IT all began for us in Charleville in the early 60s, three brothers growing up in a typical southwest Queensland country town with me living next door. In those days, many young men — to seek employment or just to get out of the place — joined the armed services. I joined the air force, the oldest brother next door enlisted in the army shortly after and the other two brothers followed me into the RAAF.
Fast forward to Darwin. After more than 120 years of service between us including three tours of Vietnam, four of Malaysia, one of the Middle East, one of East Timor, and one of PNG, the youngest brother, the last to leave, is discharging from the RAAF. The elder brother, another ex-service mate and I have flown to Darwin to accompany him on this last sentimental journey from Darwin to Brisbane and out of the air force.
We drive by day and by night solve the problems of the world over a carton of beer. We sleep under the stars; travel through the lands of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson and legendary outback towns such as Daly Waters, Camooweal, Longreach and Winton.
As we drive through the heartland of the continent we’d served so long, we talk of airfields and steaming jungles, people we knew, a few no longer with us and others on pensions for life. As always a price was paid and many never grew old enough to reminisce like this. We speak of the euphoria and the desperation; the good times getting better with each bar room retelling, never quite telling the whole truth about the bad.
On the sixth day out, as we approach Charleville, we are all suddenly quiet, thinking of our own histories in the town. We think of first loves, good days at school, bad days at school, football games won and lost, fights we had and got out of and parents and siblings long passed away. In three days there we visit old neighbours and parents of longleft school friends by day, and we visit the cemetery. Even at that tender age we had left a few behind. By night we hit the three remaining pubs to see if there is anybody else we know still alive.
Day eight out of Darwin and at 2359 hours — just before midnight — youngest brother is officially discharged from the RAAF. It is no coincidence we chose to be in Charleville on this day, back where it all began. The next morning we awaken, hung over, with the usual hackneyed jokes: ‘‘You’ve finally reached the highest rank in the air force. It’s Mister.’’ Now it’s only a short 800km leg home to families and it’s finally over, or is it?
As we drive I think of those who have gone before us and my daughter, who served a tour in East Timor, a nephew who served in Afghanistan and is still in the army, and another nephew who is thinking of joining the RAAF and I realise: it will never be over.