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once we were soldiers
 


 
 

australian infantryman's combat badge

Boot Camp and Corps Training 60's Style

© By Bob Cavill
C Coy & Assault Pioneers
1st Tour

1968

I had returned from the experience a 'flat liner' neither train crash, car accident, bushfire natural or man made event could change my heartbeat an iota, or indeed, elicit in my sole a sympathetic response. I wasn't completely switched off though, as an unexpected car backfire once put me flat to ground on a pedestrian crossing in Bankstown shopping centre, severely embarrassing myself, and my wife.

I felt strangely detached for a long time, small things would flash anger me, such as my wife asking me what coloured shoes she should wear, or our small daughter wanting me to kiss her ... it was all so irrelevant somehow. I would find my little daughter silently weeping over something I had said and I would feel the guilt; I seemed to be riding waves alternating in anger and remorse. I did not want to go back to 'that place', but I was desperately unhappy and could not fathom out why.

Sometime later a car accident happened in front of me opposite Liverpool Railway Station. A woman had turned right in front of a bus and the car had been catapulted down the road and come to rest upside down. I walked calmly to the overturned car, petrol was pouring out of the tank onto the road. I tried to pull the driver out but unusually for the time the car was fitted with seat belts and I was not familiar with them. After a time, I realised the weight of the now unconscious elderly women driver prevented the release of the seat belt lock. I called out to some onlookers at the taxi stand in front of the station to help me undo the seatbelt! They yelled back "get out of there it will blow up!" and refused to approach. I got angry; called them all a bunch of f***ing cowards. I eventually got the seatbelt undone, placed the woman on the road nearby and walked back to my own car, and left. The whole incident reinforced the contempt I already felt for these 'others'. I had felt no fear only anger, it was anger so intense on the way home I could hardly speak ... my wife said nothing.

I was suffering from separation anxiety. I didn't know it at the time, and I just didn't care, nothing else mattered. I feared the War but I wanted desperately to be back with them'The Brothers', the men of The Regiment, the only people in the world who meant anything to methe ones who 'would have been there' beside meat that car.

I got drunk often. I woke one night yelling that I couldn't see! ... My wife put the light on ― and moved to another room.

I talked about returning to the Army, perhaps I could corps enlist, and be back with them in a fortnight.

My wife told me she was 'sick of it!' ... It was going to have to be her or the Army. I swallowed my tears, it had been hard to march in ... but was harder to march away.

It had all started in 1964.

It was around twelve months before the introduction of national service by lottery in1964-5. After voluntary enlistment for 3 years near my 18th birthday, I reported to Eastern Command. An Australian Army Depot at that time beautifully situated on the south head of Sydney Harbour near Watson's Bay. Having very long hair at the age of 18, on arrival I was subjected to the usual standard Army joke of being asked in a serious manner 'how would I like it!?' only to have my hair immediately removed completely. Observing I was completely bald in a mirror and having at this time in my life developed many inhibitions, one of them being my appearance, this close cropping of my hair had a depressing effect. It must be remembered that this was the 'sixties' and long hair to both sexes at this time was a defining characteristic of the teenage scene. My fellow recruits and I had been lined up and shorn like sheep; being thus crushed by my appearance I headed for a small beach below the base on the shores of Sydney Harbour ― Lady Bay Beach.

Looking westwards, up the harbour, one could see the bridge silhouetted by the setting sun, the light defining the bridge's steel frame, and reflecting off the sides of the tall buildings. It was one of those turning points in your life when you sense that something is about to change and nothing will be the same again. I was somewhat worried, and a little unhappy. I knew that, what I was about to do was not going to be easy, my father had said as much to me on signing the enlistment documents ― his signature was necessary due to my age of 18.

In the gloomy orange light of late afternoon I could see there was another figure standing on the beach. After a time he approached me and I noticed he was in uniform. He asked me for a smoke and I gave him one. We stood in silence facing each other smoking. After a while I enquired of him his reason for being there, he explained he was being discharged after completing six years of service. I asked him of course "What was it like in the Army?" He looked at me, probably realising for the first time that I was a recruit, something he had perhaps only suspected up to that point, I being in civilian clothes. He looked at me in silence, then after a long pause said "just coming in are you?" I said "yes," he shook his head. I now know there was no answer to the question, one that could be delivered in less than three hours at any rate. He said, "Have you been given a number yet?" Looking down, I said "I think it's on a bit of paper that's been given to me." He said make sure you learn it, "know it mate before you get to Kapooka, know it when you get there." He turned away and walked back up the hill toward the barracks. I looked down in the fading light at the paper, service number 2 4 1, double 2, double 3 - 2412233. This was to be the very first tiny piece of a mega download of information, that was about to be driven into my brain over the next three years by the Army.

Within a day or two we were warned to prepare for transfer by train to the Army's training centre at Kapooka near Wagga Wagga in central New South Wales. I was still very self-conscious regarding my appearance, in particular the loss of my hair, so I asked my girlfriend Christine Long - later to become my wife, not to come and see me off at Central station. This request made by phone she promptly ignored!

It was a worrying and an emotional parting for her, given she was pregnant at this time, as well as an intensely embarrassing one for myself due to my appearance. This
my self-image, along with my somewhat fragile ego was about to be given an incredible work over.

On arrival at Wagga Wagga railway station we were ordered on to buses where I was to have my first experience of an Army Regimental Drill Instructor, an R D I. Over six feet tall he was built like a pit-bull terrier, but we nicknamed him 'The Cattle dog' on account of his friendliness. His uniform starched as hard as cardboard, he looked every bit the professional soldier and the Korean War Veteran he was. His boots and belt shone like black lacquer.


 

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