CHAPTER 23: Bits and Pieces

I spoke about the Red Fox, our company commander, earlier.  Others were not so kind and referred to him as the Red Rat.  I can understand why. You see my brother, a Vietnam veteran living in Cootamundra, brought his wedding plans forward because of my imminent deployment to Vietnam so that I could attend his wedding.  To get to Cootamundra in time I needed to catch the 2pm flight from Townsville on the Friday afternoon.  He sent me a wedding invitation as proof of the wedding and I handed it to Pat my platoon commander with a request for the leave on Friday afternoon. I didn’t think there would be a problem.

That same weekend, Killer, Digger and a few others were organising a trip up to the Atherton Tablelands to have a look around.  I of course was fully expecting to head to Cootamundra that weekend so I opted out.

Some time went by and I hadn’t received approval for my leave.  Pat followed it up and told me the Red Rat had refused my leave.  He didn’t call him the Red Rat or the Red Fox of course.  The reason my leave was refused is that we would be on exercise at High Range and it would be difficult to get me back in time to catch the plane.

Prick.

As it turned out, we got back from High Range mid morning on the Friday and although we had a fair bit of post exercise admin to complete, surely leave for me was now a formality.  My leave was denied by the Red Rat again.

Fucking’ prick.

So I spent the weekend in Townville while my mates whom I sweated and toiled with and who also lost a half stone in weight were whooping it up, up north.  I did get to see the slides that Digger took.  The Atherton Tablelands looked like a nice place, for Queensland you understand.

Digger and I had the same camera, a Kodak Instamatic 104.  It was quite small and required no operator input except to press the shutter button.  It was my kind of camera.  The film came in a cartridge, once the film was fully exposed as demonstrated by the fact you couldn’t wind it on any more, you simply opened the back of the camera, took out the cartridge and loaded in another.  These cartridges were sealed so no light could get in.  In fact nothing could go wrong with this camera.  In a word, it was soldierproof.

It even had a facility for a flash for taking pictures in the dark.  Kodak had a cube that fitted onto the top of the camera.  It contained four flashes and as you wound the film the cube rotated ready for another flash.  Magic!

We used slide film and we were careful not to take silly shots as the processing was prepaid.  We sent the films away to be processed and they returned as slides in a nice little box.  I had a keen interest in photography from an early age but I never had a decent camera, maybe I could get an SLR in Vietnam duty free.  I already knew how to set a manual camera for a nice sunny day.  My mother had a bellows type camera with large negatives about 6 x 4. It had no built in light meter.  My parents didn’t really know how to operate it and I was only allowed to play with it when they didn’t know I was playing with it. One day my father sent me down to the camera store to get the fellow to set the camera for a sunny day.  He set it on F11 @ 125.  I never forgot that.

I needed to find out more about this photography stuff so one day in Townsville I spotted a small camera book in a book store.  In it was a lot of information about depth of field, rule of thirds, ASA settings; that kind of thing. I bought it and read the whole book cover to cover.  I didn’t understand any of it and neither did my dumb grunt mates.

The Kodak Instamatic 104 was soldierproof, but was it bulletproof?

There were plenty of things to do in Townsville.  There were the pubs: Loths, the Winterson (I think that’s where you got a free plate of fried rice so they could stay open later) and the one near the hospital, the Allen hotel.  There were other pubs but that’s where Army dickheads from other units went, so unless you were looking for a punchup, you stuck with the ones our guys went to.  I’ve already mentioned the Hong Kong Restaurant and the lovely ladies who waited hand and foot on Burke.  We also went out to Magnetic Island a few times but I never did get a photo of the bikini tree.

We went swimming at the pool where Dawn Fraser trained.  The water was warm.  I think it was the only time I ever worked up a sweat while swimming.  There was a pool at Lavarack Barracks but the chicks were at the pool in town.  My mate Rick (who nearly got charged for wearing his GPs with civies remember) had a Polaroid camera which took black and white pictures that developed before your very eyes.  Not far from us was a sheila with big tits and he worked out a strategy to take a photo of her without her knowing.  I got up and move a little in her direction.  Rick aimed the camera at me, and at the last moment he traversed the camera right and snapped away.  Her eyes didn’t move from the book she was reading.  I must check with Rick to see if he still has the photo.

Of interest was a place that sold coral lamps.  A large shell with painted coral set into it and the whole shebang was lit by a low powered light globe.  I sent two home to my mother.  The store was building a coral display.  The paint on the coral was the same that glowed under those black fluorescent tubes.  I remember those lights at our local dances.  They’d switch off the main lights and put on these black ones.  People looked kinda funny, their white teeth glowed; but what made them especially popular is that on some fabrics the light enabled the girl’s bras to be clearly seen underneath.  The girl’s underwear glowed in the dark!  It’s no wonder that the lights were popular with the guys.  The coral display was only half completed but the guy showed us how it would look.  It was quite spectacular.  Is it still there?

