Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Field Camp

Besides Range (i.e. shooting practice), I think Field Camp ranks as the other "most memorable" activity during my BMT.

Our first field camp took place in Marsiling just off Mandai Road. The track to it is now blocked, but you can easily side-step those concrete cubes placed there. Unsurprisingly, the place used to be part of a rubber plantation. We always seemed to camp in such places probably because of the space afforded by the trees: it was easier to do Fire Movement. Also, the SAF liked going back to familiar training grounds. It's all written up in some dusty training manual by some Tactical Team head. Who wants to write a new one?

Before setting off for FC, we were of course taught how to set up a tent. A tent can be made of various stuff and takes all kinds of shape. Its only purpose is to provide shade. In the Army, we used what we were given: groundsheet, commscord, stakes and iron pickets. We also used our changkul or personal hoe (what in dialect is known as a 'chang-koh'; those who have not grown up in a farm or kampung may not know). Personal hoe, sounds bad, doesn't it? But it is a tool you will get to hate much later, for it gives you blisters (like some STD, haha).

I know, the groundsheet is a bit of a misnomer as it also doubles as the tent cover.

The changkul? Well, that is for digging a trench around the tent. This 'trench' worked better in theory than in practice. The reason is that when it rains here in Sg and Brunei, it pours. So unless you have dug a moat around your tent, be prepared to sleep a little wet!

To build our tents, we would use angle irons and a monkey wrench (which was actually not a wrench at all but an angle iron 'pounder'). The angle iron was a general purpose bar with notches for fencing. We would use it between tents to hold up their center lines. A tent cloth (i.e. a groundsheet with eyelets) would be stretched out with guylines and pegged down. We had to tighten these guylines each morning as dew always weighed down the tent every night.

Our first FC introduced us to Field Rations. Unlike today where the rations reflect both cosmopolitan and home grown dishes (i.e. pasta and black glutinous rice), the rations we had back in the old days were pretty much like refugee food. This is not to knock free food. Our rations were basically ready to eat stuff from the supermart thrown together in a clear plastic bag. Categorically, they were just biscuits and canned food.

There was canned sardine, pork cubes and braised chicken. The latter does sound too good to be true and it was; we never saw any. It was always sardines or spicy pork cubes. For staple, instead of rice, we had shortbread (buttery biscuits - a very British thing that might cause your stomach to run. I usually give it away) and hard tack.

Now, back then, NS was all about crew cuts and hard tacks. Hard tacks were not thumbtacks. They were milky biscuits beige in color and "hard as tackboard", hence its name.

Hard tack did not come prepacked in the field ration pack; they were in bigger quantities packed in cardboard boxes. Each hard tack was wrapped in army-green wrapper four-a-piece and fitted rather nicely into SBO pouches as an 'on-the-go' snack.

Many folks found the hard tacks dry but I thought they were ok. That's because I have always been a very biscuit type of person who would even eat a sandwich with a soda piah inside. Try it with a peanut butter jelly sandwich. Life for you would never be the same again!

For breakfast, we often ate hard tacks with pineapple jam that came in small squeeze packs. They were a luxury during FC. I think anything resembling a dessert is a luxury when out in the field. Most folks would bring their own chocolates, unofficial of course, as well as chewing gum (which is a great way to clean teeth!)

Besides the pineapple jam, the other item of 'barter value' (just as how cigarettes were during the Vietnam War) would be the Tang-like powder drink mix that we would empty into our water bottles to make lemonade with. Boy, on a hot day, that lemonade drink was just as satisfying as a plate of ice kachang!!!

And it was very similar to that Staminade sports drink mix so popular at the time. Just scoop a spoonful into an empty cup and add water. But I think Staminade was later banned for sale as it was like salt. Drink too much and when you cross a road, your heart will flutter as if you were riding a roller coaster. Not good.

Er, when I say Tang, I am referring that mother of all powder drink mixes. -The granddaddy. It has nothing to do with the other Tang icon, CK, who made it rich selling silk hankies, pots and pans, and cheap umbrellas to both angmohs and locals alike.

Now the canned food.

To open them up, I didn't use my army issued jack-knife (a very well-made but rather useless thing). It was blunt and heavy and unlike the multi-tool Swiss Army knife, it had only a blade and can/bottle opener. We mostly used it to cut string with.) I used my own miniature can opener instead - something my dad had gotten from the US forces in Vietnam in the 60s on one of his work trips. Made of hardened steel, it could remain sharp for very long. That's not the only thing I liked about it. This tiny can opener, folded flat and on itself, was just an inch and a half in length! Very compact and small! In Singapore, you can buy one from an adventure store along Beach Road not far from Raffles Hotel. It is probably the simplest and best product I've come across. My mom loves it too and still keeps one in her kitchen after all these years.

The first thing we did arriving at any FC site was to act like settlers, i.e. mark out territory. This was because no one wanted to be near the latrines. The latrines were nothing fancy but just deep holes in the ground dug with an augur turned by hand. Everyday, a section from each platoon would take turns to do Latrine Duty, which was not much of a stretch. It involved throwing disinfectant powder into the holes. But with so many men in one Infantry training company needing to "do their business" everyday, this method was only marginally successful. Going to such an open-air latrine was often stressful and done in a hurry: You fight the smell as well as the buzzing bottle flies and mosquitoes. We often protected our asses with insect repellent (such as OFF) before going. We sprayed our balls too!

To settle who pitched their tents where, we used the time-tested method of "lom chiam pass". No favouritism, no argument. Heheh...

