It’s been a long time since I stepped off the Gangway of HMAS Westralia…

… for all it’s static masts and aerials, all it’s rust and steel, all it’s drab greys and dirty whites – Westralia for most of us remained a living thing – a breathing entity. Westralia heaved with a life force built upon her crew, and she drew her spirit from within each and every sailor that ever served upon her. To us – she was our home.

crest_westralia.gif

Westralia sat alongside HMAS Stirling with all the grace of a chipped and grotty cast iron tub (complete with fittings), turfed out at the dump (tip, landfill, bulk waste disposal). There was nothing fancy about her – not a single thing! She was a British hand-me-down, having landed amongst us Australian’s via a shonky bilateral agreement lease, for the first Gulf War (I hope there was little or no irony lost there folks). The whole Ugly Duckling story – I swear – could have been ‘inspired’ by her. Westralia sailed like a brick and smelt like an industrial fueling port. She was our fleet oiler, responsible for underway replenishment at sea for all of Australia’s active sea going vessels, and – bizarrely – we lived and breathed her.

Westralia replenishing fuel and water at sea.

You’ll hear mention of good coaches who know that if there’s any one thing true in the world of coordinating a team, it’s the simple acceptance of the fact that a coach is nothing with out his or her team. The same can be said for a ship – but I believe it goes much further then that – a ship is hollow without it’s crew. The term ‘vessel’ takes on a whole new meaning when you start to think of a ship along those lines. Ship’s crews are tight – I’m talking a-fishes-bottom-tight here… water tight! This comes of being so interdependent on one another. Your life literally remains in the hands of your ship mates and their’s in turn, lies in your’s. There is no simpler equalizer I can think of that reminds people of certain realities in life. People look to each other for all kinds of things in a life lived close to danger. Honesty and loyalty are at their most earnest in these types of environments – and I’m glad I’ve shared this kind of experience with the people I did.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about a perfect world here. I shared lives with people that lend depth and meaning to the term ‘a social hand grenade’. People who others might consider ‘bad’ – for a whole swag of reasons – are more then just ‘good’ when it comes down to this type of lifestyle. They’re your best mate… you’d walk through fire to reach them on the other side, simply because you KNOW they’d do exactly the same for you – if they could. You can’t buy that kind of loyalty and dedication. You can’t fake it either. To an outsider it might seem excessive, over the top even – it’s hard to understand this type of relationship if you don’t live it yourself. The closest I can think of – outside the world in which I’ve lived – is that of an extended family… regardless of who the individual is; they’re temperament, disposition, personality etc – they’re family.

It’s not as idyllic as it might sound either. I was commenting to Wombat over at Kiss and Blog about how a ship’s crew live so much with each other, that they almost become each other – like living the life of a bee-colony – what one lives the other’s live too. You are in each other pockets so much of the time, it’s a wonder you don’t just co-habit in the one pair of combat coveralls. Ok – I know that sounds all wrong, but I’m sure you get my drift – sometimes living the life of many can be a little too much for one person trying to buy a little ‘life’ time all on their own. Sometimes it gets so busy living in the life of all those others you’re surrounded by, you forget to live your life – for you. It can cloud your vision, and if that occurs – it can make you dangerous to your ship mates.

It was the same when I wore an Army uniform. I was once in an ugly stand-off in a bar where a situation had developed; it looked nasty, and it quickly became clear that it was soon going to get well out of hand. I was forced to intervene on behalf of my Section. I organised the remaining people I had at hand – and shut the situation down – barking commands to my then men, and gathered up the instigator (who happened to be one of my troops) and bundling him outside in a hurry. He wasn’t a bad man as such – in fact he in my mind was a bloody good man – just that at that time, he was taking part in bad behaviour, and it was about to get really nasty. For the good of the team (my Section) I had to get involved and take the side of one of my then soldiers, against that of the locals.

This wasn’t something I relished at all. If it had been a one-on-one situation – I’d have let him get a good smack in the mouth for his bad behaviour. It wasn’t and it would’ve been worse – so I was obligated to step in. People got hurt in that scene, and I would have acted completely different in that situation hadn’t I been in a position that pre-determined my role in the scheme of things. My only saving grace was that in my appraisal of the scenario – I took the course of action that would see the least amount of people hurt – sadly I had to act on behalf of my soldiers – in the world we lived in Loyalty and Mateship was everything. Sadly – other important factors were forced to take a backseat. However, context is everything. Unless you were there – it’d be hard to know what would have been the right or wrong thing to do, and hindsight – well… frankly – it’s a pain in the arse.

What frightens me sometimes is how easy it is to blind yourself in a shared world of others, where your view is that of a collective focused on a clear outcome dictated by a few – and followed blindly without recourse. I enjoyed my time on Westralia – I know of no time or experience that can give me the life I lived then, nor any other way to develop the friendships I forged on that grotty old oiler in a world and time, so far removed from the one I live in now. Still today – if certain people called and were in need – I’d go. No thought, no questions – they’d only call me if they needed me. That’s the way it is. It’s the same for those others that are of my uniformed cohort of mates. We are unswervingly loyal to each other.

