In The Line of Duty - Part 1: The Legend of Stewie O by Mike Cavanagh
Stewart O’Brien was 100% nerd, well before nerds were even a thing. Thin, pale skinned, black horn-rimmed glasses; short back-and-sides hair in compliance with his parents wishes, and the Christian Brothers’ school rules. Knew lots of esoteric stuff, did Stewie, but stuff-all about what really mattered, like footy, girls, cars, spy films. His school uniform was always clean, crisp; never an unbuttoned shirt, never a loosened tie. He was always ready with ‘Yes, Brother Someone’ or ‘No Brother Someone’ or ‘Of course, Brother Someone’ at the slightest indication from one of the Christian Brothers that a response was required. It’s not that anyone disliked him as such, more that there seemed little to him to either like or dislike. More the sort of kid that if you stood him beside a candle and blew the candle out, he’d fall over.
This was back in 1967 and I was 14 years old, attending the all boys Edmund Rice College in Wollongong, or ‘Eggs and Rice’ as we liked to call it.
It was obvious all through the 1960s that the ‘yellow peril’, a term used in the media at that time to describe the threat of invasion from south-east Asia, was eyeing off Australia, our precious land of Oz. We were sure they were ready to descend in their droves any day to take us over. Such beliefs gave rise to the infamous ‘domino theory’ whereby if one south-east Asian country fell then inevitably, like rows of dominoes, they would all rapidly fall thereafter. Sort of a weird twist on the yellow brick road that leads to Oz. The Korean War was only fourteen years ago and the ‘dirty little war’ in Vietnam (a description attributed to the American Gen. Earl G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) well entrenched in the nation’s psyche, so yep, we bought it all, hook, line and stinker.
In the face of such obvious and dire global circumstances, the good Christian Brothers took it upon themselves to shore up the bulwark of home security by conscripting all their little man-lings into The Cadets. Capitals used for effect.
Cadets – school kids dressed out in army surplus uniforms and taught how to march, stand still a lot, march some more, slow march a bit, and keep our boots, gaiters and belts all shiny black and all the brass fittings glowing like Inca gold. Oh, and how not to pass out when standing around a lot.
“Rock on the balls of your feet, son! Rock on the balls of your feet!” the presiding Christian Brother come play-acting Sergeant-Major would yell at us when he saw us at risk of falling flat on our faces while standing at attention.
Passing Out Parades were best, and no pun intended here as that’s what the end of year big Cadet shindig was called. Mind you, numerous kids did take it literally during the two and a half hours we spent out in the middle of the footy field in the blazing sun. All of us were out there, dressed to impress in our army surplus gear, to show any possible spies that Oz was ready and willing to rebuff any impending invasion with ‘force majeure’… trés, trés majeure. I did four years of school French during this period. No, I can’t tell either.
Apart from how to pass out we also learned how to fire 303 ex-WW2 rifles. Now we’re talking.
The rifles were fully operational, but the only time we ever got to shoot them was twice a year; at target practice on a shooting range in First Term, and at the annual weekend camp away in Third Term. At the annual camp, apart from learning how to be ‘baby soldiers’, we were meant to learn lots about comradeship and teamwork. The latter two at least we excelled at, but not in the way the good Brothers perhaps had hoped.
At camp on the first night, sleeping on threadbare bedrolls in eight-man tents, we didn’t; sleep that is. Too excited, what with the risqué jokes, toilet humour and farting competitions. Every time we started to settle down someone would snigger, fart, or both, and away we’d all go again. So to sort us all out, the following night the Brothers sent us on a forced march, jogging with full kits while carrying rifles for two kilometres, calling out the rhythm of our forced jog all the time. ‘Hup-two! Hup-two!’ and so on and so forth, et cetera, et cetera. Hot, sweaty, aching in every bone and fibre when we got back, we were forced to face a late dinner of camp rations (which made cold, past-use-by-date Spam look appetising) at the sight of which our aching stomachs and now offended nostrils rebelled. A couple of mouthfuls at most was all anyone managed.
The Brothers must have been grinning ear to ear when we stumbled off to our tents immediately afterwards and flopped onto our bedrolls like shot ducks into wet mud. Within minutes all was quiet, calm, serene; see quiet as all get-out.
Have you ever been over-tired? All you want to do is crash out, but every time you try to drift off, paradoxically your sleep deprived body twitches, wriggles, jerks and rolls about. Hence after about fifteen minutes of apparent success for the Brothers, every last boy and young man wriggled themselves to complete wakefulness and off we went into snigger, joke and fart land again, well into the wee hours of the morning.
The next night, the Brothers attempted once more to mould us into some semblance of a disciplined rabble. After witnessing the non-compliance at the previous meal time, the Sergeant Major (Brother Someone-but-I-forget) called us all together before dinner with much bluster and holler of how we pampered little pets needed to ‘man up’, which evidently included eating pig swill. He pointed into a large hole that had been dug next to the kitchen tent and exclaimed,
“Any boy who doesn’t eat his meal will throw it into this hole,” he yelled as he jabbed his index finger up and down in the direction of said hole for effect, “His name will be recorded and no other food will be provided. He will then be confined to his tent in silence until we pack up to leave tomorrow morning.”
His baleful stare amply conveyed the unspoken ‘Any complaints, please come see me in the officer’s tent for ‘six of the best’!’ Meaning six whacks on our hands with a leather strap.
Tails between our legs, we all dutifully lined up to accept our swill-on-tin-plate à la jour. Not a whisper, not a complaint, not even a scowl.
The last of us sat back down around the three camp-come-bonfires, orange glows from the flames on our cheeks in the rapidly darkening twilight. The only sounds were the slow, intermittent, sullen metallic scrapes of tin spoons against tin plates. Eyes down, we were all mesmerised by the, possibly, organic life-but-not-as-we-know-it-Jim globular messes in our plates.
At which point, without saying a word or giving any sign of what his intent was, up stood Stewie.
We figured he was either going to throw up or faint. Poor ole Stewie.
Instead, plate in hand, Stewie turned around and walked – not strode, or sauntered or swaggered; just everyday ‘walked’ – over to the hole in the ground. He stopped at the edge, held out his tin plate over the hole, and tipped it sideways. For a brief second, the stringy, fatty, globular mass held onto the plate, suspended in time and space. By this stage every one of us had our eyes glued on the scene before us. Then the messy mass slid off his plate with an audible,
Stewie walked over to the wash up area and placed – not slammed, or dropped or thumped, just everyday ‘placed’ – his empty plate into one of the five large wash-up basins. He walked away and disappeared into his tent in silence.
Within five minutes, every one of we forty had silently followed his example.
Not a sound emanated from any tent that night, yet it made more of a statement than if we’d all sung ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the top of our lungs all night.
Bizarrely, and in spite of themselves, the Brothers had enabled us to learn what they said we should: comradeship; teamwork. I’m not sure, even to this day, how many of them ‘got’ that we had, only in our own way.
And all because ‘blow me down with a feather’ Stewie had stood up; for all of us.
Nerdy, do-goody, myopic little Stewie O. What a legend.