The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – The Road To Stardom (Part 1)

The Base Commander’s wife I wrote about in my last posting (read here) soon had us eating out of her dainty hands. We grumbled and groaned but we followed her every command. She was always so full of ideas for BAKAT. We had no choice but to succumb to her wishes. She would drive round the quarters every evening after work, busy as a bee. Although in the beginning we would run helter skelter seeking shelter in the safety of our homes at the sight of her approaching car, we overcame our fears the moment we realised her bark was worse than her bite.

I remember the day she returned from attending the BAKAT Udara Central Committee meeting in KL, of which all Base Commanders’ wives were members, and immediately called for a meeting with us. BAKAT was still at its formative stage in1980 and there were a lot of plans, one of which was to stage a cultural performance for some foreign military dignitaries who would be visiting the country in a couple of months. Instead of getting professional dancers, as was the usual practice, BAKAT from all the Bases were required to present something to reflect the culture of the states they were in.

Whether it was part of an austerity drive or just plain ambitious on the part of the people at the top, the show had to go on. An order, a tall one, had been issued, which had to be addressed and delivered in true military fashion, by hook or by crook.

Despite the First Lady’s repeated pleas, not many aspired to be dancers for a myriad of reasons. It was quite understandable for most were saddled with young ones who needed round-the-clock attention. But, for the few of us who dared to take the plunge, (only after much coaxing and persuasion) it was the start of a long and tiring commitment. The journey on the road to stardom had only just begun.

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – The Ice Kacang Trick

Kuantan the second time around was pretty much the same one we left behind two years ago. It was just like continuing where we left off the last time we were there except that this time I was more willing to embrace the whole package that came with being an Air Force wife. Although my association with BAKAT started on a wrong footing, it gradually developed into an amicable relationship. It was not full of zest and fervour but it was enough to keep me out of trouble. Trouble this time took an entirely different dimension from the ones I was more familiar with. Husbands were not called up by the Base Commander or the OC squadron to answer for their wives’ repeated absence from BAKAT. It was more direct, more hands-on, more lethal.

The Base Commander’s wife was a petite, vivacious, elegant, pencil-slim, attractive and extremely pretty lady but she lacked the finesse and sophistication many First Ladies tried so hard to portray and project. She was her natural self, loud and outspoken, bold and blunt, rough and tough. She chose to be completely unpretentious and made no attempts to hide or curb her not-so-refined ways. Although many disapproved of her style of leadership and found it distasteful, I thought she was interestingly and refreshingly different. She had her own way of tackling problems without resorting to her husband’s assistance. Husbands were thus, spared the awkward session with the Base Commander for their wives’ passive indifference towards BAKAT.

Despite her nine-to-five job, she still had both the time and stamina to chase us tirelessly and relentlessly. There was no escaping her. She would drive round, horn blaring so irritatingly deafening leaving us with no choice but to scramble hastily out of hiding. The stubborn ones would take longer to emerge but there was no giving up on her part. She would step out of the car, dainty hands on slender hips and started bellowing out their names with such gusto that left us clutching our stomachs to suppress laughter. It got even more hilarious when slowly long, grumpy faces would peek out of the windows signalling defeat. When she finally got all of us rounded up, there was barely enough time to do anything but that did not deter her. We would just follow her in our cars. Sometimes she took us to the Air Movement for a bit of traditional dancing, some other times to the hangar for a bit of badminton, sometimes to the BAKAT house for a quick cooking lesson. But, what really won us over was the periodic trips to her house for her home made ice kacang. She was totally forgiven with the first scoop of the delectable dessert! It was also at her house that we got to see the other side of her, the human side.

Her efforts finally paid off when we fell into the pattern she painstakingly drilled and drummed into us. After a few weeks, she no longer had to run after us. Seriously, I think it was the ice kacang treat that did the trick.

