Thursday, December 6, 2012

Becoming a Hedgehog

On 15 May, 2010 Jessica Watson stepped of her yacht ‘Ella’s Pink Lady’ onto the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House after becoming the youngest person ever to sail around the world solo and unassisted. She was met by family, the media, politicians and a large crowd of well wishers. This remarkable young woman had lived out her dream and in doing so hoped to be an inspiration to other young people to also live out theirs.

If you had asked me when I was a child what I wanted to be when I grew up you would invariably get one answer - ‘Join the air force.’ There were those fleeting moments of wanting to do something else, like being a missionary or Canadian Mountie - unless it was a Grenadier Guard, for I remember my brother wanting to be one and I the other - but the air force was the enduring dream of my childhood. Mum blames it on Mr Lee, my third and fourth class primary school teacher, who, according to Mum, had spent time in the service. But I suspect it was a steady diet of Biggles books combined with a love of history, especially the history of the glorious battle victories of the English Empire.

One day in year 10 - we called it fourth form back then - Mum came to me with an advertisement for the RAAF Apprenticeship Scheme. ‘If you’re so keen on joining the air force why don’t you fill this out?’ The completed application was probably in the post the next day.

I clearly recollect parts of the  trip to Sydney that followed for the medical, assessment and interview. Mum and I caught the night train from South Grafton, sharing a sleeping compartment. ‘We can’t be in Sydney yet’, I assured Mum. ‘We haven’t crossed the harbour bridge.’ So we sat in the carriage at Central until the guard assured us we had arrived. He probably dined out for months on the story of the two country bumpkins he found in the carriage that day.

This was my first trip to Sydney. We stayed with Aunty Aileen and Uncle Stan and Aileen took some time to show us around the city. I remember riding up-stairs on the double-decker buses. We would have invariably had a ride on the ferries and Aileen bought a lottery ticket, naming it ‘City Country’ syndicate.

I remember doing what must have been a mechanical aptitude test. One question in particular had a picture of two interconnected cog wheels and we were asked if one turned in one direction to show with an arrow which direction the other would turn. We did a test for colour blindness and underwent a physical examination. This included ‘drop your pants and bend over’ and I clearly remember the doctor holding the delicate bits while I coughed. I recall little of the interview other than asking the interviewing officer if they played rugby league at Wagga and receiving his assurance that they did. This was one question not answered in the glossy booklet I had been sent with the reply to my application.

When it was almost too late Mum read again the letter telling me I had been provisionally accepted for enlistment in the following January. We hurriedly arranged surgery for a varicocele of the left testicle - a procedure I was to repeat following my return from Butterworth to Melbourne in 1980. I was swollen, black, blue and tender for a few weeks following and the delay in arranging the surgery may well have been the reason for the late notification of my enlistment date and procedures.

Mum recalls the day this arrived. Hurried arrangements were made to organise someone to help out on the farm while Dad, Mum, probably David, and I drove to Sydney. I have no recollection of this trip other than, perhaps, staying in the Lane Cove Caravan Park. Mum reminds me as we drive up and down the F3 of the waits we had along this part of the journey while road gangs worked on the early stages of this freeway.

Three things stand out in my memory of this time. The first, Uncle Roy (Nana Marsh’s brother), saying ‘You air force blokes have the right idea, sending your officers out to fight’. This was at the height of the Vietnam war when young men were conscripted for military duty. I have a hazy recollection of a conversation of Mum’s I overheard describing how she had been talking to someone else obviously worried about their son being called up. Mum had uttered something like ‘Well, my son’s joining the air force and he could end up there.’ And I can still see Nana Marsh standing at the side of her house crying as we said farewell. At the time I thought nothing more of this than it being a normal farewell experience for many grandmothers.

In 2010 I was asked to say something in Church as part of our congregations commemoration of ANZAC day. In preparation I reflected on and then related these events. While neither my Father or Grandfathers had served as with many Australian families there were those on both sides of the family that had gone off to war never to return. Uncle Roy had been gassed and wounded in France during WW1. Memories of these events and the anxiety of having loved ones on active service were real and now I was enlisting as another war took its toll on Australia’s youth.

I also recalled stories of young men lying about their age in order to enlist in WW1. Little consideration was given to the horrors of war. To many of these young men it was a chance of adventure and travel. And I remembered how, just before leaving Wagga we filled in our posting preferences in order of one to three. Mine were designed to give me what I thought would be the best possible chance to go overseas. Williamtown I thought would give me the best chance and as it happened I did end up in Malaysia after spending just over two years at Willy. My other preferences were Richmond and Amberly where, depending on which squadron I was posted to, I had a chance of ending up in Vietnam. That this was a war zone and people got killed in such places never entered my reckoning. I was, in many ways, one of the fortunate ones who completed 20 years military service without being exposed to the horrors of war and suffering the consequences that have been so widely spoken about. But, for me, there remains that nagging doubt - if called upon to do so would I have performed my duty.

It was the 11th of January 1967 when I enlisted - two days before Mum’s birthday. My memories of that day are few and vague. Mum and Dad took me to the recruitment centre but I have no recollection of our farewell. I recall a room with some air force posters or charts on the wall. No doubt there was the obligatory photo of the Queen. From memory, the floor was covered in lino and we sat at desks. Here we committed our selves to the service of our country for the next nine years - with a 90 day get out clause - swore the oath of allegiance, and began to understand that not everyone who gave us an order was addressed as ‘Sir’. That evening we were escorted to Central Station where we caught the overnight train to Wagga Wagga, arriving, I think, around four o’clock in the morning. We were transported by bus from the train station to RAAF Base Forrest Hill which was to be our home for the next two and a half years.  And it was here that we, the members of 21 apprentice intake, were given the name ‘Hedgehogs’ by the members of 20 intake (Squirrels) in the time honoured tradition.

Did I live out my dream? No. But I was to find out later that my dream was one I would never have been able to fulfil and in many ways what I had was better. My dream was to be a fighter pilot. Some time after I enlisted I heard there were height restrictions on fighter pilots - it seems that if you were too tall you would loose your knees if you ejected from a Mirage fighter jet. In recent years I have confirmed, courtesy of Google, that these restrictions still apply to fast jet aircrew. I was simply too tall for my dream.

From the day I enlisted I was enjoying  myself so much that I gave little thought to flying. Life was an adventure. After my first posting to Butterworth I couldn't wait to return. My chances of a first posting would have been rather limited if I had been a pilot - or aircrew - of anything other than a Mirage. Other than the final two years in Headquarters Support Command prior to discharge I have only happy memories of my twenty years - great experiences and, more importantly, even greater friendships. And for much of the next 20 years I wondered if I had made a mistake leaving - sometimes I still do. But, intellectually, I realise it was the right decision for the time.

As for Vietnam, it is unlikely that a posting to Richmond or Amberly would have led me there. On my return to 38 Sqn from Butterworth in 1974 I renewed acquaintances with Bill Perry, a fellow Hedgehog and sumpy. Bill had received his posting but the decision to withdraw the troops was made before he embarked. While there may be some, I am unaware of anyone off my intake who served in ‘nam.

As I reflect on my life and the experience of Jessica Watson I realise that not everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their dreams. In Jessica’s case she needed the parents, resources and contacts to make it happen. Not every 16 year old has that. In my case the dream worked out differently to what I had imagined. The apprentice experience was something unique and special, valued to this day by many former apprentices. And while I had some very good friends who were not apprentices I realise looking back that most of the friendships I developed in the service after leaving Wagga and those I would most love to meet up with again are former apprentices.

January 2011

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