Purple Light, in the valley
That is where, I want to be
Infantry, Best Companion,
With my rifle and my buddy and me.
For most of my two years in the ranks, I had never understood why we sang about purple lights. We had the red flare, to signal distress; the white flare to flush out an ambush; and some units were even issued blue flares to call down fire support. But I had never heard of any formation that used a purple flare for signaling.
I’d asked my platoon commander about it in the first week of Basic and had been given twenty push ups by way of reply. New recruits, I learnt, were supposed to follow orders and not ask questions of their own. As my time in the army drew on, I found more pressing matters to concern myself with, but the question remained somewhere in the back of my mind, occasionally resurfacing like an itch that simply would not go away.
I finally got my answer one week before I ORD’ed, by way of my Sergeant Major. Sergeant Major was a tough Chinese regular who had been in the army since the dawn of time and in the process had collected more decorations and badges than I could name. He ran our company with an iron fist and terrified the young officers who were nominally supposed to be his superiors. He seemed to take special pride in flouting unit regulations when they were around, as if daring the newly minted Lieutenants to do anything about it.
To us specialists and non-coms, though, Sergeant Major represented our one refuge against the tyranny of the officer ranks. We could always count on him to take our side in our occasional disputes with officers who worked us too hard, for in us he seemed to see a reflection of himself in his younger days. There was a long standing rumor in our company that once, years ago, a platoon commander fresh out of OCS had tried to have Sergeant Major disciplined after they argued about what to do with a sergeant who’d lit a cig outside the designated smoke break area. No one could agree on how exactly Sergeant Major had managed to pull it off, but everyone swore blind that the hapless Lieutenant had soon found himself reassigned to a dead-end job managing a motor pool in Sembawang Camp. When I’d first joined the company, I’d overheard him reminiscing about the event with some of his peers from the companies next door.
“Those sirs think they can bully us with rank and their fucking degrees,” he’d said. “But this is the army and this is limbeh’s place. No fucking teenager is going to tell me what to do.”
As one of the few non-officers who had been accepted into a university, I’d been terrified of him after hearing that exchange. But when word of my unusual background finally got to him he’d seemed to take a shine to me instead. Over the year I spent working under him, we’d gotten close, in a way – or at least as close as you can get to someone who has the power to court-martial you at a moment’s notice.
“What purple light, purple light?” Sergeant Major said. The question had come to me again that morning, as we sat in the company office, shooting the breeze and enjoying our regular book-in breakfast. “Those chee bais in Basic never teach you properly, is it? It’s puppalight!”
“Puppalight?” I asked. I was pretty sure that I’d never heard that word before.
Sergeant Major fixed me with an incredulous look.
“Conscripts ah… getting more and more fucking stupid each year. Puppalight lah! Like you know, sioh-whoon.”
He leaned over to the third man in our office.
“Oi, Daniel! Explain for me – I lazy to talk to this retard already.”
Daniel was my platoon commander, best friend, and one of the few officers who Sergeant Major could stand. I’d met Daniel on my first day in army, when we’d been assigned to each other as bunkmates and “buddies” for the duration of Basic. By the end of our first few weeks of training, I’d taught Daniel how to use basic trig to plot a line of advance and he’d taught me how to smoke. Ours was an unlikely friendship, but it was one forged in sweat and tears and nights spent sleeping jackbooted under the stars. We had known from the day of our first field exercise that Daniel would make officer and I would do well to end up as anything other than a private, but even so, when we received our separate postings I had felt within me a loneliness I had not experienced since I enlisted. We had agreed to request the same infantry unit when we were done with our command training, and to our surprise the notoriously fickle military bureaucracy had approved our request.
“What encik means,” said Daniel, speaking slowly, as if to a child. “Is that the song was originally called ‘pop a light’. Or, as you atas people would say, to smoke a cigarette, roll up a cigar, puff on a Marlbor-.”
“Alright, alright,” I grumbled. “I get it already.”
“You sure?” ask Daniel, his voice dripping with mock concern. “I can go over it again if you’d like. I know it’s pretty hard for you to understand terms used by the common me-”
I threw a pen at Daniel’s face.
Sergeant Major stifled a chuckle and checked the time.
“Enough already lah,” he snapped. “Go, let’s take a smoke break before Captain Ong come find walang for missing morning parade.”
Later that night, the unit held a farewell dinner for all the specialists and officers in my batch who were finishing their term of service. As was the case with most of these dinners, the plentiful supply of untaxed liquor in army canteens meant that it soon degenerated into an endless bout of drinking games. Captain Ong was trying to go beer for beer with all the departing officers and he’d ordered Sergeant Major to do the same for the specialists.
The first two non-coms to challenge to Sergeant Major had both excused themselves to throw up in the bathroom, so when my turn came I approached Sergeant Major with no small amount of trepidation.
“Ah, Yew Sheng!” he said, happily drunk. “Just the person I wanted to see!”
Reaching under the table, he produced a bottle of clear liquid that had foreign words scribbled all over its surface.
“I got this last time in Thailand,” he said. “I wanted to save it for a time like this.”
“Uh… encik,” I said. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Hard liquor was strictly forbidden on military premises.
Sergeant Major waved a disgruntled hand in my direction.
“Captain Ong won’t care,” he said. “He’s drunk already.”
I glanced over to my left, where Daniel – surprisingly a lightweight considering how much he went out drinking – was slowly being drunk under the table by Captain Ong. I grinned. In a few days time we would both be civilians again. We would grow our hair long again, sleep in past noon, walk around with our shirts untucked and spend our nights playing pool and chasing girls. It seemed surreal.
