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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How I won the war

Well, one of them, and it certainly wasn't the war you were thinking of. As you will see, if you read on, it was a war that was vitally important to the preservation of sanity and due decorum. Please note: I am not anti-military.  I write military history from time to time, but my heart is with the troops with their laconic humour and their sense of the ridiculous, Put me among the officers, and my Puckish side will come to the fore.

Because I was bullied as a child (probably no more than any other physically small but articulate boy got and still gets, but it was still no fun at all!), I learned guerrilla tactics early.

Those who bullied may not have known where it came from, but things often went wrong for them. I was never caught or accused, and my lips are sealed as to what I did, though one or two of the hoaxes I pulled off at school would be well-enough known, at least to those who assisted me. People who shouted at me always paid a penalty of sorts. The more they shouted, the more they suffered.  That was my rule.

I assumed that nobody had ever penetrated my masking activities, my guise of mild-mannered geniality, but at university, one of my friends was an elderly Czech who was always "Dr Racek", and in his papers, "A. A. Racek", though as his name was pronounced "Rahtsek", his students often called him "Dr. Ratsak" after a commercial warfarin product. He was a delightful, courteous, middle-European scholar.

I think he took me on as a friend because I was the outdoorsy type and could be persuaded to bring back mud from the edges of salt lakes and stuff, from which he could hatch and study obscure crustacea.  Or maybe he saw something of him in me. I think that was probably it.

I don't know his back story, but he would have been of military age in World War II.  For some reason best known to himself, he lent me a copy of a translation of Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Švejk, although, as he pointed out, it was Germanised as The Good Soldier Schweik.

I had, a few years earlier, read Catch 22, and I had been for three years a public service clerk in lowly orders who observed his fellow underlings with the eye of an anthropologist. I had learned to swim like a fish in the sea of the clerk-people.  I had an unerring eye for opportunities to make the self-important look ludicrous.

So I had mastered the art of the anarchist (without the bleak bad humour of old-style anarchists — I was, and am, a conservative anarchist who doesn't like blowing things up).  Now, I learned that there were other ways to manage the authoritarian mind, the military mind, the bullying mind. Švejk became my guiding light.

Jump forward a few years.  I had graduated, I was teaching, I was married, and we were not all that well paid.  Anything and everything that offered money was worth doing, even quiz shows — but that's another story.

I was inveigled into becoming an officer of cadets. The NSW Cadet Corps in those days was a sort of military operation. One wore proper army uniforms and insignia, one got pompous, one saluted, one marched, one stood at attention.  Well, one was supposed to try.  This one faked it.

In short, this one became Švejk. I dreamed of subverting the route marches into nature rambles and other tricks. They didn't come off.  I will pass over most of the details, and refer only to army camp at Singleton. There, the cadets were under canvas, but we officers were in barracks, except when we went into the field.

That was when the cunning Good Soldier came into his own.  The cadets did something called lantern stalks, which involved two platoons setting out from two lanterns on two ridges. Somewhere in the gully between the lanterns, they would meet and try to "kill" each other by taking a strand of wool that was around each cadet's arm.

Each encounter brought mighty swearing, and in the silence immediately after, they would see me standing there as I said quietly "When you make noise like that, you are drawing in the rest of the enemy — learn to move and fight in silence."

Recalling the swear words they had spoken, one would always ask me how long I had been there.  "I just came over when I heard the noise," I would lie. They never twigged that I had been there in a shadow, masked by a blanket to change my outline, waiting for them to arrive.  I got a reputation that I did not merit as some sort of Ghost Who Walks, but I truly enjoyed.

It also helped that I was (and probably still am — I haven't fired a rifle in more than 45 years), a crack shot.  On the rifle range, when two Cadet Under Officers decided to give "Mac" a helping hand. They took up their positions either side of me, and opened up on my target instead of their own. As a consequence, the result of my ten shots was 28 bulls and two inners.

On hearing this result, I called them over and told them that they had both probably missed on their first shot, but whatever the case, they agreed that the assistance was unnecessary.  The CUOs were senior cadets and clever boys, so they had me better sussed than most, unlike the "real" officers, but at least I kept them guessing.

Now about the "real" officers: the second camp I attended was all in barracks, and that entailed going to the officers' mess at night. Back then, a number of the officers were World War II types who were crashing bores, full of how they single-handedly Won The War.

I considered spiking their drinks, but there wasn't anything to use, and that was what led me to the Regimental Aid Post — or as We Military Chaps called it, the RAP.

They had no powerful laxatives that might fit the bill, but I got chatting with the third-year medical students who staffed the RAP, and told them how boring the officers' mess was. These people in the mess, I opined, must have made military history by Winning The War from the Catering Corps.  We explored Napoleon's maxim that an army marches on its stomach, but discounted that as an explanation.  We found common mind sets.

Now here was the situation: I had a car, and a uniform with a First Lieutenant's pips on it, so I had Authority. I also had a good command of the language of authority, and an excellent set of skills in hoaxing, but no refrigerator, and I could hardly walk into a pub in uniform to buy a case of beer.  The RAP students were in civvies, they had no car, but they had a refrigerator, ostensibly for storing medicines.

Together as a team, we were invincible. There was no security on the camp.  I could drive one of the students into town, he could go into the pub and buy some beer, I could drive it back in, and in the unlikely event that a sentry had been posted in our absence, none would question me.  I even had a cover story ready for having one of the medical students with me in the car, but it was never needed. I was, after all, An Officer.

And that, children, is how we won the Bore War.  I would arrive back at the Officers' Mess, late in the evening, and the Colonel, and old stager, would see me, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and murmur "There are very few of us left..."

Note: certain parts of this tale may (or may not) have been adjusted and/or embellished to make a better story. Other parts may (or may not) be entirely false and misleading. That caveat applies equally to everything in this paragraph, including this sentence.

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.


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