Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Me and My...National Service Part 1

I deliberated over this post for the longest time. It certainly wasn't easy to devise the words. But my intention for this blog was always to record the fragments of my life. Time respects neither our joys nor our sorrows; but I think I need to be conscientious with the truth if this blog is to remain my authentic voice.

So, this post will be long and it will be rather serious. It will also detail a rather gruesome death. Consider this a disclaimer.

The tail end of 1993 saw me entering National Service (NS). It is compulsory for all male citizens and in my time, the service period was 2 years and 6 months, with a 2 month "discount" if you passed a fitness test. I remember obtaining that discount by squeezing out that *one* minimum pull up. Never has so much effort gone into so small a physical act.

I had just returned to my country after spending 2 years in Canada and 4 in the UK. My ambivalence towards NS was only matched by my anger at the compulsory nature of it. It was with a melancholic heart that I had my head shaved and entered into...

BMT (Basic Military Training)

This is the 3 month period that all recruits undergo to learn the basics before being deployed into specialist vocations. The basics included rifle training, physical fitness, military training, patriotism (it's a little pointless to learn the skills but not be prepared to die for your country!) etc.

I was posted to Section 1 of Platoon 17 in Echo Company. It was a hoot. We were a disparate bunch; from graduates to boys who never had more than 5 years' formal education; from wannabe sophisticates to boys whose NS stint was the first time they were spending more than a night away from home; from boys who grew up in a world of Charlie's Angels, Remington Steele, Dynasty and Moonlighting (ahem) to boys who could barely string together an English sentence.

The design was clear; put together a group of people with different ethnic, socio-economic and educational backgrounds. By sharing common experiences, they will derive much from the differences as they learn from each other's strengths. And we did. I remember the guy in the next bunk teaching me the best way to shine my boots. I introduced him to the first novel he had ever finished reading (John Grisham's The Firm).

Platoon 17 was a disgrace; the sloppiest, most lackadaisical platoon in the company. We couldn't march in time, our time-keeping was consistent only in its unremitting lateness and we just couldn't seem to take it all very seriously. It was hilarious. One fire drill saw us running around like head-free poultry and squawking like fish wives. We were last to assemble at the meeting point, of course - with one of us even managing to make an appearance in a towel.

Physical training sessions were particularly inane with the instructors' in-your-face macho posturing, like an intensified Debbie Allen in Fame. Just without the scary stick. At times it was like Private Benjamin and I often wondered how we would ever defend our country with hapless recruits like us. Render our enemies helpless with laughter I reckoned.

My second most memorable experience in BMT was our field camp, a 3 day exercise that would propel us to our physical limits and reveal the secrets of jungle survival. Of course it turned out to be neither. We arrived at a large field (there is no wilderness in my country of birth, let alone a jungle) that was overgrown with lalang (a long bladed grass that causes severe itchiness) and which seemed to be a convention centre for mosquitoes. In the sweltering humidity, these woeful recruits certainly weren't relishing the experience.

The toilet was literally several holes dug into the ground which flooded on the first day. The thought of doing the Big Lebowski with its potential attendant splashback was simply unbearable. Funny how the body reacts to such horrors. Mine simply refused to "go" for three days (too much information...?)!

But oh, the unbridled joy when the heavens did its own Number One and heaved its contents in the afternoon! Everyone thought our field camp would be cancelled. *Hours* later, as a small flood overwhelmed the pathetic drainage system around our tents, instructions were issued for us to come out of our soaked tents and reinforce the drainage. Clearly, this was to be Field Camp Experience - The Extreme Edition.

I cannot really recall what I learnt from the three days. I think there was a how-to-kill-a-chicken lesson but I don't remember a chicken being present. There was one exercise where we had to "tactically move" undetected across a 20 metre stretch of vegetation. My buddy (in NS you are paired off with a Buddy for the duration of the training) and I did a leopard crawl across that damned lalang, got lost, and emerged at the feet of our Sergeant-Major ("What are you doing?" he bellowed). The other recruits managed to find a concrete storm drain and run across that.

There were no showers of course. My single greatest accomplishment during this camp was to smuggle in some wet wipes (there was an inspection before we arrived to ensure we only brought standard issue items). Others returned from camp with hideous displays of rashes and 3 day old camouflage face paint. Buddy and I returned with squeaky clean faces and no spots, much to everyone's amazement.

