Advance Australia

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A brief stay in Western Australia.

Submitted: July 12, 2014

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Submitted: July 12, 2014

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Advance Australia

My second tour of the western pacific, or WestPac, turned out much better than the first.  It had started off great, with many different ports of call but promptly went to hell in a hand basket after about the third day.  The ship was diverted to Central America as a result of the Iran-Contra-versy (check your history books kids).  We floated around off the coast of El Salvador and Nicaragua for a month before heading west.  The mountainous coast of Central America did lend itself to some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets imaginable.  The remainder of that tour consisted of ports of call in Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines, followed by 123 days straight at sea in the Arabian Sea in a “show of force” as Iran threatened to destabilize the region.  Curiously enough, the Navy allows a day off for most of the crew and flies in beer once the ship reaches the mark of 60 days straight at sea.  Each man is allowed two beers; well, Budweisers.  The supply officers only ensured that the crew received their two beers each but didn’t care what happened after distribution.  Most were being resold for about $20 each.  The sad part is this scenario played out on two different occasions during that journey, as we spent a total of 123 consecutive days with nothing but hot, grey steel beneath our feet.  We hit the same three ports on the return journey.  I am not sure what Guam is like now, but at the time, it was essentially a place for rich Japanese businessmen to vacation solo so they could go out and openly rent hookers without scrutiny.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it sure put a damper on the rest of us, having to pay outrageous prices for beer, and being continually accosted by overpriced call girls; everywhere.  Maybe we never found the right place, although it’s not that big of an island. 

Move about a year forward in time to the second WestPac.  Political turmoil shifted toward Eastern Europe and provided a temporary respite for America’s sea fairing forces.  Initial rumors called for a port call somewhere in the eastern portion of Australia (Sydney?) during the tour but, as we had seen before, plans aboard a Navy ship tend to last about as long as that first beer after 60 days.We departed Singapore through the Malacca Strait, headed south across the equator and bobbed around the Indian Ocean for a few weeks while those commanding the fleet could find a place for us to pull in and spend our hard earned money.That place would end up being Perth – Fremantle in Western Australia.  As our journey took us deeper into the southern hemisphere the Southern Cross constellation became visible and more prevalent in the night sky.  While the cross is a common sight to those below the equator, the sight of it did seem a bit extraordinary to us northerners, and I spent many evenings with my neck craned skyward.

In addition to a detachment of two helicopters we also had a four man contingent of Navy Seals.  You could always tell who they were because they were always running or doing pushups during the off hours while the rest of us were stringing hammocks between the radar platforms.  The Chief of the seal team happened to be a professional diving instructor and offered to teach a diving class on board the ship.  The plan was to do all of the academic work onboard and do the wet parts when we entered the first port of call.  A group of us met a couple nights a week in the crew’s lounge to learn the diving basics prior to pulling into port.  The announcement of Australia as the first port meant that day one of shore leave would be accounted for. 

As the arrival day moved closer, we received more briefings regarding customs and conduct in a foreign country.  When we went to the Philippines we were actually prepared by watching a video explaining how things worked and what to expect, but that is fodder for another tale.  For Australia, the rules were pretty simple.  Rule number one was to always look both ways when crossing the street.  Pretty simple, right?  This was actually the number one reason why American sailors got injured or killed in the country.  Like England, they drive on the left side of the road.Drunk sailor comes out of the bar, looks left, sees nothing, steps out into the street and, Wham!, gets lambasted by a car coming from the opposite direction.  The other was not to discuss nuclear weapons at any point during our stay in the country.  We lived by the mantra “I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board the U. S. S. Camden” and it was reiterated many times over prior to our arrival.

The ship also put out a call to those who would like to meet with a family and be shown around the town.  The program was called “Dial-a-Sailor,” and I was immediately suspicious.  Here’s how it worked: sailors would give their name and what they were interested in doing during their time in port to the shack on the Quarterdeck at the top of the gang plank.  Upon docking, a special phone line was rigged up to the ship and the phone number was published in the local paper.  Families, or individuals, could call this number and connect with sailors with similar interests.  The first thought expressed by my buddies and I was “Gotta be hookers.”  More on that subject in a bit.

The Southern Cross rose higher in the night sky as the ship continued its journey southward.  A collective sigh could be heard throughout the entire ship on the day we actually caught sight of land.  We had counted too many destinations where there ship neared port only to receive a message and be redirected back to the Arabian Sea. 

As we approached the shore we were informed that we would not be mooring in Fremantle, but a smaller town about 10 miles south called Rockingham.  I think the reason was because we were supply ship and they could use the opportunity in port to bring on more fuel and whatever else we needed to resupply the fleet.  We were also not a sexy ship like a destroyer or an aircraft carrier so we didn’t make as big an impression on the local populous. 

