I hope you’ll indulge me today as I tell you about my old friend. It is said that we should not regret growing older as it is a privilege denied to many. Though I was born in the first half of the last century I do not regard myself as being old. As a child, someone my age was regarded as being ANCIENT, but, even though I am rapidly approaching the proverbial three score years and ten, I don’t feel old at all (well, maybe after a day’s slaving in the yard the passage of the years tells on me a little more than what it used to but…)
But one doesn’t have to be old to have an old friend (or several) and my old friend, David Thompson, is the subject of my entry today. Dave, or “Thommo”, is a contemporary, being just a few months older than me. I’d like to tell you how we grew up together, sharing childhood memories and teenage escapades but we didn’t. In fact, we didn’t even meet till we were in our twenties and it was in unusual circumstances. As it turned out, we had both been students on the same campus when we first met. Dave had been a trainee high school teacher at Wollongong University while I had just completed my primary school teaching course at Wollongong Teachers College.
We met on a train, heading to Sydney. We were both heading to Watson’s Bay on the edge of Sydney Harbour, to be inducted into the Royal Australian Army. We noted each other’s ultra-short haircut (joining instructions had told us that this was mandatory even though one of the first things that they did to us, the first of a long series of indignities foisted upon us, was to march us around to the army barber who gave us an even SHORTER haircut for no other reason than to show that there was only ONE way of doing things and that was the army way). The barber was old and wore a pair of glasses whose lenses were so thick that they looked like they had been taken from the bottom of two Coca Cola bottles. His ability as a barber was only marginally better than my knowledge of military strategy and we immediately christened him, “The Butcher of Watson’s Bay”
On the train Thommo and I had shared the story of how we had been called up and how we had managed to avoid being taken into the army due to our status as full-time tertiary students. But now the crunch had come and we were literally completely unprepared for what was to come. Young, naive and guileless, we had no idea of the shocks that were to come. It seemed obvious that, sharing at least a few things in common, we should stick together and together try to make sense of the rapidly developing disruption to our hitherto simple lifestyles.
I’ve written before about the hell that was recruit training but having Thommo as my room-mate and one of the three other guys in our room was the only thing that kept me sane throughout those ten weeks. We formed a strong and unshakable bond and, together, we muddled through. It wasn’t easy and I almost lost Thommo altogether around week 8 of the course. It seems that he had a severe reaction to the tetanus/typhoid inoculation and, late in the evening, after having complained of feeling unwell, he collapsed in our room with a very high fever. His bed was saturated from having been perspiring for hours and, it took some pretty tough talk to convince the Duty Corporal that he really WAS sick (corporals are always right). Once he came to our room and saw Dave, he panicked and called the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) who sent a medical orderly up from the Guard Room to our lines. The realisation sunk in that Thommo was gravely ill. The doctor was called and an army ambulance arrived and Thommo was hauled off to the RAP where he spent the next week recovering from a VERY near miss.
There was some doubt as to whether he would be able to march out with our platoon after missing a week’s training, but good sense prevailed (that’s a first) and he took his place with the rest of us at the March-Out parade.
Before this scary event, however, another scary event took place. Though not life-threatening it was equally perplexing and daunting as, with nearly everything that happens to you ate recruit training, you are never told WHY things need to be done, just that they HAVE to be done. It’s all part of the process of ingraining an unquestioning obedience into the minds of impressionable youth. In the middle of an activity we were performing an orderly arrived, spoke briefly to our instructor, handed him a piece of paper and left. Instead of immediately resuming the training, the corporal read out a list of names from the piece of paper and instructed the recruits concerned to immediately return to their lines, get dressed into their #1 uniform and report to the “B” Wing Office. My name, as well as Thommo’s and 4 others, was read out. I didn’t connect the dots (though Thommo later told me that he did) and it took a while for the penny to drop that the six names belonged to the six trained school teachers that were in our platoon.
In a blur of time we were all seated along a bench outside an office into which we were all hustled, one at a time, to face a row of officers sitting across from us at a long table. Given that, at this stage, a corporal was GOD (or so we had been told) such a powerful display of military rank was truly daunting. The officers were (I guess) at least majors and all were dressed in dress uniform, medals and regalia and all! I remember practically nothing from the interview except the awe of being in the presence of such dignitaries but I do remember being told that they were interviewing all school teachers for the Army Education Corps (there WAS such a thing? I had no clue). I only remember one question that they asked and I remember giving a ridiculous answer based on some air-fairy educational philosophy that I had picked up somewhere. Given that my answer ran contrary to everything that I had so far experienced of military educative and training processes, it amazes me that I remember several of these wise gents nodding, rubbing their chins and appearing to be extremely satisfied with the answer! The army never failed to deliver the curve ball.
The whole thing quickly disappeared into the back of my memory as day-to-day survival in the hostile environment of 1RTB took precedence, and it wasn’t until a few weeks later when Corps placements were announced that the interview suddenly made sense. Most of my fellow platoon members were posted to the military corps, infantry, artillery, service, engineering, etc and the other four teachers were ALL posted to infantry. The war in Vietnam was still raging and “grunts” were needed and lots of them. Thommo and I, however, had RAAEC listed beside our names, Royal Australian Army Education Corps. Following march-out I was told that I had been posted to, you guessed it, 1RTB!! Yes, I was not going to escape the hell. Not content with having made my life a misery for ten weeks, the army, in its wisdom, had decided that I should STAY there and be an Education Instructor!
