I don't know how young I was when my pre teen uncle took me to a disused kampong pool where he and his friends met for a unauthorised swim. I stayed on the banks, but in these vague memories, I remember him persuading me to ride piggy back on him into the waters where without warning, he dislodged me and I drowned, for an interminable replay of horror before he decided to toss me back on the banks.
From that moment, I have had a morbid fear of the water. I remember that ever since that age, during which I must have been three or four, I was terrified of washing my hair, and I would scream whenever I was given a bath. At the time I didn't know why I did that. It took me many years to understand, let alone get past that fear.
This phanthom followed in my footsteps all my life. Then in 1984 came the Royal Millitary College, and the complimentary two years of lowering the level of the olympic sized pool by ingesting the chlorinated water into my lungs and belly. My Regimental Sergeant Major, WO Thazali Che Lah, named me the parade commander of the swimming pool, for if I was in it, my voice could be heard throughout the college grounds, all the way up to Boys' Wing. The dumbkopf didn't see that I would have joined the blooming navy if I had better affinity for water. When the jungle warfare training phased into watermanship and river crossing, I was lucky that I was coincidentally paired with a swimmer and he reassured me throughout the exercise that I was going to be okay. I am still grateful for all his reassurances amidst the jeering of instructors and cadets alike, which quelled to reverent but disappointed silence when I calmly made it across without summoning the entire population of Hulu Langat to my rescue, making for less of a show than they had anticipated.
Then I deluded myself into believing that all was well after being comissioned into the Royal Malaysian Air Force. I would be up in the air now wouldn't I? My only claim to being comrades with my white-uniformed brethren from the seafaring sister service was that I too was a Navel Officer seeing that I would never venture into water deeper than the level of my belly button. No, nobody in the wardrooms ever understood that either.
But then in the 90s, after a horrific Nuri crash off Mukah Head where only two survived from a crew of seven, air force helicopter crew bred kinship with their offshore fraternity when the Helicopter Underwater Escape Training was made compulsory for operational pilots and crewmen, a requirement that followed on to transport and maritime squadrons as well. My first taste of this devilry was in 1998 when I served as a copilot in Labuan.
The course was to be held in Tutong if I remember correctly, at Lee Safety Technology, an offshore safety and training centre. We arrived at Muara Besar at noon and were entertained at night by the course coordinator at Jerudong Park, but I kept a stiff upper lip throughout the festivities, not wanting to give away that I was already enduring nightmares about having my head under so much as even an inch of water.
Amidst it all, I was able to muster self control, kept myself single-minded and did all my escapes sucessfully, even the one with the smoked goggles to simulate ditching in darkness. I had to 're-sit' one escape as I had egressed through the wrong door, totalling 11 escapes altogether. Then on graduation day, the euphoria of not having died trailed me all the way back home to Labuan.
However, my demons were not exorcised. I had no idea that this was bloody recurrent training for aircrew. The truth hit me when I was in No 10 Squadron, in 2004 and I was nominated alongside crew from Butterworth. This time it was to be held in the Terengganu Safety And Training Centre, and the contractor had us housed in the Awana Kijal resort. Oh I knew this drill too well. We were so mollycoddled in Brunei too, but it was all the fattening of the calf ere the butcher's blade, I mused. Then I wondered, do the swimmers have a better time of it all anyway? Anyhow, that was that and again, I returned to KL Base feeling relief that it was for the time being, over.
My final stint was in 2008 under Megamas, again, in Brunei. It was a load easier than the preceding courses, as being the only pilot around, I just had to do one escape. To my immense relief and renewed religious faith, the instructors thought it better worth their while to concentrate on the crewmen who, for the first time ever, had the addditional task of extracting a casualty in the form of a dummy from the cabin during their escape. Phew!!!! Now I know why I am a mere pilot, and have only the side door through which to egress.
But final it was not. Whilst I was flying for the better portion of this year in Sabah HUET was not on the radar in the general aviation world. Less life threatening stuff was on recurrent training, like Dangerous Goods Regulations and First Aid. Then as I grew to be disconcerted with the general aviation's frequent flying in the Dead Man's Curve, I realised that venturing into offshore flying would mean I would have to contend with HUET once again.
So when I left Sabah for the current job, I floundered under the yoke of my nightmares coming back to snuff my lights out. I couldn't even fully yield to my flight training, my limbs frozen stiff from half my mind seeing all the drowning scenes from all the movies I had ever watched looping ceaselessly as I without success wrested control of this most recalcitrant helicopter. No, it wasn't her really. It was I. She is just...French.
I faced my demons two weeks ago, coming full circle, standing with bated breath at the edge of the pool once again at the Terengganu Safety And Training Centre, seemingly seeing the end of my days pendulously awaiting my acquiesence, all blue fibreglass and dripping from the pervious batch's escape training.
And we understand each other now. My demons may visit me once in three years. We shall duel. And then they shall depart after having made sport of me till the next triennial visit.
I was okay underwater once I yielded to being there. Save for one minor panic attack during which I took down a caboodle of water in the second escape, I managed every egress, and clung fast to the simulator once I had surfaced. It is a mere three seconds from unbuckling to surfacing, and as Brenda says, this is what may save my life in this job scene so I may as well embrace it.