Lessons during FC usually entailed sitting on an open sandy ground surrounded by trees and in front of a flipchart board. That's when you discover the not-so-complicated tactics of the SAF as well as the wonders of Nature: birds chirping, leaves falling, and ants marching in peculiar lines. You also learn an important lesson: that disposal underwear isn't the best underwear option. Your butt will feel every sorry bit of sand that marks the ground. Move a bit and it is as if a dot-matrix printer is sending you pinprick messages, probably saying, "You dumbass! Wear something else!"

At first we sat through the lessons hugging our rifles. Later, we were allowed to lean them into a teepee shape. What we wore to the lesson depended on what was taught. If it was Field Craft with practice afterwards, we would wear our SBOs (aka 'Army Bra') with helmets by our side. If it was just theory, we would simply wear our No. 4s. But we still hugged our rifles. There's a cardinal rule during field camp: don't ever lose your rifle. Our section corporals would attempt to steal them at every chance they get. They then accuse us of being careless and hand out severe punishment. If they were in a good mood, they might let you off with just a "Drop 50!". If someone had seen them taking the rifle in the first place, then they got nothing to say.

One of the key lessons we learned during FC had nothing to do with Army Tactics. It was how to bathe. It all centers around the principle that water is precious. We were instructed to bathe with just one mess tin of water. Think about it, we would probably use up one and a half pails of water in the same endeavor at home. But now, we are asked to use a fraction of it. Girls reading this might cringe. But the reality is that when you have to do it, you will find a way. The end result is to be as clean as possible without playing host to all kinds of skin infections. There is a logical way about it and it is this: the various creased parts of your body are first priority when it comes to Ration Bathing; namely your neck, armpits, thigh pits and behind the knees. For us boys, this includes the penile foreskin as well. It is most essential. No one wants to be saddled with an itchy dick, especially when donning camouflage. No bush or tree ever scratched itself 'down there' if you know what I mean!.

Besides soap, foot powder was the other great necessity when keeping one clean. As a matter of fact, you could go without soap but DO NOT EVER leave home (i.e. Base Camp) without adequate foot powder. Of all the things that the SAF has ever issued, I'd vote Foot Powder as their most "powderful" item. It did  prevent us from getting foot rot and Hong Kong Feet. Used sparingly all over, we could sleep like a newborn baby all comfy and talcum powdered-up like. It was also essential in 'dry-cleaning' underwear. One desperate days, we would simply flip them inside out, powder it surreptitiously and wear it again like new. If you have trouble with this, just recite this Cantonese saying: "Slap your butt and pretend nothing's ever happened." It works like a charm!

Of course, one cannot go on bathing like this or else the whole SAF would look like a bunch of mud-caked aboriginals. After four or five days, we were usually given a chance to take a full bath, often at a nearby Army barrack. We would wash hair, body and clothes and everything. Clothes were secondary as we were all supposed to have brought extra sets. Our platoon sergeants were pretty strict about this. Fresh clothes are not only essential to hygiene but morale as well. Some of our fellow recruits liked to bring a set less so their fullpack is lighter. But if found out, the punishment was severe.

Finding a tent buddy is another thing to do upon arrival at FC. We were often left to our own discretion in this matter. Obviously, it is best to choose someone with no BO issues. I know, after a few days, we would all smell of the same stale sweat, grime and mud. But I did come across someone whose BO overpowered all these. The more important criteria, actually, is to find someone who is neat and who would help pack up in the morning. Equally important is to find someone who could talk-cock with you at night, when everybody is lying on their fullpacks trying to catch some sleep.

Routine at FC did not vary from normal days back at the barracks. We still did our early morning 5BX exercises and area cleaning. Afterwards, it was back to our tents for ration breakfast and 'morning business' (toilet). Like our baths, freshly cooked food would be available after some days in the field - usually after some intense field exercise. But the veggies would usually be overcooked (from being left in the food containers too long); and oily Lemon Grass Stewed Chicken (which sounded better than it tasted). It's true, the breakfast beehoon is like barbed wire. But hey, I like beehoon no matter what, which helped heaps. And back in the cookhouse, there was always a jar of light yellow plum sauce on the dining table to make every dish taste superb. It's the same kind of sauce one would apply on roast duck or roast goose.

Water, it is the most important commodity during FC. We had water parades where our bottles were inspected to make sure they were full, else we had to drop 20 (punishment) and afterwards, run to the jerry cans to top up. (Here's a tip on how to make water last when you are really thirsty: Do not gobble up your water at one go. Swill a little in your mouth first. When your tongue gets wet, it fools your mind into thinking your thirst has quenched. Afterwards, continue with one or two small sips. I works! and the tip is especially useful in trying places such as Brunei and Thailand. But still, water parade the night before is best!)

You cannot talk about FC without mentioning insect repellent. Mosquitoes can be notorious during FC or training in Area D where you are likely to meet 'commando-style' mosquitoes that sting when they bite and feel like grit when you crush them. Makes you wonder if they did indeed wear armour! Besides these qualities, Commando-style Mosquitoes weren't very stealthy. They land in front of you like some gung-ho soldier daring you to smack them. So Commando in behaviour!

The tube of insect repellent cream the SAF issued to us was totally useless. Its value was to crack and mess up the insides of our fullpack or SBO pouch. I don't know why the SAF never gave us something more effective. We certainly did feedback (aka complain) to them a lot about it. But in those days, the SAF kit we got were mostly leftovers from the US or British Forces from the 50s and 60s. Maybe that insect repellant cream too! In the end, folks just bought whatever was effective (and odourless) from the camp Gift Shop. The Army frowned on any repellent that was scented (like OFF) and for good reason. We were training to fight a war in the jungle, not sash-shay down Champs Elysee!

One last thing: BMT FC for recruits is mostly about Basic Field Craft and can be very uneventful. It simply gives one a taste of what is to come. And much more would happen in the first three months of OCS.

Next story: Range Practice

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