Some days we were not allowed into town because of the moratorium marches.  These were people who were demonstrating against the Vietnam War and large rallies were held in most capital cities that attracted thousands of people.  I dunno how big they were in Townsville, or indeed if they held any demonstrations against the war.  Lavarack Barracks was on the outskirts of Townville and there wasn’t much around the base.  Some housing was getting closer at the western side of the barracks near the rifle range, but outside the barracks, to the south, it was deserted except for the university up the road.

Someone painted “RESIST!” in big letters with bright red paint on the sandstone rock at the entrance to the barracks.  A couple of days later the following sign appeared on the roadway at the entrance to the university in big red paint: ”DON’T RESIST, ENLIST!”

Oh, I nearly forgot.  The Queen paid us a visit although I didn’t get to shake her hand.  In the days leading up to the visit we did plenty of area maintenance.  We sweated and toiled to have everything spick and span.  Even shrubs and stuff in the creeks were ripped up so that the view along the back road at the barracks would be nice and, er, sterile.

Charlie Company had the honour of being the honour guard, and was it any wonder.  The company commander was Major Peterson who successfully led the Montagnards, the hill tribe in Vietnam, on a previous tour.  Frank Walker wrote about him in The Tiger Man of Vietnam.

The day the Queen arrived I was on steward duty at the Sergeants Mess.  That meant I did plenty of cleaning and washing of dishes and stuff, then donned a white coat and served the sergeants their meals.  I saw Tojo there and I’m pretty sure he gave me a nod of recognition.  I leant something important that day, sergeants like green ice cream.

I knew the Queen would be passing by the mess after the ceremony as the theatre was just down the road.  I waited outside with my Kodak Instamatic 104.  The car carrying the Queen sped past at a zillion miles an hour, I managed to get one picture – it was blurry.  I hope the Queen and Prince Philip noticed the nice clean, but bare creeks as they raced past.

I haven’t written about any of my stuff ups lately, maybe you think I’ve been a good boy and I haven’t been getting into trouble with my superiors.  Well that’s not quite right, I did manage to upset the big cheese, the grand poobah, the commanding officer of the battalion, Johnny Three Fingers.  Sum Wun said he got one of his fingers shot off during the Korean War but I didn’t get close enough to him to check it out for myself so I dunno if that is true or not.

One morning I was on my way to company HQ.  I was following the path that parallels the road.  Up ahead, the path I was following turned 90 degrees (1600mls for us Army dudes) to the right.  Further up ahead, walking in a bandy legged swagger towards me was Johnny Three Fingers.  My mind calculated that I would turn right before I entered his saluting zone based on his current rate of advance.  I dunno what the saluting zone actually is; I figured that I don’t salute an officer until I can see the whites of his eyes.  To complicate matters he was wearing sunglasses.

I had to keep my same walking pace.  Well I wasn’t walking really, it was more of a march although not as pronounced as the match that recruits at Kapooka are forced to do.  If I increased my tempo it would telegraph to Johnny Three Fingers that I was trying to avoid saluting him.

I turned right.

“I say soldier,” Johnny Three Fingers called out.

Oh, no I’m in trouble now.  I bet he quickened his stride to trap me into his saluting zone, or maybe his saluting zone is different to mine.  Note to self, look up the saluting zone in ROs.

I turned around and faced the CO.  I’m not sure how far away he was but I was unable to discern if he had any protruding nasal hairs.  This I felt would be an alternative test to seeing the whites of officer’s eyes when the said officer is wearing sunglasses.  I must make a note of this and advise the RSM so that ROs can be promulgated to this effect.  I can visualise the RSM thanking me now.

I was abruptly brought back to reality when the CO asked, “Don’t you salute an officer?” He was standing at attention now, but his knees did not meet.

Fuck me, I’m outside your saluting zone Johnny. “Sorry Sir,” I said and I threw him a boxer.  I quickly did an about turn before he asked me my name; I’m pretty sure that if you can’t see the CO’s nasal hairs then he can’t see your name tag.  He knew I was coming from A Company lines so maybe I haven’t heard the last of this.

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Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the VIETNAM WAR. If you can’t wait, read more of this story now – or wait out while we reproduce it on these pages.

ian_cavanoughHi guys. I am a good-looking, opinionated old fart who relishes a spirited debate on any topic regardless of how much I think I know about it.
Ian Cavanough,
Tumut, NSW

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