Knocking back the beers with my mates at Kelly’s Pool. Racing down Camp Road in an old Holden ute, pushing the engine hard. Shooting at the speed limit signs on the way back to town. Me, a troublemaker? No way. Just a little mischief, just another fifteen-year-old boy letting off some steam.
That is, until the flashing blue lights lit up the back of the ute. Holy shit. Chris looked in his rear-view mirror as the copper strode towards us, his boots crunching on the gravel. I shook my head. Thank God I’d passed the wheel over to Chris a few miles back.
‘Jeez Wilder,’ Chris muttered. ‘It’s Greedy!
The copper loomed over us. ‘Chris Kelly!’ he said, leaning on the doorsill. ‘So, your old man’s silly enough to lend you the keys?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Chris mumbled. ‘I mean, no, he’s not silly, but…’
‘You and your buddy Nash can step out of the car. You’re riding back to town with me.’
I was sure we’d both cop a clip over the ear, or worse, but Sergeant Greedy just drove us back to the police station and rang our parents. Chris’s old man came down within a couple of minutes and marched my buddy off without a word. As I waited for my dad to arrive, a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, the Sarge sat down next to me on the verandah.
‘You and your mates are good kids,’ he said. ‘I get it, you’re restless. But what you boys have been up to lately is just plain stupid. I’m not your father, so I’m not going to lecture you. But life has a way of slipping by with us barely noticing. It’s far too short to waste your time with these foolish antics. They can only lead you down the wrong path.
‘Some of your mates will stay here in Paraburdoo forever. They fear the unknown. Not you. I can see that you need more. So, what’s your plan?’
‘No idea,’ I scoffed. I turned to him. ‘I mean, I’m only fifteen.’
‘Same age I was when I left school, and signed up as police cadet,’ Greedy told me. ‘If you’re old enough to screw up your life, you’re old enough to choose yourself a career.’
‘Maybe I could become a cop, the same as you,’ I suggested, trying to make a joke of our conversation.
Greedy patted me on the shoulder. ‘There’s a bit too much larrikin in you for the police force. Have you thought about joining one of the armed services? Maybe the army or the navy?’
I frowned. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Sure, why not?’ Sergeant Greedy chuckled. ‘Just remember—don’t waste your time, thoughts, and energy on what others think. Live your life—stay true to yourself.’
The blue Kingswood pulled up outside the police station. Sergeant Greedy stood up and walked over to speak with my dad. He looked back at me one last time, before walking back inside. ‘It all depends on one thing, Nash,’ he suggested. ‘Are you tough enough?’
First time I rolled into Paraburdoo, I stepped out into the dusty streets with two six-shooter Colts in my belt, my eyes shaded by the wide brim of my Stetson. Well, a kid-sized version of a cowboy hat, anyway. I’d just turned six, and Dad had been appointed as the pit supervisor at the mine just west of the Doo. The local kids, the little tackers, loved my get-up, especially the pearl handles on my cap guns. But the older kids? I’d say they were jealous, at a guess.
Ten days after we moved into our new house. Willie Thompson nicked my prized hat and stuffed it into his dog’s feed bucket. Steven and Brady Wilson, the twins, held me back as Bonkers, the blue heeler, shredded my treasured token of the American Wild West. Years later, we laugh about it. But I was pretty pissed off at the time.
You grow up fast in the bush. By the age of thirteen, I could drive a car. We lived next door to old Mr Taylor, the baker. Every Saturday I drove his 1962 Bedford truck into town to pick up his weekly shipment of flour from Perth, while he opened his bakery store front. I could ride a motorbike, change a tyre, and saddle and shoe a horse.
That incident with Greedy must have been why Mum and Dad sent me off to boarding school in Perth. After finishing Year 11, I returned home for the holidays two weeks before Christmas. I immediately caught up with my mate Ricky Wilson, Steven and Brady’s younger brother. Three of the Wilson’s cousins came up from Perth for the holidays. It was that summer, hanging out with the Wilsons, Willie Thompson and Chris Kelly, that I realised how much more mature and responsible bush kids were, compared to those city kids—even if me and my mates had the occasional brain-fart. I know I can’t go back to being that carefree kid again. But I sure miss those days.
