4. Malaya

The trip to Singapore with BAOC Airways lasted two days and went via Istanbul and Bombay. I thought it was all a big adventure and even helped to give sick bags to people when the turbulence overwhelmed them. Jeff was still a baby and Colin was not healthy at that time. He got sick in the car and later when flying, as did my mother, so travelling must have been a rather traumatic experience for her. At some point, the flight attendant said I was the only passenger who wasn’t ill. That made me very proud. Istanbul and Bombay seem shrouded in darkness and it may have been nighttime when we arrived there and still sleepy got off the plane for a walk around. I never had the chance to realise what cultural differences there were to be seen in those countries, although we did comment that people dressed “funny” in those places. We seem to have been cut off from any civilian travellers.
When we arrived in Singapore, we had to take the train to Ipoh in order to get to Malacca, which I found fascinating looking at the people at the station, who of course, were very different from us. I was absorbed by the journey in another country with a different culture, although my mother was completely worried. After we were bundled sleepily from the station into a waiting Landrover, the adventure continued. We drove through the night, speeding down narrow roads covered in strange foliage, the whole experience was foreign to me, but I was keen to stay awake. When we reached Terendak Camp and we drove over a bump, it almost threw me out of the vehicle. I was told that we had just driven over a python on the road.
The time in Malaya was an exciting time and we children discovered so many things. Playing outside regularly eight years old, running on the beach that had palm and coconut trees lining it, being warned of stingrays, jellyfish, and scorpions. The excitement grew when actually encountering such things, we were lucky that nothing unfavourable happened to us. My imagination was untamed back then and we played out our ideas with great enthusiasm – much to the horror of our parents. Once we ran naked through the bush, mimicking the dark children on the beach, when a soldier caught one of the group, leaving the rest of us to hurriedly climb into our den to put our clothes back on. Once one of the group fell into a swamp, which traumatised me quite a bit, as I had seen movies in which people had died terribly this way, and I ran away in a panic. In fact, choking or drowning became my biggest fear and I regularly had nightmares in which I choked. Once I was hit by an “arrow” made out of thin wooden slivers, and which had to be carefully removed and treated with iodine. I also dreamed of flying through our house at night, which seemed so real to me that I excitedly told my mother. She looked at me in surprise and probably didn’t believe me, but it must have had her thinking.
When visiting Kuala Lumpur, we went on an outing to the Batu Caves, seven miles (13 km) north of the capital of Malaysia and set in a small hill that seemed to me like a mountain. In a field below we saw a five-legged cow. The poor beast was born with an added leg on its back and was said to be considered holy because of this. In fact, it was just an attraction for visitors. The caves are one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions and are a place of pilgrimage for Tamil Hindus. The true attraction, however, after climbing a curving stairway with 272 steps, was a cave with a multitude of bats, that hung from the ceiling. We could only enter in complete silence if we didn’t want to wake them. The other reason we visited those caves was that it was the site of a tragic battle against Japanese invaders. When trapped in the complex of limestone grottoes, a number of soldiers tried to dig their way out but died as their tunnel collapsed. This story left such an impression on me as a nine-year-old that I have claustrophobic nightmares to this day.
My nightmares might have also had something to do with how I learned to swim. Namely, being thrown into the pool where I couldn’t stand and breathe at the same time. After I had overcome my fears, which was especially important because my father was a master swimmer in the army, I finally learned to swim and although I fell from a high diving board, I learned to jump off it with no problems. My father and I even swam in the sea, where the current was hard to manage. We seemed to swim miles, but it probably wasn’t. I was bound to secrecy because my mother had enough fears. She didn’t have to imagine that I was stung by a jellyfish. The danger of jellyfish wasn’t to be taken lightly. One day my brother and I had spent nearly 3 hours playing with a log in the sea, as we had done very often. We were just getting dry watching another child play with the log when he screamed and had to be taken out of the water. He had a long red mark across his body and was rushed to the hospital. We heard reports that he was in a critical condition for days and overheard a conversation by unwitting adults who said we had lured the jellyfish but were out of the water before they came, I felt guilty for some time.
