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The Best Job Ever

I’ve always been a worker.  I’ve been working since I was 10.  In that time I have had plenty of jobs.  I wonder what was my best job ever.  Let’s take a look and see.

Aged 10 – Record Store – Back in the early 80’s there were record stores everywhere and my job was to hand write labels to put in the record machine.  I had pretty neat writing for a kid.  I think that job lasted a few weeks.  I got it by going in and asking if they had any jobs going.  To my surprise I got one.  It would never happen today.  So was this the best job ever?

Nope.  Not even close.  Next.

Aged 10 – Paper Round –  I walked around the streets of Milton in Brisbane way before Park Rd became trendy, selling newspapers and magazines.  I met some interesting characters but selling Playboy and Penthouse at the age of 10 was funny.  If I was a few years older I am sure I would have ‘read the articles’ during the paper run.  So was this my best job ever?

Nope.  Next.

Aged 11 – Taxi Phone Operator – I had to leave my job as a paper boy as we moved from Brisbane to Bowen.  There I became great friends with our neighbours who happened to own a taxi in the small North Queensland town.  I did this job for a few months but working from 5pm to 10pm 3 -4 days a week was hard work for an 11 year old boy still at school.  I earnt $12 a shift which was so much money and bought some great Lego pieces at the time.  Was this the best job ever?

Nope.  Next.

Aged 14 –  Donut King – It started off just as a cleaners job cleaning the store after the store closed.  After a couple of months they asked me if I wanted to help make the donuts early in the morning.  I said sure but hated it after repeatedly burning my fingers on the hot dough.  The best part of this job was being told to hire a friend to help.  So at age 14 I had my first employee reporting to me.  So with an ample supply of free donuts, was this the best job ever?

Nup! No way.

Aged 15 – Coles – I started out at Coles in Grade 10 and fulfilled plenty of roles from checkout chick, trolley boy, parcel pick up and floor staff.  I worked every Thursday night and Saturday mornings and earnt a little bit of pocket money.  Best memory was making out with a female colleague in the huge cool room.  Worst memory was being asked why my till was down over $150 one day. I don’t know! Honestly.  I worked at Coles for 2 years and my school formal date for Year 12 worked there too. Can’t remember her name to save my life but I enjoyed working there.  Surely with the cool room liaison with the girl this would make this my best job ever?

Not even close.

Aged 17 – Australian Regular Army – I’ve written about this extensively on this blog. For those late to the party it was a hard time for me and a time I wish I had have better handled.  When I look back I see that it actually was a pretty good time and I wish I could have a do over.  Obviously this isn’t my best job ever.  Or is it?

Don’t be silly, Billy.

Aged 18 – Pizza Delivery Driver – I repeated year 12 in 1991 and got a part time job delivering pizza.  It was a great job.  Sitting on your bum listening to your radio.  Delivering pizza to hot chicks.  The social life with the other staff was always good fun with plenty of parties and sporting days and poker nights always being organised.  So was this the best job ever?

Nope!  It was fun but not the best job ever.

Aged 19 – Store Manager for Silvio’s/Domino’s –  Oh this was fun.  Working from 3pm to 11pm up to 7 days a week was great.  It left the days free for golf and the beach.  Free pizza.  Free videos from the video shop next door.  Food swaps with Hungry Jacks.  Working with fun people.  It was a fun time and I learnt a lot.  This surely must be the best job ever?

No way, Jose!

Aged 21 – Operations Trainer for Silvio’s/Domino’s –  This is when I got to really start travelling.  I opened new stores in Cairns, Townsville, Launceston and spent 6 months in Darwin.  It was great fun.  I remember going to the Pickled Parrot piano bar in Darwin just about every night and singing along with the husband/wife duo.  Eating watermelon in June in the backyard wearing only boxers.  Going to Litchfield National Park, driving on roads with no speed limits.  It was a hoot.  So was this the best job ever.

Close but no cigar.

Aged 24 – Paging Operator and Sales Rep for Hutchison Telecoms – After burning out in the pizza game, I wanted something which was easy and I had zero responsibility bar turning up for work.  When I found out I was going to be one of 4 blokes in a sea of 150 female operators I knew I was in for some fun.  As it turned out, this is where I met my future wife.  But was this the best job ever?

It was fun, but no, not even close.

Aged 27 – Store Manager – Domino’s –  After 3 years out, the lure of the pizza game pulled me back in and this time I moved to Adelaide with my family to help start up the new pizza market down there.  Was this the best job ever?

Nope!  Next.

Aged 29 – Franchise Consultant, Domino’s –  After a couple of years in Adelaide, I was asked to go to Sydney with Domino’s and being the loyal servant I was, off we went.  This was followed by another stint in Adelaide and one in Melbourne before coming back to Brisbane where I stayed until 2010.  I got to travel a lot during this time looking after Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.  I went to small towns like Port Augusta, Broome in Australia’s north west.  Katherine in the Northern Territory.  Kununurra in the far western north on Australia.  Broken Hill and a thousand other small towns and areas of outback Australia.  I spent two weeks in Dunedin in the middle of winter which was my first (and only) overseas trip.  I met some amazing people and made some life long friends.  So was this the best job ever?  Surely it must be?

Nope!

Aged 33 – Producer, The Sunday Roast on 5AA – This was just something I did on Sunday mornings producing this sports radio show hosted by ex Adelaide Crows AFL Footballer, Steven Rowe.  It was great setting up interviews with sports stars from all different sporting codes across Australia.  This job gave me a money can’t buy, all access AFL Media Pass which allowed me to gain free entry to any AFL game across the country and sit in the media room which was catered with free drinks and food.  In the year that I did this job, I saw my beloved Brisbane Lions play at AAMI Stadium, Docklands, The MCG, Subiaco and of course The Gabba and it didn’t cost me a cent.  Unfortunately it was also the year after our 4th consecutive grand final and we didn’t win a lot of games.  So this had to be the best job ever right?

Close.  So very close but no.

Aged 37 – Current job – This will remain confidential to protect my identity though some of you reading this will already know it – It’s pretty similar to my Domino’s role but is this the best job ever?

No way.

Well by now you are surely confused.  I’ve listed every job I have ever had from I was 10 years of age to now and not one of them is my favourite job.  I wonder what that could be.  Oh hang on, I missed one.

Aged 25 to current – DADDY –   It’s a job that doesn’t pay me a cent but I get the most satisfaction out of it.  It doesn’t cause me any stress unlike other jobs.  It gives me daily satisfaction and bonuses that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  It makes me smile every single day and makes me laugh more than any Seinfeld rerun ever will.  The job satisfaction I get from being a Daddy makes me want to turn up and do it all again tomorrow.  It makes my hair stand up on end when I see a photo of a special memory or when I hear my girls laugh together.  It gives me immense pride when I read their report cards or see them master a new challenge.

In fact being a daddy is not a job at all.  It is an honour and a privilege and one I absolutely love doing.  It is the thing I love doing most and one I will cherish for the rest of my life.

It’s great being a daddy.

Floodageddon 2011 – Through Jack’s Eyes

As I write this post, over 28,000 homes in South East Queensland have been severely damaged or destroyed in the worst flooding to take place in Queensland in over 30 years.  In fact, over 75% of Queensland has been declared a disaster zone. To put this in perspective for my northern hemisphere mates, that is the size of Texas in the United States or the combined size of Germany and France.  That’s a whole lotta area, under water.