The following year, after graduating from Year 12, I knew I wanted to join the navy. My conversation with Greedy lit a slow fuse in my mind. There was an entire world out there waiting for me, and I wanted to see it all. Whenever I closed my eyes, I dreamed of fighting for my country, of visiting foreign ports with ribbons and medals pinned to my chest. After I graduated from high school, Dad won an office job in Perth. So, three months before my eighteenth birthday, I farewelled my friends in Paraburdoo. Little did I know on that day, the ninth of February 1981, as we pulled out the driveway of our house on Ashburton Avenue, that I would not see those dusty streets until fate drew me back over thirty years later.
As soon as we hit Perth, I went straight off to the Navy Recruiting Centre. I passed the entrance test and medical exams, meeting the Navy’s physical, mental and moral standards. Nine weeks later, with just enough money in my pocket to get me through to my first payday, I packed my lucky undies and toothbrush and boarded a flight to Melbourne, and the Navy training centre on the Mornington Peninsula.
I was excited as hell when the bus pulled up to the gate at HMAS Cerberus. I mean, here I was, the boy from the Doo, taking the first step in my big adventure. The guard on the gate, a sailor recruit, wore a spotless white uniform and gaiters. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I climbed down from the bus, reciting the Naval values out loud: honour, honesty, courage, integrity and loyalty.
Everyone told me that basics was going to be a pain in the neck. Three months of left-right, left-right, shut your mouth and only speak when spoken to. But I knew it would be a small price to pay to live my dream.
As we stepped out of the bus, the mood in the group turned serious. This is real, we’re in the Australian Navy now. Three Petty Officers descended upon us, screaming at our failure to fall in instantly. ‘On the double. On the double. Fall in, heads up, shoulders back, thumbs down the seams of your trousers!’
I glanced around at my new mates. They were all in shock. One of the POs marched right up and yelled in my face. ‘What are you grinning at? I’m not your girlfriend!’ Between disembarking from the bus and being marched off to the barbers from my regulation haircut, I was told off six times for smiling too much.
‘You’re not at home anymore, son. Stop grinning—I’m not your mother!’
My wavy locks fell to the floor as the barber ran his electric clippers close to my skull. After they issued uniforms, we moved on to our accommodation. Twelve weeks of basic training followed, and the yelling never let up. Marching, saluting, learning to speak like a sailor, rifle drills, and, of course, PT. I loathed the Physical Training Instructors and still do. But those three months at Cerberus exorcised my old civilian self and turned me into a sailor.
The next day we fronted up for the physical fitness test. I did forty push-ups, sixty sit-ups, and ran 2.5 kilometres in nine minutes, ten seconds. After the run I met a young bloke named Jason Hoskin, who introduced himself as Jack. A tall wiry guy with auburn hair, Jack beat my time by fifteen seconds. He hailed from Coober Pedy, South Australia, an opal-mining town 850 kilometres north of Adelaide. Over the coming weeks he would become my good mate, and my nemesis when it came to physical training.
The following day we sat down for another round of aptitude tests, basic Maths and English. I blitzed the exam, one of only three recruits in my intake to score 100 percent.
On week seven or eight—I can’t quite recall—my class had just mustered outside the PT office. The instructor announced that anyone interested in trying out as a diver should come and see him after the class.
Jack’s face lit up. He turned to me with that dirty big grin of his and winked. After we finished PT, I walked up to Jack, who was hunched over, sucking in air.
‘You want to be a diver?’ I asked.
‘Not just a diver,’ he replied. ‘I’m going to be a Clearance Diver.’
‘Is that a good job?’ I asked.
‘Shit!’ Jack said. ‘Don’t you know anything about the navy, country boy?’
Apparently not, I thought, watching as Jack walked over to the PO. But I always enjoyed fishing and snorkelling on those family holidays to Exmouth. Maybe I should give it a crack, see what this diving’s all about. So along with Jack and three other guys, I put my hand up for the diving trial.
