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Chapter Fifteen. Basic Training.

Chapter 15

Guy joined the army after his last summer holiday with some mates from School up in Taupo. When making their way home across the desert road, Guy was confronted with his future. His mates were all going off to Uni, he was going out there. The Waiouru training area. It seemed very forbidding, a vast tract of tussock, mountains and forests, interspersed with tank tracks. He thought maybe the university halls of residence would be better.

Getting ready to go and join the army was a bit of a blur for Guy. Eventually it was time to set off though, he threw some clothes and tape cassettes in a bag. Off to catch the train from Palmy after being dropped off by his tearful mother. She hugged him too hard and told him how proud she was. Guy felt tears welling up, seeing his mum so emotional. Thankfully, ‘The Silver Fern’ railcar turned up just then. The Silver Fern ran between Wellington and Auckland and back, it stopped in Waiouru along the way.

‘Gotta go mum’.

He extracted himself from her embrace, scooped up his duffle bag and trotted down the platform as the rail car doors opened. Can’t look like a sook when you’re off to the army. He met up with a few likely looking characters that had come down from the East Coast. There were a lot of Maori from the East Coast in the army, not much else for them to do for a job up there really.

He struck up a conversation with a couple of guys who came to be known as Elvis and Omar. Elvis and Omar had signed up for the tank corps, or ‘turret heads’ as they were known in the army. Elvis was quite small, a Maori, dressed like he was going to a dance, he’d dressed up to join the army. He was always trying some dance moves, even on the train which was why he got to be called Elvis eventually. Omar was also a Maori but looked like a gangster from the 1930’s with Brylcreem in his slicked back hair and he was wearing something like a safari suit, he even had a pencil moustache. He might as well have had a machine gun in a violin case. He was called Omar because of his pencil moustache like Omar Sharif. Guy was going to join the Royal New Zealand Corps of Transport as a truck driver. He had decided he didn’t want to be a ‘grunt’ or do a trade, so he fancied the idea of having a truck to get around, rather than walking.

Guy was an unlikely soldier, given his issues at school had largely evolved out of him being argumentative, smart arsed and answering back. The army wasn’t known for its tolerance of those character traits, or Guy’s basic laziness. He hadn’t given too much thought to that. He simply hadn’t known what else to do. He was here now, better make the best of it

The train pulled into Waiouru in the evening, the new recruits were gathered up by a very smartly turned-out corporal. He was a Maori bloke, with a green infantry beret on. He was clearly very fit. His face looked like it had been chiselled out of a block of wood. His uniform was spotless, the creases in his trousers and short sleeved shirt looked like you could cut paper with them. He didn’t shout, he just introduced himself as Corporal Savage. Guy raised his eyebrows. Savage seemed an appropriate name for a corporal in the Infantry as identified by the corps badge on his green beret. He showed them to a small bus which took them to camp where they were given a meal in the noisy mess hall, noisy from the sound of washing up in the huge kitchen. The mess hall had dozens of lines of tables and a large serving area, like a buffet in a hotel. It was after dinner time, so the food had been laid on especially for them. There were no other soldiers here, only the soldiers to be, in their civvies. 

After dinner, Corporal savage lined the recruits up on the road outside the mess hall. They didn’t look very soldierly. A mixture of blokes and sheila’s, a couple of older blokes, old as though in their 40’s. One of them had a bowl haircut like Guy and a big bushy moustache, he looked hard case Guy thought, turns out they were here to join the band. The sheila’s, every single one of them had chunky thighs, Guy wondered if there was some sort of minimum thigh size requirement for sheila’s to join the army. The recruits were lined up, three abreast and marched, badly, they hadn’t learned how to march yet, down to the barracks. About half a kilometre, past similar buildings each side of a straight road. The barracks were long wooden structures, made out of weatherboard. All had been painted white many years ago, looking at the faded, peeling condition of the paint now.

Guy expected them to be better maintained. He’d noticed everything around him was spick and span, neat and ordered, but the barracks had seen better days. Each barracks was an eight-man room with a single iron bed, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. Shiny lino floor, plain, varnished wooden walls, stark in other words. Sounds echoed in here. The occupants of Guy’s room said hello to each other and shared a few brief details before getting a bit of a lecture from the corporal in charge of the room. The corporal was a Fijian, Guy hadn’t met a Fijian before. Like Corporal Savage, his uniform was immaculate. He looked like he had been chiselled from even darker wood than Corporal Savage.  He had a blue beret though, with the artillery insignia. So, he wasn’t called a corporal, he was called a bombardier. His name was Bombardier Buli. Guy raised his eyebrows again, Buli, sounds like bully, Guy hoped that was a coincidence. 

