At work our team plays a song of the day every day... well most days, ostensibly for fun and inspiration. We take turns picking a song and this past Wednesday I was up. I picked Juke Box Hero by Foreigner. It's a bit of a classic from the era when hard rocking guitar music ruled. Well, it didn't rule me. I'm not big on hard rock, but I do like some of it.
I was not sure why I picked this song, except that I thought we'd had a paucity of this sort of thing and I wanted to play something different. I did wonder, why is it that this song appealed to me, rather than others? What made one song stand out from the noisy, screaming, head-bashing crowd? After a moment I remembered; a military memory involving my older brother. Both of us were medics, Ops Medics to be specific, meaning old-style combat medics. A combat medic is both a soldier and a medic; you have to be able to fight, and kill, and then go and rescue wounded soldiers and heal them, all while carrying substantial additional weight (medical supplies). Medics were also one of the major targets of any ambush; insurgents always aimed to kill the officer, radio operator and medic, so as to hinder reprisal and recovery. Nevertheless, medics were held in low regard and given the name tampax tiffies (a tiffie was a nickname for a mechanic, so we were tampon mechanics).
My brother was two years and a few months older than me. Those of you who have seen this combination of boys of a similar age know that it most often involves an ongoing sibling rivalry that only ends when the younger brother gets too big to be bullied, or when the hormones stop raging, or both calm sufficiently, or something. We were quite typical in this and I took some stick from him until I reached a similar size. It wasn't bad. You've all seen much worse. All pretty typical, and it ended in mid high-school, before he went to the army.
The truth is our childhood was hard, bitterly so at times, and I think we were each other's best ally during those years. We fought, sure, but it was a dwarf next to the giant we never acknowledged, the unspoken and unthinking support we gave each other. It was always us against our mother and occasionally this included whichever man was in her life at the time. At school we had our own age-driven cliques, but at home it was us against everyfuckingbody, at least until our little sister came along a decade later. We were a fucked up, dysfunctional family, but between the kids there was at least this bond, this loyalty. And between us brothers, ten more years of this kind of camaraderie.
As medics, both my brother and I were unwilling conscripts, for different reasons. I was unwilling because I had liberal views and I hated these fuckers. My brother was the more common unwilling conscript, simply unwilling to be forced into the military. Those who were willing signed up as PFs (Permanent Force) and they despised the rest of us, and the feeling was mutual. Conscription occurred every 6 months. I was a January conscript and my brother was a July conscript. School in South Africa runs January through December, so this meant that while he did his first eighteen months in the military I was finishing up high-school and his last six months of "service" overlapped my first six months.
My birthday is January 13th and my conscription date was January 8th, so officially I was still 17. An admin cock-up saw my arrival at camp delayed a week, so unofficially I was indeed eighteen, by two days, when I fell into their clutches. After I'd endured 3 months of basic training (a mix of physical training and lightweight medical training) at the hands of small-minded fascists I was assigned to be an Ops Medic. Most medics had a pretty easy time of their military service, all except the Ops Medics.
Many other medics don't want to admit they had this easy time and I've met many bravado-filled idiots who pretended that they had been Ops Medics, lies quickly and brutally exposed by the younger Grant, whenever I met them. Truth is it was the nature of the lies that usually bothered me, the desire to appear to have been a fighting man, a patriot, a fascist. Ghod, I wish I'd done a better job of not letting the nationalists put a rifle in my hands.
The training for Ops Medics was intense, a further 6 months of training under the authority of even smaller-minded fascists. How fascist? Prone to taking training to dangerous levels just for kicks (many of us picked up niggling injuries that we carry still). Prone to petty displays of power, petty inflictions of small humiliations. Prone to telling me anti-semitic jokes when they found out I was Jewish. Small-minded people who reveled in the power and authority our fascist state gave them over us unwilling conscripts, and who occasionally misused it to a criminal degree.
Ops Medic training was 3 months of decent (but somewhat inadequate) medical training and 3 months of intense physical, weapons and bush training. How intense? Well, as I recall, we started out as 160 and only about 70 of us finished, for one reason or another. I was one of the 70 not to get too hurt, get booted or get reassigned. I was too tough, too stubborn, too unlucky, too something. Or maybe some sibling rivalry was still left in the mix and anything my brother could endure, I could endure too.
I was a terrible soldier. I was small, at about 5 feet and 8 inches and only 130 pounds. Yeah, those of you who know my six foot 200+ pound self might find that confusing. I had a late growth spurt in my 21st year-- four inches and a lot of new muscle-- which was almost two years after I was done with the military. But in the military I was always one of the smallest guys in any unit. As such my uniforms were oversized and I always looked almost as out of place as I felt. There was an unscripted scruffiness to me that wrapped my gangling awkwardness. Through endless inspections by officers and NCOs I regularly had them stop in front of me to try and determine what was wrong. Everything about me looked wrong, and yet everything was in place. I was shaven (baby face, shaved once a week back then), my uniform was ironed, my boots were polished, my hair combed. I was like one of those eye-puzzles we all study and can't quite work out. I frustrated the crap out of them... and I loved every minute of it. Being a bad soldier hidden in plain sight was one of my greatest achievements.