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – Better Late Than Never

Except for the people, the Kuantan that greeted us was the same one we left behind two years ago. The people at the Base seemed to have moved en bloc. There was not even one familiar face from the Base Commander right down to the officers living in the quarters. It was a different story altogether at school. They decided to put me back at the same school I taught before leaving for Butterworth. Most of the teachers were still there, sitting at the same old places in the Staff Room. It was a pleasant homecoming after a two year absence.

The unpacking was a back-breaking and boring task. i discovered that it was far more easier to pack than to unpack. Although I was very much against having professional packers do all the job, both the packing and unpacking, as suggested by my husband, the unpacking had me wishing I listened to him. (I thought it was silly to waste money on something I could “easily” manage).

It was only when everything was laid out in their proper places that I had time to reflect on my poor performance at the Wives Club. I decided it was time I turned over a new leaf. But I think the decision was greatly influenced by my husband’s recent promotion. I would have continued being stubborn had my husband been left unpromoted. There was no reason to please anybody if they refused to please us, was my selfish argument.

It was common practice to welcome new wives at the Base. So when my turn came, I decided to put my acting skills to good use. (I was the demure Cinderella in primary school and Shakespeare’s sultry Lady Macbeth in sixth form). I put on an ear-to-ear smile and chatted like I knew them all my life. I was pretty shocked at my own hypocrisy. Only then did I realise that I was still a good actress.

The Wives Club was slowly being phased out in 1980, the year we moved back to Kuantan and in its place BAKAT came into existence. I remember we were given quite a lengthy briefing on the new organisation by the OC Admin (Officer Commanding Administration Squadron), who officially became BAKAT’s advisor. BAKAT was more structured and organised (only on paper, of course) compared to its predecessor. There were many, many committees and each one was to be headed by a Major’s wife. Unfortunately, there were too many portfolios and too few Major’s wives and the shortage had to be filled up by captain’s wives. I was unanimously appointed to head the Education committee, of course! One of my duties was to ensure the smooth running of the kindergarten in the Base. I did not have to do anything at all because one of the kindergarten teachers was also a Major’s wife who was extremely efficient. Why she was not made to head the Education committee baffled me as much as it did her but neither of us complained. She was quite happy heading a different committee and I was more than grateful with what I got.

It was a new beginning for me. Although I was not overly enthusiastic, I was slowly getting involved. I did not have to be an actress for long. Both the smiles and the chats were genuine. I dutifully attended all the meetings and gatherings. It took me a long time to warm up to BAKAT but like they say “Better late than never”.

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – Goodbye Butterworth Hello Again Kuantan

With all the boxes gone, I had just the basics to see me through the final stage of our tour of Butterworth. It was imperative that my transfer be secured first before I could be released from the school in Butterworth. The plan was for him to fetch me as soon as the transfer came through. It would not have been so chaotic if he was not attending the SOS course at the same time. While it was easy for him and his “kapcai” to just hop on any aircraft that was Kuantan bound, the Sprint and I had to go all the way by land.

Except for the short stretch of the Karak Highway which was only partially completed, the rest of the journey was still along the old single lane trunk road. Thankfully though, the completed part of the Karak Highway eliminated all the treacherous loops and turns that almost threw us off a steep ravine during one of our trips back to Kuantan on our first tour of it. It was a harrowing experience. My husband was at the wheel negotiating a sharp bend when the eight months-old Datsun 120Y made a sudden roundabout turn and stopped precariously inches off a deep ravine. The poor Datsun had to take all the blame, of course, NOT the driver. The car was immediately traded in for a more familiar and trusted Peugeot 204. (Our first car was also a Peugeot 204).

I bade farewell to Butterworth with a heavy heart when my husband got my transfer approved exactly as he had planned. I loved the school, the nearness of which was such a convenience I NEVER got to experience ever again, throughout the entire span of my teaching career. I loved the quarters, the spooky old bungalow was extremely nice and cosy despite the many creaks and groans AND the hair raising ghost stories thrown in to complete the overall picture often associated with old houses. I never got to SEE any of the ghosts that were supposed to roam freely but the constant thuds and knocks had me taking refuge under the safety of a blanket the first few nights I was left alone. I soon overcame the fear dismissing them as mere fragments of my imagination.

