New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.31, 14 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
The recent chatter about Service Academies and Boot Camps set me off thinking about the impact of military experiences on my own education.
It all goes back to 1959 when I started secondary school at a school that, like most boys and co-ed schools had School Cadets. This was only for the boys but it got under way right from the start of the year. And it was serious stuff. There were plenty of teachers who had seen service in the Second World War and military matters were no laughing matter. This was given an edge by the number of male teachers who had on returning from the war entered university and went on to secondary teaching. The markers of rank were real one, earned not given.
Week 2, Form 3 – Barracks Week. Prior to this in Week 1 all the boys had been lined up on the field, tallest to shortest. Platoons were then numbered off so as to be beautifully arranged in terms of height – the end-of week parade has above all else to look good. I was third from last in this line up and assigned to a platoon of runts who were judged to be too small to carry rifles. These were pretty large 303 calibre affairs. The week was to be one of marching, drill, guns, drill, marching, guns and so on. Take out the guns and it was pretty devoid of interest really. When the uniforms were issued and mine was three sizes too large – “it’s the smallest we have, lad” – the humiliation was complete.
However I discovered that there was a call for more people in the brass band, desperately learning one march to play at the end of the week. I joined the band (as baritone player) and thoroughly enjoyed School Cadets. The band was a loose group of loose characters who were given a loose run up to the parade inspected by Major This or Lt.Col. That.
I have no idea what the girls did – knitted socks for sailors perhaps. But in Week 3 we settled to classroom work. But in a sense whole schools were Service Academies then.
After leaving school I won the lottery – well, my birth date was drawn in the lottery for National Service – and at the age of 19 it was off to Waiouru for two successive summer holidays to meet the 3 months basic training requirement to be followed by three years territorial service. The highlight of this was probably the fact that the entire intakes in the split summer training was made up of university students. While it didn’t disrupt our education it certainly got in the way of our capacity to earn during the summer – quite important in those days.
New Zealand was fighting in Vietnam in the 1960’s and this gave an edge to everything we did and were told in a series of “Reason Why Lectures” which were quite well read by the unfortunate officers chosen to read out the script. But we took it seriously – the tussock looked just like the jungles of South East Asia. Some of the regular soldiers had seen service in Viet Nam and their stories were gory and some may even have been true.
But at Waiouru opportunity presented itself again – I joined the bugle band and my greatest contribution to national security was to march the men to Church Parade on a Sunday.
In the second spell of basic training I undertook an officers’ course. I failed – “No leadership potential! About turn! Quick March!”. Arriving back at Frankton Junction and telling my Mother this news her reply was surprising but I later came to understand it. “It might be for the best, you have come to take it seriously!” I don’t think that her heart was in all this military stuff.
Following that the army lost track of me for a couple of years despite my efforts to find out what was happening. Eventually, in my first year of teaching I was posted to an infantry company and off I went to Waiouru for a month’s annual camp. This was not ideal in my first year of teaching and the promise of two further years of this sort of disruption was not a pleasing thought.
Ah, the sound of music called again and I joined the Band of the Queen Alexander’s Own Regiment (3RNZIR) in Auckland where I completed my military service as the flute and piccolo player. I found the piccolo particularly difficult until I realised that in the fast and furious pieces where the piccolo part has flights up scales to the highest musical peaks and lots of trills etc only the dogs could hear you. Parades through the streets of Auckland were characterised by dogs placing their paws over their ears and howling with pain.
Should New Zealand have been invaded the plan was that I would rush to Muriwai Beach and let strip with the full force of my piccolo.
But the musical experiences in the army were quite special. Bands are great places to learn team work, to all contribute to an effective outcome, to value the contribution each made to the whole. Music, even in a military setting, places you in contact with some of the finer things among our cultural heritage. Playing Handels Water Music is a great experience even when outdoors outside the Officers Mess Tent high in the Kaimanawa Ranges at a battalion camp. The ceremony of beating the retreat has meaning, the rousing march that signals the start of the day’s work for the troops is quite capable of being moving.
And there is a commitment to order and teamwork in the military situation. I heard someone the other day describe the value of much of the basis work in the military as being the instilling of an instinctive response to situations – that is not such a bad thing if it can be applied to right and wrong, good and non-good.
Service academies might have much to offer. So too might brass bands.