That’s all I will write about the actual problem.  Queensland flooded and flooded in a bloody major way.  It’s like someone forgot to turn off the world’s biggest shower and 3 months later realised it but by that time, the bath was full and the water was flowing over the sides and flooding the entire bathroom.

Yep, stupid analogy but you get the gist.  It rained a lot and it kept on raining.

You’ve all seen the footage and seen the news and read the papers and online about what happened in the South East corner of Queensland which has so far claimed 20 lives, not including those who died in December in the central parts of Queensland.

No, what I want to write about in this post is my own personal experience.  Of what I have felt and seen and witnessed since 10th January.  My story is an easy one.  I am nowhere near the Brisbane River or the Bremer River in Ipswich.  I am a couple of hours away from the Lockyer Valley region decimated by the Toowoomba inland tsunami.  I know only one person who came close to having their house flooded and he avoided that by living on the second floor of an apartment building in West End.  I have suffered no loss and no one I know has suffered or loss either.

So why do I even care?

Well I hope that question will be answered in the following words.  Join me, won’t you?

Along with millions of other Aussies, I watched the devastation of the floods in central Queensland.  Towns I have visited such as Emerald, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, were all being inundated by a brown, liquid monster.  We looked on as our country brothers and sisters dealt with the disaster the way we know Queenslanders do.  With humour and good grace.  Images of people, always blokes actually, walking waist deep in water with the pub slowly receding behind them and a carton of beer on their shoulder and a smile on their face was common.  A pub with a hastily built dirt levee built around it and renamed the Flotel instead of Hotel.  Kids on esky lids swimming in crocodile and snake infested waters without a care in the world.  Humour is a big part of our society and we would need to call on it many times to get through the days and weeks ahead.

Queenslanders love their beer and so of course you save the pub before saving the schools! It doesn’t matter if the school goes under anyway. It’s the school holidays and there’ll be plenty of time to dry it out and get it up and running again before school resumes.  But we must not run out of beer!  This is a crisis and the only good way of handling a crisis is by looking at it head on – through the bottom of a brown stubbie that is!  That’s Queensland and we wouldn’t change it for anything.

Yes it is fair to say that Queenslanders handle things with a relaxed attitude but don’t let that fool you.  The job still gets done.

Not understating it but there were thousands of people displaced and evacuated.  Hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded and after weeks of vision on the news and websites and newspapers, Channel 9 decided to hold a telethon to raise money for the regional centres of Queensland.  It was hastily arranged and broadcast live from Brisbane’s Southbank Piazza on Sunday, January 9.  The piazza is open air to a certain degree and the millions of viewers across Australia could see the monsoonal rain that was continually pelting down over Brisbane as entertainers such as David Campbell and Tina Area sang their hearts out.  I am sure the sight of this never ending curtain of rain contributed to the telethon raising over $10 million that night alone but no one knew that night, that the following afternoon would see a terrifying flash flood hit the towns of Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley towns of Murphy’s Creek and Grantham which would claim at least 18 lives.

This wall of water which destroyed whatever was in its path was still speeding down the range and Ipswich and Brisbane were in its way.  With the Wivenhoe Dam, built to prevent Brisbane from flooding as badly as it did in 1974, releasing two Sydney Harbours worth of water daily to avoid it collapsing and joining together with the water from the flash flooding in Toowoomba, Brisbane and Ipswich and all suburbs in between were about to get wet.  Very wet.

Then the call went out for volunteers to help the council and SES fill sand bags.  A lot of them!  On the Tuesday night, it was still pissing down in Brisbane.  It hadn’t let up and by this stage the governments had advised that low lying areas of Brisbane were going to flood and we were warned that the devastating floods of 1974 were nothing compared to what we were going to see in the coming days.

One of the many sangbag volunteers. Here is Erin Louise Tate from Brisbane’s Southside getting ready to volunteer. @erinlouisetate via Twitter

I love Twitter.  People knock it for whatever reason and they can but a call went out across Twitter (as well as other mainstream media) on that Tuesday night and boy didn’t the people respond.  People who I follow on Twitter, who I have never met but legends still the same started to head out into the rain and the dark of the night to fill up sandbags.  People were heading out at 10pm to lend a hand.  Let me make a comment too that these people were in no danger of their houses being flooded, so they weren’t making sandbags for themselves but for total strangers!  My wife was not home that night so I couldn’t head out but I was on the Twitter #qldfloods feed trying to send out as much information as possible.  What else could I do?  I felt a strong desire to help.   Earlier that day I was out and about and had my journey north to Morayfield interrupted by rising flood waters in Burpengary.

Another flooded road which is damaged at Burpengary. Flood waters at Burpengary. Photo by Jack McClane.

So while watching the news and my Twitter time line I saw the volunteer army that was about to take over SEQ takes its first steps.  I was about to say, first, tentative steps, but it wasn’t tentative.  It was absolute.  It was brilliant and I felt a sense of pride in my fellow Queenslanders that was only going to multiply over the coming days.

I updated my blog to try and centralise the mammoth amount of information that was out there.  Information on how and where to donate, road closure links, emergency services links, how to volunteer etc as well as links to videos and some photos as well to show the people of the world what Queensland was up against.  It was only a small thing but if one person got the relevant info from it and if someone else donated because of it, then good, it did its job!

Wednesday came around and residents in the low lying areas were still packing up their houses as quickly as they could and get their possessions to higher ground.  Sandbag volunteers were still in full force throughout the day and the media kept us up to date with what was happening in Ipswich as the Bremer River neared its peak of 20 metres.

The Brisbane River peak was coming Thursday morning at 4am.  So predawn, the morning news shows fired up their cameras and lights and went to air with the on air guys such as Channel 9’s Karl Stefanovic, himself a Queenslander, crossing to reporters at places where the water was already overflowing the banks of the river.  The river didn’t hit the predicted peak but still thousands of homes and businesses had been destroyed.

Then we saw an image of a 300 metre, 1,000 tonne section of the famous Brisbane Riverwalk which had broken free, floating down the river towards the 12 lane Gateway Bridge. Well the Sir Leo Hielsher Bridge to be accurate but the newly renamed bridge was back to its former moniker for the duration of this crisis.  The Riverwalk was travelling at a very fast speed and who knows if it would have caused any real damage to the bridge but one man and his tugboat didn’t want to take that risk.  While listening to his radio and hearing of the runaway piece of Riverwalk, Tugboat skipper, Doug Hislop and the smallest tugboat I have ever seen called Mavis, headed out into the fast moving Brisbane River just in time to manoeuvre the Riverwalk into a parallel position and guide it through the massive pylons of the Gateway Bridge and to safety at the mouth of the river.  Doug and Mavis gained instant fame and hopefully fortune and a new hero was unearthed.  In his interviews afterwards he was very humble and said that he just did what anyone would do.  I thought that Doug must have been on standby with orders from the government to intercept anything that could be considered dangerous.  He wasn’t.  He just stepped up when he was needed and joined the long list of volunteers that Queensland has seen over the few weeks.

The waters started to recede.  Brisbane had been spared the consequences of a peak equal to or higher than the disastrous 1974 floods.  While thousands were affected, many more thousands were spared.

But still people needed help.  A lot of help.

With the receding water levels, the images started to emerge from the murky brown water.  We at home, and when I say we, I mean all viewers, were shown images of houses completely devastated.  Water had gone over the roofs of many homes and to the ceilings and beyond in most others.  Whatever the water touched, it destroyed.  These poor, poor people. Most are uninsured because most insurance companies will not cover for flood damage, were re-entering their homes to find nothing left.