A Lieutenant, a Ship’s Diver, instructed us on the basics. Water entry methods, equalisation, retrieving and clearing our regulators and masks. Then it was onto the water for an impromptu practical test.
As we knelt in the sludge on the bottom of Western Port Bay, five metres down and with zero visibility, the Lieutenant came by and ripped the first guy’s mask from his face. The student panicked and speared up to the surface.
The Lieutenant approached the next student who refused to take the demand valve from his mouth. Mind you, the guy was huffing and puffing like a steam train, a bit of a giveaway he wasn’t cut out for diving.
When the Lieutenant came to me, he pulled my mask off and plucked the demand valve from my mouth. I stayed calm, blowing bubbles until the Lieutenant passed the regulator back to me. I cleared it and refitted my mask.
With hindsight, I had no idea what the Lieutenant was up to. I just knew that I loved being in the water. Unbeknown to us, the Lieutenant recommended Jack, David Lindsay and myself as candidates for navy clearance diver training.
Twice a week we would gather for a lecture on different specialties the navy could offer. On my second last week at Cerberus, we were told to list our preferred naval jobs, from first to third. At the risk of seeming like a smartarse, I wrote:
- CD [Clearance Diving]
- CD [Clearance Diving]
- CD [Clearance Diving]
After Basic Seamanship training, the three of us were sent to HMAS Penguin, and the RAN diving school. We received small arms training, did the SCUBA air course, and PT test after PT test. After the fundamentals came the Clearance Acceptance Diver course, followed by the Basic Clearance Diver course. One night they gave us a compass each, dropped us on the shore of Sydney Harbour, and told to swim across to the north shore. And if you see any shipping, stay out of its way, unless you want to pay for the damage.
After I’d served on an operational clearance diving team for a couple of years, the navy turned up the dial on my training. I did the Survive, Evade, Resist and Extract course, before doing a parachute jump course, a reconnaissance survival course and close-quarters battle training at the Singleton Army Training Centre. After jumping through all the hoops, I even trained with the Special Air Service Regiment in Perth.
On the twelfth of February 1984, I pulled on my best jeans and shirt, and joined a group of my mates for a Sunday session. The first pub we hit was the Raffles Hotel. When I went to the bar to order a round of drinks, I noticed a young woman who looked as though she’d been crying. Her makeup seemed smudged, and I could see the sadness in the corner of her eyes. ‘Are you OK?’ I asked her.
‘Leave me alone,’ she snapped. I shrugged my shoulders and stepped away. I caught the bartender’s eye. ‘Half a dozen schooners of Swan, please!’
Later that evening my mates had wandered off, looking for love. I was finishing my last drink when the same young woman came over to me. ‘I’m sorry I bit your head off earlier,’ she said. ‘That’s not me.’
I gave her a puzzled smile. ‘That’s OK. I just came here for a night out with my mates. I wasn’t looking to make things any worse for you.’
She lifted her tissue up and dabbed the corner of her eye. ‘I was going to meet my boyfriend tonight,’ she explained. ‘He didn’t show, so I rang him from the payphone outside. When he answered, I heard another girl giggling in the background. Long story short, he dumped me there and then.’
I picked up on her sense of humiliation. ‘Well, that’s pretty low,’ I offered. ‘Sounds to me like he doesn’t deserve you.’
She lowered her eyes. ‘I thought you were just another soldier, out on the town, trying to pick up a girl. I can see what your mates are up to—but I misjudged you.’
I chuckled and ran my hand over my crew cut. ‘Actually, I’m a sailor, not a soldier, but thanks for noticing. Some of my mates will take whatever comes their way. But I’d rather, you know, be with someone I care about. Not that it’s easy when you’re in the Navy.’
She gave me a thoughtful look. ‘It sounds as if you’ve had your share of heartbreak, too.’
‘There was someone,’ I admitted. ‘But she couldn’t cope with me being away on duty.’
‘Did you love her?’
I thought for a moment. ‘I thought I did, but now, I think we were both a little frightened. We were both holding back.’