Those of us manning the mooring lines immediately noticed a small contingent of people carrying picket signs on the pier.  As we got closer it was clear that they were anti-nuclear weapons protesters, or hippies, or both.  I began to recite the mantra in my head, “I can neither confirm nor deny…”  I think after they saw how ugly our ship was, they decided to take their message to more fertile ground and, after an hour or so, they departed and we never saw them again.

While we were setting the lines and preparing the ship for shore power, the Seal Chief was busy making arrangements for the completion of the dive classes.  The half dozen or so of us had mixed feelings as we all piled in a van to go to the dive shop a few hours later.  We had just spent the last few weeks bobbing on top of the water and the first thing we were doing while on shore was to go back and get in it; while most everyone else on the ship was half way to getting drunk and dodging cars coming from the opposite direction .

We dove and did all of the exercises that afternoon and spent the evening in the town of Rockingham drinking.  We went back in to the water the next morning to finish off the lessons and were officially certified.  While we are on the subject of beer, the only thing we knew about Australian beer was the big blue oil cans of Foster’s Lager.  It was immediately brought to our attention that Foster’s was shit beer, brewed in Melbourne (on the other side of the continent), solely for export to uneducated Americans.  Another surprise was that one of the largest import brands of Oranjeboom, which is actually a Dutch lager brewed in Rotterdam; much the same way Corona is promoted in the US.  Not quite sure of the connection between the two.

After getting the salt water out of our ears and a fresh change of clothes, we were on our own to begin exploring the town.  The first stop was the Quarterdeck to see how the dial-a-sailor thing was going.  There were about a dozen notes taped to a board offering to show people around town or just hang out for the day.  The hookers appeared to be absent, as most looked like respectable family type offers.  I hooked up with one of my friend’s, named Mark and we decided to pass on the offers and set out exploring on our own.

The first, and longest lingering, impressions of Western Australia was how much it resembled America instead of Britain.  I assumed that, since it was still a British colony that there would be a heavy influence of Mother England’s culture.  What I found was that it resembled more closely, something akin to being in Florida.  Geographically, the area is about the same distance south of the equator as Florida is north.  The light blue sky was filled with sunshine and puffs of white clouds.  Definitely not England.  Even the architecture and amenities very much resembled those of the United States.  Now, I’m not saying Europe was not modern, I’m just saying when I was there, and it appeared that they had barely invented indoor plumbing. 

There are many other parallels between Australia and America.  One of the most frequent anecdotes is that the country was started as a penal colony, although few realize that the British had been sending their malcontents to the Americas for many years.  The revolutionary war put a damper on their deportation effort and, in the late 18th century, they sent Captain Cook to find somewhere else to export their criminals.  The eastern shore of Australia was as uninviting as any place could be at the time and seemed to fit the bill. I think I also read somewhere that around two weeks later the French pulled into a harbor about 10 miles north of the Cook landing.  Cook promptly sent a couple of his most savvy negotiators to politely tell them to fuck off, which they did.  Westward expansion of the country happened rapidly, and at about the same time as American expansion, much at the expense of the indigenous inhabitants.  Amazingly, the city of Perth was founded in 1829, a mere 22 years before Arthur Denny and his party settled in what would become Seattle, Washington. 

A couple of friends found a hotel in town and rented as many rooms as they could for the duration of the stay; as a sort of staging point for their investigation of the area.  There was nothing special about the hotel as it was comparable to a standard motor lodge you would find anywhere back home.  Two beds, bathroom, shower, and a television rounded out the room.  What was surprising was that they were showing An American Werewolf in London on a regular broadcast television station and we all watched in amazement as Jenny Agutter’s naked breasts suddenly splashed across the screen.  That in itself would have caused a national controversy back home with calls for the FCC to shut down operations and have the station manger’s head on a pike.  There, it was just the Saturday afternoon movie of the week; no big whoop. 

Mark and I woke up early the next morning and found a small diner serving breakfast so we decided to pop in and grab a cup of coffee.  For reasons that will become apparent in a moment, some of the older readers may remember a band from the early eighties known as Men at Work and their actual Billboard number one hit song Down Under.  There is a verse in the song that goes “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”  There were probably a dozen or so people in the small space going about their breakfast business while Mark and I had been discussing the Vegemite line, not really knowing what Vegemite was.  The waitress happened to overhear our conversation and exclaimed loudly, “You’ve never had Vegemite?!”  The room went silent and all heads turned in our direction.  “Nope,” we answered and shrugged, to loud laughter from the gathering as they turned back to their meals.  “Hang on a bit,” she said with a smile.  “I’ll be right back.” 

