Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Aging is a Bugger

I’ve always believed that age is a state of mind. Until a few days ago, I was pretty comfortable in that belief.

I still do all the physical things I used to when I was 25. The difference now is that it takes much longer to recover.

This was brought home with a vengeance a few years ago when my bride and I took our two daughters on a holiday to Noosa. I had just “retired” so was looking forward to a holiday that would herald a new carefree lifestyle. After running a series of Special Schools for eighteen years, this release from responsibility looked pretty good.

My youngest daughter enjoys all manner of sporting activity, so we made use of both the tennis courts at the resort and the nearby beach break. I had always enjoyed body surfing and decided to give her some expert tuition.

After a morning (about three hours) on the tennis court and an afternoon in the surf, the four of us (bride and other daughter as well) went to a restaurant in the evening. This capped off a perfect day.

The next day was not so perfect. I woke up stiff and store, and by lunch time could barely move. My whole upper trunk was one massive ache generated by protesting muscles which had done little for months except manipulate a keyboard, and load stuff in and out of cars. They had not coped well with hours of tennis and surfing, and were letting me know in no uncertain terms.

My lower body, on the other hand was fine, as at that time I was jogging daily.

These days I walk.

I had to take a rain check on daughter’s requests for more of the same, and the BMW Z3 we’d hired for three days sat in the garage. I couldn’t lift my arms to the steering wheel.

It took about three days for the stiffness and aching to subside.

I was reminded of this during the last few days. On Sunday I gave the MX5 a good cleanup. The easiest way to clean the interior is to take the top down, and use a vacuum cleaner whilst standing outside the car. As I bent over with the nozzle to access a particularly hard-to-find corner, something on the lower right side of my chest let go.

I’ve been in pretty severe pain since. My complaints have generated lots of advice from my bride to visit the quack, but I’m aware that this will probably not be useful, as it’s a matter of giving the torn muscle time to heal. I’ve been to my GP with torn muscles before, and was told – not altogether sympathetically – “You’re getting older, you know – you can’t expect to be able to behave as you did when you were 30”.

He needed seven years of study to tell me this?

This particular muscle seems to be employed in everything I do, from cleaning my teeth to bending over to retrieve something dropped, so it aches pretty much all the time.

I couldn’t even take the garbage out last night.

Monday, 21 December 2009


We’ve been living in this city for twelve years now – the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place.

My bride and I have lived in eleven different homes during our thirty-two years of marriage, and our four kids have attended a grand total of twelve schools. It was to slow down this rate of change that we settled in Toowoomba.

Places we lived in included Mount Gravatt, Petrie, Townsville (Kirwan and Rowes Bay), and Mount Isa (Sunset).

As it is, my eldest actually attended four different schools, but our youngest only two, because we had stopped moving by the time she was old enough for school. All of them attended both state and private schools.

I don’t think the moving around did any of them any harm. My dad was a bush principal, and I also attended a range of different schools, both public and private all over the state. My kids have done the same.

Toowoomba, we found, is different.

After Mt Isa and Townsville, settling in Toowoomba felt a bit like time-travel (backwards). The Northern towns and cities had a completely different atmosphere. There was a rapid turnover of people, and few remained long enough to develop a sense of entitlement.

I first encountered this sense of entitlement at work, when I tried to introduce a few (small) changes. The resistance was amazing. I learned quickly that it paid to hasten slowly.

An interesting example of this was a suggestion I made that we could take a class of kids on an excursion to Longreach. We had a school bus – I had a licence to drive it, and had developed a lot of strong contacts in Longreach in my time working out there. Longreach has a lot of interesting educational venues (Stockman’s Hall of Fame, Qantas Museum etc). The Principal of the Longreach School of Distance Education at the time offered the school facilities for free lodging.

My teachers simply refused to cooperate, so I let the idea go. I discovered later that of a staff of about thirty, less than five had actually travelled West of Dalby (90kms down the road). There was a belief that if you went too far West there was a strong possibility that you would fall off the edge of the map. Longreach was simply incomphrehensible.

Last week, a teacher retired from a suburban Toowoomba primary school. The write-up in the local rag (Toowoomba Chronicle) pointed out that that she had worked on the same class in this school for forty-two years!

Only in Toowoomba.

Perhaps the best way of describing the culture is to recount an incident that happened in my second year here (1997).

At about eight in the morning I received a phone call from one of my teachers who had been involved in a prang on his way to work. He’d phoned to say that he was OK to come to work and teach, but his car was badly damaged and undriveable.

I offered to collect him (the accident was a few blocks from school) and drove to the intersection where he was waiting. It had been a pretty nasty incident, and one of the people in the other car had been injured. Fuel was also leaking from one of the cars.

This meant that the Police, Ambos and Fire and Rescue were all attending, so there was a fair bit of congestion at the intersection. I elected to park away from the corner to avoid all this, and pulled up in front of a house about a hundred metres up.

I was immediately confronted by a middle-aged woman in night attire and slippers, who angrily demanded to know why I had parked in front of her house. I explained the situation, and once she understood that there was a bit of excitement happening, she stopped abusing me and took off at a gallop towards the accident. A number of things were apparent – she had little better to do than abuse people she didn’t know who parked on a public road in front of her house, but was always ready to be distracted by a little bit of drama.

Once this mindset is clear, understanding Toowoomba becomes easy. The editor of the local paper understands it very well, and sells lots of newsprint covered with stories about lost dogs and minor accidents.

You can draw a line down Ruthven Street (the main drag) and this neatly separates old Toowoomba from new Toowoomba. East of the line is new (and generally of a higher socio-economic standing) and West of it is old. Attitudes about most things are strongly conservative irrespective of socio-economic circumstances, although Toowoomba North is a Labor seat. Toowoomba was the heartland of the Labor split in the fifties, and some of the old DLP views persist to this day. The recent sad story of abuse at a local Catholic primary school could only have happened here.

Only in Toowoomba could a pressure group called “Citizens Against Drinking Sewage” be formed and exert enough influence to put the kibosh on a scheme which would have saved Toowoomba residents a fortune in water rates.

Having said that, it is a great place to live. Most costs (except water) are low, it’s usually a little cooler that the coast because of its elevation, and it has more schools per square kilo than just about anywhere else in Queensland (with the possible exception of Charters Towers).

It’s also a convenient stepping off place to destinations South and West, avoiding the congestion of the area around Brisbane and Ipswich.

There are even some half-decent restaurants, but I still have to drive to Brisbane (or Charleville) for Vietnamese dosh. You can get good Thai tucker at the Hot Basil Thai Cottage and Pandan Delight.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Friendly Fire

Yesterday was December 1oth, the anniversary of my return to Australia (RTA) in 1970. My habit has been to post a story from my tour on this day.

The last time I did this it met with a furious reaction from someone who didn't like my attitude. Let's see what happens with this post.