Although I loathed the seemingly endless flying sessions , there was the other side of it which more than compensated for his frequent absence from home. He was exempted from having to be made a duty officer throughout the entire two year tenure of office in Butterworth. His busy schedule also saw us escaping the many social functions held at the Officers Mess, an obligation deemed compulsory to be fulfilled by all officers and their spouses, present at the Base at the time of the occasion. His perpetual flying also made it almost impossible for the bosses to round him up for a pep talk on his wife’s deliberate absence from the Wives Club. An absolute victory for me. But, topping the list was the gallantry medal, the Pingat Tentera Udara (PTU) that was awarded to him for both bravery and courage executed whilst on duty flying the Nuri.

There were also some heartbreaks in Butterworth, the most noteable of which was the sad dismissal from the QHI course. Read here Although he pretended indifference, I knew it was an extremely painful and embarassing episode for him, one he has learned to live with after all these years.

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – The Packer

The long-awaited promotion finally came for my husband and along with it a transfer back to No.10 Squadron, Kuantan, as a Flight Commander. Apart from the joy and excitement at being promoted, there were a lot of things to be done. There was my transfer to begin with. Again, like the previous one, it was not a year-end transfer, hence a little bit more tricky to handle. But, I knew I could rely on my husband to settle the problem. All I had to do was to fill up the necessary forms and had it approved by the Principal before handing them over to my husband for his “personal touch” both at the Ministry and State levels like before. I wrote about the first transfer here

My main concern was the packing up that needed to be done fast. Unlike our first posting when we could squeeze all our stuff into six boxes, we definitely had to have more this time around. Although time was running out fast, I was given strict instructions NOT to begin packing without him. It was obvious he did not trust my reckless style of “arranging” things the first time I tried my hand at it. He was the expert, ensuring that things were packed tight and firm with absolutely no room for the slightest bit of movement. This was essentially important to prevent the more fragile ones from breaking even though we had the privilege of having the boxes flown in the Nuri, of course!

The last few remaining days in Butterworth still saw him furiously flying from morn till dawn but he still insisted that I leave the packing to him. It was not procrastination for he hated doing things last minute but there was simply no time. He was confident of getting a week’s break from duty prior to bidding farewell to Butterworth. But it was not to be. He came back late one evening and dropped a bombshell. He had to leave immediately for a three months SOS (Squadron Officers’ School) course in KL before reporting at Kuantan base. That announcement had me flapping in sheer panic.

I was left stunned and bewildered. I decided to defy orders and went ahead with the packing. I had twelve made-to-order boxes sent over to the house and within the next few days, like a woman possessed, I had everything wrapped and packed and stacked MY WAY. Now, I only had to wait for his inspection and approval.

He rushed back home to a BIG surprise. Although I did not score full marks, the new twelve and the old six boxes were given the seal of approval, fit to be air flown to Kuantan. And with that, I instinctively knew I had landed myself a new job, that of a packer, in all our future postings.

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – The Medivac

I will never forget the first time I flew in the Nuri. It was no fancy flight but a mercy flight. Both my parents were involved in a road accident at Bukit Berapit on their way back from KL to Taiping. My father was at the wheel when an oncoming car smashed head-on into them. My father suffered only minor cuts and bruises and was given an outpatient treatment at the Taiping hospital but my mother had to be admitted for severe abdominal pains.

I had finished school for the day and was at home and my husband was flying when the accident occured at about 3p.m. There was no phone at home. All attempts at getting one installed at the quarters were met with all sorts of excuses that left us exasperated. Cell phones were still unheard of. So, my father in all his grogginess and unsteadiness, left a message to be relayed to my husband when he landed.

