Friday, 2 August 2013

Army poncho

   This is the story which I wrote to present at John's 70th birthday party last Saturday night at the Belair hotel in Adelaide:

   "At the time of John's 70th birthday, I would have liked to write a song for the occasion but I hope you will enjoy this story instead.  There are many people, family and friends, who know John as a 70-year old, but how many were around or remember when he was seventeen?  I'll tell you a story of when John was seventeen.

   In 1960, when John was seventeen, he was very passionate about the army and his participation in the activities of the high school army cadets.  He had lots of paraphernalia which made him proud.  He had a slouch hat with the rising sun badge holding up the brim on the left side.  Other prized badges included one that proclaimed he was proficient in dismantling a light machine gun (LMG) and putting it together again without having any pieces left over; another badge, of crossed rifles, declared that he could hit a target with a .303 rifle while keeping quiet about the bruises developing on his right shoulder.

   Amongst the equipment which made up his uniform were a webbing belt and gaiters, both with brass buckles.  The webbing was lovingly cleaned with blanco and the brass polished with brasso.  There was hell to pay if brasso happened where only blanco should prevail.  His black boots were spit and polished with kiwi boot polish and… spit!  The polish was loosely applied and then spat upon; the mixture was spread around with brush and rag until the boots were like a mirror.  I seem to remember the claim that the boots could be used when in conversation with a girl by thrusting one foot forward such that the mirror-surface of the boot gave a perfect view up… to the end of the street!

   John had uniform trousers, braces, shirts and winter tunic.  For inclement weather, he had a waterproof poncho.  In fact, for some reason he had two (unless one was mine - I was in the cadets, too, for a while).

   He called us all out onto the back lawn one day to show us how, on an army bivouac, one could make a tent out of two army ponchos.  Pete and I might have been a bit dubious, but Alan and Lester, and Mickey the dog, were surely impressed.

   Anyway, John demonstrated (showing early skills as a teacher) how the two ponchos, instead of each being buttoned to itself with the buttons at the neck and front, could be buttoned to each other, making a double poncho!  Furthermore, with a couple of sticks and some string, a rudimentary tent could be constructed.

   While Pete and I were scoffing, we were challenged.  If we would go camping overnight, John would prove the efficacy of army methodology by providing our accommodation.

   Remember that in 1960, John was seventeen, I was fifteen and Peter was thirteen- plenty old enough to fend for ourselves, but we were still kids!

   On Saturday morning we set off on our bikes, fully equipped for camping.  It was the middle of winter and it was all too obvious that the weather forecast was predicting drizzle.  The plan was that from Glengowrie we would ride up to Brown Hill Creek, set up camp in the afternoon, and cook a meal of sausages in an old frypan before retiring for the night.  In the morning we would break camp and return home.      

   We travelled light as it was uphill nearly all the way.  I think we had strapped on our bikes some sausages, a frypan and a couple of army ponchos.

   When we arrived, there appeared to be nowhere to camp except an open grassed area.  The creek was over yonder among shrubbery and some trees, but the best camping would be in this grassed area.

   We trampled some grass down, buttoned the ponchos together, found a couple of saplings, and built the tent.  The tent ridge was less than a metre from the ground!  You had to lie on the ground to see into the tent.  This was supposed to accommodate two grown men!  I saw how it could definitely be used as a tunnel for commando training.  We spent a large amount of time in friendly discussion to determine sleeping arrangements for the coming night.

   We soldiered on!  The next item on the agenda was tea, dinner or supper, something to eat.  Everything was damp and the collection of twigs and leaves that we scrounged in the surrounding area really needed newspaper or something more flammable, of which we had none.  After a lot of trial and error, we got the bottom of the frypan lukewarm but the sausages were never cooked, and if memory serves me correctly they were abandoned, although I've always been a bit partial to raw sausage meat so perhaps this is wrong.

   Nevertheless, it had become too dark to do anything else except crawl into our "bivouac" and enjoy a good night's rest.  I can't recall for certain but I imagine Pete and I crawled on our elbows one after the other under the ponchos and then rolled, under instruction, to the sides, leaving room for John to crawl into the centre like a blackfella with his dogs, snug as a bug, etc.  Again, I can't recall for certain but I reckon Pete and I at least had some poncho as a blanket, while either John's feet or head would have been poking out at one end.

   You can't be woken up unless you are asleep, so we obviously had some sleep.  We were woken by an incredible disturbance.  Ghosts or robbers or monsters were thumping, stomping, vibrating the ground, all around us.  There were snorts, harrumphs and evil sighs, right next to our heads and directly into our ears.  In those few seconds of waking when we were each on his own, we were scared stiff.  When three of us began to communicate, we were still scared stiff.

   We were being attacked on all sides by a much superior force, at least a full platoon.  Under the ponchos it was dark, and we had no illumination except for the remaining matches.  After much anguish and effort, there were no more matches, being too damp and soft to survive frantic striking on the box.

   The disturbance outside kept on;  it was only after a lot of frightened to-ing and fro-ing between us that we ventured to poke our heads out to find out what was scaring us.  A herd of black and white Friesian cows were standing around the tent, snorting billows of vapour in the cold pre-dawn, jostling and stamping their feet.  In retrospect, they were upset by this unprecedented apparition in the middle of their paddock!  Our tent only reached up to their knees and we continued to be frightened, of being trampled!

   It took us no time at all to undo the buttons, pack the frypan, and get on our bikes, headed back to safety and home.  As I might have said to John at the time, an LMG or .303 rifle would be much better protection against ghosts, robbers and monsters, or even a rampaging herd of cows; a pair of ponchos that reached to the cattle's knees was no protection at all!

   But John would have replied with something to the effect that the Army, and a bit of hardship, can make a man out of us!  I have to agree, because John has turned out very well!"

 This photo from 1960 shows our Mum, in the centre, with her mother, Mum Mort, John on the left, me with gun, Peter on the right, with Alan and Lester in front.  (Mickey the dog is mostly hidden by Mum's side). 

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