By Paul G. Dellit
A lonely sunset, a solitary flight to a far-off destination, the aftermath of one of life’s signal events – these provide the circumstances for reflection.
The question “What went into making me the person I am? Not the physical dimensions nor the peripheral character traits – the essence of me, the values for which I would die, my instinctive reaction to the suffering of others, my intolerance of injustice – the parts of me of which I am proud” – that kind of reflection came upon me unexpectedly, recently.
The year is 1966. I am the beneficiary of the law Bob Menzies had enacted as part of his strategy to retain power. I am a conscript lining up in a corridor of the Enoggera barracks. By now I know all of the other conscripts in the platoon pretty well – the chaps from the North Shore and Eastern suburbs, the non-self-identifying-pale-skinned Aboriginal ex con on parole (‘You’re a Nasho or an inmate’) the NRL first grade football hero, the natural brawlers, the introverts, the jokers, the lads from the land – a mixed bunch from every corner of New South Wales, from every life experience that the State has to offer. We are about five weeks into our recruit training. Discipline is everything. The Army breaks you down then builds you up, hopefully with no parts left over.
Sergeant Singh is a wiry man in his early thirties. He has a cultivated, though not affected, Australian accent. He is articulate, has a mind as sharp as his features, and is one of the most charismatic individuals I have ever encountered. He is a standout on the parade ground and on a five mile run. He can read a man from his demeanour and from the way he responds to a challenging question. He knows how to apply the pressure, when to ease off, and how to encourage that extra effort with faint praise. The corporals in our platoon do not swear, behave professionally, and use only a few misogynistic expressions relating to our physical prowess and a few sexual references such as those which relate to our girlfriends’ tits (as in “You’re holding that grenade like it’s your . . .!”). The professionalism of the corporals is all down to the influence of Sergeant Singh. We know that because he told us it was.
The Vietnam War (the “American War” to the victors) is taking a heavy toll of lives. Images are there for all to see on the nightly TV news. All of us suspect that we will end up there. We are told that our Army training is the key to our survival. We train hard. We take our corporals seriously and believe that if we survive Vietnam, it will be in no small measure due to Sergeant Singh and the way he controls them. We take orders during training and break them as far as we can after ‘lights out’. A mate and I ran a card school by torch-light.
Back to that line up in the barracks corridor, five weeks into our recruit training. The NRL football hero is having a shot at the non-self-identifying-pale-skinned Aboriginal. He is one of the introverts. The question of his ethnicity has not previously arisen. He is just one of the rest of us doing our best to get through this twelve weeks training course in one piece. The NRL football hero calls him a useless nigger, just as Sergeant Singh turns the corner of the corridor. He hears the slur.
I don’t remember it word for word, but it was something close to this.
“Who are you calling a nigger?!” Sergeant Singh’s dark eyes engrave his anger upon the eyes of the perpetrator as he brings his face to within a centimetre of their target.
“Oh, not you sergeant”. The perpetrator winces and is unable to withstand the fire of his attacker’s glare. The perpetrator has to look away. His face reddens. He is visibly shaken. He has nowhere to go.
“My skin is darker than his”. Sergeant Singh pauses but maintains his withering stare. Then he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice. “Do you want to call me a nigger?”
“No sergeant”. The perpetrator says this softly, with head bowed, eyes beginning to glisten.
With that, Sergeant Singh stands us to attention and conducts his inspection as if nothing had happened.
The NRL football hero was physically twice the size of Sergeant Singh, but half the man, and he knew it. I hope that something of Sergeant Singh’s values and courage have in some small way rubbed off on me.
P.S. I ended up in Malaysia as an infantry Malay language interpreter, courtesy of a crash course with the Brits in Singapore, and can now show off in Malay and Indonesian restaurants. The showing-off part of my character is very un-Sergeant Singh.
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