The clean up was going to take a huge effort.  The army was called in by the federal government but a bigger army formed.  The volunteers!  50,000 of them registered online to assist.  Many more just hit the gridlocked streets to lend a hand.  That Friday afternoon I asked my twelve year old daughter, Michaela, or Mick as I like to call her, if she wanted to help out on Saturday.  Before the words were out of my mouth she said yes.

Saturday morning we prepared for a hard day’s work.  We went to Bunnings to get some supplies.  Top of the list was gum boots.  Driving into the carpark I saw an awesome sight.  People!  Everywhere!  Bunnings is normally always busy but this was nuts.  People were walking out of there with gumboots in hand.  Brooms, shovels, gurneys, scrub brushes.  There was the usual sausage sizzle and it was doing a roaring trade.  The sign on the BBQ said that all proceeds were going to the flood appeal.  We quickly found what we needed and headed to the checkout spending about $100 on what we needed knowing that I would have spent double that if I had to.

A mate of mine, Mark was organising a BBQ in Graceville and asked me to assist with getting some bread rolls.  Working for Bakers Delight I was able to quickly get a stack of bread rolls donated.  Thanks to Bakers Delight at Windsor and Aspley for the kind donation.  We picked up the Aspley ones and headed to the western suburbs of Brisbane.  This area of Brisbane is my old stomping grounds.  I grew up in Toowong and I know the back streets. We’re taking the back streets because the radio is advising us that the roads are packed.  They’re packed not only because of the volunteers and general commuters but also because of the bloody rubber neckers or flood tourists as I called, them heading into the flood zone to take some pictures to put on Facebook and to tell their grandkids that they were there for the great flood of 2011.  Idiots.

Mark rang me and said he was almost out of sausages and could I get some more.  We made our way to Woolies at Toowong and bought all of the snags we could – about 88 – and a slab of bottled water and some ice and proceeded on the journey.  Taking more back streets after seeing the gridlock we eventually couldn’t avoid the congestion as the tiny bridge that links Chelmer to Indooroopilly, the Walter Taylor Bridge, was struggling to cope with the volume of cars.

We couldn’t go the way I wanted into Graceville thanks to a couple of police roadblocks but eventually I found a way in and after explaining to another police officer that I was in fact there to help and not a rubber necker he waved us through.

A typical scene in flood ravaged Graceville. Photo by Jack McClane

That’s when we saw the destruction for the first time with our own eyes.  By this stage we had been on the road for about 3 hours and it was near 1pm.  A lot of work had happened.  The kerb was full of rubbish.  Well rubbish now.  Prized possessions a few days earlier.  It was stacked so high and as a wide as each house.  It was endless.  Then I saw a sight which filled me with so much pride.  The street, a normal suburban street was a hive of activity.  There were people everywhere.  Covered in mud and yuk.

We drove up the street and found Mark.  We dropped off the supplies. Our original plan was to drop and run and head to Goodna, one of the worst affected areas but the struggle it took to get into this flood zone was enough for us, so we parked and donned our gum boots and gloves and with buckets and spades and brooms and sponges we set foot down the road to help where we could.  We went house to house and asked if they needed a hand.  Each house said no thanks, we have all the help we need.  I shit you not, each house had heaps of people in them.  They weren’t kidding, they did have all the help they needed.  One man told us to go and find an elderly gentleman who kept on walking past with a wheel barrow full of rubbish.  He wasn’t sure where he lived but it appeared that he was doing plenty of hard yakka on his own.  We searched for him but couldn’t find him so we eventually returned back to the BBQ area and it was there that a dump truck turned up and we just started loading it with the debris on the side of the roads.  There must have been twenty people loading those trucks each time.  A truck would pull up and get filled and leave.  No one was in charge.  No one needed to be.  Everybody knew what they had to do.  We got filthy dirty and we tried to be careful not to scratch ourselves.  We avoided the nails hammered into now unrecognisable pieces of furniture.  We picked up big pieces and small pieces.  Everything went into the truck.  There was no discrimination there in the streets of Graceville.  Everything was destroyed.

This one bloke, Joe, was up in the back of the truck pulling the rubbish into it as the people below lifted it to his position.  The truck filled quickly and Joe, with his long straggly hair caked in mud and sweat just kept on lifting heavy objects into place.  At one stage he slipped and his side went thundering into the side of the dump truck.  You could tell that it hurt him. He grimaced in pain. I was sure he had cracked a rib such was the force of the fall.  He gave it a rub, took a deep breath and got back to it.  Later on while waiting for another truck, Joe came over and got an ice cold can of coke from Mark and I asked him if he was ok.  He said he was but I doubted it.  I asked him which house was his.  He said none of them.  I asked him if he knew anyone in the street.  He said he didn’t.  He said he just couldn’t watch anymore of it from home and that he had to do something.  His wife was watching the kids and he came here to help out.  Like so many others.  He was willing to crack a rib for total strangers.  He wouldn’t have cared if he did.  None of us would have if we were hurt.  A cracked rib is nothing compared to those who lost their lives in this flood or the loss of treasured possessions.

We helped load debris into the back of trucks. Photo by Jack McClane

Mick and I went for a walk around the corner and we found ourselves next to the river.  We were that close.  We saw many people working in their homes.  Using hoses and gurneys and brooms to get rid of the muck. This one guy was sitting out the front of his house gently cleaning old number plates which a few days earlier, probably adorned his garage wall.  It seemed strange to me at the time that his efforts were being utilised on a mundane item but then I realised that while it was a mundane item to me, it meant the world to him and that is all that matters.

People everywhere were doing the best they could to clean up.  There is no instruction manual or pamphlet to tell you what to do and what order to do it in after a flood.  There also didn’t need to be.  Judging by what we were seeing, people were getting the job done.  It didn’t matter if they started with the smaller stuff first.  If that is what it took them to get the job done, then so be it.

We came across an army roadblock.  There was a group of soldiers clearing a shitload of mud off the road to try and reopen it.  There were about four cars waiting to get through.  They wouldn’t for a while.  I heard one of the soldiers tell one of the other soldiers that a couple of girls a couple of houses up and made them an offer.  If the soldiers washed their cars for them they could also wash their boobs!  It made me laugh.  There was that Queensland spirit.  Even in times of crisis, the chicks just love the Aussie soldiers and they were cracking jokes about it.  I was about to ask which house and was getting myself into car cleaning mode when I remembered that Michaela was with me still.  Bugger!  I’m kidding!

The Army was called into service and assisted with removing debris in their Unimog’s. Photo by Jack McClane

I asked the soldier how long the road block was going to be in place.  He said he didn’t know. So I told him I would tell the now considerable long line of cars that it was closed off.  So we started walking back to our position and I told each car to do a Ubolt.  There were no complaints other than one dickhead who argued with another army jeep that pulled up alongside him.  I said to the guy that it wasn’t their fault and we continued to walk back and tell each car.  There were probably 20 cars that went back in the direction in which they had just come.  No probs.

During this walk we also came across many different volunteers who approached us and asked us if we would like a sandwich or a cold drink or a biscuit.  It was incredible the amount of people who were offering food.  We declined each time as we had brought our own food and drinks and the stuff they had was better suited to all of the other volunteers.  It’s strange, even though we had worked hard as well, I didn’t feel like I was a volunteer.  I wasn’t a victim.  I was just me and that people who really needed that stuff were inside their homes doing it tough.

