Whatever your politics, at least Bruce Springsteen music fans now know after last Tuesday’s election results whether or not he will have to move to Australia. He had famously vowed to move there if his presidential candidate didn’t win. In my opinion, you should not bail out when you think the plane is on fire; you should stay strapped in the cockpit and land it. But that’s me.
Australia is nice enough, but I never saw the big deal. In fact, it’s almost like another copy of the United States, but flipped into another hemisphere. It’s not all Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee and Olivia Newton John. Once you get outside the cities, which are clustered around the coast, you’d think you were in New Mexico, Nevada or Baja California.
Like many of us, Australians are very environmentally conscious. Many worry about the degradation of the coral formations on the Great Barrier Reef. I was on a nuclear-powered ship that was blocked entry to the harbor at Perth by the activist group, Green Peace, who surrounded us in their Zodiac inflatable boats. They were afraid we would contaminate the local waters. Not long afterward, some members of this same group were accidentally killed by the French Navy when they tried to prevent some nuclear bomb tests in French Polynesia.
There is also a rising sensitivity about treatment of the aboriginal population, similar to what I sense in the United States regarding Native Americans. Things are also relatively expensive there. I remember sending a sailor home on emergency leave and being amazed that it cost as much to fly across country, from Fremantle to Sydney, on Qantas, the national airline, as it did from Sydney to the States.
But to be honest, I haven’t been around that many Australians for any length of time. I’ve been on a few of their ships, and I did sponsor an Australian Navy exchange officer and his family in Newport, Rhode Island, for a year. We got to know them pretty well. When they initially arrived and visited their first supermarket, they were amazed at the variety of choices available for any one product – dozens of cereals, for example. They were looking for that awful tasting “vegemite,” the condiment that Australians spread on their food like peanut butter or catsup. I also remember that, before I helped them purchase a car, at drive-in restaurants they would walk through the car lane to order rather than go inside.
More recently, when I attended a French language immersion school in France a few years ago, a fellow from Brisbane and I took turns being the absolute dummies of the class. What proved it was, every morning after breakfast, we would watch the local French news on television, and then we had to discuss the content in class in French. When it came our turn, the guy from Australia and I, although we did our best, the other students would lie across their desks, laughing hysterically.
I’ve been to just about every major port in Australia. Back in the day, every ship, even the old ones that I was usually on, had a mimeograph machine, and I would try to put together a newsletter or information sheet for the crew before we dropped the hook, telling them where to go, where not to go, what to buy, etc. Sometimes, such efforts backfired. I remember, for example, when I was a kid and we pulled into Athens, Greece. The Old Man came up on the ship’s 1MC (loudspeaker system) and said: “Have a good time in Athens, but I need to warn you before you go ashore about the national drink here. It’s called ‘ouzo.’ It tastes like anise, but smells like licorice, and it’s more potent than anything you are used to. Stay away from it. You can’t handle it. It will make you lame, blind and crazy.” Well, with human nature being what it is, you know what most of the sailors ordered in the first bar they hit – ouzo, and, sure enough, it made a bunch of them lame, blind and crazy. It was a regular dumpster fire before we got everyone back onboard. Some of them stayed in sick bay for days.
Someday I will tell you at length about my underway television program, another effort to keep the crew “informed.” Back in the early 1970s, Navy ships began to get closed circuit television (CCTV), primarily for educational purposes, which some of us quickly co-opted for recreation and entertainment. On several ships, mostly while overseas, I hosted a one-hour, Saturday night variety program which sometimes got pretty strange. I had harmonica players, biggest belly contests, best and worst tattoo competitions, spelling bees, arm wrestling, literary discussions (sailors read voraciously), you name it. I always had a “programming committee” thinking up content. One night, they wanted to have a “hold your breath” contest, but I vetoed that. After all, I had my standards. You won’t be surprised to learn that the name of my show was always “Better than Nothing.” As far as that goes, I had a 15-minute radio program every Sunday morning on one of the Hattiesburg AM stations for about 3 years after I was discharged from the service – but that’s another story.
When in Australia, I would point out some of the local history which, in the European sense, began in 1770 when an English Navy lieutenant, James Cook, charted the east coast for Great Britain. He returned to London with reports favoring colonization at what he called “Botany Bay.” Unfortunately, the English authorities saw the far away territory as a convenient place to send convicts, the poor, Irish rebels and other unwanted, so the initial white population was made up of such “transported” persons as they were referred to. As in the Americas, the native population was soon greatly weakened, and their numbers diminished by the diseases the newcomers introduced. Today, Australia has a population of 23 million, the world’s 12th-ranking economy, and is a vital member of the British Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 54 countries that used to make up the old British colonial empire.