The pic was taken at a company harbour at about this time. Pictured are the Company OC, our CSM and my platoon commander. We were waiting to be choppered to a new AO. It was stinking hot and dry - a bit like it is here now.

Enjoy -

I’m not sure of the origin of the phrase “friendly fire”, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t coined by the US military. The euphemism aligns well with other phrases such as “VC suspects”, used regularly at the famous Five O’Clock Follies. The American military seemed to have a talent for creating interesting euphemisms. These days we hear about “collateral damage”.

There were a number of Friendly Fire incidents during the Australian involvement in Vietnam, and some unfortunate diggers weren’t lucky enough to survive them. Early in our tour, misdirected mortars from an Australian unit hit some diggers in our battalion. We were almost as likely to be shot up by Kiwis or other Australian units as we were by the Yanks. Friendly fire was a major problem in Vietnam due to the nature of the conflict. The jungle, the lack of a defined front line, and the variety and inexperience of many of the units were all contributing factors.

From our perspective, the Americans seemed to follow the principle that if you shot off enough ordinance in the general direction of where you thought the enemy might be, you stood a good chance of hitting something. We were trained to seek targets if at all possible. Perhaps the difference in approach was an indication of the resources we had to spare. Ammunition was expensive.

We heard talk of the Yank harbour drill – supposedly every soldier fired off a magazine of whatever he was carrying at the time to his immediate front, once the platoon was harboured.

This activity, called “the mad minute”, was supposed to clean up anything and anybody near the harbour. Our belief was that it cleaned up a few wild pigs and other assorted wildlife, at the same time letting every VC within ten klics know exactly where the platoon was for the night. I didn’t have personal experience of this phenomenon, but the stories persisted. It probably had some basis in fact, although there were some very good US units.

We probably should not, as a company, have been surprised by close encounters with stray American ordinance, given an incident very early in the tour. During our first couple of weeks in-country we were taken on a “firepower demonstration”. This was a common experience for newly arrived infantry soldiers and was intended to make us feel secure as we became aware of the firepower that supported us. We were marched to an area on the edge of the Nui Dat base; where we settled down to watch what sounded to me like a glorified fireworks demonstration, except that it was in broad daylight.

Loudspeakers were set up and were patched into the air-ground communications net, so that we could hear the conversations between the forward controllers and the pilots. We were in a very good position to pick up exactly what was going on. The whole unit was assembled and all ranks were present, so the occasion, which must have cost a lot of money, was obviously considered very important.

Initially, we were treated to a demonstration of mortar fire, then artillery (our own and the New Zealanders). This was reassuring, as it was accurate and obviously very professional. It was also an impressive show, setting off a lot of dust and smoke. The area was very dry, and some secondary fires were started, something that was to become a problem for us later on our first operation.

The next part of the demonstration consisted of air-delivered ordinance. First up, the RAAF Canberras demonstrated their technique of low-speed, medium-level bombing using high explosive bombs.

Again, this was impressive, as they were very accurate and, by the look of the explosions, very effective. Next we were to watch some USAF F-100 fighter-bombers let loose some Napalm.

They came in from our left, very high and very fast. The bombs tumbled away from the aircraft and exploded with a whooshing noise and enormous clouds of black smoke. The only problem was that they fell almost 500 metres from the designated target area. In fact, they were so far off target, that one of the pilots could be heard panicking over the radio (broadcast so we all could hear), asking whether there were any “friendlies” in the area.

We never did discover the reason for the lack of accuracy, but the diggers on their second tour didn’t seem at all surprised. This left me with a very poor regard for the USAF and a determination to make sure, if possible, to be well dug-in, if there was any chance that they were being called in to “help” us. As it happened, when we did strike bunkers, the F-100s once again were inaccurate, but fortunately all they damaged was a lot of scrub.

But getting back to the “friendly fire” incident that involved my section –
We had been patrolling for some time towards the end of our first major operation, and it had been quiet. We had traveled a couple of klics in hot weather and at a fairly rapid pace, and were moving as a company. Six platoon was in the lead, we (5 platoon) followed, and 4 platoon was bringing up the rear. We were in single file, so were strung out across a wide area. The country was abandoned paddy, interspersed with clumps of bamboo and low vegetation.

The abandoned paddy was essentially bare, as the soil seemed poor, and very hard. I discovered only recently that there was a high iron content in the soil, something which became very significant in the light of what followed.

I was fulfilling my usual role of recording paces on my sheep counter and relaying the count to the skipper (who was one section up the line) when requested. I was second to last in the platoon, followed only by our tail end Charlie.

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Somebody opened up on us from behind with what sounded like a heavy machine gun (although at that point if you had told me it was an elephant gun firing on full auto, I would have believed you). Rounds were whipping past my ears, and the vegetation, such as it was, was being chopped to bits. Before I had digested any of this, I found myself on the ground, pack abandoned, pointing in the general direction of the rear, where the rounds had apparently come from. I felt exposed, as in this particular area, there wasn't much cover of substance. Over the pounding of my heart, and my rasping breath, I could hear yelling. Some of it was coming from the direction of our tail-end Charlie, and the rest from the general direction of platoon HQ, further up the line.

Our tail-end Charlie was saying that he was hit, and someone in platoon HQ was yelling "Contact" into the radio. The firing, after this short initial burst of about twenty rounds, had stopped. Then I heard my section commander's voice asking the tail-end Charlie if he was OK. He replied "Yes, but I'm hit bad".

This didn't seem to make sense. In fact, my brain was desperately trying to understand the situation, and wasn't really getting anywhere. I didn't have long to wait. I heard the skipper yell "It's 4 platoon – don't fire", and it all began to fall into place. I also saw our section commander moving cautiously with his head down past me towards our tail-end Charlie, who, it turned out had been hit on the end of his nose, which had been removed. He was a very lucky digger. He was OK, but was bleeding profusely from what was left of his nose.

First aid was applied, in the shape of a field dressing across his face, and "Dustoff" (a "Possum" chopper) arrived very quickly. He boarded it as an ambulant casualty, and was last seen sitting beside the pilot holding the dressing to his nose.

It had quickly become apparent that we had been fired on by the gunner in the lead section of 4 platoon. Both 4 and 5 platoon reported a simultaneous contact, and Company HQ was fortunately on the ball, recognising "friendly fire" immediately.

Once the adrenaline had subsided, I began to think about what had happened. Two things bothered me. One was how close those rounds of M60 had been when they whizzed past my ears, and how random was the result. The other was how we came to be fired upon by our own people. The second issue bothered me more than somewhat, because wasn't I, with my trusty sheep counter, personally responsible for one vital aspect of navigation, distance covered? Wasn't the cause of this incident a misunderstanding of our position in relation to that of 4 platoon? We were supposed to be separated by at least 400 metres, and we had obviously been a lot closer than that.

I heard nothing more from the skipper, so understood that I was not being held responsible. By this time we were at the point of harbouring for the night. It was dusk, sentries were called in, and we stood to for a while. For the first time in this operation, we dug shell scrapes. It was amazing how twenty rounds of M60 whizzing by at close proximity reinforced our collective sense of vulnerability.

