Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Fifty Years a Hedgehog

Sixteen seems so long ago, yet that was the age I was 50 years ago when I joined the RAAF on 11 January 1967. I didn’t think it back then but the photos of the time tell it as it was. I was a boy, one of 180 plus aged between 15 and 17 who arrived at the RAAF School of Technical Training east of Wagga Wagga as members of 21 Apprentice Intake (Hedgehogs). I have often wondered about that choice and what my life might have been like if I had made a different one.

Airman Apprentice Marsh, 1967
I was a farm kid. In those days there didn’t seem a great deal of options. Stay on the farm, get a job in the bank, do an apprenticeship. I can’t recall anyone in my extended family who had completed high school, yet alone gone on to higher education. Dad had not gone beyond primary school. So there were not role models to inspire me, nor was the option ever discussed. That was the way it was.

The RAAF had always been a dream - although that dream had to do with flying fighter jets, something I was to later learn I was too tall for. So when Mum came to me with an application form for a RAAF apprenticeship cut from the local paper I jumped at it.

Life was simple back then. Until I did the trip to Sydney for my RAAF medicals and interviews the extent of my travels had been as far north as the Gold Coast, west to Toowoomba and down the New England to Glen Innes and possibly Armidale, and south to Newcastle. Accompanied by Mum I spent a week or so in Sydney staying with Dad’s sister. It was a real adventure, sitting in the front seat on the top deck of the double decker buses seeing something of a city I have since come to love.

The RAAF gave me a life I could never have dreamed of back then. Malaysia, Singapore and the opportunity to visit Thailand in the days before Multiculturalism. Before going overseas I can only recall eating one non-Aussie dish, and that was in Sydney’s Chinatown while waiting for a rail connection between Wagga and South Grafton on leave.Then there were the six weeks in PNG, different altogether than South East Asia. But PNG could not compete with the opportunity to live in and experience a different culture like those five years in Penang.

I was a tall, gangly, uncoordinated kid. How I hated those times when two captains were nominated and told to pick teams. I was always the last picked. In a culture that valued athletic ability I quickly learned my place. I'm sure that early experience affected my confidence and may explain some of my character oddities to this day.

One the other hand I did well scholastically despite being academically lazy. In high school I was always in bed by 10pm while at the same time hearing stories of my peers staying up till midnight or later. Yet Mum - and who can argue with mothers - told me after I joined the RAAF I topped Maclean High School in the 1966 School Certificate. Maths was too much of a challenge. Too often I would go to the answer page of the textbook first during homework. History was a completely different matter. How I devoured history textbooks and whatever else I could find.  My Grandfather subscribed to a popular history periodical of the day - ‘Parade’. I’m sure regular stories of the glorious British Empire along with a regular diet of Biggles books fueled my dreams of air force and flying. I was today what would be called a history nerd.

Needless to say that academic laziness carried on at Wagga. I at times joke that the only exam I studied for in those 2 ½ years I had to resit, but that is pretty close to the truth.

My service records show that the interview team in 1966 considered I didn't have the aptitude for a technical career but they obviously still accepted me. They also noted I was a quiet, shy lad. That quietness continued to be noted throughout my career, being seen as a handicap to promotion. One quote I recall from my time as a corporal went something like ‘Too quiet to give orders, but when he does they are clearly understood’.

Three things stand out from my 20 years service, although two are not service related. I will always be thankful for these for what they have given me post RAAF.

During my second posting to Malaysia I took up Tae Kwon Do and set my heart on achieving a black belt during my time there. A few months in and nothing seemed to go right - back to that gangly uncoordinated kid. I felt frustrated and was close to quitting. Then one night it happened. Everything seemed to click and I never looked back. Many years later I took up karate, quitting before I made it to black belt a second time because the body gave up. I remember one instructor often reminding us  every so often that frustration was important to learning. It meant the mind recognised what we should be doing and so it should be embraced because if we persisted the body would catch up with the brain.

Many years after my Tae Kwon Do experience  I had a similar breakthrough. I was working on my Master’s thesis. I had all these concepts running around in my head - best practice, total quality management, systems management, risk management and more. Then one night it was as if the bells rang out and the lights flashed as it all meshed together. Not mastery in either martial arts or academically, but the point at which you realise you can make it.

The second experience was painful and you may ask why be thankful. It is an experience I wish I had not experienced and that was never experienced by anyone. But, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. That was the breakup of my first marriage and yes, I accept a lot of the responsibility for that. First, it forced me to open up about my feelings. I would have cracked if I had not found someone to share with. Two men in particular I am indebted too. The first was a RAAF Chaplain in Melbourne. The other a mate I worked with at the time and with whom I ran regularly around South Melbourne at lunch time.

At this time I started reading about divorce and realised I wasn't strange. What I was experiencing at the time was typical of the emotional roundabout we all go through during relationship breakdown and loss. This led to further reading in the self-help and personal growth fields. Some were anything but helpful, leading to more painful learning experiences. But others brought rich benefits, more than compensating for the pain of the less-than-helpful.

