Anthony W. Pahl

AWAY ALONE

I was thirteen years old and in grade seven when the first Australian advisors left to go to Vietnam in 1963. As soon as it appeared in the newspapers, I stated emphatically to Blue Hyland, a classmate: “I’ll be going too if the war lasts long enough.” He laughed at me, but I was deadly serious though I cringed at the thought of probably missing out on that adventure because I was too young.

For the ensuing four years, I studied the newspapers and watched television – hoping against all odds that no signs of withdrawal of troops from Vietnam would appear. I read of the deaths and watched battles on television with interest. What an adventure – putting my life on the line for my mates and family. Nothing would make my father prouder of me. Being able to brag to my friends that I fought in a war to protect them was much more than they would be ever able to say. Let them reap the rewards of my sacrifice – they would be in my debt forever.

All this information was being stored in my mind. The only change in decision regarding my going was how I was going to do it. Conscription was introduced. There was no way that I was going to be forced to join up. I was going to go to Vietnam voluntarily. No person would be able to say that I went to Vietnam because I was sent. No! I knew that it was more important to be regarded as a volunteer – and more glorious.

The war became known as a helicopter war so I wanted to fly helicopters. I assumed that the Army flew the choppers. When the reply came in response to my inquiry to the Military Recruiting Centre in Adelaide, the Army advised that the Royal Australian Air Force flew the helicopters in support of the Army. All at once, things were looking up. In my mind, not only was the RAAF the most glamorous of the three services, but also my father served for nine years in the late forties – early fifties. Enlisting in the RAAF would not only give me a chance to fly, but would make my father even prouder of me. After all, I would be following in his footsteps – with one up on him. I would serve my country in a war.

My passion for this adventure never wavered but indeed, changed my whole outlook and actions. I could hardly wait to turn seventeen in order to enlist. But events overtook me.

During the school holidays in Christmas 1965, I had a full-blown argument with my father. I was to turn sixteen in the next February and he didn’t want me to go back to school. Instead, he had arranged, without my knowledge, for me to start an apprenticeship at the farm implement manufacturer, David Shearer & Co, in Mannum where we were living (and where I was born). On the other hand, I wanted to complete my matriculation so that I had the educational qualifications to become a pilot in the RAAF – and he knew this. 1965 had been a very successful academic year for me. I had topped the state in Maths I and 2, and received credits in Physics and English. These were the subjects required by the RAAF in order to qualify for Pilot training. I knew that it I stayed at home, my dreams would never be realised so I did the only thing left open to me – I ran away from home.

Early on the morning of Thursday the sixth of January 1966, I packed my few meagre possessions in a small kit bag, crawled out of my front bedroom window, ran the two hundred yards to the main road and proceeded to hitchhike to Adelaide. Mr. Walker, who owned the local Four Square store, stopped to pick me up. He was on his way to market to purchase the fresh fruit and vegetables. We knew each other quite well as I had often worked for him on weekends and school holidays, and I knew that he knew my father. I was very worried that he would take me back home so I told him what I was doing. He must have been aware of the problems I was having with my father because he agreed to take me to Adelaide as long as I told nobody that he had done so.

So there I was in Adelaide, not yet 16; too young to join the RAAF, with no money or job. I’d never before been alone in the big city. I had to have some place to live and I had to get a job. I had earlier decided to ask Uncle Ron and Auntie Billie McFarlane, who had been friends of the family for years, if they could put me up until I could get organised. But they lived in a suburb called Marion and I had no idea where that was. I only had £1 on me and after asking a cab driver how much the fare would be, discovered that that paltry sum wouldn’t get me very far. I couldn’t catch a taxi and I couldn’t telephone them because I didn’t know their number. I had no idea what to do next.

After wandering through the central business district for some hours, I spotted the railway station on North Terrace. It was eight-thirty in the morning – peak hour – and I had never been in such close proximity to so many people or seen so much traffic at one time. I was really frightened but there was no way I was going back home.

Steeling myself, I strode down the ramp from North Terrace to the station concourse. The concourse was huge and I had no idea what to do next or what to look for. Then, much to my relief, I saw a sign – “INFORMATION”. I made my way through the crowd that seemed to be moving in the opposite direction as one entity trying to stop me reaching my destination. At the information booth, I was told which train to catch and which platform from which it was going to depart. Purchasing my ticket, I waited on the platform alone with my thoughts despite the seemingly hundreds of other people milling around reading newspapers and standing in groups talking to one another – all ignoring me as if I were invisible.

As the train progressed on its journey, stopping at every station, I eagerly searched for the sign on the platform indicating the name of the station. I couldn’t afford to miss my stop and I had no idea how far and how many stations I had to travel. Several times, I became afraid that I had misunderstood the directions at the Information booth and was on the wrong train. I was too scared to ask other passengers and besides, I didn’t want them to know that it was my first time alone in the big city. With an inordinate sense of relief, I finally read the sign showing the name of my destination – “MARION”. I had arrived.

