After having spent thousands of dollars over the past five years on Sydney Swans memberships, flights and tickets to three grand finals, various merchandise, heaps of overpriced crap food and way too many mid strength shit beers, I decided that the time had come to wind back my footy fanaticism. So this season, my son and I have surrendered our memberships. Turns out it’s pretty good timing as the Swans have dived towards the bottom of the ladder. As disappointing as this is, we have both declared how glad we are that we haven’t had to pay to watch these series of annihilations. But then… in the past few weeks they’ve started returning to some of their once glorious form. So I sound out my son out about the possibility of getting tickets to the Friday night game against our greatest rivals – fellow birds, the Hawthorn Hawks. Five years earlier we had the privilege of seeing the Swans beat them in a grand final. Two years later we sat horrified as our Swans got well and truly plucked by a team on a roll as the Hawks won their second of what turned out to be three consecutive GFs. As disappointing as it’s been to see our Swans do so poorly this season, it’s been offset somewhat by the schandenfreude of watching the Hawks also take a tumble to the bottom of the ladder. So part of the motivation for forking out over a hundred bucks to watch a live footy game was the likelihood of seeing the Swans pluck the Hawks for a change. The fact that it’s the Friday night game of the Indigenous Round and the chance to see indigenous superstar (and former Hawk) Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin shine only adds to the occasion. And shine he does, going on to kick five goals and astound with his dominance. The atmosphere is great and there is a real buzz in the air. But as the game unfolds, I can’t help but become increasingly annoyed by a couple of loud foul mouthed American female voices behind us. I do my best to exercise restraint. But finally I crack. I turn around towards the loudest offender and see a bespectacled woman with short cropped hair. I immediately make an assumption about her sexual orientation. “Excuse me…” She stares straight ahead. “Excuse me…” I try to get her attention by waving my hand in front of her face. She finally glares at me. “Would you mind winding the language back a bit?” She gives me a death stare. “It’s a fucking football game!” “Yes, but I’m here with my thirteen year old son.” I turn around. She is incensed and complains about me to her companion. “He thinks his fucking kid doesn’t swear…” I want to turn around and reply, “He does sometimes but gets in trouble for it – especially if he does it in public.” But I don’t. I exercise restraint. A little later Buddy scores a goal right in front of us and the crowd goes nuts. Behind me I hear “Everybody say Fuck Yeah!” I want to turn around and tell her that she is only re-enforcing the cliché of the loud and obnoxious American. But I don’t. Again, I exercise restraint. Surprisingly, a little later, so does she when she substitutes ‘frigging’ for ‘fucking’. In case I hadn’t noticed, she says, “You’re welcome for the ‘frigging’”. I’m tempted to say something. But I don’t. Restraint. In the last quarter of the game, I see her return to her row with a tray of beer. Although I just catch a glimpse, I’m confused as she now seems to have shoulder length hair. Perhaps it was tied back before and for whatever reason she’s untied it. I don’t give it anymore thought as the game is now well and truly neck and neck. Far from being the walk over we had hoped for, the Hawks have led for most of the game. But in the dying minutes the Swans surge and get ahead. The crowd goes wild – especially the drunken loudmouths. But soon it’s a tied game. The atmosphere is tense. And with less than a couple of minutes left, the Hawks’ captain, the unfortunately named Jarryd Roughhead, kicks a goal. That proves to be enough. The siren sounds. I want to scream “Fuck!” But I don’t. I exercise restraint. We quickly shuffle out of our row and away from the Americans before there can be any further unpleasant changes. Once we are safely outside the stadium, I mention how annoying the woman behind us was. My son replies, “I know. I almost turned around and told her that she looked like Skrillex’s lesbian sister!” I’m quite thrown by this. Although I know he’s referring to the dubstep artist/producer whose ‘music’ my son enjoys torturing me with, I’m unsure why this woman would look like his sister. “You know, ‘cause just like Skrillex she had one side shaved and the other really long.” Ah – that would explain my earlier confusion. I smile, thinking that my son has actually made quite a funny comparison. But I’m also relieved he didn’t actually say it to her. He exercised restraint. Thank fuck for that.
