The Futility of Cleanliness

June 25, 2012

Multiple Pages
The Futility of Cleanliness

The Army was obsessed with cleanliness. We’d crane our necks around the bottoms of toilets and plumbing pipes until we could see our tired faces in them. We’d show off our pipes to the other lads and say ours were better. Corporals wearing white gloves would test them with fingers. They’d carry dust in their pockets to sprinkle for when we’d cleaned too well. That was the game. You could stay up until 0400hrs cleaning, sleep for an hour, get up for reveille at 0500hrs, and by 0600hrs it was never clean enough for the corporal.

The guard shift would note when our lights went out. The corporal mentioned that we’d been up until 0400hrs cleaning, so we’d sleep with the lights on to get Brownie points. Room inspections were scary at first, then funny, then ridiculous. The time between finishing the cleaning process and getting ready for a room inspection was when we’d do the ablutions, washing ourselves before getting into uniform and standing tall for the two stripes to come around. Frosted glass shower doors never hid lads masturbating before the inspection; others would curse if they’d forgotten their flip flops and chase the spermy mess away with the shower head before they got in. They’d shout at the masturbators, who would shout back to not forget your flip flops.

“Room inspections were scary at first, then funny, then ridiculous.”

A recruit would stand outside the room and bring the others to attention on seeing the corporal, while others made finishing touches to their lockers. T-shirts had to be folded so they sat perfectly in the locker and touched both sides of the box. A sheet of A4 paper would get them just right, but leaving the paper in there would get you push-ups, so you had to remember to remove it. The towels matched the T-shirts. On top of the towel would go a toothbrush, razor, and a bar of soap you never used. It would be perfectly clean, but the corporal would still find hair on them that was never there before. All our time and effort would mean nothing as the corporal tore the lockers apart, throwing everything into a big pile in the middle of the room. We all knew it would happen but still stayed up all night preparing.

Lads would obsess about their lockers and their uniforms in those last long minutes before the shouting came through the door. Boots polished, creases sharp, pockets flat, berets shaped, hair short, sideburns to be no lower than the middle of the ear, and faces shaved—not a hair missed. Corporal would lean right in and eyeball around your chin, aching to find a hair you’d missed, so before he came in, your friends would do that for you. Recruits were like monkeys preening each other before the corporal came. Bits of fluff on berets would end up in pockets, and loose threads would catch fire as recruits burned them away. The cotton would carry a small ball of fire and make a satisfying smell until it died when it reached the rest of the cloth. It would congeal into a small black shiny mess which you could pick at, giving you something to do while waiting.

Trousers were pulled tight with small bungees or rubber bands just over the boot to make the creases look sharp. Creases were a bitch to get right. The corporals would say to use starch, but it never seemed to do the trick, so tired recruits at three in the morning would use tricks. A line of Super Glue down the inside of the crease ironed flat would leave a razor-edge crease, but on ironing a few times it would start eating through the cotton. Some used a Pritt stick, which would leave white blotches and make the corporal shake his head and give you push-ups until your chest and triceps burned.

The recruit who stood outside waiting would preen another recruit waiting outside his own eight-man room. Then we’d hear it: squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak. Corporals would pace down the newly buffed corridor, and their rubber soles sounded as if they were chasing mice. The floors were waxed and polished each night. The man assigned that duty waited for everybody to get into bed and stop walking across the floor, then he’d polish the wax that had rested on the floor for a while. The smell of beeswax would send others off to sleep.

If there was a room to be inspected before ours, we’d smile as the corporals tore it apart, knowing it would be coming to us soon. Corporals would say of training, “You’ll get screwed many times but it won’t make you pregnant, gents!” Some lads laughed at this because they thought it was funny, some laughed to show the corporal he was funny, and some laughed because they didn’t get it. Then the squeaks left the other room and got louder. The duty student would shout and everyone came to attention. The duty student would take out his notebook to jot where the recruits had gone wrong. He’d stand behind the corporal and make faces at the soldier being inspected, trying to get him in more trouble. The corporal would say generic things like “beret fluff,” “pockets not flat,” and “crap creases.”

The corporal had many ways to nail us. He’d ask to see Army ID cards, which were to be carried in the top left pocket. Someone would always forget it. “Start banging them out,” he’d say, and the recruit would hit the floor and start doing push-ups.

Then came the bed inspection. Getting everything tight was difficult and thus an easy target for the corporals. Lads would take the game too far and sleep on floors to keep their beds sharp, waking up with sore backs.

Recruits would close their eyes and mouth the word “shit” as they heard the crumple of the A4 paper they’d accidentally left in the T-shirt being pulled apart by the corporal behind him. Those lockers that had been perfected until three or four in the morning with belt buckles and badges smelling of Brasso would be ruined as the corporal taught us a very important lesson: Life wasn’t fair. Even if you’d done everything perfectly, the enemy may still get you.

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