Scared that the train would pull out before I was able to disembark, I hurriedly and clumsily stood up. I was nursing my kit bag and as I stood, to my utter dismay, it burst open, strewing my worldly possessions for the entire world to see. I stuffed everything back, and knowing that my face glowed red and tears of embarrassment were obvious to all these strangers, I raced from the scene of the disaster. My God, how was I going to survive?

I had imagined that Marion was only a small place. I had to find Daisy Avenue. I walked for hours trying to find the street. Finally, I realised that I needed help. It was two thirty in the afternoon and I was tired, hungry, and alone. I entered a small delicatessen and purchased a small bottle of Coca Cola and a ham sandwich. Relying on the fact that the man behind the counter seemed kind as he served me, I gathered what was left of my bravado and asked him for directions. He took out a UBD Street directory and located my destination providing me with seemingly endless directions.

As I was exiting the shop after thanking him, he called to me and suggested that because of the distance, I’d be better off taking a taxi. Because of my hesitation, he must have discerned that I didn’t have enough money so he did one of the nicest things that a stranger has ever done for me. He asked me to wait while he arranged for his wife to look after the shop and then took me, in his own car, to Uncle Ron and Auntie Billie’s home. I swore to myself that as soon as I was able, I would visit him and give him a small thank you gift. But I was never able to find that shop again. I did, however, never forget his kindness and since that incident, have never consciously passed up an opportunity to assist someone in need if in a position to do so.

Uncle Ron had retired from work – he was a lot older than my father and had a couple of married children. Several years earlier, he had lost an arm above the elbow when the grader he was operating slipped over an embankment and overturned. He always fascinated me with his artificial arm never that seemed to worry him. He was a constant source of amazement to me the way he could drive a car and use eating utensils and could do just about anything that a “normal” person could do. He and Aunty Billie spent a lot of time in Mannum where they had a caravan and boat. I often spent time with them, fishing and just talking. I really enjoyed their company and they always seemed to like and have time for me.

The time had come to put this to the test. I knocked on the door and Auntie Billie welcomed me. As she was making a cup of tea, we talked about my reasons for leaving home. She suggested that I have a shower while she discussed the situation with Uncle Ron. I was feeling a lot more positive, but still filled with some trepidation when Uncle Ron sat me down in the lounge chair. He said that he would have to contact my father and let him know where I was. I never thought that he would do that and became very agitated. It looked as though all my plans would fly out the window until Uncle Ron told me that as long as it was agreeable with dad, I could stay with them.

He rang dad that evening. I was on tenterhooks as the conversation progressed. Suddenly, Uncle Ron became very angry and without warning slammed the receiver down, turned and looked at me for several moments and walked over to me. I became very frightened but Uncle Ron put his hand on my shoulder and told me that I was welcome to stay with Aunty Billie and him for as long as I wanted. Apparently, dad had told him that he no longer considered me his son and that I could do whatever I wanted. He didn’t want to know.

This should have been devastating but instead, all I felt was a sense of relief. If that was the way he wanted it, it suited me. I had a new and better family.

The next day, a Friday, Aunty Billie and I sat down and searched the paper for jobs. We selected several and proceeded to make some phone calls and I was accepted for four interviews. During the next week, I attended each of them. On the Wednesday, I got my first return call advising that I had been successful in obtaining the position of Stores Hand in the goods dispatch department of Harris Scarfe Pty Ltd and that I could commence on the following Monday. I was elated! My first job! And I wasn’t yet sixteen.

Aunty Billie had offered me a loan of £10 loan so I had some spending money for lunch and transport to and from work. She also said that I needed some new clothes so on the Friday before I started work she took me to Myers and supervised their purchase. She paid nearly £60 on her Myers card with the arrangement that I would repay her as and when I could.

My salary was £11 per week. The weekly train fare was 10/ –and I insisted that I pay something for board. Aunty Billie and I reach an agreement that I pay £2/10/ –each week and I would try to repay £5 weekly off the loan for my clothes. This left me £3 spending money – more than enough and more money of my own than I had ever had before.

It took me some time to settle into the job, not because the job was difficult but because I didn’t know anyone. But settle I did and after three weeks was called into the supervisor’s office for a progress report. He was satisfied with my work and suggested that I could progress fairly rapidly in the Company if I stuck at it.

But I had other plans. I never lost sight of my dream to join the Air Force and was wary of becoming too settled in one job. After the interview with the supervisor, I started to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t let on but I began looking for another and different type of job. Then, wonder of wonders, I spied an advertisement for the position of junior clerk with Airlines of South Australia. I immediately spoke to Uncle Ron who advised that I should go for it. With his assistance, I penned the job application and about two weeks later, I received an invitation to attend an interview.