Bombardier Buli informed them, much more loudly than was necessary when lights out was, when reveille was and what time they had to be ready for breakfast. They’d then be taken to get a haircut, medical check, be issued uniforms, boots and kit, that was about the guts of it. He didn’t look at any of them, he simply stood at the door and shouted at the end of the room.

The other seven blokes in Guy’s room were Dave, from Palmy, he was in his early 20’s with bushy hair and a big moustache, Stooge from Christchurch who was built like a fridge, or a prop. Stooge wasn’t his real name, but he only ever answered to Stooge. He used to be a bikie. He had long black hair and permanent stubble. That hair had less than 12 hours to live. A short Maori fulla from the East Coast called Eddie, he’d already done a basic, but failed and had to do it again. He’d been ‘back squadded’. Guy thought that was pretty stink. He didn’t know what basic involved yet, but he was pretty sure he wouldn’t want to do it twice. 

Orr, also from Christchurch, what sort of name was Orr? Sounded more like a half-finished question. A big fulla called Buck, he had a mean face, he looked like he was already a soldier. Tall, short hair. Everything neat and organised, he looked like trouble though. Guy couldn’t put a finger on why, just that he had a mean face and squinty eyes, same as Ralph from Palmy Boys.

There was a big ginger bloke with glasses called Diggory-Smith. He appeared soft, like he couldn’t hack it. Guy hadn’t thought you could get in the army if you wore glasses. Diggory-Smith had a kind, intelligent face, he looked like he should be a Uni rather than here. He was the only one on Guy’s basic who wore glasses. Finally, at the end of the room there was this really little fulla called Granville, he was full of energy, but he looked like a pom, someone who you would expect to see in Dad’s Army on the telly. He looked like a pom because he was little, with a pointy face, pointy chin, pointy nose. Even the name Granville, that sounded like a pom’s name. Lights out was 10:30, there was remarkably little snoring in the barracks.

The morning arrived at 4.30 am. Lights, noises, shouting, the works, absolute shock to their collective civilian systems. The groggy recruits were unceremoniously herded to the road to get the good news about what they had let ourselves in for. They then marched, badly, to the mess for breakfast. Now the mess was full of regular soldiers who gave the new recruits, still in civvies a good look over. They had their hair shaved, number three, so not too short. Stooge felt it the most, it was like he was being shorn. A huge pile of black hair under his barber’s chair. They were  given uniforms, not good uniforms, training uniforms, green everything, except the boots and PT kit.

Green helmet shaped hat, the liner from a proper helmet. With their names in white tape on the front, green shirt, green trousers, green webbing belt, green socks. The boots were the same as the ones Guy had worn in his last year at school, when he was trying to be a punk rocker. Calf length black army boots, they were actually pretty comfortable Guy thought. They were also given a purple rugby jersey and white shorts. PT kit. The regular soldiers all had their coloured belts and berets; The new recruits were at least ten weeks from getting a proper uniform, with camouflage and berets, coloured corps belts.

The best day for Guy was when he was given his first weapon, an M16. Best day was easy as this was his first proper day on basic training of course. But his days didn’t get any better than this one, that’s for sure.

Basic training revolves around drill, weapons training, physical fitness and more drill. Guy got fitter with every run, they ran every day in the purple rugby jersey and white rugby shorts. They ran like they marched, three abreast, in line. They had to run at the cadence shouted by the P.T instructor. This meant they had to run at the stride of the recruit with the shortest legs. Guy hated running in little steps, so he ran at the very back of the squad and ran in his own step, the P.T Instructors never noticed he did that, he’d run in step with the rest of the troop if they came near, then stride out again when they’d gone.

He was okay at drill; it’s simply marching in time, some people never really mastered it though and marched like teddy bears, swinging the wrong arm. With the weapons training, he was at the range every second day, blazing away at cardboard-cut-out Russian soldiers on a stick. He wasn’t technically ‘blazing away’ of course. Every shot was measured and judged by the training staff at the range, he was a good enough shot. He’d been shooting rabbits with his dad’s .22 since he was about ten. 

