By Reginald James Kent
In between the drills, we'd stare into the water of our little enclave. In the middle of the night, the surface of Seletar Reservoir shimmered, reflecting the floodlights. We floated on M3Gs: amphibious vehicles that unfolded to form rafts. There were four of us to an M3G, four rigs per platoon, and two platoons per company.
Eric didn't belong to any of the rigs. He did not belong to the anchorage team either. Lieutenant Saw Say Sern was the one who had announced our roles to us after our Bridging Engineer Conversion Course. He decided that if we would drive the bus-sized monsters, crew them to transform them into rafts, or work landside.
We weren't surprised by Eric's appointment. He always had his nose in a book. He'd keep them in a Ziploc bag along with wet wipes. We would ask him what they were about, and he would answer like he had a spot waiting for him in university, which of course he did. He always answered us like we would understand him but most times we didn't. He didn't talk to keep awake like we did between drills. He'd finish his task, wipe his hands and squint in the dim light of the training shed, plowing through pages.
Sir Saw made him his runner, some of us thought it was a cushy job. The asshole can enjoy aircon just because he can speak like the angmohs, some of us said. Some of us defended him. Have you seen the comms pack? Looks like it's from World War Two. Where got easy to carry that everywhere, dumbass?
Some days Eric would help us clean the rigs, pumping hydraulic ports full of red, sticky lubricating fluid which we called strawberry jam. Some days he would join anchorage for endurance training, using piling hammers to drive metal stakes as tall as some of us into the ground. Some nights he stayed up with Sir Saw, helping him fill up spreadsheets or mark-up maps in the office. We knew Sir Saw and Eric had a history, they had gone to the same junior college. They manage to hide it for a while but in camp, there's nothing to talk about except each other. Eric said we gossiped more than girls. Eh, you know Eric before this, Sir? we asked. He had arrived back at the parade square after the weekly cohesion run. Yeah, he was my junior. Both of us were in student council, Sir Saw said. Serious? You close? we asked. Yeah, close enough, we went on school trips together, he helped me with my GP essays a lot. He's a lot smarter than I am, Sir Saw said. Yah, damn smart, too smart for this, we said. Sir Saw's eyes lingered on Eric who had arrived before him. Yeah, too good for this, he said.
When we were processed into Seletar, our new captain ordered us to fall in at the company line and asked us to drop. We held push-up position on the hot concrete as he 'welcomed' us to the 35th Singapore Combat Engineers. The sergeants and officers loomed over us at the edge of the square. I want to know your names, Captain Joel boomed. What's yours? With every name, Sir Saw would bark, down! We knew the names were irrelevant. After 60 push-ups, he commanded us to rise and stand at attention: Sedia! And then at ease: Senang Diri! The sound of our boots reverberated as we parted our legs. We had our eyes on the captain, but Eric's were on Lieutenant Saw Say Sern.
Eric was confusing. Even some of the regular officers, the 'sign-ons,' the ones with the degrees, didn't get his books after he summarised them. He could lift more than some of us and run faster than others. Captain Joel asked him why he didn't go to Command School. Eric shrugged; I just wanted more time to read. That wasn't the only weird thing.
Well, you can't blame a guy for looking a certain way, but it made some of us uncomfortable, especially when we were in short shorts for physical training. Eric had smooth shapely legs and a bubble butt, the kind that would make you think of Kim Kardashian. From the hips down, he looked like some of the calendar girls the more beng among us would put up in our lockers.
Most of us wouldn't fixate too much on his looks, we were afraid of what it might mean. So, we tried to see him as a kid brother. The wrong choice maybe, he had all the answers. When we talked to him about our girlfriends, he always knew why they were angry and knew what we should say to make it better. He'd tell us if they were being bitches or if we were being dicks. Some of us didn't deserve them, and some deserved better. We asked if that's what was in those books. He gave us the same answer regardless of what we were doing: eating bland steamed chicken in the cookhouse, catching a breath in between interval training, or pumping jam into the hydraulics. Don't be silly little boys.