She nodded. ‘I know what you mean.’ For the first time since we met, she smiled. ‘My name’s Elizabeth,’ she said. ‘Elizabeth Acton. But you can call me Libby.’
Six months later, Libby agreed to marry me. That was the happiest day of my life—at least up to that point. In 1985, the Navy selected me for Officer Training as a Mine Warfare and Clearance Diving Specialist. They sent me on the ‘knives and forks’ course to learn a little etiquette. Who knew there was special cutlery for eating fish? Having mastered the social niceties, I readied myself for the Junior Officers’ Staff Course.
In November 1985, Libby and I were married. She looked absolutely radiant, and I had to keep pinching myself to believe my luck. That was the happiest day of my life—at least up to that point.
Straight after our honeymoon they posted me to HMAS Curlew, a minesweeper, as a Sub Lieutenant and Ship’s Diving Officer. I learned how to navigate inside and outside land, and in company with other vessels. This posting earned me my Bridge Watch-keeping Certificate—another milestone in my naval career.
By 1990 I was serving as a junior Lieutenant on HMAS Darwin, on deployment to the Persian Gulf supporting coalition forces engaged in Operation Desert Storm. Somewhere in between, Libby and I had twins—Kim Mary Nash, and Douglas Robert Nash. I wrangled things so I was at home with Libby when they were born. That was the happiest day of my life—at least up to that point.
In 1992, I found myself back in the Gulf. They tasked the HMAS Darwin with escorting merchant vessels through the deep-water channel into Kuwait and intercepting ships suspected of illegally trafficking oil or other contraband. I led a skilled team boarding merchant ships to conduct these searches. We’d head out in a rigid inflatable boat, board the vessel, and do whatever needed to be done. Most times, things went well. Other times, you could sense the hostility bubbling away just below the surface. Without a guided missile frigate standing by, some of these interactions could have turned nasty, real quick. But whether through good luck or good management, I made it home safely.
All these experiences encouraged me to ask some big questions: how does the human mind work? Why do some people stay calm under stress, while others fall apart? Why has my marriage succeeded, while so many of my friends have been divorced? So, I enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in psychology, paid for by the Navy.
During my first three-week block at uni, the lecturer asked us to make a list of the qualities we admired in ourselves. As I glanced around the lecture theatre, I noticed most of my fellow students with their pens poised above their notepads, as if sensing some kind of trap.
‘Bugger it,’ I thought. ‘I’m game.’ I picked up my pen and began scribbling.
I think I’m adventurous, cooperative, happy, loyal, imaginative, capable, smart, optimistic, pleasant, funny, diplomatic, thoughtful, understanding, friendly, talkative, positive, discreet, polite, observant, rational, honest, helpful, tolerant, and persistent. I have always been the curious sort. I consider myself a social character who’s always enjoyed meeting new people and hearing their stories, almost as much as I love telling mine. I feel blessed to have grown up in the bush, surrounded by happy, trustworthy people. I feel even more blessed to have found Libby, my soulmate, and to have created a real family with her. And I feel lucky to have friendships cemented by the tests of time, only growing stronger with each passing year.
After a few minutes, the lecturer called time on the exercise. I thought he might ask us to share what we’d written, but no. ‘University can be hard,’ he said. ‘Psychology is a challenging profession. If you don’t know yourself well, if you don’t have some positive self-regard, you’re going to struggle. Think of this exercise as a gift to yourself. Take some time each day to reflect on your better qualities. And if you’re ever feeling down, go back and read what you’ve written today.’
I kept that piece of notepaper, folded it into an envelope that evening, and placed it into the drawer of my bedside table. Those days when everything feels overcast, I take it out and read it again. It never fails to lift my spirits.
I graduated as a newly-minted psychologist in 1999, and was promptly sent on a three-year exchange with the Naval Station Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. In 2002, Liddy, the kids, and I returned home to Perth. Having attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander, they assigned me to the Tactical Assault Group, part of the Australian Defence Forces Special Force Unit. We were tasked with responding to counter-terrorism.