After a month or two of my Ops Medic training, my brother's unit returned to base from the combat zone in Namibia (Angolan border), the same war zone where I was destined to spend about 8 or 9 months. At this time his unit were an ill-disciplined bunch of short-timers (we used the Afrikaans term min-dae, meaning few-days), a group too near the end of their two years and too toughened by the training and war to care much about military discipline. Even by these standards my brother was undisciplined.
Indeed, it often seemed that following my older brother through life was to have a perpetual bad reputation as a first impression. All through high-school teachers would say to me, "Oh, you're Kruger's younger brother? Well, I'll be watching you!" In the military the same thing happened, both in basic training and in Ops Medic training. Being bad soldiers seemed to run in the family, but so did toughness. The two of us were simply tougher than the small-minded assholes and the shit they threw at us. Much tougher. Our lives had been harder and far more mentally stressful than anything the military could throw at us. Most men measure toughness in muscle, but the truth is toughness is largely in your head. While I was laughing at the military's pathetic attempts to psyche us out, most of the "tough guys" around me were cracking under the pressure.
To be fair, my brother going through everything first was often very helpful. It meant that I was often more prepared than those around me, armed with inside information and a few tricks. In the military, one such trick we both used was to seek out punishment, rather than obedience. The two most common punishments for "bad behavior" were making you do pushups and making you run long distances. We both found running easy, but during that training we were in such excellent shape that we reached a point where nothing they did fazed us anymore. We could do large numbers of pushups, or effectively feign an anguished, exhausted collapse, and we could run all day. Most guys hate to run long distances, but we were built for it (super skinny). Once you reach that point, well, y'know, you'd rather run than put up with their petty fascist shit. And we did. The punishment was preferable to the obedience. Pissing them off was a bonus. Them thinking their punishment worked, and endless source of amusement. Best of all, they usually gave you a time limit, so you could draw it out by being too slow... and get told to try again.
Overall, my brother pipped me at the indiscipline post because he did time in DB (Detention barracks) for AWOL (Absence WithOut Leave), and boy was he brazen about it. His unit came back from the combat zone and he went AWOL for a few weeks, making no real effort to hide it. One day he went back and found out that an emergency had cropped up and his entire unit had been sent back to the combat zone. He took an, "Ah well," approach to it all and came back home (I was still in high-school). A couple of days later the MPs arrived to drag him off to DB. He got off lightly and spent just a few days there because, well, what's worse than being sent back to the combat zone? And Ops Medics were in short supply. He was lucky, because time spent as a prisoner did not count against time served, so you could add time to your conscription.
I actually spent months AWOL, so I was worse than he was, but I was more careful and less brazen. I made sure I was present any time they took roll-call. Often this meant I had to hitchhike in to camp every weekday morning, turn up for roll call, then go home AWOL again. I lived in Johannesburg and our camp was just outside Pretoria, and the hike was usually one to two hours. I found ways to make the officer in charge think I was assigned elsewhere (a trick learned from another) but mostly they just had nothing for us to do and didn't care much. Officially we were on 24-hour standby, meaning we had to be ready to ship out immediately in case of some emergency.
A few weeks before my two years were up I was finally busted for AWOL, for only the second time. As punishment they put me on guard duty for the rest of my time (I was a two-striper, a full corporal, so I could be 2IB, short for tweede In Bevel, meaning second in charge). So yes, I got off much lighter than my brother, but only because they thought I was AWOL just one night. A few days later another guy did something worse and they gave him my punishment, so I got off lighter still. Best of all, between guard duty shifts, yup, you guessed it, I was AWOL again. There was something totally liberating about feeling zero sense of duty to them, and in fact loathing them.
As an aside, during this time I was hitchhiking back to camp for guard duty one day, when I was picked up by a beautiful young woman. She took a shine to me and invited me to her house for lunch and... Well, I had to be back at camp soon and I knew missing guard duty that you'd been given as punishment for going AWOL, because you were again AWOL, was asking for major trouble, so I declined. It's something I regret to this day. Worse, this was the day I found out that I was relieved from guard duty, so as it turned out I could have joined her without consequence. Girls did not often make a play for me back then, as witnessed by my failure to get her number. Ah well.
AWOL had it's risks. MPs (Military Police) where constantly trolling the highways and picking up guys without a valid pass. I had a few close calls where MPs arrived at a point on the highway just before me or just after me and I missed them. I even had cops pick me up for hitchhiking on the highway where it was against the law to do so (they set up special stops for military hikers), but the cops simply took me to the next legal stopping point and didn't even ticket me. It was the MPs you had to worry about.