All through our service, Daniel and I had talked about our discharge as if it would never come – it had, for us, an almost religious awe. We’d talked about it to stay sane during Basic’s brutal first week, when our spirits were stretched to breaking point by the misery of discipline and enforced conformity; we’d talked about it to keep awake as we sat shivering in our shell-scrape, skin drenched by the tropical rain; we’d talked about it to pass the time on sentry duty, as we watched the stars sing the morning awake with their unearthly glow.
Sergeant Major poured me a drink.
“Come,” he said, raising his own glass. “To the one fucker with a degree I could actually order around. Gan bei!”
He downed his drink and I downed mine too. The liquid tasted like fire and ice going down my throat and I coughed, retching slightly.
Sergeant Major roared at my discomfiture and slapped me on the back.
“Don’t forget me when you go to En-ger-land,” he said, drawing out the word as if it was strange on his tongue. “Who knows, limbeh might even need a job from you some day.”
I remember little else from the rest of the night. My friends told me later that Daniel and I had somehow managed to simultaneously lose to each other in an impromptu arm-wrestling match, but the only other thing I took away from that night was a splitting headache that seemed to last an eternity. The rest of the week was spent getting my discharge papers signed and transferring my service record to my reservist unit, and soon my final day of active service crept up on me like a thief in the night.
Sergeant Major had been summoned to HQ for a meeting that day, so Daniel and I had arranged to have breakfast together in his honor. Finishing our meal, we walked each other to the camp gates, where a bored sentry pretended to survey the passing traffic with glazed eyes.
“When we walk out of the gate we’ll be free men,” I said. “I can’t wait to change out of this goddamn uniform.”
Daniel cleared his throat.
“Actually, I won’t be leaving with you today,” he said.
“Jesus Christ, did HQ fuck something up again?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Last night, I signed on.”
I turned to look at him, confused.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “You hate the army.”
Daniel shrugged. “It’s not so bad once you think about it.”
“It is that bad!” I said.
“Maybe it is,” he said. “But I’m not like you. I don’t have your grades.”
Daniel’s voice trailed off, leaving the obvious unsaid. I fell silent. He stared at his feet.
“Uni?” I asked, eventually.
He nodded. “I heard back from them a while ago. They won’t be taking me.”
“You should have told me,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
We walked to the gate in silence and embraced as men do, awkwardly.
“I guess it’s goodbye for now,” I said.
“Yeah. One thing before you go. Remember ‘Purple Light’? The song you asked about that day?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“I know you always hated it,” he said. “But do you remember how the fourth verse ends?”
The words came easily to my mind, and I blinked back a sudden urge to cry.
“Can’t forget, days in army, with my rifle and my buddy and me.”
Daniel grinned. As he turned to walk back past the sentry post and back into camp, I thought I could see something glistening in the corner of his eye.
The days passed. I managed the sharp transition from military to civilian life by burying myself in preparations for my trip abroad. Daniel had been promoted after signing on full-time, and he too was swamped in duties he needed to fulfill as part of his new job. Sergeant Major remained incommunicado, except for a cryptic text I received on the day of my discharge. It read, simply: “Good luck”.
It seemed that my life was compensating for two years of stagnation by throwing me one milestone after the next. I had just gotten used to being a civilian again when it the time came for me to leave my home.
My parents had wanted to send me off at the airport, but I had insisted that I go myself. Somehow, I wanted to be alone when I faced this final hurdle between who I was and who I would become. I cleared immigration and was enjoying a final cup of teh tarik in the overpriced airport café when a familiar face crossed my sight.
“Eh! Encik!” I waved. “Over here!”
Sergeant Major walked over to my table, looking uncomfortable and out of place in an ill-fitting suit and tie.
“Yew Sheng, you flying today ah?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why are you here?”
“Interview,” he said. “With airport security. HQ wants me to retire next year.”
“Oh God. I’m so sor-”
Sergeant Major cut me off with a familiar flap of his hand.
“Never mind,” he said. “Anyway, I got to go.”
I watched as he strode off purposefully in the direction of a door marked “Staff”. He knocked once, opened it and nodded nervously to someone inside. He shut the door behind him and I chuckled quietly to myself as I thought of all the young officers who would have killed to have witnessed this scene. I checked my watch. There was still half an hour before my flight.
The staff door burst open and Sergeant Major stormed out, fury etched across his face. He came over to my table and sat down.
“Kan nee nah,” he swore, patting his pockets. “I need a smoke.”
He extracted a cigarette and a lighter, then hesitated, eyes fixed on a “No Smoking” sign on the pillar behind me.
“Outside,” he grunted. He got up and walked through the sliding doors that opened out onto the tarmac. I followed him, pausing only to settle my bill and gather my bags.
By the time I joined Sergeant Major on the tarmac, he was already puffing furiously on a cigarette, tie flapping wildly in the tailwind of departing planes. As I approached, he thrust his cigarette furiously in my direction.
“Sorry, encik,” I said. “I’m trying to quit.”
Sergeant Major looked at me for a beat, hand outstretched. I met his gaze and suddenly something about his manner seemed to change and I could feel his psychic armor falling away, layers of bravado and seniority peeling off to reveal the human beneath. And then I knew that I had managed to hurt him, somehow.
I wanted to say something, to make amends, but second chances are a luxury granted only to a few. He let the cigarette fall from his hands and ground the glowing butt out beneath his heel. Turning away from me, he extracted a second cigarette from his pack and lit it, cupping his hands to shield it from the wind. He took a long draw and when he turned back to me he was the Sergeant Major again.
Sergeant Major exhaled, and for a moment we stood and watched the smoke spiral into the clear blue sky.
“Would you believe,” he said at last, voice cracking slightly. “That my interviewer was the cheebai I transferred to the motor pool all those years ago?”
He began to laugh, pealing out clouds of sound and smoke in his huge parade ground voice. His laughter sounded not unlike the roar of the planes around us, taking wing for horizons unknown.