At the end of Week 5, we had to complete a peer appraisal form and rank everyone in our platoon. Categories included Leadership Quality, Stress Tolerance and Best Preferred Friend. I'm not making this up. Apparently I came in the top ten for Leadership but truth to tell, I think that was because I studied overseas and not because anyone knew me in depth. As someone said to me, "Overseas student, what! It's not as if we like you or anything." Charming!

Week 6 of BMT was our rifle range trial test. This would be the day that would alter the course of my life. The day started with Platoon 19 (another platoon in the same company) being late to assemble for the march to the rifle range. Recruit K from Platoon 19 was yelled at by Platoon Commander W for being particularly slow.

I didn't know K very well. However at every rifle practise session, the routine was always the same. K would assist the person before him who would be in a foxhole; arranging sandbags, picking up the spent cartridges etc. I would assist K when he was in the foxhole and the person behind me would assist me etc. At the shooting chamber that morning, whilst waiting for our turn, I noticed K in front of me had put 3 rounds in his rifle magazine, instead of the requisite 1.

I prodded him but he totally ignored me. I asked him to clarify the process with W but he totally ignored me. I concluded that he was trying to cheat on the test by cutting down his reloading time.

When it was K's turn to assist the person in front, he was extremely distracted throughout; failing to observe procedures that had been drilled into us for the last 6 weeks. W even punished him with push ups; exchanging a what-is-this-boy-doing look with me.

K's turn to fire. The distant target popped up and in the periphery of my vision, I glimpsed a rifle being flipped over. K had turned the rifle towards himself and all I could see was the butt of the rifle sticking out of the foxhole. The supervising officer literally flew, screaming, towards the foxhole. A screech of "What are you doing?!", a brief struggle during which K disappeared from view and all I could see was the officer gripping the rifle butt and trying with all his might to wrench the weapon free. There were shots(2?) and awfully, horribly, dismally, I saw K's hand disappear into the dugout.

I was ushered out of the chamber amid pandemonium. Screams of "Medic", who turned up after what seemed like a very long interval. I witnessed the ghastly sight of K being carried out of the foxhole. He had a large hole in his abdomen and his intestines rested in a mound on his body. Red and white. W had to carry his intestines while another officer carried K into a vehicle. As W later said, "I didn't know whether to carry them, push them in, or bandage them."

K was rushed to the medical centre where a chopper was waiting to transfer him to a hospital. Apparently at the medical centre, they made incisions in K's thighs to extract veins for a heart bypass. He passed away an hour later.

Back at the shooting chamber, there were people. Lots and lots of people. People taking photos, asking me where I stood, knelt, what I said, saw. I finally looked into foxhole K had been in. Thick blood, at least an inch thick, on the ground and streaks on the walls.

I was sequestered from the rest of the company for awhile and then had to (unwillingly) join them for lunch. All the witnesses were then driven back to camp where we were interviewed by CID. Later we were questioned by a Board of Inquiry which had been convened. This lasted the entire day. That night, a guard was posted outside my bunk. Not sure if they thought I was going to jump out a window or sleepwalk.

The next day I was instructed to see the medic who dismisssed me with a you'll-overcome-it speech. I had a conversation with W who was in really bad shape. He blamed himself for shouting at K that morning and then for not noticing that something was amiss at the chamber.

That night I was summoned out of bed at 2330 to read through and sign the witness statements.

Day 2 after the incident and I was instructed to see the Orientation Officer, whose responsibility is to ensure the welfare of recruits and to offer counselling. His counsel to me: "Not your fault. Bye bye."

It was an arduous afternoon. The interview with Internal Security (I think) lasted 2 hours and then back to the Board of Inquiry for another session. I returned zombie-like to take my grenade launcher test.

Days later, I found out K had written his suicide note on the palm of his hand on the morning of the rifle test. It was something to the effect of: "Please release my 3 birds. I am brave and strong but stupid to die. Bye bye my friends." The poignancy is devastatingly hearbreaking. Even more so, were his personal circumstances which came to light. His life at home was a tragic tale of abuse and he had lost his mother just before entering national service. Most of us can comprehend the moronic shouting and ordering about as part of the military experience. However he seemingly couldn't and took it all personally. These factors strived to produce a soul that felt lost, lonely and that death was the only option to obtain some measure of peace.