I’ve learned a great truth about “friendly fire”. The term has a particular irony for anyone on the receiving end. I can assure you that it feels anything but friendly.

In the last few years (over thirty-five since the incident), I've also discovered something else. I researched and read the after action report. It claimed that enemy had been seen, and this was given as the reason for the fire. As one who was there, I strongly doubt this interpretation, although I can understand why it was recorded as the official explanation. Obviously, no enquiry is necessary if a "friendly" has been wounded – however slightly – by "overshoot". It saves paperwork.

The other revelation came in conversation with my platoon commander in 2008. He told me that the iron content of the soil in this particular area rendered compasses almost useless. My distance recording was not the factor that cost the unfortunate digger his nose. This was comforting, even if I learned about it thirty-eight years after the event.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Tyranny of Time and Distance

Tomorrow I head west on a journey that will take me nearly 2000km by the time I get back on Thursday.

This is not my preference – it’s happened because the charter flight I was supposed to be using to get me to Cunnamulla was cancelled due to “equipment failure”. I hasten to add that the “equipment” referred to is not the aircraft – but some form of complicated medical equipment that must have succumbed to the record-breaking 45 degree temperatures that have been experienced for the last couple of weeks.

The doc can’t ply his trade without the requisite gear – his patients will have to go east.

I hope that my 60 plus year-old physical equipment is up to the task. Generally, I cope with these conditions pretty well as long as I drink plenty of water and keep an eye on my exposed skin. I have an area on the right side of my face covered in keratoses which used to flare up after such a trip until I understood the problem. The external rear view mirror reflects the eastern sun on my face as I head west in the morning. The solution is to cover this area with 30+ sunscreen and renew it regularly. Covering my hands with Uveto gauntlets also helps.

The heat itself doesn’t bother me. It’s a dry heat which isn’t as uncomfortable as the coastal humidity, but if you’re out in the direct sun, it can be pretty taxing. A big hat helps, and comfortable clothing is as must. The people who settled this country must have been tough – especially the women, when you consider what they used to wear.

The conditions in the schools I work in are generally pretty comfortable, because of a rule made years ago which determined that west and north of a certain latitude, evaporative air conditioners would be installed in schools. They are, but not all of them work according to specifications. This can make maintaining concentration tough at times.

So here’s hoping for a return to normal November temperatures in the Warrego and Maranoa next week, and that all the macropods are dozing in the shade when I pass through. The vehicle I’m using (Mitsubishi Outlander) is already showing the scars of a roo strike.

I don’t want to add any more.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Accidental Relationship

As the eldest of six, siblings have been very significant in my life. The same holds for my wife, who is one of eleven.

As our four have all left home, it is probably a good time to reflect on the sibling relationship and its significance at different life stages. You don’t choose your siblings (hence “accidental relationship”) but they have a major influence.

When I was a child, I fought cat and dog with my brother who was eighteen months younger. My two sisters also copped a fair degree of harassment from their older male siblings, myself included. My wife reports the same from her older brothers.

Whether this was harmful or helpful – I’m not sure. It was probably a bit of both. Our parents were always around to make sure it didn’t get out of hand. My siblings grew to become strong and confident adults, who have lived successful lives. Perhaps this robust give and take helped. Between us we have a school principal, an assistant director-general, two successful wives and mothers who balanced professional careers (music teaching and public service) and child rearing, a company manager and a rural GP whose hobby is emergency medicine.

Our relationships have seemed to grow stronger with the passing of time. We have a joke about our family “Mafia”. Each of us has a different area of expertise (music, finance, education, caring, technology, and medicine), and we never cease to call on each other in times of difficulty when sound common-sense coupled with genuine expertise is needed. We may spend months in which we have no contact, but when something difficult or challenging comes up, there is this immediately available support network that seamlessly kicks in.

The only time I ever felt isolated from it was my two years in the army, especially during my tour of Vietnam. Having said that, instead of the one or two letters that the other diggers received at resups, I would often get a relative avalanche of mail from my bothers and sisters. So even then, the network was there.

Recently, one of my brothers has been going through a very tough time as one of his kids battles with the aftermath of the removal of a cerebral tumour. He’s needed all the support he can get, and it’s pretty much been there.

I hope my kids maintain these mutually supportive relationships as they move through life.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Webjet Wobbles

One of my adult sons had a birthday recently. He’s a full-time student (Flinders in Adelaide), so not over supplied with ready dosh.

He also had a friend getting married in Canberra in November, so a return air fare (Canberra-Adelaide) seemed an appropriate birthday gift.

Usually, I book on-line direct with the airline, but on this occasion, I decided to use Webjet, mainly to identify the cheapest fare. Self-funded retirees also tend to be short of ready dosh.

Bad decision!

Halfway through the process, a dialogue box popped up, which read - “The booking engine has failed”

This was after I had entered the flight details and my name, but before I’d provided my card details. There was no further guidance, so I went back to the beginning of the process, and resumed the booking.

This time it went through smoothly, and in about half an hour I received the confirmation, the booking number, and the itinerary which I forwarded to my son.

Next morning, up popped an email with a second booking (in my name) and a second itinerary. Immediately I sent an email to Webjet headed “Spurious Booking”, asking it to be cancelled and the $361 dollars to be refunded. (A check on-line of my bank statement revealed that I had been billed for both the real booking and the spurious one).

There was no response in the next 24 hours (the original booking was made on 28th September) and my search on the website for a complaints hotline for Webjet was unsuccessful. It seemed that the only way you could make contact was via email.

In the meantime, I phoned Virgin Airlines and my bank. Virgin were at first a bit uncooperative, saying that I would be billed a cancellation fee. This was the response from the person in Manilla I initially spoke with. My bank explained that it was too late to stop the card payment.

I didn’t argue with the Filipina in the call centre. I discovered long ago that call-centre operators offshore have neither the English skills nor the authority to negotiate, and asked to be connected to an operator in Australia.

The answer was interesting. Apparently the calls are distributed randomly to a range of call centres, and only a few are in Australia. I would have to keep calling until I lucked one onshore.

Having neither the time nor the patience to do this, I reverted to older technology and used the phone book to find Virgin’s office admin number in Brisbane. There I spoke to a helpful (female) person, who cancelled the spurious booking without penalty when she heard the full story. She also made the comment that this wasn’t the only complaint about this problem that she’d dealt with that day.

A big tick for Virgin!

Webjet was another matter entirely. I sent three emails in all, patiently explaining the mix-up. These emails included chapter and verse (times, booking numbers, bank debit reference etc.) By this time I’d accumulated what could only be described as a dossier which was beginning to fill a folder on my desk.

Finally (two weeks in), an email arrived from Webjet’s customer centre asking me for a booking number (which I’d already supplied in the first two emails). This was encouraging – at least they were beginning to acknowledge my existence.

