Monday, 22 July
I should just save time and admit that I do not remember early mornings for the rest of the trip. I know based on the schedule that we did the pick up ritual every morning, except when we stayed together at a naval base on the 23rd and 24th.
Monday was devoted to touring Canberra, Australia’s capital city. We were accompanied by CUO Stephanie Collet. The weather was cloudy and cool, perfect for a day filled with walking. One stop was to the city’s museum, which detailed the planning and construction of the capital. Canberra was a carefully planned city, full of government buildings, memorials, and symbolism. Next, we toured the sleek and modern New Parliament House, both inside and out.
At the nature reserve we were given a walking tour by an Australian park ranger. I wish I had a better camera, one with a zoom lens, because the animals and terrain were just stunning. The landscape looked primeval – it was full of smooth boulder fields, towering ferns, and ancient tree species. We saw black swans, cheerful rosellas, sulfur-crested cockatoos, green-beaked geese, and dozens of various waterfowl. We spotted Gale the resident koala, perched at the top of tree, snoozing away.
The dining-out was very similar to those that I had attended for CAP, the US Army, and Army ROTC. The biggest difference was their toasts (i.e., “To the Queen!”, “To the Royal Australian Air Force!”, etc.). Before dinner we socialized and met their distinguished guests: Trevor Kaine, a former AirTC cadet, and the former Chief Minister of the ACT; several senior officers of the RAAF; and one Royal Air Force liaison officer assigned to the RAAF. The Australian adults teased the Brit in good-natured way about his accent, and for being British in general. He gave it right back. At one point a gray-haired RAAF officer approached me, put his arm around my shoulders, and steered me slightly away from the crowd. He closed in and quietly said, “When you rise to the top of your military, please remember Australia.” He made it clear that the Australians had relied on us as stead-fast – and protective – allies since the near catastrophe they experienced in WWII. Neither had they forgotten the sacrifice of Australians in the carnage of WWI. We were their bigger brother, and they needed us.*
The four of us were divided up among the rectangular tables. I’d estimate about fifty cadets and officers were in attendance. I sat between the RAF officer and Stephanie Collet, a eighteen-year-old AirTC Cadet Under Officer (CUO) - the AirTC’s highest grade. Several junior cadets sat across from us, and for a while they were very quiet. I caught several prolonged stares at my shirt’s insignia. During the main course they lost their initial wariness and began to ask me questions. One of the youngest cadets asked baldly, “What are you?” I couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to reply that I wasn’t a general. A couple older cadets politely expanded on his blunt question. The gist was they couldn’t determine anything from our inscrutable uniform. I explained that we were not wearing our proper uniform, that this was our uniform for IACE only. It was deliberately free of grade, rank, or anything distracting. I didn’t bring photos with me that night, so I explained our typical uniforms. That immediately eliminated most of the confusion, and cleared the air a little. They seemed much more relaxed. Especially after little glasses of ruby red port.
*Remember this is my interpretation of what he said, added to other conversations both held, and witnessed, throughout our stay. I was only twenty, sleep deprived, and I’m typing this story in 2020. As the saying goes, this is all “for what it’s worth”.
At some point that day the cadets’ reactions from the previous night, and Daina’s reticence, came up in conversation. Mark and Carol smiled knowingly – they had quickly heard about it through the grapevine. Grinning, they explained that the guileless cadets thought we were generals, or something similar. The AirTC had cadets from thirteen to eighteen years old, probably an average age of sixteen, with the rare nineteen-year-old. The cadets were expecting visitors in the seventeen-year-old range. When four twenty-somethings emerged from the van, they were stunned and intimidated, maybe a little disappointed. That explained a lot.
We returned to our sponsors’ homes to prepare for a formal dining-out that evening. It was the first time we wore our CAP IACE uniforms (no blazer), and our first contact with a large group of cadets. I’d heavily starched my uniform shirts before I packed them, so they, and my pants, emerged nearly wrinkle free. Daina, in her dress blue uniform, and I paused for a photo in the hallway before departing.
