I have a long, long, long distance relationship with Australia. If you check out a map, the United States and Australia are separated by a small body of water called the Pacific Ocean. Despite that handicap, my dad introduced me to the country in 1968.
I’d heard of Australia before that, learning in school, number one, that it’s not Austria. It wasn’t even on the same continent. I wondered why they would give almost the same name to two different places that are so far apart. At that time, I guess I visualized naming countries as being much like naming children, done by the family when it was born. The world would be the doting parents, holding up its new children. “Here, come meet little Austria and Australia.”
I never really learned the naming process was much different from that. It remains as much as a mystery as Australia, a place properly called down under because it was underneath the rest of the world, last stop before the empty, cold continent of Antartica, so far away, they were imagined with the same fervor as the moon, Mars, and the Mariana Trench.
Dad’s ’68 introduction provided as much light on Australia as a penlight with a dead battery. Stationed in Vietnam, he’d gone to Australia for 30 days of rest and recreation before returning to America. He brought gifts of a bush hat and a boomerang. Cool, to me. One of my television viewing addictions then was called Rat Patrol. Set in World War II Africa, the lead, Sgt Sam Troy, played by Christopher George, wore a bush hat like the one my Dad gifted me.
I was the neighborhood’s envy with that hat, it being different than the common hats and caps others doffed and also being from a foreign, exotic land, conveying instant status. Younger children, teenagers, girls, boys, men, women, old men and women, all desired the story on how that hat came to be on my head. My story of my Dad being in the military, stationed in Vietnam and visiting Australia and bringing this to me as a gift, was a triple threat – current events, foreign affairs, and geography – in addition to being an unusual story in my neighborhood. None of the neighbors had been anywhere near Vietnam or Australia outside of books, television, and movies.
Brown with some yellow, green and red painting on it, the boomerang was another tale. Interesting me as much as the hat, I’d seen them used on television, mostly cartoons. (Cartoons were a large part of my cultural heritage in those days.) A small script of paper provided instructions about how to throw the boomerang. Mom was aghast, worried about me putting it into someone’s head or through a window. I was ordered far, far afield to try it out. Accompanied by friends and the instructions, I took it to a huge, unimproved baseball field. Built on the remains of a rock quarry, surrounding hillsides would constrain the boomerang’s flight. With friends watching from behind me, I cast the boomerang into the air. Lifting high, it, well – sorry – it boomeranged back toward my group of friends. They all screamed and ran, dodging the aerial threat coming down. After brief conversations, most left me and my cousin to master the boomerang, heading back to the neighborhood where the only dangers were dogs, cars and bullies, and the occasional crazy bird swooping down on us if we were too close to some nest.
I never did master the boomerang. It gained a place on my wall as a piece of art and disappeared during one of my many moves.
Australia, meanwhile, was growing larger in my heart. For one thing, I was fond of auto racing, especially Formula One and sports cars. Black Jack Brabham was from Australia, and Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren were from the neighboring country of New Zealand. They were becoming a mighty racing force. As the three gained success, magazines provided background stories about their lives and countries. I learned about the Tasmanian racing series, impressing me because Tasmania was a neat name, definitely exotic, waaay different from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, the states where I’d mostly lived. Rolling Tasmania off my tongue delivered a mysterious land worthy of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. I’d read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach because it featured Australia. Yes, I was that shallow but the book became more important to me because of the story than the country where it took place.
So I’ve always wanted to visit Australia and New Zealand. I never have. I’ve come close. While I was in the Philippines, I partied with some Australian Marines. We had a hell of a time and their attitudes confirmed that Australia was a great place. While on a Hong Kong vacation, a pretty young Australian woman hit on me, offering to show me the real Hong Kong until my wife reappeared.
We were living on Okinawa then. Later that year, 22nd Air Force called, looking for someone in command and control to go to New Zealand to support the resupply mission to Antarctica. My boss asked me if I wanted to go and put in my name. It was a done deal until his boss decided he’d like the New Zealand gig and pre-empted me. My boss, annoyed by the backdoor action, called 22nd and got the assignment changed to another unit.
Two more chances to reach Australia were given. While still in the Air Force, US Space Command invited me to join the Space Command Inspector General team. Part of my job would require visiting the tracking stations in Australia along with other interesting places like the Seychelles. It was a flattering offer, emblematic of being highly regarded and capable but I had to turn down the job. We were living in California then and it would mean moving to Colorado, which my wife didn’t want to do. She is not fond of the cold and it was clear that Peterson AFB, Colorado, was cold and snowy in the winter. The job also meant a great deal of travel as the team was on the road 49 weeks of the year. For some reason my wife was tired of being on her own so much.
Yet, Australia and I were not done. After I retired from the Air Force, a Silicon Valley medical device start-up hired me. The company was developing methods to treat peripheral and coronary chronic total occlusions. I was positioned as a marketing/product manager. We were doing trials in Brazil and Australia preparatory to doing EC and FDA clinical trials. A team was dispatched to Australia to work with physicians there. I wasn’t included but after two days, my boss called me from down under. More devices were needed. Would I mind jumping on a flight and bringing them to Australia?
Would I? Hell, yes. I received the call about five PM and was ready to go the next morning when they called and told me the plans were changed. I didn’t need to go to Australia after all.
That was back in 2000, and the last time I almost went to Australia. I keep dreaming of it because it still holds my fancy as a charming, bold, fun place. Every time one of the Mad Max/Road Warrior movies come on, or the SuperCar races, I think, Australia. Passing an ad for Foster’s Beer will prompt me to think, Australia. I enjoy Quigley Down Under as much for the Australian people and scenes as I do Alan Rickman, Laura San Giacomo, Tom Selleck and the story/plot. Seeing Nicole Kidman or Hugh Jackman will trigger Australian dreams, along with encounters with The Thorn Birds in any form or Colleen McCullough books. Each year the Formula One circus heads down there. I don’t follow the racing any longer but I’m still on a mailing list and there, on glossy paper, are photographs of Australia, prompting new forays across the Internet to check air fares and vacation packages.
So my dream remains. I subscribe to The Age and read about bikies, brush fires and politics to stay on top of things, in case I'm ever down there. Someday maybe I’ll have the chance to meet the country introduced to me so long ago, the beauty that I only know in books, movies and dreams.
Causes Michael Seidel Supports
Kiva, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Propublica.org, Doctors Without Borders, GreaterGood.com