The journey

Last updated 2012-02-24 22:38:00 SGT

How many times have you heard people likening NS to a journey? But my NS has been full of them, from Long Walk to Wallaby, which makes it far more apposite than any conceptual metaphor has a right to be. I sicken of clichés, and yet here I am succumbing to them.

When I was a little boy, my parents would tell me that one day I would have to spend two years of my life doing hard labour. Usually they would say this when they were trying to get me to be more responsible (eat ALL the food on your plate, young man, or else) or to exercise more (if you don't do this now, how are you going to survive during NS?), but as far as I was concerned this only gave me the impression that NS was to be a dark time of indentureship, tramelling and despair, to be dreaded and best avoided as far as possible. Later, coffeeshop uncles would tell me utterly ridiculous stories of how they nearly died on random trips in foreign jungles, and teachers would tell me about how incredibly boring it was being a clerk, and PE teachers would tell me horror stories about what would happen to me if I didn't get a silver for my NAPFA.

Given the many stories I'd been told about NS, I was entirely prepared to accept two years of absolutely nothing happening to me. Unfortunately, it's not really possible to have absolutely nothing happen to you in the span of two years. Sometimes it seems to me, when I look back, that these two years have been so eventful that all of the events have blended into each other, and all that remains of my experiences of them is a vast series of disjointed blasts of colour and loudness and impressions and feelings sealed in their own disparate little parcels of memory.

On this very night two years ago, I remember wondering, as I lay sleepless in bed, what the Army would do with/to fat people like me, and whether I would fit in, and hoping that the next two years would leave me in peace. Maybe it was the insomnia, but the next day felt so surreal that I almost couldn't believe that I'd handed over my NRIC, freedom and civilianship until I woke up the following morning and discovered that it wasn't a dream.

I remember wondering why my section-mates were all laughing at me when my name got called out for the Recce Interview. Throughout our 24 km route march they would keep ribbing me about it, and right at the end, Sgt. Shaun told me that I'd just walked less than half the distance required from the recce course. He wasn't wrong.

I remember one route march and three stand-by-beds on our first day in BRC, and wondering if the rest of my NS life would be spent this way. We were later asked “anyone here from Hwa Chong or RJ?” and I did not dare to raise my hand.

I remember wandering around various bunks at 6.30 AM in the morning and realising that without exception (except me) everyone was either sleeping or had their faces buried in tiny LCD screens, leaving me with nobody to talk to. Not that anyone would talk to me otherwise, anyway, but still.

I remember that on the night of our first navex Nick remarked that one of the birds at night was really cute because it sounded like it was making R2-D2 noises. I got stuck with Wee Wu for the whole thing, not for the last time, and at the end of that week I could do my first pull-up.

I remember Nasi Lemak and Bandung and Honeydew, along with our sergeants' persistent injunctions about succumbing to their temptations. Also, apparently Keong Yee's first impression of me was from watching me when I was randomly tidying up the chairs in the SAFDC canteen; he saw me doing it and thought I was being a dumbass or something.

I remember failing my IPPT and watching other people getting extra pull-ups magically credited to them while I did not. I remember Benjie refusing magic pull-ups. I remember being told that in the long run we'd get our promotions at the same time as everyone else, perhaps retroactively.

I remember Xuan Yi offering me pineapple jam cookies after 5 km runs, of the exact same variety that I grew up eating.

I remember that after we'd learnt how to camouflage a Bronco, Julius and I found bakau poles somewhere and put Wee Wu's mattress on stilts.

I remember when a cat decided to start haunting our common area, and our CSM decided that it could stay. Kennard bought tuna to feed it with, and some nights I would stay up to annoy it with dancing bootlaces and my green laser pointer. When we tried feeding it leftover combat rations, it gave the bowl a very wide berth.

I remember that the first time Keong Yee borrowed my iPod Touch, he actually returned it to me after he was done watching only one episode of The Big Bang Theory.

I remember being told “just 2 more km” for the last 6 km of our Long Walk, and barely missing the first tonner back to camp. We ended up reaching camp at midnight and going for a canteen breakfast the morning after. I could barely move. Qiansheng bought a Zesta and I had never seen one before. Two days later we had to do our 12 km fast march for our course requirement, which made us clock 72 km on foot for that week. Immediately after we finished our fast march, we stuffed our faces with unlimited sashimi at Kiseki's.

I remember that after RTI the specs who were with us decided to guilt-trip me about how I handled the whole thing. Later that day Benjie and I landed a Sunday confinement for falling asleep while waiting for the ferries back to the mainland.

I remember going outfield on exercises called Bear Crawl I, II, III and so forth so often that I can't remember which was which, though I remember why they were all called Bear Crawl. I spent most of them staying up all night manning comms while the rest of my team slept, and Wee Wu would eat my accessory packs and canned tuna. We all got chicken mayo sandwiches exactly once, and when they came it seemed like manna from heaven.

I remember Martin radioing “PARADISE NOW” as we sat hiding from the track next to an abandoned Bronco, and collapsing our ORV and running back to our bike-hide in record time from sheer delight. That evening we had seafood noodles and Coke for dinner, which felt awesome. I was so happy, that night I couldn't sleep, despite not having actually slept for three days, and ended up talking to Guo Wei for what seemed like forever.

I remember that night where everyone got soaked in a mixture of mud and free VB beer. Keong Yee poured most of his can away when he thought nobody was looking.

I remember Martin wheedling backrubs out of me nearly every other day after we came back from Wallaby.

I remember everyone getting drunk one night. I lost count of how many rum-and-cola and vodka-and-cranberry cocktails I'd taken, and then I took two shots of Johnny Walker. I have a vague recollection of mumbling the Periodic Table in the cab home to keep myself lucid. I'm also told I did some things I don't remember doing and which I hope I didn't do.

I remember doing guard duty on New Year's Eve, and at Lukas's instigation we ordered so much pizza that we could hardly move after eating, let alone stand guard over the camp. Every time I did guard duty with Keong Yee and/or Wee Wu, they would eat half of the food I would bring.

I remember these, and a great many other things.

But listing them all would be pointless, no matter how exhaustively I could do it, or how much erudition I could pour into the writing of it, because the most important things that happened to me didn't happen at all. They were not things that could be said to have happened. Pointing out what did merely serves to underscore their fundamental ephemerality and fleetingness in comparison.

Because what did happen to me was that, by accident or by design, I befriended people who were initially unanimously hostile or indifferent to me. Sometimes I would be hostile or indifferent to them too. I do not profess to understand how this works, but it does. At some vague and undelineated point in time, hostility and indifference became kinship and fraternity. Perhaps it is proof of the power of propinquity. Perhaps it is I instead who has changed, and these friendships are the result. I do not know.

Whatever the cause, I would have never expected to leave the Army with a sense of loss, and yet today that is precisely what I feel. When first I enlisted, I was told, of our pink ICs, that we do not cherish what it is that we have in abundance until we cease to have them. And it is today, though my pink IC is mine again at last, that I understand that adage better.

For some strange reason, one of the most common questions I was asked throughout my two years as an NSF (and in fact I was asked this again today) was “do you have photographic memory?” to which my answer would invariably be no, I do not. Though sometimes I wish I could, and sometimes I wish I could forget things at will (occasionally at the same time), the fact remains that I do not, and cannot, remember everything.

But I shall remember enough. Thank you all for the memories. I will miss you very much.

(abridged from this)

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