Sir Saw was always tougher on Eric, even Captain Joel said so, you're going to run your runner ragged, he joked. Eric always got the sai kang jobs: staying back to scrub clay off the stakes before returning them to the storeroom, dismantling the water stations after PT, or logging in maintenance data. First to arrive, last to leave with Sir Saw. To his credit, Sir Saw would never make Eric do anything that he wouldn't do. Sir Saw could laugh with us, crack jokes, but never with Eric. At first, we thought it was because, like us, he didn't fully understand him. We realised though; he might have understood him before any of us. He knew what it might have meant to be laughing with him.
We never said shit after we figured it out. If he had been a dick, maybe we would have brought it up. The guy was gay. But not a gay we'd imagine, with a limp wrist and talking the way ah-kuas talk. No, he said things like silly little boys but that was about it. Maybe it was the way he said it like he was all atas. The way he made the words longer, how he dragged them out. There aren't supposed to be any gays in the combat units. The system was supposed to screen them out. We all were summoned to Depot Road when we were civilians.
Somewhere along the line in the Central Manpower Base, a medical officer asked us to pull down our pants and cough. To check for hernias or something. Afterward, he'd ask us to pull them up and then he'd sit us down. Do you have anything you wish to declare? he'd ask. Maybe you were schizophrenic, depressed, suicidal—or maybe there was a reason you couldn't stay in an all-male bunk? The medical officer would record that into the system. When it was lumped up with all that, who would declare it? So, there Eric was, a queer in a bunk of straights. Business as usual for us if we didn't think of it. He pulled his weight, that's all that mattered. He was good at his job, and he always helped us with ours.
We often wondered how they figured out where to send us after BMT. What made us particularly qualified to become bridging engineers. The easiest answer was, they didn't give it any thought. It was on us to think about. Did we have it worse than the riflemen or the tankies? Who was to say, it depended on the stories being told.
Some of us had fathers who were trained by the Israelis. The foreigners spat in their mouths. They made them run until they had to puke in their helmets, then they commanded them to drink from them. We asked our fathers about boys like Eric. One of them said his bunkmates would collect their shit in a bucket, and then toss it over into the shower stall that the fairy was in. Yeah sure, some of us had the odd slur, but flinging shit was unthinkable.
We were supposed to have each other's backs. During operations, we weren't supposed to sleep, but often, we were able to take small naps in shifts. Eric, without a crew, was alone. Maybe we should have been more attentive. His scary-ass fever happened after our second ATEC, an evaluation the higher-ups conducted to test us with after a year in Seletar.
Hours before daybreak, we assembled in the converted hangar that housed our rigs with our field packs ready for inspection. The moonlight pierced a riddle of unaddressed bullet holes in the rooftop. They were made by zero fighters during the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Like in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had hoped to get the planes while they were still grounded. This base once housed the RAF. These converted hangars would be retired after our batch returned to civilian life. New ones were being built. We loaded up our Rigs while the officers and runners took a briefing from Captain Joel. Then Sir Saw gave us a pep talk, okay guys simple, we just tahan, follow the plan and before you know it, we're back in three days. Drivers, be aware of what's going on in the convoy, crews I better not hear of any lost equipment, and you all just take care of each other, okay? Force prep at 0400, so make sure your packs aren't missing any shit, convoy departs at 0430.
The convoy: three Land Rovers, two five-tonners, and eight rigs long departed. A good part of our journey started off on the CTE; the expressway was all but empty in the wee hours. All these forested training sites were still so close to the neighbourhoods we lived in. We broke off from paved roads and soon enough, we entered an undisclosed location in Mandai. It had rained the day before. The roads became muddier and more unstable. This was when we pitied our drivers the most, the dirt paths were barely wide enough for the rigs.
Sometime before daybreak, rig five almost got bogged down in a sinkhole, its driver had to speed up at just the right moment to miss it. He was literally a few centimetres short of grazing rig four. We weren't supposed to, but some of us did roll the windows down, a cool humid air carried the smell of mangroves and fermenting undergrowth.
