Friday, January 07, 2005

Chapter 3: The Great Rotorua Pig Hunt

Some, with contempt and acrimony, called it the Rotorua Rat Race, for the excursion seemed as much of a waste of time as one. The ostensible mission was firing practice in the form of field problems. Live ammunition was to be used, but after getting there, we found out that the New Zealand government would not grant us permission to use its forests for a firing range; not an unnatural viewpoint, I think. Thus thwarted, Colonel Shafer reluctantly settled for dry firing operations instead. But so that the trip would not be a total loss, some of the battalion brass went on a wild pig hunt with some New Zealand officers. I don't think they caught anything, but I suppose they got some sport out of it anyway.

Rotorua is situated among the hills and plateaus of North Island and was, as a consequence, very cold when we were there. Actually, our camp was several miles from Rotorua, but that was the only town near, or the main one, anyway. The town, it is said, is New Zealand's version of Yellowstone, and such an analogy is not entirely misleading. Its atmosphere eternally permeated with a sulphurous odor, it abounds in hot springs which are its chief asset. New Zealanders, it is said, come from far and wide to bathe in the hot springs and pools, and, in more exploratory moments, to brows around the Maori villages. It is quite a resort. "Something like Yellowstone" - only far less attractive. Of course, we saw it under far from advantageous conditions. There was not only the off-season dullness, but the war-time drabness as well. As in Auckland, theaters in Rotorua were unheated and streets were very dimly lit, if lit at all. As for lack of natural beauty, the poor weather might have accounted for some of that, but even so, there was nothing to compare with the grandeur of Yellowstone.

I went through the Rotorua maneuvers with remarkably little work. I can remember just one occasion when I was actually or actively functioning as a memeber of the battery. That was when [I] had been dropped off at the battery position in advance of the rest fo the outfit and was to wait until the guns arrived. Then I was to designate the gun positions to the sections chiefs or to the battery executive. All other times I was just so much dead weight. I was supposed to be a battery agent, a fellow whose job was to carry messages between the battery and the battalion CP in case all the other lines of communication went out. But I never was called on to act in any such emergency, so I and my jeep driver, Harry Bogan, usually curled up in the vehicle and went to sleep until the field problem was over.

On the one occasion when I was of some use, I waited in the cow pasture that had been designated as the battery position, and surveyed the landscape. It was not anything spectacular, as I recall, but my attention was arrested by a bird of about the same general appearance as that of a swallow. It would flutter down around my head and close to the ground. By this time, a little girl living in a nearby farmhouse overcame her shyness enough to come out, although she did not say anything at first.

I finally asked her if she thought there was something wrong with the bird's wing, because its fluttering seemed to indicate that. "No," she answered, "that is a fayuntile." That, of course, explained everything. Any further questions from me would be purely rhetorical or a waste of time. Still, I said, "A what?" And she said again, "A fayuntile."

By this time, the bird had lit on a branch of atree, and commenced spreading its tail and twitching it. "Oh," I exclaimed with a newly awakened intelligence, "a fantail!"

The little girl stood there, marvelling at the slow-wittedness of a grown man.

Then there were days I did not go out with the battery at all. At Papakura, I had begun to have a little trouble with a sore spot on one of my heels. I had showed it to Captain Simon Bunin, the battalion medical officer. "Oh, just a touch of athlete's foot," he said, and directed one of the men at the aid station to treat it accordingly. It was not athlete's foot I knew. It had been a blister, and was then starting to get infected. But the doc said it was athlete's foot, so they treated it as such.

That was just before we left Papakura. A day or so after we got to Rotorua, the pain was so sever I could not keep my shoe on, so I hobbled over to the aid station and found, upon inspection, not athlete's foot giving me trouble, but a peach of a boil. It was lanced, and the wound was dressed, but it kept me out of circulation for another day or so anyway.

