12 February 2010

1 Labuan

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I have been relieved of my appointment as the Executive Officer of No 5 Squadron effective 11 May 09.

Understand that in its military sense. We never say that you are fired. We never say that you are sacked, as that has its own meaning when it comes to war.

We say 'You are relieved of your duties.'

Indeed I am relieved. I know not the real cause which led to my dismissal. I have served as the EXO for a year now. I have been in constant trouble with the boss, but who isn't? The fact is, I have been relieved of my duty!! Phew!!

It does appear that the turmoil in Perak has indeed affected Malaysians outside the Silver State, in that everyone else now has to treat everyone else unceremoniously. I was informed by a Warrant Officer who attended the squadron morning brief, when the boss announced the new line-up. I have not been told directly, to date. At that time, I was in the flight-line office, waiting to take over a Nuri in running change from the incumbent, Major Ah Beng. He had taxied in from the runway and signalled a thumbs-up for me to take over his seat. I jogged to the Nuri and waited in the cabin patiently as he unstrapped. He bent towards me to brief me above the cabin noise, on the aircraft behaviour for the day, but I cut him off with "Good morning sir, you are the EXO!" Even with his bonedome on, I could 'see' Beng's brow furrow in horror as he brought his hands forward to vehemently wave rejection and his head shaking in denial. Then he began slapping his protected forhehead.

I somehow knew that these were the responses that the heralding of such jubilant news would evoke. He screamed above the din of twin turbine engines and the transmission system, "Haiyia!!!" Ground-breaking news, requiring reflection and further thought into its ramifications, especially for poor Beng. But I could not remain in the cabin and give him solace as this was a running change sortie to ferry goods and the advanced party to Pulau Tiga, where they would be setting up camp for our annual Jungle and Sea Survival and Dinghy Drill. I patted his shoulder and took over his seat to fly with a much lighter heart on a beautiful sea route to Pulau Tiga, the Survivor Island.

I mused in flight how my future radio calls would sound: "Harimau 04, request taxy for Pulau Tiga, POB 15, endurance 0230, transponder code 5051."

That didn't sound too shabby.

When I returned an hour later from Pulau Tiga, the gestures of empathy from my mates really moved me. Even the shrewd Capt Mages told me not to feel disheartened. Was something wrong with my face? Did I look crestfallen? Was it sorrow that showed on my countenance or fear that was already brewing in me as I contemplated the dinghy drill I was to endure the following day? I know for a fact it could not have possibly been sorrow.

I was feeling the way I used to feel as an officer cadet under infantry training when the instructors would tell me, "Officer Cadet Jeffrey Matisa, you are no longer the Platoon Commander. Officer Cadet Fikri, you are the Platoon Commander for the next phase of the battle. Do your handing over brief." Following which I would whisper to whomever, "Good luck, you poor sod," as I handed him the armband of the Platoon Commander and hurriedly took my place in the ranks as a common rifleman, chin up, eyes forward and heart singing silently in unbridled joy.

Pulau Tiga lay sleeping 6 nautical miles off the coast from Kuala Penyu. I was a passenger on the second sortie carrying the remainder of the squadron's aircrew to the 'survival camp' on Tuesday morning. The just-promoted Major Ian flew us in, kicking up a mist of fine sand at the landing point on a strip of beach near the jetty. Then as we waddled through the sand to the camping grounds, Ian took off and returned for his trademark fly-by before setting course to Labuan.

As I walked I noticed the 10-man dinghy bobbing 50 yards out at sea. The squadron boys were in it already, cheering others on to make the ungainly boarding onto the dinghy. To someone with morbid fear of the waters as I, it may as well have been 50 miles. I approached our new squadron member, Major Rashidi. He was seated on the gazebo's bench, soaked through his tees and shorts. I asked him, "What's this? Dinghy drill on your own time?" He nodded. Phew. A reduction in the terror index, I thought. I could wade out to the dinghy if that were possible. I looked around and could not immediately find a Mae West. Another reduction in the terror index, because to me, dinghy drill delayed could lead to dinghy drill denied. Hooray!!!