Finally came my experience as an Instructor in Melbourne. I don't know why, but I put my hand up when I knew there was a vacancy in the Training Cell. It was something I knew I wanted to try.  Not only did I love the job, I know from the feedback I received I excelled at it - and to this day I love public speaking. For the three plus years I was in the role I received my best annual performance assessments. But only a year or two earlier I was assessed as being unsuitable for a training role, again because I was too quiet.

That role was the confidence builder I needed. While I have always been an introvert it brought me out of my shell. I have much to thank the Service for, but it is that one opportunity that stands out for me.

I left the RAAF in January 1987. The following year I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma of Health Education,  as stated above. One of our first assignments was an essay on teaching methods. I regurgitated all I could remember from my RAAF Instructional Technique course. The lecturer's comments went something like ‘I would liked to have seen the references for that’. He was so kind. Fortunately the grade was pass/fail, as it was for the entire course, so I was not embarrassed with a 50% pass.

Following discharge in 1987
The following year I commenced employment with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. For the first two years I was a full time student completing an Associate Diploma of Occupational Health and Safety at the Phillip Institute of Technology. For the first year I was enrolled in two institutions while I completed my Grad Dip.

Eventually I was to complete a Master’s degree in OHS plus a Graduate Certificate in Compliance. I was no longer academically lazy. As I struggled with putting words together the lesson learned years earlier from Tae Kwon Do constantly came to mind. I loved the challenge. Not so much the hard slog, but the satisfaction of completing an essay, along with all those annoying references, and the feeling ‘Did I do that?’ And while I may boast, my academic record for all tasks assessed other than pass/fail carries a Distinction average.

Master of OHS, Newcastle 2004
To this day I love researching things that interest me. When veterans were fighting Government over detrimental changes to our superannuation system I spent many hours searching Hansard and going through different reports on military and public service superannuation. While we had a partial win there remains unfinished business. For the last few years I have spent even more time scanning files available from National Archives, newspapers, books, academic papers and more covering the Australian presence at Butterworth in the 1970s and 80s. Our Defence department maintains this was normal peacetime service, yet all the evidence shows otherwise. Between 1968 and 1989 Malaysian security forces were engaged in a war against communist insurgents, a war known as the Second Malaysian Emergency,  a war our Government refuses to acknowledge because of the implications to our veterans’ entitlements system.

I can spend hours on Google researching different topics of interest. And I also enjoy writing about the things I research, as well as other things. Then there is the Bible, and the time I have spent searching through different themes. This leads to further research because the Bible often makes a lot more sense when the historical context in which it was written is understood.

Over recent years I often reflect on that decision 50 years ago and wonder what might have been if I had made a different one. There is no way that can be answered with any certainty of course. I agree with the assessment that I did not have the aptitude for a technical trade. I believe I could have enjoyed life as a professor of history, locked away in the dusty archives of a university library. Or theology, but not as a Church pastor dealing with the problems of parishioners and local Church politics. Or maybe sociology, psychology, comparative religions or philosophy, the world of people, how they think and behave, of belief systems and ideas. Yes, I could see myself enjoying a career in one of these fields.

So what of those 20 years service? It is a lived experience that I would not have known if I had not enlisted. So I can only comment on what it gave me.

First there was and is the camaraderie. For those 30 months at Wagga we ate, worked, played and slept together. In many ways it was just an extended family with all the bonding that comes with family. And little changed when we were posted to our first units and again lived in barracks.  As we married our families were in many ways a continuation of barracks life. Then I can relate it back to the rural community I grew up in. Neighbors, many part of my extended family, who knew survival depended on working together at different times through the year and of supporting one another in the bad times.

There was that basic military training that not only instilled discipline. By the time I graduated from Wagga as an 18 year old I knew more about responsibility, accountability and teamwork than I have seen demonstrated by much older senior managers I have come across in civilian life. Parade time of 0800 hours meant being there 5 minutes early, not strolling in 20 or 30 minutes later. And no one would finish work and leave someone else to clean up afterwards - a continuing frustration in later employment.

Then there was the opportunity to experience different cultures in a time when Multiculturalism was unheard of. In the 1970s travel within Australia was expensive enough. For many overseas travel would be undreamed of.

With Mum, 2015
I live with the pride of giving 20 years of service to my country, long service in anyone's language. And those 5 years in Malaysia were far more than an overseas holiday at taxpayers’ expense. Australia’s commitment was to provide security and assurance of our interest to an unstable environment during the Cold War years. Our presence gave invaluable indirect aid to Malaysia in particular, and no doubt Singapore, in their battle against the communists. I know I was part of something significant.

Could anything else have given me all of that? Some of it perhaps, but not the sum total. Of course I would know nothing of that if I had not lived it. But having lived it I can't imagine a career that would give so much. Knowing what I know now, if I were 16 today and given the same opportunity I would grab it with both hands.

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