I got news of the accident only after my husband got home late in the evening and we did not waste a second in rushing back home. I was relieved to see my father walking towards us with a big swollen bump on his forehead when we arrived but my mother was in a bad shape. Her lower lip was torn and unsewn yet at the time of our arrival but she put up a brave front for us despite the excruciating abdominal pain she was experiencing.

My mother’s siblings, all nine of them plus their family began arriving the next day from all over the country, mostly from Alor Setar, my mother’s hometown. On seeing her condition, they requested that she be taken to Alor Setar’s hospital where they could take turns to look after her. They felt that I would not be able to cope alone.

She could be transported to Alor Setar in an ambulance but it would be a long and arduous journey for her. (The North-South Highway had not started construction yet). That was when my husband stepped in to try and solve the problem. When he told me that he was trying to get her flown in the Nuri to Alor Setar, I knew it would not be as simple as he made it sound. Even if he could get the clearance for my mother, there was no way the whole entourage comprising of an aunt, a cousin, my father and I would be allowed to hop in as well.

The next thing I knew my mother and all her four escorts and my husband were on board the Nuri heading for Alor Setar. Although I had seen the aircraft many times at close range, I never had the opportunity to step inside it. I was quite taken aback by what greeted me the moment I stepped inside. It was so bare and crude, minus all the trappings of a passenger airline. Of course, I was not expecting the cool comforts of a commercial aircraft but I was also not prepared for the stark simplicity the interior had to offer, let alone the loud noise and the heavy vibrations of the swinging rotor blades.

It was while crouching humbly beside my mum on the floor of the aircraft that I started thinking about the hundreds of soldiers being ferried in a similar manner BUT, unlike my mum, they had no loved ones to hover and fret over them. Visions of them lying alone and helpless on the floor, grimacing in pain and wondering what life would be like without arms or legs or eyes flitted across my mind and brought immediate tears to my eyes. It touched a chord deep within me. There were no more complaints everytime my husband got home late from flying that moment onwards.

We landed safely at the Alor Setar Golf Club after an hour’s flight and my mother was whisked off immediately to the hospital. She spent two weeks at the hospital before the doctors pronounced her fit to be discharged.

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – The Sprint

There was never a long break from work for my husband during our stay in Butterworth. I remember an instance when he was allowed to go on a week’s leave and we hurriedly packed and left for Taiping, where both our parents, his and mine, were residing. All hopes of a short holiday were dashed when he was called back for duty just a day after we arrived. The next morning he was back to flying again. Although I had grown accustomed to these unpredictable work schedules, occasionally selfishness took the better of me, especially when he volunteered to stand in for someone who had suddenly gone indisposed. I would launch into a lengthy and angry tirade on the frequency of his voluntary services. It seemed so unfair to be working so hard for absolutely nothing in return.

Despite the long hours of flying, there was still time for him to lament over his long overdue promotion. There were no children to divert our attention, so the focus was solely on his career. He would suffer bouts of frustration every time someone of the same seniority got promoted. Although the number promoted was much too small to cause him to pine and grieve over, it nevertheless, got him into doing something rash. He got himself a brand new car.

It was his fifth car in a span of five years, so that averaged to one car per year. He was, and still is, extremely careful with his and MY money but cars were his weakness then. He poured out all thirty one thousand of his entire savings into a brand new Alfasud Sprint. It was quite a hefty sum then. Despite his shrewdness, he never believed in getting anything pre-owned. I protested but not hard enough to make him change his mind. I knew I would get to drive it to school. It was no Lamborghini or Ferrari but sleek enough to make heads turn in the Butterworth of the 70’s. There was no way I could be persuaded to take his “kapcai” to go places.

The car was able to make him forget his promotion for a while. He would spend the little free time he had cleaning and polishing it to perfection but, like always, it lasted for only about a month before he relegated the duty over to me and it was back to brooding and mulling about his future.

