Old Timer

(Part 3—this story continues Our shaving grace)

Having the whole platoon shaved was not Fink’s best move. It gave us an identity, to be sure, but not the one he had intended. We were punished because of Andy, because of his mocking defiance of authority, but in his absence he quickly became a martyr in whose name our hardships were endured. When he returned at dusk, with fresh bruises and a long cut above his eyebrow, he entered the barrack to eager sympathy. Even the fat guy was friendlier.

“You were right,” he told Andy.

“About what?” Andy asked as he eased himself onto his bunk.

He winced with pain when the fat guy sat down next to him, moving the mattress.

“Fuck this place,” the fat guy agreed. “And fuck Fink.”

Andy smiled and looked around at our bald heads.

“What happened to you?” he asked Doc who had a large band-aid stuck across his.

“It’s stupid,” Doc said. “I should ask you that question.”

“Don’t.”


Over the next few weeks we talked to Old Timer every day. Each time Fink made us go back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes Levin couldn’t keep up. Sometimes we didn’t shout out in unison when we returned. Now and then someone turned around short. When none of this happened, Fink invented another reason, and we went again.

And again.

But in the end, Fink was no match for Andy’s jelly-like flexibility and fake incompetence.

“To avoid being pushed around you must offer no resistance,” he told us.

He sat on his bunk, folding his socks. They were supposed to be rolled into a ball that made a little smile and placed in a row in our lockers for Fink to inspect.

“It’s a sock,” Andy said, holding it up. “I’m planning to wear it on my foot. I don’t care what it looks like until then.”

For Doc, compliance was the way of least resistance.

“Why don’t you just roll them up?” he asked.

“I don’t feel like it.”

“How’s that no resistance?”

“What I meant,” Andy explained, “is that you must offer no resistance when they punish you. This isn’t the sort of prison where they can beat and torture you. They have to get you to do it yourself. Don’t, and you’ll be fine. They can’t squeeze a marshmallow through a keyhole.”

When Andy was sent to talk to Old Timer he jogged at a pace he could sustain indefinitely, despite Fink screaming for him to hurry up. When Fink made him do pushups instead, he gave out after a few even though he could easily have done a hundred. Whatever punishment Fink invented, Andy performed in a slipshod way. When Fink tried to punish us for Andy’s transgressions, we did the same. Fink had little choice but to stop after a while. We weren’t volunteers and so we couldn’t be fired. He couldn’t have Andy charged for every breach of discipline or he’d risk unpleasant questions about his own competence.


Once, when we were drilling as practice for an official parade, Andy continued marching in a straight line after the platoon had wheeled to the left. He marched off into the distance, deaf to Fink’s shouting. Fink had to run after him. He sent Andy to talk to Old Timer and then he made him do pushups when he didn’t seem to have tired from running. Fink ended up standing over Andy while he slowly grunted and heaved in the dust, doing only a few pushups before Fink had to give up in disgust.

On another occasion Andy wore his boots on the wrong feet. It gave his walk a weird lilt and made him look like a duck nearing a dam. Fink took all morning to figure this out and Andy looked pained and puzzled when his boots were finally identified as the source of the problem.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” Fink shouted, kicking at his boots. “Have you got rocks in your head!?”

“Corporal?”

“Rocks! Are you deaf too!?”

“I heard you perfectly, Corporal,” Andy said in a level tone, “but what were you saying?”

Fink was blinded with rage. He leapt at Andy and knocked him to the ground. Then he restrained himself.

“Get up!” he snapped hastily.

Andy ignored him. He sat in the dust and swapped his boots, taking his time. He got up when he was finished, dusted himself down and stood to attention. It was clear to us then, as it must have been to Fink, that Andy was the inmate the prison would never break.


On our last day of basic training a soldier was run over in the street beyond the fence of the parade ground. There was a dull thud and the shudder of wheels skidding along the tar. Fink made us wait while he and other instructors ran out through the gate to help or have a look. But the man was dead, his body bent and wrong.

We watched while the men in the street gave up and talked and smoked and told one another competing versions of what they’d seen. Fink leant against the fence, his one boot pulled up under him. He made a long arc with his hand and slapped it into the other, demonstrating how the man had been thrown on impact.

