Waiouru will be remembered

Reading room

A book for Anzac Day

In most organizations, you learn to hide your weaknesses. The army does not allow it. It ruthlessly exposes them and then pushes you to band together and use each other’s strengths to compensate for each other’s weaknesses: the essence of true teamwork.

In his book Home Base: Poems of Life as a Regular Force Cadet 1964-1966, Keith Westwater writes about those with whom we served in the military like true brothers in arms. Home Base is not your usual military memory. Indeed, I would never have thought that one could be inspired to poetry by his Waiouru years. But it is a potpourri of delights. As Keith described it to me when he invited me to launch his book: “Obviously a book of poetry, the book is in DIY format… and also includes photos, short bits of prose, excerpts from topographic maps , diagrams, quotes and excerpts from a diary I kept in 1965. It presents a snapshot of my memories of my time in the RF cadets.

This is the story of his time as a cadet in the Regular Force, an organization that no longer exists, based in the Waiouru Army Training Group which was at the time the largest military camp in New Zealand. That too became a shadow of its former self, but in the 1960s when Keith and I joined the military, that was the entry point for everyone.

Waiouru became Keith’s home after his stepmother kicked him out when he was 15. He reveals his soul on the misfortune of his childhood in a first volume of autobiography structured in the same way. no one at home that I read looking for clues about this friend I suddenly didn’t know. I read each volume in one sitting and emailed Keith: “Overwhelmed by both books. The first, terribly sad and the second needs the first to read between the lines. Inundated with memories of the place and the people. I look forward to volume 3.”

It made me think back to my own life in the military and also how well we knew those with whom we served.

Keith joined the Regular Force Cadets aged 15 in 1964, while in 1966 I went to Royal Military College Duntroon aged 18 on a course of four years. The RF Waiouru Cadet School accepted participants at ages 15, 16 and 17. It was both a military institution, a trade and educational school. Keith graduated at the age of 18 and so spent three years in Waiouru, – the first of some 10 years of service he would accrue in the shadow of Mount Ruapehu. I can’t match that. I guess I could add up to nine months on the different courses, then five years on two assignments. September 1976-October 1979, then returned after 15 months at the Staff College in the UK from 1981 to 1982.

Like it or not, Waiouru is as much a part of me as it is of my family who also grew up in the shadow of the mountain. When you think about it, everyone who served there grew up in one way or another.

Howard, Des, Mike, Gordon, Storky, Tony, Fred in April 1966, on a return trip to Waiouru after a summer sports tournament at Whakatāne High. Photo: Mike Flattery

Myself and six other New Zealand RMC participants had our first week of introduction to the New Zealand Army in Waiouru before flying to Canberra in 1966. We were melted in the heat of this experience and we three who graduated in 1969 we know intimately and remain comrades to this day. Keith writes with a knowledge and connection born of the trials and tribulations of military service to a degree known only to his beleaguered classmates where the system deliberately explores how to break you.

After reading Residence I feel like I know Keith a lot better now than I ever did during our years of military service. There are so many things that are familiar to me: the banging and banging of steam heating pipes in barrack blocks at night, the realities of the drill and spindle polish; the faces of those who commanded you and served with you. People who suddenly appear in front of you when Keith’s words flood your memory. As he says:

With the hindsight of an old soldier

I polish the boots of my past

Smooth out memory wrinkles

Get ready to walk.

No one should be able to say the same in such succinct volumes – but he did. It is a marvelous achievement. Residence offers thousands of Waiouru veterans and their families a glimpse into a world we all knew. Each of us who served there experienced some of what he describes. It was his gateway to a career in the military – for a lost boy, it became a home.

In his poem “The Best and the Worst”, he writes:

Make change parades on CB

Get in trouble and don’t get caught

Senior class sting barrellings

Trust and faith in your buddies

Fish and chips on Sunday afternoon

It wasn’t such a bad place

Home Base: Poems of Life as a Regular Force Cadet 1964-1966 by Keith Westwater (The Cuba Press, $25) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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