It was snowing when I arrived in Australia. My dad had taken a position at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, for a semester as part of his sabbatical. He was there to learn about the New State Movement, an attempt by the New England portion of NSW to form a new state. I was there to learn how to fight. We both succeeded.
We lived in a small apartment in Armidale. We hung our laundry on one of those rectangular clotheslines. And we huddled by the space heater to stay warm during those first months of winter. Having flown from the warm weather of California’s summer, stopping briefly in Molokai, I was not exactly prepared. I had never lived in a place that received snow. My first day of school, I wore a hooded sweatshirt under a winter jacket. I hadn’t figured out that you are supposed to let the hood hang over the outer coat, and thus walked around with a prominent hump on my back. This did not go unnoticed by my second-grade classmates at Drummond Elementary School, who asked (mockingly, I wrongly assumed) what that hump was; to which I snapped, “YOU have a hump on your back.” Later that day I would realized what they were talking about and quickly adjusted my style. I quickly learned that Aussie boys are much freer with their fists than American kids; there was no bullying like back home, just perfectly normal fist fighting.
Between receiving my first torn shirt and bloody lip and the daily games of Aussie Rules Football, I quickly learned to stand up for myself. This served me well on the Aussie playground, and was one of the things (along with a slight Aussie drawl) that I carried back with me to California. I had been bullied for years by a certain M. Felix (I did wear glasses and thrift store clothes, so I can’t blame the guy). The first time he tried to rough me up in the hallway back at Sycamore Elementary, I promptly turned on the Aussie in me and I decked him. It earned me a trip to the principal’s office and my freedom from years of torment – a fair trade. My mother had to explain that I had gone native in Australia and was still not re-acquainted with the pacifism of our no grades, hippie elementary school.
At Drummond, I quickly tried to integrate myself. I purchased the ever popular flap hat to keep the hot Aussie sun off my neck, I developed a penchant for meat pies from the school cafeteria, I took the bus to school for the first time in my life, donning my first ever school uniform. And, true to character, fell for the cute blonde girl at school. The height of our imaginary romance was being invited over to her house to bounce on her over-sized trampoline (another first).
Before returning home way took a trip to Byron Bay, where I boogie boarded, Sydney, where I saw the Opera House and walked across the Bay Bridge, and finally up to Cairns. This is where my father ruined snorkeling for me for the rest of my life, until I made it to Southeast Asia. We went on a day-long trip out to the Great Barrier Reef and it was one of those experiences you always remember. I had never seen anything like it, and the memory of skirting the reefs and bouncing from tiny atoll to tiny atoll would stick with me and lead me to return to the area 20 years later to sail. I encountered the friendly local sunfish, a huge creature that met the boat knowing a treat from the crew awaited. I had a couple tiger sharks swim several meters beneath me in a canyon, as I turned and made for shallower water, where stunning soft coral swayed back and forth with the waves. My father became my instant hero when he dove down and stuck his fin in the mouth of a giant oyster, only to have it slam shut, momentarily trapping him underwater before he could wiggle free. This gigantic, open aquarium made my afternoons petting hermit crabs and starfish at the Long Marine Lab seem like, well, child’s play.
Snorkeling through a reef is one of those experiences I think every young child should enjoy.
Besides the warm weather, playing pool with my dad at the hostels, and quietly judging the fat, singlet wearing Aussie men guzzling Toohey’s beer in the common room, the stay in Cairns was memorable but short.
At some point we made our way south, a trip that I remember