EN ROUTE TO MELBOURNE By Cameron Simpkins, Adjutant 1 RTB
Back in the bad old days of the 1980s it used to be a 13-week course. You used to do 3 x 4 weeks of training and a week of drill for graduation.
To determine where a recruit sat in the food chain, they used to wear coloured tabs on their epaulettes – red for the lids, blue for the middle, and gold for the top of the heap. To gain that much-sought-after bit of coloured felt, as there were advantages, red got nothing but mess food, blue tabs got to eat chocolate and drink Coke, whilst gold tabs could sneak a can or two. The platoons therefore had certain enablers to make the cut.
To transition from blue to gold, one of the enablers was the 20-km march around 1 RTB… it would usually take all day. Some of the soldiers’ pantomimes that went on, you’d think this was the French Foreign Legion… or a re-enactment of Sandakan, complete with Japanese guards.
Anyway, one chap decided he couldn’t make it. He wasn’t going to even attempt the march. So he broke into his locker and retrieved his things. He changed into his civvies, told his section mates that he was jumping the wire and machine gun towers and left.
Just stop for a second here. It was 1989. If you were a well-dressed funky, young man in those days, as our hero was, you’d be stepping out in a pure polyester shirt (love that feel of man-made fibre rubbing against your nipples), a tight pair of stovepipe pants, and a snappy pair of winkle picker shoes… with the long, narrow toe… and you’d be dragging a large black bag behind you, as nobody had invented wheels on the bottom of bags yet.
So anyway, it’s about October in The Riverina. That would be planting season… picture miles and miles of rolling paddocks with newly cut furrows…
Fast forward 24 hours. He was picked up by the police in Junee, I think that’s right. He’d jumped a train, missed it, and landed badly on the tracks. He ripped his polyester shirt and pants (you know, that really shiny shit we used to wear), and rolled an ankle. He admitted to the cops that he’d escaped Stalag 13… And they brought him back to our waiting arms. Black Bart was the RSM, and he and I began the interrogation.
“Mate, why were you trying to jump a train?”
“I was busting out of here and getting back to Melbourne.”
“But the train was going to Sydney…” (I was met with silence on this one. Clearly, I was trying to trick him)
“Okay, so tell me, digger, why did you go AWOL?”
“I couldn’t do the 20 klicker walk. I wasn’t going to make it…”
“So, you couldn’t manage a 20-km walk, in greens, with SLR, water
bottles, and about 5 kg of webbing…”
“No. I was never going to make it…”
“Even with an ambulance trailing and all your mates around you…”
(This is where I opened up a map of The Riverina). “But you managed to walk from here to there (pointing at the map), dragging a heavy black bag (and it was heavy), in those shoes… (his feet were bleeding – he’d really fucked them over), and those clothes… and you did that in 24 hours.”
“Yes, I did.” (He was sobbing now. I think he thought that at any moment the guard with the Rottweiler would burst through the door).
“Mate, you walked 35 km over broken fields in about 18 hours dragging that farkin bag behind you…”
“Yes, you did.”
“Do I still have to do the 20-km walk?”
“Yes, you do… (’cos I was a bastard in those days).
And he did.
And I made sure he was posted to Artillery.