Fishing with my father on a long beach with soft sand also had its dangers. We had to cast our hook and weights far out, and my father was very skilled at it. Of course, I tried to follow suit. Several times we caught catfish, once a baby shark and very often stingrays, which we had to spear into the ground with a makeshift fork in order to release our hook and get our tackle back. Sometimes, when it was too difficult, my father cut the line and waited for the catch to die. Sometimes we were disappointed because they seemed to come back to life and managed to get into the water and swim away. My father told me that I should remember what was living in the sea, not far offshore, and be careful when swimming.
Whilst we were in Malaya, there were rumblings in Sumatra, an elongated landmass spanning a diagonal northwest-southeast axis close to Malaya across the Straits of Malacca. These “disturbances” were portrayed as the struggle with communism in western newspapers. Some independent authors have said that this is a wrong portrayal of the upheaval that led to half a million deaths, and that it was really the struggle of an underdeveloped country against the rising globalisation of markets. However you see this bloody dispute, it was a cause of worry for the Malayan Government and the British Army that was posted there for protection.
When, one day, I had strayed southwards from our Scout house down the beach with a friend, we stumbled across a large tree with what looked like the remains of a treehouse in its branches. We started playing around and almost forgot the time. When we felt that it was about time to go home, guessing by the sun and our shadows, like we had been taught at the Boy Scout Cubs, we were stood together when an explosion blew earth, dead palm leaves, and sand into the air. First of all, we froze as the rubble came down on us, but then we thought we were under attack and ran as fast as we could back up the beach. Only then did we realise how far we had roamed but we didn’t stop running until we reached the quarters and blurted out what we had experienced. We didn’t know where it had come from, but very soon afterward we found the trees that grew up to the beach were full of soldiers with pieces of artillery. That set my imagination going and soon I was telling everyone that we had nearly been blown up by communists. Only far later as an adult did I consider the fact that, if we had wandered into a shooting range, the explosion could have been caused by our own side. We never wandered that far down the beach again.
Nevertheless, it was more or less a carefree life we had as children, which ignored the stress the soldiers were struggling with. The Vietnam War was going on in the north of the country and my father and his comrades were not spared the confrontation with the dangers of the jungle or the danger of communist guerrillas reaching the Malaysian kingdom. Although they were transport soldiers, they had to go on patrols in the jungle, where the vegetation alone could cause extensive wounds. There were tales of shots fired and communist guerrillas killed, but also of casualties in their own ranks.
As part of their attempt to play down the situation, there were parties in the quarters that kept us children awake because the soldiers played bowling with the beer cans they stacked. The stress told on some, and parties sometimes grew loud or even violent. There was a reason why this posting was only for three years. In the mornings I often found half-full beer cans and sometimes I sipped on them trying to figure out what they thought was so good. Of course, stale beer doesn’t taste good and it takes more than a few sips to understand why the soldiers were so keen on it. Although I’m aware that these soldiers were doing their best under the circumstances, they were transport soldiers, not crack combat troops. Later in life, I had a similar experience and saw what happened when young men like my father came into a combat situation. Even if such situations had awoken just a fraction of the fear that war installs into people, it should be clear that people change under the duress, and this explains their behaviour sometimes.
But our time also had good times, like when we travelled to the “Cameron Highlands” which was further north. We seemed to be circling a huge hill as the bus struggled up and we could see Malayan life much as it was. Everything seemed to take place on the roads and we saw people selling unknown foods, as well as chickens and goats. One stall had huge beetles on display that looked the size of footballs to us children. One evening we were told that nobody was allowed on the streets because a hungry tiger was close. Colin and I stood at the windows, listening to the evening sounds and imagining what was transpiring just a short distance away. We did witness a death though when we watched the cook of the restaurant in the hotel cut the head off of a chicken and chase the carcass around the area below our window.
At one time, we were told that ants were marching towards Terendak camp and if they should get close, we would be evacuated. After that, as soon as we discovered ant-hills we ran home to tell our parents. The only emergency we did experience that came from the jungle was a hoard of monkeys that terrorised us until the soldiers came. We were all safe within the houses, but monkeys had never seemed so dangerous. This was accentuated on the day that a young lady, who was posing with a monkey, was suddenly attacked by the animal that started pulling her blouse and hair until blood ran. These experiences fuelled my nightmares, but I seldom told anyone.
As children, it was all part of the great adventure we had and we didn’t think about returning to the rain and snow of Britain one day. But the clock was ticking.

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