Wednesday, August 8, 2012

OCS Barrack Life

The old OCS in Pasir Laba in the 80s was quite new then. There were seven blocks of barracks which were named Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and Golf.

Typically each intake of cadets would occupy two blocks of barracks. In March, it was Delta-Foxtrot (A-level batch); in June, it was Bravo-Echo (another A-level batch); and then in September, it was Alpha-Charlie (the Poly batch). The Golf block was the nearest cadet barrack to the main gate by distance and opposite the cookhouse. It housed the female career cadets. As male cadets, we were naturally curious about our opposite-gender brethren in that building. It was always a joy to bump into them during meals at the cookhouse. Given the uneven gender ratio in OCS, I am sure these girls knew how endangered a species they must appear to be. And how unnerving it must have been to have always a dozen of eyes checking them out each time when were at the cookhouse!

I must admit we guys have planned many a panty raid in our minds in our spare time. But the threat of expulsion from the school kept us from achieving that prank.

But each time I saw a Golf Company cadet, I wondered what compelled her to join the army in the first place. In my mind then, the girls had better career opportunities in the private sector than us guys. Wouldn't it be better to find work as a secretary, nurse, HR honcho, receptionist then as an unglam army girl?

We used to think only the ugly ones joined the nation's armed forces. But at Golf Company were a few sweet-faced ones. So what reason did they have?

Perhaps it was just pure male chauvinism on our part to think like that. My own sister joined the air force. She did so to further her studies in Engineering. She wasn't butt ugly. Maybe "one-of-a-kind" would be an apt description.

But OCS was new then. The bunks were either for two persons or four. It reminded me of the new hostels in NTU which I visited as a student during a Pre-U seminar in my final year at CJC . A bunk, a built-in cabinet (with a top compartment to put that bag from home) and a shared desk.

It was functional yet cozy.

Did we get to enjoy our time in the bunks?

Well, I remember my OCS time as being very busy. If not PT, it was classroom work. If not that, then it was field work. The bunk became just that, a bunk: a place to lay our heads in during night. If we were in camp, that is. Which wasn't often during senior term.

As for facilities, there weren't any on each floor. No pantry even. We did everything in our bunks except to go to the toilet and bathe. OCS was a camp, not  a prison! The block itself had a couple of briefing rooms. The rest of the offices were taken up by respective company staff or the tactics team instructors. My batch was the second or third last batch to be trained by such teams. Afterwards, it was switched over to the mentor system (of which my batch were the first instructors). There were seven teams then, each specialising in more than one military subject. Their offices were spread among the cadet company blocks.

Each cadet company block had its own exercise yard - a small patch big enough to hold two chin-up bars. Chin-ups were often our Achilles' Heel during IPPTs (physical fitness test), so at every opportune moment, we were made to 'practice' before heading out...even before lunch. We did them in our No. 4s too.

For leisure, we cadets were given a cadet mess next to the cookhouse - 'mess' being army-speak for a casual hangout place afterhours. But who would want to be seen at a mess during active training time? Or even afterhours? Both officers and NCOs would think you were skivving. If a cadet is not kept busy, something is wrong! Do we not have boots to polish? Clothes to iron? Subjects to revise and study? Activities to plan for the next day? Routine orders/duties to carry out?

The cadet mess thus became a kind of white elephant. It was used mostly by cadets who had to do weekend duties. During my time, the mess was equipped with a TV and VCR machine, a midi hi-fi system, a rattan sofa set, and a drinks machine. The cadet mess was also stocked with many copies of Pioneer magazine. Haha... as if our own immersion in green wasn't enough!

Each batch of cadet intake would have its own mess committee responsible for organising cadet-life related events and such. These activities were few and far in-between. I remember we had a casual nite once together with the Golf cadets before we passed out (i.e. graduated from OCS, not dead drunk). Still, mess fees were always collected despite the absence of events. $5 for what again? we would ask each time. It's like paying for that time-share apartment we hardly get to use!.

My vivid memories of the cadet mess was as a place to kill time, usually before an overseas training trip. Dressed in civies and all ready, we would all talkcock in the mess until it's time to board that three tonner to the airport. Or it was a place to hangout until it was time to book-out. The cadet mess was after all, nearer to the main gate nearer to freedom.

There was a library in SAFTI at the time in that main building just after the main gate. It was the Infantry HQ. It's a pity no time was made for us cadets to use that library, else we could have learned so much more about military tactics and leadership life lessons. It was only during my instructor stint at OCS that I found time to read the many excellent first-person account war stories there. Philip Caputo, Harold G Moore, Neil Sheehan, Bernard Fall, etc. There were even gems like 'A Guerilla Handbook on Assassinations' from South America with some very over-the-top illustrated methods. It was pocket-dictionary sized, which must have been convenient for the novice secret agent bumping into a target unexpectedly. "Quick, I need a good killing method now!" LOL.

Books like that are depressing to read after a while. I much preferred Spy vs Spy in MAD magazine. At least they were ingenious and made you laugh. And I much preferred books that made me a better infantry officer.

As an instructor, my bunk was in the old E Block right across the field. It was a multi-storey building reminiscent of that old primary school or converted art facility at the junction of Short Street and Selegie Road. This E-block was very sparse and looked deserted most of the time, like a building emptied for demolition. It was there that I first read another war epic, The Lord of the Rings. Took me three tries to get past the first five pages. I then fell in love with it. I also read a lot of Robert Ludlum.

Nine months is a long time to spend in any one place. Even though our bunks seem more like way stations than living quarters because of the little time we spent there, it was still home. My fondest memory is one where I would lay in my bunk bed looking at the clear inky sky during full moon. I would have my Sanyo walkman and headphones on playing Streets of Fire - an 'in' song then. All would be at peace. It was a young man's life. A life of adventure, a life of comradeship. I knew then to make full use of it and I did.

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