The car was his last indulgence (only as far as cars were concerned) for a long time to come. He started saving furiously back again and also appointed himself as my financial manager, an appointment he retains to this day. Although I felt that he was much too stiff and rigid as a financial manager, my resentment gradually eased off as the savings slowly grew and grew. Over the years we accumulated enough to warrant us the modest lifestyle we were used to, if he decided to bid an early farewell to the Air Force.

The Alfasud Sprint

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – The Dilemma

There are many ways of venting one’s frustration. My husband chose to plunge himself headlong in his job, much to my consternation. I felt that after the humiliation he suffered from failing the QHI course, he should just give the minimum required to keep him from getting into trouble. There was no point in getting so besotted with work when no one seemed to appreciate the services rendered.

Despite the dedication, he was seriously contemplating leaving the Air Force. There was so much disillusionment after the QHI course that made leaving the perfect solution. Besides, the lure of big money working as a pilot outside, was also hard to resist. But, there was also loyalty on the other end of the scale. Both disillussionment and loyalty were in perfect equilibrium making it extremely difficult for him to choose.

The future in the Air Force appeared grim and bleak. The news that one of the instructors at the QHI course took over the place he was supposed to fill in, pierced even more deeply into the still fresh and open wound. It was a sad and difficult phase for both of us.

While all these problems were brewing, I lost all interest in socialising. My already irregular attendance at the Wives Club came to a complete standstill. I knew my presence was too insignificant to be felt but it would NOT go unnoticed. THAT I was absolutely sure. When two of my neighbours threw a party and we were not on their list of guests, I knew that my absence at the Wives Club was interpreted as a show of defiance and arrogance. I suspected there were many more parties which missed my detection. Although I pretended indifference, it was extremely painful to be so publicly ostracised and treated as outcasts.
At this juncture, it made leaving the Air Force both appealing and desirable.

Despite the fears and worries, the ostracicm and the lure of the big fat salary outside, I was still not keen on him leaving, for reasons I, myself had no answer. So, when he finally made his decision, after months of deliberation, to stay on, I thought he made a wise choice. Little did we know that the frustrations we had endured so far were nothing compared to what awaited us in the future.

To be continued………

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – The Sentence

Life in Butterworth was not much different from that of Kuantan. My husband was still doing a lot of flying. The first thing that came to my mind when he told me of his posting to Butterworth was that there would not be any more detachments to Butterworth since he would be there all the time. I was so wrong. They had detachments at Kroh instead. After the Gubir incident, I was constantly plagued by the fear that something equally tragic would happen again.

I was more relieved than happy when he was chosen for the Qualified Helicopter Instructor (QHI) course at Alor Setar. This meant that there would be a break from operational flying for him throughout the entire duration of the three-month course. It also meant that I, too, would have a break from worrying about his safety. Little did that I know, at that point in time, that this course would leave an indelible mark on his career. One which would haunt him AND me, as a wife, for a long time to come.

He would come home on weekends and I would ask how he was faring at the course. I was quite concerned, of course, because I was not there to coach him like I did for his Cats, like I wrote here. But, he proudly announced that he was doing fine. However, there was something else he told me that made me quiver uncomfortably inside. There were no written assessments as far as ground school was concerned. So, it was purely subjective was my mental conclusion. While written assessments are simple and clear-cut, a subjective assesment would require a certain amount of integrity on the part of the examiner. I know, because as a teacher, I had a tendency to be biased when evaluating my students subjectively. It was so easy to be swayed by emotions.

When he got news, just a few weeks into the course, that he would be posted to the Helicopter Training School in Kluang, Johor as one of the OCs (Officer Commanding) on completion of the course, it was like sending him to the gallows. It was a Major’s appointment and this meant that he would be promoted when he reported for duty in Kluang. In an organisation steeped in rank rivalry, the good news stayed with him only for a few days before it was cruelly snatched away. He flunked the course, never got to be posted to Kluang AND not promoted. (He passed his Captain to Major exams when he was in Kuantan)

It hit him hard but it hit me harder seeing him so frustrated and depressed. For the first time after joining the Air Force, he started talking about leaving it. He even sat for the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) test soon after he failed the QHI course. While he started to pick up the pieces and resumed life back at the squadron, I turned Sherlock Holmes to try and unravel the sudden mysterious decline in his performance AFTER the posting order came.

