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My Australian Interlude
I have an old trunk in the garage, the sort people used to take on long sea voyages. In it I have a random collection of souvenirs from times long past and oft forgotten, symbolizing the previous versions of “me” that make up the current one. I almost never open this trunk and thus tend to forget what it is inside, so opening it can be either a delightful or unnerving surprise. The Telopea Park reunion—made possible through the heroic efforts of Brett Yeats and others—seems rather like opening that trunk. Just thinking of a reunion has suddenly brought all sorts of corroded, degraded, and nearly vanished memories to life.
I left Australia on August 2, 1965, and until Brett broached the idea of a reunion I had never seriously considered returning. I don’t know why this is, because at one point in my life I considered myself to be completely Australian. But the more time passed and the more my memories faded, the harder it became to fit my Australian years into the context of the rest of my life.
I arrived in Canberra in 1960, as a ten year old American boy who had already lived half his life in Oslo, Norway. My father worked in the American embassy. In those days Canberra had a population of around 58,000. It was like a small town, and it didn’t yet have television or Lake Burley Griffin. I was enrolled in Forrest Elementary School, in Mr. Mallyon’s fifth grade class. In sixth grade, Mrs. Wright was my teacher. Many Forrest schoolmates continued on with me to Telopea, and included good chums like Walshy (John Walsh), Chook (Ian Cook), Billy Andrews, John Pumpurs, Chris Slater, Inky (Ian Barnes), Swaney (Richard Swan), Peter Murphy, and John Bourchier (If I have rendered any names wrong, please forgive!) During my Forrest days, I hung out a lot with Swaney, in particular. We were involved in all sorts of boyish shenanigans, including swords and shields battles as part of a little gang called the “Vikings” and the only entrepreneurial effort of my life—a hare-brained scheme to sell beautifully hand-crafted mini sling-shots. The latter prank got us a reprimand for creating deadly weapons that might injure birds in the A.C.T. Or something like that.
When I first arrived in Australia, I had to learn how to adapt a bit, linguistically and otherwise. I wasn't used to wearing a school uniform or short pants in the winter, I wasn't used to saying "Sir" to my superiors, and I wasn't quite ready for the discipline that teachers doled out. Soon after entering Forrest, I was quickly dressed down by one teacher for turning around and saying “What?” when he said something behind me that I could not hear properly. From then on it was “I beg your pardon, sir…” I also remember being quite horrified when I saw Mr. Mallyon cane Henry Prichard, I think it was, in front of the class for some minor infraction. It created a life-long fear of authority in me. But I also have powerfully fond memories of minor details such as the ink wells and dip pens we used (along with blotter paper!). Muriel Storey had the most beautiful and exotic hand-writing I had ever seen because she had learned italic writing somewhere. Even my hand writing was wonderful then, but it is horrible now. I think I did better in Mrs. Wright’s sixth grade class than in the rest of my entire academic career. I was briefly president of the student advisory council or some such thing then, but I can't remember what I did other than awkwardly and occasionally declare an assembly meeting open. How I got to be in that position, I have no idea. At one of the school dances, I also remember winning a bag of Smith's potato crisps because I knew how to do the twist. I think I had seen someone do it on a newsreel (my family had no television at home then, so it couldn't have been on TV).
After Forrest, I went on to Telopea, which I attended until 1965. At Forrest I was quite tall for my age, but not so at Telopea. I started my adolescent growth spurt quite late in life, and one of my strongest memories is therefore that of getting smaller each year relative to everyone else. Soon after arriving at the school, someone (I think it was Neil Megee) also quickly did me a favor by beating me in a fight, thus further whittling me down to size and teaching me an important lesson (don’t fight).
At Telopea I was a good student, but I remember feeling as though I were getting dumber each year. In particular, I started doing worse in science and math. Not until many years later did I fully realize the reasons for this. In addition to my own inabilities, I now know it was also because my third form class, in particular, had an abnormal number of math and science prodigies.
I probably left Telopea just at the right time, because my academic trajectory was all wrong. During the composition test on in the 3rd form mid-year exam I remember being unable to finish a wild scifi-esque idea for a story. I was a bit off that day, and as I looked around and saw everyone else scribbling away furiously I felt doomed. I also felt slightly light-headed. I put up my hand for permission to go to the restroom, and when it was granted I started walking out of the room. Just as I crossed the transom, I completely blacked out. Amazingly, Mr. McPherson happened to be walking down the hall and he caught me before I hit the ground (at least that is how I remember it). I was led to his office, and offered the choice of going home to recuperate from whatever ailed me and taking an estimate, or going back to the nearly-over exam room to finish my essay. I took the former offer and felt truly saved. And I remember Mr. McPherson with great kindness.
I never excelled at anything in particular in Telopea but I had many good friends. In looking at the class photos from those days, I think I must have been a somewhat peculiar kid. In some of them I look rather tan, which is odd, since I consider myself rather pale now. I used to spend a lot of time outdoors, however, and perhaps that is why. I had an intense Dr. Doolittle-ish love affair with animals. In Canberra, I had a horse and a dog with which I spent a great deal of time, and at various points I had some white mice, a frill-necked lizard, and briefly even a weird bird of some sort. I am the only one I knew who rode horses then, and I was probably the only person in all of Canberra who for a while raised baby kangaroos (two of them, in fact). On the other hand, for an outdoorsy kid, I also had terrible hay-fever and asthma and a couple of bouts with pneumonia of some sort. On the more creative and sensitive side, I took folk guitar lessons from one of Moira Scullay’s older brothers (who were local musical stars), and I recall him telling my mother that because I couldn’t sing, maybe I could be an instrumentalist or an accompanyist. Later, I dabbled in classical music for a while.
