Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Temple Trouble

I had an interesting experience in OCS once. After many days of combat rations, I finally came across some kitchen cooked food served up in a hospital. How I ended up there was quite unexpected (as I suspect all such cases would be).

It was the early part of Senior Term, a topo exercise in Tekong. We were supposed to pair up and go from landmark to landmark. On paper, that sounded easy. But Tekong maps, like most island maps then, were rather out of date. They were accurate on geographical features like contours, but on anything else, it was either old or absent. It was a challenge to navigate with such maps, especially when the topo objective involved navigating dirt tracks and finding dubious landmarks. In many ways it was like 'The Amazing Race'. You have to keep your eyes open, else it would involve doubling back and hoping the other teams render you some kind assistance.

My partner Yeang and I had come to a location where a small temple was supposed to be. Yeang, up to that point, had been a good companion. He wore an easy smile and was generally of good humour. But deep down, I didn't think he was the gung-ho type. I could tell from the way he boxed in the ring. He was mostly afraid of getting hurt. But this was topo, what could go wrong?

Along the way, we bumped into other groups. Apparently a checkpoint was hard to find and so we all ended up along the same general area trying to solve the riddle. That checkpoint was a Chinese temple. For all our efforts, it might as well have been a Chinese desert mirage.

The first group we met had Cadet CT Lee in it; he was one person nobody liked. But he knew how to angkat-bola with our platoon PC so he managed to get by. Lee appeared to have finally found what we were looking for. He didn't let on though, only to say as he hurried on "Yes, it was not easy." Big help that was. Lee was self-preserving that way. I wished we had blanket-partied him when we had the chance before we left OCS.

As the day wore on, I was beginning to realise that Yeang wasn't as great a topo partner as before. Besides being a scaredy-cat, he was also wishy-washy. Every suggestion I made was greeted with a "Yeah, I think so" or a "It could be that way... Maybe." Could? Maybe? They were not the words I wanted to hear! Where was the thinking??? In the end, I simply stopped asking him and trusted my own instincts instead.

We soon came to a narrow dirt track that led down to a small gulley. We bumped into Mooi and Seah coming up the other way. They were also looking for that elusive Chinese temple. Perhaps we were all too weaned on '70s Chinese kung fu movies and were half expecting to see a broken temple eaten by charred remains. You know, the sort where you gather straw for a bed and where the Beggar King could be found roasting a pigeon over a crackling fire?

It turned out that the temple in question was only a small concrete worship altar - the kind that's not taller than three feet and housed only one deity. It was also well hidden by some tall lallang and out of sight.

That's a temple? we asked. Seah and I looked at each other and shook our heads. Seah and I were the outdoorsy type and got along. He had joined us during Senior Term from SAFINCOS. He was one person I thought was a natural sergeant, someone who could lead and command men. Or lead by example. But he was sort of folksy. At times, he negotiated rather then demanded.

Both our groups decided to mark that so-called temple as the right target... so exasperated we were. We thought we could check with the instructors later to see if that was correct. Maybe under all that lallang was once a proper temple that the nearby villagers went to make prayers and seek divine intervention. As it was our last landmark, the next thing we needed to do was look for the nearest instructor checkpoint to report in and get our next set of coordinates/objective to travel to.

Mooi and Seah were not not yet done, so we went our separate ways.

As we seemed to have veered off course trying to locate that temple, finding our way back to our original location took some time. We were still on low ground so getting our bearings was quite difficult. And there was not a single high feature to be seen; everywhere were treetops. In any case, we soon found ourselves alone again on a quiet dirt track. Grass grew in the middle, which looked reassuring. It meant that the track was once used by vehicles. Maybe people still do, we comforted ourselves. It should then reflect on the map. In other words, the track implied civilization.

Yeang was ahead. I had hung back to check my map. Suddenly, he was flapping his arms and getting all panicky. At first I heard a buzz. It then grew louder into a whine. Under my breath, I uttered "Oh shit, bees!" and hurried to where Yeang was. I then realised that I did not have the smoke grenade with me. We had been advised to use it against aggressive insects such as these.

Fortunately for Yeang, he was still wearing a poncho as it had rained earlier. He flapped it like a bird. From afar, he looked funny, as if he was trying to fend off a large and invisible predator pecking relentlessly at him.

"Quick, where's the smoke?" I asked. "In the back pouch!" Yeang was almost screaming.

