WHEN YOU KNOW IT’S TIME TO GROW UP… By Simon Ralph, 8/9 RAR
It was quite a culture shock coming up the Pacific Highway in the Greyhound bus, seeing all the houses on stilts. It was very different to the double-brick lowset dwelling I had come from in Adelaide.
I stepped off the bus at West End, opposite Musgrave Park. The greenery was amazing, and even at six am the humidity hit me like a ton of bricks.
I was the youngest in the battalion when I arrived in March 1981. I was 17 1/2 to be precise.
The battalion was still located up near the roundabout near the Lloyd St entrance, although our lines were right down where they are today, albeit moving this year, 2013.
A company to which I was assigned was out bush and I hung around with Charlie for a couple of weeks until they got back. In the next 12 months, like all young diggers, I was taught all the technical, strategic skills I needed to survive in this environment, taught by masters of many years’ experience.
I learnt well. After 12 months I had ditched beer for scotch, bourbon and this funny rum called Bundaberg. I smoked Winfield Red – a real man’s smoke. I knew that Saturday afternoons meant the Caxton Hotel beer garden complete with jazz band. Saturday night was The Wintergarden, and if you missed out on a root off to Squizzles/Pips/ Chequers (the same venue, just the name changed over time).
Sunday afternoons were sessions at the Brookside Hotel and then off we’d go to The Wintergarden Wine Bar.
Mondays and Thursdays were the Ferny Grove Tavern, where you could get a jug of scotch and coke for $8… but we would get the $16 jugs (double strength). Drink three of those and it was time to spin around the world a few times.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Fridays were drinks at our boozer and/or at the Dalzell Club, then into Squizzles/Pips as noted before because we had free entry.
They taught me how to sit on a chair in the shower, naked at 4.00 am spewing up so that you could somehow do PT that morning.
I remember coming home in the early hours of a Saturday morning, and falling asleep on my bed. When I awoke, it was dark and seven pm so I had missed the mess.
I went up to the Henry Dalzell Club to get some toasted sandwiches and saw that Parramatta were playing on the big TV.
‘That’s not right,’ I thought, ‘they don’t play on a Saturday,’ (at least not then). I asked someone what was going on.
“It’s Sunday, you idiot,” he replied.
So with this wonderful training under my belt, I arrived late to the OR’s mess one morning (by 15 minutes) and thought, ‘Oh well, looks like I’ve got Dixies.’
To my surprise the sergeant cook got all huffy puffy, charged me and I got two days’ CB. The mess hadn’t even opened yet!
Some time went by, and one Sunday lunchtime I was eating in the mess with Nigel Clayton and another guy (I forget) when the Battalion Orderly, Sergeant Roscoe Lentini, came over and said, “Pte Clayton, you owe $20 for last night’s taxi.” Funds were always available there so you could pay your fare if you had drunk all your dough. Nigel normally had.
As a side note, I saw him in town one night with a group of people standing around him laughing. He was in a fight with a bus stop sign – swinging punches, kicking it, calling it names. I had to grab him and tell him it was okay. He’d won and it had given up. I bundled him into a cab, gave the cabbie $20 and told him to take him home. The cab drove away and stopped at the lights, where Nigel jumped out and I waved goodbye to my $20, and Nigel.
Back to the main story… Nigel told the sarge that he’d pop up after lunch, to which he agreed.
Anyway, the other guy had just bought this road dirt bike. I fancied a ride on it, so I said, “Nigel, give me the $20.” To the other bloke I asked, “Can I use your bike to go up there to pay it?”
“Okay,” he replied so off I went.
I got up to battalion headquarters, parked the bike across the road in A Company’s car park, waltzed on over and paid the $20. I walked back over the road, jumped on the bike, kick-started it but it wouldn’t start. So I was huffing and puffing on this thing and Roscoe came over and said, “Ralphy, start it down the road. We are on the phone.”
“No worries, Sarge.”
The next thing, the Duty Officer, 2nd Lieutenant Ogden C Coy came over.
He was a brash young bloke, new to the battalion and asked, “Do you have a license for that bike?”
“Then I suggest you take that fucking bike, and you wheel it down the fucking road. If I ever see you on that fucking thing again, I will fucking charge you. Now fuck off.”
I was not overly impressed with this particular officer at that moment.
I started to wheel the bike down the road, got round the corner and thought, ‘Fuck him.” I jumped on to the bike and tried to clutch start it rolling down the hill.
For some reason I will never know, it was at this point the Duty Officer previously mentioned appeared in the staff car behind me. The window was wound down and he advised me that I was on a fucking charge and to report to him at six pm.
SHIT… I turned up at six pm.
“Do you admit you don’t have a license? What if you killed someone?” he asked.
“We don’t need a license to kill someone. We’re soldiers.” I replied.
He went apeshit, swearing, “You fucking this and you fucking that. Why did you still ride that fucking bike after I fucking ordered you not to?”