Just as everything seemed to be going perfectly, the bottom fell out of my world. Libby went to the doctor for a routine check-up and came home with bad news. They had detected a lump on her breast, and they sent her off for a mammogram. At work each day I tried to understand what made terrorists tick and identify the targets they were most likely to attack; each evening, I experienced the dread of watching my beloved wife ride that rollercoaster of hope and despair that follows a cancer diagnosis.
They say that women who are affected by breast cancer are the ones with the most love to give. That’s some consolation, but barely enough. On the thirty-first of July 2004, Libby lost her two-year battle with cancer. Less than a month later, still devastated by grief, I retired from the Navy after twenty-three years of service.
I’ll admit it: I was lost. While Kim and Douglas were growing into two fine young adults, I was left holding an unused degree in psychotherapy. Believing I could make a real difference, I took a job working as a counsellor to returned veterans.
How many hours did I spend in that beige counselling room, listening to them discuss their families, their fishing trips, the triumphs and defeats of their favourite footy teams? In fact, these guys would talk about anything, as long as they could avoid confiding in me. I waited for some small chink in their armour, a secret, a regret, some sense of shame. The opportunity for me to help make things a little better. Every now and then I’d reveal something of myself, in the hope they would do the same. But mostly, my efforts were in vain. I believed that if they could only learn to trust me, to bring their fears and secrets to the light, it would help them heal. Wasn’t this what my psychology professors had promised? But these army vets proved tough nuts to crack.
In the end, I was the one who gave way. I found myself drowning in my clients’ depression and regret. Their troubles kept piling up, while they maintained their blokey facades. I realised I wasn’t helping. Knowing I empathised too strongly with them, knowing I was preventing someone more effective from stepping in, I walked away. I had to find something beautiful, something which would inspire me, once again, to live my life to the full.
Old habits die hard. I woke up every day at 0530. I’d flick the kettle on, and as it came to the boil, I’d stare through the server window at Libby’s recliner chair in the living room. Some mornings, standing in the kitchen lost in thought, I looked up and caught my reflection in the window. Seeing the older, lonelier me, I’d stop and wonder what I was doing. I’d tell myself I might as well go back to bed. After all, what’s the point? I didn’t need to be anywhere. There was no one depending on me. But I refused to let myself be that guy. I couldn’t give in—Libby wouldn’t want that.
My two beautiful kids had made their own lives. Kim, bless her soul, has a heart the size of a VW bug. She got that from her mother. Kim’s a lawyer with the West Australian Legal Aid Service, fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves. She has three kids, 3, 4 and 7, and I couldn’t have hand-picked a better bloke for her husband.
My son, Douglas, joined the Army in 2005. After attending the Royal Military College, he accepted a posting to the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. In 2009, as a young lieutenant, he joined the 2nd Commando Regiment. To date, he’s completed two tours of Afghanistan, and is currently a training officer with Charlie Company, 2nd Commando, attached to the Special Operations Task Group based in Iraq. With all I have seen and done, with my time in the navy, and working as a counsellor with vets, I worry for my son. I fear for the man that is, his outlook on life, his dreams, the goodness I see in him. I know how easily these qualities can be compromised.
It’s hard. But I have to let my kids live their lives, plot their own course. That’s what Libby would have wanted. And that’s what she did for me—when I look back over our life together, it’s clear she sacrificed herself for my happiness. I love my kids, my mum and dad, my brothers and sister. But I feel a little alien in their presence. They will never understand me—how much I miss Libby, and how much I miss being a Clearance Diver.
It was 09:00 am on Thursday, the seventeenth of October 2013, when I received the call. Three days later, I found myself back in the Doo, dressed in black, the collar of my stiffly starched white shirt stained with my sweat. Midmorning, I stood in the sun's heat, forcing a smile and shaking hands with my old friends.
Unbelievable. Willie Thompson, aged fifty-three, dressed up better than I’d ever seen him, and lying in an open casket. Shit! Willie was one tough SOB. He never left the Doo. While I was still in school, his dad found him an apprenticeship as a heavy fitter at the mine, and that was that. Willie married Alice Spencer, the head-teacher’s daughter, and tried his hand at professional roo-shooting for a spell, but soon went back to the mine. Willie never drifted too far from the Doo.