My hopes were unfounded. Three weeks later, I had heard nothing more and the money had not been refunded.

I got a bit busy (two western trips intervened), and didn’t sit down to review the situation until last weekend. This was about six weeks after the spurious booking went through.

It was time to stop being polite and reasonable. I sent another email which summarised the situation to date, included copies of all the previous emails, and gave them a deadline of a week to refund the fare or the whole dossier would be sent to my solicitor. I also found a 1300 number for Webjet, which I phoned.

The (male) person answering took my details, and said he would get back to me via email. He sounded tired. I got the distinct impression that he’d fielded a number of similar calls and was fed up to the back teeth.

This morning the refund popped up in my bank statement.

I’m not sure what did the trick – threats of legal action, or my phone call. Either way, it seems far from reasonable that I’ve had $361 missing from my bank account for six weeks because a computer system failed, and it’s taken three emails and a threat of legal action to fix.

So far there’s been no apology from Webjet.

Interestingly enough, they advise that any complaints should be directed to their feedback form. Maybe that’s where I went wrong.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Everybody seems to be blogging about climate change.

Almost without exception, these bloggers adopt a position on the issue related to their political views.

Given that the concern originated from the scientific community, the fact that it has become controversial is bizarre. There’s no doubt that the issue has been picked up by both ends of the political spectrum to fit specific (and very different agendae) but it really isn’t a political issue.

What is to me alarming are the recent assertions of both sides of the debate. On the one hand we hear hysterical conspiracy theories about world domination. On the other we are scared witless with forecasts of death by fire, floods or starvation. These polemics simply complicate what is basically a simple issue.

Like many other Australians I have children. Like many other Australians I take out insurance. I don’t believe that this insurance is a waste of money, even when my house doesn’t burn down, or my car isn’t written off.

I believe that it is reasonable to insure the future of our planet against two basic threats which would affect the quality of the lives of my children and grandchildren. If we have to make financial and lifestyle sacrifices as part of this insurance then I can live with that.

The first threat is the strong likelihood that exponentially escalating carbon emissions are having negative effects long-term on climate. The second is that we are consuming non-renewable energy resources at a rate that isn’t sustainable if we want to enjoy the same lifestyle benefits currently available.

Either or both of these trends will bring us to a point where the benefits of not acting now will be far exceeded by the costs if we don’t. Even if you completely reject the IPCC consensus, the issue of depletion of non-renewable will simply not go away.

I’ve been trained in risk analysis. I understand the low-risk high-consequence component of basic risk management. There is no more severe consequence to taking an unnecessary risk than the degradation of our planet. That consideration alone should be enough to convince the most avid sceptic that we need to act. Sure, we don’t need the hype, we don’t need political positions to be taken and defended, but we do need basic behaviour change on the part of individuals, corporations and nations.

For me, the most convincing argument comes from personal experience.

My wife and I lost our firstborn child (a daughter), in 1982. The post-mortem indicated that she died of an aneurism that was a result of a congenital defect. The reason for the defect was never established, but studies of the children of Vietnam Veterans contain some very convincing statistics.

This experience, by itself is a powerful personal motivator to support planned and dogged action by individuals and government to maintain our planet as a viable life source for future generations.

I am one of many veterans sprayed with Agent Orange. I've returned to Vietnam on a number of occasions in the last few years and seen vast swathes of the countryside that still haven't recovered after forty years. I've visited Vietnamese institutions for people with disabilities and have been staggered and horrified by the extent and number of these congenital malformations.
Vietnam has one of the highest incidence rates of these malformations on the planet.

The use of this defoliant was an example of utter contempt of the natural environment. This mindset continues today in the attitude many of the sceptics. It is arrogant, totalitarian and basically suicidal.

These people can commit to future infanticide if they wish, but I don’t think it’s fair that they force the rest of us to join them.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Things I'd Forgotten

A recent Facebook post from my nephew who works with indigenous communities in the NT revived some long dormant memories. He was pictured surrounded by a group of local women sitting around a table decorated with aboriginal motifs.

This reminded me of a painting which a similar group of wise women presented to me when I left Mount Isa in 1996 after working in Indigenous Education out there for four years.

These women taught me so much. They were part of what was called the NATSIEP* advisory committee for North-West region. It was my job, as secretary of the committee, to convene meetings on behalf of the Regional Executive Director, assist them in allocating funding support on the basis of submissions from schools, and ensure the business of the meetings was conducted properly, and the necessary follow-up occurred. This follow-up comprised school projects designed to meet the 21 goals of NATSIEP.

I had to learn on the job. I became familiar with all the communities (Birdsville, Bedourie, Boulia, Urandangi, Dajarra, Camooweal and Mt Isa itself). I shared their dreams, frustrations and aspirations for the children in these schools, and travelled literally thousands of kilometres with them on the way to and from meetings and school visits.

We stayed overnight in various basic accommodation (usually bush pubs) and shared meals and talk before and after the meetings. We didn’t share any drinks – they were all teetotal.

On the long car journeys they’d talk about their work, families and experiences. Almost all of them had lived hard, demanding lives in harsh conditions and without the material benefits that I had become used to.

Without exception, they were giving their time and energy for their people, and their passion for improving the lot of the children in their communities was strong. They didn’t always agree with me, or understand the bureaucratic restrictions I had to work under, but we could have a stoush and remain good friends. I don’t remember developing such a strong respect for any group I’ve worked with anywhere else in the forty years I was with the department.

For me, the sad part was that they were all women – the men from the communities, for a range of reasons, were never to be seen. Their women made up for it. Listening to their stories of abandonment, loss and deprivation sometimes made me angry.

Lately, this anger returned when I watched the reactions of a few conservative commentators who made big fellows of themselves around the time of the apology by denying that any children were ever stolen.

The contrast between the spite and cant of those commentators and the grace and dignity of these women is stark.

Thanks for reminding me, Nick.

* National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Education Policy

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

We've Changed

It might be interesting to compare how refugee boat arrivals were reported back in the eighties and how this has changed since the Tampa incident in 2001.

The picture is from a collection in the State Library of South Australia. It shows a headline from The News reporting on a possible influx of people on boats from Vietnam. Imagine the headlines if the major dailies got wind of 40 boats on the way these days. There'd be more than "Govt Concern". We'd have macho posturing, opinion pieces about terror threats and the words "hard" and "soft" would be used often and with intent.

There's a strong contrast between the tone and language of reports from this era with what we are seeing now. In the seventies and eighties the emphasis is on the plight of the refugees, and the perils they faced on their journey. Most of the reporting is sympathetic and there is very little of it that gives the impression that they were seen as a threat. The concern was more about Australia’s capacity to manage them.

Of course, back then the approach was essentially bi-partisan, which is particularly interesting, given the state of the relationship between the two sides of politics after the Dismissal.

Obviously, there has been a major change in perceptions.

I’d venture to suggest that it may have a lot to do with the actions of John Howard at the time of the rescue of a boatload of refugees by the MV Tampa in August 2001.

