The Way of the Arpha (Part III)
THE EPICENTER of the training camp was a vast plaza roughly the size of a football pitch where all parades and ceremonies took place. The paved plaza was empty save for two buildings. On the far end, overlooking the Mediterranean, was the training camp headquarters building. And in the middle of the plaza, rising up out of the center of this vast concrete plain, was the church. It was one-fifth the size of the headquarters building and was essentially no more than an altar and sanctum designed for outdoor services, but its focal location sent the clear message that the activities of the training camp were dedicated and beholden to the house of God, who was after all the best general the army had ever known since He was the only superior who commanded the respect of almost all the soldiers. He was so effective at infusing discipline and elevating morale among army ranks that no other officer had ever raised the tender and controversial matter of His beard, although a few officers did secretly nurse the hope that He might one day be reconceived as a clean-shaven Lord, or at least a mustached one.
The officers marched us from our barracks down to the plaza, where we all lined up before the church. A priest soon arrived with briefcase in hand and, after lighting the candles, proceeded with the chants and service. There were no interruptions, although the presence of a curvy black-haired female officer who was normally hidden away from the conscripts’ view in the headquarters building did disrupt the atmosphere of ecclesiastical solemnity by sending the congregation into a nerve-jangling, tooth-gritting ecstatic torment of a most unspiritual variety.
After sprinkling us with holy tapwater, the priest then lectured us on our Hellenic roots and on how we were unraveling as a people because we had begun to embrace the dissolute culture and customs of the West. However, it was not the materialism or consumerism that the church was opposed to but rather the erosion of its cherished millennia-old tradition of sexual repression and patriarchy. These admonitions and diagnoses had already been given to us on our first day in the KEN via a four-page Orthodox pamphlet titled The Lamp. There had in fact even been a section in the pamphlet dedicated to “The Western Way of Life” warning us about the “phenomena of anarchism, crime, drugs, lewd sex, and homosexuality observed in the communities of the West.”
The Lamp also urged abstinence until marriage and quoted the “wise professor of psychiatry” at Zurich University A. Forel who according to the pamphlet claimed that “chastity and abstinence until marriage not only does not hurt a youth but actually helps tremendously with his health.” All ‘prophylactics’ (the word was always in quotes) were “half-measures and a dangerous temptation.” It then condemned those “unscrupulous doctors and antichrist hawkers of sexuality who recommend the use of ‘prophylactics’ for illegal relationships.”
The pamphlet would highlight in bold certain lines or phrases that it considered particularly valuable, like the following metaphor to describe those who promote the use of condoms: “It is like telling thieves that they can freely commit the injustice of theft and robbery, but should take all the necessary protective measures to avoid arrest from the police. Hey, people, wake up!!!”
There was distinctive advice for the youth of each gender. Under the subheading “Man or Rascal?” The Lamp informed that a “man can never be that wild long-haired hippie with the varicolored shirts, the tight pants and the earring. With his comic appearance he plays the stud, the man, and he boasts about his sexual conquests. In fact he is not a man but a squirt, not a person but a shrimp.”
“The Future Mothers,” meanwhile, offered concrete dos and don’ts in the hope that all female readers might live long oppressive lives: “Girls need to prepare appropriately so that they can responsibly and worthily take on the role of the mother. They must learn to be modest and obedient so that they can be good wives and affectionate mothers… [The young woman] does not go to discos, dances, or to parties and sinful entertainments. She does not drink alcohol. She does not smoke and she does not play cards… and she maintains the principle of chastity as the apple of her eye.”
The priest had no time to delve upon subjects of deeper philosophical and spiritual complexity like Christian love since we still had to go get our assault rifles, and so he concluded his sermon with a tribute to the glories of Hellenism. The blessing was now complete. The officers lined up before the priest, one by one bowing down to kiss his hand, and then marched us off to the firearms storage room.
9. THE ZASTAVA
The Yugoslavian-made Zastava semi-automatic assault rifles that were assigned to us had wooden stocks and without the cartridge clipped in place looked more like jacked-up BB guns than army weapons. But the gun was surprisingly capable. It had a maximum effective range of 600 meters and a maximum range of 3,500. Nevertheless, the arphades treated it like a water gun. The procedure began in an orderly manner: seated in rows by platoon, we went up one by one as our names were called to receive our issued rifle and then returned to our seated positions. But it was not long before everyone was up, milling about, fiddling with the new toys. The harsh metallic sound of sliding bolts and clicking hammers filled the air as conscripts cocked their guns and depressed the triggers with a ceaseless repetitive zest. No matter where you stood, the end of a barrel was pointed at you. Guns were deliberately turned upon one another. Mock executions were performed. One grinning arphas put his mouth over the end of the barrel and pulled the trigger. Another jabbed the muzzle of his Zastava into the stomach of his unperturbed friend, who was aiming his own gun at a truck driving by while puffing on an unsupported cigarette.
