“I have spent all my years in believing youQueen
But I just can’t get no relief
Can anybody find me somebody to love?”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an encamped army in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a black market. One of the historical inaccuracies we can lay squarely at the feet of popular culture is that wars are all about fighting, dying, running about and shouting. That is so very wrong. Wars are, in the most part, very tedious and static.
Fiction will have us believe that soldiers in a war zone are continuously dodging bullets. They are also always running from place to place while non-commissioned officers yell at them from the top of their lungs. Those things happen from time to time, but infrequently and only to the very few. Most soldiers never even fire their weapons once in the entire war, let alone see an enemy. Which is entirely a good thing. First, because it saves the defenceless civilian population from undue additional suffering and destruction. Second, it saves the soldiers the same. They are only there after all at the dint of some politician who is safely tucked away in his bed in some distant land.
If war was anything like how Hollywood portrays it, it would be over quickly. Not because either side had forced the issue in some glorious set-piece battle, waving their flag from their vanquished foe’s Reichstag. No, it would be over quickly because both armies’ soldiers would have been all been locked up in psychiatric wards. As Niall Ferguson pointed out in his excellent book, The Pity of War, every soldier under continuous fire for ninety days’ breaks.
And so, once the initial burst of activity happened in Timor in September and October 1999, the intervention settled down to a very boring next few months. There still was danger. The militias had melted back into the population, mostly. But they had kept their weapons. Any bullet fired in the right direction can still kill from a very long distance if you were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And there was still concern about Indonesia’s intentions. The breakdown in civil disorder in Timor happened quickly. If the whole incident had been part of some Indonesian Bismarck’s master plan, then it still may have been building up to its apogee in late 1999. The only reason that INTERFET had arrived as soon as it had was because Australia had planned for the worst and was ready when the time came. INTERFET was only there to restore order. It was not ready to fight a war.
But at that moment, there was a general lull in the tempo of operations and that is when war became more like work. A steady 9-5 feeling descended on Dili. Passwords and roving patrols gave way to passes and lanyards. I had a plethora of options to choose from as a bag of excess to requirement lanyards. They were shipped in with the rest of my equipment. Which was keen foresight by whoever had placed them there, as each lanyard had a short expiry rate in the tropical climate. On any day, I could be sporting anything from a Richmond Football Club yellow and black one to a New South Wales Police blue and white.
So, what does one do in a war zone when there is no war? One drinks, gambles and masturbates mostly. And there quickly sprang up a black market for all three.
Drinking is a universal pass time for the idle and the bored. The quality of the ice manufacturers and refrigeration in the burnt-out ruin of East Timor’s capital left much to be desired. But if you wanted a drink, you could get one. I am partial to wine and cocktails myself but neither of those were to be found, much less risked, in Dili in 1999. Beer required refrigeration to be palatable and there was precious little spare capacity for that in the early days of our arrival. Not just because cooling was reserved for things like medical supplies and food. Also, the idea of drunken Australians wondering around a war-wearied populous carrying firearms wasn’t a good look. No, if you really wanted a drink in Timor in the spring of ’99 you had to rely on the poor man’s beer; rum and coke.
Gambling is self-explanatory. People will bet on all sorts things if they are bored enough. These included snail races, human behaviour, the number of push-ups someone can do and the most chilli they can eat before they hospitalise themselves.
And then there was the other thing, the wanking. I’m sure that psychologists could tell you to the minute how often men and women think about sex each day. They could also probably tell you how often they act upon it once the bullets have stopped flying. But I reckon that if you did a study of a bunch of bored and lonely men stuck in a faraway land with no entertainment, then I would guarantee that it was at least once a day, each.
The problem wasn’t the wanking per se, though I was glad that I had a locked door and my own room. The problem was one of stimulation. It was only 1999, and while the internet and mobile phones existed, they hadn’t yet been turned into the hi-tech porn delivery devices that they are today. Most self-respecting soldiers would always go campaigning with what are known colloquially as ‘stick books’–porn magazines–in their backpacks. But after several months of each magazine circulating amongst the task force, in hot and humid conditions, you really had to be desperate to want to touch one.
And then one day a curious thing happened. I had received the odd short letter from my various family members. They updated me that nothing much of consequence had happened in the few months that I had been away. But that day a package arrived. It was addressed to me in a handwriting that I did not recognise and had no return address. It had some weight to it so I opened it back in my office lest the contents fall out and get lost.
I opened it at my desk and the first thing that I pulled out was a card with the words, “For those long lonely nights,” written upon it. Also within were several small bottles of rum, bourbon and southern comfort, good for about one drink each. But then the actual surprise; two novels. Two romance novels. That really confused me because I had never read a romance novel in my life and didn’t know anyone who thought I did. I was about to put the books back and open the booze when I noticed the last item. I stared at it for a minute almost afraid to pick it up. I hadn’t seen one of those since I was dating Alison. I hadn’t had the need. Sitting in the box amongst the booze and the books was a bottle of personal lubricant!
