National Service started screwing up my life even before I was called up, on 7 July 1971.

I was living a very happy life in Deniliquin, NSW. I turned 20 in February that year, and had been working for the CSIRO, Riverina Laboratory as a Technical Assistant for three years. I was studying for a Bachelor of Science by correspondence at Macquarie University, Sydney, as this was the path to promotion to higher levels within the organisation. I thought it was my career for life. I had a girlfriend, a great social and sporting life, and a half share in a leased racehorse.

I advised my employer, CSIRO, the day after I received the call up letter. I knew that, by law, they had to keep my job open for me. As it was a government job, I didn’t have the slightest concern about life after my service. In June, a month or so before I was to enter service, I came home to find a letter from CSIRO head office, in Canberra. It advised me that on discharge from the army, my position would be in Canberra, not Deniliquin. The bastards didn’t want to have to keep my position open for two years. I was shattered. It was the biggest kick in the guts of my life. To make matters worse, my boss of three years, with whom I had worked closely, was too weak to tell me himself.

I handled the army basic and corps training without much trouble. I didn’t like being screamed at and abused by snot nosed 18-year-old drill instructors, but the army obviously believed that was how you trained men. After a while it was like water off a duck’s back. I did enjoy getting super fit and, funnily enough, drill. The sound of 50 feet slamming down on a gravel parade ground, in perfect unison, was thrilling. Weird, eh?

Life after training was quite boring. I was in a small unit, with a fair boss and good blokes to serve with. Nonetheless, I was very homesick for Deniliquin. On Friday nights, if I wasn’t on duty, I used to make the ten-hour trip, in my 1956 Vauxhall, accompanied by a six pack. I would tumble into bed with my girlfriend around 3am on a Saturday morning. After playing golf or going to the races with my mates I would then have to head off back again on the Sunday afternoon. My girlfriend got sick of it after a while and that finished. Our bloody horse finally had a win, but I wasn’t there to see it. Life was going on without me. Looking back, it was then I had my first serious bout of depression. I stopped going to Deni and spent the weekends drinking with my service mates.

Drinking and tobacco were the ingrained culture of the army. We used to get free smokes in the canteen from the Phillip Morris girls. Beer was very cheap. I served alongside Vietnam Veterans, all of whom smoked and drank heavily. I quickly became addicted to both. We drank every day, usually at lunch time and always at night. Wednesday afternoons were supposed to be for sporting activities but were more time spent in the pub.

Gough Whitlam was voted in on Saturday 4 December 1972. On the Friday evening before, two Military Police came to seem me. They were aware that most Nashos were going to shoot through as soon as Gough got in. “Piss off, but don’t take anything, or we’ll come after you” they told me. “Your lot f….ed up a good army and we can’t wait to see the back of you”.  I had three days to go before I went on my one-month terminal leave, so I decided to stick it out. I was told this would qualify me for an army service housing loan. This amounted to nothing. Too many hurdles. I went to South Head Barracks and had my final medical and dental check-ups. Cursory, I think is the word for them. An orderly walked up behind me and said, “Piss in the bottle”. As I turned to take it, he said “That’s your hearing test as well”. In 1973 I spent $800 on dental work. Enough said.

Going back to civilian life was the worst part of my national service. Nobody wanted to know about Nasho time. Start talking about it and the room would clear. Complain about it and be told, “Get over it”. “Yeah, but you didn’t go to Vietnam”, or “Stop complaining, you just had two years holiday”. The world had moved on without us. Old friends and family were hard to connect with.

After a month’s terminal leave, I went to Canberra, where I knew no-one, to resume my career. I found board and went to CSIRO. They were surprised to see me. My pay scale was advanced by the minimum allowable and lower than those any of the technicians I had worked with prior to my national service. Unlike my position in Deniliquin, working with a research scientist, I was given a menial job which was largely washing laboratory glassware.

My records show I returned to CSIRO Canberra on 5 February 1973 and resigned 14 March 1973 – absolutely crushed. My dream of becoming a scientist was out the window. I didn’t see the point in continuing with my science degree and chucked it in as well.

I got a job as waiter at Top Hat Catering, in Fyshwick, just over the NSW border. It was owned by an archetypal loud-mouthed yank, the self-titled “Big Bad” Bob Cunningham. He also owned a tool hire company, The Tool Shed. One good thing about Bob was that turned on an open bar after work. Unfortunately, his overbearing nature, especially when he had a few drinks in him, was hard to take. One by one all his senior staff had serious arguments with him and quit. Somehow, I was last man standing and became manager of the Tool Shed. For a while I thought I might make a go of it, but one night, with a few whiskies in me, I had a gut full of Bob’s bullying and quit as well. I had become very short tempered and inclined to look for fights, rather than back away from them.

After that I had what I now see as a nervous breakdown. I lay on my bed for a week, drinking and suffering panic attacks. That was my lowest point. After that I obtained a hawker and auctioneers license and bought and sold second hand furniture, just making do, and drinking heavily.

One cold morning in April 1974, I loaded up my old VW with all my possessions and headed north. No plans. I just wanted to get warm and never see that shithole, Canberra again. I never have. I worked my way up the coast, arriving in Darwin in August 1974. I worked as a builder’s labourer for John Holland Construction. I had a wild Christmas with Cyclone Tracy.

On 30 April 1975, I boarded the first post Tracy DC-3 flight to Bacau, East Timor. I spent the next fourteen months back packing through Southeast Asia and Canada, coming home in August 1976. I settled in Melbourne, staying with my oldest brother and his wife. I started a handyman business.

Luckily, I overcame smoking at the age of 33, but was a functional alcoholic until my 70th birthday, a year ago. COVID didn’t help. In the end I was downing four bottles of wine a day. No-one knew, not even my wife. I have had some terrible bouts of depression over the years but somehow got through them. I never considered anti-depressants. My only medication was to have another bottle of wine.

I have been lucky to have an amazing wife, Suzy, and three beautiful kids, who have put up with me. I am now the proud grandfather of five. Also, I have been blessed with special friends and the wonderful Dr Archie, of North Mitcham Clinic, who helped me get off the grog. Anti-depressants got me through my first sober year, although I have weaned off them now.

I still have a terrible reaction to loud noises after a grenade went off very near to me during training. Balloons are not for me. I also have trouble controlling my temper if yelled at or startled by a horn blast. I have been back to Deniliquin twice. I doubt anyone would even remember me there now.

Ex-Cpl Geoff Parkes, ATLO, RAE, 1971-72

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