Andy watched all this without a word. As he watched, he played with his beret. He flattened it and pulled it down the wrong way, slanted to the left, and made him look like a French peasant.

Beyond the fence, the instructors exhausted the possibilities of speculation. Traffic began to back up in the street and Fink directed it around the scene of the accident. When the medics arrived, he returned to the parade ground.

“Come, come,” he barked. “Show’s over!”

We slowly assembled in drill formation. In the street, a man in civilian clothes photographed the body.

“Ri—ight face!” Fink cried.

Andy faced left.

“Your other right,” Fink hissed through gritted teeth.

Andy turned his head, facing as we did, but something bothered Fink. He came around until he could see down the ranks of the platoon. Then he spotted Andy’s beret.

“No fucking wonder!” he bellowed.

He tore the beret from Andy’s head.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” he howled.

He threw the beret to the ground and stomped on it. Then he held his hand in the direction of Old Timer.

“Go talk,” he said.

In the street the medics had put the body on a stretcher. Andy stepped forward and stood next to Fink. Together they looked at Old Timer.

“Now?” Andy asked. “After all this?”

Fink shut his eyes and controlled himself.

“He’s waiting,” he said.

Andy shrugged and started walking in the direction of Old Timer. He didn’t lift his boots and scraped along in a drifting trail of dust. Fink watched him, transfixed, as did we. When Andy reached the tree, he remained there, nodding and pointing in our direction, as though he was actually talking to Old Timer.

Fink stood with his hands on his hips, flexing his jaw muscles. Andy talked for a while and then started on his way back. In the street the medics had driven off with the body of the dead man.

“So—!?” Fink heaved and quaked when Andy finally arrived. “You talked to Old Timer?”

“I did, Corporal.”

Fink made what looked like a superhuman effort to remain calm.

“And what you tell him?”

Andy considered his answer carefully.

“Everything, Corporal.”

Fink feigned surprise.

“You did?” he said. “And what’s he say?”

Andy hesitated like someone bearing bad news.

“Corporal,” he said, “he’d like to talk to Corporal now.”


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The waiting game

(Experiences in the South African military, some mine, some Jack’s, part 1)

The people who design military bases are the ones who couldn’t get into prison design school. Rejected, they set about trying to prove themselves. This much was clear to me on the dreary morning I arrived at Voortrekkerhoogte for basic training. There were fences everywhere, high walls, drab buildings, and little by ways of colour. I had dreaded this moment ever since I’d turned sixteen and the Defence Force had started sending me yearly call-up orders. Now I handed these to the guard at the gate and went inside.


On the parade ground young men stood around awkwardly. More arrived in busses from the station, conscripted to the base from elsewhere in the country. They had travelled far and looked haggard. They disembarked and disappeared into the crowd of waiting men. We were left to our own thoughts, to fidget with our small bags of personal belongings, and to watch one another. Like sheep dogs, sergeants and corporals barked orders to herd us together, but otherwise they left us alone.

It’s strange to see how quickly one’s idea of what’s normal can change. Within minutes we looked motley and absurd. Through a separating fence we could see troops drilling in another part of the base. They looked uniform and spruce. A soldier ran alongside a marching platoon with his R4 rifle across his shoulders like a yoke. Even he looked neat. In comparison we were tattered, unchoreographed, and vulnerable—new inmates in the prison yard. We were together for now, but there wasn’t any safety in the loneliness we shared.


Around ten o’clock a sergeant with a megaphone stepped onto a crate near where I stood. He was sinewy and tough, with bandy legs and a chin so weak that his face ended in a wide moustache. He looked like a shaved ferret. He triggered the megaphone and made it honk.

“My name is Sergeant Sinden!” he squealed.

He paused to let this information sink in. While he looked around, handing out hard stares, I tried to imagine that he’d always had that name, as a baby and later as a small boy—Sergeant Sinden.

“Has Sergeant Sinden made a poo-poo,” his mother crooned when he’d soiled his nappy.

I could see him called forward in kindergarten to hold up a crude drawing of a house and an outsize cow. It was signed Sergeant Sinden in an uncertain hand. Maybe he also had the moustache—

“What the FUCK are you smiling about!?”

Sergeant Sinden was looking straight at me.