Of course, we had not been issued any cartridges yet and the chambers of the guns had assumedly all been checked, but a small oversight would have sufficed to create a big mess. Just one overlooked bullet, one 7.62mm that had jammed in the barrel, one numbskull prank, and we would be attending another sort of service.
I had handled guns before but had never seen them treated so casually. I would step aside anytime I found myself in the trajectory of a rifle’s line of fire only to find myself staring down the mouth of another barrel. It was just something to get used to. The conscript officers occasionally barked that we should not cock the guns or turn them upon one another, but they never did anything about it. Later that day our company commander threatened punishment and delivered a stern warning that goofing around with firearms had cost the lives of many soldiers. The words had no impact. It was only when the guns had lost their novelty that the sound of sliding bolts and the sight of mock killings came to an end.
The next few days were spent on the Zastava, memorizing its specifications and range, disassembling and reassembling it, maintaining it, and learning to respond to commands like Shoulder Arms, Present Arms, Port Arms and Order Arms. It would be another two weeks until we fired them, and even then we would only shoot a total of twenty bullets: ten during daytime target practice and ten at night. The targets were situated 100 meters away against the carved out wall of a mountain and considering the puffs of raised dust and shattered earth that exploded upon the rock face as high as ten or fifteen meters over the targets every time the command to fire was given, the results may well have been comparable if the target practice had also involved blindfolds. The training, as our daily rest periods were called, consisted of workshops on anything from rocket launchers to compasses to fire and movement. These sometimes included hands-on schooling, which once even became head-on during the camouflage-cover-and-concealment exercise when three conscripts rushing with their guns for shelter under imaginary enemy fire collided into one another, with the result that one three-monther had to go to the hospital for x-rays.
Now and then we would hike up to the shelters after dark for nighttime seminars, like how to crawl on one one’s belly and ambush sentries. The highlight was a ten-minute seminar on how to silently kill an enemy guard by sneaking up behind him and cupping a hand over his mouth while sinking a knife to the hilt into his second rib and then driving the blade upwards. The cadet officer demonstrated on an accommodating friend who pretended to be murdered with little fuss. We all watched with great interest, confident that after this brief demonstration we would have no problems getting ourselves killed if we ever attempted to silently knife a sentry.
The other memorable moment in the shelters was when one of the National Guard helicopters came flying low overhead one afternoon. One of the conscripts (known simply as Brains) ran out of his shelter and, aiming his Zastava at the helicopter, followed its path while making the tat-a-tat stuttering sound that boys make when imitating machine-gun fire. There was no conscript officer there at the time, but Chewbacca suddenly rounded the corner of the shelter and blasted Brains with a bellow that the helicopter pilot may well have heard over the chopping roar of the blades.
The shelters were in the rolling foothills of the Troodos mountain range and made a fine place to idle away a morning or afternoon. With a few exceptions like Chewbacca, the conscript officers who led the training were highly unmotivated, so often we just loafed and napped in the sunshine until someone spotted one of the permanent officers coming to inspect the training. Even the most unabashed softies and whiners had to admit that as far as boot camps went, we had it good.
“If you could screw now and then, it wouldn’t be bad,” said one three-monther as we lounged on the grass with our backs against the outer wall of the shelter.
“Well they screw you, you can’t have everything,” another replied.
“I hear if you get raped in here you’re discharged.”
“Yeah, and the guy who porks you gets all your months on top of whatever he’s got left.”
There was a brief pause. “Boys, I’m a good-lucking guy. What’s another three months on top of twenty-five? What do you say?”
Later that week we were told that if we behaved well, we would get a two-night leave over the weekend. As Friday approached there was an undeniable improvement of behavior and we went from atrocious to merely awful. On Friday morning Grivas delivered a Don’t Drink and Drive and Just Say No to Drugs lecture (“Don’t accept offerings from strangers, because whoever offers you grass today, will be selling you cocaine or heroine tomorrow”) and then let us go after we satisfactorily chanted for him where we were going to have coffee, where we were going to light a candle, and where we were going for a swim.
We were supposed to leave in what was now referred to as civilian clothing but about a third of the conscripts nonetheless remained in army uniforms. They crowded around the giant mirrors in the lobby of the barracks to adjust their berets before the buses arrived. Now that they were leaving the army camp, they had transformed into proud soldiers.
