For those of you who have read my previous post about dogs, you will realise that Karyn and I are in Canberra, the Nation’s capital. And a wonderful place it is. We are of course here at the end of summer and the leaves on some of the trees are already turning their toes up. It is undoubtedly a different story in winter.
We visited most of the points of interest found in capital cities of the world, such as the War Memorial, Parliament House, National Art Galley and Science Centre. All excellent and mostly free except for the very special Toulouse Lautrec exhibition at the gallery. My art education has received a much needed boost.
On our way into the city centre the other day, we passed the famous Duntroon Royal Military College (RMC). This is the location where future army officers are trained in the ways of war. It took me back to my days at the Officer Training Unit at Scheyville, just outside Sydney, when I was undertaking National Service, – a program introduced to provide cannon fodder for the Vietnam War. The Army needed officer cannon fodder as well and I was fortunate, or perhaps unfortunate to be selected to undertake six months of hell.
When Whitlam was elected, he pulled out the troops from Vietnam and cancelled National Service. Three cheers all round. Scheyville was closed and all of the important bits of stuff were packed up and sent off to Duntroon for storage and possibly display in the museum. I am also led to believe that the Battalion colours and banner were part of this memorabilia. It just so happens that these particular items were presented to the Battalion by the Governor General on the occasion of my graduation as an officer. It also just so happens, that I was the parade commander. In the scheme of things, none of this is a big deal, but at the time it was quite significant.
Now, I have had no real interest in anything to do with the military since completing my two year stint at the end of 1968. Reunions involving marching down the streets and church parades all leave me a bit cold. And what is it with the church and the military? From a philosophical point of view, I would think that they should be poles apart. Instead, they are joined at the hip. Go figure. Sorry, I digress.
However, as we passed the gates of Duntroon, for some reason, I wondered if it may be worth a visit, just to check out the old Battalion Colours. Thinking that access to this hallowed ground would be difficult, I assumed that a phone call would be a great place to start. The number for RMC provided by the wonders of the Internet, put me through to the golf course. So I searched again. Each time I tried a different number it only lead me back to the golf. I thought that maybe that’s all they do these days in preparation for fighting in Afghanistan. Lots of sand bunkers there.
Eventually I was put through to the Department of Defence switch board. Following intense interrogation as to my business, I was transferred to another number. The gentleman who answered the phone was out walking his dog. He said the he only worked at RMC a few days of the week and this was not one of them. He did however suggest that I just drive through the main gates, check into the guard house and they will direct me to the museum.
My memory of military guard houses is that they are very formal locations with lots of spit and polish and checking in procedures. They can also be quite frightening to the uninitiated. The first time I went through the gates of my new posting at the Pacific Island Regiment in New Guinea, a soldier jumped out in front of the car with rifle and bayonet attached and shouted “HALT,WHO GOES THERE”. I remember thinking at the time that if I wasn’t careful, I would very quickly change the colours of my undies.
On this occasion, I simply drove through the very impressive gates of Duntroon and just kept on going. But where is the guard house? I couldn’t find it. There was a sign that said that the grounds were patrolled by armed guards, but that was all. I stopped a couple of young cadets and they seemed a little puzzled and vaguely pointed in the direction further up the road. I passed the RMC headquarters and thought I might ask there. The young army corporal who greeted me at the door said it was up around the corner. I still couldn’t find it. I stopped an army officer and he directed me back along the road and up a side street to a few shops. I parked the car and began my search. Eventually I found a room that had a sign -DUTY OFFICE on the door. This must be it. I entered the room and after a bit of a wait was greeted by the only person in residence.
At this point, I must digress again and take you back to my visit to the National Art Gallery. I hope you will understand the diversion shortly. One of the exhibits at the gallery that took my attention was a large painting with the words AUSTRALIAN RACISM printed across the canvas. Underneath these words , was a whole lot of smaller printing that filled the total picture. Each sentence began with the words “I’m not a racist, but”. In each case this was followed by a series of very common statements often used to describe people of other nationalities. It was quite disturbing, but a very accurate description of racism in this country. Now it’s back to the guard house.
The person who greeted me was not in the military. He wore the uniform of ACME Security Company, and while I am not a racist, but… it just so happened that the gentleman concerned looked like he started life in Pakistan, or somewhere very close by, like maybe Afghanistan? Now of course, to even make a statement of this sort is possibly racist, and I haven’t even hinted at terrorism, but I must admit, I was rather taken by surprise.
He tried to be very helpful, and even though he had worked at RMC for six months, he did not have a clue where the museum was. We searched on the map and could not find it. Then his boss arrived. I thought he may be from the military. No, he was also from ACME security and quite possibly my new found friend’s brother or cousin. He could not help either.
Now, I am not usually a quitter, but at this point, I simply gave up, hopped in the car and drove out once again through the Duntroon gates. As I drove, I wondered if the ACME security company also provided the guards who picked up their weapons at night and patrolled the grounds.
Things have changed since I was in the military. And while I have trouble with the concept of outsourcing, at least one positive is that individuals are not judged by the colour of their skin, or race, in order to take up positions of responsibility.
P.S. A few days after we left Canberra, I received a call from an officer from RMC. He was responding to a message I had left during my initial search. He said that the museum was closed due to the resignation of the person responsible. The Scheyville memorabilia was now displayed in the cadet’s mess and could be accessed next time we were in Canberra, by going through the Adjutant’s office. All is not lost.