A chance encounter at a lunch led to a conversation that brought back memories of my time in the Army, and the effect it had on me. When I was 18 National Service was unavoidable. The war in Korea had ended, but ‘Nasho’ was still in force for every able-bodied young male. I had been a member of the Air Training Corps, and would have preferred to do my time in the RAAF. That would have required my serving for six months, and missing a whole year of university. The Army’s offer consisted of 77 days of basic training before first term started, and the rest of the six months spread over university vacations – a much more civilised deal.
I was then best described as an energetic student where extra-curricular activities were concerned, but indolent and uninterested in matters of learning. The Army was not a huge shock, since I had had a decent taste of the military as an ATC cadet, going to parades and camps. The worst I could say of our basic training was that it was boring, and that I wasn’t learning anything new.
One day our company was asked on parade whether there were any volunteers to go to cooking school. My hand went up, to sotto voce cries of ‘bludger!’ and ‘lurker!’ from around me. Off I went, at once, to the big kitchens at Ingleburn, where I reported to a sergeant who looked me up and down, and said, ‘Do you really want to learn about cooking, or are you just lurking off?’ I told him I wanted to learn a real skill. He said nothing, but put me to work.
I became his apprentice, and he was a talented master who had won prizes at the Royal Easter Show for his pastry. I still make pastry by hand, the way he taught me. By the end of basic training I was sorry to go, for I had learned so much. ‘You’re OK, son! ‘ he said on the last day. ‘I wasn’t sure at the beginning, but you’ve done well. Keep it up!’
Once basic training was over I became part of the Sydney University Regiment, known to its soldiers as ‘Russia’s secret weapon’, not because of any latent Communist sympathies on our part but because of our presumed incompetence as fighting men. As a cook I was in demand for all camps, for going early to set the camp up and staying behind to clear up. I found also that I could actually be useful – and that feeding one’s own friends, if the meal was satisfying, was a real plus. Before the year was over I had my first stripe as Lance Corporal, and became a Sergeant a year later. By then I was in charge of a kitchen serving 1200 meals a day. I was 19, and most of my staff were no older. I had somehow learned how to teach people to prepare food.
Of course, everyone was hungry all the time, and would eat anything you put in front of them. But we got lots of compliments, too. There was some initial surprise in the fact that all the cooks were fellow soldiers, but that passed quickly. After all, other soldiers like me were driving trucks, repairing machines, building camps in the bush, and so on. By the end of our service we were moderately competent at the tasks we were asked to undertake.
Until the Army experience no one had given me training and then expected me to deliver. What I received was a challenge and an opportunity to show what I was capable of. I enjoyed that challenge, enjoyed making three quid a day (my ordinary income as a teachers college scholar was 18 quid a month, plus whatever I could make playing the piano in pubs), and enjoyed the comradeship the Army engendered.
By the end of that time I was a much better student, too, and went on to do well, becoming in time an academic, a career that had seemed quite out of reach in my first year. Looking back at it all, I think that I was lucky to have encountered National Service. It may not have been for everyone, but it was a character-building experience for me. I have heard others give similar accounts of the effect that the Army experience had on them.
And the interest and skill in cooking has stayed with me throughout. I kept learning about cooking, amassed a library concerned it, became the Foodmaster of the Canberra Wine and Food Club, became a foodie and a restaurant critic (including some work for Leo Schofield), published some recipes for people who have a salt allergy, and have been the family cook since I married.
All because my hand went up on parade, in January 1955!