There was a place where the highway from Pretoria split into two, one going south to downtown Johannesburg and the other out to the east. Traffic split pretty evenly at this point and you'd often get dropped here as your ride went the wrong way. The MPs trolled this spot heavily as it was the best place to catch us. Once, seeing them there waiting, I stuck with my ride into the east, but ended up far from any reliable route and it took hours to get home (I finally got on a bus route). So the next time I saw them there I didn't want to go through that shit again and I did something reckless. I asked my ride to drop me off a ways up the road, then I walked across the wide grassy island to my highway, just a few hundred meters further down the road from the MPs. I was betting I'd get a ride before the MPs got to me. One of the MPs immediately saw me and started walking my way, signaling to me to walk to him. I ignored him, pissing him off and making his gestures wilder. Sure enough a former conscript saw the MP coming my way and pulled over to give me a ride. As I climbed in the car I gave the now running and red-faced MP a cheery wave goodbye.
I was a little guy, regularly picked on for his size, religion, politics and attitude. To the guys in my unit, and in general, there were so many ways I was not cool, but in these and other things I thought myself pretty cool. I peaked when I was a major reason that my whole unit went AWOL. This I owe to my brother. Just after his unit's nine months of training there were a few days before his unit were sent to the combat zone for the first time. As a group they decided that they wanted to see their families before they went, but they were denied passes (leave). So in dribs and drabs they all went home AWOL anyway, most of their unit. After all, the logic was simple; what were the sods in charge going to do, not send the guys to the war zone? Delay relieving another unit? And sure enough, nothing happened. They all came back, endured a hissy-fit from their CO, and went to the war zone.
When my unit found ourselves in the same position I spread the story of my brother's unit about. I was not a cool guy that was listened to, but the idea was cool and it spread like wildfire. I had them at, "No real repercussions." We did the same thing, only faster, and within two hours only about a dozen dumb-fuck, goody-two-shoes, were left in our barracks. We came back in time to ship out, endured our own CO's hissy-fit... and nothing more. Later, I made sure I told future Ops Medics the story too. I figured some traditions are worth preserving.
But as cool as these few moments amidst the hell of conscription were, my brother probably had the coolest moment, and it helped me. My unit were in the middle of the worst of the physical side of the Ops Medic training. To put it in perspective we were joined by a group of paratroops at one point and we trained with them for a bit. Medics were looked down on while paratroops were seen as the coolest of the conscripts. Supposedly their physical training was much tougher than ours, but when we did fitness tests together we trounced them. But making us that fit was part of a fairly brutal process, what they considered, "Breaking us down to build us up again," but in truth was, "Torturing us because they could get away with it." Many of us have enduring injuries from that time and memories of being pushed beyond the point of vomiting and collapse.
In the beginning, before we'd adjusted to the harshness of the training, it was all a big shock to the system and pretty damned terrible. We were overwhelmed and on autopilot, like sheep surrounded by new sheep dogs. Our unit had barracks that were a series of side-by-side, connected three-story buildings. We'd often be getting some kind of rough treatment right there between two barracks. As fate would have it, my brother's min-dae unit -- freshly returned from the combat zone -- were placed in the barracks next to ours. We were in the midst of some major opfok (intense physical training, literally meaning, "getting f*cked up"). Mentally we were spread a little thin, bewilderedly enduring their petty torments, when suddenly the officers and NCO's commands were drowned out by loud, hard-rocking music, what I believe was Foreigner's Juke Box Hero.
I looked up and saw my brother's silly grin. He'd put his giant boom box (he always wanted the biggest, loudest one he could find) onto the ledge outside a third-floor window and cranked it up all the way. It completely broke our tormentors' stride. My brother's unit were not under their command and had already been put through what we were going through and many of them had seen the blood and gore of a war zone. They were tougher than us, and tougher than our tormentors. They had little time left, nobody knew what to do with them and they had nothing but bad attitude to fill their days.
There was some futile yelling, both at us and at him, before a couple of corporals were sent up to resolve the situation. I don't think they found my brother, or if they did nothing came of it. He'd disappeared at the last possible moment. Come to think of it I'm not sure the two of us really ever talked about that time.
It made a difference to my unit. In the short term, our tormentors were flustered. Their malicious momentum was lost and their authority dented. Some of my brother's disrespect and bad attitude had rubbed off on us and there was a little more bounce in our step. It was a glimpse of our own future; his unit were where we would be in 18 months, and they were not in awe of our officers and NCOs. It was a turning point. In some small way the breakers had been broken, they had been revealed as petty monsters, big fish in a little pond. We were still destined for plenty of suffering, but now we knew we'd eventually win, and because of that we had already turned torment's tide. Now we could say, "Do your worst." And they did, and we suffered, but eventually we won.
There were times my brother was really cool. This was one of them. I'll never forget it.