Thursday, April 29, 2010

Newcastle, 1954

A Trip to the “Big Smoke”

Australia had re-instituted involuntary military service; in Australia it was called, national Service, in the USA it was called “The Draft”. Being an independent sort, and not enjoying the exclusive company of men without women, I had no desire to be ‘called up’ to serve in the national service. Chockos* once a week in high school was amusing, but going through Army ‘basic training’ with a bunch of yobbos, was not my idea of an interesting way to spend six months. I still treasured my American birth certificate and longed to return to land of cheap motorcars. I had been told that to preserve my American citizenship, I could not serve in a ‘foreign’ army so I took the train to Sydney and presented myself to the American Consulate on the top floor of the Bank of New South Wales, an impressive, Victorian sandstone building at the end of Martin Place in the center of the city.

I filled out the necessary papers and collected a US draft card for my trouble! I asked if I could be inducted into the US Armed Forces then and there, but was told that I must enlist in a country where the United States Army had a presence and the nearest country was Japan. So much for free passage to the USA! I then asked for my passport but was told they would issue one when (and if ever) I had a ticket to the USA. To ensure that there was no doubt as to my intentions to resume my U.S. citizenship, I took my British passport, drafted a ‘snotty’ letter to the Australian Passport Office where I relinquished my Australian citizenship and was able to avoid the Australian Draft. (The law was changed in the 1990s so I am now a dual national – able to collect the Australian Old-Age Pension and vote.)

Back in Gunnedah with my head in the clouds, I walked the hot, dusty sidewalk and imagined I was in America. Maybe Texas, or even California. Living in the Imperial Hotel, I drank with traveling salesmen and college graduates who knew something of the world outside Gunnedah. They advised me to leave Gunnedah and go to Sydney to seek a new adventure. Why not leave Australia and return to the USA? Yep, why not?

One of my drinking mates worked for the Vacuum Oil Company, known in the USA as Chevron. He told me of a job in Newcastle some 70 miles north of Sydney at the refinery where I could earn a wage much higher than in Gunnedah. I gave notice to my employer, packed my bags, put my trusty steed (bicycle) up against the back wall of the Imperial Hotel and headed for Newcastle.


Even today, Newcastle is a smoky city; the Australian equivalent of Newark, New Jersey and probably just as polluted. In 1953 it was a grimy place populated by mostly blue collar workers working for Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) the largest iron/coal producer in the Southern hemisphere. It was also the rail junction between the north coast and the wool and wheat producing northwest.

I stepped off the train in the afternoon with two large suitcases filled with what clothes I owned and a large supply of reading material: magazines, textbooks and novels that I had accumulated during my last several years in Gunnedah. What did I expect from Newcastle? Another adventure, more money and new friends? I caught the bus to the refinery, but as it was a Saturday my ‘contact’ was missing. He was reported to be aboard the “Stanvac Shanghai”, an oil tanker unloading in the harbour. I searched around the wharves in the quiet of the Saturday heat, found the “Shanghai” but my sponsor has left. I had never been so close to a tanker and was excited that I would be perhaps working around ships like this. I presented my Letter of Introduction from Gunnedah’s pastor, Msgr. McDermott to the parish priest and I was admitted to the Young Christian Workers Hostel.

The Y.C.W. Hostel on Church Street

The Y.C.W. Hostel was on Church Hill overlooking the Newcastle railway station and was run by three old Irish maids: the O’Reagan sisters, who as it turned out were indeed related to the Hollywood film star and later U.S. President, Ronald Reagan. The O’Reagans did not belong to any religious order but rather had taken on the task of caring for 15 young men who were workers in the industries and offices of the industrial city. They cooked breakfast, packed a lunch in a brown paper bag for each boarder. They cooked and served dinner and presided over the recitation of the Rosary every night in the living/dining room. They were well educated and had a great Irish sense of humour.

The inhabitants were a mixed bunch: my roommate David was a seventeen-year-old apprentice fitter (machinist) at the BHP foundry and was the illegitimate son of a Sydney prostitute. David had a few hang-ups: he was moody and if analyzed today would probably be called paranoid – he thought everyone at his workplace was conspiring against him and knew of his unfortunate lineage. He loved guns and had, unbeknown to the O’Reagans, bought and secreted a .22 caliber rifle under his bed. He planned to take it to work and humble his persecutors, but when I met him he had not yet got around to it. He gave me a twenty-two caliber round with my initials engraved on it, and one afternoon he asked me to hand it to him. He loaded it into his twenty-two caliber rifle, cocked the weapon and standing six feet away, pointed it at me and smiled. I was frightened but was able to talk him out of pulling the trigger if indeed he intended to do so. He then unloaded the gun and handed me the cartridge. A memento of a narrow escape?

Our other roommate, Joe, was an Irish merchant seaman. He had been allowed to lodge at the YCW Hostel on the basis of his Irish connection. He too was a little ‘nuts’ and soon formed what may have been an unhealthy relationship with David. We all went to movies together, hid throwing knives in our pockets and imagined we could take on the world much as our movie heroes did.

On Sunday, church was mandatory and it was here that our social contacts could develop. As the new boy in town, I was able to begin a brief relationship with a young woman who had dropped out of Sydney University. She and her sister Robin, lived with their parents in a ‘luxurious’ apartment close to the church. I have forgotten her name, but we spent some happy times late at night lying on the beach at Knobbys talking about our futures. I suspect she attracted me because she had attended university and was also very cuddly. Lest anyone think our relationship was consummated, think again. This was pre-Pill - nice girls had never heard of diaphragms and condoms were still difficult for shy country boys to buy. We drifted apart and I took up with her sister, but this came to naught after I discovered Eleanor Bell.

Eleanor was large girl – a sweet porpoise longing to be harpooned. Her father managed the local abattoir and, on several Sundays, I visited them and was introduced to pork loin. No, not Eleanor, but the real stuff which I had never before eaten. After all, he did have access to the best meat in Newcastle. And so did I, but it wasn’t exactly choice! Eleanor and I would attend local concerts of recorded music at the Public Radio station. I thought I was pretty cool listening to real classical music with the young Newcastle intelligentsia. I even entertained thoughts of going to a technical university and majoring in Industrial Management. A favorable interview with a Newcastle Tech College counselor allowed me to consider entering at the beginning of the next year, but it all seemed very complicated. And hard work.

Where to go, what do? A train trip to the Big Smoke cinched the deal.

Two weeks later my sister, Mary, had taken me under her wing and I was living at her boarding house in Sydney and dreaming dreams of an exciting social life: drinking with the British and German immigrants who were living down the hall, meeting with the Daily Telegraph journos* Mary worked with and catching up with my old mates from Riverview. Ah, the dreams of youth

Journos, slang, Australian, pl. Newspaper reporters, jourmalists

Chockos, slang, Australian, noun, collective. High School Army Reserve (from: Chocolate Soldiers, 1920s musical comedy)

No comments:

Post a Comment