I felt disgusted as my clean black boots sank deep into the embracing mud.
The grounds looked deserted and were strangely quiet as I trudged through a line of trees, struggling for balance every step on the slippery track. There had been a heavy downpour that afternoon.
The pale red glow of one of the lights near the graveled car park cut through thick trees and cast crooked shadows on the pavement as I tried to scrape the mud from the underside of my boots.
I reached the building and headed for the stairs.
A sudden cough split the quiet, emanating from the one lighted room at the top of the stairs. I took a deep breath and dragged my bony frame to the third floor.
Sweat ran down my chest despite the cold and I shakily raised my hand to knock on the door.
If I make one mistake in this meeting, I thought, this day might see me walking out the gate with my bag and qualifications.
“Come in,” a voice boomed from behind the door.
I opened the door to see the tired but hard eyes of then defence secretary John Sini Porti DMS OBE.
Stacks of letters were piled on a red couch in the centre of the room along with heaps of folders and several thick documents. A few more folders had been heaped on a small coffee table.
I forced a shaky smile that unfortunately went one way as Porti showed no intention of returning the favour.
“The Department of Defence is moving towards strengthening its role as the engine-room that ensures the smooth functioning of the PNGDF,” he bellowed, not inviting me to take a seat. “We want to make sure the force is performing well to fulfil its constitutionally mandated duties.”
I started scribbling in my notebook as Porti moved into full stride, adding that all the divisional heads were working around the clock to link the department’s vision and mission to that of the PNGDF.
“Working as one and with pride,” he bellowed.
His eyes seemed blacker and the creases on his high forehead grew deeper as he continued his exposition.
“The departmental restructure will re-establish confidence and promote appropriate responses to meet the requirements of the PNGDF.
“My office is working closely with the commander to realise his intent and to drive the department’s workforce to fully understand the burden of responsibilities shouldered by the PNGDF.”
In my concentration, I had not realised that Porti had walked out from behind his desk and was now standing right in front of me.
I was suddenly conscious of my unshaven jaw dropping down from hollowed cheeks and might have fallen to the floor if my mouth was not clamped shut.
I forcing it to smile while praying quietly that he could not see my thin legs quivering with fear.
Those restless black eyes scanned me closely as if saying “that smile is fake”.
And now he was whispering. I’d preferred the bellow.
“It is in PNG’s interest that the defence organisation is well administrated both financially and administratively to meet the government and the peoples’ expectations,” he breathed.
“The department is set up as a constructive and productive team to reshape the organisation, including building capacity to deal with the current security challenges as well as nation building.”
And then the punchline.
“This sets the department on track to officially show our dignity as the engine room of the PNGDF through wearing our very own corporate uniforms.”
His voice trailed off and the stern hawk-like look was magically replaced by a smile.
It was almost 8 pm when Porti’s huge hand seized my little thin hand in a firm, crunching handshake that led me out of the door.
I was about to hit the stairs on my way down when he called out, “Murray Barracks headquarters is expected to be sealed off by military police in the next few months.”
I stood there as he explained that entry into the headquarters would soon be made only with identification cards.
Through the one lighted window, I could see him still standing there as I headed back towards the rain trees beside the field.
Porti sure had the weight on his shoulders; but he had a dedicated heart and a passion to restore the dignity of the organisation.
My legs were still twitching.