Even after a paltry ten days in the camp, one felt awash in a wave of liberation upon leaving those barbed wire gates and finally turning out onto the highway, the shimmering sea whizzing by to the right, the Eye of the Tiger playing over the bus speakers. The sight of females when we rolled down the main avenue of Nicosia sent all the seventeen-year-olds into a whistling, window-knocking frenzy. One teenager blew a lipsticked kiss back at the bus, prompting a rapturous cheering uproar so deafening that the bus driver threatened to kick us all off the bus.
“So did you get a girl?” one of the younger conscripts, upon our return to the camp, asked one of the six-monthers who had been especially vocal about his plans for a different woman each night.
“Two,” he replied, grinning.
He raised both hands. “Maria,” he says, nodding to his left hand, “and Ioanna,” he added, motioning to the right.
10. THE GORILLA
The weekend furlough was continually dangled over our heads in hopes of bribing or threatening good behavior out of us and it consistently never worked. Conscripts were denied upcoming leaves as punishment but on the night before the departure day our captain would say that the camp commander had granted a universal amnesty. There would be no such reprieves again, he assured us on a weekly basis.
There was however one disciplinary measure that was upheld in the training camp—the jail cell. It was a severe punishment, dramatically out of place in the lax environment of the training camp considering the absence of other disciplinary measures. To get jail time you generally had to commit some serious infraction like beat someone up or spray paint insults on army property, although even then you might merely get a scolding. In the jail you were stripped of all your belongings and locked into a three-by-five-meter cell containing a bed frame and a small barred window up by the ceiling. You stayed in there alone for as many days as they saw fit, usually three or four although it could be as many as ten. Three times a day you were let out to an adjacent room where you had a half hour to eat and smoke a cigarette, again in solitude.
The military police administered the prison. The man in charge of the military police at the training camp was a big man close to two meters tall with long thick arms that on a man of average Cypriot height would have trailed along the ground behind him as he walked. He came to be known simply as Gorilla. Whenever there were troubles he would arrive in his Gorillamobile, the light flashing on the roof, and make the rounds of each company, roaring threats.
“No, and I mean NO favors to any recruits,” he bawled the day before they brought in the sniffer dogs for a random drug search. “I know there will be some who’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it…’ Well, my nutsac he didn’t! The devil can take him! I’ll step on his neck! No, and I mean NO, favors to any recruits!”
He was in fact a friendly hardworking man who under different conditions could have easily been a cheerful restaurant owner or a compassionate family doctor but he was the head of the military police at the training camp and so he had to act up to his size and play the chest-pounding gorilla.
11. THE PARADE
Every day over the two weeks preceding the swearing-in ceremony we practiced marching for the parade. It could have been learnt in a half hour but we spent hours on it each day. We marched after breakfast; we marched at sunset; we marched in rain; we marched in icy winds; we marched until our shoulders throbbed and the heel of our left boot soles had worn away.
“I want to hear that left heel clip the ground!” Chewbacca would roar. “I don’t hear anything! That’s better! One-two, hep-two, hep-two, One! The elbows should be locked. The wrist locked down and the thumb pointed upwards! Your hand should swing up to eye level! One-two, hep-two, hep-two, One!”
After several days they positioned us in our parade formations, which were arranged by platoon and by height. I was in the first platoon and, being the tallest conscript in my platoon, I was therefore in the first line. I had hoped to be tucked away somewhere within the company formation as I was not keen on having thousands of people watch me march by like the Nutcracker. But there was no escaping it. It in fact turned out to be even worse than I expected because I also happened to be located in the row facing the audience during the swearing-in ceremony. By a stroke of misfortune I happened to be the only conscript with the privilege of being perpetually in full view of the audience.
Grivas would occasionally emerge from the headquarters building to examine our progress. He always stood in the same place, a mere arm’s length away from our marching line, with the look of beetle-browed engrossment common to professional coaches. One of the enduring images from boot camp that has retained all of its vividness is the sight of my right arm swinging up and down like a windmill blade over a growing and nearing Grivas, who would be standing statue-like on the other side of the painted white line that I was marching along, his hands folded at his back, his sunglasses perched over his conspiratorial mustache, his impenetrable elevated face gazing motionlessly down upon us as the sun slid down behind him into the Mediterranean under a magnolia sky. Grivas reveled in the marching. The sight of all those young uniformed men in a regimented parade elevated his spirit with manly passion and sent coursing through his shuddering flesh all those Hellenic aspirations and yearnings that gave meaning to his life as a training camp commander.