It certainly jarred me into soberly evaluating my priorities. The hackneyed expression that "life is not a dress rehearsal" is certainly truer than most people think. Maybe that's why I can be such a headstrong person at times. There are times you go with the flow. The other times, you have to go for the jugular to realise your endeavours.

Wow, this post took me 3 days and it was an exhausting exercise. I had planned to write just one post on my Army days (daze) but have now split it into 2 parts. If you had perservered and read it through, thank you dear reader. I hope it wasn't too depressing or horrific.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

We Were Lost In France - The Highlights

So, I said I was expecting a plethora of adventures and thrilling undertakings. Maybe magic! romance! I never understood the saying, "Be careful what you wish for", but now I do.

On the early hours of Thursday morning we embarked on the SeaFrance ferry at Dover and crossed over to the French port of Calais. On board the motorhome were Partner, Best Friend, the 2 boys, C and J, myself, 5 bikes and Best Friend's enormous collection of luggage; all that was missing was a hat box, a mink stole and a clutch of Dolly Parton wigs.

After stocking up on provisions at hypermart Carrefour, we set off on the road, full of joie de vivre. Scarcely an hour into our journey on the fast lane of the motorway, we heard an almighty *bang* that shaved several years off our collective lives. I thought maybe a door had flown open and for several seconds we looked at each other in wide-eyed confusion. C ran to the back of the motorhome and looked out the back window. The metal brackets that were fixing the large storage box to the top of the motorhome had sheared off completely and that bang was the sound of a box containing a large barbeque set hitting the road at 60 miles an hour.

It is an absolute bloody miracle that there wasn't another vehicle behind us and that the box hadn't crashed through a windscreen and caused some serious damage. If the universe hadn't been as benevolent that day, we believe Partner would have been charged with a traffic offence at best and causing death by dangerous driving at worst. Of course with the benefit of passing time and a stiff drink or two we can joke about it now; Best Friend and I started generating scenarios where Partner was arrested and how we would have to hitch hike in short shorts and sell our bodies (unwillingly of course!) to fund our way back to London. But I digress...

Amazingly, a highway agency type vehicle was not far behind us and within seconds of the incident, the guys in the van had put up traffic cones to divert traffic and had loaded the box onto the van. In his pigeon Francais (as opposed to Best Friend's and my non-existent Francais), Partner agreed to drive to the next rest stop and meet them there.

At the next aire de repos, or rest stop, the 2 highway agency guys helped us to unload the contents of the box and even agreed to take the offending box away. How impressed were we! Viva Le France, we cried.

the motorhome at Calais

our heroes!

Adventure over, we were quite content for the remainder of the trip to be as sedate and boring as possible. Our first stop was a municipal aire in Mamers. It was a basic space for about 15 motorhomes but immaculately kept and had facilites like tennis courts and a playground. I loved the fact that the French are so accommodating towards holiday travellers. All for the princely sum of 5 euros a night.

our pitch

J climbing down the fence to join 2 French boys

partner in the kitchen

c and a french boy - a friendship forged from a phrasebook

our lunch everyday - freshly baked baguettes, ham, cheese, salad and wine. that bag of crisps was bolognaise flavoured.

At the campsite the most interesting moments were those spent observing the interaction between the boys and the French kids. C and J played ball in a basketball court amongst themselves while 2 other French kids also did the same. I suppose it's awkward when you don't share a common language. But half an hour later, they discovered they did share a common language - kid. Snippet:

J: "Do you speak English?"

French Child: "Non."

J: "I'm not French. Do you speak English?"

French Child: "Non."

But you don't have to speak to play football and the next day, J and his new friend slipped surreptitiously behind a tree and J tied a friendship band on new friend's wrist.

Our first destination was Ars en Re (no laughing at the back of the classroom please), located on the island of Ile de Re, on the west coast of France. What attracted us intially was that, aside from the sandy beaches, it is famously flat and full of bike trails. We stayed at a 2 star campsite La Combe a l'eau, which has basic facilities and backs onto a beach that was devoid of tourists.