Mark and Annette fed the masses all day. You can see a destroyed Convenience store behind with the sludge and mud all over the front area. Photo by Jack McClane

Mark who had a smile on his face all day while feeding hungry volunteers had set up the BBQ with his beautiful girlfriend, Annette.  Their spirits were high, even being out in the hot, humid sun and as another volunteer or helper walked past, they offered them a sanga on bread or an ice cold drink.  They had coke and lemonade and water and juice and poppers.  They catered for everyone.  They also had sunscreen and hand disinfectant so that people could wash their hands and kill off the germs before eating.  They thought of everything.

Next to their car I noticed a whole heap of supplies including toilet paper, tissues, long life milk and assorted tinned foods.  It turned out that the council had dropped off these essential supplies so that residents could take some if they were needed.  I thought how good was that!  The different governments involved in this crisis, being the federal, state and local had performed brilliantly throughout this whole crisis.  The information was unbelievable and the fact that council had organised for these emergency supplies to be made available was unreal.  As it turned out no one really wanted the supplies as most people were not staying in their homes.  Most of the homes were unliveable and therefore these items would just be sitting in empty homes.  Annette had a great idea to make up some care packages and hand them out.  So we did and with the last few we loaded them into my car for when we were leaving and found some people who would take them down the street.  Michaela handed them out with so much empathy.  I am so proud of Michaela as well.  She didn’t hesitate to volunteer when I asked her and during the cleanup she turned to me and said, “Dad I am so happy I came.  I feel like I am helping”.  She was helping and doing a bloody good job too!  She’s only 12 but she showed that kids of today care about their world and their neighbours.  She asked if we could come back and volunteer as well.  What a special kid she is.  I thought she would get a valuable life lesson from this and that is why I asked her.  She’ll never forget and I am sure it will make her an even better person, if that is at all possible!

Michaela delivers a care package to a local resident. Photo by Jack McClane

There are so many sad stories in that street alone.  One resident was telling me that he had no insurance and that he lost everything.  Luckily he was only renting but as his lease was almost up he would not be returning.  He was upbeat and positive and would just get on with starting again.  Similar stories were being told up and down that area.  There were no tears or arguments.  In fact it was just the opposite.  There was plenty of laughter.  People were upbeat.  There was an air of confidence in the street.  Yes they were down but they weren’t out.  They would start again.  They would rebuild.

I mentioned earlier that the governments have been terrific in this crisis.  During the height of it, Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh conducted bi-hourly press conferences to keep the public informed.  Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman was front and centre with shirt rolled up to his elbows, not a tie in sight, and informed the people of exactly what was coming.  Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard nodded and agreed with what was being said and promised to provide money where needed but she really didn’t have much to offer as the lower levels of government did that job superbly.  Only a few short weeks ago Anna Bligh was on a hiding to nothing and would likely lose the next state government election.  Now she is Superwoman and infallible in the eyes of the Queensland public and while I am no fan of hers, she has been bloody brilliant.  At one stage in a press conference she stood before the cameras and the journalists to give another update and to inform us of another confirmed death. She said while holding back tears:

“As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are.  We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.”

I had a lump in my throat and held back the tears.  She was 100% right.  We are Queenslanders and we are tough.  What a speech to say to her people who have relied on our leader to LEAD and she has done that in spades.  Congrats to Mrs Bligh.  Unlike your namesake, you will not be the subject of a mutiny and I hope that when the finger pointing undoubtedly starts, that people will realise that this was an act of nature and that the government isn’t to blame.  I know there are people who will argue that Wivenhoe should have been released earlier and I am sure the inquiry will determine whether that is what should have happened or not but if it was, the fault is in procedure but not in a person or people.

I am so proud to be a Queenslander!  I wasn’t born here but moved here from Adelaide when I was seven in 1979.  I’ve been here long enough to call myself a Queenslander and I am damn proud to do so.  I have welled up plenty of times over this last week or so.  When I saw people like Erin, volunteer to go out into the rain and fill sandbags was one time.  Another was seeing the long lines of volunteers at the Brisbane City Council registration points, ready to go into battle to fight for Queenslanders. I’ve welled up seeing images of people sandbagging and helping each other out.  I cried when I saw a sign some young girls were holding at the T20 cricket match at the MCG last week saying “We are with you QLD” even as flood waters began to encroach into Victoria.  I welled up when I saw a couple in Brisbane CBD, the day after the peak had damaged inner city businesses, they were walking down the street, covered in mud but walking hand in hand.  Despite the damage to their business, they still had each other.  It was a beautiful moment but one I wished had never had to happen.

An exhausted couple, walk hand in hand in Brisbane’s CBD during the clean up. Photo by Jack McClane

Yes, there is a spirit in Queensland.  I can’t quite tell you what it is.  It is something you need to experience yourself.  As our mighty State of Origin team has shown over the past 30 years, you can never write off a Queenslander.  And when Billy Moore proudly called out that iconic call of ‘Queenslander’ during a State of Origin match in 1995, a new rally cry was born and when Queenslanders are down and fighting, just hearing that yelled out will add strength to any given situation.  I am proud to say I have heard that call a few times this last couple of weeks and every time I do, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I know that everything will be ok.

We still need plenty of help. There is still work to do.  Please continue to talk about it and donate and volunteer where possible.  I still have the information on my blog and you can access that here.

I want to thank Australia for giving a damn about Queensland.  Seeing my great country pull together has been awe inspiring.  We certainly do live in the lucky country!  I also want to point out the great work that the QLD Police Service has done providing timely information to the citizens of this great state.  Their Facebook page is great and the inclusion of their Flood Mythbusters has been invaluable to quash rumours and not cause a panic.  Of course a special thanks to the SES and emergency services who risk their lives to save ours.  Well done.  And of course to the many volunteers either directly in the flood zones or in the many evacuation centres or those who are baking or cooking or behind the keyboard sending out vital information via social networks like Twitter and Facebook.  A special mention to @meshel_laurie who has been an awesome provider of information.  She wasn’t the only with so many of the Twitterati pitching in. I won’t mention you individually because I don’t want to offend anyone by leaving them out.  You know who you are and a job well done.

Normally the media need to sensationalise to make a story more interesting than it actually is.  This story was so big that for once they didn’t need to invent stories.  I think the media reported this story brilliantly.  Most of the networks had rolling coverage throughout the day and night.  They did a great job.  Well done to the media for once, telling it as it had to be told.  Truthfully!

As I finalise this post, the time is 9.40pm, Thursday, 20 January 2011 and it is absolutely bucketing down outside.  With a king tide due tomorrow there is more risk of flash flooding.  Mother Nature can be a total bitch sometimes as she has demonstrated in Queensland over the past couple of months.  She can destroy homes and property and roads and buildings and cars and trucks.  She can come screaming towards you with nothing but destruction in her eye but there is one thing she cannot take and that is the resilience and the strength and the attitude of Queenslanders and Aussies alike.

Queenslander!

p.s.  The fundraising continues.  With a damage bill likely to top over $30 billion we need all we can get.  There are plenty of celebrity auctions on and every street corner has a fundraiser going.  The Barnes family have released an album on iTunes call Floodlight for only $4.99 and you can also buy “Love You Queensland” for $1.69 at iTunes.  It’s a great song, re-recorded just for this occassion.  Check it out.  Those goosebumps are back!

UPDATE:  12 months later, I wrote again about the floods and the now famous, Queensland spirit. I hope you enjoy it. Click here to read it.