“You didn’t order me to do anything. All you did was swear and abuse me and I was pissed off at the manner in which you spoke to me. If you had said, “Pte Ralph, you are to wheel that bike down to the lines, and if I see you on it again without a license I will charge you. Do you understand?” then I would have taken that as an order. All you gave me was abuse.”
He didn’t like that and asked me if I would like to write a statement. I answered that I would and he went to get me a pen and a piece of paper. I said, “Excuse me, Sir, but although to you I am only a fucking digger, I am educated. I can write and to write my statement I will need more than one piece of paper.”
I wrote my statement.
The next morning, I reported to my CSM. He asked me what had
been going on, so I explained in detail. I advised him of my written statement, and it appeared at that point that I may have been in the clear. That was wishful thinking.
I got charged on the Wednesday for riding a motorbike without a license (fair call) and disobeying a lawful command. I fronted up to Lt Col Brett, the CO, escorted by Lofty Wendt RSM… The charges were read. How did I plead? Guilty to the license but not to disobeying a lawful command.
The evidence was heard by 2nd Lt Ogden. The CO asked if I had any questions for Ogden. I replied that I would like to ask him if at any time he’d sworn at me, to which he replied no. I coughed and spluttered, looked at him and called him a liar… The CO ripped a new arsehole out of me… I copped five days confined to barracks, two days’ jail and a $40 fine.
I marched out of the CO’s office, stood at attention in the hallway and Lofty called me into his office. Fuck, now I was shitting… For those that know Lofty Wendt, when I first saw him I thought he was the epitome of an RSM in appearance and stature.
“Shut the door, young man,” he said. “Now, don’t do anything stupid in the slammer. Do your time, learn from it, think of what you did wrong and what you should have done… understood?”
Though the door was closed, you could hear the CO’s voice call out,
“Lt Ogden, into me.”
Lofty smiled and told me to go over by the wall… and I swear to this
day on my kids’ lives, there were Lofty and I with our ears pressed to the wall (we must have been in the Adjutant’s office) listening to Lt Col Brett rip a new arsehole out of Ogden.
“Don’t you EVER speak to one of my soldiers like that again.” Rant and rave, rant and rave. It looked like the CO knew the truth. When I got out of the slammer down at 6 RAR (the guard guys were good but the GMP Sgt at the time was a real cock) and had to report back to BHQ for my CB, guess who the Duty Officer was? You guessed it – 2nd Lt Ogden 7 for seven days straight! To his credit though, I had no problems with him on CB.
Had I grown up? Nearly, but not quite just yet.
I had just done two days in the slammer and five days confined to barracks (which was three because two counted while I was in the slammer).
It was Monday morning and I was a free man. I’d paid my penance. I returned to A Company where they were packing stores to go to Amberley, as the company was deploying to New Zealand the following morning (Tuesday).
It was our last night in Brisbane for a couple of weeks. I’d been stuck in camp all week, so of course it was only right that I went out for a couple of quiet drinks!
And quiet they were by my standards… The only problem was that SHE was there too, and SHE said SHE still loved me etc. etc. And somehow I found myself back at her place, close to camp (Pickering St) only one street away. I got to bed about 11 pm and had to be on parade for 6 am. I got to sleep about 1 am, having done my callisthenics. My alarm was set, and I could sleep on the truck out to Amberley anyway. My sack was empty and life was good.
Now, the next part is where I believe I was the inspiration for the opening sequence of Four Weddings and A Funeral. I awoke, but not to the sounds of an alarm. It was 7.00 am approximately and although he was not known to me at that time in my life, I metamorphosised into Hugh Grant… FUCK FUCK FUCK… panic… FUCK… I bolted out the door, banged on the window of a car reversing out of a driveway, and begged for a lift to the front gate, which I got.
Running down Lloyd Street, with Chariots Of Fire playing in my head, halfway down I saw coming towards me the buses with A Company 8/9 RAR onboard minus “That Fucking Idiot Did It Again” Pte S Ralph. Onboard was (unbeknown to me at that stage) a still startled, surprised Pte Kevin Dalley of C Company. My heart sank, but I kept on running to the lines. Surely they would get me out there somehow. A Land Rover maybe?
At the lines I saw Cpl Brian Vesper and he said, “Mate, get dressed into uniform. You’ve got to see the CO.”
The long and short of it was that I fronted up (again), got seven days in the slammer, a $40 fine for being AWOL and to my surprise no CB.
During my time in the slammer I had to report back up to BHQ where I was put on a 6-month admin warning for discharge if I stuffed up again. I felt pretty down at times in the slammer, angry at myself if anything, but never got charged again.
People talk about sliding doors and fate. I did my time and hung out with Charlie Company until the boys got back. While they were away, I met a woman who in time became my wife of 18 years (divorced now). We have a wonderful son and daughter as the result. I missed Greg Chappell’s 176 runs in Christchurch (the boys loved it) but I wouldn’t have swapped it for the WORLD.