I was sitting down with three of my children at Manly today, sipping Gloria Jeans as the gentle ocean breezes wafted in off the water (It’s not easy but somebody has to do it) and they were all throwing out hints about the lack of a new episode. Suitably chastened, I immediately raced to the computer on my return in the evening.
It was 1956 and the biggest thing in my life was whether my birthdate would come up in the national service lottery. Actually, it was a funny thing - I knew my number was going to be chosen. Don’t know how, but I had no doubt I was heading for three months of national service. And so it proved to be.
We assembled at Young station one night and headed down to Sydney on the overnight train, bound for our camp at Holesworth. It was a dreadful journey, only matched by the arrival which was equally dreadful. It was never "Holesworthy", by the way, but always referred to as "Holes-bloody-worthy".
Actually everything had a bloody in it at National Service... Sometimes even worse.
We were outfitted and out on the parade ground immediately. Our Sergeant/mentor was Sgt Dummett, nicknamed Daddy Dummett, and we loved the man. There’s no doubt we would have followed him into harm’s way if required. Luckily, I happened to find myself between Korea and the war in Vietnam. I don’t make jokes about that. I was a very lucky young man.
We arrived at Holes-bloody-worthy in the middle of winter to find ourselves sleeping in tents with little or no protection from the elements. We went to bed with our army socks on, often wearing two sets of pyjamas and with our army greatcoat covering our two blankets. We were dragged out of bed at the crack of dawn and sent to the showers which were freezing. Technically, they were hot, but I never found anyone who had any hot water.
The trick in nasho was to get yourself into some exclusive sporting group, because sporting rivalry in the services was really red hot. We were determined to uphold the Army’s honour in the 13th NS intake.
My first breakthrough was to get into the boxing squad. Forgive me for a bit of background here, but a mate of mine, John Harmer, and I trained for a year or so at a well known Sydney gym. For the life of me I can’t think of the name but it was in George Street, on your way down to Circular Quay. Anyway, in those days a lot of the amateur boxing was arranged by the Police Boys’ Clubs across the nation and I switched over to the Burwood club for the annual state championships. I was fighting as a lightweight at the time and trained by the most decent bloke, a Sergeant at the Burwood Centre. Somehow I got into the quarter or semi-finals and I kept hearing about this young superstar who was favoured to win the title that year. His name was Robert Blue, nicknamed Bobby Blue. Every training night it was all I heard… This Bobby Blue fella.
Well, when we won our way through to the finals, the Sergeant called me aside, fixed me with a long and mournful gaze and said, "Frank, we got him." Always the innocent, I naturally asked, "We got who?"
The dreaded reply came, "We got Bobby Blue, next Tuesday night." Trying to find something positive to say, the Sergeant continued, "but we had to fight him sooner or later, if we wanted to win the title."
"Sure," I thought, "but why couldn’t it be later than Tuesday night."
For the next week, the Sergeant drilled me over and over again, telling me that Blue had this big left hand. He didn’t mess about, he threw it the minute the fight started, and it rarely missed. So the Sergeant said over and over again, "He’s going to throw the left in the first few seconds... Be prepared for it." We spent hours tucking in my chin and putting up my right glove in defence. Never has a fighter been warned more often or prepared more carefully for one punch.
So Tuesday night dawned. I hadn’t realized but one of my schoolmates had spread the word through the school that I was fighting in the state titles that night and when I walked out into the ring there were over a dozen boys from the school screaming and yelling. They even heaped abuse on my opponent when he stepped into the ring. "Jeez," I thought, "why are they doing that? Why would they want to get him any angrier? These aren’t supporters," I thought to myself, "these are complete idiots."
I remember the bell going and making my way out to the centre of the ring. Then somebody exploded a very large missile inside my head. You guessed it. I was warned about it, I trained relentlessly for it and Bobby Blue hit me with it in the first two seconds of the fight. All I remember for about 10 seconds was the strange realisation that you really do see stars... Isn’t that amazing? There were galaxies running across my head. Suddenly, they cleared and I looked up to see Bobby Blue charging straight at me, with a snarling smile on his lips and the word KILL imprinted on his brain. He didn’t worry about defence. He was coming at me, with one thought in mind... DESTROY... DESTROY.
To this day no one knows what happened but 18 months of training suddenly worked. There was Mr Blue coming at me, his jaw wide open and my right hand suddenly decided to launch itself straight at him. I know I didn’t tell it to. For some reason, my right hand looked at the situation and thought, "If I don’t do something here, this goose is going to go to hospital for a very long time." So, my right hand went WHACK. The whole thing was sort of like Chariots of Fire... It was all in slow motion. First my opponent was coming in ready to finish me, then all of a sudden he was staggering back, with this amazed look on his face and then falling to the canvas, taking an 8 count. My school mates were beside themselves. They were up on their chairs going berserk, while the police Sergeant in my corner was apparently sobbing hysterically. They’d never seen him cry before.
Look, I won’t prolong this except to say Bobby beat the count and got up as mad as a hornet, proceeding to rip me to shreds over the next couple of rounds. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but he sure had a big left hand.
Anyway, the boxing squad kept me going nicely in the nashos for three weeks, managing to successfully escape overnight guard duty in that time, 'til sadly I was taken to hospital with an eye infection, missing out on the boxing championships.
Now, guard duty was horrible, leaving you standing at attention with your 303 for hours and hours overnight, rain or whatever. I’d successfully managed to get through my first month without guard duty. Big plus.
But what about the next few weeks? The answer: join the 10 mile running team, special diets, lots of training time, no overnight duties. Wonderful, it got me through the next week or two, when we suffered a shattering loss in the distance runnings... Third out of three entries.
It destroyed our coach, poor devil. Anyway, again, no guard duty. What to do next? This decision was taken out of my hands when Paul Horne wrote to me, announcing that Love’s a Luxury had been chosen to take part in the state Arts Council Awards. Unfortunately, it was to be performed smack in the middle of my national service. I don’t know how Paul managed it, but I found myself called into the Captain’s office to be told I was being given special leave to appear, but I could only leave the day before the performance and I had to be back the day after. There were no rehearsals... Just get there, do it and get back. I don’t think the Captain was greatly impressed by the decision.
So, back to Young to perform before another ecstatic, packed audience but only to be told by the judge that he would have preferred, "Hamlet". We didn’t win. He said I would have been a good Hamlet.
Shakespeare and I both knew a lot better. I mean do you think anybody who wrote King Lear is completely stupid.
So I returned to Holesworthy with just a week of training to go. I had managed to escape all guard duty.
Then on my final night, in pouring rain and freezing conditions the Corporal came into our tent asking innocently how many guard duties I’d done. It was impossible to lie. My final night was spent on guard duty.
They get you in the end, don’t they? I don’t know whether national service really taught me much but I guess I learned to fire the 303, the Bren Gun, Owen Gun and lob the odd hand grenade. You never know when you might need that sort of expertise, particularly in radio.
At the end of training, I accepted Lawrie Shaw’s offer to join him, and 2GB’S famous Richard Gaze, in the Paint It Yourself show across NSW and Queensland. No fault of Lawrie’s or Richard’s, but I absolutely hated it. I won’t bore you with the details.
In the next episode, I fail to make it as a radio actor in Sydney and head back to country radio and further adventures.