When I think about it, all of us in Telopea were probably a bit odd then, since thirteen to fifteen is by nature a rather awkward period. My friends probably all thought of me as “The American,” but when I met Steve Bisset, he was more American than I was, and had lived in America much longer than I had. As I recall it, he was also nearly as tall and developed at thirteen as he is now. Swaney and Bisset and others also seemed to get brainier and brainier as they grew. I hung out with Michael Burns quite a bit, and he became fascinatingly more eccentric as well as brainy. I will never forget him reciting Buddhist sutras and fingering his rosary during religious class, while some hard-of-hearing Reverend-of-Something-or-Other  droned away in front of us. Later, Michael got into studying moiré patterns and (like me) classical guitar.
My brother David, who was three years older than I, was Telopea school captain in 1965. He was quite the sports and academic star, but at the time I never really appreciated how remarkable an achievement this was. He was then simply my bigger, older brother, and I’m sure he considered me simply a useless biological connection, for at the time we had little in common. Interestingly, until a few years ago he, too, had never returned to Australia or Canberra, and had almost completely put both out of his mind. A mini-reunion of Telopea friends brought his past back to life, and since then he has made many trips back and re-established many long-forgotten friendships.
One day in 1965, my father came home and announced that we were being transferred to Paris, France. I was even pre-enrolled in school there, as I recall. Then, not too long after that, my father came home and said that no, instead of France, we were actually going to Tokyo, Japan. I recall thinking that it must be a hot place, perhaps with a lot of jungles, probably because many war movies in those days showed American and Australia troops fighting the Japanese in jungles. Japan sounded like an interesting place, but I frankly had no desire to leave Canberra. In fact, at that point I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Much later in life, I learned from my parents that they had feared that I might run away, although at fifteen I wouldn’t have had a clue where to run.
By going to Japan, the trajectory of my life was permanently altered. It wasn’t an entirely easy transition. Unlike Canberra, Tokyo had little pollen to bother me, and lots of photochemical smog; ironically it seems to have cured me of the worst of my allergies. On the other hand, Tokyo had a population about the size of all of Australia. I was enrolled in an international high school, but unlike Telopea, which had always been in biking distance, I had to spend nearly three hours total commuting to and from school each day by bus, train, and streetcar. Moreover, because of the difference in school years, instead of being promoted ahead I was demoted back and thus started 3rd form all over again. This was particularly galling because I was already old for my school year, but to the school it probably made sense since I looked so young. By taking extra classes I was eventually able to jump “tenth grade” and graduate with my age group, but it meant the first year was tough. On the other hand, as I have realized belatedly, there may have been some advantages to this. Partly because of Telopea’s superior education, in my “ninth grade” class in my Tokyo school I got nearly perfect grades, thus probably helping me coast through the rest of high school, squeeze into college, and avoid going to Vietnam.
I lived in Japan off and on for seven or eight years, including the last years of high school and a couple years of college, post-college, and work. I also went to college in California for a while, and for a brief period knocked about as a pseudo hippie doing odd jobs, hitch-hiking, and writing bad poetry.
Since 1978, I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I have lost my Australian accent, but I can feel it trying to reassert itself when I talk with Australians. I am six foot three inches now, married to a tall, lovely Chinese woman who went to college in France. I have two cats and an honorary son. As the publishing industry implodes around me, I write books about Japanese popular culture, history, or technology, and eke out a living as a professional conference interpreter and translator. In 2009, I had my moment of glory, winning the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, for contributing to the “introduction and promotion of Japanese contemporary popular culture in the United States of America.” Oddly, I became more musical in my mid-twenties. I play music with friends in a multi-genre band for fun, performing occasionally, even singing. I don’t own a horse, and have never owned a car, only motorcycles. Once in a while I also enjoy difficult trips into the wilderness. Of old Telopea friends, I have only been able to stay in contact with Richard Swan, Steve Bisset, and Ian Barnes, all of whom also moved to the northern hemisphere.
In conjunction with the upcoming reunion, I opened the old trunk in my garage and found, in addition to some old photographs, a farewell card signed by fellow classmates and Telopea teachers. By today’s standards the card design seems a rather odd one to give to a fifteen year old, for it shows a cartoon of an alcoholic bum clutching a bottle of whiskey with the words, “Bon Voyage…You have an advantage over most travelers…At least you’re in no danger of getting sick on the local water.” In the same trunk, I also found a cache of old letters written by Telopea friends not long after I had left. A letter from Peter Murphy is filled with delightful Australian wit and humor. Ian Barnes, himself having moved to England with his family, signs his letter with a cryptic “We will not stand idly by,” a drawing of a pagoda, and some funky imitation and meaningless Japanese characters. Richard Swan signs off, “from your friend and mine, the great, famous, genuine genius.” Michael Burns, whose handwriting then resembled mine now, says, “My writing still hasn’t improved, so don’t worry if you can’t read this letter,” and ends with a mysterious symbol I can no longer decipher. Roger Brown, in neat penmanship, says, “Canberra hasn’t changed much since you departed from our midst, it is merely slowly swelling to breaking point as people pour in.” Ian (Dean?) also writes three sweet letters in fountain pen, impeccably composed, describing his life and asking about mine.
I am struck by how much communications have changed. The letters are mailed with airmail envelopes, or single folding-sheet aerogrammes of the sort one rarely sees anymore. And how beautifully young people of fifteen or sixteen could write in those days! But more than anything else, I am moved by the effort my then-young friends took to write them, and the idea that they kept me in mind long after I had left.
Frederik L. Schodt