When I arrived at Adelaide Airport, there were ten applicants waiting to be interviewed. I nearly turned right around and went home. I was the youngest, having turned sixteen a few days before, and figured that I would have no chance against older opposition. But several days after the interview, Aunty Billie handed me an envelope, which contained a letter advising that I was the successful applicant. I began to think that I was worth something after all.

I gave notice at Harris Scarfes and commenced my new job at the beginning of March 1966. On the fourteenth of February 1966, decimal currency was introduced so there was a bonus – my pay increased to twenty-eight dollars per week. Although transport costs increased to $1.75 per week, Aunty Billie didn’t want any extra for board so I had an extra $5.25 a week of my own – a total of $11.25 to spend as I desired. I loved the job. With the extra money I was earning, I quickly paid back the loans to Auntie Billie and even purchased some new clothes.

I was entitled, as an employee, to free trips to any destination in South Australia to which the airline operated. I only went on one trip – to Port Lincoln. A work mate had relations living there so we wouldn’t have to worry about accommodation and being a weekend, they would be available to take us sightseeing. It was an unforgettable weekend. We spent the Saturday looking around the town and on Sunday morning, were shown over the tuna boats. That afternoon, we were taken to the mulga plains north of the town. The scenery was fantastic – the sea on one side and the stunted mulga bushes stretching for miles inland on the other. But the most wondrous sight was of the herds of brumbies freely roaming over the plain. Hundreds of these wild horses were galloping together and grazing on the sparse vegetation. I really envied their freedom and wished I could be part of it.

The travelling bug bit me. I was no longer afraid to travel alone and strangers no longer frightened me. I guess that living in a city taught me to ignore circumstances that didn’t directly affect me. But this had its down side as well.

One evening, I decided to travel into the city to go to a nightclub called ‘The Underground’. The club was situated downstairs in Gawler Arcade, which ran off Rundle Street – the main shopping street in the centre of Adelaide city. I had read in the paper that Bev Harrold was appearing that night and she had a hit single at the time. I was dressed in my newest and trendiest clothes – a red polka dotted shirt with white high-necked collar and white cuffs, navy bell-bottom pants and platform shoes. I was five feet ten inches tall, slender but well built with a mop of curly auburn hair. I looked pretty good if I do say so myself.

I had never been to any place like it before and the noise was unbelievable. There were about one hundred and fifty people, talking and drinking and dancing. They seemed to know one another. I was pretty overwhelmed by the situation and was about to leave when the next thing I knew, a girl asked me to dance. Not only was I taken aback by the fact that I was asked to dance by a girl but I had only seen this type of dancing on television. I had never tried it in public but I had practised in my bedroom at Aunty Billie’s so I accepted anyhow.

The girl who asked me to dance was about five feet tall, had long blonde hair, and was dressed in a glittering silver pants suit. She was quite lovely. As we were dancing – the “bus stop” I think – she asked my name and where I was from. I was very flattered by her attention and, gathering my somewhat depleted savoir-faire, asked her name. I guess that I lost the beat of the music and therefore missed quite a few steps in the dance because I ended up treading all over her feet as she told me that she was Bev Harrold.

After two or three songs, Bev invited me back-stage as she prepared for her next bracket. Her two bodyguards weren’t keen on the idea and a heated discussion ensued. I just stood there not knowing what to do. I offered to wait near the front of the stage instead and Bev smiled and thanked me. Unwittingly, I had done just the right thing – she later confided in me that it indicated to her that I was not just after the kudos of being seen with her. She never did tell me what she did think I was after. Between her signing autographs, singing her songs and talking to her band and the fans, we danced until three o’clock in the morning. I had the feeling that I was the envy of every other male in the place – but I didn’t care.

As the evening drew to a close, Bev invited me back the next week. I eagerly accepted and hesitantly suggested that perhaps we could have a cup of coffee beforehand. She agreed so we made arrangements to meet in the ‘Oasis’ coffee lounge next to the club at eight the next Saturday night. Therefore, I had my first ever date and it was with Bev Harrold. But that was the only date I had with her. Success with her career meant that she had to travel all over Australia and although I met her on several occasions subsequently, we spent very little time together.

At three thirty on that first night, I was walking in a reverie down Rundle Street to the North Terrace railway station when a bloke approached me asking the time. I told him but he continued to walk with me. He was neatly but squarely dressed and was obviously a foreigner. His accent unnerved me – or perhaps it was the comments he kept softly whining. I started to walk faster as he kept repeating how nice I looked and how well built I was. I didn’t know why I felt uncomfortable but when he offered me twenty dollars to accompany him to the banks of the River Torrens, I ran like hell. As I reached the station, I looked around and he was right behind me. Thankfully, a pair of policemen was at the entrance to the ramp and I raced over to them and told them about the bloke. They told me not to worry and to catch my train – they would take care of him.

What a night! I was experiencing and feeling things that I had never even dreamed about or imagined possible. But that wasn’t the end of all things bright and beautiful!