The Golden Summer of '68-'69
I returned to Australia from Vietnam in November
1968 on a Qantas Boeing 707. It was a surreal experience taking off from a war zone on a civilian aircraft and being served
by flight attendants. I sat next to Lee Coff, who had been the radio operator with the Assault Pioneer platoon. Pioneers and
Anti-Tank often worked closely together, and Coffie and I had become good friends. He lived in Adelaide, the city to which
the rest of the battalion would return by ship in mid December. He invited me to visit him if I decided to come to Adelaide
to meet the battalion.
We arrived in Sydney early in the evening,
but it took hours to get through Customs. A report had been received at Sydney suggesting that there was a pistol missing
from the battalion's armoury at Nui Dat, so everybody on our flight had to endure a thorough search.
I had three months left to serve, and it was
all owed to me in leave. So I was given a leave pass at the airport, and a date in late January to report to Eastern Command
Personnel Depot for my discharge. My younger brother met me at the airport and drove me to my parents' house. My return from
Vietnam to Sydney makes 4 jobs, 9 home addresses.
I was still just 20 years old. In those days
the 21st birthday was a big event in the lives of most people. Several of my old school friends had their 21st while I was
on leave. I went to those parties and tried to join in the celebrations. But I felt like an alien. I could hardly believe
I was the same age as the people I had been at school with. They seemed like kids to me, and of course that is what I should
have been too. This was the beginning of a recurring theme in my life: the feeling that I did not belong, and that I was different
from other people. I decided that I would not have a 21st birthday party. That was the beginning of another recurring theme:
making decisions that would ensure that I continued to feel different from other people.
After a few weeks I decided to go to Adelaide
and meet the rest of the battalion. I also had some unfinished business to take care of. My car had broken down on pre-embarkation
leave, and I had to have it towed to a service station in Griffith and leave it there while I went to Vietnam. Griffith was
on the way to Adelaide, so I set off to hitch-hike to Griffith, and drive from there to Adelaide.
There was one amusing incident on the way.
I wore my uniform, because that made it a lot easier to get a lift. One lift took me to Wagga Wagga, and I was walking past
Kapooka when I saw a platoon of recruits doing their 20 mile route march. Their platoon commander approached me suspiciously,
suspecting that I might be a recruit trying to escape. He looked no older than me, and was probably on his first command.
I pointed to the Vietnam ribbons on my chest and politely invited him to mind his own business. That was the best I had felt
since taking off from Saigon to fly home.
I picked up my car and drove to Adelaide,
where Coffie and I met the ship that brought the rest of our battalion home. The battalion marched through the streets of
Adelaide, although as I recall I chose to watch rather than march. To be honest, I don't remember anything about that day.
Coffie's best mate was Ray Vadeikis, who had
also been a member of Sig Platoon 3RAR. The two of them had plans to go fruit picking at Waikerie, about 100 miles from Adelaide
on the Murray River. They invited me to go with them, together with another young bloke whose name I can't remember. I think
he was either Ray's or Coffie's cousin. Ray had a "hotted up" Ford Cortina that had been made to look like a Lotus Cortina,
with the cream paintwork, green stripe and black grill. That car could fly! The four of us set off for Waikerie in the Cortina
for what we hoped would be a summer of work and fun, and an opportunity to catch up on some of the living we felt we'd missed
out on for the past year.
We got lucky in a number of ways in Waikerie.
First, we found a great employer. I don't remember his name, but I remember he was the only fruit grower in Waikerie who paid
by the hour. Considering that we were new to the business of fruit picking, that was a big chance he was taking. We could
have mucked around for eight hours a day and still got paid. So we really worked hard for him. But that doesn't mean we didn't
also have fun. There was a fruit fight every day, and a lot of fruit ended up in our stomachs instead of the baskets, but
we still did a lot of productive work and picked a lot of fruit. It was stone fruit season, and we picked peaches, apricots
and nectarines. It was also an extremely hot summer. We soon realised that the best solution to beating the heat was to get
up at about 3 a.m., so we could get our work done before the hottest part of the day. Then we would go down to the river and
spend the rest of the day swimming.
