Monday, December 21, 2015

A Far-Away Christmas

In the lead-up to Christmas - and other days of significance such as Easter, Mothers’ and Fathers’ days  - we are asked to remember our troops on duty overseas and their families. We should. It is something many with Butterworth service have experienced, even if we weren't bunkered down in the foxhole.

I had six Christmases at Butterworth in nine years in the seventies. 1971 was the first Christmas I had experienced without family. In those days there was no email, Facebook or Skype. The only connection with home was snail mail, and Mum spent a lot more on postage stamps than I did.

I signed up as a 16 year old and stayed for 20. The thing I have missed more than anything else in the years post service is the sense of community that existed in the RAAF. Nowhere was that more evident than Malaysia. Christmas 1971 I enjoyed lunch in the airmen’s mess. In the long established service tradition we were served by the officers and sergeants. Who knows where I ended up that night.

Next Christmas I was sharing a house off Green Lane. We organised a party on Christmas Eve - probably not many baggers present but singlies and girlfriends. After the party a group of us headed for Hillside to entertain the baggers with our caroling. I think the only carol we sang wished them a merry Christmas and demanded a liquid reward. I remember - rightly or wrongly - being greeted in the spirit of the season although we were still going strong at 3 or 4 in the morning. Christmas or not, most baggers opened their homes to singlies, a reflection of that sense of community. I can't remember what I did that Christmas Day - probably slept off the party. By the third year I was well on my way to becoming a bagger myself and I have no recollection of it.

I returned to Butterworth in July 1977, this time with two young kids. Christmas was different now that I had responsibilities. It was on this tour that I had my first experience of carols by candlelight. I remember sitting at the Hostie, probably outside, candle in hand. This trip of course Christmas was centered around family, although there were the parties and other social functions.

Christmas morning, 1979. The Donny and Marie poster dates it.

As I reflect on this time I realise that here was a side of service life that was, in many ways, unique. Normally we think of the serving member away from family, but many of us had those 2 or 3 Christmases in Malaysia with our immediate families. Yet there remained the separation. Thirty months relying on the postal service for communication with the extended family. Kids missing out on normal get-togethers with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.  Missing out on significant family events like weddings, special birthdays and funerals. For those of us with Malaysian wives it was of course a little different, but for them the separation came when they returned home.

Pressies, 1979

I remember the Christmas parcels from home, but they were chosen with postage costs in mind. Nothing too big and bulky.

It was a memorable time. Despite the separation it remains one of the real highlights of my life, made more memorable by that remarkable family that is the RAAF. For all that shared that experience with me, thanks for the memories. To those baggers and their wives that created a bit of home life - the home-cooked meals and open hospitality - thanks. And to all who have experienced that special time - and those who haven't - a Merry Christmas to you and your kin.


  1. Your right Swampy. Never was the sense of community strongest than in Butterworth. All RAAF bases and units had a sense of family and community which is remembered even decades later but remind us most of all at those major accasions.

  2. And a very Merry Christmas to you and your family Swampy.