It’s the Groupon deal too good to resist – a helicopter lesson for under $300! I’ve had a fascination with choppers for years but have yet to ride in one. So this is perfect – not only do I get my first ever ride – but I actually get to fly the whirlybird! I decide that it will be the perfect birthday pressie to myself and book my lesson to lift off on my fifty-third birthday. But the weather has other ideas and it’s postponed thanks to tempestuous conditions. Fine by me. Am so not interested in attempting to fly in crap weather. So three days later I drive out to Bankstown airport where I’m greeted by a slightly jaded instructor – a man around my age who most likely would rather be doing a good many other things than putting his life in the hands of yet another heli-newbie. We begin with a half hour class room lesson where I’m introduced to a variety of foreign terms and instruments: the collective, the cyclic and yaw. I do a lot of nodding, this being my first lesson since a term of Italian classes nearly twenty years earlier. It’s all strange yet exciting. Finally, the time comes for us to walk out to the chopper. There are a few there, a couple that look quite impressive. But we walk past those until we are standing next to their dwarf cousin – like someone has plopped a propeller on top of my Barina hatchback. Will both of us even fit in there? We manage to do so and proceed to go through the take off protocols I had been introduced to minutes earlier and have already forgotten. The pilot then revs up the engine, pulls on either the collective or cyclic or both and we have lift off. Adrenaline pumps through my veins – I’m finally flying in a chopper! We gain altitude, the rooftops of Bankstown below us. He does a few maneuvers, talking me through each via our headsets. And then – crunch time. The pilot will hand over one of the controls to me – I’m to keep us flying at the same altitude – he’ll do the rest. Alright then… here we go. Immediately we dive down towards someone’s backyard. “Pull it up, pull it up.” I do so. “Not that much!” He takes over before I complete a backward somersault which would soon have us in a death spiral. The instructor tells me not to worry about it but it’s hard to hear him over the pounding of my heart. He then lets me try another control – I just need to keep it straight. And soon we veer off to the left and then to the right and back to the left again. “Check your instruments.” I check the instruments. “But look where you’re going.” Say what? How can I do both? After a couple more brief attempts at flying solo, the pilot finally tells me to relax and he takes over completely. I sigh with relief. But he’s not quite finished with me. He takes the chopper down to the airport but instead of landing, flies about a metre above a yellow line that seems to go on forever. He then tells me that I’m to take over the pedals, using them to keep us straight. Of course I soon have us zigzagging across the line like a drunken dragonfly. The pilot take over yet again and we are as straight as Hugh Hefner. He then casually spins us around and we continue to fly directly over the line – but backwards! I am impressed and terrified in equal measure. This thing has no rear view mirrors. How soon before we slam into a parked plane or the side of a hangar? But of course Captain Competent turns us around just in time and gently lands us on the spot from which we took off. We head back to the class room, my feet so thankful to be in contact with the planet once more. In order for me to finish my first lesson, I must answer a questionnaire. But I have completely lost the ability to recall a single thing he taught me less than an hour earlier. He finally manages to not so subtly gesture to the whiteboard behind him. All the answers are there. So I’m able to answer his questions and pass my test. He tells me my memory lapse is not unusual, that most people are so full of adrenaline that they are unable to recall anything. He even claims that one person couldn’t even remember their last name – but this sounds a little ludicrous. Anyway, he congratulates me for surviving and quite possibly silently thanking me for not killing him. I get back into my propeller free Barina, amazed at how easy it is to drive. As I hit the western suburban traffic, I become aware that I am buzzing. I feel amazing. I construct a Facebook post in my head, anxious to tell the world of my achievement: “Imagine having your first ever driving lesson – except that you’ve never been in a car before and have no idea how it works. Then, instead of driving on the road, you are 300 metres above it. So if you mess up – you die. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s like having your first helicopter lesson.”
I walk into the pool changing room. It is about ten in the morning on a weekday and shouldn’t be crowded. It’s not. The only other person in there is a man in his late fifties, early sixties. He has a towel wrapped around his waist. He’s in front of an open locker. Suddenly, there’s an eerie sci-fi type sound – a bit like the theme from the X Files. The man reaches into his locker and pulls out a phone as I walk past him on my way to a toilet cubicle. Behind me I can hear him gruffly snarl, “What is it now?” I enter the cubicle and sit down. “Yes, yes I will. I’ve got to go – I’m very busy working.” Say what now? Oh – that’s such a lie! Unless his job somehow involves walking around change rooms in a state of undress. That seems to be the end of the conversation. No “Bye” or “See you later” or “I’ll call you soon.” Sitting there in silence, I start to wonder about this man and to whom he was talking. My natural assumption is that his snappiness was directed towards his wife. It was unlikely to be anybody from his work as they’d probably have a good idea that he wasn’t really busy working. No – my money is on his wife. It’s unlikely that he would be so rude and abrupt to anyone else (though it is possible that he’s a total asshole and talks to everyone like this – but I doubt it.) My logic is, ashamedly, based on my own experience. The one person that I’m the rudest and most abrupt with is my own wife. I try not to be but am not always successful. Still, I’d like to think that I’m not as bad as this guy. When I’m done with the cubicle, I come back out. I’m a bit surprised to see that the man is not now dressed in a business suit but is in full leathers, a motor bike helmet on the bench. I wonder where he’s riding to and what further lies he’ll unleash throughout his day.
I thought I was being clever. In a rare Facebook foray, I posted a picture of my son after his first game as an Aussie Rules footy umpire with the caption: “Today Luke crossed over to the dark side…. in a flouro shirt… for twenty dollars….”. I believed this worked on a few levels – the Star Wars reference, umpiring as being the dark side of footy, the mercenary aspect etc. But now, after watching him umpire a further two games in a row, it is my perspective that has ‘crossed over’. Firstly, it’s simply amusing seeing him out there towering over the players – a flouro giant amongst pip squeaks. It also reminds me of how far he’s come, recalling the days when he was one of the pip squeaks chasing a ball inclined to bounce every which way. Now though, he’s the one keeping the game on track and I can see how empowering that is for him. Here he is, a thirteen-year old kid, getting to call the shots (literally). If there are adults around who don’t like his calls – tough titties. And of course, being the nature of umpiring, there will always be people, on and off the field, who won’t like his calls and will make their opinions known. Before he started, I explained to him the concept of ‘a thick skin’ – telling him that he would now need to develop one. What I hadn’t taken into account was that I too will need to thicken my own skin or risk a sideline showdown with some aggrieved parent. Should this ever happen – I have already devised my strategy. I will approach the peeved parent and ask which kid is theirs. I’ll then inform them that every time their kid makes a mistake, I will yell abuse at them – unless they stop yelling abuse at mine. Hopefully this scenario will never take place. But I’m prepared nonetheless. Future sideline confrontations aside, I am so proud of Luke. I can see that he’s growing in confidence and actually seems to have some talent for officiating. Not only will this provide a nice little income stream for him (for five months of the year, at least), he can now legitimately write a CV for any future employment he might seek. And I’m just guessing here but I imagine that, as unpopular as umpires and referees can be, employers would respect any teenager who can implement and oversee a set of rules. Future management material perhaps. So, even though I’ve calculated that all the traveling and other expenses I’m forking out for him to umpire are actually greater than the amount he’s being paid, I will continue to do so. Because the pay off is that I get to watch my son cross over from childhood to employeehood – and beyond…