Right then, time for a little story. I can assure you all this is true (some other posters who know me can verify this). It harks back to the early 1990s and is a tale about young squaddies at the REME School of Electronic Engineering in Arborfield with too much time on their hands, and too much booze, and living in the block. It's quite a lengthy tale so go grab a can of lukewarm Fosters, don your Levi 501s and Ben Sherman Shirts and put the Stone Roses album on for full nostalgia effect. The Zoo For a while, the school followed no clear policy of who shared a bunk with whom. This could lead to interesting friendships being formed. To some extent, this made sense. Instead of each course arriving from Basic Training and remaining with their buddies, it was the first taste for many soldiers of the transient nature of Army life. It was not surprising to come back from lessons one day to find that the spare bed space in your room, previously used for the shared fridge, kettle and TV was now home to a wide-eyed expectant crow. As the more senior trainees finished their courses and were posted to the Field Army, fresh meat arrived from the Depot to fill their places, and the circle of life continued. Occasionally though, this threw up some anomalies. There was always the minger that Basic hadn’t quite managed to straighten out, and they would slip back into their nasty civvie habits within weeks of the spotlight being removed. Usually, a small amount of peer pressure would ensure that the worst excesses of these Grotters could be curbed. Simple things like burning their bedding when they couldn’t be bothered to exchange it, or maybe something more extreme like swamping on their kit after a night on the cheap NAAFI Fosters. A more pressing problem was when a member of your room was in Holding Platoon – a kind of military version of Purgatory. Holding platoon was the home for the soldiers who had arrived from Depot and were waiting to begin courses, soldiers removed from Trade training for a variety of reasons, soldiers who were awaiting posting, soldiers who were awaiting discharge. Although nominally called a Platoon, the numbers could reach on occasion over a hundred; and even a Garrison the size of Arborfield would have problems putting this idle work force to useful fulfilling labour. It became for many a platoon of orphans. No real work or studying to be done, days blending into weeks as the everlasting game of trying to skive your way though the day without being caught was played out. As there was no real work to fill the days, a few of these soldiers would drift down the road to casual alcoholism. Every night would be spent in the NAAFI bar, slowly spunking away their wages on cheap beer then spending the next day trying to sleep their hangovers off on a few piss stained mattresses in the back of the Bedding Store. It was under these conditions that The Zoo was formed. Having a casual alcoholic in your room that had no real employment could be a real pain in the arse. They would be constantly poking you to come down the bar for a bit of company, and sometimes it was just easier to go with them than sit around and listen to the whining. In fairness I must admit that I was usually a willing volunteer; whenever members of The Zoo were down the bar, there was likely to be a lively and interesting evening afoot. The danger came when the bar shut. If you were fortunate, the members of The Zoo would be invited to an after-hours party in the NAAFI accommodation. You were guaranteed they wouldn’t roll back in until three AM, or perhaps they would get a bed for the night with one of the ever accommodating NAAFI girls. This would enable you to get at least half a nights sleep; which was quite important if you were about to spend the next day learning about Advanced Calculus or Flemings Left Hand Rule. It wasn’t until multiple people began failing exams - citing other soldiers who they shared a room with and their nocturnal habits – that the hierarchy began to take notice. When the same four names kept turning up, they were forced to take action. This is not to say that there were only four protagonists of the misbehaviour within Hazebrouck Barracks at this time, but it would be safe to say that these four were clearly the masters of their dark art. Four long term members of Holding Platoon, for various reasons, good friends, and all united in their enjoyment of the finer things in life such as drinking beer, nailing the local tarts and swamping their pits. The solution was of course to put these four miscreants into one room to share, where they wouldn’t be able to interfere with the soldiers who were trying desperately to understand the inner workings of the 6502 Processor. Their corner room on the top floor of the block quickly became known as “The Zoo”, and for a while the brainchild project of the Company staff appeared to work. Certainly the amount of students failing exams had one excuse removed from their armoury, and had to go back to the normal excuses such as blaming the prehistoric instructors or the lack of heating in the block. The Zoo, meanwhile, went from strength to strength. No longer were they at the mercy of the NAAFI maidens and their partying whims. Now that they owned their own little corner of the world, with three other like-minded creatures as the other inhabitants, they could party every night if they chose to; and party