From the day he was born, my brother’s life was dictated by women. There was Mum, but no Dad. There was Grandma, but no Grandpa. There was Auntie, but Uncle was only just coming home from the war. And they all lived together in the same house, together with his two male cousins, who were five and seven years older, and then those three youngsters were followed by another male cousin, two years younger than my brother.
When my brother was almost nine, I was born. Six months later, he had to leave the family group and follow Mum and baby me to a western suburban outpost, where it was just him and us girls. No more cousin brothers. No wonder that after eight years of suffering, when he left high school my brother decided to join the Citizen’s Military Forces (CMF), the forerunner of today’s Army Reserve . My belief was my brother was motivated to have more male companionship, and he certainly got that! He later told me it was to toughen him up, being as how he had spent all his life surrounded by women. Mmmm, not sure that completely worked. He remained a nice guy, a fabulous listener, and very kind. Unless you rubbed him up the wrong way. Which, as his baby sister, was my important job – you could say the reason I was put on this earth – and I applied myself to that role diligently…
Sometime in the early 1960s my brother and his mate joined “D” Company, 3rd Battalion Royal NSW Regiment based in the Sydney western suburb of Merrylands (now the home of a McDonald’s store – so much for saving Australia from foreign invaders. No offence intended to my US followers, but it must be acknowledged it was an early part of the Americanization of Australian culture. And McDonald’s don’t put beetroot on their hamburgers – an integral part of the Australian version. What a sacrilege!).
Another group of young men also joined this company and became part of my brother’s core network. They could all hang out at our place whenever they wanted because there were no scary parents to send them on their way. We even ended up with a couple of single beds in our living room. Not that there was any other pesky furniture to fill that space, such as a lounge or TV set. All these youths had regular Monday-Friday jobs, but on random weekend mornings I’d get up and find one or two of them crashed out there. Dave “Ding-Dong” Bell, Rohan “Emmo” Emerton – except I thought the nick-name was “Ammo” and that he worked in artillery, Darryl “HalfTrack” Cheal (no idea how he got that nick-name unless he drove a tank, or was a stubby short of a six-pack), Barry “Archie” Archer, Ron “Linsie” Lyons, and Colin Harding – who was distinguished enough not to require a nick-name.
For at least five years, maybe more, together with some work colleagues, this rabble – one could hardly call it a gang – raised general mayhem and merriment, and certainly exposed the still very young me to some interesting experiences and language.
Being in the CMF meant uniforms and brass and boot polish, which was helpful to me as it raised plenty of pocket money through my liberal application of Brasso and Kiwi shoe polish. It also meant lots of mateship and drinking and general rowdiness. At backyard parties the keg took centre stage, and learning to tap it was rite of passage. Drinking took a lot of planning in those days, one had to order the keg, get it home, knock out the bung, gas it up, then insert a tap so that the 18 gallons of frothy brown ale could be consumed that night. It was also necessary to stand around the keg with your arm around your mate’s shoulder, swaying, and singing off-key renditions of Tom Jones’s “The Green, Green Grass of Home”.
My brother and his CMF mates would go on bivouac, where they practiced at being real soldiers. They had a Hungarian Sergeant. This chap had actually lived in Hungary during the uprising of 1956. The story was that he was one of those inspired and rebellious young men who shoved homemade Molotov cocktails into the tracks of Russian tanks. He was determined to make real soldiers of the men under his command; not for them any suggestion that they were just a home-based “Dad’s Army”. Besides which, this was the time of the Vietnam War, and all of my brother’s group were potential candidates for the call up.
Australia’s Army, with rare exception, has been based on voluntary recruitment, but in November 1964 a selective conscription known as national service was introduced. This ran on a lottery system, and it was one lottery few wanted to win. Numbered marbles, each representing a day of the year, were placed in a barrel. If you were turning twenty that year, and your number came up – you were in the army (with some allowance for exemptions) with a high likelihood you’d be sent to Vietnam after an initial training period. Two years regular service, followed by three and a half part-time.
Conscription was finding its feet, many men believed that if sent to Vietnam, the payback would be a low interest home-loan on return, much as their WWII fathers had experienced. Curiously though, not one of the CMF company were ever drafted. The only one of my brother’s group to serve in Vietnam was a highschool mate who had decided against joining the CMF. Apparently there was a system that if a reservist committed to the CMF for five years it gained you call-up exemption, but none of my brother’s mates had made that commitment formally. By contrast, this lone schoolmate was called up in the early days.
This young man, whose surname was Loo, entered the Artillery Corps and carried the title of Gunner, which meant he was officially addressed as Gunner Loo – which in Australian slang roughly translates as “Garn’ t’the Loo” (going to the toilet). Appropriate, under the circumstances.
And I’ll call that the appropriate place to end this anecdote. Next time, I’ll tell you what happened to us both the first time my big bruvver was sent on bivouac.