A Short History of Me Part Three: “A Land Down Under”

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Unlike my son, who at the age of twelve is already a bit of a jet setting world traveler, I did not board my first commercial airliner until I was sixteen. But when I did – I rapidly clocked up some serious sky miles. In August of 1979, my family boarded a flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Disappointingly, we only had a stop over at the airport before then heading south to California. There we were met by my uncle and spent time with him and my Granny from Colorado. Sadly, this would be the last time I ever saw her. Then from California it was over the Pacific and onto Honolulu. After a couple of days on the beach, it was time for the marathon leg – Honolulu to Sydney. When we landed, they sprayed the entire cabin with pesticide. Perhaps they knew that there was a Canadian family of five on board with lice lurking in their hair. Not taking any chances on the success or otherwise of the pesticide, my father was dispatched to an all night chemist for lice shampoo while the rest of us collapsed at our Kings Cross hotel. The next day, suitably de-loused, we boarded our fifth jet within a week for the five hour flight across our new continent to Perth.Euky-Bear-Nitz-Blitz

I remember how we all laughed as we drove through Perth for the first time, looking out the window at all the greenery and exclaiming: “And this is supposed to be winter – ha! This is paradise!”. Once we arrived at the house, we dragged our bags inside and immediately felt a bit of a chill. No problem – all we had to do was turn up the central heating. So we looked. And we looked. And all we found was a tiny little electric bar heater. So we all put on several ‘sweaters’ each, huddled over the heater and proceeded to experience the coldest winter of our lives, dumbfounded by a country that didn’t believe in centrally heated homes.

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There were other shocks in store, though some were imagined – like when my little brother woke me the next morning screaming: “They’ve got monkeys in Australia – they’ve got monkeys!” Now, I didn’t think monkeys were on the list of strange local animals but I wasn’t entirely sure. So I went outside, half expecting to see long limbed primates swinging from the trees. Instead, I heard a chorus of cackling, which, especially to a wide eyed eight year old, might sound a lot like monkeys. “Um – I’m pretty sure that’s some kind of bird, Ian.” And so we were introduced to what soon became my favourite bird, the laughing kookaburra.

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But there were other very real things that were unique to our new homeland. Opening hours especially blew our minds. We had come from a country where supermarkets were open seven days a week until about nine or ten at night. But on our first Saturday afternoon in Perth, when we headed out to do our weekly shopping, we discovered that virtually everything shut at midday on Saturdays – and remained closed until Monday morning. But don’t worry – they stayed open till nine on Thursday nights. What the??? And forget about fueling your car on the weekend. Most ‘petrol stations’ (“But we want gas!”) were shut all weekend, except for a few scattered ‘roster stations’. If you didn’t have enough in the tank to make it the nearest roster station – tough titties. And we soon learned that should someone, especially a tradesman, ever tell you “She’ll be right, mate”, you may as well abandon all hope.

But on the upside – I was no longer sentenced to Canadian Concentration School. In fact, not only did I finally get my wish of attending a co-ed high school, it also happened to be called ‘Hollywood High’. Perfect! And in a rather interesting move on part of the school, it was decided that, rather than complete the last term of year ten, which I had just finished in Canada, I would be leapfrogged to the end of year eleven. This limited the sort of subjects I took (bye bye physics and chemistry) and proved to be somewhat of a challenge. But hey – it was nothing compared to canoeing 850 miles or being assaulted with a wooden paddle.

My biggest challenge turned out to be finding acceptance in an Australian school with the name ‘Chuck’. In Canada I would cop flak via ‘upchuck’ and ‘how much wood would a woodchuck chuck’ references. But in a country where my name was synonymous with the act of vomiting (or ‘chundering’ or ‘spewing’ or ‘driving the porcelain bus’) – I couldn’t have been an easier target. Those first few months were rough. But my skin thickened and my resolve strengthened. I found the peer group I wanted to be a part of (the guys who were smart but not nerds, who smoked a bit of dope but weren’t druggies) and basically hung around them, copping barb after barb, until they finally gave up and just accepted me for the weird and mildly amusing ‘Yank’ (arrrggg!) that I was.

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Of course the main attraction of a co-ed school was exactly that – I was no longer surrounded entirely by testosterone pumping teens but, at last, got to mix with the opposite sex. And although in some ways I struggled with this (like most teenage boys – in fact – like most males), in other ways I actually found it far easier to have ‘real’ conversations with girls. Consequently, I developed a few fairly close friendships with some Hollywood Girls. Of course that’s all they ever were – just friends. Though there was one exception, a girl I could not only talk to but with whom I also felt a certain chemistry. But she had a boyfriend – a university student no less – so that was pretty much that. Until… she split up with him shortly after we ‘graduated’ (graduating doesn’t really happen in Australia – you just sort of finish high school in a fairly unceremonious manner). She then invited me to a party. And post party – she kissed me. I was over the moon! Until two days later – when she said she was getting back together with her ex-boyfriend. And thus resulted my first ever broken heart.

My 18th birthday had long been this magical date within my family circle – often referred to during heated exchanges. “When I’m 18 – I’m out of here!” “Good! Only 12 more years to go!” In fact, it was ten days after my 18th birthday when I moved out (but I had been away camping for about a week of that period). Because most of my mates were still 17 and none quite in the hurry that I was, I moved into a ‘granny flat’ by myself at the back of a house that was, strangely enough, owned by a granny. I was so happy – though occasionally a little lonely.