they did. They invested in state of the art Hi-Fi equipment, a gaming console wired up to a massive television, and a glass fronted fridge, all on hire purchase at eye-wateringly high levels of APR. They decorated their room with the staple fare of young squaddies the world over, massive Union Flags, stolen road furniture, surplus discotheque lighting, old MFO boxes covered with bedding counterpanes and oversized crystal ashtrays liberated from the local British Legion. It took almost six months for their Rock Star lifestyle to catch up with them; although the Company staff were aware of the potential time bomb ticking away in the corner of the accommodation, I don’t think they took this seriously, until things began to go seriously awry. It began with a complaint from one of the Upgraders, a Corporal who was there on a course himself. The nature of the School actually made it a big disincentive for the JNCOs to get a grip of the young Crafties themselves. Many of them were on short courses, of a technical and academic nature, and to get involved with the lengthy and Kafkaesque official military discipline system was seen as an extra hassle not worth the effort. I myself came unstuck later after I had completed my Upgraders, having to return all the way from Northern Ireland to give a thirty-minute cross-questioning at a subsequent Court Martial about the length of someone’s sideburns or some shit like that. The Corporal had complained to the Company staff that there was a strange non-descript smell coming from an area of the block. Not enough information to involve himself directly in the admin clusterfuck about to explode in room 231, but certainly enough to get the Company staff in the area sniffing about. Like a pack of overweight and wheezy Basset Hounds the Company staff shambled into action, and carried out a spot inspection around the offending area. Localizing the smell of stale beer didn’t take too long, and unfortunately for them, two of The Zoos inhabitants were enjoying a post lunch siesta, undoubtedly recharging their batteries for another evening of Whigfield soundtracked partying, whilst around them their bachelor pad of ill-repute looked like the main stage at the World Shit Juggling Championships. That Friday, The Zoo collectively found themselves in front of the Company Commander, where he promptly put them on ROPs – Restriction of Privileges for two weeks. This punishment involved having themselves and their room inspected around six times a day, from early morning until late at night, interspersed with such great jobs as weeding the car park and cleaning the fishpond outside the main building. The principle was that they would be too tired to party, and to fuck them about so much that in future they would behave themselves. Being on ROPS included being on an alcohol ban, but being resourceful – and popular – young men there was always a passing friend who would be able to smuggle them in a can or two of Carlsberg. Some of these friends were acting through a misguided sense of comradeship, plenty more were interested in the social experiment of The Zoo and wanted to see just what might happen if the lads carried on drinking whilst on ROPs. It came to a head on the Monday morning. Arborfield, in a misguided attempt to show leniency on the Lords Day, decreed that after an 1800 parade on the Sunday evening that soldiers undergoing ROPs were given a small amount of free time, with no parades again until 0600 Monday. I don’t know whether the Commanding Officer was barking mad, or perhaps he thought that the criminal element of his Soldiery would spend the evening watching Songs Of Praise and showing remorse for their evil ways. The Zoo, of course, took the evening off as an excuse to get ripped to the tits on a couple of cases of Kronenbourg, thoughtfully provided by the modern day anthropologists who were wanting to see how far their subject matter would push the boundaries. When the entire crew failed to report for their early morning parade the reaction from the military judicial system was swift and severe. The Orderly Officer, a larger-than-life Rugby Union playing Warrant Officer of Fijian descent, decided he should go investigate the reason for their tardiness. The Orderly Officer was presented with a scene from Dante’s Inferno. The lads were all in bed of course, the floor covered in empty cans, overflowing ashtrays, crumpled up items of clothing, various “spunk-paper-roses”, and a small pool of vomit whilst a video of Animal Farm – not the Orwell version - played on the massive television to nobody in particular. For possibly the only time in his life, the Warrant Officer was silenced. All those years of training wasted, the self-discipline and integrity of his military life, the casual violence and depravity of the Rugby Club, his upbringing in the strict patriarchal tribal society of Fiji and his diet of Guinness and Red Meat had simply not prepared him for the scene his eyes were now viewing. Finally, he managed to move and took one pace forward into the room. Not one member of The Zoo stirred. He pierced a half-empty can of Stella with his pace stick, like a park cleaner picking up litter. The new hole in the side of the can spurted a stream of flat warm lager onto his highly polished boots. A small giggle escaped from underneath one of the duvets. The ignominy of this sacrilegious act from an inanimate object was