I always liked to tell the story behind “Waltzing Matilda,” which is the unofficial national anthem of Australia. Although you often hear it mentioned in relation to wounded Aussie soldiers coming home unappreciated after the debacle at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, when Australian and other Allied troops fought the Ottoman Turks along the Dardanelles separating Europe and Asia, it is really a “bush” ballad. In the “patois” of early outback Australia, to “waltz” meant to wander about the countryside looking for work, and to “waltz Matilda” was to travel with a “swag” or bag; hence wanderers were called “swagmen,” and the song is about such a man.
I would also point out some of the differences between there and the States. For example, when you ran the highways, you would see that their “Ford” automobiles don’t look like ours, being much smaller (as an aside, anyone who follows Pontiac GTOs, too, knows that the recent and final model of that car was actually made in Australia, although it had a Corvette engine). Their semi-trucks often run in “trains,” pulling as many as five or six trailers, which is a disconcerting sight. Some of the biggest differences between the States and Australia, however, are the indigenous animals. Australia has many unique animals because, being a continent completely surrounded by water and isolated for millions of years, like a very large life raft, its fauna was able to evolve in many different ways.
Sailors on my ships expected to see kangaroos bounding by the fleet landing. They were disappointed. Although they are almost as plentiful as rats in the States, you have to get into the “out back” to see them in their natural habitat. One of my favorite cartoons is the one where the cat, Sylvester, is teaching his son how to hunt and mistakes a baby kangaroo for a big rat. As you know, the “rat” ends up teaching the cat a hard lesson; however, like many of us, the cat was only half wrong, but that was that half that got him into trouble. There is a kangaroo rat, a fawn-colored desert rodent belonging to the genius “Dipodomys,” and it is only about 12 inches long. A Great Grey Kangaroo, on the other hand, is the world’s largest marsupial (pouched animal) and can grow to a height of 7 feet. That’s more than a match for the average tom cat.
There are nine species of kangaroo and, at birth, the baby kangaroo is naked, blind and only about 4 inches long. It weighs less than 1 ounce. The young kangaroo, or “Joey,” as they are called, remain in their mother’s pouch for about six months. At that time, it begins to make short explorations into the outside world. At the approach of danger, the Joey hops back into the pouch and the mother takes off.
Another interesting animal found only in Australia is the duck-billed platypus. While I’ve never seen a live one, I knew that they were out there. These little guys are furry mammals who live in the water, have a beak like a duck, lay eggs, suckle their young and have poisonous spurs on their hind legs. Speaking of poisonous, Australia is also home to 21 of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes. Again, regarding poison, until the 1950s, Western Australia had the longest unbroken fence in the world, at 1,139 miles, which was built to control the rabbit population. After that, they started using poison to exterminate them. A final fact that always interested the crews: Australia actually exports camels to the Middle East, with over one million wild camels roaming its deserts.
In my information sheets or “port briefs” as I called them, I would also encourage my shipmates to get out and meet the local people, especially in a place like Australia where everyone speaks English. In most foreign ports, you will find that many people who speak English, at least within a half mile of the piers, are the ones who are out to get your money. Some are honest, and many are not. You have to be careful but also open to opportunities to learn about foreign cultures. For example, I was walking down a back street in Perth one day, and I saw a kid throwing a homemade boomerang. I watched him for a while, struck up a conversation and ended up buying it from him. I told him I’d pay him a few bucks extra if he would teach me how to throw it, and he did. There’s not much to it, and they really do come back.
Bruce Springsteen is not the only celebrity or average person I’ve heard say they were moving to Australia if some event did or did not happen. I’ve said it a few times myself, and I come in a plain, unmarked wrapper. One of the neatest places I’ve seen the expression is in the well-known Judith Viorst children’s book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” which we never discussed on my tv show, although it is the right vintage (1972).
After a series of personal setbacks, such as: “At breakfast Anthony found a Corvette Sting Ray car kit in his breakfast cereal box and Nick found a Junior Undercover code ring in his breakfast cereal box but in my breakfast cereal box all I found was breakfast cereal,” young Alexander remarks: “I think I’ll move to Australia.” His wise mother, however, reminds him that “some days are like that, even in Australia.”
I think the lesson for us is to stay where we are and work to make it a better place for all.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Write him at email@example.com or visit bennyhornsby.com.