Thommo’s fate was vastly different. He was instructed to report to an Army base in Sydney from whence he would be posted as an Education Instructor at 1PIR (Pacific Island Regiment) based in Port Moresby, New Guinea. Thommo maintains to this day that it was his sporting rather than his educative prowess that got him the posting having been a keen sportsman and an active participant in grade cricket and field hockey. It appears that his skill set was hugely in demand. In just a matter of days, we separated and our paths didn’t cross again until our army days were over. Thommo parlayed his undoubted teaching skills as well as his valued sporting skills into a secondment to the Australian Navy, based on Manus Island where he served out the rest of his two years “Nasho” obligation in semi-luxury, fishing, riding his little Honda motorcycle and generally doing a pretty good impersonation of one of the crew of McHales Navy.
Returning to Wollongong where I was living again after securing a posting to Holsworthy, we met up on a regular basis and it was like we had never been apart. A bit of amateur matchmaking by my wife to set Thommo up with HER best friend from school was unsuccessful and Thommo settled in as a Science teacher at Smith’s Hill Girls High School in the heart of Wollongong. Later we were to find out that he was going out with a young lady who was considerably younger than he was and it turned out that she was one of his students. All of this was kept quiet as it was considered back then to be very inappropriate for this sort of thing to happen. Indeed, Dave waited until Debbie had graduated before going public with the news.
They married and set up house in our first home in Dapto which we sold to them when we left town to live in Canberra. Dave went back to teaching and soon was promoted to the position of Science Master at the local high school. It was a position that he was to occupy at various schools for the rest of his teaching career. An “old skool” teacher who had a clear understanding of the roles of student and teacher, he brooked no deviation from what he knew to be right in the classroom and in the school. This brought him into conflict with some students and some administrators but he never backed down from what he believed teaching was all about. In the end it was his always opponents who came to see not just what he was doing but why and he gained respect from both students and colleagues wherever he was. Despite his adherence to his old skool values he nevertheless kept up with current educational theory and practice, incorporating what was good in his teaching and ignoring the increasingly liberalised trends that flooded in during the 80’s and 90’s.
Sadly, Debbie was proof of the proverb about beauty. She was a stunning girl but I wasn’t surprised when, on one of my visits down from Canberra, Dave confided in me that Debbie had gone home to mother and had left him with their two children for him to look after. This he did with his usual meticulous attention to detail.
Some time later, when the hurt had healed some, Dave struck up a relationship with Sue, a fellow science teacher and the partner who was to become an integral part of his life. They settled down together in a beautiful home on a big, sloping block of land in one of Wollongong’s leafy suburbs where Dave’s garden became an obsession. As a scientist he knew the names and characteristics of the myriad of plants in his garden so there probably wasn’t a garden anywhere in Wollongong that was more thoroughly researched and cared for than his.
Around ten years ago, however, Sue was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. As you’d expect, this was a huge shock and it led to a massive disruption to their well-ordered life. Soon their beautiful home had to be sold as Sue could no longer manage the rigours of the steeply-sloping block or the living on multiple levels that were integral to a home built on such a block. The garden was left behind and their huge collection of potted plants was sold or given away as they moved into a small unit in the CBD that was close to amenities and which Sue could manage. I’m pleased to say that dozens of their plants still flourish in our garden and still provide joy to both us and them when they visit.
Dave retired from teaching and devoted, and I DO mean devoted, himself to caring for Sue. He researched (and still researches) Parkinson’s assiduously, staying on top of the latest developments and learning as he goes what he needs to know in order to make life as good as it can be for the both of them.
The move into a small unit achieved some of what they hoped it would but it didn’t have the wide open spaces that they had enjoyed at the house so, always on the lookout for another “angle”, they bought a motorhome and started touring around, seeing the countryside and, with their scientific eyes, enjoying the freedom that the unit could not allow. In the mean time, Dave, who had always been a keen photographer, branched out into painting. He became friends with Helen Fitzgerald, Australia’s foremost botanical artists and she taught him the intricacies of capturing images of Australian plants and flowers in water colours. He proved to be a “star” pupil and it wasn’t long before he was producing top quality botanical art himself. As a meticulous and precise person, the discipline required to accurately render the minute detail in trees and flowers was right up his alley and he continues exploring his passion for producing paintings of the Australian bush.
As Sue struggled with the strictures of living in the unit as well as the increasingly debilitating effect of her illness, Dave became her full-time carer, assuming the load of looking after the aspects of her life that she was no longer able to manage. And it was the motorhome which proved to be an unexpected assistance. It transpired that Sue enjoyed better health while they were on the road exploring the countryside in the motorhome than she did when she was home. And so it has been that, for the last 8 years, they have spent much of their time on the road, circumnavigating the continent several times as well as re-visiting favourite areas. This has proved to be a very important part of Dave’s botanical art as well as he has been able to see the plants that he paints, in their native landscape. He has lately become beguiled into discovering and documenting Australian native orchids and they have spent the last three Springs in the south west of Western Australia photographing, painting and documenting the myriad of orchids that grow in the bush there. To date they have documented over 120 species that have previously not been fully documented and categorised.
It was through Thommo’s influence that we bought our van and it was a great pleasure to spend a month or so on the road with them this year on the Wide Open Spaces Tour. We have lightened the lives of dozens of people who have chuckled at the sight of the Winnebago and the Minibago travelling the country roads together and Dave’s knowledge and expertise on the subject has helped us enormously in setting up our own travelling comedy show.
Through the last 44 years, whether apart or together, we have kept in contact, kept each other sane (insane??) and our friendship has been one of the highlights of my life. As a teacher, an artist, a photographer, a carer and a friend, Dave has earned my undying respect.
In life we can do without just about anything, but we can’t do without friends. I’m glad that I don’t have to because I am proud to call Thommo my friend.