I was only 17: Part 3 – The Final Chapter

Welcome to my next chapter in the story about my time in the Australia Regular Army.  Click here to read Part 1 – Basic Training or Part 2 – Puckapunyal.

I hit the base at Holsworthy with a very, very big thud.  My unit was away on exercises and were due back in a week or so.  I was assigned my quarters which were actually quite good.  My own little townhouse all to myself.  Compared to sharing with my fellow trainees in dorm style rooms for the past 6 months it was great to finally having some privacy.

After about a week the unit returned from their exercises.  I had been spending the week familiarising myself with the base and our unit’s work area and doing odd jobs in preparation for their return.  The following day I was introduced to our commanding officer and this is where the shit’eth, hit’eth the fan.  The CO had my army personnel file in his hands and was absolutely tearing shreds off of me.  I’m not sure what was in the file – perhaps I can ask for this now under the freedom of information act – but I am sure it had comments about my lack of desire to remain in the army during my basic training and also my knee problems from Puckapunyal.  While 20 years later I don’t recall exactly what was said I do remember the CO questioning why the hell he had been sent someone with the knee problems that I had and the fact that I had the physical restrictions preventing me from taking part in a lot of the base activities.  I was sent out of the office the most depressed I had ever been.  Way to go, CO, don’t worry about welcoming a new member and making him feel at home in new surroundings.

So life on base was ordinary.  I don’t have a lot of memories from this period except for 2 main ones.

As I was not able to do a lot of the other work the other soldiers in my unit were doing I was assigned a hell of a lot of guard duty.  The guard shifts were 12 hours long starting at 7am or 7pm.  I remember celebrating my 18th birthday doing the 7pm to 7am guard duty shift.  It was a cold night and I was certainly not keen on walking around the base checking doors and reporting in via the two-way.  But I did it.  I also remember when I wasn’t walking around the base that night, I was manning the front guard station, listening to the FM radio for entertainment and company.  It was actually the week that John Farnham released “Chain Reaction” and on the night of my birthday I heard the title track from that album at least 4 times on the same radio station.  By the end of my 18th birthday I knew that song by heart. Luckily I was, and still am, a massive Farnsie fan.

I made a really bad decision not long after that.  I was very unhappy.  I had no close mates in the unit although the guys were pretty good, but being sick of the day to day guard duty and painting of rocks I had had enough.  This was not what I signed up for.  I remember thinking back to the ads on TV showing adventure and excitement.  I certainly wasn’t seeing it so I made a drastic decision.  I packed up my suitcase and left.

I packed up all of my civilian gear and left any army issued gear behind. Using an alias I rang Qantas and made a booking to go home to Brisbane.  I arrived home and went to mums place and told her what I had done.  It was a Friday night and I knew my absence wouldn’t be known until Monday morning when I didn’t turn up for roll call.  Around about 9am on the Monday morning the phone rang and I remember calling out to mum to tell them I would be back at midday.  Mum said I was there and put me on the phone.  I was asked if I was ok and I responded with “yes’’.  I was then ordered back to base and was to make myself known at Amberley Airforce Base which is located just outside of Brisbane, where I was to be flown back to Sydney by the RAAF asap.  Later that day I arrived back at the Richmond Airforce Base after hitching a ride on a cargo plane.  Damn, I was hoping I might get sent back in an F1-11 or something.  No such luck!

I’m not sure what my thought process was at the time and when I think back I guess I had gone a little bit insane.  Who in their right mind packs their bags, books a ticket in his mother’s maiden name and flies home and not think there would be drastic consequences? Well, me apparently.

I was actually treated very well by my CO when I returned.  He sat me down and had a chat with me and probed me on my intentions and why I had gone AWOL.  I explained that I was unhappy and that I was homesick.  I explained that even though specialists were treating my knees, my life in the army was not what I was hoping for.  He asked me to think about it over night and if the next day I wanted to be discharged I would be.  Like I even needed to think about it but I said that I would. The funny thing was that on the plane trip home I had come to peace with the fact that I was where I was.  I had signed a 4 year contract and I just had to suck it up, grow up and do my job, no matter how shitty it was. However, the next day I was front and centre in front of the CO and I informed him that I wanted out.  He said, “done” and I was sent on my way a couple of weeks later.

I was given a dishonourable discharge and this was mainly due to the fact I had gone absent without  leave.  I returned my army gear except for my slouch hat and a few other ceremonial clothing items.  I was given the discharge and 9 months after pledging my allegiance to the Queen of Australia I was once again a civilian.

From when I started in the army weighing in at 76kg, I had stacked on 14kg.  I weighed 90kg on the day I was discharged.  My knees were shot and I was now living a sedentary life style.  There was a big change though.  I was a different person.  I now had discipline.  Not that I was a bad kid in school. Far from it.  I was never in the wrong crowd or in trouble with the law.  I just lacked focus and discipline when it came to school work.  So I did what any other person in my situation would do.  I went back to high school and repeated year 12.  This time though I passed with flying colours and was accepted to attend University to study Education.

I really wish things turned out differently.  I am sure that if my knees didn’t stuff up that I would have stayed in the army as I would have been able to do so much more.  I look back and regret the phone calls home.  The weekend leave without a pass.  The stress I put on my family and friends.

I am a huge patriot of my country.  Australia is the best place on earth.  I had an opportunity to represent my country.  Not as a sportsman on the sports field, but on the battle field if it ever came to that.  I would defend my country and would give my life for it if that is what it took for Australia to be free.  In leaving the army in the manner in which I did I feel I dishonoured those brave diggers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in all of the wars Australia has fought in, particularly the diggers who fought at Gallipoli in 1915.  Boys younger than me gave their lives on foreign soil so that many years later I would be given every freedom my great country affords.  I forgot about those guys 75 years earlier who died terrible deaths, while I was crying for my mummy.

Regrets are strange things.  Each decision I have ever made in my life has led me to this point here and now.  I love my wife and I love my kids and decisions I made 20 years ago enabled me to meet my wife and have my kids.  Without going into any detail if I hadn’t have joined the army I know I would not have met my wife and therefore be as happy as I am and the proud father of my two kids.  That being said, I do regret the manner in which I conducted myself and the way in which I left the army.  If I could have my time all over again, I would do it all differently.  But I can’t. So what matters now is how I live my life going forward.  I attend the Dawn Service each Anzac Day and I take my eldest daughter with me to teach her about the sacrifices the brave diggers have been making to keep us free since Australia first went into the theatre of war.  Next year my youngest daughter will start attending the Dawn Service with us as she will be old enough to start understanding the importance our armed services play in keeping us free.

I now wish I had have stayed in the army.  I am sure my weight issues would never have eventuated as my knees would have healed with the correct care.  I didn’t end up going to Uni but instead worked in the hospitality industry which contributed to my weight issues (all my fault for making bad food choices – I’m not trying to blame anyone or anything here as it was all me).  I would now be able to hold my head high instead of lowering it slightly when I see our brave diggers walk on by.  I want to make it right but I don’t know how.  I have thought about writing a letter to the defence chief and apologising for wasting their time and money way back in 1990.  I doubt it would do any good.  It might make me feel a little better though.  I’ll have a think about it.

This concludes my 3 part series – “I was only 17”.  The title of this series is based on the Australian Music Group, “Red Gum”, who have a hugely successful song titled, “I was only Nineteen” which is a song about an Australian soldier who fought in Vietnam.  You can find it at iTunes.

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments please leave them below.  I am more than happy to talk to anyone who is unsure if a career in the army is for them.