enough to break his catatonic state, and he launched into an ear-splitting tirade of abuse directed to the now wide-awake lads. “You bunch of horrible, minging fucking retarded cunts! How fucking dare you have a fucking party when you’re on ROPS you dirty little fucking creatures. I’m going to spear you all through the fucking eyeballs with my pace stick, I’m going to fucking crush your fucking testicles in a vice, I’m going to pull your fucking teeth out and make a cunting necklace! You horrible dirty little fucking shitbags, you have ten fucking minutes to get on parade down the Guardroom, full NBC kit, Four-Romeo, webbing and bergans! Understand me? Right! GetafuckingmoveoncuntsNOW!” For those of you who have never enjoyed the benefits of NBC kit, I’ll explain. Designed to keep you alive when the Russians threw a load of Nerve Gas your way, it’s a thick charcoal lined suit worn over your usual combat uniform. Massive floppy rubber boots and two pairs of gloves – inner cotton and outer thick black marigolds cover your hands and feet. The piece de résistance was of course the Respirator. I’m sure it does a good job in filtering out all the things that want to kill you, but it also does a good job of filtering out oxygen. It restricts your breathing so much that sado-masochistic perverts prize this item as part of their specialist dungeon wardrobe. No self respecting autoerotic asphyxiator would be seen dead without one. The overall effect of getting a beasting in this kit is akin to torture. This punishment was outlawed by the Geneva Convention in 1948, but as we all know, the Geneva Convention only applies to the enemy, not Friendly Forces. All morning the lads were put through their paces, running round the “exercise yard” of the Guardroom, lifting logs, doing press-ups, sit-ups, and knees-to-chests. Every twenty minutes or so they were allowed a break to get a ’58 bottle full of water – two pints of cold clean heaven sent water – to replace the amount their bodies were sweating into the heavy – and getting heavier – charcoal suits. Their “rest” periods were spent in the “Stress Position” – backs flat against the wall with their legs bent at ninety degrees, thighs parallel to the ground in a “sitting” position, but of course without a chair to rest their weight on. Being a kindly old Warrant Officer, their breaks were as long as the lads from the Zoo wanted, which basically meant that they stayed in the Stress Position until the cramp forming in their legs became so uncomfortable that it was preferable to put the Respirators back on and do some more exercises. When the Orderly Officer got tired of shouting at the lads he handed over to the Provost Corporal; a bitter and twisted passed-over-for-promotion twenty-two year Pioneer, especially chosen for the job of being the Provo Corporal due to his excellent qualities of having no social skills, his ability to chain smoke roll-ups made with one strand of tobacco and his breath which smelled like he had been eating cat shit salads for most of his adult life. When the Provo Corporal got tired he handed over the reigns to a PTI, specially brought down from the Gym, an expert in inflicting pain upon muscles and as a trained First Aider, a safeguard to make sure that nobody was actually killed in the exercise yard that morning. While the fun and games were being carried out down the Guardroom, a steady stream of VIPs had taken the opportunity to visit The Zoo and enjoy the image of what exactly happens when four idiots are let loose with free lager. The CO and RSM visited of course, followed closely by the Padre – perhaps he wanted to say a few prayers for their souls or maybe the CO thought the room required an exorcism. It was decided there and then that The Zoo could not continue in its current incarnation, and therefore they should make an example of what happens when you fuck with the system. It was decided that The Zoo should move into a 12’x12’ Canvas Green Army Tent against the perimeter fence, between the Assault Course and 30 meter range, until they could prove to the Regimental Sergeant Major that they were civilized enough to be allowed to inhabit a normal room with all the other human beings in the Regiment. Living in a tent and being on ROPs temporarily made The Zoo behave. Even rabble rousers such as these knew when they had taken it over the limit. For three weeks in a very wet and windy autumn they lived under canvas, only being allowed inside to do their laundry and ironing. The logistics of keeping a tent to inspection standards meant that they enjoyed even less free time; in fact when they weren’t doing pointless work and inspections, they spent their time in ancient sleeping bags, trying to keep warm enough to allow them to drop off to sleep. The lack of booze and the extra PT imposed on them during this period enabled them all to detoxify their bodies, and the fresh air of the great outdoors gave them all a healthy glow, similar to a young student who had spent their Gap Year walking in Patagonia. When they were finally allowed to move back into the barrack block they were like finely tuned athletes, although they weren’t going to the Olympics, they were however ready for an Olympic sized blow-out. I joined in their post-ROPs party, and watching them get ready for a night down Reading was like seeing an FA Cup Final squad limber up in the dressing room before the big game.