From the White Horse’s mouth

Losers of the "Make My Head Look Most Like A Watermelon" Contest pose for a picture in Shoalwater Bay, Queensland, October 2005

I was enlisted in December 1988, just as the Army was changing their combat helmets from heavy steel to high tech Dupont Kevlar, and apart from my dog tags that said I was allergic to penicillin and triple antigen vaccines, my medical docket had this mysterious ink stamp that simply said, “W.H.”

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My National Day Parade

I remember National Day Parade 1990 the most because it’s the NDP I was involved in.

It was held at the Padang, and it featured the most impressive mobile column display since independence, involving all the military hardware and soldiers (like us) of the day.

At the beginning of that year, my battalion mates and I were in our second year of National Service – and for some reason, there was a what was called a “lull period” in our training program. By May, it became clear why that was so, as plans for the Padang parade were passed down through the combat and support companies. Our battalion was to supply one company sized mobile column/marching contingent and three companies of construction labour to build the spectator stands for the parade.

I’m not sure how it works these days, but in our time, the method of divvying up the work was this: the worst performing combat company got the marching duties. It might seem strange that the worst get rewarded by being in the limelight. But look further and you’ll realise that the mobile column/marching contingent has copped the rawest deal – hours and days of rehearsals, starching of uniforms, polishing of boots and armoured vehicles.

We moved in to the Padang in June, helping to unload the metal tubes that made up the grandstands, and then building the grandstands. It was like a giant Ikea assembly project as our sergeants and officers argued over the engineers’ manuals and instructed us to build the several storey tall structure by trial and error.

When night fell, guards were mounted from our ranks and we patrolled the Padang to ensure no one stole or sabotaged the grandstand. It was great fun.

Across the road from the Padang, where the Esplanade now stands was a hawker centre known as the Satay Club. We’d stray from our route and buy food and drink (with the blessing of the guard commander ensconced in a command tent on the grounds of the St Andrew’s Cathedral) and eat till our hearts’ content.

With the wee hours came some unusual encounters for the patrols. A group of transvestites used to frequent the Satay Club nightly, and it wasn’t because they liked to eat satay a lot. When day broke on one of the first few days we were at the Padang, our Regimental Sergeant Major had inspected the construction site and discovered condom wrappers, used condoms and other associated debris strewn around the grandstand area – people had been using the nooks and crannies made by our stacks of building material to explore their own nooks and crannies.

The order was put out unequivocally – we were not to allow any such monkey business to happen, and we were to apprehend (nicely) any civilian who were caught doing so, and ask them to leave the area and get a room. If they were to resist, we were to call our guard commander via our walky talkies, who would then call the cops via telephone at the cathedral.

So we patrolled a lot more diligently, shining torchlights into dark places and asking couples in various degrees of undress to leave the area for their safety. Thankfully, on my patrols, most did without resisting. But there was the incident of a patrol who encountered a group of belligerent transvestites who threatened them with bodily harm. By the time the police arrived, the guard commander was cowering under his table while the ladyboys sat on top and ransacked the things that were there.

I also celebrated my 21st birthday while serving a weekend guard duty at the Padang. That night, my buddies left the compound to buy a cake, some satay and lots of beer. We passed out drunk somewhere on the field and only got woken up when some transvestites wanted to trespass again.

More good times were had after the grandstand was built and when the other participants in the parade arrived for dress rehearsals. After being asked to test the grandstand by jumping up and down on them (and not causing a collapse and killing ourselves) we hung out near the Singapore Airlines contingent and asked the Singapore Girls how they had been selected to march – whether they had been rated the worst among their peers or something. They mostly ignored us.

On National Day itself, I was tasked to take my recce motorcycle and station myself at a car park somewhere in Raffles Place and guide VIP vehicles in and out of the area.

So, apart from seeing the aircraft of the RSAF perform their flypast, I missed the entire parade.

