One of my favorite songs is Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams. I don’t know, it just hits a chord with me.
In the summer of 1969, my parents were planning to take us from the United States to our new home somewhere yet to be found in Australia, something that ended up happening (I think, maybe it didn’t) later that year on my younger elder sister’s birthday. Because we crossed the International Date Line, Jaina lost her birthday.
Brave new world, eh? My father had just retired from a rather fun-filled career in the US Army which included tours in three major wars and he and my mother were apparently ready for something completely different. My memory of that time is worse than spotty but I vaguely recall being bummed because I thought I had a shot at the junior varsity basketball team. My older elder sister would not be going with us. Cory was too busy being a San Francisco hippie. And who could blame her – San Francisco in the late ’60s? Groovy.
Sadly, another family would also not be going – Snowball, our cat, who had been with us since Virginia. Australia’s pet immigration policy was too restrictive. Snowball, I’m told, remained in place with the new owners of our house in Albuquerque.
This be Snowball:
Sorry, I get carried away with kitty photos.
So, in the fall of 1969, we hopped a MAC transport across the Pacific, making a stop in Hawaii, which itself was to play a big part in our lives later on. I think the plane refueled in Pago Pago (pronounced, oddly enough, ‘Pango Pango’) on the way to Sydney so I can say I’ve been there. (Note: Jaina says it was Nadi in Fiji – pronounced Nandi – where we refueled, not Pago Pago in American Samoa, but I may have stopped in PP on a subsequent trip.)
There may have been a grand plan for this whole living in Australia thing but I don’t think it was evident, at least to my sister and I. Australia had granted us permanent resident status, so we could live anywhere we liked. Getting resident visas was at the time not easy for a lot of people. But white Americans with a guaranteed retirement income from the US military? Come on in! Aussies may be the model of friendly, carefree people but they certainly were protective of their borders. Still are.
We hung around Sydney for a while before heading up north to Queensland’s Gold Coast, taking a flat in Burleigh Heads (the Gold Coast comprised the beach towns from Southport in the north down to Coolangatta on the border with New South Wales). We lived in what passed for a high-rise apartment building located on the headland. I imagine the view was spectacular, what with the world-class beach right at our doorstep, and one that would cost some serious coin today, I would imagine. Right next to the building on the side our balcony faced was a large tree which drew hundreds of kookaburras. They would chatter up a storm with their distinctive call. Kookaburras are carnivores. We got to enticing them to fly to our balcony rail with bits of raw meat. They would queue up on the rail with the one on the end grabbing a morsel and flying off while the others in turn hopped closer.
In 1969, the Gold Coast was still undiscovered territory. The larger towns of Coolangatta, Surfer’s Paradise and Southport were still small, and the stretches in between were downright rural. The beaches were the focus, so most people lived pretty close to the ocean with many rather run down but quaint homes right on the beach. It should have been an idyllic place to grow up. I was fourteen by the time we got to the Gold Coast; my sister a year older.
Idyllic, that is, if you weren’t an American teenager.
While our parents thrived – building a nice canal-side house on the Isle of Capri in Surfer’s Paradise, buying a swimwear factory (in which we kids occasionally toiled), mixing in with the other American ex-pats – my sister and I took paths unlike what our parents had in mind for us. I’ll leave it for Jaina to tell her story if she cares to.
Jaina and I went to Miami High School, which resembled an English school with mandatory uniforms, inspections and corporal punishment. I actually did well at first. Miami High excelled in academics, which suited me. I had lots of friends and got into the usual amount of trouble without it being too serious. My transition to Australian life was helped by having Richard Jones as a friend. Richard was a Yank, too, and he had been there longer. I remember we also had a friend by the name of David Brown and Richard, David and I once took a bus to Brisbane (the nearest big city about 50 miles away) probably for a concert. At the bus station in Southport or wherever, we booked tickets in the names of Smith, Jones and Brown. I like to think we got a raised eyebrow or two over that.
I still have a good friend to this day from my Miami High days – John Cork. No finer fellow exists.
