CAP sent 118 members to seventeen countries that summer: one hundred cadets and eighteen senior members. Cadets and escorts who were going to Europe met in Washington DC on 13 July for a few days of tours, dinners, and etiquette lessons. Since we were going to the Pacific rim, we skipped the Washington phase, which shortened our exchange a little. No one complained.
Finally, after three tense months of preparation, I departed from Birmingham Airport on 15 July, headed for Dallas-Ft Worth. There I met our gregarious senior member escort, CAP Captain Kacy Harsha, a diminutive twenty-five-year-old school teacher from Oklahoma City. From there we flew in Business Class (upgrade!) to Los Angeles. In LA we met up with twenty-year-old C/Colonel Rob Motz from New Jersey and nineteen-year-old C/Colonel Brian Foltz from Colorado. They also had great outgoing personalities. We were all wearing the comfortable and wrinkle resistant “travel uniform” - polo shirt, gray slacks, and black shoes. It was nice and stretchy, good qualities for a fourteen-hour flight in coach.
I’ll say this: Qantas does things right. About every two hours the flight attendants came around with something new to eat or drink: popsicles, champagne, orange juice, and hot meals. Brian, Rob, and I sat in the same row, Kacy was in some distant part of the 747. For a while we got to know each other. Rob was a student at Princeton and had been a member of the New Jersey/NER drill team. Brian was a Geology major at Western State College. I was a Microbiology major at the University of Alabama, and in Army ROTC. Eventually our Spaatz awards came up in conversation. Brian passed his in December 1995, and Rob in December 1994. When I told them I’d passed it in May 1993 they said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Well, you outrank us.” I politely and sincerely demurred – we were all equal.
You can only talk so much on a dry, noisy airplane. We eventually drifted off to sleep, but it was fitful, and only occupied a few hours. I was on the aisle, and had nowhere to prop my head. I took off my shoes, put my sock feet flat on the seat and rested my forehead on my knees. As uncomfortable as it sounds, it was the best nap I had. If my feet smelled, Brian and Rob didn’t say a word. They were nice guys.
Thirty hours after I departed Birmingham, we landed in Sydney, fourteen hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone. It was a nifty piece of time travel. Left on Monday the 15th – arrived on Wednesday the 17th.
The first thing I noticed, before we’d even made it outside, was the air smelled like eucalyptus. We were already exhausted, and a little punchy, but a new day was dawning in Sydney at 0630. Time to wake up and answer questions at Customs. After we exited Customs we were somehow picked out of the crowd – maybe it was the uniforms – by our closest Australian friends for the next two weeks, our indefatigable escorts Carol Moreau and Mark Creighton. They were both adult volunteers for the AirTC, similar to CAP senior members. Carol was a supply officer for a major company in Sydney, and Mark was a Federal Police Officer based in Canberra, the Nation’s Capital. We gathered our bags, already chatting amicably, and made our way to the parking lot. As the sliding glass doors opened, the four of us gasped. It was a gray and brisk 40 degrees (that’s Fahrenheit) and we were wearing thin short-sleeved shirts. Fortunately, a tall sided white van, the transportation for our entire visit, was parked close by. With Carol at the wheel, we went to a nearby hotel to freshen up, and start the day.
**I believe Belinda was in the transition from cadet to adult member.
Ashley with Tazzie, Belinda Crowley, Mrs. Crowley
In the hotel room we took turns showering, changing into warmer clothes, and chatting with Mark and Carol. There was a steep learning curve for the Australian accent. It took several hours to adjust, and even after then we would periodically – and discretely – ask each other “What did they just say?” It took a couple of hours to figure out that Mark’s name was not Mike, Mack, or Mock. The Aussie inflection was also confusing. Their statements inflected upwards, which sounded like a question. Their questions were fairly neutral, and it was easy to miss the question mark.
They chose the perfect activity for our first day, a relaxed tour of Sydney’s beautiful cliffs and beaches. Despite the fact that it was the middle of winter, colorful flora and fauna dotted the landscape. Jewel bright birds flitted everywhere, especially the aptly named rainbow lorikeet, whose questioning whistles followed us amongst the bushes and trees. We walked along sandy Bondi beach and the rocky shoreline of Clovelly.* We marveled at the steep cliffs that lined the narrow entry into Sydney Harbor: The Gap at Watsons Bay and the Heads (North and South), the same rocks that greeted the intrepid Captain Cook in 1770.
*This is a perfect example of how I struggled with the Australian accent that first day. Throughout our trip I kept notes on my copy of the itinerary, which was always in the pocket of my leather jacket with a pen. I noted “Clavillie Beach”, which was actually Clovelly Beach. Thanks Google.
Ashley Rambo, Brian Foltz, Rob Motz
17 July 1996
Rob Motz, Ashley Rambo, Kacy Harsha, Brian Foltz
Bondi Beach 17 July 1996
I vaguely remember that we had lunch in the food court of a large mall, which looked exactly like an American mall, except their garbage cans said “RUBBISH”. We laughed as we walked past Hungry Jack’s, the Australian name for Burger King. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I chose to have an “American style” hot dog – a cheese and bacon covered dog – from a local vendor. I probably wanted to see what the Aussies considered American. I expected crispy bacon bits, but Australians take their bacon in thick, partially cooked chunks. Not wanting to offend our hosts on the very first day, I delicately removed some of the fattier bits, and devoured the rest.
Two repeating patterns emerged that day. First, for the entire trip we were always two things: tired and hungry. By the third day we had had eaten so much and so often that we all started to feel guilty, and apologized as a group to our escorts. Second, was the daily pattern of picking up, which started before the sun rose, and dropping off well after sunset. Since we were individually billeted with a cadet’s family in the major cities, Carol and Mark had to drive house to house for each of us. They were unfailingly cheerful every morning.
I was the last person dropped off that clear, cold night. My billet was with the Crowley family in the Merrylands suburb of Sydney. When I got out of the van, I reflexively looked up at the stars. The song Southern Cross popped into my head, and I found the constellation suspended upside down over Sydney. Mrs. Crowley invited us in and we sat around her white kitchen table. I was in a daze while the three of us chatted. Mrs. Crowley (I’m so sorry her first name has been lost over the years) had placed an intricately decorated dessert on a cake stand in the middle of the table. I could tell by the way she glanced at it during the conversation, and the way she kept adjusting its angle, that this was something special - probably purchased for me. When she offered me a piece, I enthusiastically accepted. My intuition was confirmed by the way she smiled and clasped her hands together with pride as I devoured the slice. I was fortunate to stay with the Crowleys at the beginning and end of our tour. They were wonderful, modest, and hard-working people.
That night Belinda Crowley generously allowed me to sleep in private in her room. Both she, and her slightly younger sister Bianca, were cadets in the AirTC. Belinda was nineteen-years-old, and toured with us in Sydney.** Aside from Mark and Carol, we spent the most time with her, and we were all quite comfortable with giving each other a hard time very quickly. The guys especially enjoyed goading her into an over-reaction. It usually only took a well-timed and poorly accented “Let’s put another shrimp on the barbie!” Her response was always a heavily drawled “They’re not shrimp they’re PRAWNS!” She was a delightful person, with a great sense of humor.
I have no idea when I went to sleep that night, but I woke up in the gray of pre-dawn to the screeches of sulfur-crested cockatoos and pastel colored galahs, perched in nearby trees. I felt an unusual warmth near my waist. I glanced down, and curled up next to me was Tazzie, the Crowley family Papillion. She must have pushed the door open during the night, and had no qualms about bunking up with a total stranger. I remember thinking “Holy crap, I woke up in Australia,” then fell back asleep for a little longer.