I do not like bullying.
This has been the case since as early as I am able to remember, and the aversion has always been particularly pronounced when I have found myself to be the recipient of such anti-social behaviour.
Physically, I am not a man in the mould of an Arnold Schwarzenegger, or a Tarzan.
That is not to say that every sun-bronzed two-hundred-pound side of beef hawking bananas in his 'speedo' swimming costume will automatically kick sand in my face when he encounters me sunning myself upon a beach on the Northern Natal coast.
No. That is not at all the scenario that I intend to convey.
If I might be more specific, I would probably characterise myself as that sort of a fellow who would not, normally, display unnecessary aggression should that same large and sun-tanned fruit vendor happen along, and kick sand in my wife's face.
And now that we have established that my make-up is not unduly pugilistic, you will have a better understanding of why I am so proud of myself concerning that little incident which occurred during my military training in (what was then) Rhodesia.
I have absolutely no idea why military organisations, worldwide -- and I understand this to be a global phenomenon -- consider it necessary that Sergeants Major into whose tender mercy are placed young military trainees, should all need to be over six feet six inches tall, be built like the proverbial brick outhouse, and possess voices that would seem more appropriate emanating from an enraged bull elephant in musth.
This, however, seems to be the trend, and was certainly so in my particular case.
Our own Training Sergeant Major was a mountain of a man with an iron grey brush cut, and eye and facial and neck veins that seemed to pop out when he was angry. He seemed, to us raw recruits, to be a sort of overgrown (and infinitely more malevolent) Lee Marvin on steroids. He terrified us.
And he was a bully.
Many were the times when I witnessed him reducing a member of our training troop to tears, and such was his persistence in this cruelty that we might have been forgiven for assuming that he enjoyed his task.
Even the officers at the training camp -- although technically ranking higher than 'Lee Marvin' in the military pecking order -- appeared to hold him in awe, and made no attempt to curb his appalling excesses.
The very gentlest rebuke that a young recruit might expect from this exaggerated cartoon of a 'linebacker,' was a cuff behind the ear, which, due to the SM's extraordinary dimensions and ferocity, would invariably leave the young fellow grovelling in the dust and contemplating a monumental stellar burst of shining objects within the confines of his head.
Each day of our training started at 04h30 with a cold shower, followed by 'bed and kit' inspection, but within this seemingly harmless beginning lurked chilling fear. For it was a practical impossibility to guard against all the possibilities for failure. A fly that might choose to land upon one's perfectly folded sheet during bed inspection, became a wanton example of slovenliness and filth that might, in the greater picture of military preparedness, endanger one's comrades in the fierce crucible of some future battle. A gust of wind that blew a solitary leaf through an open barrack window was equally to be feared. Even specks of dust tramped onto glisteningly polished wooden floors from the parade ground outside by 'Lee Marvin' and his inspection party became the object of furtive and terrified glances from the ramrod-stiff cadets who mentally shivered in trepidation.
Who was going to be the SIS (Someone In Shit) today? "Please not ME?" we all silently prayed. Whoever it was, that poor individual would suffer a couple of smacks and shoves, together with a shower of invective-filled diatribe about "letting down the team" and "betraying his mates."
Forced marches and long bushveld runs carrying full equipment and rock-laden packs (in temperatures often exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit) would normally follow, and a perfectly polished size fourteen boot, accompanied by screeches of unrestrained fury from 'Lee Marvin', always greeted any man unfortunate enough to trip or stumble.
If I might digress for a moment, I shall state that for the first few days of our training, I felt a certain amount of sympathy for a young chap named Davis. Because Davis was fat, and, in common with many people who are similarly physically handicapped, rather clumsy and uncoordinated. This fact held certain advantages for the rest of us, because Davis invariably came last in any team endeavour, and, consequently, incurred an inordinate amount of 'Lee Marvin's' initial wrath, which was, thereby, diverted from ourselves.
However, my sympathy for Davis evaporated completely upon the fifth day of our training, when 'Lee Marvin' -- on the parade ground -- boomed that fateful question:
"Right ! Who's the lazy little cunt who has come second-to-last for the last five days?"
For me, this question heralded the beginning of six weeks of unadulterated hell.
I could do nothing right, and the harder I tried: the worse I became. Davis loved me, and although my fellow cadets frequently expressed secret sympathy, I have no doubt that they gratefully revelled in the unexpected advent of another 'Davis' to shield them from the wrath of the Almighty.
But forgive me; you are not interested in such childish military nonsense.
That to which this little account is dedicated, is, in fact, the revelation of my own extraordinary bravery, which was exhibited upon the day of our 'Passing Out' parade.
But first, please permit me to explain one final indignity to which we cadets were subjected.
