Friday, February 7, 2014

Panic Night

If cleanliness is next to Godliness, then the RAAF made every effort to make sure we apprentices ended up as saints. They sought to achieve this objective through the weekly panic night.

On Tuesday mornings the RAAF Counterpane had to be
smooth, tucked in with a hospital tuck, with the bedroll neatly
 folded at the head of the bed. There was still some work to be 
done with this one.
Monday evening was a ritual. It began with sheet exchange, that weekly walk to the linen store to exchange our dirty sheets and pillow cases for fresh ones. And as ‘Sprogs’ - the new kids on the block - it was not uncommon to get accosted along the way with a ‘request’ from a member of the senior intakes to change their sheets for them as well. The one and only time I had this ‘request’ made of me I resisted. A scuffle broke out, no one was hurt,  and as it turned out there were some advantages in being one of the bigger blokes on the intake.

First, we cleaned our rooms - windows, window sills, floors and cupboards. Just about everything in our lives was regulated, including the way we laid out our cupboards. We were given a diagram that showed us exactly where to put our razor, comb, clothes brush and in which drawer to place our socks, underpants, singlets and the like. Socks had to be folded the regulation way. As I recall our cupboards had to be left open for inspection every Tuesday morning for the first six months and then once a month after that.

As well as cleaning our rooms we had to clean the common areas of the barracks and for this we were rostered by rooms for particular areas, such as the hallways, bag rooms and ablution areas. On one occasion it was our turn to clean the urinals. When we had finished one of our number proudly proclaimed ‘That’s so clean I could drink from it.’ ‘Bet you wouldn’t’ we replied. ‘How much?’ Now I’m sure the bet was $20 and when you consider that the first pay we received after our first week at Wagga was $12 and some cents that was a significant amount. Three or four flushes later we handed over the money.

There was a mop room on each floor. This was not a large area. In addition to housing mops and buckets these rooms were also supplied with a facility for filling and draining the buckets. Each was also fitted with a heat detector to raise the alarm if there was a fire. One evening someone turned on the hot water tap, closed the door and waited. And, in due course, the fire truck turned up.

One night after we moved into our trades my room was rostered to clean the bag room. Now I can’t remember if it was normal practice for a sergeant to supervise panic nights or if the authorities had been dissatisfied with the recent standard, but this night we were supervised for the time we cleaned our rooms. After he left we went to clean the bag room only to find that a certain corporal apprentice had hung his washing in it and locked the door. It remained locked shortly after 0700 hrs the next morning so we left it - I suppose we could have climbed in through the hole in the bottom of the door that had once housed a ventilation grille, but we didn’t. Needless to say, by the time of the inspection the clothes had been removed, the door unlocked and the room remained unclean. Despite our protestations we ended up with five days CB (confined to barracks) for our ‘misdemeanour’. After all, the sergeant gave evidence at our hearing that the room was unlocked when he was in the barracks.

Two things marked Tuesday mornings - the weekly parade followed by an inspection of the barracks. Before parading we would make our beds in the prescribed manner. This meant removing the sheets and blankets before making sure the counterpane was wrinkle free and folded in at the bottom with a hospital tuck. Our towels were hung at the foot of the bed and at the other end we placed our crowning glory - the bed roll.

Now there was a real art to the bed roll. We were issued with six blankets and two sheets. The roll was made by folding the sheets and blankets in the correct manner. Five blankets and sheets were placed on top of each other in what must have been the order two blankets, sheet, blanket, sheet, two blankets. The last blanket was neatly (hopefully) wrapped around the ends of the pile of sheets and blankets and on top of this we placed our pillow and service cap. Some of the blokes cheated, somehow coming up with a spare sheet that they could make look like two from the front and then leave the whole thing made up all week.

The Guard Room at RAAF Wagga Wagga when I was there
is now a museum. I did a few early morning and late night
reports to this place after not meeting the required standard
on inspection morning.
It was not uncommon for the inspecting officer to don a white glove and run his finger along ledges and the like well above eye level to check for dust. Failure to meet the required standard meant we would do it all over again on Tuesday night. And we didn’t have to be told if our bed roll was not up to standard. When we returned to our rooms at lunch time it would be scattered over the floor, again to be put on display the next morning.

Hygiene was obviously important with so many of us living so close together, but not all of us had the same hygiene standards. One bloke had a unique way of ‘doing’ his laundry. On Monday night he would remove his socks and underpants and place them at the bottom of the respective pile and remove those on top. This process was repeated on Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. When the authorities realised what was happening they burnt the contents of his wardrobe and he was required to pay for a new kit. He was one of the number who didn’t make the grade, being discharged reasonably early in our stay. Another bloke didn’t shower as often as the rest of us thought appropriate. One night we filled the bath tub with cleaning chemicals and scrubbed him down with a bask broom and scrubbing brush. I remember him looking rather pink afterwards. He was then required to report to an apprentice NCO every night with a damp towel to demonstrate that he had taken a bath.

After Wagga we still had our panic nights for as long as we stayed in barracks. But our farewell to Wagga was also farewell to open cupboard inspections, the white glove and the bedroll. Some years back I returned to Wagga. The old guard room is now a museum open to the public. There, proudly displayed is a bed made up exactly as we presented it every Tuesday morning.

Panic nights at the RAAF School of Technical Training, Forrest Hill. A distant memory, but a memory that will never be forgotten. 

(January 2011)

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