Howard very skilfully harnessed fear of terrorists as a political weapon, and the timing of the 9/11 attacks, shortly after this incident drove the issue to a point where it had a major influence of the 2001 federal poll. Howard quite cynically used the issue to present his government as protecting Australians from unspecified threats from the North.

This cut deeply into the Australian psyche, and left scars that will take a long time to heal.

It’s sad, really, because part of what makes us Australian is our easy-going tolerance of people, especially those in need, and our capacity, demonstrated over the years to welcome and assimilate new arrivals.

Howard created a monster back in 2001.I hope I live long enough to see it consigned to history.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Hero Driver

We travelled to Brisbane yesterday using the section of the Warrego Highway that has to be one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the country.

It’s dangerous because of two poorly engineered sections – one at the beginning of the journey east from Toowoomba – the other towards the end of it. The range section (locally known as the “Toll Bar”) is dodgy because of the mix of slow and faster moving traffic compressed by a very steep descent. It takes an enormous volume of heavy traffic which also passes through the centre of town.

Many of the trucks refuel at Toowoomba, and as they head down the range, the slope causes distillate to spill from poorly-sealed tanks on to the road surface, which is often damp and slippery to start with. This is particularly bad in the early hours of the morning when dew sets in, but it can be risky at any time. A mixture of distillate and water is used to create a skid pan for advanced driver training, so you can imagine the effect on a steep public road.

The second risky bit is the Ipswich bypass, which is overcrowded, narrow, and infested with trucks. The speed limit has been dropped from 100kph to 90kph, and this has helped a little. It means that the B Double sitting two metres from your rear bumper will hit with a little less force before it punts you into oncoming traffic. They are spending squillions on it as I write.

We went down the range with no dramas – it was waiting to bite us on the return journey – but we had a lucky escape on the bypass. We were tooling along at 90km when, out of nowhere, a Toyota 4WD ute crossed the median strip and was heading straight for us. The driver’s head seemed buried in something in his lap – probably a mobile phone. In my experience, tradies are the worst offenders when it comes to using phones on the go. The thing had bucked and bounced its way across a drainage trench, but had remained upright.

I flicked the wheel violently to the left, and he went behind us. I waited for the sound of an impact because there was following traffic, but none came. He was lucky, and so was everyone else involved. The result of a combined impact of two vehicles travelling at 90kph would not have been pretty. It took quite a while for the adrenaline to subside. My bride actually swore – a rare occurrence.

On the return journey that afternoon, we arrived at the bottom of the range to discover the eastbound lane completely closed, with police and emergency vehicles everywhere. Apparently a truck had come to grief on the way down, taking two other vehicles with it. Eastbound traffic was diverted into one of the westbound lanes, and chaos ensued. Our ascent took three quarters of an hour. It usually takes 5 minutes.

The local rag hailed the driver as a “hero”. I wonder what kind of “hero” takes a heavy vehicle with dodgy brakes down a steep and crowded public road? The cabin had “Afterburner” writ large across the front. Obviously this “hero” has delusions that he drives a fighter jet.

The police have impounded the truck.

I hope they throw the book at him.
(Photo courtesy of the Toowoomba Chronicle).

Friday, 16 October 2009

Lateral Solution

I was asked by a school the other day to provide a recommendation about a year eight boy who was enrolled in a music elective.

He has Cerebral Palsy (hemiplegia), and although he operates with the characteristic enthusiasm and optimism of most 14 year-olds, playing the guitar as a member of an ensemble is an issue. He was getting stroppy and asking to be excused from music.

He’s a real bush kid, interested in Rugby League, riding his quad bike and chilling out with his (many) friends at school. The school is what is called a “high school top” in this part of the world, meaning that it’s a bush primary school with a small secondary department attached. Consequently, the teacher taking music is not a “music” teacher as such, but a general teacher who is teaching music as an elective.

I arranged to talk with him one-on-one to establish two things - what he could actually manage with the guitar, and whether the disability was being used as an excuse to escape a less-preferred activity. This kind of thing happens, and it’s always in the mind of a mean and suspicious old codger like yours truly. I also had a view that he may not be at all interested in music.

How wrong I was! He produced a good quality guitar (which he’s owned for a few years) with a fancy strap, which he handled with something approaching reverence. He showed me the two different ways he’d experimented with holding and playing it. He could play it OK, but whichever job he gave to the hemi hand (strumming or keying) it had trouble keeping up with the good hand. When playing solo, this was not a problem, but the class was doing ensemble work, and anyway, the teacher simply had to have him practicing/playing with the others to make the class manageable.

He also gave me a ten-minute lecture on up and coming bush bands. Some of this was vaguely familiar. My youngest daughter is interested in the same stuff. I was wrong about his interest in music. He had it in spades.

So he wasn’t put off by playing the guitar, but he was embarrassed because he was always half a beat behind the others. I explained this to the teacher, but apart from suggesting that he be put on a keyboard to provide a bass for the ensemble (advice from my music teacher sister) I wasn’t very helpful. I thought this might allow her to keep him included.

At least, as an objective outsider, I was able to confirm that he wasn’t simply being obstinate.

I phoned the school yesterday, because I’d thought some more and had come up with a few other ideas. I ended up talking to the deputy. “It’s OK“, she said, “we’ve come up with a solution“.

This lad and his teacher had worked out that he could use the school’s only electric guitar as a bass guitar. They’d developed the keyboard idea and improved on it. The advantage of this was that everyone else had to keep to his tempo.

The group sounds great, and he’s become the vital ingredient in the little band they’re building. There’s talk of making a CD.

There’s a metaphor in this somewhere.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Granite Country

South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country, rises that tableland, high delicate outline of bony slopes wincing under the winter, low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite- clean, lean, hungry country.

We’ve just returned from a spell in Judith Wright’s granite country.

Despite the fact that it’s nominally spring, there were frosts in the morning, and a fire was necessary at night.

It’s hard, flinty country, where they grow rocks with spectacular success. There are lots of boulder farms. Boulder farms are like prickle farms in the sense that a successful product is assured despite the season.

Lately, the season hasn’t been too good. Fires are a problem, and this country burns pretty well with the wind behind it.

Apart from the boutique wineries, and the national park, Stanthorpe is well worth a visit. It’s a community untypical of Queensland country towns – partly, I’m sure as a consequence of a thriving Italian influence. Whilst most of these families are third or fourth generation Australians, they maintain the entrepreneurial spirit of their immigrant parents, and there is a style and flair not apparent in other places.

I like the plonk up here, and my bride enjoys the countryside. We were able to tour the wineries with the roof down, and that provided a feast for the senses. It was just cool enough to be bracing, and the sun was pleasant whilst driving until about 10am.

The problem, of course, is that the driver can’t taste, so it pales somewhat.

