The 747 rumbled down the DFW runway for an exceedingly long time. Seemed that we soon had to run out of concrete before becoming airborne, but finally it lifted off prior to any disaster occurring. Then it was only 16 hours of darkness ahead, as we followed the night to Brisbane, Australia. This was another visit to the Great South Land, and most likely my last. For someone who cannot sleep on an airplane, the strain of 35 hours of travel and 13 1/2 hours of jet lag between Pittsburgh and Adelaide becomes increasingly more difficult with age. It had been over 40 years since my first travel to Oz, and then on a Pan Am 707 which had to stop in Hawaii to re-fuel. Now, like most of the previous trips, I was visiting old friends, and speaking with anyone who was willing to have a conversation to see how the country had changed since my last visit. But the first trip, the one on the 707, wasn't a visit. It was an escape from my own country.
I was the lucky one then--the recent university graduate with a high draft number. Some of my friends with low draft numbers went to Canada or Sweden or wherever they had to go to be out of reach of the Vietnam War draft. Some are still there after all these decades. Some enlisted for longer tours so long as they didn't have to be assigned to Vietnam. I had to obtain permission from my local Draft Board to leave the country, and when they saw my high draft number, they had no problem giving the permission since it was near the end of the year and they were not getting anywhere near my draft number. I did not have to leave my country to evade the draft. They didn't need me. So I escaped.
But this trip differed from all those since the first. This time I went to see a close friend who had spent the past 10 years fighting off two cancer attacks. Now, one had recurred and the experts were expecting that it was not treatable. Sure, now you can easily pick up your mobile and call directly, or skype on your laptop, but there is nothing that can compare to holding your friend's hand, hugging her, reminiscing of Kuala Lumpur, having a beer with her spouse, playing Aussie Rules with her grandsons. I cried most every night.
It was the first visit that was the most significant to me and had the greatest effect on my life. As an engineering graduate in the USA, I had opportunities to accept job positions with defense companies, and refused them all. My opposition to the War was deep, and I supported my friends who left their homeland for their conscience required it. My leaving was not required, but I found it necessary. With the help of the Australian Assisted Passage Scheme for teachers and other professionals, I abandoned my country and lived the next few years on the other side of Earth. The sense of isolation then was difficult to express to people today. Phoning the US meant making an appointment weeks ahead at the General Post Office in Sydney's central business district for an overseas phone call for a specific number of minutes at a specific time, paying when making the appointment, and entering one of the special phone booths with special phones specifically designed for the application. Then writing home to tell family members when the call would be coming, and hoping you accounted for Daylight Savings times in the US, and in Australia. If you didn't calculate properly, you may have been off by 2 hours.
Australia supported the US in the Vietnam War, and sent troops to fight alongside the Americans, South Koreans, and others. And Sydney was a Rest & Recuperation site for the US troops. Sydney was also the location of groups that would help US troops, who refused to return to the War, find sanctuary. They would eventually be declared AWOL and, if caught, go to a military prison. Some of those who sought sanctuary are still there. Some returned after a few months or years and were imprisoned. It was a different time, a different war, a different road we were travelling on. I have taken many turns off of that road. Sometimes I knew why, sometimes not.
Those first years were the most significant because they opened my eyes and allowed me to see my country without filters, without the prejudices one has when completely immersed in one's own culture to the extent that it becomes impossible to objectively judge its beliefs, its actions, and its goals. The people I met those first years had a great impact on me, impacts that in many ways have guided which turns I made from that road I was travelling on.
More to come later.