He hadn’t changed at all. As I looked at him lying there so peacefully, I tried to hide the smile forming on my face. You prick, I thought, I never did forgive you for ruining my cowboy hat. I wanted to reach into his coffin and touch him, but didn’t. I stood there looking blankly at his face, reflecting on the myriad of dangerous experiences I’d survived. And here’s poor old Willie who died falling off a milk-crate, changing a light bulb on his back veranda, so he could cook some sausages on the BBQ for dinner. Go figure!
But for all our differences, I loved that stubborn jerk, and I know he loved me like an older brother. I never lost touch with my mates from this small dusty town, the place I call home. But however, much I told myself I loved the place, I hadn’t returned in over thirty-two years. And it took the death of a dear friend to bring me back. Shame on me. All I can say in my defence is that life somehow got in the way. The sort of bullshit excuse I’d never have accepted from one of my vets. Shame on me!
Willie’s family invited me to the wake at the Inn on Rocklea Road. The Wilson boys, Ricky and his brothers, all my old mates would be there. Mr and Mrs Kelly, and Mr Taylor. Gee, he would have to be in his eighties now, but I hear he’s still going strong. That old bugger still lives in the same house on Ashburton Ave, but he doesn’t bake anymore.
What would I say to my old friends? I felt I’d abandoned them. Fair call—but that’s not how it was. I’d gone off looking for something, unsure where it would lead me, but it was a journey I had to take. But I can honestly say, over those many years, through both the good times and the bad, there wasn’t a single day I didn’t think of the Doo.
Maybe my guilt played a part in what followed the wake. In the middle of the night me and Ricky, Chris, Steven and Brady Wilson and Jake Stewart, the 25-year-old son of a local police officer, stumbled over to the footy ground, where Jake coached the Saints. We borrowed the Shire Council’s Husqvarna ride-on lawn mower and sprayer attachment. Dropping the blades to the lowest setting, we filled the sprayer with Roundup weed-killer, and carved Willie’s name into the footy field in letters six meters high and two meters wide. Ah well—it should grow back before the start of next season.
I woke the next day at 1420. My head felt as if it had been caught in a vise. Hoping to clear my mind, I took a drive out to Kelly’s Pool. Sitting by the water, I decided there and then to head back to Perth, rent out my house, buy a caravan, and travel north. Visit Exmouth and try to relive all the good times and fond memories from my youth.
I’d come to a crossroads. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But whatever it was, it didn’t involve sitting in a house four times larger than I needed, staring at Libby’s empty chair.
As I headed north towards Exmouth, I felt a sense of anticipation as I turned into Coral Bay Road. We’d first spent a day in Coral Bay when I was seven years old, and I was keen to see the place again. Looking towards the horizon, I sped through the gentle bends, remembering the white sand and the crystal clean waters of the bay. Not even fifty metres from the beach, I had swum with shoals of fish. I remembered the pub, the caravan park, the kilometres of lonely sand, the jade-coloured water. Here was a place to lose myself, to have adventures, and reacquaint myself with the hypnotic beauty of the Indian Ocean.
One day so long ago, we picnicked at a place we called Our Beach—a secluded stretch of white sand, carved out of the truncated edges of the beach rock. Dad discovered Our Beach back in the early seventies, while he was working with ODE Drilling in Exmouth. It’s about seven klicks south of Coral Bay, accessible only by four-wheel-drive. Luckily, Dad had a new red and white Land Cruiser. We had to lug the esky across the sand for the last six hundred metres. But Our Beach made the exertions all worthwhile.
I wanted to go exploring. My mum reluctantly agreed, but told me not to stray too far. We had to be back in Exmouth in time to have dinner with the local pub owner and his wife.