The solution, I’m sure would be to resurrect an idea from the twenties – the charabanc. The marketing possibilities are endless. One of the Stanthorpe entrepreneurs should pick it up.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


I've been a bit quiet on the blog recently, having been to the mountains and back - but that's another story.

Last week I disposed of a trailer, which was excess to requirements now that all offspring have left home, and there is no longer a need to own something capable of moving books, CD's, computer games, bed and desk in one hit.

I'd bought a tradie's trailer for this and it was well-suited to the job being secure, waterproof (it always rains when we shift) and about the right size. I also thought that it would be relatively easy to sell when the time came, and I was right.

After only one day's advertising, I had a call last Sunday from a young carpenter (who called me "mate") wanting to come around and have a look at it. He turned up, driving a diesel ute with P plates, and looked about 18 or 19. He hailed from out of town, so was anxious to get the deal done and tow the trailer home.

We agreed on a price - very little haggling occurred, and he presented me with cash. He was $100 short, so went out to talk to the "missus" (his term - she was about his age) who was sitting decoratively in the ute, and returned with the extra dosh. The only slight complication was an incompatible trailer cable, but he went to Supacheap and bought one. We sorted the rego transfer, I gave him a receipt, and he drove away with the missus and trailer. I put the four figure cash amount in a safe place until I could bank it on Monday.

When I got to the credit union the next morning I discovered that he's given me $100 more than what I'd thought we'd agreed to, and what I had written on the receipt. We'd counted the initial sum together, but not the extra bit from the missus.

I phoned him - and he said that there must have been a misunderstanding, as he paid me what he thought I'd asked, and there was no need for me to refund the $100 which I told him I was prepared to do. All he wanted was for me to amend the receipt - for his tax.

I posted him an amended receipt.

On reflection, I read all sorts of doom and gloom about the current generation and their fast and loose lifestyles. Maybe.. but my experience, through my own kids and the young people (mostly teachers and therapists) that I work with, tells me otherwise.

This young tradie is another example.

It's always easier for cranky old buggers to be negative than positive about Millenials, but maybe if we looked for the good stuff, we'd find it. There are a few bloggers of the far right persuasion who need to consider this.

Monday, 28 September 2009


The English language is a wonderful tool. The derivation of the term “entitlement” is an example. The "titled" part of it intrigues me.

One of the dictionary benefits of the term is –

the right to guaranteed benefits under a government program, as Social Security or unemployment compensation

Connecting with many of my fellow section members a few weeks ago has alerted me to the fact that I am one of only a couple of these blokes who is still working and hasn’t been forced on to some form of benefit as a result of operational service. In my mind this indicates two things – one is that I’ve been very lucky – the other is that it provides sad evidence of one of the often-overlooked outcomes of war.

The statistics in relation to Vietnam Veterans are no different from those out of conflicts ranging from World War One, through World War Two, Korea, and more recently, Timor Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Recent publicity about the children of a partner of an Afghanistan casualty has only reinforced the notion that when it’s all over, any compensation has to be fought for.

I completely fail to understand the mindset of many conservative commentators who advocate military adventure as the first, last and only solution to international disagreement, or in the current context, international terrorism. This reptilian brain reaction continues to hold sway with those who believe that you can destroy an idea by killing those who support it. I would have thought that the Vietnam experience might have focused some attention on this enduring myth, but it seems to have gone through to the keeper.

At least many in the military have begun to see that protection of the people and the provision of basic security is the first step to a successful counter-insurgency, and the term “victory” as applied to these conflicts continues to be used by the commentators rather than the commanders. The commanders have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Apparently the commentators haven't.

But back to “entitlement”.

The word conjures up images of Lords and Ladies, royalty, and a whole heap of concepts that went out with button-up boots. It belongs to the monarchy, wigs on judges and executive car parks.

As an avowed republican, I’d like to see the term relegated to the dustbin of history.

The more accurate term is “compensation”. It’s about time two reforms were organized –

Compensation for war veterans of all conflicts should be brought into line with the benefits that accrue to ex-politicians, and the term “entitlement” should be removed from all reference to service pensions.

And perhaps, a secret ballot of all registered veterans should be held before we commit to any new conflict. That would be interesting.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Small is Good

This article in this morning’s Courier Mail caught my eye.

If you can cut through the usual emotive codswallop that characterises the Courier, some of it is significant in that it captures what I consider an important issue regarding the delivery of educational services to bush kids.

Education Queensland (along with all other state education authorities) is keen to close small schools, because they are deemed “inefficient”. This has nothing to do with education, and everything to n do with corporate managerialism. The industrial model of schooling places output for dollar above all else.

Government (or at least the politicians who form government) can’t measure educational outcomes. NAPLAN testing is a lame attempt at measurement, politically driven, and without any sound research backing. Interestingly enough, however, small schools continue to do well in their NAPLAN results, although in many cases these same results can’t be published because of the risk to privacy generated by situations in which the whole school population may belong to two or three families. Those wanting to close small schools are probably grateful for this phenomenon.

What isn’t measured is the resourcefulness, resilience, flexibility and independence generated in a small school situation. In a setting where one teacher (and one or two teacher aides) deliver all programmes across all age levels. These kids learn to organise themselves, are supported by their peers, learn to become both interdependent and independent, and develop a strong sense of cohesion.

I’ve know for a long time that kids with disabilities generally thrive in these situations because they are accepted and supported. It’s a bit difficult to exclude someone who is your neighbour or your sibling in the 18 hours a day when they’re not at school.

I was schooled in a series of bush schools. On one occasion, the principal (who also happened to be my father) broke his ankle, and was laid up for a few days. School continued, managed by the older kids. I’m talking 1950s, of course – it wouldn’t be possible now. There are too many plaintiff lawyers, and modern kids as a rule wouldn’t have the gumption to mange this kind of challenge at primary school age.

So, over time, more of these dynamic little centres of learning will close, and the communities they anchor will be the poorer for it. It will no doubt keep the bean counters handy – but more efficiency? – I don’t think so.

As Albert Einstein was fond of saying –

Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Where was Kilcullen when we needed him?

I have kept all the letters I wrote in Vietnam. My mother gave them to me on RTA saying "These might be interesting in the future".

My mum was a very wise woman, and right about most things.

It’s interesting to go through these letters now with modern considerations of counter-insurgency warfare in mind. Thanks mum.

Quite often, I wrote to my parents bemoaning the fact that we were tromping around the jungle looking for “outlaws and delinquents” when we could have been more productively occupied working on civil aid projects in the villages, or at least doing our best to secure those villages, or training the ARVN to do just that.

This may, of course, have been prompted by my dislike of this actual tromping, particularly when it involved carrying the best part of my own body weight in assorted gear, and knowing that the next step might be complicated by an M-16, even though we were luckier than some and in my time operated predominately in the north-west of Phuoc Tuy where mines were rare.

Unfortunately, much of what is written about Vietnam these days elicits more heat than light. It doesn’t seem to be a topic that invites quiet reflection. Instead, writers are stuck on a few memes, including “the war was lost by the politicians”, or “we were winning when we left”, or (the more gung-ho) “we should have nuked them”.