Mae West? That's what we call our life-saving jacket. Upon inflation, the balooned lobes resembled Miss West's famous mammaries, though I see no resemblance between the day-glo lobe skin and anything you may find on her chest. Well, I am not in the know, so I cannot bear testimony to any of her intimate secrets. All I know is that when near open waters, I need my Mae West.

I trudged down the water line to face the dinghy, to rehearse in my mind how I would get out to the crowd of airmen perched on its rim, who were watching me expectantly to make a brave dash for it sans the life jacket. I walked into the water to my courage limit, ie my navel. There was applause for a second or two, which died as instantly as my steps halted. Then they turned to cheer Capt Tarmizi on. He was in the water, on his back, held up by his Mae West, rowing hard to reach the dinghy. In seconds, he was being hauled in. Hmmm. That didn't look insurmountable. I turned to face the camp grounds and saw Capt Mustaqim offering me his Mae West, having done as much snorkeling as he could for the morning. I struggled to button up the jacket, the difficulty being its inflated state. Then I blew through the air valve just to make sure that it was at full capacity, the lobe skins as tight as a drum. I took a deep breath and began wading in towards the dinghy.

However, Pulau Tiga was not Membedai beach at Labuan. There, you could walk out a hundred yards and still be just chest-deep in the sea. I had not gone out 20 feet when I felt my toes lift off the bed, and panic made me turn swiftly around and breast stroke for the beach. When my kicks met sand again, I stood up and faced the sea. I knew I could not outlast the alloted time for the dinghy drill and just wait for the guys to get tired of me and paddle back to shore. I shut my eyes, and mustered my will to trust my Mae West and get this deed done. I recalled my initial survival training in 1987, 3 miles off the coast of Lumut, when I jumped from 40 feet above the sea out of a Nuri, formed the survival circle with my other buoyant mates and was winched up 15 minutes later by the same chopper. Well, wasn't that worse now? Come on!! This one is peanuts by comparison! Yes, but one can drown in a bucket of water....how age heightens one's sense of mortality, huh?

I began to march out to sea again. When I felt the lift-off, I refused to hunt for the sea bed with my toes and concentrated on the breast stroke towards the dinghy, which suddenly looked even further away when my eyes were above the water level than when I was standing feet dry on the beach. But it was not. I was not more than 5 minutes paddling like a pug when I reached for the life-lines around the rim of the dinghy, got hauled in and sommersaulted into it with a loud sigh of relief. Done!! Now to paddle my way back to shore!!

I headed for the gazebo and browsed through the food trays laid out on the table. There were slices of watermelon, which would wash off the dehydrating taste of salt on my tongue. As I ate, the guys had already paddled the dinghy to the beach and moored it to a shrub. Capt Shawal, our engineering officer who was the exercise coordinator caught my eye and motioned with his hand in the direction of the forest. "Tuan, let's go to the volcano mud. It should be good, tuan." I was still in my wet flying suit as I hesitantly walked with the guys toward the direction of the jungle track and then halted in short-term memory scan. I had a pair of shorts in my backpack. I rushed back to the gazebo and changed into my shorts, By the time I headed toward the jungle track, the guys were long gone.

The walk was 1200 metres into the jungle. I was barefoot and clad only in shorts. I lost all fascination for reflexology within the first 100 metres as the roots and twigs provided their own brand of therapy from the forest floor. Deeper into the track I began profanity as brambles pierced my soles and the mud under my feet bore stains of red. Which sod advised me not to wear slippers in caution against slipping over mud on my return leg?? I kept looking forward, eyes peeled for my greatest enemy in the forest: spiders. Yes, the kind which had a leg span to cover your face like the xenomorph in Alien. Whenever I noticed a tree in the way of the track, I took a few seconds to see if a web stretched across the path of least resistance. Hey, didn't the chaps pass this way earlier? Okay, the path was clear. I marched on. At the 900 metre mark, I could hear loud voices, diabolical laughter and simian howls. I was almost in their company.

