… 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.
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.
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!