In the light of more recent history, particularly in Iraq, it’s interesting to conjecture what might have been - if some of the thought which changed for the better the way the Coalition was operating had been around in the sixties and applied to Vietnam.

What if a group of dissidents, opposing the conventional strategic thought, had been around in those days? What if the commanders at the time had listened to them?

Where were people like Kilcullen – people who needed to be saying things like body counts were irrelevant, that the war needed to be fought politically as well as militarily, and that we needed to be providing security to allow the locals to assume responsibility, rather than taking that responsibility from them, and blaming them when it wasn’t working?

Instead, we had commanders who not only didn’t fully understand the security environment, but were completely inept at managing the both the politics and the media. Back then the US military wasn’t listening to anyone.

Perhaps one of the few good things that came out of Vietnam was the understanding that modern counter-insurgency warfare is complex and that patience could be a virtue. The “up-the-guts” tendency of the senior US commanders at the time was revealed as the madness that it was, and at last arrogance has taken a back seat to common sense.

We will need to wait for history to deliver a verdict on both Iraq and Afghanistan. The terms “won” or “lost” are irrelevant when applied to insurgency, a point that seems to be well lost on most media and politicians.

We don’t know what’s over the horizon, but I, for one, feel a lot more optimistic than I did a few years ago. This interview gives me hope.
Check it out.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

A Long Day's Journey

Through some poor forward planning, I ended up having to drive 880kms alone in one day last week.

This exercise broke all the self-imposed rules I’ve set myself around working (and driving) in the bush. These rules include no night driving, ensuring I’m not driving alone, driving no distance greater than 500km in one day, and achieving a 50/50 balance between working and driving. This last rule exists because the skills required for work and those for staying alive on the road are very different. They both require heaps of nervous energy, and it’s necessary to do well at both. A time-based balance helps with this.

The situation came about because I’d made a promise last year to a school community which I had no choice but to keep. The timing was governed by vehicle availability. With both the commitment and the timing non-negotiable, the situation became even more difficult with the inconvenient scheduling of a Toowoomba workshop that I had to attend which turned the journey back into a one-day rather than two-day driving exercise, interspersed with some work in schools on the journey home.

I follow a principle that tries to deliver time per school in direct relationship to remoteness, which is exactly the opposite of what happens with most bush consultancies. The equation put simply means that the further away from the District Office you are, the more time you get.

What made the whole deal even more frustrating was that I wasn’t able to get to a battalion reunion on the Gold Coast due to this work commitment.

Anyway, I set out at first light – 6.15am – along the 10 foot wide bitumen strip. The first leg was 200km long and there was absolutely nothing in terms of geography or settlement on this stretch – just mongrel country and lots of furry creatures.

Once the sun came up and I could actually see more than glowing eyes, I identified roos, wallabies (at least three different varieties), goats, wild pigs, horses, goats, bunnies, sheep, foxes and a wild dog or two. The only thing I didn’t see (although have before) were camels.

I avoided all of them, although one pretty-faced wallaby did his best to T-bone the side of the vehicle. I didn’t see him until it was too late to slow down, and heard a slight “bonk” as his tail flicked the panel near the fuel cap. Another wallaby stood bewildered smack in the middle of the road, and I gently nudged him with the bumper whereupon he galvanised into action, fell over, got to his feet (and tail) and made a first leap of about three metres before he vanished into the scrub.

There were literally hundreds of macropods scattered along this first 200km, and I was well-occupied avoiding them. I’ve learned a few basics the hard way – when you see one, look for others (they’re rarely alone), drive in the middle of the road (gives you more avoidance room), constantly scan your visual field (old infantry trick - you're more likely to perceive something if your eyes are moving), and be wary where you see depth gauges on the guide posts. Depth gauges mean water - water means wallabies.

Sheep are stupid, but you’ll rarely hit a mature goat. Kids (the goat kind) are a different story. Horses can kill (they go through the windscreen) and a well-built bovine can destroy a conventional vehicle.

Never swerve to avoid wildlife – just brake – and watch out for road kill when overtaking or passing other vehicles. On this stretch, the only traffic was furry. I saw one other vehicle – a council truck – in 200km.

After this first leg, I began to relax a bit, and pulled up to refuel. Some twit (with Victorian plates) had parked his ute and trailer between the bowsers. This wouldn’t have been an issue, but he had a flat tire and slowly and carefully began to change it on the forecourt. I had no option but to wait for him – one bowser only – and no other refuelling option.

300 km later I was past the most boring part of the drive. The rest of the trip was a doddle. The road widened, the sun rose higher, and the options around refuelling (and food breaks) improved. One of the things I enjoy about the bush is precisely this lack of options. It simplifies life no end.

The vehicle (a Mitsubishi Outlander) was quiet and comfortable, and seemed to have plenty of power in reserve for overtaking. It had a CVT (constantly variable transmission) which although fiendishly complicated, made very efficient use of the power and torque of the 2.4 litre motor. Apparently these gearboxes are very difficult (and expensive) to repair, but I guess Mitsubishi provides a 5 year unlimited warranty which would compensate.

It didn’t have the touring range of the diesel Hyundai that I most often use, but was a more refined bucket of bolts. Range has become an issue since the government fuel contract went from BP to Caltex. There are no Caltex outlets in places like Charleville (for example). Some shiny bum in Mary St who probably hasn't lived west of Toowoomba or north of Gympie thinks he/she has done a great job with the contract.

I arrived home at about 5pm, and after putting the car through a wash to remove the accumulated road crud, signed it off and took it back to the garage. I felt surprisingly fresh – thanks mainly to Paul Kelly. I’d taken four Kelly CDs with me, and singing aloud when you’re by yourself is OK – it annoys nobody. It’s also energising and wards off fatigue – although the other golden rule I never break is a 10 minute pause every 2 hours.

The next day was a bit of a struggle. Maintaining concentration at the workshop was a challenge. I was in nervous energy deficit.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


The mainstream media has made a meal of the recent sad incident in Mullumbimby.

This is, of course, hardly surprising. Every parent has concerns about the safety of the kids at school. This issue worries many, so reporting it will sell many newspapers and enhance TV ratings.

It is interesting to reflect on the causes for an apparent increase in this behaviour, although measuring the rates of this violence (both physical and verbal) is fraught. It’s certainly not new.

I was schooled in a series of small country towns, and don’t remember it being an issue, but at one point I spent a couple of weeks at a city school. There was bullying going on there, although it seemed to be almost accepted by the kids as normal. It was pretty full on (putting kids in rubbish bins, for example) and I thought of it as “ganging up”. I wasn’t targeted – I think they understood that as a kid from the bush I would have fought like a cornered cat, and that would have caused a problem.

Nevertheless, I remember being horrified by it, and have never forgotten. I must have been about ten at the time.

