Saturday, December 22, 2012

Memoir - Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken


 The Memoir - a work in progress

Background see Working on a Memoir
Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia
Leaves 7-9 Hooning, Teaching & Presenting
Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career
Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken



Postcard 12 “Now we’re moving in slow motion, To a piercing steering wheel, There’s chaos and commotion, The whole thing’s a bit too real" Mark Gillespie Pile-Up November/December 1979 behind Bothwell
The world spun and rolled before my eyes. Moments before I had been listening to Sue and Deb talking in the front of the car. We were en route to the back of Bothwell for a triple 21st birthday party for three law students. Deb had just received her Provisional learner’s licence. When I was growing up, in Queenstown, Deb was the type of girl I could never have imagined or contemplated becoming friends with. She completed honours in ancient Greek art, she worked part time (rare in those days), wore skin tight jeans and helped me to appreciate women as something other than as “traditionally” viewed (mothers, sisters, or objects of lust).
I can’t recall the noise or any screams, but once the car had come to a standstill after rolling along a long stretch of barbed wire fence, I remember crawling from the vehicle. Someone who had been in the car ahead said that they had seen the accident in their rear view mirror and feared coming back to investigate. Yet, there were no major injuries, only minor cuts or scratches. I can’t remember much of the aftermath except we continued to the party and I think I got well and truly drunk. Now, as I try to recall the events of that summer, I struggle to remember any details, apart from those very brief snippets from the accident.
Leaf 13. “Living outside the law when way too young” Elphin Road, Launceston 1963-1964.
I have no real memory, only a few scattered images from “that night.” It is dark, very dark, and I’m standing at a building site for a future hotel, just off Elphin Road in Launceston.  Maybe I was five or six. I’m not sure why I was there: maybe,  as a look out; to help carry things; or possibly to scramble through somewhere to unlock a door or gate? There is a man near me but it is hard to see, or remember his face, maybe there were more in the background. In later memories, he becomes my mother’s boyfriend but I don’t know. 
My feet were on the verge of another path one that could have led me into a far different engagement with the law, a darker, more savage and higher risk engagement.  On this path, I probably would have been unlikely to complete high school and more than certain to have experienced Ashley Detention Centre or its predecessor. This was a path I stepped from without knowing why. At several points, until my early high school years, I stepped on and off this path or similar paths as I flirted with and was caught up in several types of unlawful activity - petty theft, vandalism and other anti-social behaviour. At the time I never constructed a rationale why this happened or what was drawing me to a potentially destructive path.  Many years later, after reading The Outsider and attending a rare political science lecture on alienation, the concept of being an outsider struck a very strong and lasting chord. 
Leaf 14 “Ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat. Who carries on his shoulder a Siamese cat” Bronte Inn Sydney June/July 1983
I’d spent just a few months in the Tax Office and my relationship with Esther was in its first passionate but uncertain stages. In between the lust, passion and early discoveries, both of us could sense a growing commitment to each other, despite all our stark contrasts and few shared interests or approaches to life.
I found myself at a breakfast table in the Bronte Inn in Sydney. I had used my internal knowledge of the public service to arrive in Sydney a day before the final selection round for recruitment into the Foreign Affairs Department. I was there largely by a series of accidents, last minute decisions and a whim. Nearly everyone else was on a determined mission, often started prior to their university studies, to join the diplomatic corps.
 
The three day selection ordeal was designed to pinpoint the final 30-50 ‘anointed ones’ to join the Australian diplomat corps.  The initial pool of applicants had numbered several thousand. That potential pool was culled via an intensive exam, and an initial screening of the written applications, to produce a group of several hundred applicants who were then interviewed. Finally, about seventy applicants were brought to Sydney for a final 3 day culling exercise that consisted of tests, role plays, seminars, presentations and intense, but discrete, scrutiny of behaviour at all meals and cocktail parties.
Sitting at the breakfast table, I was unsure whether my travel ingenuity had gained me bonus points or raised questions about my ethics and commitment to correct procedure. Many (including me) were surprised I had reached the final stage. On a whim, I had sat a 3 hour entry test (problem questions, current affairs, short essays etc) with little preparation. My application was written in a frenzy, fuelled by coffee and orange juice after a very late and boozy Tax function. My application was written more as a stream of consciousness missive than a staid, proper and disciplined application. One part of my application referred to my approach to things as being like a whirling dervish. Later, at the interview round, the panel told me they had waited their whole journey around Australia to meet the author of this unique application. 
On my second morning in Sydney, I sat at the same table, and the serving staff greeted me as an old friend.  Meanwhile, other tables filled rapidly with applicants who had only arrived overnight or very early that morning.  The friendly and familiar greetings from the serving staff convinced many of the other applicants that I was part of the selection team and they started to speak loudly, letting their claims for selection drop into their conversations. Later-to-be Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had been through this process a couple of years previously, and indeed that morning one nerdy guy blew me away when he talked about his honours thesis and how he had translated newspapers from Vietnamese or Chinese. I started to wonder how I would survive and make it through the next 3 days of the selection process against such superior and gifted candidates. 
My doubts were confirmed when late in the evening of day two I realised I had missed some sort of social cue and was the last applicant in the room among all the selectors. Until that moment, I had pursued the objective to be a ‘trainee diplomat’ simply as another intellectual challenge or job opportunity and a useful escape option from the bureaucratic confines of the lowest levels of the Tax Office. During the night, I started to think about whether this could be a career path. 
The following morning as I listened to and observed the other applicants at the breakfast table, I reflected on whether I had been allowed this far through the process simply as a social experiment or a dark horse. Most of the other applicants had far brighter academic qualifications, refined social skills and had already in the last two days learnt to deliver finely shaped diplomatic responses. While I could analyse, dissect and be objective as any of those around me on Timor or military intervention in Africa, I was well aware of my preference to be ‘frank and candid’ and to keep pushing the ‘we ought to’ case. I also wondered how quickly my refreshing West Coast directness or bluntness would become unsuitable in a sensitive diplomatic post. It certainly had not proved a career advancing trait in the Tax Office.
After the three day session, I left Sydney still uncertain about a career as a diplomat. A few weeks later, I was asked to complete a security clearance form to finalise the application process. I didn’t and dropped out at this final stage.  Why? First, during the three day Sydney process, the Foreign Affairs staff had indicated how hard the job was on families (spouses couldn’t work, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to leave a posting to return to Australia in a family emergency). Esther was very attached to her horses and coming from a very small family, a foreign posting of two or more years would be a major trauma for her and her loved ones, including two elderly grandparents. Second, I had moved so many times in my years at university, and in my first few months with the Tax Office (over 10 different lots of flat mates many who could rival the strangest people featuring in He Died with a Felafel in His Hand), that it was easier to stay with my preferred option of remaining with Esther.
Another road not taken.
I doubt, in retrospect, I could have survived as a junior diplomat. I remain uncertain whether at that early stage in our relationship I should have dragged Esther into that life/lifestyle and whether our relationship would have survived. Looking back 28 years later surrounded by my family and the life I have created there are no regrets. Esther and I have grown together and now support each other like two large trees, of different species, that have grown together giving each other a strong physical and emotional centre. I think the diplomatic corps would have offered neither.

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