I must have wandered two or three kilometres south along the beach. Watching the sun, I sat on the sand, imagining myself as Robinson Crusoe, cast away on a desert island. The glistening water beckoned me, as it would for the rest of my life. I waded out with my old Glaros Sub Titanic dive mask and my snorkel, and began exploring the coral, watching the clown fish play in the anemones, and the Chromes hide in the staghorn coral as I cast a shadow.
Something called to me, so I went out deeper. A clown trigger fish swum by. I had never seen something so beautiful, so strong. I followed that fish for who knows how long. When it finally disappeared under the coral, I pushed back and surfaced for air. I bobbed back down and pressed my cheek against the sand, looking under the reef wall, hoping to see the clown trigger for a last time. No such luck. Sinking the tips of my fingers into the paper-white sand, I pushed back to reverse clear of the coral. That’s when I noticed a sinister shadow looming over me. Turning, all I could see was the passing torso of a 14-foot tiger shark.
The tiger cruised past behind me, so close I could have reached out and touched it. This silent predator was perfect in every way. It arced around, circling back, trying to decide if I was food or fun. My jaw dropped, I needed to surface for air, but I didn’t want to leave the shark. I wasn’t scared, and I didn’t panic. I was in awe. There was only one thought running through my mind—bloody awesome! Of course, my mother and father didn’t see it that way. As a result, I was no longer allowed to wander off. I’ll never forget that day. But nothing ever stays the same.
I pulled my four-wheel-drive and caravan into the carpark at the end of Robinson Street, and looked out over a beach littered with sun-bathers and grey nomads. Sadly, the town had grown—there’d been a development boom in the last thirty-odd years. Feeling deflated, I pulled into the People’s Caravan Park. A good night’s rest, and I’d figure it out from there.
I unhitched the van and hooked up the power and water. I glanced at the sun. Still enough time to check out Our Beach. Following a rough set of tracks, I arrived there in the late afternoon. To my delight, it was almost deserted—except for one tough-looking Landy parked behind the dunes. As I made my way down to the beach, I noticed a tall, well-built man in a wetsuit lugging his diving gear across the sand. The way he carried himself, I knew immediately he had served in the military. As he approached, I greeted him with a smile. ‘Good diving?’ I asked.
He gave me a cold look, and walked on by.
Message received. If someone chooses not to share the details of their favourite diving haunt, it’s obviously a place worth exploring. The next day, I hauled my diving gear out of the storage compartment in the caravan, and headed down to my private beach. The big fella was there already, so I took care to set myself up well away from his chosen spot.
For a week or so I explored the turquoise waters up and down the coast, appreciating the chance to blend in seamlessly with the fish and the coral. One afternoon, as I was cleaning my gear, I noticed the big man walking towards me. He had an intense look on his face and seemed a lot larger up close. I felt a rush of apprehension. Was he trying to protect his patch of sand?
‘Just letting you know I’ve seen some decent-sized sharks out there,’ he said.
‘What size?’ I asked.
‘Bigger than me. Best take care, eh?’
‘Thanks for that,’ I replied. ‘I haven’t seen any this visit, but I‘m no stranger to this beach. I remember being buzzed by a fourteen-foot tiger, back when I was just a lad.’
‘What certs do you hold?’ the big fella demanded.
‘These days, I hold a Recreational PADI Dive Master certification,’ I replied.
‘These days?’ he asked, his tone of voice betraying his curiosity.
‘I’m a retired RAN clearance diver. And you?’
‘Advanced Trimix and Advanced Mixed Gas CCR,’ he said.
‘Really? A rebreather? Which one?’
A royal flush to my full house. ‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘I’ll keep out of your hair.’ I extended my hand. ‘I’m Wilder Nash, by the way.’
Cautiously, he shook my hand. I could see him measuring me up. ‘Pleased to meet you, Navy.’
‘And you are?’
‘You can call me Army.’
For the first time, my psychological training and the time I’d spent working with vets began to pay dividends. I could see that my new acquaintance had fallen off the grid, hoping to escape a troubled past. Like me, he sought solace in the simple pleasures of scuba diving and spearfishing. He wasn’t much of a talker, a man who kept his own counsel. Even so, I could sense the depths of his anguish.
