“Wakey wakey, rise and shine!”
John sat bolt upright on the cot as bright lights suddenly illuminated the barracks. There were muffled curses coming from beds as recruits propped themselves up and rubbed their eyes. They hadn’t long returned to barracks and checked in gratefully from night leave jumping into bed with the knowledge a bugle would have us out of bed at sunrise.
It seemed they were being awakened not long after midnight curfew and they’d just made it back and passed through a stern looking soldier at the check in desk on time. The night duty soldier was angry because he’d not been permitted to join on night leave at the city where the big dance at Cloudland was a magnet drawing all those on leave there. The night soldier was under discipline on duty and looking for some excuse to make someone else uncomfortable with citation and punishment for getting in late. John glanced at his watch before jumping out of bed as the Sergeant burst into his barracks singing a familiar ditty. We knew that song by heart now.
The Sergeant sang loudly as he passed through pausing to scream at any soldier unfortunate not to be standing at attention as he passed by. He paused at the end of the corridor to scream instructions before moving to the next barracks to share a similar happy greeting. They’d fifteen minutes to make beds, dress, have backpacks at the ready and be on parade ground for inspection. They knew they’d have to stand by beds when they returned to be minutely inspected. Every inspection would be a nightmare as they were reamed out one by one for some imaginary flaw in the appearance of their space area of responsibility. Sometimes a bed would be ripped open and an unfortunate soldier ordered to remake it properly under watchful gaze.
Where were they going some brave soul ventured to ask? There was a roar of laughter as the Sargent disappeared into the blackness of night outside. We would find out soon enough.
There was frantic activity as all sped through the familiar process and headed for their assigned section of the parade ground on the run. Their Lieutenant was already there pacing the area under lights and shouting at stragglers to get their act together. All lined up and stood at attention while the roll call began. The Lieutenant moved slowly down the line eyeballing each one in turn finding imaginary faults with dress and equipment. Each was remembered after careful observation from the time they came in as raw recruits and assigned a nickname. John’s was prickle head, a reference to the obligatory short back and sides crew cut received on the day they were checked in as new recruits. John’s haircut had turned out to be a disaster and ended up as a micro-crewcut.
The Lieutenant moved back into shadows to watch as Sergeant resumed command. He’d no doubt be returning to his bed while we suffered through a night route march. No details were given of the intended destination, but all were suspicious of the backpack they’d been ordered to take along. Obviously, they’d be camping out at some point in this wearisome exercise.
“Follow me,” shouted the Sergeant in his booming voice and began to sing a marching song. Recruits were familiar with the routine and understood that bone tired as they may have been they needed to sing along with all the volume they could muster. The platoon moved on rapidly into the night away from lights of camp.
The platoon traversed streams getting pants wet to the knees and boots full of water, John crawled through barb wired fences hoping there were no bulls around in what was imagined to be someone’s private farm land. Away from camp singing had been forbidden. They were to imagine to be on reconnaissance and crept silently now behind those ahead. Instructions were passed down the line in whispers. Fortunately, they weren’t in paddocks with grazing cattle!
The route chosen was well known to the army and had the permission of owners. At that point, recruits didn’t know that and were constantly on the alert for a charging animal. The moon had passed behind clouds now and all were reliant on shadows in front to determine the route. Now and then Sergeant and his assistant recruit Corporal would consult their compass with a flashlight hidden behind bushes so they could not be observed. The platoon wondered why this was necessary seeing they were the only foolish ones to be out in these remote places at night. Little did they know at the beginning of our enlistment as national service trainees all were being observed by regular army who were grading each one. If they didn’t pass muster exercises would be repeated and of course they did have to repeat the exercise multiple times for some excuse or another.
The platoon learned on that first exercise regular army were there when the platoon was challenged with “Who goes there?”
At a signal from the Sergeant recruits hit dirt rifles at the ready. One straggler was grabbed and disappeared into the blackness of night. A trophy for the regular army who’d take him back to their camp eventually, lock him up and interrogate him asking questions about exercises we’d carried out in the past and details of our platoon numbers names of officers and other details of camp. Recruits had been previously instructed to answer name and number nothing else. Any details other than that would see one locked up for a while and put to hard labour when returned to the platoon.
The platoon was now on high alert after losing one of our own and wide-awake waiting for signals from the front. At that moment, it began to rain lightly despite the moon making occasional appearances through separated clouds. Instructions were given to unpack pup tents and sleep until first light. Occasionally one would be hauled out of a damp tent for guard duty and this was preferable to trying to sleep wet though difficult to remain awake after arriving back from the dance at midnight.
At first light, camp was broken and the platoon headed back to camp. There was no pretence at hiding on the way back though discipline in the march was enforced strictly. Sergeant informed all he’d been instructed through his communication device to return to camp. They’d failed the test and should return for regular parade and rifle practice after a quick shave and clean up on return. It was suspected tests were set up for new comers to fail anyway and eventually understood so-called tests were just a motivational tool to encourage discipline.
This was a transportation wing of the army so after parades and arms instruction there’d be tests on various vehicles from jeeps, wagons and semi-trailers to eventually qualify for army licences covering the broad spectrum of transport vehicles. It was learned on parade that a jeep was missing. The whole platoon was put on censure and there would be no further leaves and little sleep and hard labour until the whereabouts of that jeep was disclosed. Rumour had it some foolish soldiers on hard labour had buried the jeep. While they’d rather accept hard labour than rat on those responsible eventually the truth came out and the platoon was ordered to dig the vehicle out, clean it and recondition the motor removing it from the jeep and working on it under close supervision of the Lieutenant.
Another day in army training! John made a mental note not to join army regulars when his two-year term of intense training, and completion of on call reserve freed him to concentrate on his career of choice.
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