For more serious breaches of the rules -- or perceived continued failures on the part of any cadet -- there was a punishment known as "Stiff Arm." This entailed standing to attention whilst holding one's rifle, perfectly still, with arms extended horizontally at shoulder height for protracted periods of time.
The practice may only be described as pure agony, and should be banned by the Geneva Convention.
As one's neck, back, shoulder and arm muscles become starved of oxygen and began to contort, the weapon began to shake uncontrollably. When 'Lee Marvin' became aware of this shaking, he would round upon the unfortunate shaker and unleash the sort of spitting fury that is normally associated with a lunatic.
"I ordered you to HOLD it, not WANK it, you 'orrible little pervert!" Two or three substantial clouts would invariably accompany the prescribed litany, and after a few moments' rest -- as one grovelled upon the floor -- the process was repeated. This might go on for fifteen minutes or more, dependent upon the perceived seriousness of the 'crime.'
Now, being Davis' thoroughly unwilling understudy as 'Most Useless Cadet', I had suffered more than my fair share of this torment, and finally, something snapped.
'Stiff Arming' invariably took place just off the parade ground, with the 'Stiff Armer's' back firmly wedged against the security fencing (to prevent bending), and once, in my defiant lunacy, I noticed that the interior overhang of the vertical poles offered convenient horizontal protuberances at a height of some ten feet. My deceitful mind began to ponder the prospects.
On the night before our 'Passing Out' parade, I extracted some ultra-fine 'invisi-gut' from my pack (we had been taught to use it in the setting up of trip-wires for Claymore mine booby traps), and slipped quietly out to the security fence by the parade ground, carrying a chair from the darkened dining room. Once there, I cut two lengths of the micro thin twine and fashioned a noose at one end of each, and standing upon the chair, secured the other ends firmly to the barbed wire of the overhanging fence, about thirty-six inches apart.
Satisfied with my handiwork, I repaired to bed to summon the courage that I knew would be required at the dress rehearsal for the 'Passing Out' parade the following morning. I slept restlessly.
Dawn broke: sunny and fine, evaporating the mist that warned of another hot, clear day. I felt my courage dispersing similarly, and took a swig from the half-jack of brandy I had secreted at the bottom of my pack.
Breakfast, and our final instructions as to the forthcoming parade, seemed to take an age, and although the other cadets were in high spirits over their imminent release from training, I secretly shivered in terror at the prospect of the madness of what I was about to undertake.
Once upon the parade ground, we waited for the arrival of 'Lee Marvin,' and my courage deserted me. Coward! I could not do it!
Then he was there.
The other cadets detached the magazines from their FN rifles.
There was a series of clicks as the other cadets cocked their FN's and pulled the triggers to confirm that there was no round in the breech ... followed by an almighty BOOM as I did likewise.
Half the cadets hit the ground. The others ducked and scurried, their huge eyes and frightened expressions mirroring their shock.
It was now too late to change my mind.
I adopted my most convincing approximation of mixed fear, remorse, and confusion, and awaited the inevitable.
It was not long in coming.
I was vaguely aware of the other cadets gradually pulling themselves to their feet and getting back into formation in response to the shouted commands from the training officers. I even subconsciously noted the look of compassion upon many of their faces, as they pondered the enormity of my error, and my hideous immediate prospects.
But my main attention was focused upon 'Lee Marvin'.
Huge and resolute, he strode silently towards me, stopping and glaring down at me from a distance of less than a foot. My eyes dropped to his chest level, but not before I had digested the significance of the evil half-grin as he contemplated where he would first hit me.
He took the rifle from my uncomplaining hands, and leaned even closer to me. His voice was quiet, almost conversational, but nevertheless evil in its controlled intensity. He pitched it just loud enough for the other cadets to hear.
"Right, you fuckin' little prick! You are DEAD! You ain't goin' home with the others tomorrow! Your arse is MINE, boy! You got 28 days DB with labour!"
Slowly, he detached the magazine from my rifle, and cleared the breech as I should have done. I could feel his eyes boring into me for a full thirty seconds before he made to turn away, then spun, and brought the butt of the weapon sharply down upon my instep, at the same time kneeing me in the groin. I went down like a plastic bag half full of warm semolina.
He recovered his normal voice as I writhed in pain in the dust. He was now screaming. "Thirty minutes 'Stiff Arm,' you fuckin' little shithead! Get there! Do it !"
Effortlessly, he dragged me to my feet and thrust the now harmless rifle back into my hands, then aimed an accurate kick at my departing behind as I hobbled towards the security fence.
Tears of pain and humiliation coursed down my cheeks as I assumed the accustomed position, but nevertheless, I felt a growing elation! I had DONE it!