My experience has taught me there are two kinds of military men: those who are anxious to prove themselves, and those who know they have nothing left to prove. From the moment I first saw him, I recognised the big fella as one of the latter—a seasoned soldier who made his way through hell, and lived to tell the tale.
It took me nearly a year to win his trust. I knew better than to ask him about his military history, or whatever life he had made for himself after leaving the army. He’d tell me as much as he wanted, in his own good time. What my new acquaintance needed, more than anything, was someone who would listen to him without judgement.
My soldier mate loved ribbing me about my naval service. After a day spent spearfishing in the deeper water, we sat down on the dunes to share a beer or three.
‘I’ve always been drawn to the sea,’ I said, pulling two stubbies of Carlsberg from the cooler. ‘It’s easy for me to read her moods.’ I twisted the top off one of the stubbies and passed it to my mate.
‘That’s just the Pusser coming out in you,’ he joked. ‘The ocean seems dead still.’ He pointed out towards the reef. The turquoise water rippled in the light breeze. ‘Appears harmless enough.’
Army took a decent swig of his beer and sat down beside me on the dune. Our scuba gear lay on a trap in the sand at our feet. ‘Never thought we’d find fifteen metres to the sand around here,’ he said. ‘But you did well today, what with you being an officer and all.’
‘As opposed to what?’ I scoffed. ‘A grunt?’
He turned to me and gave me his armour-piercing stare. ‘Yeah, a grunt,’ he said. ‘But a bloody good one.’ Unable to sustain his ruse, Army’s face broadened out into an affable grin. My shoulders sagged with relief.
‘Not cool, Army!’ I said. ‘You had me going there.’
With a shrug he turned back to the sea, picking silently at the Carlsberg label. He took another mouthful of beer and exhaled.
‘I don’t think it’s so easy to read the ocean at all,’ he said. ‘The surface looks calm enough, but you never know what’s brewing underneath.’
‘Are we still talking about the ocean, or something else?’ I asked.
The big man shrugged. ‘For me, it builds slowly through November,’ he said. ‘Until today. It’s good you’re here today. Thank you.’
‘Anything’s better than sitting at home. I added warily.
‘You know what day it is?’
He nodded. ‘Thursday, November 27. The fourth Thursday in November.’
I ran my hand over my stubble chin. ‘That doesn’t ring any bells.’
‘Thanksgiving Day, in the States.’
‘OK.’ I didn't understand where he was going with this.
‘It’s a bad day for me.’ His voice sounded soft and distant. ‘Fifteen years ago, something happened that changed my life forever. But it might as well have happened yesterday.’
I breathed slowly. Out beyond the reef, I saw the clouds gathering. ‘Mate,’ I replied, ‘I’m happy just to sit here and share a beer.’
‘Here’s the thing, Navy,’ he said, finally tearing the label from the empty bottle. ‘This story covers fifteen years of my life. It’ll take some time to tell. And if I start, you’ll need to listen right through to the end. Are you up for it?’
For the first time, he showed me the grief behind those intense blue eyes. I had no idea where his story would take him, or where it would take me. I only knew that holding it in was slowly chewing him up inside.
‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
After taking a bracing swig of Carlsberg, Army opened up about his life and his career, sharing his story of love, treachery and revenge which spanned ten years and five continents. I listened, drinking in every word, as the story grew more and more violent, more and more compelling. I found myself captivated and terrified at the same time. I needed to know what happened next.
As the sun sunk into the Indian Ocean, he finally fell silent. He drained the last of his beer and stared off into the twilight. ‘Strewth,’ I said. ‘That’s a story that needs to be told.’ But he did not reply.
Years later, Army asked if I would help him share his story with the world. At first, I respectfully declined. I lacked confidence in my ability to navigate such an emotional and legal minefield, and do justice to his experience. Around this time my father fell ill. For weeks his life hung in the balance. I realised that while everyone has a story to tell, few are more compelling than the big fella’s. Finally, I put pen to paper. Now I’ve begun, I will not stop until the story comes full circle, back to that remote beach where we were fated to meet.