I Join the Army
My Uncle died the same day I joined the Army. I had been told he was sick and hadn’t long to live so I should drop in and see him. He had always been very close to me. He and I got on well.
Four weeks before I was due to sign on the dotted line I dropped in to see him. He was in hospital at the Freemasons Hospital on Victoria Parade in East Melbourne. It’s just a short walk from there to St Pat’s Cathedral. Some time earlier he had an eye removed and when things got worse they suggested removing one lung but in the end there was no chance.
– I’m going to join the Army, Uncle –
– So I believe –
Now I wasn’t too sure about my reception. Both my father and he had been conscientious objectors during the war and although my father worked as a schoolteacher, my uncle had worked for General Douglas MacArthur as a civilian materiel purchaser.
– What made you want to join the Army? –
– It’s a long story – I said
– I’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go. So start way back and fill in all the details –
So I sat down, he closed his eyes and I told him.
Around about 1975 I had a job in the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) and because I was a qualified schoolteacher I sort of gravitated to being the Youth Employment Officer.
– What has all this to do with the Army? –
– It is quite relevant but now I’ve lost my train of thought. And anyway I thought you might have been asleep. –
– Then you would have been wasting your time talking. Just tell the story and I’ll let you know when I fall asleep. –
-I worked there for a couple of years and made some friends and had to put up with kids applying for jobs without wanting one.
I waffled on and on for a while telling him all the different circumstances of kids applying for non-existent jobs until a very nice nurse told me to go away and let my uncle sleep.
– Your Uncle needs to go to sleep now – said the nurse who had been standing behind me for I don’t know how long. – come back tomorrow and tell us more.
The next day
The next day my uncle was sitting up bright as a button.
– Good morning, Uncle. How are you today? –
– I’m well. Get on with the story. The way you ramble on I….. –
– OK. I was about to tell you where the Army came into things. –
One of the jobs I’d had was to liaise with other Government Departments concerning career advice. The most important of these was the Army. The Vietnam War ended in 1975 and it was now 1976 and the Army was recruiting to build a new army that was to be more of a training institute. The Army was top-heavy and they explained that they needed young men to enlist to be trained as tradesmen to form a skeleton on which to build a new army if it was needed.
Regularly on the last Wednesday of each month in would walk Staff Sergeant Moroni. On one such Wednesday I made a stupid and fateful comment.
“OK, Moroni,” I said. “If you reckon the Army is so crash hot a place for jobs see if you could talk me into joining.”
What are your qualifications? What did you do before you joined the CES? What’s your income now? How old are you? Have you ever been a Communist? Have you ever been a member of a radical organisation? And so on and so on. And then he said that I could qualify as an Education Officer starting as a Lieutenant and going on to Captain et cetera. So home I went with a stash of papers and pamphlets and thought I’d see what my wife thought and she thought it had some quite promising aspects to it.
– And I guess that’s the end of the story! –
– Well it is if that’s all you want to know. But there’s a bit more if you want –
– Get on with it then. –
– All right but a little back track. –
– I could have guessed. –
Before I joined the Public Service I had to fill in time waiting and so I got a job as a shunter on the Victorian Railways. A shunter’s job was to work in a crew attached to a small locomotive and run around all over the North Melbourne Goods Yards breaking up goods trains and putting them back together again. So for example a train with twenty carriages of all the same stuff might have arrived from Sydney and some of it was destined for Adelaide, some for Mildura, some for Geelong and so on. Do you get the idea?
– Of course I get the idea. I might be dying but I’m not stupid.-
– It was a rhetorical question! Anyway I had a lot of fun and I had to join the Victorian Railways Union, which at that time was affiliated with the Communist Party.
– May I interrupt at this juncture?
– Up to this point I haven’t noticed a lot of reluctance on your part, my dear Uncle. So if you want to interrupt feel free to go ahead.-
My Uncle then asked me a question that seemed innocuous at the time but was a harbinger of potential trouble.
– Would one of the questions the Army recruiting officer asked have been, “Have you ever been a member of a Communist Organisation? –
– Radical Organisation. The question the recruiting officer asked was, “have you ever been a member of a Radical Organisation?” –
– Same difference. Was it? Was that one of the questions?
– Yes –
– I’ll tell you later. I’m going now. See you tomorrow it’ll be my last visit ‘cos tomorrow is the big day. I join up tomorrow morning and I have to report to Bandiana in the afternoon. –