Please rate this post out of 5 stars and leave a comment if you feel compelled. Thanks for reading!

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I was only 17: Part 2 – Puckapunyal

Welcome to my next chapter in the story about my time in the Australian Regular Army.  Click here to read Part 1 – Basic Training.

The bus trip to Puckapunyal from Kapooka took around 5 hours.  The journey was one of reflection, looking back at the last 13 weeks of basic training including the highs and the awful lows.  However there was an air of expectation on the bus.  We were no longer known as ‘recruit’ as we now had our ranks.  Amongst us were Sappers, Troopers, Signalmen and my rank of Privates.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had been accepted into the Royal Australian Transport Corp and was on my way to Puckapunyal to complete the 13 week Basic Drivers Course.  Immediately upon arrival I noticed that the strictness of Kapooka had been replaced with a somewhat relaxed feel but this was still a military base after all and there was still a requirement to be disciplined.

One of the main points of difference was that we were in training with soldiers from bases from all around Australia.  I formed a friendship with a corporal by the name of Robert Grant.  Rob was a great guy who was very easy going and became a great mentor to me.  He was married and lived in NSW and half way through the Basic Drivers Course we would go for a road trip to his home to meet his wife.  This road trip enabled me to drive long distances for the first time ever.

Before joining the army I did not know how to drive.  I didn’t have my licence, however I did have my learners permit.  My best mate, Mark’s mum, had given me a couple of lessons and other than one disastrous attempt driving my drunk mates home from our school formal graduation party, I didn’t really know how to drive very well.  This was one of the main reasons I requested to join the Transport Corp as I sensed an opportunity to learn how to drive and avoid getting my head shot off on the front lines if we ever went to war.  Smart thinking, huh?  You betcha!

So the training started.  First off we were taught how to drive the Army Land Rovers. They were all manuals – that’s stick shift for my American friends.  We were taught how to double clutch and drive straight and safely.  My first attempts at driving resembled a rabbit on speed!  Bunny hopping up and down the training track.  I kept apologising to my instructor but he said it was all good.  He was a corporal and explained that they actually preferred the 17 year olds to train as that meant they didn’t have to untrain bad habits previously acquired.

A Land Rover

Before long I became adept at driving the Land Rovers.  No probs and I became quite proficient.  Well I suppose it shouldn’t take that long to learn when that is our full time job, driving all day, every day.   The next challenge was driving the Army trucks called Unimogs.

The UNIMOG

As you can see these are a bit bigger than a standard Land Rover.  16 gears, 8 forward, 8 reverse.  The double clutch technique we were taught for the Land Rovers was actually in preparation for use in the Unimogs.  They actually were quite easy to drive.  The only thing extra I recall having to remember was to make sure when turning to make sure you went a little wider than normal to avoid hitting the kerb with the rear wheels which I failed to do once driving the troops into a McDonalds!

One part of the actual training that has stayed with me for life, other than the actual skill of driving, was a video presentation we received before our very first driving lesson.  We were shown a video of car crash accidents with the dead bodies still in the smashed cars.  We were also shown video of a crash accident victim’s autopsy.  For all of us, this was our first experience seeing dead bodies.  While it was only on film, the impact has stayed with me since then.  I can still see the horrible and tragic images of those poor people who died so suddenly and in such a horrific way.  On a side note, I would go as far as saying that this video should be shown as a compulsory requirement of driver training for all people, not only those in the military.  I am sure it would help reduce the road toll.

There was only one incident though which almost cost myself, my instructor and the 20 odd troops in the back of the carrier our lives.  Towards the end of the training course, we were on a week long tour of Victoria.  It was my turn at the wheel and we were driving through some hilly terrain.  Going downhill I tried to change into a lower gear but couldn’t get the truck into gear.  We were gaining speed and I was beginning to panic as there was a deep decline off to the side of the road and I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of 20 odd people including myself.  The truck just would not go into gear and the exhaust brakes did not seem to be responding too well.  Faster and faster we went until finally with the assistance of the instructor, I was able to get the truck back into a low gear and we continued on to our destination without further incident.  I was a little worried though as running through my head was a statement which I had been told early in the training course – “Always give the guys in the back a good ride or they may pull you out of the cabin when you’ve stopped and give you a hiding”.  So this was going through my head as we were pulling into camp.  I got out of the cabin and went around the back to lower the back tail gate with a fair bit of trepidation.  The guys got out and thanked me for the ride.  Phew!  I avoided an ass kicking.

I was restricted in what I could actually do physically during this training at Puckapunyal.  As I mentioned in my previous post, during basic training I started to get a lot of knee pain in both knees.  The army doctors diagnosed that my symptoms were brought on by running in boots as they were not very shock absorbent and going up and down the 3 flights of stairs numerous times a day.  The impact of my knees was quite hard and as a result I had constant grinding in them.  The doctors put me on restrictions until further notice.  The restrictions known as a CHIT prevented me from doing any physical activities.  This included marching, drill, PT and any other physical activity other than walking.

Then one day I was caught playing racquet ball with Corporal Robert Grant and was hauled in front of my commanding officer where I was given one hell of a reprimand.  I was disobeying orders by playing sport.  When you disobey orders you can be arrested by the MP’s and put into the stockade.  I had heard about the Aussie version of military prison.  Essentially the military prison on base was an exercise yard with bunks built on the sides.  In the middle of the exercise yard were two different coloured lines approx 5 metres apart. Let’s say they were blue and green.  At any one time one of the MP’s would call out one of the line colours and you would need to rush to it and stand to attention.  After an amount of time the MP would call out the other line colour and you would need to run to it as quickly as possible and again, stand to attention.  The amount of time you would need to stand to attention on one of the lines would vary.  It could be 10 seconds or it could be an hour.  This form of punishment might take hours to complete or it might take minutes.  It could happen at 2am or in the heat of the day at midday.  I’m glad I never found out.  I was so scared shitless to be sent to jail for doing something like playing racquet ball.  I was 17 and while it may have been a bluff from my superiors, I wasn’t about to take the risk.

So from that day on during my Basic Drivers course, I didn’t disobey any orders.  I completed the training but found myself very unhappy and a lot of this unhappiness was due to my inability to be active.  I was so fit when I joined the army.  I was 17 and 76kg.  I worked out that I would exercise for at least 2 hours a day when I was in school.  This was achieved by riding my bike to and from school (30mins), playing touch footy at lunch time (30 mins) and spending at least an hour day at the park across the road from home kicking the footy with my mate, Denis or at football training.  I was always on the go.  Now for the first time in my life, I was inactive and hating it.  My mates in the training course were supportive to a degree but I felt ostracized when they were able to PT and drill daily and therefore I did not feel part of the team.  This is also the very beginning of my weight problems which regular readers will know have plagued me ever since.

I also had a very bad case of tonsillitis during training and spent 4 days in hospital which was miserable.  So the high I found myself on when I arrived for this second stage of training was fast evaporating and I found myself again, wishing I was at home and out of this nightmare.

As the training was drawing to an end, we were asked to nominate where we would like to be posted to on a full time basis.  Of course I requested Enoggera in Brisbane, close to home.  I was informed this was unlikely and the only reason for soldiers being sent home was if they had their own family there.  A family which included a wife and kids.  I had neither and soon found myself heading to Sydney and the Holsworthy Army Base and my new life as a fully trained soldier.

The final and darkest chapter of my army life occurred in Sydney and it would go on to shape the man I would become.

I was only 17 – The Final Chapter…..Click here.