But with all that seeming high school normality, there was continual underlying tension. Unlike the adults, Australian teenagers were relentless in harassing us Yanks. They had some kind of inferiority complex and I was always being challenged because of stupid stuff, like Aussie cars were better than Yank cars. More than one fight resulted. Later on in my time in Australia away from high school I took to claiming I was Canadian just to avoid the harrassment.
Thinking back, the ‘trouble’, if I want to call it that, began when I started hanging out with a different group, particularly Karl McKlintock, Rob Duncanson and Gordon (forgot his last name). Rob and Gordon were Canadians and Karl was Aussie. All were about a year older than me. None were the type that conformed to the rules. Soon, my activities included beer drinking, pot-smoking and even petty crimes. At least once, I stole my parent’s car for the group. Not sure where the parents were.
All that would have been fine – actually better than fine, I think – but Rob in particular had a bigger, more substantial influence on me. You see, Rob wanted to go back to Canada and he convinced me that I needed to go with him. As an Australian, Karl wasn’t going anywhere and Gordon was – well, I don’t know what Gordon thought. Gordon remains mysterious to me. I know he had a serious heart problem that threatened his life. I sometimes wonder how he got along.
Under Rob’s plan, we would book passage on a ship to Vancouver. To pay for the tickets – because neither of us had any money at the time – we would spend a few months in the outback mining town of Mt. Isa working whatever jobs we could find. Karl would go, too. Rob and Karl had already graduated 10th grade high school (all that was required) and I was scheduled to do so just before we left for Mt. Isa. Except not quite – we ended up leaving after classes ended but before exams.
My parents were none the wiser. I told them we were going to Mt Isa for summer work and that the school year was over. What parent wouldn’t want their sixteen year old, supposedly responsible kid, to go off to with his friends to work through the summer break?
To get there, Karl somehow obtained a Holden FB panel van in dubious condition. I think we had to get Karl’s dad to pony up money for a brake job and between the three of us (mainly Rob) we had the expertise to get the engine and other vitals working reasonably well. We outfitted the interior with a mattress and drive-in speakers.
So, late 1971, off we went, traveling up the coast to Townsville before heading in to the interior, the outback. Accommodations were the most basic – sleeping on the beach in the company of whomever we encountered. We didn’t know what we were doing and had no schedule. Our sights were set on Mt. Isa and we had no clear idea what it took to get there or really what we would do once we arrived.
Townsville was a mess when we went through, having just a few days prior taken a direct hit by Cyclone Althea, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit Queensland. The roads were littered with debris – the area still very much in recovery mode. We didn’t stay on the beach here but managed to score a motel room. This being late December in northern Queensland, the weather was hot and humid. I recall trying to cool off in the motel pool while it was raining.
Driving west towards Mt. Isa on the Flinders Highway (I had to look up the name) is an exercise in nothingness, particularly between Hughenden and Cloncurry where the road stretches for as far as the eye can see. Looking left or right doesn’t get you much more in the way of scenery although I could see herds of the enormous red kangaroos hopping near the horizon (It would not be the last we saw of these kangaroos). While not the deep, desolate outback, we were definitely in the middle of nowhere.
Two things happened on the road to Mt. Isa. First, we got a flat tire and after unloading the FB, we discovered we had no jack. That was when I became most aware of the desolation surrounding us. There we were on the side of the road, belongings strewn out the back and absolutely nothing but a dead straight road in front and back to suggest that humans ever came this way. So, we waited. Eventually, someone else drove by and offered the use of their jack.
The second thing that happened, either before or after the flat tire incident (and I want hope it was before because if it was after, my buddy Karl’s behavior becomes even more stupid), was an off-road excursion. Recall that we were on a single lane, asphalt road in nowheresville. The ground on either side of the road was not firm at all – more like loose dirt. In other words, unless you had a 4WD vehicle, you really wanted to stay on the asphalt (or bitumen, as it’s called down under).