Think about this when you now bring into context the book I am reading: “Black Edelweiss” by Johan Voss. An account of a soldier who was then a member of the Wafen SS Mountain Troop, fighting his war in the northern country borders – primarily against The Russian Army. In his book, Johan explores a lot of what I’m hinting at here – taking it further then I could ever imagine. It’s frightening when you think of it, and as Johan was forced to find out, it in no way frees you of any responsibility in your choices and loyalties. Sometimes though – you simply can’t see the forest at all clearly, for all those damn trees.

It’s a complicated thing, and I don’t mean to simplify it in any way – there’s NOTHING simple about what I’m yarning with you about at all – and I guess that’s my point. We – as people – live amazingly complicated lives, and this continues to intrigue me.

Belongum – Out!

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About Belongum

People bring 'things' to me. Not necessarily PHYSICAL things as such - mostly just the loose bits and pieces floating around in their 'brain-box'. Sometimes, they also bring themselves - and THAT isn't anywhere near as simple as it sounds. I come here to pass some of this 'brain-box business' on to the ether world, and to empty my head. Besides folks - I love a good yarn - so come and join me!
This entry was posted in adventure, Australia, Family, Isolation, life, Mates, Mateship, Royal Australian Navy, Uncategorized, War, Warships, work and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to It’s been a long time since I stepped off the Gangway of HMAS Westralia…

  1. mummabare says:

    “We – as people – live amazingly complicated lives, and this continues to intrigue me.”

    Ah me too! Im always amazed at how many ordinary people I meet living extraordinary lives….aint life wonderful!

    And how georgous is that beautiful babe of yours…congratulations to you and your family! I almost forgot how much its like stepping into the twilight zone with late nights and fuzzy minds…..til I read your post lol.

    All the best for the new year buddy, and I hope those marbles rattling around dont give you too much more trouble!

    mummabare

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  2. Tasmaniac says:

    Hi there, how true about fellow shipmates. I paid off in 1990 before we even got Westralia, the fleet oiler then was Success & Supply before her. All my time since in civvy street’s various jobs that kind of mateship has never been found anywhere like I knew it in the Navy. It’s hard to describe, like you said you have to live it.
    Regards From Tasmania
    Tony M

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  3. Well, I’m 1 for paddling my own canoe, Belongum – I don’t play well with others. I respect your mutualism, but it’s not for me. I can’t imagine having to live a life so dependent and complicated – I’d be breathing into a paper bag constantly.

    Re the love letters, B, hmmph, love don’t live here no more – don’t remember any and none touch me – my thoughts are like a shield of steel…

    :}}

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  4. belongum says:

    TIs true Mummabare… real life afterall, is way better then fiction (ouch!). Late nights hurt the brain – and I end up writing all kinds of crazy stuff down then, as I can’t possible keep it all in lol! Chat with you sometime soon Mummabare!

    Tas… mate – yep, it’s a life you live for a bit, then you get on with living a life eh? Meanwhile something goes missing… and – well there’s not much out there that can replicate it. Sometimes it’s a bugger, and sometimes (just sometimes) it’s a GOOD thing lol… no more dance of the flamers ANYWHERE around this little black duck mate 😉

    DM – I reckon more power to ya! You at least know where and what fit’s… born of experience no doubt – and I reckon that’s a skill we need to see more of. I s’pose it’s all about what you might consider worth doing it for in the first place… and sometimes – even that’s never quite enough. Keeping each other alive though – yeah – I reckon I can suffer a little mutualism (wow – I learned a new word – Ta DM!) for that… or at least I could – THEN! lol I reckon it’d be different now… there’s only so much bulldust I tend to put up with now. No surprises there!

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  5. I love your stories Belongum – they let me see & understand experiences and a mindspace that’s completely foreign to me, and you tell them so well that it is really easy to put yourself right in the goings-on. Good on you.

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  6. Ian says:

    Weeell… bloke turns his back for a few days and ya suddenly break out the keybord 🙂

    Great story… ya can’t go past ol’ mates!

    PS great photos too; more congrats to the four of ya… you all deserve it.

    Happy days,

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  7. belongum says:

    Ta DM – kind words… hope I can keep doing it well then mate – it’s something I enjoy! I think half the sharing in any good yarn is the willingness of the listener / reader to go along with it for a look-see. If you cant allow or encourage a person to share in a yarn is such a way, you might as well close your mouth and stop your jawing! It’s pointless otherwise… ta for dropping by – remind me to dust you off a seat, and get you a brew on your next visit… what’ll you have mate? Bikkies with that…? ;-)!

    Gudday Ian – long time no – errrrr – ‘see’! 😉 Hope all’s well in the Top End. Got a burst of inspiration and it got me going some, hope it happens a little more frequently now we seem to be getting some sleep lol. Now I’ve just jinxed myself right?!

    Bugger!

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