How my Mum upset the Minister for Defence. Mothers can well – be mothers, bless them. I won’t go into the relationship I had with mine, other than she reminded me of a lioness who would tear shreds off anyone who hurt you. Yet at the same time would shred you too. So I felt sorry for the Minister, Malcolm Fraser. I may have mentioned the Sergeant in charge of our RAP, the aid post. He didn’t like me, why? I don’t know, what I do know is he was a disagreeable son of a bitch sort of a bloke. When I returned from Brisbane and handed my medical documents to him, I informed him that I had an appointment with a specialist and had to go to physio a couple of days a week. I do believe he binned filed them and I went on my way. I had been happily rationing away for a few weeks when El Capitan bellowed from his office. Hobbling manfully down the hallway I stuck my head around the door. He lounged back in his chair, his silvered head stuck above a copy of the latest Playboy magazine,
“Err, you called Sir?” – magazine lowers a fraction – “You’ve pissed somebody off young Smithy, the OC wants to see you.”
From the Macquarie dictionary-Trepidation /trepa dei sen/ noun.1 tremulous alarm or agitation; perturbation.
Laurie’s translation-SHITTING BRICKS./ v. shit ting bricks/
I’d only ever been called up before the Colonel-once and that was for my stripe. Before this it was trying not to stare at what was left of his neck after he’d had an argument with cancer. Monday mornings he would stop and talk to every person on parade, some small comment or a well done. The man was one of life’s gentlemen. That’s okay out there amongst everybody else, not in his office. I know he wasn’t too happy with the Troopers on Confined to Barracks who took his antique Cavalry sabres off the wall and played swashbuckling pirates all over his office desk. That ended badly indeed. The condemned man walks a mile to the gallows, it only felt like three steps and I was there. The Orderly Room Sergeant and Corporal both smirked at me while I waited uncomfortably to be ushered into the inner sanctum. I stood there doing a mental checklist: are my boots clean, did I spill orange juice on my tank suit – again, is my beret straight?
“Lance Corporal Smith – in here.” I could see my hard-won lonely stripe being flushed down the toilet. I made a grand entrance coming to a slam-bang halt, whipped my arm up in a salute that would have made the Queen quiver with excitement, flashed it down and bellowed,
“At ease young man,” he lifted a white sheet of paper, “do you know what this is?”
The temptation to reply, “A sheet of paper,” soon evaporated. Instead, “Err, no Sir.”
“Tell me, do you think that we here are unapproachable?” I looked quizzically around, we were the only two there. “Hmm, no sir, I, we don’t.”
“So can you tell me why you complained to your mother, instead of going through the rank structure and talking to me about a lack of care and medical aid for your knee?”
“Me Sir, I didn’t complain Sir. She asked me last week if I had been to the specialist or if my physio had started.”
“Well, it hasn’t. I should have had them weeks ago.”
My knees buckled a little and he yelled into his phone, “Get me Sergeant (I forget his name, let’s call him Todd) down here now.” Crunch! He slams the phone down and pics up the paper, “This is something no officer ever, ever wants to receive.”
John Malcolm Fraser, Minister for Defence. became Prime Minister. Thanks Wikipedia for photo.
“It is a Ministerial. It comes from the Minister for Defence, this man can make or break the careers of Colonels like myself. As of now I am on his radar. He also spoke to me on the phone not twenty minutes ago, on my phone and he is not a happy man.” His face had become purple around the edges, the huge scar on his throat throbbed and his eyes had taken on a look obviously used for shrivelling people. My Adams apple bobbed up and down and I stared at the picture of the Charge of the Light Brigade on his wall. I remember that it was a debacle too. His phone rang, he answered it and sat back. Sergeant Todd entered, glared at me and gave the boss a salute and something resembling a snivelling smirk, “Sir?”
Thanks to Wikipedia for image.
“Sergeant, did this man give you his medical records?” – “Yes Sir.” – “In those records were there appointments for a specialist visit, plus requests for further physio treatment?” – “Yes there was Sir.” – “And you didn’t follow through?” – “No Sir I thought…..” The colonel held his hand up, “Lance Corporal Smith, you may return to your duties and close the door behind you.” I gave a wicked salute, about turned and was off.
Lurking in the Orderly Room I listened with the rest of them as Todd received the bollocking of a lifetime. It was loud, fearsome and I loved every minute of it. Todd came down the hallway like a man possessed, if eyes were lasers his would have been set to kill. He stopped and snarled, “RAP in ten minutes, I’ll have your appointments made.” – “Thanks Sarge.”
The post script to this tale is worthy of a mention. The following morning when I reached my office a Land Rover was waiting in the car park for me, with a driver. So twice a week I had physio at 2nd Military Hospital at Ingleburn. The following week I went to see an orthopaedic specialist at Macquarie Street in Sydney. So what I hear you cry? Well, Macquarie Street medicos are the equivalent of Harley Street specialists in London or Mayo Clinic types in the US. Such is the power of Mothers and Ministers of the Crown. What rubbed Todd’s nose even deeper into the shite was I ended up back in plaster. The surgeon was not impressed; it seems the actual joint hadn’t healed properly, which hastened the arthritis. Terribly unstable, I ended up with it on for another fun-filled itchy month. Forty two years on, three operations and it still isn’t any better. I’m leaving it until I’m seventy or so for a knee replacement.