The culmination of his basic training is the BE (battle endurance), or ‘big effort’ as the recruits called it. The BE is a ten-kilometre route march in full battle kit to be completed in under two hours. This is immediately followed by climbing a six-foot wall, jumping a nine-foot ditch, carrying a comrade and his or her gear, over a shoulder for 200 metres, then they swap. For some reason army mixed up measurements like that, some things were in metric, some imperial.

Guy thought it must be because six-foot wall sounds better than a 182.88 Centimetre wall, that sounded pretty dumb. Guy also decided being carried is worse than doing the carrying. He carried, and was carried by Trooper Buck, because they were much the same size. Being carried was worse, because he had Buck’s big bony shoulder in guts, he was hanging over him like a dead body as he ran down the road, every step was like being punched in the guts. The finale of the BE was standing, shooting ten rounds at a target 100 metres away, the rounds had to hit a small area in the chest of the cardboard target, all in all, it was an exhausting morning’s work. Guy was absolutely buggered, he’d hacked his BE though, he’d hacked his basic. He was going to get to ‘pass out’ which is what graduating from the Army Training Group is called.

Guy was lucky to pass out really, he was naturally disorganised, he was still quick to answer back. He felt he was cleverer than the training staff, which he probably was, but that doesn’t count. Being a good soldier and doing what you are told when you are told to do it, is what counts, and he was bitter about being in the army at all, even though he was proud to have got this far. He remembered when that had dawned on him all too well, when he was standing in a gun pit on a mountainside at two o’clock in the morning.

It was a good gun pit, he and his number two on the machine gun, Stooge, who carried the ammo were good at digging and camouflaging the gun pits. They’d clear a large area, dig up all the tussock and any little trees or shrubs, then dig the u-shaped hole, the size of 3 graves. Then cover the two ‘graves’ facing down the line of fire with corrugated iron and some of the cleared earth. The horizontal pit was the gun pit, the covered pits were for sleeping in. Then they’d replant all the plants and build a mound behind where you stand with the machine gun, plant some more and then, wait. He’d been sleeping under ground for a couple of days, in the cold and rain. Providing ‘cover’ for his section, should the enemy party in the exercise happen by. So, for no good reason in his mind, no good reason because they weren’t going to ‘happen by’, they were coming on purpose and not coming at all until the day after tomorrow. This was just practice.

So, Guy was 18, he had been sleeping under ground, in a hole, before rising at 2:00 a.m. Kicked awake by Stooge, who had previously been on picquet. Now Guy was standing in the gun pit, with the gun, a belt fed machine gun, trained on a landscape of tussock with ‘the mountain’, as Mt Ruapehu was known, dominating everything from a distance of about 15 kilometres. This particular night was clear apart from the clouds forming on the mountain. It was Saturday night, his mates would be on the piss in Palmy, scoring some chicks. Having the time of their lives before going back to their warm beds and dry digs. He was here, tired, cold, watching a weather front build around the mountain and start heading his way. 

By the end of his stint of four hours, when Stooge would take over again, the weather was lashing down his neck, rain and sleet, down his neck. He was standing without wet weather gear, in wet boots, shivering and rubbing himself to keep warm. The sleet and rain running down his face like cold tears. The wind howled to add to the soundtrack of misery. 

‘Fuck this’, fuck it all’.

Guy did ‘pass out’ though. There was a big parade. The passing out parade was about an hour of impressive drill and prize giving. The little, almost square sergeant major took great pride marching out the front of his recruits, now soldiers, razor sharp creases on his uniform, boots shining like black glass. He had a shiny bald head under his beret and a big bushy black moustache. His drill stick was half as long as he was tall, it had shiny silver tips and spent the entire parade neatly tucked under his powerful arms. He was an impressive figure. At the end of the parade, the drill sergeant, a tall loud man, who’d been barking orders for the last hour, finally issued the final command of basic training, to the lines of new soldiers.

‘Dismissed!’

With that, the newly graduated soldiers all threw their newly issued coloured corps beret’s into the air, gathered them quickly up then dispersed among the gathered throng of friends and family. Guy ran over to greet his family where his mum was in tears, even Richard looked proud, Nicky gave him such a hug he thought he’d suffocate. His dad smiled and said ‘goodo, well done’. Guy didn’t mind, that was still praise. He knew his dad was proud, he’d never admit to such a thing though, for Guy it was simply good enough to know that his dad was proud of him for once.

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