Life on Civvy Street

Discharge papers in hand, I walked out through Gatehouse B the way I had signed in three years previously -- a civilian. The last step had been to hand my uniform in (53 lbs. of parade dress, fatigues, boots, bags, and all the badges of office and military identity) and walk out.

Free at last! Now I was free to go where I pleased, do as I deemed fit, wear what I wished. I could do anything that came to mind. Here it was, 2 o'clock in the afternoon, a Tuesday, and I could do as I pleased (not what my sergeant pleased). I opted for crossing the road to take a walk in the Botanical Gardens, those beautiful gardens, which I had only seen from the perimeter on our thrice-weekly (of course, compulsory) "5 kilometer run." Now the sunshine was beautiful, shining through the autumn foliage, dappling the gravel path as I strolled along. It was time to consider my future, something which, looking back, I can say I hadn't thought through thoroughly. The immediate concern I had was a place to sleep tonight. Then I had to find a place to rent, but I couldn't do that until I found a job. I had money in my pocket -- two weeks' wages and my discharge pay. It was enough to give me the deposit on a lease. But first, a job.

I had looked in the papers; I had a fair idea where I could get started... oh, later. Right now, I was going to enjoy the absolutely delicious luxury of being free to do whatever I wanted. Now what did I want to do? A movie? A drink at the pub? Ah, the day was too nice to go inside. As I walked past the kiosk, I gratified my desire to do something by buying an ice cream.

Hey, another thought came to me! I could wear my hair any length I wanted! Quickly another thought came: I could wear any kind of clothes I wanted. That was quite a prospect. Even off duty I had been restricted in what kind of "civvies" I could wear (they had to be conservative), but now I could go along with any fashion fad that blew my way ? punk, hippie, cool, retro-hip. The options were endless. Wow, I could choose my own friends and hobbies! I was no longer restricted to what the base had to offer (which was only team sports). The vistas of possibilities were opening up to me: hang gliding, deep sea diving, skateboarding, rollerblading.

Ice cream finished, I looked for a trash bin to toss the stick! A new thought -- I could even throw it on the ground. I was free to do that, too. With no authority and no accountability, I could be my own standard of what was right and wrong.

Still, I felt uncomfortable with throwing litter on the ground, especially in such a beautiful park. Oh, how well I knew the work involved in keeping litter off the grounds. Trash pickup had been my weekly experience. Not that the army grounds had ever been littered with trash; we mostly picked up cigarette butts and the little tear-offs from opening gum packets, but even these seemingly insignificant bits of litter had to be picked up. I actually had liked the way the base looked spick-and-span. "I guess I'll never have to pick up trash again," I thought as I deposited the stick in the litter bin.

The air was getting cooler, the day drawing in, and the evening exodus from the city would start soon. I needed to find a place to lay my head and somewhere to eat. Cheap clean hotels are not hard to find in downtown Melbourne, and a reasonable feed wasn't too hard to find either. Still, it was an eerie feeling to eat all alone, "table for one." As I finished my steak and chips, I realized with a pang of loneliness that I hadn't eaten one meal alone in three years straight. Climbing into bed in my own "$27-a-nite" room, I felt kind of lonesome. Waking up, I missed reveille. Who would have expected that I would wish there had been reveille! The sweet sensation of lying in bed a little longer was no compensation for the sudden acute awareness that no one would care whether I got up or not.

That thought chased me out of bed as quick as any sergeant could ever have. I needed a plan, I needed a job. I needed a life. I needed to get in control. Getting dressed, I realized I had a lot to take care of ? meals, shopping, cleaning. (I'm going to need a vacuum cleaner -- how much do they cost? I'm going to need a winter jacket, too.) Sitting over coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich for breakfast, I started looking through the employment classifieds in Wednesday's paper. Plenty of work. I got a phone card and started dialing.

A Few Months Later

Punching the numbers in the office of Boral Cyclone, some months later, I had to say it: it was more or less the same kind of clerical work I had been doing at Vic Barracks.

The "more" part was that come 4 o'clock I was out of there and the time was my own. 1600 was the same time we finished regular army working day, but actually a soldier's time was never his own. If I had had any misconceptions about that, they were gone when I checked my first payslip. I thought I'd been gypped when I saw the ridiculously low hourly rate, but then I noticed it was applied to 168 hours (24 x 7). In the end, the pay came out the same as a normal rate per hour applied to 40 hours. The platoon sergeant made it clear to all of us in the first week of intake. He relished explaining it to us. "We own every minute of your day. We pay you for every hour of the day. We can call on you for service at any hour of the day or night. Graciously, we give you some time every day for sleep. Don't get any ideas about overtime. It doesn't exist." Well, now I didn't belong to anyone and no one could have any claim on me. I could just serve "yours truly."

