The profession I had pursued for the past nine years had taken me to all continents and many countries. I had loved every minute of it and could not imagine myself doing any other job. I could move from one company to another at will as there was a high demand for radio officers at that time as it was compulsory for ships over 1600 tons to carry an R/O. However when I arrived in Melbourne in the winter of 1973, I didn’t imagine that I would never set foot on another ship.
Fay and I had a short relationship. She had two small girls aged about 3 and 4 years old from a previous relationship ironically with another English man. I found that Fay’s attitude had changed after I arrived. She was irritable, picky, critical and prone to temper tantrums.
Not only that but money had run out and I had rung my bank in the UK to transfer more money. This money didn’t last very long but then a telegram arrived from Frigomaris in Hamburg which read: “Mr Hevitsohn please join your ship in Bremerhaven”. I immediately rang the Frigomaris office reverse charge and asked them to pay for my airfare back to Germany, however they refused. I couldn’t afford the airfare so I resigned. So now I was stuck in a faraway land without a job, and no money.
I had applied for a coastal radio operators position with the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) working on the coast stations, but was told they would inform me whenever a vacancy became available.
So the need for money became desperate to pay the rent, food etc, so I got a casual job working at the General Motors Holden factory at Fishermen’s Bend. It was on the sub assembly line making harmonic balancers and assembling oil pumps etc.
There were many different nationalities working there. Our foreman was German and as I had picked up a smattering of Deutsch when working for Frigomaris, we spoke a little German to each other. There were Greeks and Italians who had been there for thirty years but could not speak English. They had to get their son or brother to translate.
At first I nearly died because standing up all day long on a concrete floor was killing my back. Being used to sitting down all day it took quite a lot of getting used to.
I would take the 5.30am train from Camberwell station into Flinders Street, then a bus to Fishermen’s Bend. The factory was huge and I guess there would have been 3,000 people working there. You could buy the latest cars at a discount staff price. The one’s we were working on were the Torana GTR-XU1 with a 3ltr six cylinder engine. It could go like a rocket and was used as a racing car.
It was still winter time and I had imagined Australia being hot all year round as that was how it was each time the ship came in, but Melbourne was freezing. We had no heating in our rented house, so cuddling was the only way to stay warm. However even that was turning frosty.
Eventually the relationship with Fay turned toxic as she was still in contact with her ex, so I left. Luckily it was not long before OTC replied to my application for a position and I was sent to Melbourne Radio station (VIM) at Cape Schank for an interview.
After the interview and Morse Code test, I was accepted and asked to go to the OTC training school in Sydney. It gave me enough time to hand in my notice at Holden’s and find a place to stay in Sydney. My digs were right in the CBD at the bottom of Oxford Street, not far from Kings Cross.
It was a short walk across the city to the training centre in Sussex Street. There were four of us all ex radio officers but we were told to prepare for an onslaught as they had a class of trainees who would be qualified very shortly.
Our group of four consisted of Aubrey Barnham who was an Indian immigrant and ex airforce communicator. Erik Berthelsen, Danish ex merchant navy radio officer. James Gilbert, English also ex merchant navy radio officer. And myself.
Our training consisted of learning to touch type so we would go round the corner to the typing pool together with all the girls from the secretarial school. It was fun and I was soon typing at about 60wpm. Then we would come back to the OTC school and learn telex procedures, regulations, reading the five-unit perforated tapes from the telex machine etc.
Aubrey was a very serious and dedicated student. He had migrated to Australia with his wife and two children and this was his first job. Erik was also an immigrant and married to an Australian girl who was pregnant. James was in his fifties and married to a German lady named Helga. He was a rotund, rather laid back, casual chap who smoked a pipe.
We all got on very well and progressed through the training which I found very interesting and fun. I was also very happy to be out of the cold of Melbourne as spring was here and Sydney was so much warmer. Now I was on a salary, I could afford to buy my first Aussie car, which was actually British. An Austin Maxi 1800.
The place I was living in was pretty sparse. One room upstairs in a pub at the lower end of Oxford Street. Downstairs in the bar, the journalists and radio presenters would gather and get blind drunk. Then they would sing out of tune bawdy ballads until the wee hours.
One day I was on my way upstairs when I bumped into a large New Zealand Maori girl. I mean literally bumped as we couldn’t fit round the tight space at the top of the stairs. We ended up laughing and giggling and she had the most infectious laugh I have ever heard.
A couple of days later we met again and she had a group of her friends with her. She said they were all looking at moving to Bondi and would I like to come and have a look at the flat. So we ended up all squeezing into my maxi and heading out to Bondi. The flat was only five minutes from the beach and had two bedrooms.
As there were five of us I wondered how we would organise the sleeping arrangements. So before I knew it I was moving into this flat and sort of ended up sleeping with Tuhi the Maori girl. There was another NZ couple in the other bedroom and a second NZ couple camped in the lounge room.
We had so much fun going to the beach together, the pub and partying on the weekend. Of course Bondi was like the second capital of New Zealand and the pub was commandeered by Kiwis at the weekend. We went on trips into the Blue Mountains, Maroubra Beach and visited all the other North Shore beaches. I drove them everywhere in my maxi.
By this time our group of four had graduated from the OTC training centre and had moved to La Perouse where the main receiving station for Sydney Radio (VIS) was located. It was overlooking Botany Bay where you could watch ships entering and leaving the harbour. Opposite was the Kurnell oil refinery.
I was really enjoying working at VIS which was only about 25 minutes drive from Bondi. I soon got the hang of things as it was really not much different from a ships radio officer except you were the control station. Sending and receiving traffic from all the ships in the Pacific area was a real blast.
One day I was sitting at a telex machine punching up traffic down the line when Ken Stone the manager tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “How would you like to go to Townsville?” I thought about it for a few seconds then said, “Well yes, I suppose so.” I was having so much fun at La Perouse, though that part of my was saying, no stay.