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I was only 17: Part 1 – Basic Training

To say I was a student who under performed in high school would be an understatement.  It’s not that I wasn’t intelligent; I just wasn’t interested in doing homework or studying.  In fact, I don’t remember studying once.  When I graduated from high school I was near the bottom of the class.

I never had any aspirations to go to university.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  I did actually want to be a police officer, but with my results that was never going to happen.

Ever since I was 10 I had had a few different part time jobs.  Answering phones for a small town’s taxi company.  I had a paper round.  I was a cleaner at Donut King.  I was even writing labels at a record store before ending up at Coles Supermarkets as a trolley boy and check out rooster.  I think Coles management were considering me for a full time career there but I remember thinking at the time that I don’t want to work in a supermarket for the rest of my life.  So I did what a lot of other young men and women do straight out of high school.  I enlisted and joined the Australian Regular Army.

So exactly 2 months after finishing high school and aged 17, I took my oath to the Queen of Australia that I would defend my country.  That day, I said goodbye to my family and friends who saw me off at the airport and was sent off to Basic Training at Kapooka in New South Wales.

That afternoon, myself and another 10 blokes from Queensland arrived and were shown to our platoon quarters. Our platoon was located in Alpha Company, 4th Platoon.  We were instructed by the corporals to prepare the barracks for the arrival of the other recruits from the other states. It was great to be doing something different.  There was a sense of excitement.  We were boys and we were about to be men.

The following day, the remainder of the recruits arrived.  We were kitted out with our greens (fatigues), back packs, boots, PT gear, sneakers, brass, the SLR Rifle, bayonet, shaving kit and a whole heap of other standard issue gear.  We were then marched up to the barber and we all lost our hair.  It was the first time I had ever had a crew cut.  It was weird seeing my hair fall away from the clippers instead of being cut by a female hairdresser.  Weird but exciting.

Next we were given a meeting by our instructors.  All seemed very nice and funny.  The majority of our instructors were corporals with one sergeant and one lieutenant in overall charge.  We were taught how to shave (most of the guys there had never shaved before).  We were also taught how to iron our clothes using enough starch so they would stand up on their own.  We were also shown how to make our beds to a military standard including using hospital corners.  We were given the night to get our lockers into military order.  There was an air of excitement among the guys.  I remember calling my mum at home and telling her how exciting it was.  The next phone call home a few weeks later would be vastly different

The first morning, reveille was at 6am sharp.  We were informed the night before that when we heard “Hallway 4” called out at any time we were to repeat the call and we were to assemble outside our room, standing at attention immediately.  So when the call came at 6am while we were all still sleeping, it was a bit of a shock to the system.  We were yelled at and told we had less than 10 minutes to shave, dress and make our beds and of course we had to do this to perfection.  Once completed, we were marched down to the mess hall for breakfast.  The mess hall was fast filling with hundreds of other recruits all at different stages of training.  Each week, a new platoon of recruits would arrive to commence their basic training.

After breakfast we were taken to a parade ground and taught how to march properly.  All in unison.  Now, marching may sound easy but in reality it isn’t.  In theory when a person walks, when the right leg goes forward the left arm swings back and vice versa.  There were some dudes whose right arm would swing forward when their right leg goes forward.  When marching, it is very important that all recruits march in unison and create a great cadence.  This is important as it looks much better and sounds great too.  So for hours we were marched around the parade ground.  This is January in outback Australia and it is hot.  Guys were fainting and we were all dehydrating even though we were being instructed to drink from our canteens at regular intervals.  It took a good week or so but eventually we got it.

Marching. I’m in there somewhere.

That first night we were forced to take a shower and then present our naked selves to the instructors where they would check our genitals for god knows what. Actually I think they were checking for hernia, as we had to cough when the grabbed our testicles, but with them not being doctors I don’t think they would recognise the symptoms anyway.  I actually think it was part of the process of breaking us down.  While the showers were in cubicles there were no shower curtains so showering in front of your mates was the norm.  Pretty embarrassing stuff but eventually you get over it.That first afternoon when the 13 week training period began, we were given fitness tests.  Fitness was not a problem for me.  I was extremely fit and handled the physical side easily.  I was the fastest swimmer in the fully clothed test swim.  I was mid pack in the running races and in the forward pack over the obstacle courses.  I could do the chin ups and other rigorous exercises.

Mentally, it was taking a toll on all of us.  We were treated like shit.  All bar a few of the blokes in our platoon were no older than 18.  Most of us didn’t have a lot of discipline about us and we were taught very quickly that you didn’t question orders and you did as you were bloody well told.

There were no days off.  Training was seven days a week from 6am until 10pm.  Granted we were in our rooms by about 7pm but our evenings were structured.  Sometimes we would have hallway training sessions in how to polish brass or rifle maintenance.  At times we were forced to write letters home.  No computers and email back in those days so a lot of hand writing went on.  I didn’t write a lot but I do remember writing a couple of letters to a girl I was sweet on. I got a couple of letters back from her but eventually the letters from her stopped.  Her dad didn’t approve of a guy in the army as she and her twin were from a wealthy family.  If I was enlisting as an officer it might have been a different story, but a ‘grunt’ is not of the standard this father had envisioned for his daughter.  Being a father now myself, I can’t blame him.

We lost our identity.  Gone were our first names.  The instructors use to test us by asking our names.  They would walk into the room and you would need to stand to attention.  Less than an inch to your face, they would ask you your name.  The answer was ‘recruit’ and if you answered with your real name you could expect some sort of physical punishment.  Be it push ups or sit ups or planks or raising your feet 6 inches off the deck and holding it for what seemed an eternity.  We learnt that lesson pretty fast.

It was tough work.  Physically and mentally!  They had to break us down to our raw selves to rebuild us as soldiers.  Stronger, tougher, versatile, disciplined.  I understand this now but at the time I didn’t.  What 17 year old would?  They were also building us into a team.  If one of us was letting the platoon down, then we would all be punished.  Part of the discipline was having to shave every day, whether you needed to or not.  The razors we were supplied with were the old style straight edge razor where you would unwind the top and insert a new, sharp blade.  They were extremely sharp.  During the first week in training it was not uncommon to see a lot of the kids cut their faces to bits.  I remember one morning a few weeks in, this one young recruit was busted shaving by one of the instructors, just after 5am in the morning.  We’ll call him George.  Prior to joining the army, George had never shaved before.  He had no need.  So George would wake up early and go to the bathroom and shave in his own time, making sure he didn’t cut himself.  Once finished he would quietly go back to bed and then rise again when ‘hallway 4’ was called.  Except this one morning when he got busted.  We were all punished.  We rushed into the hallway and stood to attention.  We were read the riot act that we were not acting as a team.  One of our team mates was letting us all down.  So that morning we were given a wake up call right there in our boxer shorts in the hallway.  We were given numerous push ups and other strenuous exercise. Remember we had only been awake for a few minutes and it was very difficult.  From that point on, we all tried our best to help our team mates.

The ‘Hallway 4” call provided its own challenges.  Sometimes the call would go out at 2 o’clock in the morning and we would dash and stand to attention until relieved by the instructors.  Normally this would only last a minute or so and after we had sounded off we would be dismissed and head back to bed.