I held my arms absolutely rigid and motionless until the SM had his back to me as he began his lecture to the other recruits about my careless and irresponsible behaviour which had endangered all their lives.
Then I blinked back the tears, and searched furtively for the almost invisible trip wire cord hanging from the security fence above my head.
Yes! It was there! And the height was perfect!
With agonising caution, I inched the flash suppressor at the end of the barrel into one of the secure nooses, then the butt into the other. Again with great care, I lowered the weapon until the gut was supporting its entire weight.
Magic! The elation exploded in my mind!
A grin crept across my features, and I began to survey my fellow cadets. Their looks of sympathy almost imperceptibly changed to curious confusion as the minutes ticked by without my arms beginning to shake. After five minutes, 'Lee Marvin' casually manoeuvred himself into a position from where he could see me without appearing to be looking.
I affected a continued grimace of pain for his benefit, but the rifle remained perfectly horizontal and rock steady in my hands.
Another five minutes seemed to flash by in my joy, and by now the collective countenance of my compatriots upon the parade ground had assumed an air of incredulous admiration. Even the Training Officers kept casting furtive glances in my direction, secretly amazed at my stamina, strength and determination.
I saw 'Lee Marvin' surreptitiously glance at the enormous digital watch upon his hairy wrist a couple of times, then actually turn his head in my direction in what I knew to be an acknowledgement of my temporary victory.
More minutes slipped by.
But then my elation was pricked like a bubble.
I had attempted to withdraw the rifle barrel from its fishing gut noose -- but the noose had slipped under the weight of the weapon, and the gun was stuck, tight and fast! I attempted pushing down upon the weapon to break the gut, but it had been designed as tripwire, and could take enormous pressure!
I was done for!
Another three minutes dragged by as I frantically tried to wiggle the weapon free of what had become my inescapable trap.
Despite my wiggling of the weapon in my attempts to free it from the trip wire, the expressions upon the faces of my contemporaries on the parade ground could now only de described as those of unbridled awe.
One of the Training Officers marched over to another, and they held a brief, whispered conversation, glancing in my direction a couple of times. 'Lee Marvin' looked at his watch again, then across at me. The cadets were beginning to grin, basking in the reflected glory of a fellow recruit's courage and strength in the face of institutionalised torment.
Another few minutes dragged by as I struggled, furtively but frantically with the nooses, and my terror threatened to engulf me. I briefly considered the option of pretending to have fainted, and of dragging the weapon to the ground with me, but remembered the strength of the trip wire gut. I had a dreadful vision of being left hanging in mid air, swinging upon the pendant rifle.
More minutes passed. 'Lee Marvin' was now facing me, hands on hips, glaring.
Nobody had ever 'Stiff Armed' for so long. The game was up! Should I make a run for it? Another five minutes!
I was just getting ready to leg it, when possibility was pre-empted by a sharp order from my tormentor.
"Right, Brown, you prick! Get back into formation!"
Suddenly my whole body went cold. I hesitated for a second, then finally admitted defeat. My head fell forward in shame, and, slowly, I raised my hands above my head in surrender. I could see the shadow of my FN rifle swinging gently by my feet.
Nobody shot me.
After a moment there were a couple of suppressed chuckles, which soon spread to open laughter. Cautiously, I let my eyes swivel upwards.
"SILENCE!" 'Lee Marvin' was puce in the face.
"BROWN! My office, NOW!" He turned and strutted from the parade ground, purple necked, with veins bulging.
Laughter returned with his departure, but my voice did not join it.
I took my bayonet from its sheath, and slowly cut the twine that had been my undoing. I did not even acknowledge my fellow cadets as they whistled and clapped my shuffling departure in the direction the administration offices.
He would beat the shit out of me. And what would my parents say about my extended incarceration in a military prison?
The administration offices were cool after the glare outside, but not cold enough to account for the clamminess of my skin. I hesitated for a moment or two at the green painted wooden door with the stencilled letters "T.S.M.," then tapped meekly.
I took a deep breath and pushed.
'Lee Marvin' was sitting at his desk. He held the neck of an open beer bottle in one enormous paw, and was proving to me that his features were, indeed, quite capable of displaying mirth.
"You're a lazy and insubordinate little cunt, Brown, but you've got balls, and might one day make a half-way decent soldier. That's why I have been riding you so hard. Now, get y'rself a beer from my 'fridge -- and join me."
'Lee Marvin' was, indeed, a terrifying specimen of rigidly stupid military mentality.
And I loved him dearly.
He got ME through our war, and until he died -- some twelve years ago -- he always retained the very top position upon my Christmas list.
Article © KK Brown. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-07