She came back a minute or so later with two slices of toast covered with a dark brown paste, a little thicker than molasses.  All eyes were back upon us as she approached the table, smiling widely.  “Here ya go mates, enjoy.”  We looked around, looked down, grabbed half a slice each and took a large bite as the room erupted in applause; all because of a sandwich spread, for which we assumed they were very proud.  And, it wasn’t half bad.  Much better than the chicken feet on a stick in the Philippines.  We found out later that Vegemite is a kind of extract made with brewer’s yeast, celery, and onions.  We paid for the coffee and the toast was on the house.  I think, to them, the entertainment value was worth a couple slices of bread and a few dollops of brown goo.

I don’t remember why we chose not to go to Fremantle, opting instead to stay in Rockingham and wander the streets.  By midafternoon we ran upon a small carnival in the parking lot of a strip mall.  The entire setup consisted of a few kiddie rides that went in circles or bobbed up and down, and a few food carts.  We opted for the food carts and bypassed the rides.  Hot dogs and beer in hand we found an empty picnic table.  An elderly couple at the table next to us overheard our conversation, turned our direction and the man asked “Hey mates, you wanna see and kangaroo?”  I am sure our previous conversation had nothing to do with a kangaroo so it took us a bit by surprise.  Mark and I looked each other and shrugged “Sure, why not.”

We assumed that there was a petting zoo somewhere around the corner and they were going to point us in the direction and head off.  We became skeptical as we followed them to their car and they said to get in.  Once again, we shrugged and got in the back seat.  After about twenty minutes on the road I began to get genuinely concerned.  Houses were more sparsely populated and the whole concept was looking more like a scene from the movie 2000 Maniacs, especially since I heard of the dial-a-sailor thing.

A few minutes later we pulled up in front of a house surrounded by a chain link fence.  The entire property was probably a little more than an acre.  Sure as shooting there were three or four kangaroos and a few emus, emi, or whatever the plural of emu is, roaming the grounds.  My first thought was that the country is supposed to be filled with these animals and this lot were the closest that you knew about in relation to where we departed?  We were grateful for the experience though.  Emu and kangaroo.  Check. Got it.  Off the list. About six minutes later we were back in the car for the thirty minute drive back to town.  They dropped us off where they had picked us up, we thanked them, and they smiled, said “Your welcome,” and drove off.  Mark and I looked at each other, not really believing what had just happened. 

 Fast forward to the next morning, Sunday.  Mark and I decided to take in breakfast at the local pub.  We arrived about 11:00 am to nurse our hangovers from the night before with some Swan Lager.  Lively discussion ensued until about 2:00 in the afternoon when a bell rang and everyone started packing up, heading for the exit.  Mark and I looked at each other, thinking we were the victims of alien abduction and lost time or victim of some odd space time continuum.  The patrons chuckled as they mentioned the law dictated that the pubs close on Sundays between something like two in the afternoon until six in the evening, when they were allowed to reopen.  America has some pretty ridiculous liquor laws but that seemed a bit over the top and inconceivable.  People had already been to church to confess their sins.  They were now at the bar creating new ones, and the law was trying to put a damper on that.

A look of genuine concern crossed our faces.  What the hell were we going to do until six o’clock?We were stumped.  Until, the old guy sitting next to us said “I’ve got beer.  Wanna come over to my place and have a few?”  It wouldn’t have been the first time we got in a car with strangers since we were in the country and we had survived the first encounter.  “Sure,” was the only answer that came to mind.  I think everyone in Australia makes a point to travel twenty minutes away from where they are to do what they need to do, this trip was no exception.  On a side note, the same happens in Louisiana.  The best crawfish in the state is always twenty minutes from where you live, no matter where that is.  Ask anyone where the best crawfish is and they will tell you that you have to go twenty minutes out of town to somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  Anyhoo, Mark and I piled into this guy’s 1968 Plymouth Skylark look alike and headed out of town.

He lived in a nondescript community of cement block houses.  Each of the small homes were ringed with small chain link fences designating the property’s perimeter.  We lowered the horseshoe shaped latch of the gate behind us and made the short walk to the front porch as his wife peered out through the screen door.  Crossing the threshold and entering the living room, I felt like I could have been standing in almost any suburban house in any middle class town in America.  It really kind of felt like home.

We walked through the living room to the open dining room and sat at the table.  We maintained a lively conversation as his wife continued to feed us more beer as soon as each can passed the horizontal plane indicator of being empty.  “Wanna see a trick?” the man asked after about an hour of conversation.  We watched as he grabbed his beer, got up, and walked into the middle of the living room.  He extended his left arm out away from his body, bent his elbow in and as if to offer a salute from the center of his chest instead of his forehead.  He placed the beer on top of his extended fingers and swung his arm straight so the beer sat on the back of his hand.  He closed his eyes, bent his arm again, and brought the beer to his chin.  He tilted the can against his chin, tilted his head and can back for a big swig, and rested the beer back on the top of his fingers.  He finished by extended his arm straight out perpendicular to his body again.  He opened his and smiled as his wife gave a slight golf clap.  We clapped and laughed in amazement as well.