Although I did well enough in my matriculation exams to earn a faculty of arts offer at the University of Western Australia (where my father was still lecturing in anthropology), I decided I had earned a year off. I’d like to point out that this was decades before the concept of a ‘gap year’ had become a standard option for school leavers. So I would like to take some credit for starting this trend. Anyway, I had a fantastic year accumulating ‘real life’ experiences like working as a labourer for a landscape gardener (extremely hard, hot work) and moving in with a couple of mates and getting the dole (far more fun, not work).

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At the end of my ‘gap year’, I had itchy feet. I was desperate to see more of my new country. So I did what a number of my peers did back then – I hitch hiked from Perth to Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney. Then back again. The start of my trip coincided with a visit from a few of my Canadian mates, so it was fun to at least begin the journey with them (I remember that they were obsessed with ‘Men at Work’, who I hated, but who later became especially huge in Canada). For much of my journey I had glandular fever and remember having an out of body experience while waiting for a ride in the blistering South Australian sun. A particular highlight of the trip was seeing the Clash at the old Capital Theatre in Sydney – not once but twice (we used our pass outs from the previous night to get back in). I fell in love with Sydney and had been accepted into a communications degree at Macquarie University. But it was immediately obvious that it would not be an easy city in which to survive as a student. So I returned to Perth and began communications at Murdoch University.

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Murdoch came onto my radar the previous year when my Hollywood High mate David started the course there. Like him, I was attracted to how one could do some traditional arts subjects (philosophy, literature, political theory) as well as some fun stuff (film, tv and theatre). Even though David decided to have his year off when I started, we were both in a very out there theatrical interpretation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. At one point in the piece, I was go-go dancing on stage to The Dead Kennedy’s version of “Viva Las Vegas” – in a loin cloth! While I enjoyed the thrill of the theatre, I became much more attracted to the audio visual side of things. David went the other way and headed to Adelaide to embark on a theatrical career that later included directing Circus Oz (he also ended up doing the film course at Swinbourne, has directed documentaries and written a couple of books – a classic overachiever!).

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I imagine that going to uni is a special time in most people’s lives and it was certainly the case for me. I loved the stimulation of learning about things I was genuinely interested in. And then, of course, there was the social side. I was fortunate enough to meet someone there who, though not  my brother, within minutes of meeting, felt like he was. In fact, Duncan and I looked vaguely similar and were on occasion mistaken for siblings. It was an honour. I was also friends with a wonderful young woman, Rae, who soon partnered up with Duncan. Even though they have lived across the country from me for over three decades now, I still believe we have a very special bond, forged in those heady days at Murdoch.

In 1982 I was at a party when I saw the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen: long dark hair, pale skin and amazing eyes. I, of course, did the natural thing and stayed well away as a conga line of young jackals vied for her attention. This beauty was obviously way out my league. I left the party and didn’t give her another thought. But there she was a few weeks later at a night club, accompanied by a friend of mine (possibly the most successful jackal from the party). When he went to go get drinks, we chatted. Feeling no pressure to impress, I was relaxed and natural and we had an animated conversation. And that was that. Until a few weeks later when yet another friend rocked up to my place wanting to borrow a coat hangar to break into the car of his new girlfriend, who had locked her keys inside. Lo and behold, it was her. Keys rescued and that, once again, was that. Until the next week when she came to my place herself and invited me out to a gig while my mate was away camping. This felt a little weird but I agreed. And we had a great time – talking well into the night. And so began my love affair with the extraordinary Julia.

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Although I had already experienced heartbreak, I hadn’t tasted true love before. And it was life altering. But it could have been tragically short lived. A few months after we’d been a couple, we were driving on a gravel road in the country when I lost control and rolled the car (her father’s car!). We were upside down in a ditch, unharmed but in shock. So much so that, once the car was pulled back up to the road by a farmer with a tractor, we calmly got inside, the caved in roof just millimetres above our heads, and drove the wreck for five hours back to Perth. Julia’s mother was understandably hysterical when we arrived. But to his credit, her father, a true English gentleman, calmly walked around his beloved car, surveying the damage. I am forever grateful to that man for not throttling me then and there.

Not long afterwards, Julia and I moved in together to a fantastic apartment across from Cottesloe beach. We developed friendships with two very different couples within the building (‘the hippies’ and ‘the hair dressers’) and, despite the occasional lovers’ tiff, lived a fairly blissful existence.

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After three semesters of Murdoch, I took a break and got a great gig at a teacher’s college – handing out audio visual gear to the young teachers in training. This also gave me access to all the gear and I took the opportunity to make a short video movie about a psycho killer (in a spooky casting co-incidence, the guy I got to play the killer ended up being man hunted across the state a few years later after a series of armed robberies).

Towards the end of 1983, I was flown from Perth to Sydney for an interview for the screenwriters’ stream of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. This was largely because of a short script I had written at Murdoch about, funnily enough, a car accident. The night before my flight coincided with the ‘Australia ll’s America’s Cup victory (and Bob Hawke ‘s proclamation that “any boss who fired someone for not coming into work was a mug”). The interview went okay, though I think my ignorance of certain Australian cultural references (like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series) probably let me down. But it was while walking along George street before my flight back that I made the decision that, whether I got in or not, Sydney would be my new home.

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In January of 1984, I turned 21. To celebrate, my parents bravely hired the local yacht club for a huge party. My mate Duncan’s new band, ‘Pride and Punishment’, had their debut gig. And ‘Chad’s Tree’, who I had done a cheap music clip for, were the main act. It was an amazing night. Surrounded by all my friends, I felt like I was the centre of the universe (perhaps not an unusual feeling for twenty one year olds). Within days of the party, Julia and I packed up what we could, heaved it into my old Holden station wagon, loaded it aboard an eastbound train and bade Perth farewell forever.

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