“Nothing,” I called out.

Sinden almost fell off his crate. Then he was on top of me, in two quick strides, thrusting the megaphone into my face.

“Nothing who!?”

“Sergeant,” I tried.

He was springy with anger and had turned a darker colour. He held the megaphone to my ear.

“Nothing Sergeant!”

“Sergeant! Nothing Sergeant!”

“That’s better! Now get the fuck up!”

He got back onto the crate while I picked myself up under his unwavering gaze.

“I’ll kick your arse so fucking hard,” he crowed, “you’ll have a brown taste in your mouth.”

He looked around and collected himself. Then he delivered a speech of goodwill intended to welcome us and dispel some of of the misconceptions we might have had about the Army. One of these wrong ideas, he said, was the notion that swearing was condoned.

“So,” he shrieked, “if any of you cunts hear instructors using words like fuck or shit, you come and tell me!”

It was clear that the no-swearing policy had been conceived somewhere above him. He honked the megaphone again, like a bosun’s whistle. We were to line up for hearing and eyesight tests, and to pee on paper strips which would test for blood and protein in our urine.

“Fucking move!”


The Army wanted us to have no blood or protein in our urine—at least, not yet. The idea, as we saw it, was to have blood and protein in our urine already. One guy poured a Coke onto his strip and I stuck mine up my nose before I peed on it. It got all bent and didn’t look right. I threw it away and went to ask for another one.

“Buggerfuck me!” the medical officer roared. “You shit on it?”

“I lost it, sir.”

He put his nose very close to mine and bounced my fringe with his voice.

“And I feel for you like a mother with a wooden tit!”

Then he gave me another strip and followed me to make sure that I peed on it. He escorted me back to the rows of tables where the medics inspected it and sent me along in the snaking queue herded by shouting men. They called out our service numbers one by one. Service numbers started with the two digits of the year they were assigned. From these I could judge the ages of the other men. One man with thick glasses had a service number issued ten years before mine. When his number was called out he went up to Sergeant Sinden who was still standing on his crate. He explained something to him.

“Doctor!?” Sinden mocked him, using the megaphone. “Well, well, fucking well. Fancy that!”

The man said something else and appeared to make a helpful suggestion.

“Fall in, Doc,” Sinden brayed, making the megaphone squeak, “or I’ll fuck you so hard you’ll have with a whole new blood type!”


With their printed lists and practiced voices the instructors shouted us into groups. Each group numbered around forty men, but not all the men had arrived. We sat in the dust and waited.

“Just look at them,” the guy next to me said.

His name was Andy. He had long hair, all the way down his back, and a well-travelled look. He lay against his bag, one leg over the other, his hands locked across his chest. He seemed very relaxed at a time when the rest of us were very tense.

“Have you noticed,” he said, “that none of them has a proper chin?”

I looked at the corporals moving between the new conscripts, shoving them and shouting. They all seemed to share a basic body plan that suggested generations of unschooled sex.

“Only a recipe with very few ingredients could produce such consistently similar results,” Andy remarked.

As we watched them, Doc tried his luck with another sergeant, but Sinden spotted him. Soon he was doing pushups with Sinden’s boot in his back.

“Old Doc there is in for a hard time,” Andy said. “He thinks he can convince these people that he doesn’t belong here.”

When Doc started struggling after a few pushups, some of the corporals gathered to jeer at this outrage of physical weakness. One leant in and counted for him, shouting near his ear. When Doc’s arms gave out, he was yanked upright by the men who surrounded him. They abandoned their requirement of pushups and taunted him with questions instead.

“Doctor fucking what?” one of them howled.

“Palaeontology,” Doc explained glumly.

His face was red and dusty.

“So you’re not a doctor then?” another corporal asked.

“Polly-fucking-tology!” Sinden announced over the megaphone.

“If you had any expectations involving culture,” Andy warned as he chewed on a blade of grass, “it’d be good to adjust them now.”

The instructors lost interest and left Doc alone. He stood with his bag on the ground between his feet, cleaning his glasses. Then he sat down to wait.

A few minutes later, a stocky corporal with particularly simian features waded past.

“The People versus Natural Selection,” Andy snorted when the corporal was out of earshot.

Doc overheard this and smiled to himself.