Troopers from 46SAR celebrating the completion of the spectator stands, July 1990 (I'm 3rd from left)

Water displacement formula, 40th attempt

Back when I was in full time NS, the cleaning of weapons was a mundane, time-consuming, daily chore. Between the 7 troopers in a combat section, we’d have around seven small arms (M16S1), couple of grenade launchers (M203), couple of light automatics (Ultimax100), two GPMGs, and a heavy machine gun (Browning .5 HMG).

Carbon residue would get stuck in the crevices and barrels of the weapons, which is the real reason why we were really really reluctant to fire our weapons during training. Of course, this was marketed as ‘ammunition conservation discipline’.

Every day when we were in camp, we’d be cleaning our weapons. When we were in the field, we’d clean our weapons. Nothing to do? Clean weapons. If there were to be a war, it’d have to have been put on hold because we were cleaning our weapons.

One of the hardest, and somehow most satisfying part of cleaning a weapon was the barrel pull through. This entailed putting a folded piece of flannelette (variously mispronounced as flannel-lite, fannelite and fantalite) in the eye of the pull through rod, and pulling the rod through the barrel of the weapon.

The thicker the flannelette, the more carbon residue it extracted. But the thicker the folded piece of flannelette, the harder it was to pull the entire thing through. Sometimes, you had to recruit your buddy to help hold your weapon while you pulled the rod through.

Four or five pulls, then another one with a new piece of flannelette usually did the trick, but not without a considerable amount of elbow grease.

Then one day, a platoon mate came to camp with a can of WD-40. He said it would work wonders with the weapons cleaning. Of course, we tried it. It worked. It cut down cleaning time by about 10 million years. We were free.

Queues at the canteen and payphones became longer. We spent more time and money on snacks, cigarettes and contact with the outside world. It was obvious that the fragile fabric of soldierly cohesion and solidarity was being threatened.

They banned the use of WD-40 in weapons cleaning. They then spread such disinformation as “WD-40 will cause barrel explosions and blow your pretty face off when you fire the weapon. Your buddy standing nearby will get it too”. Of course, that didn’t work, because one or two foolhardy troopers went ahead to try it, risking life, limb and the pretty face of their buddy standing nearby, firing their weapons uninhibitedly, knowing that they’d either die or have a lot of free time on their hands because they never had to spend so much time cleaning any more.

I had my car radio tuned to the BBC World Service yesterday morning, and listened to the most interesting story about WD-40, and how it evolved from a rocket scientist’s solution against missile corrosion, into one of the world’s most ubiquitous brands, but at the same time remaining unchanged as a product that always delivered beyond expectations.

I did not know that 20 years ago. Now I do.

When once the flag flew me

Flags for sale

Once, during NS, me and two other guys were made the battalion’s flag raising party for one of many early morning parades.

This task entailed picking up the flags from the Regimental Sergeant Major’s office, checking the cords to make sure nothing was frayed, and rehearsing our marching to the flag poles at the top of the parade square, and then doing it for real during the actual parade, complete with raising the national flag and the Army flag.

We were told several times to check and make sure that the loops for the flags were attached properly before raising the flag during the national anthem, and told in no uncertain terms, on pain of pain, that we should never, ever, raise the flag upside down.

To our horror, as the anthem played, the white portion of the national flag appeared to creep up the pole as we hoped against hope that the flag was merely impossibly crumpled and would unfurl itself soon enough.

It didn’t, and it was the longest Majulah Singapura I had ever heard. Our lives flashed before our eyes as we contemplated a long stint in detention, and we felt the ridicule and then the pity heaped on our backs from our battalion mates standing in parade behind us, as we raised the upside down flag the best we knew, and only took it down once the parade was over.

Completely useless Christmas gifts: the camouflage-patterned wallet

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Buy this for a friend doing his national service stint / reservist in-camp. Worried that he might lose it while on field training because his wallet looks just like foliage? Buy another one for him.

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