Clearly, someone I knew was having a joke at my expense or they thought I might enjoy a good wank while reading a romance novel. Perplexed at the idea, I gave the books a second look. The titles should have been an immediate give away: June Takes on all Comers; Winning Spring Break; and Southern Heat. The blurbs on the back of each fleshed out the flimsy plots, but I got the point. They were all brand new, too. Someone had gone to some expense to so send me this bounty. I threw the books back in the box for now, but as they landed; they disturbed the air, and the note fluttered up and fell to the floor. Cursing, I bent down to pick it up, noticing then that there was another handwritten message on the opposite side.
“See you soon.”
I received a box once a fortnight with similar contents: booze, books and lube. And each time another secretive note: “See you in my dreams”, “Not long now”, and “Mr Plow, that’s my name.” That last one really stumped me. Clearly a reference to Homer Simpson. I began ratting my brain for a woman, god I hoped it wasn’t a guy who would send sex material and could quote the Simpsons. Who knew that I could quote the Simpsons?
For everyone else, a steady resupply of fresh magazines came in with each new arrival and the cannier of them worked out that they could sell them at a profit. That was fine if all you want is pictures of naked strangers, but what people really missed was the personal touch. Letters from home.
And that’s where I came in. I didn’t have an ice making factory, or a refrigerated truck packed with beer. And I didn’t have a line of magazine deliveries scheduled for the next six months. But what I had was email. I had a secret room with its own communications network that could send, and receive, messages back to lonely loved ones 24/7.
After someone suggested the idea to me and I agreed, word got around. I ended up having to schedule my service, so that there wasn’t a suspicious line of desperate soldiers waiting around my door for their turn to type a message home.
Incoming mail was easier. If there was a message–sent to my account–I would print it off and put it in an envelope and deliver it when I went to have my meals or meet for briefings. After a couple of days, everyone got used to see me distributing the mail and stopped asking questions about their contents. Anyone receiving an envelope got their fair share of good-natured jibes from their comrades about heading off for some ‘private time.’
Not that I ever charged for the service. I hadn’t risked any capital setting up a business, so it didn’t seem right to me that I should profit from it either. Helping lonely hearts out though, endeared me to the task force, and I found that anything I now asked for magically appeared within 24 hours of me suggesting it. I was offered alcohol and cigarettes; spices and sauces (Tabasco mostly); soft drinks (soda) and the hardest porn you could imagine. I politely declined the last because… standards.
After I started my mail service, I soon came to expect a little parcel from a secret admirer sitting on my “doorstep” each morning. I never found out who left me my gifts, but suspected that it had been whoever had been using my terminal the night before. Either they left it by the door on their way out or they dropped it off early the next day, then sat around and guarded it from a safe distance. Mostly I could guess what was inside by the shape and weight, but one day I found a parcel that gave me my first genuine surprise of the entire campaign.
I had opened my door into the semi-cool of that tropical morning as usual, only to find an olive-green ammunition box waiting for me. These were parcelled out, a dime a dozen, in a war zone and used for many things once the bullets (rounds) had gone. I never make a fuss about collecting my gift, and usually just brought it inside and away from prying eyes. Not that I think anyone was too concerned about my “fees” but at least this way they could always just deny knowledge of any potential illegality. And that disinterest may have been what ended up saving my life. Because this time, sitting in the box was something that I never would have expected. I put my hand in and pulled out a well serviced semi-automatic pistol that sat atop hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
To say that this offering perplexed me would be an understatement. It may sound ridiculous to suggest that the last thing I expected to appear on my doorstep was a pistol. A Swiss made Indonesian army SIG. Surrounded as I was in the middle of a war zone by armed troops and hostile militias, yet I was surprised to have a gun in front of me.
After bringing it inside, I sat down at my desk with the open box on my lap and just stared at it for ages. I didn’t know what to make of it or whether I should even touch it lest I put my fingers prints on it. I knew weapons caches had been discovered all over Timor and that some militias had also reluctantly handed in their firearms. It would have been grossly naïve of me to think that no one had pocketed something so small when they had the opportunity.
Eventually my professional curiosity got the better of me and, after examining the pistol for wires and booby traps, I picked it up. I have never really liked the feeling of a pistol in hand. I was so used to the weight and utility of rifles and machine guns, pistols felt almost pointless in comparison. Yet paradoxically they are more dangerous. The lightweight and short barrel are just too easy to point in the wrong direction. And short, it was as this was the ‘compact’ model of the SIG. Very easy to slip into your pocket and forget about.
I was just going over all its bells and whistles when I heard the door of my room opening. I had no time to think, let alone move, so I did the only thing could and shoved the pistol in my pants pocket. As I pretended to be typing something and ‘act naturally’ I could hear a muffled voice from outside say, “He’s just in here,” as the door opened. I was temporally blinded as the sunshine rudely interrupted my darkened room.
There was a moment of silence, and then I heard a soft female voice. “So what’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?”
Her voice was immediately familiar, yet I had trouble placing it. I turned to face my visitor, who was still only a silhouette, and stood up to greet her. Before I knew what was happening, two undoubtedly feminine arms wrapped around me just as her scent of cleanliness and antiperspirant hit me. I had not felt a woman’s embrace for almost two years. I automatically leant in to enjoy the moment and before I knew what had happened, I felt myself getting hard. My mystery women reacted immediately and turned her face upward to me.
With a huge smile Sandy said, “Why Mr Holland, is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
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