I made some shocking discoveries which led to my husband’s early dismissal from the course. Suffice to say that he was a victim of circumstance. He was at the wrong place the wrong time. He might not have been a straight-A student but I know he could have passed the course. He was not that dumb and silly. It was so unfortuate that he was at the mercy of those also vying and eyeing to be promoted to Major. Remarks like “Don’t be too sure of your posting” and “I’ll make sure you don’t attend anymore QHI courses” were proof enough of their extreme animosity towards my husband AFTER he got the posting order. Had they been the ones chosen to be the OC at Kluang, my husband would have passed the course AND WITH FLYING COLOURS, TOO.

To be continued………

The Story Of A Soldier’s Wife – Butterworth Here We Come

Time flew by fast as lightning and before we knew it, it was time to move to Butterworth where my husband would assume the post of Deputy Flight Commander at No. 3 Squadron. It was a minor appointment, nothing to rave about but a recognition, nevertheless.

I submitted my application for transfer, too, and that was about all that I did on my own. The rest was handled by my super efficient husband. He had no qualms meeting the high-powered Education officials both at the ministerial and state levels to get my transfer approved at the same time as him, to a school of HIS choice NOT mine. He was not particularly bothered being given the cold shoulder each time he was granted an audience with these officials. I cringed every time he proudly announced how he bulldozed his way to get them to approve my transfer. I knew I had to bear the brunt of his brashness, brusqueness and boldness when I reported for duty at the new school. The principal would most certainly be briefed on how I managed to squeeze myself into his school in the first term of school. This would upset the entire time-table and worse, the teacher who prepared it. I shuddered at the thought of confronting her/him. But I knew how to play my cards to redeem my husband’s lack of tact in handling the case.

I gallantly came to the rescue when the school scouted hopelessly for parachutes to erect tents for the Annual School Sports. There were no mobile tents then, like what we have now. I pleaded with my husband to lend me some parachutes which were used to send in supplies to the interior regions using the Caribou aircraft. He brought home an assortment of red, blue, yellow and white parachutes which I distributed to the respective House Masters. Except for the Green House Master who was slightly disappointed at getting the white parachutes, the remaining three were ecstatic to get the exact colour that matched their House. Just for the record, Green House were losers even before the game started and they remained that way till the end, unfortunately. The principal was extremely pleased with my gesture, loaning the parachutes for free. He never failed to give me a broad smile and a nod, too, every time I passed by him.

My husband prided himself not only in getting my transfer approved but also in getting a school just next door to the Base and directly opposite our quarters. It was so convenient. I just had to cross the road to get to school. It was a dream come true EXCEPT that I had to climb the 20-foot-high fence that enclosed the whole living complex AND risked getting shot if I tried to clear the fence. I chose a safer route by driving to school.

St Mark’s Secondary School (SMKs were not implemented yet) was situated next to the runaway. Both our F5E jet fighters and the Australian Mirage would exert full power at the threshold before taking off. The noise was thunderously deafening, to put it mildly. I would shout and scream to make myself heard much to the amusement of my students. My voice would be completely drowned by the furious roar of the jet engines. My students would just stare blankly at me, some trying hard to suppress a laughter at my contorted facial expression after having screamed so much so loud so often.

Both the Malaysian Air Force and the Australian Air Force officers shared the same living complex but the Aussies got to stay in the quarters facing the sea and we had to face the trunk road for all traffic moving up north or down south. The North-South Expressway was non-existent yet. While they had the cool refreshing sea breeze caressing their faces, we had to inhale the hot carbon monoxide and dust particles from the continuous flow of traffic. We had both air and sound pollution right in front of our doorstep. But I had one consolation. The NAAFI was just a stone’s throw away from our quarters. What more could I ask for?

To be continued…….