It was during one of those days that it snowed. A fall of about half an inch in depth! There were several of us who, for one reason or another, did not go out on the field problem, so it was our assigned juob to keep the home fires burning, literally. Nearby fields and woods were searched for wood which we kept piling on. the reason for the fires is obscure now; it seems to me there was a large, rectangular, canvas-covered shelter (I'd hardly call it a tent) known as a drying shed, presumably for drying clothes. It was in there that we kept the fires going. It got a bit smoky at times, but all in all, it was a pleasant detail to be on. We had been almost perpetually cold or wet or both during our stay around Rotorua, and the fires gave us a rare and welcome opportunity to get dry and thawed out.

Our dwellings were some conical-shaped tents borrowed from the New Zealand Government. That shape had no particular advantage I could see, and some decided disadvantages. In the first place, they could not accommodate more than four comfortably, but we slept six to a tent. In the second place, the choice we had to make between the only two possible sleeping arrangements was discouraging, no matter which way we made it. If we slept end to end, around the circumference of the tent, there was little or no space between men, and all were exposed to the gusts of cold air which frequently blew in at the bottom of the tent. If we slept lying like the spokes of a wheel, with our heads at the center of the tent, say, and our feet near the outside, anyone wishing to get in or out would have to crawl over two or three others. Also, if the very tall men slept that way, they would get very cold feet before long because, sleeping radially, only the men of less-than-average height were all inside the tent. Needless to say, the Rotorua sojourn is not remembered with any affection by any of the men. As I recall, my section, the Instrument section, used the circular method of sleeping, having tried the other way first and finding it eminently unsatisfactory. There were six of us in the tent: Sgt. George Storer, Cpl. Harry Prose, Cpl. Paul McCandless, Bob Glanton, Jack Spilker and myself.

One evening, Jack had a pass into town, and during his absence Bob Glanton and Harry Prose plotted a little trick to play on Jack to take effect when he returned from town. Knowing how cold it was outside (and inside the tent, too) and how Jack would relish rolling up in his warm blankets when he returned, the two schemers decided to leave a canteen of water outside the tent to get really cold, and then to insert it between Jack's blankets (his "bed" had already been made) near where his unshod feet would be. We imagined the shrieks and curses that would come from Jack Spilker when his bar feet touched that almost ice-cold canteen. When we heard the trucks swinging into the area late that night, we knew that Jack would be coming, so the canteen was brought inside and placed in the strategic spot. We waited gleefully. Jack came in, quietly crawling through the low entrance, found his place, and began to get half-undressed. We waited, smoe feigning sleep, others conversing quietly and nonchalantly with Jack. He wriggled down between the blankets. This was it! But instead of cries of alarm, Jack disappointed us all, by asking quietly, "Say, did any of you fellows leave a canteen over here? I don't think it is mine." A complete flop! Good night!!

We left Rotorua as we found it - in the rain. The breaking of camp was a miserable experience which had only one consolation, namely that we were breaking camp. The barracks at Papakura might not be heated, but at least they were dry, and the comforts of the various huts, such as tea in the afternoon or pool at night would seem very pleasant, very dear, in fact, to us when we got back. But while getting the tents down and loading them on trucks were gestures of finality, they were of undiminished unpleasantness. The turf had been erased by the combination of heavy foot traffic with soggy ground, so that only mud was left. The tents were soaked, naturally, thus they were slippery as well as heavy. Besides, they posed new problems of folding and packing. We were fairly used to handling the American "pyrams" as we called them, or "U.S. Tent, Pyramidal, M 1940," as the Army calls them, but these New Zealand affairs were neither the size nor the shape of our old friends. These tents, smeared with mud and folded fifteen different ways, looked quite different from the way they did when they were lent to us about ten days before, but frankly, we didn't give a particular damn.

So it was called the Rotorua Rat Race, for it was an aimless pastime, and the absurd alliteration was apt after all. Noboby caught any pigs, nobody fired any ammunition, nobody gained anything, and one man lost a thumb.


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