We reached our first deployment site. We were ordered to dig shell scrapes, body-sized holes a meter-and-a-half deep, with a divot slightly deeper below our feet that we could use to slot our field packs in. They would provide cover from shrapnel, apparently. It was Eric's job to dig his and Sir Saw's because officers had to sit in on briefings. Eric drove his changkol into the earth but dug too close, the wall between both shell scrapes collapsed. We thought Eric was going to get an earful, but when Sir Saw returned, he said, doesn't matter, no one checks up on us during this phase of deployment. Eric snaked a landline into the shell scrape. Officer and runner lay prone in their two-man cover. Throughout the night Eric would relay orders from HQ. Enemy at nine, 12, or three. Fire, fire, fire, we would shout, SAR-21s pointed in the right direction. We screamed into the night, by the end of it our voices were hoarse.
They trained us to go without sleep for days. It was part of the job, we needed endurance to be ferrymen for Leopard tanks and 5-tonners. It was torture for us because we knew we would never see war in Singapore. That was something from the history books. All of this was pointless. Dawn coloured the jungle orange, and we began to fill our shell scrapes up with clay. We weren't supposed to throw trash in them, but most of us didn't want to carry that shit with us. Even Eric was too tired to go on about how bad for the environment it was, or whatever. Just make sure the officers don't see anything, cover it up fast.
We moved out to the next site. The anchorage 5-tonner set out earlier so they could meet up with Boat Company to get the banks ready for rafting operations. Come breakfast, we had arrived at our Wet Gap, the body of water we were supposed to deploy in. Wet gap. That never got old. This reservoir was far more expansive than the one we trained in. To our sleep-deprived eyes, it could have been Jurassic Park. The edges were covered in mangroves. Spiky roots jutted out from muddy banks to take in the air. In the emerald water, we'd spot catfishes and river otters. Some of us found it beautiful that this was nestled in our city, some of us would have never seen this if not for National Service. The wonder was lost as soon as the sun crept up. Our metal rigs painted black made us feel like we were working on frying pans. Two years earlier, an NSF had drowned during ATEC, so we now had to wear thick orange life jackets over our fatigues. We were drenched without ever having to touch water.
We drove the rigs into the reservoir, as they entered the massive front plates extended and broke the water. The tops unfolded like a butterfly awaiting take-off. We swapped from the engine to the jet propulsion system, and the sergeants took their positions at the crane consoles above the M3G cockpits. The two coxswains would position ramps stored in the vehicles' center, lifted by the crane, connecting them to hydraulic pistons on the side. While this all happened, anchorage was split into two groups, one for the home bank and one for the far bank, both ferried by Boat Company.
We had to set up the anchorage sites and rafts in 20 minutes. We all hated the stopwatches. When the ramps were in place, we would scissor them with another rig. They were lowered into place by the rig sergeants manning the cranes and locked by the coxswains. Two rigs made up a raft. Then the ferrying would begin. The rafts would dock, the vehicles would drive on them and we'd push off.
Eric mostly stayed on the home bank with Sir Saw on the second day. He was responsible for relaying the tally of vehicles transported. The signal on his comms pack was so shitty that he had to make several trips from the home bank to HQ. Protocol dictated that he carried this load with him wherever he went. We found it cruel that Sir Saw made him relay every bit of information as it came in. He didn't want to mess up our, or was it his, evaluation. It was his last exercise. Eric must have made more than 50 trips from the home bank to HQ that day. He shielded himself from the sun with a black clipboard he had brought outfield. Occasionally when our rafts docked and there was a lull from the next vehicle arriving, he'd pop on and sneak us sour gummies he had stashed away in his Land Rover before deployment. There was something wholesome about him. We ate them quickly because if we left them, the candy would melt in our fatigues.
We worked through the night, and after the last vehicle had gone across the wet gap, we loaded up, returned the rigs to land mode, and drove on. We saw Eric rest his head on Sir Saw's shoulder in the Land Rover. It was a 30-minute drive, finally, a straight road, the end of all this was in sight.