Our stay was a short one. Not because of any ill reaction to the place; but we all felt the beach wasn't our thing and it felt a little too much like a resort in Nice or Malaga; those who love the sea will find it a place of immense charm. We decided to head inland towards Cognac and perhaps find a campsite along the Charente river.

Along the way we stopped at Fouras, a pretty seaside town. Mark had been there years ago and had fond memories. Not hard to see why; it's got a sandy beach that's not overcrowded, seafood restaurants and oyster stands galore. Top Tip: If you're ever in Fouras, look out for the oyster stand manned by a decidedly unmanly lady who is well and truly bursting all over with the joys of Summer.

Having had a torrid August in London in which Partner and I were exhausted from the rigours of work and general city living, it was glorious to sit on a beach, having a picnic, drinking wine, and just watching a parade of characters enjoying the sun.

is it cindy? linda? naomi?

1 Best Friend + 1 small boy + black mud = Full Scale Shrieking Mud Fight

creatures from the black lagoon

Driving inland into the Cognac region, we saw a sign for a campsite in Bourg-Charent. We decided to nosey around and struck pure holiday gold. Sited by the Charente river, it is a well kept site with basic facilites and the friendliest "landlady".

The environs are almost Monet-esque. A beautiful slow moving river is kissed by vivid green banks on both sides. There is an imposing chateau on a hill and 10 minutes walk away is a stunning Michelin starred restaurant. Tres chic!

What sealed the deal, however, was the cycle trail into the town of Jarnac. The path is a little bumpy but as you cycle along the gorgeous Charente river, you see cattle grazing, pretty locks with little boats waiting to enter, families setting up tables and chairs for a picnic (there was a family of about 16 seated by the banks bonjour-ing passersby; we almost expected them to burst into song ala final scene in Mama Mia), fishermen, and lush cornfield after lush cornfield. Top Tip: Don't even try eating the corn. They're not edible.

The town of Jarnac is ludicrously pretty. Not so much a picture postcard as a realisation of a fantasy of what you think a little French provincial town should look like - white washed walls, hanging baskets full of flowers, fantastic shuttered windows, cobbled streets...I half expected Belle from Beauty and the Beast to start skipping past me, basket in hand.

On the cycle ride to town, the boys and I stopped at a little stream which was flowing to the river. As they waded and explored, shafts of sunlight filtered through the foliage, bouncing light off the water and highlighting the cornfield. I literally had to catch my breath. When you live in the city and get caught up in all its hubris, I think it's easy to forget there is life outside, where nature is most magnificient in her smallest details.

the local patisserie where we got fresh croissants for breakfast

Possibly the most hysterical hour I've experienced this year was provided by Best Friend who not only demonstrated highly proficient synchronised swimming moves that would put a Russian team to shame, he also showed an amazing versatility with water plants. I was incapacitated with laughter:

godzilla? sailor moon?


partner and best friend fishing (unsuccessfully)

chilling out

most nights, we had barbeque for dinner

my triumphant potato salad accompaniment (haha!)

one euro buys a ten minute douche. heaven knows why best friend and i found it hysterical :-)

c fishing with a rod fashioned from a branch. idyllic n'est-ce pas?

The next highlight was a 3 star campsite recommended by a couple of expatriates Partner had bumped into when we were having lunch at a rather desolate aire. Le Port de Limeuil is an all singing and dancing campsite with amenities likes a swimming pool, play area, bar, shop, laundry block, free Wifi etc.

At the edge of the website was the Dordogne river, which simply took our breaths away. Where the Charente is a narrow slow moving river, the Dordogne is wide with a rather strong current in the middle. Surrounded by verdant hills and the obligatory chateau on a hill, it is a stunning location for canoeing, swimming and fishing.

I never thought that I would get an opportunity to swim in such a wide beautiful river, overlooked by gentle hills. Simply stunning. Naturally, Best Friend and I found a way to embellish Nature's beauty by posing ala Charlie's Angels in our speedos. And no, I'm not posting those pics!

Before we set off to our next location Best Friend and I ruminated on the state of the world and had a discussion on the vagaries of the human condition. We came to the startling and profound conclusion that if gay men ruled the world, there would be no war. We'd be too busy going to the gym. We also determined that even if gay men went to war, the outcome would be decided not by weapons of mass destruction, but by a camouflage-off. Like a dance-off. But with uniforms, to see who had the best.