Karl was driving, I was in the passenger seat with Rob in the back and as happened occasionally I think, some of the big kangaroos hopped alongside as we drove, or hopped out of the way as we approached. Karl decided that the FB needed kangaroo skin seat covers, or at least that’s what he said. So he veers off the road straight for one of the big roos. And hits it. He actually hit the fucking kangaroo. I was aghast and Rob was perplexed, having no idea what happened.
You know how you don’t want to hit a big deer or a cow because of the damage the critter will do to your car? Well, same with seven foot kangaroos. The impact caved in the grill and almost destroyed the radiator. We were fortunate not to be stranded with a broken car. And also fortunate to be able to make it back to the road what with the tires now half buried.
The roo? I think we pissed it off. It got up and hopped away. Like Karl was going to skin the fucking thing and make seat covers. Stupid.
Somehow, we made it to Mt. Isa. Not knowing what to do or where to go once we arrived, I’m not sure how things went down at this point but we ended up in a tent campground. Our new home. Now, the hard part – get a job to earn money for passage to Canada.
Australia at the time, maybe still, had a pretty good system for getting temp jobs – you went to the unemployment office, filled out the forms with your ‘qualifications’ (we had none) and basically waited until someone wanted manual labor. And manual labor jobs we got – my scrawny self loaded cement bags onto train flatcars, literally dug ditches for a new gas station and other equally appealing forms of physical abuse that passed for employment. But there were also times of unemployment. To get money for the next meal during these, we actually trolled the streets looking for loose change. A rough time.
Rob was in the same boat as Karl and I at first but managed to score a job with the mining company in town (Mt. Isa is and was then known for mines). He made enough money to buy a motorcycle – one of the new Honda CB500 four cylinder bikes. I don’t recall thinking much about that purchase at the time, but we were here to make money to leave the country, weren’t we?
Life went on this way for a while. We were in Mt. Isa for at least two months, maybe longer. While there, I managed to have my first car accident. I swear it wasn’t my fault but the guy I hit tried to take advantage of the fact that I was unlicensed and demanded money. After talking with Karl and Rob, we decided to tell the guy to take a hike, which apparently he did. The FB was mostly undamaged, at least not much further damaged.
One other notable incident happened while in Mt. Isa – we were arrested by the local police and threatened with charges of possession of cocaine. As if we could afford pot, much less cocaine. The three of us were hauled into the police station and held overnight for questioning while the FB was torn apart in a search for drugs. The let us go the next day after finding nothing but I think they made it plain that us long-haired hippie types were not welcome in their town. We had to put the FB back together ourselves.
All the while in Mt. Isa, I exchanged letters with my parents and at some point wrote that Rob and I were leaving. I think I asked them to sell my surfboard. Parents being parents – and my parents were good people – they were having none of it. They did, however, conclude that their Australian experiment was a failure with both their younger two kids so far off the straight and narrow. So they decided to uproot and return to the US. I would come back to the Gold Coast and enter the 11th grade while plans were put into motion. Jaina? Well, her situation was even more dysfunctional than mine, but again, that’s her story to tell.
My memory is foggier than usual about what happened in the ensuing months but I do know that I didn’t stay in school but instead traveled south to Melbourne with Karl to stay with his sister, BIL and two rugrats. After a few months there (a story for another blog post), my parents and I indeed headed back to the US and settled in Hawaii, which is where I graduated from high school. Jaina remained in Australia.
Looking back to this time in my life is difficult and not just because I can’t remember much of it (most of the above is based on fragmented memories and help from my sisters). No, it’s difficult because of what I did to my parents. They had moved to Australia to retire and had put the four of us in a pretty sweet situation. Had I not done what I did, they would have lived out their lives after, probably, many years of relative bliss. My father was a veteran of three major wars and my mother did the military spouse thing for decades. They deserved their retirement and the Gold Coast of Australia is a damn fine place to retire, especially back then. Me, I would have graduated 12th grade at Miami, probably got into one of the better universities and probably become an Australian citizen.
But no. Mind you, Hawaii wasn’t so bad either and both my parents thrived there, too. But it wasn’t their dream.