My score is now 5 jobs, 9 home addresses (Waikerie
doesn't count as a home address, because I was still in the army, and my address was ECPD, Watson's Bay).
In another stroke of luck, soon after we arrived
we made friends with a women's basketball team called the Thunderbirds, which seemed to contain some of the most attractive
young women in Waikerie. We would go to their training sessions, and they would come down to the river and swim with us. It
made for an idyllic summer.
My 21st Birthday
The Miss Waikerie Ball was held on the night
of my 21st birthday. I had become particularly close to one of the Thunderbirds, who was also a contestant for the title of
Miss Waikerie. Because my friends and I were sleeping in tents by night and picking fruit and swimming by day, none of us
had packed any formal or even semi-formal clothes, so I was not equipped to partner a contestant to the Miss Waikerie Ball,
but we went along anyway. We just didn't go inside the hall. We stayed outside and from time to time some of the girls would
come outside and dance with us. And yes, the girl who would have been my date had I been better prepared was indeed crowned
Miss Waikerie. I believe this is a far better memory, and a far better story to tell about my 21st, than I would have had
if I had decided to stay at home and have a 21st birthday party.
Discharge From the Army
After Waikerie, it was time to go back to
Sydney for my discharge from the army. This is where things took a strange turn.
I reported to Watson's Bay at the correct
date and time. I was told to stay there for a few days and report to the office on the date my discharge was due. I did everything
I was told to do, and on the day of my discharge I reported to the office, only to be told they knew nothing about my discharge.
I was less than pleased with this, and told them so. I reminded them that I had signed a contract for three years, and that
I had kept my side of the contract and I expected the army to do the same. They told me that they thought the problem was
that there had been a mix up with the flow of paperwork between 3RAR and ECPD. They said it should take about 3 days to sort
out, there was a weekend coming up, so I should come back in 5 days.
So I came back in 5 days, and they charged
me with 5 days AWOL! I kid you not.
I was marched down to the office of the CSM,
who fortunately had a better sense of humour than the staff in the orderly room. He saw that the fault was not mine, promptly
discharged me, and said goodbye "Mister" Irvine. That is why my discharge certificate shows that I served, not for three years,
but for three years and five days.
The RSL and Me
When I came home from Vietnam, I did what
any returning serviceman would do. I joined the RSL. I joined the Ingleburn sub-branch, where my father was also a member.
About a month after my discharge I went to Ingleburn army camp to visit an old mate, Ross Murie, who was still in the army.
We decided to go out to Liverpool RSL club. This was the nearest neighbouring club to Ingleburn.
Ross was still in uniform. We got to the front
door, and the doorman looked at me, but he spoke only to Ross. He said "you can come in, but not your mate. His hair is too
Bear in mind that I was a full financial member
of the RSL. Three months earlier I had actually been fighting for my country in Vietnam. These right-wing lunatic fringe,
Talibanesque, moronic bigots, whose only reason for existence is supposed to be to look after war veterans, had the nerve
to tell me that the only thing about me that they cared about was not the service I had given to my country but the length
of my hair.
I didn't know it at the time, but I had half
a lifetime of service to the veteran community in front of me. It clearly would not be with the RSL. Treat people like that
and you lose them for life. They never come back.
A Summer of Calypso Cricket
That summer of 1968-69 marked one of my finest
achievements as a cricket lover. The West Indies were touring Australia for the first time since the remarkable 1960-61 tour.
Before I picked up my car I hitch-hiked to Brisbane to visit some old friends I hadn't seen since my 8RAR days, and I happened
to be there in time to go to the first test at the Gabba. Then I went to Hobart to see my old school friend Warwick Hoy, who
had joined the Bank of New South Wales with me back in February 1965 and was working in a Tasmanian branch. On the way down
I was in Melbourne in time to go to the second test. I got back to Sydney in time to go to the third test. The fourth test
was in Adelaide, and my mates and I went down from Waikerie to the Adelaide Oval. Finally, I was back in Sydney in time to
see the fifth test. That is the only time in my life that I have managed to see every test match of a series.