A number of years ago, I was supervising a school camp for boys. We were on Rottnest Island, and part of our day was to take a group of fourteen year old boys on a bicycle trip around the island. The problem was that on this camp – a camp that I had been on many times as a boy and as a teacher; we had a number of boys who could not ride a bike. In order to include these boys on the experience, staff members had to hire tandem bicycles and have boys sit behind them and be pedaled around the island. When I asked the boys why they could not ride a bicycle, each one replied that one or both of their parents were frightened that in the process of learning to ride they could be hurt. I can recall as a young boy learning how to ride a bike – falling off and getting back on, many times. We were allowed in playgrounds with ‘Monkey Bars’, and other obstacle equipment. We climbed trees, and fell off trees. We swung on ropes, mimicking Tarzan, and caught buses as nine year olds, having to walk afterward then through a city to go to school. What follows is an article of reminiscence, a piece about boys going on an adventure. Could it be replicated today – most likely not; due to changes in the practice of ‘play’. Play in the past was very physical as well as practical – today for many children ‘play’ is about digital devices. When I ‘played’ as a child, it was about developing physicality; measuring risk. I share this piece for the reader to reflect back on their childhood as well. ATK

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I would like to tell you a story from my boyhood – from a very different time, as you will soon see. I leave out names of teachers as I do not wish good people to be criticised for living according to the norms of their age. The following experiences would not be let happen today. Adventures such as this recollection are insurance risks, in an era today where schools are beginning to remove playground materials.

I was in Year Seven, in Fremantle, Western Australia, at a private school for boys. My mathematics teacher was an English veteran of World War II; an RAF crew member who flew in a Lancaster Bomber for the duration of the War. Mr. S., was a character – something that we have lost today in many of our teachers, for want of life experiences. With characters like Mr. S., we learned more than mathematics – we learnt about life and the past. It was a privilege and honour to have Mr. S., as my teacher.

Privilege and honour or not, as school boys, often we used to play a ruse on Mr. S. If we had a test to sit or if there had been a homework piece due on the day, one of us would pipe up with a comment such as: “Sir, we have been told that the Lancaster Bomber wasn’t much chop!” Immediately he would put down his piece of chalk, pull down his glasses to the tip of his nose – stare at the culprit in the class, who asked the obviously ridiculous question; then remove his glasses, put one end of the glass frame in his mouth – frown at the culprit, and reply: “Well now that is the most ignorant comment I have heard for a long while. Everyone put down your pens!” For the entire lesson Mr. S., would tell us stories of bombing raids, and emergency landings. It was great story-telling. If we thought that the story was coming to an end – we would ask additional questions to prompt a further response; all until the bell rung. Mr. S., may have guessed what the caper was – but the sheer joy of Mr. S., regaling a story so vastly distant from our young lives, in hindsight was an immeasurable experience. Nothing can compare with primary evidence – and Oral History. We were very fortunate – and more so, for what Mr. S., was next planning ahead for us.

Play in the past was very physical as well as practical – today for many children ‘play’ is about digital devices. When I ‘played’ as a child, it was about developing physicality; measuring risk.

In April 1978, the Aircraft Carrier – the USS Enterprise, stopped off in Fremantle for a five day visit. World War II veteran as he was – Mr. S. calmly announced to us one morning that we were going to go on board the Carrier. These were the days prior to Occupational Health and Safety Checks. I doubt whether any teacher today could sculpt a Form that could allow fifty, twelve year old boys to jump on board a nuclear-powered and nuclear armed warship anchored in the Indian Ocean.

But off we went.

Fifty boys with one teacher. Mr. S., was dressed in formal shorts, brown belt, knee high woolen socks, brown shoes, a pressed short sleeved business shirt, and a tweed cap. We walked the shortest route across busy streets – probably the best part of two kilometres to a ferry docking point on the Swan River in between the two traffic bridges in Fremantle that span the Swan. When we arrived at the Ferry dock – there was no Rottnest Ferry. Instead of a Ferry what greeted us was what looked like a giant iron waste bin. Without blinking Mr. S., told us that we were going out to the Carrier on a naval barge. Now if you have seen film footage of the Normandy landing, or of General MacArthur ‘returning’ to the Philippines – you have a fair idea as to our mode of transport. All that is between you and the deep ocean – is a sheet of metal. We all jumped on board – Mr. S., as chirpy as ever. As twelve year old boys are – we were in our absolute element – if not a bit scared; but Mr. S., was brimmed with nonchalance and confidence, so everything had to be fine. None of us had life-jackets.

What impressed me about the trip out to the Carrier was the US Serviceman who stood bolt-rigid in the centre of the barge – hands behind his back. As we exited the harbour and made our way into the Indian Ocean – I noticed the bottom of the barge which had puddles of water; but as the US Sailor was not concerned – nor was I or my friends.

The barge began to lift and drop as we came to Gauge Roads – the drop would have been about a metre and a half, and we thought it was just so much fun. If you can imagine a rectangular lunch box filled with marbles, that was what we were like inside. We just rolled around – as there were no chairs or seat-belts. None of us was tall enough to see over the edge of the barge – until, that is, we crashed on a wave and the barge lifted up, and dropped. We were in our formal private school uniforms; and we were in many cases now covered, drenched, in salt water. Sheer – absurd – joy!

When we arrived at the USS Enterprise, it was enormous. The only comparison I had in my mind at the time was the arrival of the Millennium Falcon at the Death Star in the movie Star Wars that had been released a year before. It was like arriving at a ten storey building. The barge sided up beside the Carrier, on that side of the Carrier where half way up the side is a giant gap – probably 30 metres wide where I suspected the planes were lifted from the inside of the Carrier to the Flight Deck.