Gordon Mercovich, Rob Motz, Ashley Rambo, Brian Foltz, Brad Dixon, Amberly Mercovich
21 July 1996
20 July 1996
RAAF Wing Commander "Noddy" Sawade
21 July 1996
I really woke up on the way to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, a native koala colony. It was the wild kangaroos hopping around in the distance that snapped me awake. A few minutes later, we saw two emus strutting down the middle of the road at a languid pace. I begged Carol to stop and she obliged with a grin on her face. Before anyone could say a word, I jumped from the van and approached the birds. I didn’t want to touch them, I just wanted to see them... up close. They placidly watched me – first with one eye, then the other – as I got within arm’s reach. I have two images of my wild emu encounter – one close up of the birds taken by me, and a distant view of me gawking at the giant birds taken by an unknown photographer. Little did I know there was a slightly worried conversation going on in the van. They told me about it later. It went something like this: “She’s getting awfully close to that emu...” “Does she know they kick?” No, I didn’t. My excited yet fatigue addled brain failed to note the obvious safety issue, that is, emus have large thick claws on each foot. At an average height of over five and a half feet, and weighing in at 110-120 pounds, it was only their recognition of a Common Stupid Tourist that saved me. I imagine Mark and Carol made a mental note to keep me on a much shorter leash.
Southeast Australia is teeming with a multitude of dangerous creatures, from the Sydney funnel-web spider to the curiously named Southern Death Adder. Fortunately for us – for me – most of them were asleep for the winter.
Photo links to Australian War Memorial website.
Ashley with Daina Sawade
20 July 1996
We also toured the stately Australian War Memorial, which is part shrine and museum. The Memorial is cross shaped, with cloisters that flank a courtyard, leading up to a domed chapel. The cloisters house the Roll of Honour, which lists the names of all servicemembers lost in the line of duty. The ground level of the chapel houses the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. Three walls of the chapel are towering stained-glass panels surrounded by mosaics honoring all of the military branches. The upper-level Hall of Valour displays seventy-six Victoria Crosses earned by Australian soldiers. The grounds around the memorial are filled with a variety of monuments. The entire memorial is really beyond my description. What stayed with me is how beautifully and sincerely the Australians honor the sacrifice of their servicemen and women. It is evident their courageous service is a part of Australia’s national identity and pride.
Within the museum we were given a special tour and behind the scenes access to on-going aviation restoration projects. We sat in a nearly completed P-40 Warhawk and viewed the fuselage of a German Me 262.
That was all in the morning.
Sunday, 21 July
Again, I’m sure there was a breakfast and morning pick up, but my brain did not record it. My Sunday memories start at learning to play rugby with the cadets on their AirTC “sports day”. It was fun, but they got pretty exasperated with me – every time I got the ball, I kept trying to throw forward passes, which was not allowed in rugby. My notes say we had lunch, but that’s also missing data.
I definitely remember that Wing Commander Sawade took me up for a long flight in his red, white, and blue Decathlon. It was a slightly cloudy, but beautiful day over Canberra’s hills and pastures. After the flight he presented me with his business card that had a pair of RAAF pilot’s wings pinned to it. I thanked him profusely. I still have them.
Saturday, 20 July
I remember nothing about Saturday morning. I know we did the pick up thing, but I must have been sleep walking. My notes are sparse, but my photos are the real story.
We visited the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station. I only remember small pieces of the tour, but we each walked away with a stack of glossy publications, lithographs, fact sheets, and mission pins. I hope I at least appeared awake and interested. I’m sure I tried.
That night we went to “Laserzone” to play indoor laser tag with the cadets. It was a lot of fun and a good chance to prove we weren’t stuffy old farts. We wore bright green plastic vests and carried matching plastic guns. Statistics were transmitted to a control booth and after each game the controller printed out the results for each player. The field of play was a huge dark room – I’d say large enough to accommodate at least twenty active people – filled with obstacles like short walls, large irregular open hides, and carpet covered platforms. With black lights, strobes, and electronic music playing full blast it had the feel of dance club where everyone decided to play hide and seek. I ran around so enthusiastically the cadets called me “Sarah Connor” after the Terminator movies character. Every game I heard cries of “Get her! Get Sarah Connor!” from the opposing team. Rob and Brian ran around with equal verve, laughing hard the whole time.