Another Memorable Moments post for the “blogging a book” project about my life in Africa. Veterans from the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan might identify with this post, but I hope you enjoy it whatever your background.
Military service is often described as long periods of extreme boredom interrupted by brief moments of absolute terror. Whoever first came up with that description, as accurate as it is, forgot the occasional episodes of hilarity, no doubt made more enjoyable because of the circumstances.
Two in particular stand out in the unexciting and fairly uneventful record of my ten-year part-time military career. Uneventful in that I only got shot at twice, from great distances, did not actually shoot any one and survived relatively unscathed physically and mentally. One of my two war wounds was from falling off a cavalry horse I was exercising, it was my third ride of the day, someone else had saddled the horse and I didn’t check the girth. The second required 12 stitches (without the benefit of local anaesthetic) in a deep cut from stepping barefoot on the broken neck of a bottle. That happened after getting out of a swimming pool at Wankie Club on a rare day off – Christmas Day 1969. Not the sort of injuries that medals get awarded for.
Both funny incidents involved snakes.
The first was at a base camp established on the site of a long abandoned mission school in the bush. The few buildings still standing were used for sleeping, cooking and eating. There were no toilets, showers or running water. We dug a pit toilet a good way from camp, because it was very hot, we put the toilet under a large tree. For hygiene and comfort we installed a wooden box on top with a suitable hole, complete with plastic toilet seat and lid. This gave the name “Thunderbox” for this type of toilet. For a bit of privacy, a hessian (burlap) screen was erected around the toilet.
On that particular “camp” as our 4 to 6 week call-ups were called, I was lucky enough to be appointed Company Clerk, one of the easiest jobs on a call-up. No patrols in the bush, just sort out clerical issues for the unit, which were mainly distributing incoming mail from lonely wives and girlfriends, anxious mothers, desperate employers back in our civilian lives or concerned bankers. It also involved collecting outgoing mail and making sure it got put on the first available truck or helicopter heading back to civilisation. This was before the days of cell phones, there were no landlines in the bush and private messages could only be relayed on the military radio system for matters of life and death. Letters were the only form of communicating with home for up to 6 weeks and were a vital morale booster.
I also did shifts as a relief radio operator and a 1 or 2 hour guard duty every day and night. Not a strenuous job, I rarely put a shirt on, just shorts, boots, hat and rifle.
One day when I had run out of magazines to read, sitting with a few others, on a bench on the verandah, quite relaxed in the shade, (war is tough). I noticed a fellow soldier heading towards the Thunderbox, rifle in one hand and roll of toilet paper in the other. Such is camp life that we all knew he had been complaining of constipation and taking laxatives for a couple of days, so we wished him luck.
We carried on talking, more likely about food than girls. The lack of good food soon becomes a more frequently discussed topic than the lack of female company. Suddenly a huge shout from the Thunderbox and the hilarious sight of our man racing back towards us trying to pull his trousers up while still holding his rifle and toilet roll.
When he calmed down enough to talk, he told us what happened. He was sitting on the seat, engrossed in the task at hand and achieving some success when he heard a rustling in the tree above him. As he was trying to see what was causing the rustling, a large green snake fell out of the tree, onto his head, over his shoulder, down his chest, across his bare thighs, off the box and escaped under the hessian screen.
He then added that nature, in the form of a snake, had done what medicine had failed to do – cured his constipation.
The second was when our platoon had set up a bush camp amongst big trees and thick bush near the Zambesi river. It was a Sunday, we had no patrols out and those of us not on perimeter guard were gathered around a small transistor radio listening to Sally Donaldson present “Forces Requests”. Another huge morale booster and reverently listened to by any one on duty or off who could get near a radio at the right time. It was also faithfully followed by fiends and relatives at home often while enjoying a braai (barbecue) and a Castle or Lion beer.
It gets as hot as a furnace in summer in the valley and not much cooler for the rest of the year, when not on patrol we normally only wore shorts, boots and hats. One of our platoon whose name was I think Ted, was sitting on the ground, his bare back leaning against a large tree, listening intently, like all of us, for a message from home. There was a rustling in the branches a long way above him, several of us spotted a large green snake, possibly a highly venomous green mamba, slowly sliding down the tree. Between watching the snake’s slow downward progress and listening for our names on the radio, none of us thought to warn him about his danger.
After what seemed an eternity but was probably only a minute or so, the snake lost its tenuous grip on the bark of the tree, dropped in Ted’s lap and slithered over his most sensitive parts before sliding out of sight around the tree. Ted came off the ground like a character in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, he seemed to levitate, still in a sitting position, still clutching his rifle, but ready to run as soon as his feet hit the ground. Once he had calmed down he was more angry with us for not warning him than shaken by the incident.
Small incidents like those helped relieve the long stretches of monotony and survive the brief periods of terror.
image: Wikipedia Creative Commons.