And with those stunning insights still stunning our consciousness, we arrived at the medieval village of Beynac which spreads along the northern bank of the Dordogne, and winds up the steep hill to the castle above. The castle itself appears to have been carved out of the hillside, and on the walk up, we passed various artists' studios and quaint picture-postcard residences. The castle is an impressive structure, having been inhabited by amongst others, Richard the Lionheart. The vista across the miles of countryside is breathtaking.

The castle was used as location for the movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, whilst the village was used as a location for the movie Chocolat. Between Milla Jovovich burning for her beliefs, and Johnny Depp burning for Juliette Binoche's bon bons, I know which movie I'd rather be in!

The last highlight of the trip turned out to be another fluke in the vein of Bourg-Charente. Eschewing a heavily advertised campsite which turned out to be just a narrow stretch of sand overlooked by a cliff, we trundled into a 2 star site (Le Rocher de la Cave) which looked extremely unpromising. There was a smattering of tents and motorhomes and not much else. But when we walked to the river, the view just hit us between the eyes.

A large cliff with caves on the opposite bank overlooks the wide river with lush greenery on either side. Another day, another ridiculously imposing chateau on a hill. The only discordant note was the neighbouring motorhome which was occupied by a lady who looked like a cross between Su Pollard (kooky British actress) and Mrs McClusky from Desperate Housewives. She gave the creepiest stares.

The next day was heaven on earth. We met a young Dutch couple, Mark and Ot who were hitchhiking their way through Spain and France with nothing but their backpacks and an inflatable mattress. Mark turned out to be a big kid and the boys regarded him like the cool big brother he undoubtably was in their eyes. He and Ot took the boys wall climbing and even pulled the boys on a rubber ring across the river to explore the caves on the opposite bank.

Best Friend settled himself under a tree and indulged his love of painting.

Partner indulged his love of fishing.

I gave myself to the river gods and alternated between catching up on my reading and swimming in that most serene of rivers.

In that environment of natural simplicity, it appeared everyone found their moment to savour, reboot, zone out.

It was a proud, proud day for partner; he secured a bounty of 3 carp which we were all very excited about barbequeing that night. Top Tip: Carp respond very well to Gouda cheese.

We invited Mark and Ot to join us for dinner that night, which they gratefully accepted. The poor creatures hadn't had a proper meal for days. The day before was a Sunday and with the shops closed, they had cooked some leftover rice in a Coke can over a fire to accompany the stray tomates they had foraged.

The boys had found some bamboo which they fashioned into fishing poles. Best Friend and I used the leaves to decorate our pitch. And with a burst of the Wonder Woman theme and a flourish ala To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything (RIP Mr Swayze), we transformed our primitive site into a Tropical-Hawaiian-Malaysian-Thai-Spa-Retreat-Oasis-Thingie. OK, we strung the leaves on a fishing line...

Dinner. We BBQed pork, chicken, aubergine; I made potato salad and Partner whipped up a roasted vegetable risotto. We also barbequed the carp. Top Tip: Do not eat carp; they are boney in excelsius.

The night was magical. I think the bottle after bottle of Rose may have contributed in no small part. We laughed like hyenas through the night. The memories are agreeably hazy but I remember jokes about the belly of our motorhome being home to 2 old women from the third world and that they would be doing the washing up; and that in between their chores they would be sewing Nike shoes (Best Friend at this point threw some garlic bread into the storage area, shouting, "Dinner! Eat Up!"). Hmm, I think you had to be there...

At about 11pm, Mrs Su McClusky flashed her outdoor lights, presumably because our decible levels were now scaring the local wildlife. Naturally the only thing left to do was to fashion a voodoo figure from some bamboo and a split tomato. Mark and Best Friend left it near Mrs McC's motorhome. I have no idea if she found it the following day.

And those were the highlights of our voyage. We had a blast; and even now, 2 weeks later, I am still infused with the goodwill and good feelings I experienced there. With no pressure to "do Paris" in 3 days or fulfill an agenda, it was a real tonic for the soul to have that freedom and flexibility to explore where our whimsy took us. It truly was magic.