What happened next breaks every last rule that could be broken on OH&S. I couldn’t understand how we were going to be transferred from the barge to the Carrier. Then the Sailor came to life. What had been up until then a uniformed statue – the only stationary living thing in the barge on the trip out – was alive. Whereas we rolled around – he had ‘sea legs’. He made his way to the stairs and then tied ropes from a makeshift pontoon bridge to the barge. Now let me describe for you what this pontoon was. Imagine a sheet of black rubber three metres in width and five metres in length. The rubber was fifty centimetres thick. The rubber lay on a dozen tyres. Opposite from us were two sailors standing on the pontoon which was tied to the Carrier. For the next ten minutes the sailor on the barge, grabbed each of us by the back of our shorts and according to the ebb and flow of the ocean – as the pontoon came closer to the barge and then pulled away, threw us on to the pontoon. We then stood up and walked like unsteady astronauts on the moon – where the Sailors on the other side grabbed our arm and told us to climb up the ladder on the side of the Carrier. I did not have time to be scared. I knew that I did not know what I was doing – but I was fairly certain that the US Sailors did. In hindsight I thought that what lay below the pontoon, must have been in my small mind – 500 metres of salt water. But now as we were told to climb the ladder on the side of the Carrier, I became acutely aware that I couldn’t fly. The ladder that consisted of some twenty steel steps that were welded to the side of the Carrier – had only a rope railing to hold on to, that was on the furthest side of the ladder to the Carrier. The USS Enterprise was famous for having a tilt – it leaned on our side to the Indian Ocean – so as we climbed the stairs – all you could see was the Indian Ocean. Now at that moment I was scared as there were no sailors with us on the stairs. We could see them waiting in the hatch above – but we were on our own. I remember a friend behind me ask the question: “Do you think they are trying to get rid of us?” I was too petrified to say too much in reply – except: “I don’t know!”  We had been a very naughty class for many years – so I wouldn’t have been surprised if this was some form of lesson. I cannot tell you the sheer relief that I experienced when reaching the top of the stairs I was grabbed hold of by a sailor and walked on the mid-level of the Carrier. I walked immediately away from the edge – there was no steel fence or barricade, nothing to prevent you from falling.

What greeted us was a very warm welcome. The Officers welcomed us – and laid on a Morning Tea of Brownies, Cookies and Cordial. It was so tasty. Mr. S., did a head count – and we had lost no one. It wouldn’t have done much good if we had lost someone, as you would have had only the Indian Ocean to search for them.

After Morning Tea we were taken through the Carrier along a number of hallways – many of which had signs indicating no entry. We were led up to the Flight Deck, by another series of stairs. Up on the Flight Deck it was blustering a gale. Aircraft were on deck – but none came in or departed while we were on deck. When we all arrived on the Flight Deck, Mr. S., gathered us together, and let us know that we could venture all over the Flight Deck for the next two hours; talk to sailors and ask them to show us inside the aircraft. Now reader – listen very carefully. The Flight Deck must be some ten storeys above the ocean – and there are no fences around the Flight Deck. There were fifty, twelve year olds – walking around for two and a half hours. I actually thought that there must have been a fence, so I walked to the edge of the deck to look down, and startled I pulled back immediately. Did we have a great time on the Flight Deck? Absolutely! It was great. It was every boys’ dream. Totally so. The US Personnel were so forthcoming and welcoming. Nothing was too much to ask. Later, I would buy and construct model planes of those real planes that I had sat inside. One of my friends sat inside with me – and put a funnel to his mouth and began play-acting about sending messages through the funnel. He asked the pilot: “Is this is how you speak to crew members?” The pilot replied: “No son, that tube is what we connect to ourselves so we don’t pee our pants on flights!”

As my time on the Flight Deck progressed I became more and more confident. I climbed to the Bridge – this time the stairs had steel rails on either side.

Lunch for us was a meal of hot dogs and more chocolate cookies.

The trip home was the reverse of the trip there. But now the boys were far more confident – not over-confident, but confident. Poignantly the outbound trip I can recollect with forensic detail – but the return trip is a distant memory. I believe this to be because after all that amazed me going out to the Carrier; the return was, mundane; ‘been there done that.’

When we arrived back at school – we were tired. It had been a long day and we had expended a huge amount of nervous energy.

At home, I tried to tell my family what I had experienced, but I didn’t have the words for it. It was one of those experiences – you had to experience.

I still have the Booklet that the US Officers gave to us as we boarded the Carrier; forty three years ago. On the cover of the Booklet is a chocolate smudge from a Brownie. I can still taste the Cookies, Cordial and Hot Dogs. My legs still shake as I recall looking over the edge of the Flight Deck and seeing only my black school shoes and the black, (not blue) ocean ten storeys beneath. I still hear in my mind the accent of the US Personnel. It was the first time I had met Americans in real life. I remember the shine of their shoes – the kindness in the way they treated fifty Australian boys. I was very grateful for them being our Allies. It also made me proud to be an Australian, and have such friends.

The only thing I regret – enormously so – is that I never remembered to thank Mr. S., for providing me with one of the greatest experiences of my boyhood – something that today cannot be replicated. Each one of us boys grew that day. We also saw how other people live to defend freedoms.

Looking back as an adult now to this event of boyhood – a most important lesson stands out for me: the experience was not without trepidation – but at no stage did I feel any fear when I was with Mr. S., and the US Personnel. They were calm and confident. A child needs to feel assured of the adults around them. Calmness is contagious – so is good manly example to boys.

When I went to bed that night, I had changed radically from the boy who had gone to bed twenty four hours before. I was still a boy – but I had had a day out with men, and I knew what I aspired to be – a man, a self-assured, capable and confident man.

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

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