“What’s up, Doc?” Andy called to him.

There was a moment of silence as Doc considered this question.

“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this,” he quoted from the seventies movie.

Andy sat up and smiled. He looked at me, and then at Doc.

“You know what?” he said. “It’s going to be alright.”


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Terry hangs ten

When Jack did military service in the eighties, he often spent time at a small base in the dense bushveld near the Angolan border, in the very north of what was then South West Africa. The base had two remarkable occupants—His Tits, and Terry.

His Tits was the regiment sergeant major, RSM Tittlefitz, a stocky, ruddy man with a large moustache. He was rumoured to be the angriest man alive. Men who make discipline their business are often angry types, given to redness, but His Tits had a special problem. When he spotted something wrong on the parade ground or during morning roll-call, he lost his temper and started shouting. This was normal for an RSM. As he screamed and shouted, he became redder and redder. This, too, was normal for an RSM, perhaps even a requirement. But then His Tits turned purple and passed out. This was not normal. It interfered with his ability to function as an RSM. When this happened, the men he’d gotten angry at picked him up and placed him under a tree where he lay in the dust until he woke up a few minutes later. By then matters had moved on and he’d have to find something new to get angry about.

Terry—short for terrorist—was a male lion. He had grown up around humans. Soldiers on patrol had found him when he was a cub, abandoned by his mother. They brought him back to the base where he was raised as a pet. At first, Terry was a cuddly kitten, given to playing with socks and nibbling ankles. As he grew, things got a little more serious. He ate a cricket bat and destroyed a field toilet. To discipline him, the men spanked him with Hang Ten flip-flops. From early on, Terry was afraid of a flip-flop. When he crapped in the wrong place, out came a flip-flop. When he wouldn’t move off someone’s stretcher, a flip-flop did the trick.


“It was the sound, really,” Jack once told me. “You could smack it against your thighs and Terry would flatten his ears and back off.”


When Terry was fully grown, he became a real problem. Sometimes he roared at night. He stole meat from the kitchen. He stalked people and pounced on them during Friday parades. When he ate a rooster that belonged to His Tits, it was the end. Terry had to go. The Colonel liked the idea of having a lion around, but His Tits was adamant. Terry was put onto a truck and driven deep into the bush. There the men let him go. Terry tried to get back onto the truck but the men chased him off with flip-flops. A few hours after the men returned to the base, so did Terry. He sauntered in through the gate and flopped onto a stretcher in a nearby tent. The Colonel saw this as a sign, and so did all the men—Terry was meant to stay. But a week later, when another rooster went missing, His Tits insisted again. This time he went along. They drove much deeper into the bush, until they crossed a stream. This, His Tits argued, would confuse Terry. But he’d also planned ahead and fed Terry a steak he’d laced with sleeping pills.


“That should do it,” he said. “Now we wait.”


They waited around until Terry lay down, and then they drove off. It was late and His Tits was in a good mood, having finally rid his beloved base of an undisciplined lion. He suggested that they camp out for the night, tell stories about Terry, and drink a little. They camped out, told stories about Terry, and drank a lot. The next morning they were slow to start. The men were tired and hung over and a little sad. They drove onward to the base in silence. It was getting really hot by the time they came across Terry walking in the track.

“What the—?” His Tits said as they pulled up alongside him.

“Hey Terry!” the men called out.

Terry ignored them and kept walking.

“He’s sulking,” His Tits said. “Give me those things.”

One of the men handed him a pair of flip-flops they’d brought along the previous day.

“Hey!” he shouted and jumped off the back of the truck.

Terry stopped and looked over his shoulder.

“Go back!” His Tits roared and slapped the flip-flops against one another. “Don’t just stand there! Move!”

He walked up and smacked Terry’s thigh. Terry moved aside with some reluctance.

“He’s not himself,” His Tits said as he got back onto the truck. “Still groggy from the pills.”


When they reached the base an hour later, Terry was there.

“When did he get here?” His Tits squeaked, swaying unsteadily on his feet.

“He was here before sunrise,” a soldier said.

His Tits blinked and swallowed.

“But—but I just saw him—” he stammered.


“Then something happened that never had before,” Jack told me. “His Tits turned pink and passed out.”


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