So whilst it’s not new, the behaviour itself has assumed a viciousness that I don’t recall seeing all those years ago.

Perhaps the MSM needs to look at the content of much of what it sells before they come over indignant about what they perceive as an epidemic. If there was a count of the number of episodes of cruelty and derision screened nightly in their programmes, it might reveal an incidence of bullying which would make some of the stories they publish about schools look like a Sunday school picnic.

You could start with the likes of “Big Brother”, and list numerous “reality” shows which make a feature of abuse, scorn and humiliation. They used to rate well – although this seems to be declining.

The media is either part of the problem or part of the solution.

The solution? The kids spend only 6 hours of 24 at school. They’re bringing this culture with them from home and community. Let's look at corporate activity, the way many of our political leaders behave, and how sport (particularly professional football of all codes) is promoted.

The fact that this kind of interpersonal behaviour is generally accepted in the wider community can be revealed by a quick read of a political blog. Those with dissenting opinions are generally abused and humiliated.

Maybe the problem lies outside the schools – and maybe that’s where we should be looking for a solution. I don’t see much bullying in the bush schools where I work. The culture of these schools and communities won’t abide it.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Second Tour (4)

The second part of our trip to the places of significance took us back to the Long Hais and Vung Tau.

The Long Hais were important in that the Australians (specifically 8 RAR) took heavy casualties in that area and the majority of the veterans in our group were from that battalion.

We took the Hydrofoil from Saigon to Vung Tau. These vessels were gifts from the Russians (back in the eighties) and despite the fact that they’re beginning to succumb rather spectacularly to rust, continue to provide daily services. The Vietnamese maintain them in the time-honoured manner in that when some component breaks down; it isn’t replaced or repaired unless it is absolutely essential to maintain function.

There is no parts supply available for these things, so improvisation is the way to go They used to do this back in the sixties with their taxis, particularly the Renault 750s which were ubiquitous. They couldn’t care less about their appearance.

As we got off the hydrofoil in Vung Tau we were greeted by the locals with calls of “Uc Da Loi”.

I hadn’t been addressed like that since 1970. I wondered how they knew who we were, because we weren’t wearing anything to identify us. It probably had much to do with the fact that most visitors who came this way were Australians.

Vung Tau has been transformed, mainly as a consequence of the petrodollars being earned principally through the French company Total. The Vietnamese have been very canny in terms of how they handle foreign investment. They make sure that they get at least their pound of flesh, and perhaps more so. We could learn something from them in this country.

Along the beach front, which reminded me of so many seaside resorts in Queensland, there are zillions being spent on beautification. Part of this project involves laying kilometres of marble- faced walkway along what would be called the strand in Queensland. It drizzled rain on one morning that we were there, and this walkway became very slippery. I asked our guide about the risk of falls presented by the smooth (if attractive) surface.

He said – “No problem – we don’t have plaintive lawyers in Vietnam”.

Maybe there’s something else we could learn from the Viets.

We were heading off to the Long Hais on the second day, so first up I walked the few blocks from our hotel to the nearest Bank of Vietnam to cash some traveller’s cheques. There were long queues at the bank, and I had to queue twice – once to have the cheques verified, and again to actually get my Dong. The South Vietnamese abhor red tape, except in government run agencies (like the Bank of Vietnam), and it these places they rival the Indians.

I’d wasted so much time queuing that I was running late to get on the bus for the drive to the Long Hais, so I hailed a taxi. I showed my driver the card for the hotel, but he headed in precisely the wrong direction at high speed, which completely disoriented me. After a bit of yelling at him, he finally stopped, and a couple of things became clear.

This driver didn’t have a word of English – I had no idea where my hotel was, and my pidgin Vietnamese wasn’t up the task. This was a problem. Vung Tau is not good place in which to get lost (that much hasn’t changed in 40 years) and I was going to be very unpopular because the group was looking forward to getting away on time.

Suddenly the radio in the cab sprang to life, and part of what the female operator said was in English. I grabbed the microphone from the driver, pressed the transmit button, and asked “Can anyone speak English?” An old digger always relies on good comms in times of stress.

The same operator came on the air in dulcet tones saying “Can I help you”?

I carefully gave her the name and address of the hotel in English and she let forth with some rapid-fire Vietnamese at the driver who fairly soon delivered me to my hotel. He charged me half-fare, which was a nice gesture. I was given a hard time when I got on the bus – they’d been waiting about ten minutes. There were accusations that I’d been visiting a house of ill-repute up the road, which greatly amused my two sons.

The Long Hais are a coastal range rich in rock outcrops which would remind any Queenslander of Magnetic Island off Townsville. The area is very significant to anyone who served in an Infantry battalion, because in our time it was a stronghold of D445 battalion and there were many efforts to clean it out. The VC called it the "Minh Dam Secret Zone", and it had been a guerilla stronghold since the time of the war against the French. It was a very dangerous place. On 28th February, 8 Battalion took 9 KIA and 12 WIA in this area from mines dug up from the barrier minefield.

I was in country at the time, and remember the reports of the incident vividly. Fortunately, we operated mostly at this time in the North West of Phuoc Tuy, well away from this area. I believe that the press reports of the incident upset my parents somewhat.

As close as we could get to the site of the incident, we remembered these blokes (many of them well-known to the vets I was travelling with) with a simple service, and the placement of some flowers. One of my sons read the service. There were a few tears.

We explored the area thoroughly and discovered much evidence of the conflict, including bullet marks in the rocks and evidence of B52 strikes which occurred from time to time. It was an excellent defensive position with great cover and extensive (and spectacular) views of the surrounding countryside.

There is a Buddhist monastery at the top of the feature, and we met the monks and drank tea with them. Right at the highest point is a big brass prayer bell (See pic).

There was also a veteran of D445 laid on just for us. He demonstrated a strong tremor. Whether this was as a result of the Vodka that he was quaffing at regular intervals, or some other disorder, I’m not sure. His demeanor brought back childhood memories of an alcoholic First World War veteran I’d met in the small town in North Queensland where we’d lived for a while. The Vodka probably helped quell whatever demons his memories of the “American” war created.

The Vodka (which we’d taken with us on good advice) was the price of his reminiscences.

Conversations with ex-enemy are, to me, fascinating.

I always asked two questions – mostly through an interpreter, although there were a few who spoke some English. My questions were –

“How are you treated as ex-soldiers by your government?” and “What did you think of the Australians as soldiers?”

Sometimes the answers were surprising. This grizzled looking veteran at Long Hai disclosed that he was not able to support himself, and relied on charity, and gifts from friends and tourists to survive.

The answers to my second question were always that the Australians were seen as much more effective soldiers than the Americans. Allowing for the obvious human tendency to tell us what we wanted to hear, I believe that this was a generally held belief.

One response was very interesting. One nuggety-looking character I’d met earlier outside Ba Ria near the old tunnel complex said –

“You Australians were fighting on the wrong side. If you had been with us, we would have had the Americans out of here ten years earlier.”

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