The ascending jungle track took a left turn and there they were, the colour of a herd of water-buffalo but the behaviour of a barrel of monkeys. If there were dried grass lying around, this could have been a scene from The Ten Commandments. When they saw me approach the mud pit, they said. "EXO dah sampai dah!" I growled back in good humour,"I am not your EXO lah!" They laughed. My eyes began to hunt for a spot from which to step into the pool of mud. I heard Capt Haniff's voice say, "Hah! Terjun!!!"

"No need to terjun lah. I just want to step in a few minutes...." I retorted and promptly missed my footing at the slippery pool's edge.

GLOB!!!KERPLUNK!! was all I heard as I fell like a boulder into the mud, submerged over my head in its gooey mass. I instinctively began to paddle, coming up for air. Mud had gotten into my eyes, and it stung worse than salt water. I could hear the laughter all around me. I bore them no grudge, but the sting was foremost on my mind and I couldn't even laugh at myself though I was certain that I resembled a wild boar falling into a pit trap. I struggled to reach the edge of the pit to gain a handhold and catch my breath. The edge came away in my hands in frustrating fistsfull of clay. The laughter continued unabated.

I summoned Capt Mages and Sergeant Kali into a sacred pact, right there in the mud pit. "Please, make a deal with your gods for me. Tell them never to send me back reincarnated as a water-buffalo. I don't think I want to feel this way to the day I get slaughtered."

But the moments of slience from these two told me that another joke had been wasted. "Don't worry sir, it's only four feet deep," Mages tried to reassure me. I was skeptical. Why can't I feel the bottom of the pool then? I queried, as my physical struggle clouded my sense of logic. "Yes lah sir, you are floating in mud. You will never feel the bottom of the pit." Okay, that made sense. I made a squatting motion and found that I could float in a seated position in the mud. However, my composure in any liquid was easily worn, and I began to roll onto my back, eliciting the reflexed floundering like a distraught mud skipper in the mangrove. My curiosity over volcanic mud was by now fully sated and I looked for a way out of the pit. I found a protruding root and hoisted myself up, then was aided by a slimy Flight Sergeant Suhaimy. I recognised him only by his 5 foot 11 frame. As I stood up, Sergeant Kali said. "Tuan, you look like pre-dater!" Hmmm? I replied. "Commando!" Capt Haniff tried to jog my memory. OH!! Predator! Arnold Schwarzenegger! Haha! Funny!!! I looked down onto my rotund self and wondered what on earth aroused this recall. I am no Arnold. Oh yes, I get it. I was the only muddied one still wearing my dog-tags. Predator indeed.

Capt Tarmizi had also slipped out of the pool of mud made grimy from bits of twig and leaves that had fallen from the jungle canopy to enrich its elixir. We walked back amidst my cursing the brambles. He too, complained that mud had stung his eyes. Yes, we would wash our eyes out in the sea!

After washing off in the sea, I sat in the gazebo to drip dry. I exhibited dark skin in three bands on my body: ankle to thigh, wrist to tricep and above the neck. To my squadron mates who were used to seeing me in flying suit and asking whyfore, I just answered, "Cycling."

Lunch followed. At 1425H the blot of the Nuri against the pale blue sky appeared without warning and we hurried to the spot of beach that was our LP for the past 2 days. The boss took over the controls from Capt PeeJay, who got off to experience a night-stop and 'survival' with the bachelors who remained on the island resort. Not to be outdone by young Maj Ian, the boss manoeuvred the Nuri into a fly-by over the camp grounds before setting course for Labuan, skimming the sea at 30 feet above the water. Hmmm. I remember doing this in Acheh and drawing the French Armee De La Aire Pumas down from 500 feet on the coastal routes we plied back then. Oh, sweet nostalgia.

Back at home, balmed by dear Brenda's consoling fish head curry, I arrived at an unshakeable conclusion. This entire affair, the lifestyle, the reshuffle and all that squadron life entails was getting to be as sordid as they were irrelevant especially when the movers and the shakers were themsleves incorrigibly abominable. Ever more so when the leadership makes known the protracted plan to press the fatigued Nuri into extended service well into the year 2025. If any kid says to me "I wanna be a Nuri pilot, uncle!", I know what I will say to him.

"Sonny, you know what?? I think when you come of age, you can!"

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