Sounding off is while standing at attention, the first recruit in line, when instructed, would call out the number 1.  The recruit next to him would call out 2 and so on up and down the hallway at fast pace.  Hopefully we got the count right and the last recruit in line would call out his number and this should match the amount of recruits in our platoon.  If not, someone was in the head (latrines) or AWOL.  Luckily it was always the former and never the latter.  There was this one time at about 4am when the ‘hallway 4’ call went out and there we were, bleary eyed, standing to attention waiting for the instructor to issue orders.  We waited and waited and waited.  Nothing!  Eventually after about an hour a brave recruit said ‘stuff this’ and went back to bed.  One by one we all followed suit.  It turned out that one of the recruits had been dreaming and called out ‘hallway 4’ in his sleep.  That recruit was treated to a Code Red (yes, just like in the movie, A Few Good Men).  While sleeping, the recruits would get a pillow case and put bars of soap or boots in it and come and hit the recruit as a form of punishment.  It happened to me once but 20 years on, I don’t actually remember the reason why I got it.  It was easily the worst moment of my life.  The feeling that your platoon has turned on you is a hard one.  It takes time and a lot of effort to redeem yourself.  I was lucky that I was able to but it took time.

The first 4 weeks of training was the hardest.  We were told when to eat, sleep, shit, shower.  We had to walk past a coke vending machine everyday but weren’t allowed a single drop.  I remember in week 5 when we were allowed to buy a can of coke, how sweet and cold it was.  I can still remember the feeling to this day and I still think it is the best can of coke I have ever had!  The daily torture of seeing the machine and not being able to have one, I liken to a crack addict not being able to have the cocaine locked in a see through box right in front of him.

In school I was super fit but running was not really my forte.  I was more into team sports and kicking the footy around with one of my best mates after school everyday.  The runs we did in the army were harsh.  Wearing combat boots and full battle gear including rifles and back packs and doing 12 km hikes and runs were some of the hardest physical conditions I have ever been in.  I hated each one of them.  Most of our physical activity was done in full fatigues.  Whether it was drilling (which I really enjoyed) or obstacle courses or running, we were wearing boots.  In fact, the only time we wore sneakers was during our daily 40 minute PT session.  I guess that when you go to war you don’t go in your Nikes and gym gear so it made sense to train us in full combat gear.  However there was a downside to wearing the boots.  In addition to the physical demands, our platoon was based on the top floor of a three story barracks block and with no lifts, we were constantly walking up and down the stairs throughout the day.  This is where my current knee problems started and eventually would be the catalyst for my discharge from the army.

Around this time I started calling home to mum a lot.  I needed someone to talk to and I remember crying a lot.  I feel really bad now that I put my mum through that.  Being a single parent is hard and I placed a lot of stress on her.  Plus the phone bills mounted up as I was calling home reverse charge.  There was no support mechanism there.  You are thrust from being a boy to being a man in a few short weeks.  Growing up without a father or brothers didn’t prepare me for what I would face and encounter.  I couldn’t talk to my platoon mates because then I could expect a Code Red for being weak.  I couldn’t talk to my superiors because then I could expect more punishment.  My mum was my only conduit to talk to and she helped me through it.

In week 8, we were given 5 days leave and I went home.  By this stage I was actually starting to enjoy training.  I had done a hell of a lot of growing up and I was keen to share my experiences with the family.  The ‘girlfriend’ came around to meet everyone at my mum’s place at a BBQ held for me.  I never heard from her again after that!  I still blame my family for scaring her away!  Ha!  Good riddance.  I was happy to return to Kapooka for my final 5 week basic training course but I knew that this training would be the hardest of them all.  There were immense challenges to come including the 3 day final challenge aptly named the “Challenge”.

The ‘Girlfriend’ – Not sure which one though!!

I had learnt a lot of skills.  First aid and orienteering included. I had done pretty well at orienteering in high school so it was great to put to use something I did learn at school.  However the army orienteering course was huge and would take the better part of a whole day to complete.   Also, I was one hell of a shot and was one of the top 2 shooters in the platoon which earnt me respect amongst the team – maybe they were worried I was gonna shoot them if they gave me a Code Red again!

The last couple of weeks you could see that we had really gelled as a platoon.  We looked great.  We marched in perfect unison.  We drilled in perfect unison.  We were fit and cocky.

Then one morning, tragedy!  From our top floor barracks, a few hundred metres away, we could see an object swaying in the wind from the branches on one of the huge gum trees near the parade ground.  It was a recruit from one of the other platoons who had killed himself during the night.  I didn’t know him.  We had heard stories of recruits killing themselves during basic training over the years.  In fact, one had killed himself in the barracks directly below us just prior to us arriving.  I can still see this poor fella, swaying slightly, silhouetted in the early morning sun.  It will stay with me forever.  A life wasted.

I wish I could say that this strengthened my resolve but unfortunately it made my stay at Kapooka even harder.  I wanted out.  I wanted to go home.  I eventually approached my lieutenant and requested a discharge but was denied.  Well not really denied but talked out of it.  So close to graduating, I was assured that the worst was behind me.  But if I did want to leave I could, but I would be held in a remand centre on base until basic training was over and my platoon had graduated.  Now, I don’t think this was true. I think they could have sent me home right there and then but I assume they had an obligation to ensure I graduated otherwise it would have been tax payers money wasted on training me.  So I elected to complete my training, grow up and enjoy my army career. Oh by the way.  This was no civilised conversation.  I was put into a room with the Sergeant and was told that if it was no longer illegal to strike recruits, he would be turning my face into marshmallows right about now.  It was an easy decision to stay!

Week 13 finally arrives.  We are all well trained but it is time to do the gruelling “Challenge”.  This involved war games with simulated battles waged all day and all night.  Each night we found ourselves in a new location and we dug our holes and burrowed in for the night.  We never really slept as we were always on guard, looking for the enemy and ready to engage when the need arose.  To complete the “Challenge” a demanding 12km hike and rifle range shoot was required.  Carrying the mock injured through this final day on mock stretchers while trying to stay alive gave me a real appreciation for what real diggers had done over the years from Gallipoli to the Kakoda Track.  Eventually we finished it.  I was exhausted and relished the cup of hot chocolate and the dry bickies handed out at the finish line.

At the end of the challenge

For the rest of the week it was all about rehearsing for the march out parade. The march out parade was full ceremonial dress and done in front of our family and friends.  My mum and sister, Joanne and best friend, Mark all made the long trip down by driving from Brisbane. I was proud as punch to be graduating but to be doing it in front of those guys added extra meaning to it.  I missed out on winning Best Shot in the platoon.  I was later told that if I hadn’t have been a sooky lala I would have won it.  Bugger.  It didn’t matter, for now, I felt like a winner for just graduating.

The next day, we were all shipped off to our specialist training centres across the country.  I had been accepted into the Transport Corp and another 13 week training period at Puckapunyal in rural Victoria awaited me.

Me and Mum on March Out Day

Basic training takes boys and turns them into men.  It isn’t easy.  We all lost some of our innocence during those 13 weeks.  We saw things that no one should see.  We experienced highs and lows.  Some of them significant.   I look back now and regret it.  I don’t regret being there, but how I spent my time there.  I should have sucked it up more and enjoyed the ride.  If I could go back 20 years to my 17 year old self, I would tell him to shut up and listen.  Take the hits but keep on getting back up.  Learn from those men how to be a man.  Up until that point in my life I hadn’t had that opportunity to learn from a male figure.  I had no brothers.  My father lived in another state with limited access and my mum never remarried.  By the end of the 13 weeks though, I had grown up….a lot!  But I had a lot more growing up to do.

But that is a whole other story.

To be continued………..

I was only 17 – Part 2 – Puckapunyal – Click here.

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