I reached in and pulled out the grenade; more black bees were quickly swarming. I pulled the grenade ring tab and held on, keeping my fingers from the top. I needed to find wind direction first and let out more smoke. That achieved, I threw the canister down. Thick smoke swiftly bellowed out as if a geyser had suddenly opened up in that dirt track. It caught wind and swirled around us.

Yeang scooped a poncho full of smoke and tried to crouch down to hide. I felt it was pointless as the smoke was very acrid and stinging, much worse than what the bees could do. And my eyes were already burning up. Run, I said to Yeang, gesturing in the direction where the smoke was drifting. Seeing no response, I had to half-drag him away.

Fortunately, the swarm was not as large as I had feared and soon dispersed. We didn't manage to run too far away and was still in a cover of some thin smoke. I asked Yeang if he was alright. He said he got stung and felt sick. I too was stung - twice in the back and one near my eye. I didn't know if that was serious as my eyes were also being irritated by smoke.

I tried to look for allergic symptoms on Yeang but could find none. Still, he acted as if he was dying. He claimed he was weak and couldn't walk. At first he tried to hobble but even that seemed too much. In the end, I had to fireman-lift him.

We had no signal set. The only solution was to find an instructor location as soon as possible and not bump into anymore bees!

I fireman-lifted Yeang when I could and laid him down when I got tired.

About half an hour later, I thought Yeang would recover. His facial color had returned and he didn't look that sick after all. But he still claimed he was very ill and dying.

Eventually, after an hour of plodding and struggle, I found the instructor location. It was a Land Rover sitting by the roadside along a metal (tarmac) road. I quickly explained to the duty instructor there what happened to us and that my fellow cadet Yeang seemed badly affected. He radioed in and quickly drove us to the exercise admin area by the coast. By then my eye had become swollen quite a bit.

Upon arrival, I could see my company OC and platoon commander gathered along with a gaggle of admin people. They looked concerned. As usual, my PC (Capt Ang) was critical of our failure. "How come you guys so careless!" Well, it's not as if we were handling bees and dropped them! was my unvoiced reaction. Plus, they came out of the blue. PC Ang may seem heartless with that remark but if you knew him, he was only being exacting. His fave phrase then was "Young man concerned..." - meaning we young men had to be built of sterner stuff and must be able to take all kinds of knocks. (Read more about PC Ang here)

A medic came over to examine us - Yeang first. The OC, hand on hips, asked Yeang how he felt. Yeang climbed down from the jeep and said (rather nonchalantly) "Sir, I'm okay." I was flabbergasted.

A while ago, he was aching and dying. I also impressed upon the instructor how serious my buddy's condition seemed to be. And now, he was behaving fine and less affected. I shot Yeang a glare that could have sunk an aircraft carrier that day. It was to tell him what an asshole he was. He looked sheepish and avoided it.

(At times like these, I wish I had a quick temper. I would have jumped over and throttled him.)

From that day on, whenever he saw me he would look embarrassed and avoid me. If he had apologised, maybe I would have forgiven him. But he never did. That was the last time we ever topo-ed together. I was also wiser to his kind. He was someone who greeted everybody with a smiley "Hey buddy, how are you" regardless of whether you were close to him or not. I guess it was his way of disarming people.

Another cadet, Samuel, was just as religious as Yeang. But with Samuel, he would have carried you to Timbuktu even if a shark was biting and attached to his leg. I almost joined the Commandos because of him.

Poh Chiak, my previous bunk mate (and JC mate), was a bit more streetwise and not so kind to Yeang's type after that temple incident. He would "hentum" him whenever he tried to give excuse for not carrying his load, or seemed to be skivving.

Fortunately for me, my condition was worse or else both Yeang and I would have been accused of causing a needless emergency. My eye was swollen, the bee's sting missing it by just millimeters!

PC Ang was concerned and insisted that I be sent to the nearest hospital for treatment and observation. Well, the nearest treatment center then was Changi Hospital and that was where I was admitted to. At the time CH was still that huge colonial building where the wards came with high ceilings. Such rooms were cool and airy: a place I really liked sleeping in.

I stayed two nights there until my swollen eye subsided. The hospital food tasted marvellous, reminding me of the Cantonese dishes my mom cooked back home. I guess after four days of combat rations, any cooked food would seem delectable. But really, I must give kudos to the chefs there. They changed my mind about hospital food and really made it difficult for me to return to the field after that. Besides, the pillow was soft, the mattress kind. And all I had to do was take that little blue pill and off to dreamland I would go. That trouble with Yeang would soon forgotten.

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