That was something we knew we could do and we had to try it.  Did I mention that his house had really nice green shag carpeting in the living room?I am not sure why someone, namely his wife, didn’t suggest that the amateurs carry this outside.  Probably didn’t want to ruin the landscaping.  So Mark and I each had two or three attempts and, as you may have guessed, we were grossly inadequate to the task.  Each dropped can was met with a “tisk” or “oh my” from the generous woman, towel in hand.  We conceded to the master with a toast and returned to our seats at the dining table.

Six o’clock finally came around and it was time to head back to the pub.  We mentioned to the couple that we still had not been to Fremantle and they offered to drive us into the city.  In reality, they probably should have taken us back to the ship but, it didn’t seem like an option at the time.  We all piled in the car with the nice old woman driving for the, you guessed it, twenty minute trip into the city.They dumped us out somewhere in the center of the city and wished us well.  We thanked them profusely for their hospitality and watched as they drove off.  I could lie and make up a tale of our raucous “Aussie Nights” exploits but for the life of me I cannot remember how the rest of the night transpired.  The best I can offer is that, we chased Oranjeboom signs around the city most of the evening until about ten’ish when we finally poured ourselves into a cab for the journey back to the ship.

We had a few hours of shore leave on the last day so a few friends and I decided to run off and do a little tourist shopping.  By that time I had spent most of my cash but I really wanted to get a boomerang.  We found a shop with some mighty fine carved and polished specimens that were well out of my price range.  I settled for a piece of plywood cut into the shape of a “V” with a few scribbles painted on it.  (When I finally had a chance to try it out in Hawaii a few weeks later it flew much like a “V” shaped piece of plywood. We ended up throwing it back and forth to each other until it broke in half after about ten minutes.)  I also bought a white flag with the words “Advance Australia” emblazoned on it.  The shop had real flags, with the Union Jack in the upper left corner, the Southern Cross and seven pointed Constellation Star on a field of blue.  I opted for this other flag with the lettering and parts of the official flag in a triangular pattern in the center.  The nice man behind the counter said that was going to be the new flag and was all the rage at the time.  I just did a google search and could not find a reference to that flag, which I still have in my basement, anywhere.  So, what I have is a bona fide collector’s item.  Who’s the idiot now, huh?

Protesters were nowhere to be seen as we loosened the mooring lines and the tug boats pushed the metal behemoth out to sea.  That evening a group of us weapons-types gathered in the workshop for our ritual card game and to compare notes about our experience over the previous days.  A few had actually taken the offer of the dial-a-sailor hospitality and had excellent times with the host families.  They were driven around and shown sights, taken to dinner, and even stayed the night.  No one had any experience with hookers; at least from that source.  Another thing we all agreed on was that, for all the cute girls we noticed, it appeared that their moms were just as hot.  Must have been something in the water, but everywhere you looked there happened to be good looking people.  And, finally, we all agreed that we had all just collectively experienced the friendliest group of people you could ever meet.

****

I have retold this experience many times that I assume Regina feels like she was there with me.  While we were stationed in the Bahamas the story intrigued two cowboy friends of ours from Deming, New Mexico: Kent and Scott.  We had a rather sweet deal down there whereby we worked for three months and got three weeks of paid vacation.  Due to tax implications, we couldn’t go back to the US for more than a few days without risk of losing our tax free status.

They had heard tales of cowboys in the outback and the glowing review of my visit sealed the deal to investigate themselves.  While I wait for Kent to dictate the details of events (of which he should since he has much to write about) I offer the highlights.

They met a guy on the plane with similar interests even before they landed in Sydney and decided to share a car the first day in the city before heading out into the country side.  The intrepid duo headed west into the outback with no plan and no real knowledge of where they were going.  Tall buildings and street lights behind them, many hours later they found themselves at the entrance to a ranch where they found a man sheering sheep. In the end, they spent an entire week in this small Australian outback town, drinking and whooping it up at the local honkytonk.  Scott even came in second in the weekend rodeo, and they even got their names in the newspaper as “The Americans who were in town.”  They traded trinkets with the locals before departing, and graciously picked me up an Akubra hat as a gift for encouraging them to go “down under.” 

If I ever go missing, you may want to check Australia.  It will actually probably be due to the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and you can probably find me wandering the parking lot of the nearest electronics superstore, but I wouldn’t rule out searching Australia.


© Copyright 2018 Robert Fontaine. All rights reserved.

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