…my mate and I had been granted Shore Leave from HMAS Watson in Sydney and we had just called for a taxi to take us into ‘town’. I was standing outside the public phone next to a Milk Bar, where my mate had ducked in to grab some much-needed supplies.
On the other side of the phonebox, there was this shiny looking, convertible BMW with its top down. I was busy admiring how flash it was – I would never be able to own one of these I was thinking – when suddenly a police car dropped into the space in front of me, its car doors slammed and I was picked up and shoved against a wall by the two burly coppers that had just stormed out of it.
When my mate came out; he saw two cops take their hands off me and me fumbling to get my ID out, as I was caught in that tight little triangle formed by two big men and an equally solid, red brick wall. In hindsight, I realise now that I must have seemed quite out of place. My Aboriginality had caught me a short – but not quite sharp – blow once again: Blackfella – rich place. No Abos on the North Shore of Sydney mate!
Subsequently, there I was, just asking for it. The police saw me standing out like a sore thumb and once again, my Navy Identity Card got me out of trouble. As it had done so previously on numerous occasions and would continue to do so many times again, over the next 4 years.
I had made a very bad mistake. I had gone out without my camouflage on. I had failed to blend in. The price I paid at that particular time was just a ‘gentle’ reminder from the police. Not a bad price to pay considering. People like me had gotten far worse. I counted myself lucky and moved on. I had been granted a small reprieve. It was still important that I realised my place in our society. There were plenty of ‘friendly’ reminders available out there if ever I was to forget.
Once – after I’d left this life in uniform – I caught up with a couple of old military mates at a BBQ, where we were having a good laugh at the old times and how things had changed. One of them said something to me that day that’s stuck with me ever since:
“What’s the matter mate? Suddenly you’re all ‘black’ since you took the uniform off!”
At the time, he was having a go at me because I was sticking to my guns on a discussion we were having about some blackfella business happening in Perth at that time. What he meant was nothing rude or racist – there was none of that – but that I was different now than I had been – when we were all in the Forces together. I was I guess – but it wasn’t that as much as it was the circumstances that I now lived in – and how these had changed to the life I once lived inside of the Navy.
Whilst I was in the Navy, I was simply a ‘pusser’ like everyone else. I worked hard, played hard, looked out for my mates, pulled my weight and kept others safe – just like the rest of those serving alongside of me. It was never required of me to be a blackfella on a warship at sea. I never had to identify in that way.
What he (and others there that night) didn’t know, was that when I went home on leave and took the uniform off, my world – the place I came from – didn’t see me as a serving member of our Defence Force. They just saw me as cocky ‘Abo’ who wouldn’t look down! The only thing that stopped me getting arrested at times was my Military ID card. Coppers would take a good hard look at it (heck – it might have been fake), give it back and get into their car. No worries and nothing said.
However; whack me in that uniform and suddenly, I was the same colour as everyone else. People would be caught up on what was on the outside and completely miss the skinny blackfella kid – hidden within. That uniform saved me from having to constantly morph and change as situations dictated. In the 10 years (plus) that I’d worn one uniform or the other – I’d learned that it hid me much more effectively than I could ever hope to hide myself. But when I went home for leave, I had to always be ‘chameleon-ready’. In a moment I could shift to whatever the situation needed of me and I had to be able to do so instantly – getting all the incoming signals and outgoing responses – exactly right.
Leaving the Defence Forces in 1991 didn’t change me as much as it returned me to the world I’d hidden from for 10 years – living a life in uniform. So when my mate challenged me back then – I couldn’t explain this well enough at the time, simply because his question caught me completely by surprise. You see, I had ‘assumed’ he’d always understood that part about me, but no – he actually never knew.
And until that day – nor had I. I had no real understanding that the life I lived out of uniform was so profoundly different to the one I lived within it. It was a reflex action for me – I simply rolled with it when it happened and welcomed the break that the uniform gave me. Today – I wear another type of uniform. I do so again – out of habit. I have no doubt at all that I will need to maintain my sense of camouflage for the sake of others…
…but also, I think: for the sake of myself!
Belongum – Out!