In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
I knocked on the door and entered the small office. An officer sat behind a desk poking warily at the typewriter keys. He looked up irritably, pushing away the damp strands of ginger hair which hung limply from his balding, freckled pate. Overhead a solitary fan followed its fruitless circular path through the humid, foetid air, its leading edge rusty from years of such struggles.
The officer pointed to a sign on the outside of the door, which declared ‘Service personnel only.’ Underneath was a smaller sign saying, ‘Air Movements Officer, RAF, Kuala Lumpur.” “Sorry, but this is for servicemen only.”
I had a fleeting thought to tell him that I could read, but contented myself with, “Hi, Ben Matier, Flight Lieutenant, RAAF.” I extended my hand.
He smiled and half rose from his desk to take my hand. “Apologies, we get all kinds of weirdoes in here. Dave Millar, Flight Lieutenant, RAF.”
The latter information was superfluous, as the two blue rings on his shoulder tabs told me his rank, and the lack of any country of origin said ‘Royal Air Force.’ My own badges of rank carried the words ‘Australia’.
He waved to a chair, piled high with papers. “Sit down, what can I do for you?”
I removed the papers which Millar did not seem to notice, and placed them on the floor. “I have just got back from leave in UK and have missed the MSA flight. Got any service birds going to Butterworth?”
“How was England?” he said, shuffling through the papers on his desk.
“It was raining when we left.”
“Christ, I wish it would rain here. The bloody monsoon is two weeks late. Real suicide weather.”
I nodded in sympathy, but my primary concerns were with my wife and two small children, now drooping in the un-air-conditioned Airport Terminal.
He stopped shuffling. “Sorry old boy, I can get you on a Herc, but not till Saturday.”
It was now Thursday and I had to be back from leave at 0800 hours on Friday. “Thanks for trying, Dave. Any thoughts on my getting to Penang?”
“Easy, take a cab, it’s only 250 miles. You will get there in tons of time.”
I looked at my watch. It was 10.30PM. “What about the curfew?”
“It’s 0100 to 0500, but don’t worry they are only shooting each other, not white people. Is your family with you?”
“Yes, my wife, a seven year old boy and a baby girl.”
“You’ll be OK. They have only shot up European families once or twice since this began.”
With those comforting words in my ears, I hired a Malay taxi driver and his ageing Austin A-55 Cambridge. We agreed a price, 250 Malaysian dollars. “What about the curfew?” I enquired, hoping my wife couldn’t hear.
He grinned toothlessly. “No problems, master. They don’t shoot Europeans.” He cackled loudly and added as an afterthought. “Well the Police don’t, the Army are different”
Race riots occurred with disturbing frequency in mainland Malaysia. The country was riven by racial prejudice, but then, as now, that only counted when it was white against black. As an example, in Malaysia, Malays made up 45% of the population and Chinese about 42%. There were about 8 or 9% Indian and various other bits and pieces made up the balance. Despite this, the law required that 75% of Government jobs were reserved for Malays and ALL races, including Malays, competed for the remainder. I never saw a single soldier of Chinese origin, although they made up about 90% of the Air Force. In these current riots, in 1970, about 1500 people had been shot, burned or hacked to death.
And off we trundled though the sticky tropical night, one bottle of water between the four of us. We were stopped four or five times by Police patrols. I told them I was a serviceman returning to my unit in Butterworth, and they allowed us to continue. Then about 4.00AM our car was stopped by an Army patrol, bristling with weapons, all pointed at the Austin. The officer in charge was a young second lieutenant in the Royal Malay Regiment, his jungle greens as starch stiff as his face. A tiny apology of a moustache shaded his upper lip. He looked about twelve.
“Get out of the car” he ordered, pulling open the front passenger door.
I remembered the ubiquitous James Robertson Justice as an RN officer in a 1950’s POW film and his splendid line to the German Camp Commandant. “Certainly not! I replied stiffly. “I am a Britsih officer” There was more than a touch of arrogance about me in those days, some of which may linger still.
Anyway, the effect was electric. He jerked to attention, and threw up a magnificent salute. “I’m very sorry, sir. Driver, please carry on.”
My wife looked at me. “You were lucky to get away with that, buster.”
We arrived home at six in the morning. I had no money to pay the driver, but he agreed to take a cheque and said he would sleep outside the Standard Chartered Bank until it opened. I gave him my CO’s name with instructions to contact him if there were any difficulties. He was very relaxed about the whole thing.
The electricity did not work in the house. I had had the meter read the day before we had left, and paid the account. One month later, the Electricity Board sent their bill for one day’s usage and when it wasn’t paid, they disconnected us. I owed about fifty pence.
The house was full of chattering geckos, and worse, dead and part-eaten geckos, and a half-inch of droppings. I had a cold shower, got the duty sergeant to send a Land Rover and prepared for work. Cpl Bluey Playford was standing beside the Landy. He touched two fingers to his cap. “G’day, Boss, welcome back.”
Red heads in Australia are always nicknamed Blue or Bluey. Don’t ask me. “Morning, Bluey. Good to see you.”
In the Air Force Police, Provost Officers who were liked and respected by their men were always ‘Boss’. It was something picked up from the RAF. Other officers were ‘Sir.” Everyone in the Branch knew this and it was easy to tell a Provost Officer how he was regarded by calling him ‘sir’, without any detectable disrespect.
I was back at my desk at 0750. The deadline had been met. It was later in the day when my CO called me. “Why did you come back early? I wasn’t expecting you till Monday.” In such ways was the world kept safe for democracy.
Written by BM