The last evaluation was forming a bridge spanning a narrower wet gap. Eight rigs assembled again and scissored into position. We cheered as the last Leopard tank crossed it. It was over. We would drive up to the armor camp at Sungei Gedong, rest, and be back at Seletar by nightfall. We reached out to Sir Saw for high fives. He waited on the far bank with us. Congrats Sir, this is your last thing before you pass out hor? we said. Sir Saw's smile almost covered up his eyebags. Sorry losers, but you guys find me on the outside, okay, he said. We knew the truth, we wouldn't. It never happened. When you were out, you were out. Sure, we'd have the once-a-year reunion, and of course, the reservist cycles. But that was it. He'd clear all his leave, and the last time we'd see him was when he traded in his 11-B and collected his pink IC. We didn't want to see him anyway. We wanted him to enjoy his freedom.
We were doing final inspection and dreading the maintenance we would need to do after the exercise. We'd need cartons of tubes of strawberry jam to push out all the reservoir's gunk. Before that though, we'd be able to take a shower and get some sleep. We looked around for Eric, but he wasn't with us when the last tank passed over our bridge. Sir Saw had sent him back to HQ. We figured he wasn't rushing back because we were nearly done, but an hour after the last tank, we started getting worried. Eh Sir, we said, you don't think he fell into the water, right? We chortled. Fall in also got life jacket one. But Sir Saw wasn't laughing. I'm going to look for him. You all listen to Platoon Sergeant Desmond, we're almost wrapped up here anyway.
It was another hour before he returned. He had Eric's comms pack on him. We asked him where Eric was. Sir Saw, for the first time in the exercise, seemed lost. He's on his way to Nee Soon Camp in an ambulance, Sir Saw said. We didn't understand. What? Why? When?! we asked. I found him passed out on the path toward the command tent, heatstroke. Sir Saw had accomplished his mission, a smooth uninterrupted ferrying operation, the higher-ups would be pleased with his contribution, but this was a bad mark on the record. It was unclear if his blank look was from his fatigue, his fear of being reprimanded for pushing a man to collapse, or because he was, to our minds, the closest to Eric. Breaking all decorum with his head in his hands, he stomped his right foot and screamed, fuck! fuck! fuck! fuck!
We found Eric in bunk, dressed down to admin attire. He looked cleaned up and there was a plaster on his right hand. We surrounded his bed and he shrieked when he opened his eyes. We laughed. Aiyah! Chow keng so close to the end for what? we said. We smacked the back of his head. Can be less stupid or not? Eric, you okay or not? Eric sat up and smiled. Yeah! All good, they just put me in the high-pressure shower with ice packs, then put me on a drip. My temperature's stable now. Eric, Sir Saw said, please never do that again. And Eric's smile disappeared. Yes, Sir, he said, sorry, Sir.
We didn't get the sleep we were hoping for, as the night drew on Eric began to sweat and soak his sheets. His fever returned. We ran to Sir Saw's bunk to wake him up. We watched him shake Eric awake with the same look he had when he was repeating fuck. We got out a thermometer. 39.6°C. Sir Saw sent one of us down to the company office to get the sergeant on duty to call another ambulance. Eric shook his head. Just need water and paracetamol, Sir, he said. We told Sir Saw, instructions are to monitor and send him to the medical center in camp tomorrow. Eric was delirious. So, Sir Saw lifted him up bridal style. You guys get some sleep, he said, I have a spare bed in my bunk, I'll keep an eye on him.
Captain Joel gave our platoon a night out the night before Sir Saw was set to collect his IC. He was clearing his last bit of leave, so he wasn't with us in camp. Eric had become more reserved. A runner without an officer. He still did the same things, but he wasn't there anymore. He stopped calling us silly little boys. One of us caught him sneaking texts when he should have been asleep. It was Sir Saw's name on his screen. That night out, we thought we'd get Sir Saw a cake. So, we approached Eric while he was reading in bed. What flavour does he like? Eric laughed for the first time in a long time. You've spent a year with him, and you don't know he hates sweets? Get him a bucket of KFC. You two, we said, you're close, huh? Eric sighed. Share a past, and you become close enough. The kid brother who gave us gummies left when Sir Saw did. But maybe some of his intuition finally rubbed off on us. Some of us felt that Sir Saw didn't deserve him and that he deserved better.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 4 Oct 2021