Sunday, August 14, 2016

Melbourne Trams and Bananas

Now retired, a tram from the 80s.
I returned to Australia from Butterworth in January 1980. After taking a couple of weeks leave to catch up with family I hadn’t seen for two and a half years I travelled to Melbourne to start what would end up being the next sixteen years of my life, including the last seven in the Service.

My family and I spent the first six weeks in a Motel in Lygon Street Carlton. The Greek presence was obvious, with many buildings displaying their English names in small print under the Greek name. Melbourne is, of course, the world’s third largest Greek city and much of that is centred around Carlton. This was my first exposure to Melbourne’s trams, each morning catching the tram that ran down Lygon Street to work in South Melbourne.

Headquarters Support Command was spread out in different buildings around the Victoria Barracks complex on St Kilda Road. For most of my time there I worked on different levels of Cordell House which as an eight storey building at 4 Albert Road. It is now an apartment building.

SupCom was different - no flight lines, no aircraft, just desks. Many RAAF technical staff spent time here during their careers to provide technical support for the operational units. My first job was as a technical spares assessor. This meant assessing the future spares requirements for one or two specific aircraft type.

The science of this is best illustrated by by a large dome-shaped light shade displayed standing upside down on a shelf as one exited the sixth floor lift. This was our crystal ball. As a corporal I could spend $40,000 with the stroke of a pen - I would hate to think what that is in today’s terms. If the order was queried by the bean counters - as it often was - it would be justified by words to the effect ‘Justified to cover anticipated increase in future flying hours.’ That always seemed to do the trick. We could be ordering spares for anything up to seven years in the future.

I couldn’t help laugh some years later after I discharged. Although I didn’t work for this particular well-known Aussie firm, my employer leased an office off them for me. The Branch Manager could not spend any more than $600 without head office approval. And I could spend that $40,000 as many times a day as I could sign the orders.

In SupCom we worked alongside public servants. One of the standing jokes was ‘Why do Public Servants spend all afternoon looking out the window?’ The answer, ‘Because if they spent all morning looking out the window they would have nothing to do in the afternoon.’ It went something like this. Turn up at 0800, spend the first hour drinking coffee and reading the paper. One hour flex time. Sit at your desk all lunch time playing cards. Minimum lunch break 30 minutes, so for an hour lunch break 30 minutes flex time. Take Friday off as a flex day. No, RAAFies didn’t have that deal.

We could come to work in civvies though. I believe the origin of this was the Vietnam era. The story goes that before I got there a parade was called one day. Civies had been worn for so long that many were surprised to see exactly who the RAAF members were. There was more than one RAAF member who had their first haircut for sometime in preparation for that parade. Consequently we were required to wear uniform once or twice a week, although many of us wore it more often than not. And I must admit that for me at least wearing the uniform, especially when moving around away from the immediate Victoria Barracks area, was one of those feel good things.

We didn’t have the area to ourselves. I recall a few sailors, but the army had a significant presence. It was only because they were there so I head that we were required to salute officers as we made our way up and down St Kilda Road. I tend to believe this as from what I have seen the army are a lot more hung up on that sort of stuff than we were. Early one morning I was walking - or should I say marching - along the road with the sun in my eyes. All I could see were the shadowed silhouettes of people coming the other way. ‘Don’t you salute officers sergeant?’ he yelled. I won’t repeat here what I thought of that idiot. I can only wonder how many civies overtaking a service member nearly had their heads knocked off by a well executed  salute. There must have been some.

In Cordell House the toilets were located in the stairwell, halfway between floors. Ladies on one level, gents the next. Working on the sixth floor a toilet break would often be announced with the words ‘Going down a half.’ This all worked flawlessly until I was sent to a different floor to work, probably the third floor. Needing a break, I went down a half. The first through that came to mind as I passed through the inner door to the business area was ‘who removed the plumbing?’ Then I realised they didn’t put urinals in the ladies. Fortunately I was able to retreat without being embarrassed.

It wasn’t long after that I was ‘Up a half.’ As I came out of the inner sanctum this young lady enters from the stair well. ‘What are you doing here?’ she screamed. ‘I’m in the right place’ I replied. A rather red face and quick retreat by an embarrassed public servant followed. The girl in question acquired a bit of fame around the building, maybe a little after this, for doing a shoot for Playboy or other like publication.

I moved from Spares Assessing to a section with the name of Development of Management Systems. This must have been on promotion to sergeant. One flight sergeant and two sergeant techos, and a one or two others. One was a public servant who had a habit of leaning back on her chair. One day she went too far, doing a backwards somersault to the floor. ‘How did you do that?’, we asked? She obliged with an instant replay, her modesty protected by the fact she was wearing jeans.

The reality of this place was that one of us could have come in for half an hour one day a week and completed the week’s tasks. The Flight Sergeant, whose name I can’t recall, spent the time designing his retirement home and planning for life post RAAF.

I will always remember the words on a poster prominently displayed on the wall. The poster had a picture of an eagle with claws extended in attack mode. The words said it all: ‘To err is human, to forgive is not DEVMS policy.’

When a vacancy came up for an instructing role I put my hand up and was accepted. I think this was part of DEVMS. We ran induction and other courses for all public service and RAAF members that were posted into Cordell House. I thoroughly enjoyed the role, it being one of the most satisfying periods of my career. This was shown in my annual performance appraisals, the three best I had in 20 years. This came to an end when someone worked out I was holding a position meant for an airframe fitter and so I was posted elsewhere. The move was to a mind-numbing position and as I had personal reasons for staying in Melbourne the decision to leave the RAAF at the end of 20 years was an easy one to make.

And, of  course, there were the trams. They were almost integral to the job. There were generally two ways to get to work, one being carpooling. The other was to catch a train into Flinders Street then walk or catch a  tram down St Kilda Road. At different times I used both options. Trams were often used for specialist medical appointments in Melbourne and to get to and from work social functions, and lunchtime shopping trips.

Cordell House was across the road from a tram stop on a five-way junction. From here we could catch a tram into the city or head south along St Kilda Road, to Albert Park along Park Street, or to South Yarra along Domain Road. In those days the trams were painted green and yellow and quite often after waiting for a while one would have the option of catching three or four trams to the city. Hence the standing joke: ‘What to Melbourne trams and bananas have in common?’ ‘They are both green and yellow and both come in bunches’.

Overall I have happy memories of Melbourne and of Support Command. My only regret is the last 18 months or so after my instructing role came to an end. Those last months are the only bad memories I have of what otherwise was the best 20 years of my life.

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