walk or hobble would wander around the grounds for half an hour and pick up litter. If there wasn’t any I’m sure they sent somebody out with some. I learned more valuable lessons:-
1. How to play 500, an excellent card game. After morning parade which looked like something out of Abbott and Costello meets M.A.S.H. we would troop in and see the Medical Officer who would sign off on whatever medical treatment/procedure they wanted us to do. If you had nothing on you sat in on a game or played darts. These games drew quite a little following, we would have competitions and playoffs. The only drawback was the endless game post mortems that would have done Quincy MD proud. Sometimes they would end in a quick punch up or pushing match, quite funny in retrospect. One bloke in a back brace squaring up to another bloke with an arm or a leg missing. I never saw cards as a contact sport.
2. How to drink Tequila. Now if you want to engage in contact sports this is the drink for you. One of my fellow sufferer’s was a Tank Regiment man who had the backs of his legs ripped out when an RPG exploded in his turret. A cheery soul called Lenny. Being the only two men of armour we stuck together and used to go out on Saturday nights in Brisbane. For some unknown reason we went out midweek and ended up in the George Hotel, near Government House. Lenny assured me that this was where all the ‘good sorts’ hung out, secretaries and office girls all gagging for the company of handsome blokes like ourselves. I still had my cast on and with our flashy Canadian crutches we hit the town. Well hobbled into town. Lenny was a shorter, thickset version of myself and about six years older, and he sported a huge black moustache, mine paled in comparison. After a couple of beers in the public bar we negotiated the winding stairway to where all the action was. The bar was as full as a state school and I think we caused some chaos with the tips of our crutches clomping on people’s toes. Some kind souls gave us their seats at the bar and Lenny spoke those magic words, ‘Barkeep, bring us the tequila.”
*Lick – sip – suck* became the call of the night until they slid us out the front door at closing time. At some stage it was, *suck – sip – lick* then *sip – lick – suck* and *luck – sip – sick* mainly it was *guzzle.* Lovely young ladies hung around, cuddling up close and helping us to drink our wages. After three tequilas I didn’t really care. The atmosphere took on an ambience I’d never encountered before, time slowed, hot, wine scented breath against my face promised untold pleasures to come. (not Lenny’s breath) There is something fascinating about how a woman’s lips feel on yours when you’re in this state. Everything is so clear, well a couple of inches away after that it’s like a foggy windscreen. Touch is electric, noise ebbs and flows, everybody bumps into your plastered leg. You don’t care and the worm in the bottle gets clearer and clearer. I felt great. A couple of the ladies who drank and flirted with us helped us down the stairs to the footpath, where we were reunited with our crutches. (I know there’s a joke there) They kissed us goodnight and went on their way, we stood for a moment and then it hit, the dreaded *fresh air makes you drunker syndrome.* I sank down on the footpath as my legs vanished. Another kind soul helped us into a taxi and we were poured out of it at our barracks. I woke up feeling reasonable, did all the necessaries had breakfast, went to parade then waited in our recreation room. Hmm, I thought, I need a can of coca cola. Bad, bad, bad. Halfway through it I became just as drunk as the night before. Then the hangover hit. Lenny breezed in all smiles and chirpiness and saw the can, ‘Oops sorry Mate, forgot to tell ya, don’t drink that shit after a night on the tequila.’ (A sad transcript here, Lenny ended up succumbing to his wounds some years later.)
My New Job. A few weeks later I returned to my unit on restricted duties. it actually felt good to be back. Things had changed and my troop were up at Shoalwater Bay in central Queensland, actually they weren’t my troop anymore. Because of the condition of my knee I couldn’t go traipsing around in armoured vehicles until I’d been given the all clear. So I was given the unenviable job of Ration Clerk in HQ Troop. The only good thing about it was my new boss, a Captain and a real old gentleman who took me under his wing. The old Ration Clerk was still there and he gave me a run down on the bookwork and took off two hours later. You may think that this ration business was straightforward stuff, a bit like shopping or some such. Let’s look at it this way, imagine shopping for a couple of hundred people a fortnight ahead and working your list out from a ration scale. So take beef for instance, you had to work out how many ounces of beef per man per day, the same for sugar, tea coffee etc. The list was endless, right down to herbs and spices. My lovely wife wonders why I hate shopping for groceries. There’s an old saying that the navy gets the gravy and the army gets the beans. It’s not far wrong. Because we were a field force unit half of the squadron could be out bush at any given time. This meant they were issued with about 90% dry rations, good old bully beef and tinned sausages, tinned fruit, hard tack biscuits. Some of that tinned meat had been canned in 1944. If they weren’t out bush the dry rations still had to be issued and consumed, so at least one meal a day would be extremely crappy ordinary. My predecessor, a National Serviceman was something of a social type and wanted to stay in the good books with the troops, so he failed to issue the dry rations to the mess for a whole year.
It couldn’t have possibly been an oversight on his part. Every morning you had to front up at the orderly room and get the numbers for the day and projected numbers for the same day the following week. It wasn’t rocket science. Taking the yellow slip I would then return to my office, yes folks I had my own office, then taking out the huge ledgers I would work out what I had to order against what had already been issued and what was on hand. It took about ten minutes of checking on my second day in the job to see what he had done. Staggering under the weight of my ledgers I made my way to the Captain’s office. This man had the largest collection of Playboy magazines I had ever seen and was reading one with his feet up on his desk when I appeared at his door. I hobbled in dropped the ledgers and showed him what I had found. He hummed and ahhed for a bit, scratched his ear and declared, ‘Let them eat cake.’ ‘Let them eat dry rations.’
Soldiers are very particular about their food, the following morning I turned up for breakfast and joined the line at the cookhouse where I was set upon by half a dozen blokes. We had a minor stoush, more like them pinning me against the wall and demanding to know why they were having to eat shit. No amount of explaining got through to them, the heady days of high living on fresh food were over for a month. The Officer’s and Sergeant’s Messes felt the brunt too and I felt like a walking target.
Next week we take a look at how Mother upset the Minister for Defence and every person in the rank structure down, some places where the ideas for my first novel came from, and my great desire to go to Vietnam.
Next week: How my Mum upset the Minister for Defence and Inspiration for my first novel.