There was no slacking when it came to marching. Neither hail, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of Grivas’ sight stayed us from the dreary completion of our appointed rounds. The crucial thing in this boot camp seemed to be that we learned to march well. That was how you defended your country: you marched gloriously. We never did. Either the arphades were trying to sabotage Grivas’ dreams or they simply didn’t give a damn.
“You should be looking up when you march!” Grivas would lecture us. “Only women look down! Your eyes should be looking up, where the eagles fly.” The wind would often come whipping across the plaza and we would stand there shivering as he tried to inspire us. “In hard times, you should raise your head and say ‘I will struggle.’ To win the medal. Tomorrow it may be a small race. The day after tomorrow a marathon.”
“Up yours,” the kid next to me said.
“Who said that?” he screamed. “Tramp! Scumbag! Who told you to talk?” Grivas became increasingly unstable with the approach of the swearing-in ceremony. “Lift your left knee high when I say attention or I’ll cut your legs off!” he bawled. “And don’t scratch yourselves!” His curses also grew increasingly obscene as boot camp progressed, filled with bizarre, often incomprehensible, references to genitalia.
On our last weekend furlough before the swearing-in ceremony Grivas made a round of the barracks rooms for an inspection. As usual we had been threatened that if he was dissatisfied we would spend the weekend inside the camp. We spent most of Friday morning sweeping, mopping, scrubbing walls, washing windows, wiping the dust from the top of the ceiling fan blades, shining our boots, and stretching our blankets so tight that you could bounce a coin off the beds.
“He’s coming! He’s coming!” our barracks room captain cried, running into the room. We all stood at attention by our beds. We could hear him ranting in the room next to us. I later found out that he had opened a locker and found the words “Fuck the commander” scribbled all over the inside of the door. He did not even glance at our room when he walked in. He went straight to the lockers and opened the first one. No one had expected he would check the lockers. The conscript responsible for the locked stomped to attention and reported his name.
“Magazines… food…” Grivas murmured with disgust, tossing the magazine and the packet of chips onto the bed next to him.
He went to the next locker. “Dirty socks,” he said, tossing them behind him. He opened another locker and a soda tumbled out and spilled at his feet. He then opened my locker and began rummaging through my folded underpants, under which lay a plastic water bottle filled with the clear Cypriot spirit zivania. “Look at this, a bottle of water amidst the underwear. Couldn’t these be in a bag?”
“They’re clean,” I said.
He paused and then his eyes darted over at me as if I had no right to speak. “If you come to my room in headquarters you’ll see I keep all of my underwear and socks in bags.” He shut the locker door and moved on to the next one.
12. THE SWEARING-IN CEREMONY
“Tomorrow will be your day,” Grivas told us the day before the swearing-in ceremony. “Tomorrow is a day for your parents and siblings and girlfriends to admire you. There is no other KEN training camp in operation right now so all the stations will be showing you. You have a chance to be seen by the whole world.”
And so it was that the whole world–or at least friends and family–witnessed the making of these 350 or so recruits into hardened soldiers trained to defend the homeland and withstand the rigors of war. During the ceremony a conscript fainted and had to be carried away on a stretcher. As usual we were told that the National Guard Chief of Staff would grant us an additional day of honorary furlough if we marched well and as usual it was given to us despite our resemblance to circus performers specializing in military satire.
And it may as well have been a circus. It was a lucrative act, with ticket sales on a national scale. The essential thing was to keep the applause going by giving the appearance of a disciplined, trained army. Like circus showmen, we spent weeks practicing for several minutes of performance. It was no different from the island’s political arena: all hot air and humbug. We were too busy puffing our chests out and raising our chins for anything else.
The day after returning from our furlough—one of the last days in boot camp—we went on a “mountain trek,” which amounted to a mild three-hour hike, rest stops included, through the surrounding hills. On the way back, we passed through a neighboring village. Before we entered it we were taught one last chant, with the opening line “we are tough and disciplined.” We practiced it a few times and then set off stomping into the village, bellowing out the self-promotional chant. Two octogenarians applauded us from their porches as we stomped through; a few squawking chickens raced in fright across the road in front of us; and a dozen schoolchildren rushed in our direction upon sighting us and threw themselves against the chain link fence of their playground, pointing at us and laughing.
*The entry Manning the Dead Zone, about guard duty on the UN-monitored Green Line, picks up where this piece ends.*
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part I)
- The Way of the Arpha (Part II)
- The Way of the Arpha (Part I)
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part IV)