Blatant plug for my novel Inspiration for my first novel. You may have guessed by previous Army blogs that I loved Sydney. Every city has its own unique feel and Sydney is no exception. Personally I think it’s the harbour, one of if not the world’s finest. Fantastic views of the city scape, the history – it started as a convict settlement and the people. When the wind blows up Macquarie street, then whistles and blusters down the streets that run off it, the smell of the sea mixes in with the gritty aroma of exhaust fumes. Magnificent old sandstone buildings, museums, gallery’s, the first hospital, all add to its texture: travelling the underground, rubbing shoulders with the pot pourri of humanity, from business men to tramps, achingly beautiful women to bag ladies, and people from every culture. I immersed myself in this heady concoction, drank it in with every salty/fume laden breath. Even now when I visit there it’s like going home.
Enough verbosity Laurie – You can see that it made an impression on me though. In my new job I worked a four and a half day week and didn’t go out bush, do guard or kitchen duties, the bliss. I went everywhere I possibly could by foot, train or bus. Wandered through museums, strolled through Hyde Park and watched people. Sat in pubs down by the docks whose interiors resembled a public toilet, the walls were tiled as high as you could reach. It was easier to wash the blood off. Into the heart of the city to chic bars with rich oak fittings topped in brass. Uniformed bar staff pulling on brass handled levers used to draw cold, sharp beer from deep in the cellar. Barristers and Articled Clerks huddled at small tables, chatting over martinis. A hum of conversation would run through these places, like a bee hive in spring. The carpeted hallways led to private bars and smoking lounges hidden away behind ornately carved doors with fine frosted glass in them. Obviously for those in the know. While I sat quietly sipping on a scotch listening to the exclusive click of ivory snooker balls in play.
This is me 5 years ago doing some *research* in a pub in Sydney. No it is not sarsaparilla.
The art in people watching is not to be spotted doing it, especially in Kings Cross. I have mentioned it before and it stars in my book, Mountain of Death. For my international readers think of the centre of sex and sin in your large cities and this is what the Cross is all about. It’s a brisk walk up William Street from the city, at night the Coca Cola sign is like a beacon to the faithful. Or you can hop on the underground railway at Museum Station for a quick ride up there. Then you had to push your way through the throngs of Hippies that crowded the long, sloping concourse leading out onto the street. They were either selling weed, themselves, begging or painting placards. Of course they didn’t seem to believe in washing, right on man, peace is love. Well I wouldn’t mind a piece love if you washed it.
I’ve been back over the years and always head there to see if it has changed; it has, for the worse. It’s somewhat reminiscent of an aging Tart that’s having a hard time applying her makeup, and keeping her nether regions healthy. It may be that I’m looking back through rose-coloured beer bottle bottoms, I’m not sure but it had something in the late 60’s and early 70’s. That is what I try to capture in my writing. Naturally I investigated every alley, back street, nook and cranny. The houses were beautiful, once. The elm tree-lined back streets had that late Victorian feel about them, some alleys were cobbled. One step off the main thoroughfare and it was another world. Hurried, impersonal sex against a wall, drug deals and bashings. God alone knows what transpired behind those shuttered windows in dimly lit rooms above strip clubs and cafes. Decisions made by faceless crime bosses that changed the lives of those who crossed them. Young women with the sparkly light of stardom fading from their eyes, ending up in the porn trade after a few years working the clubs and streets. If they were strong they survived, if not they became addicts, or were to start with. The Cross didn’t care, it chewed people up and spat them out into the condom strewn gutter, to lie amongst the used syringes and butt ends.
The best places to sit and watch were at the rear of the coffee shops or at a table outside the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar. The coffee shops attracted the rich and famous, and the not so rich and famous, i.e. me. Rock stars, prostitutes, gunmen, drug dealers, soldiers, sailors. Every night you had a different cast of hopefuls and front-runners all treading the streets. Fights would break out at a moment’s notice, sometimes between the girls. Go behind the clubs and you would see the strippers, usually in thin dressing gowns, giggling and laughing as they hurried to the next gig down the road. Everybody had something to sell, you could walk along one street and get a message from God at The Wayside Chapel, go next door and get sex and a massage from a goddess. Around the corner and into an Adult shop, where the main attractions were the private booths with their porno loop machines, twenty cents a go, more for Kleenex tissues. The cheap alternative to the working girls.
There was something about the Cross, up to the 60’s it was mainly a hangout for crooks and beatniks a fringe element, Bohemian in nature. Drugs weren’t a real problem, drinking clubs, prostitution and standover men were, and it changed with the times like any good business does. Maybe I was impressionable, I’m not sure. I know that I craved the scene, that something about belonging, being a part of a piece of history in the making. Albeit a seedy, crusty, tarnished piece of history. Being part of the narrative of a place, somewhere where a tiny part of you lives forever in the fabric, the very memory of a city. That is what I was about. In retrospect I hoovered up the experiences, drew them in and catalogued them into little slots marked future books. It’s late at night as I write this and I can smell the fresh pizza, real pizza with its handfuls of topping. The perfume worn by the prostitutes, not always cheap, The brittle smell of sweat and adrenalin on the small gangs of thugs shouldering their way along the sidewalk. Unburnt fuel from the hotted up cars. Old spice aftershave and Brylcreem. The smells of a place that bring it back in vivid, living colour.
Next week: Have you ever wanted something so badly it makes you hurt deep inside? That you know if you don’t get it then life will never be the same? That’s how much I wanted to go to Vietnam. So pop back next week and see what life has to offer.