The "less part" of doing office work of the same kind and nature as before was that there was no purpose to it. (Who would have thought I would care about a purpose?) There were some surprising things about being on Civvy Street that I hadn't anticipated. For one, I had no identity except as an individual. True, there were no mocking jeers about my uniform being tossed at me now by passers-by, but man, there was no respect either. I was now as anonymous a "nobody" as any other civvy. Being a nobody was getting me down. I wished I could have kept my corps badge, but I had to hand it in. I should face it ? I was no longer a soldier. I was now a civilian. I had no part in it, even if I kept the memories and jargon. I could have said I was still a soldier (as I was somehow in my mind wanting that identity), but the day-to-day reality was that I was out here, in another place altogether, and my work didn't go past my back pocket and making some manager upstairs comfortable.

That was another aspect to the "less part." A takeover had been rumored for Boral Cyclone, and I knew "last hired, first fired" was the bottom line around here, even though I had done my work well. One especially lonely night, I had to admit that there was no one around now like Major Irvine. He was the one who had given me what I needed to make it through the training for promotion to corporal. It was a tough course, tougher than basic training, and I didn't want to do it. I dug my heels in and I wouldn't do it. Major Irvine sent for me and said he would hear me out. At the end of my controlled outburst he looked me right in the eye and said, "How will you ever increase if you avoid things that are too hard for you?" How indeed? I went. It was tough. I made it!

Out here, on my sweet lonesome, there were next to no demands on my life, besides what I placed on myself (like getting up to run twice a week), but who would look out for me? Sergeant Chan-Algie had explained to me that when I was doing good, the army was doing good. It made a difference to the whole if I was doing good. The only good doing good would do now was to make me feel good. It amounted to beans to almost anyone else except my mother.
Sometimes, in the evening, alone in my neat little flat, the tape player chasing away the background silence, I had time to wonder what it was about the military life that I hadn't considered before. I was no longer part of a co-ordinated body. The army was a marvel of co-ordinated parts ? each corps doing its vital part and, in turn, all the soldiers' needs were taken care of by the other corps. Those in the medical corps could leave the details of transport to the transport corps, of supplies to the ordinance people, and getting food on the table to the catering corps. I could painfully consider that now with the twinge of toothache ? I would have to find a dentist (and pay for it).

Of course, having the weekend all to myself had become the highlight of my life now. Rather than be alone and the only recourse being the local pub, I had joined some associations, become a member of a club, and even started going to church, but it was all so fragmented, and you know, the worst part, it was so inconsequential. I could quit when I wanted, or join something else, turn up on Sunday or find another church. Here I was, going the way of civvies on Civvy Street, reduced to my finding my own level of competence and comfort. No one to push me but myself. Sitting in the traffic, waiting for the lights to change, all I could see were people coming to and fro, calling their own shots. (Who would have thought calling your own shots was such a bad thing?)

Getting off Civvy Street

I was adrift, free, as the old Doobie Brothers song said, to do what I wanna do, be what I wanna be, but for what? Taking the bull by the horns, I sat down one Wednesday to take stock of what I wanted to do with my life. At the end of an hour I just had to get outside. The nice white letter-size paper couldn't contain what I was grasping for.
God had to be the answer, so I earnestly went back to church looking for Him and a life different from the one I and everybody else on Civvy Street was living.

Now, if while sitting in my pew on Sunday I could have heard 2 Timothy 2:4 read, "No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with civilian affairs, that he may please him who enlisted him," what would I have had to think? I had first-hand experience of both the enlisted life and the civilian life.

When I was engaged into the armed forces, I took an oath. While swearing allegiance and service to Queen and country, I also swore my life into the hands of the men who constituted the army in Australia. It had been a sobering moment, and I hesitated when I grasped what that would practically mean ? they could do with me whatsoever they saw fit, because I was making an oath that I would be loyal and would come under authority. The drill sergeant had reminded us of that one, and we had better be clear on it. No rebellion could be tolerated in the army when everyone's life depended on working together completely co-ordinated and submitted to the chain of command.
I knew about being prepared for warfare. All our training and discipline was in order to meet the enemy in battle, or to support those at the front lines who laid down their lives. I knew that I could be called upon in any way to save the lives of my friends. I also knew that no one could think he was engaged in warfare if he wasn't under the command of a man who was under the command of a man who could see the overall plan. Obedience was required; submission was optional.

When I lived in the army, it wasn't hard to figure out if I was obedient or submitted to authority. When the sergeant told you what to do, you hated it or loved it. It was a three-dimensional reality check. Where was the reality of my obedience to my Savior? Who was I submitted to out of reverence for Messiah? (And how could I know?)

Of course, I never heard that verse read in church, not with any salt in it. If it turned up on the reading schedule, it was a poetic call to be more sincere. But, just look at the bills posted on the pin board, the calendar marked with upcoming social events, the clothes and possessions that outlined my own identity, the newspapers with their controversies, the concern with who will come into political power, and, oh yes, the everyday pursuits of commerce, profession, and occupation. That is civilian life, and is it only a matter of opinion as to whether living it is an entanglement? What was Paul saying about being enlisted as a soldier? Where could I have enlisted as a soldier of Christ? Where was the recruiter for this kind of calling?

In the end, getting off Civvy Street didn't happen when I was going to church. How could it have?

~ Shelem

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