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An antarctic blast brought in some wintry weather yesterday.  It seemed singularly appropriate as a meteorological comment on Anzac Day, when Australians all over the world commemorate the brave Australian “diggers” who fought and died in other peoples’ wars over the years.  I wrote about Anzac Day two years ago and I’m happy to say that what I said then still reads well. You can check it out by doing a search for Anzac Day.

Anzac is an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.  April 25 was the day the troops landed in Gallipoli (in Turkey) in Churchill’s ill-considered plan to take Istanbul and break through to the Black Sea.  The Aussies and Kiwis met a hail of machine gun bullets from the Turkish army dug into the hills overlooking the beaches.  The landing quickly deteriorated into trench warfare, ending  in a stalemate that lasted eight months.  Over ten thousand soldiers from the southern hemisphere were killed during the campaign.

It seems a strange choice as the national day commemorating Australian soldiers, but I suppose the first day of a disaster is as good as any.  There seems to be a tendency among Australians to idealize warfare, to see it as some form of extreme sport for which they are very well equipped.  Like Americans, they appear to believe that they must measure up, to prove their bravery in battle.

In Melbourne, forty thousand people gathered for a dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance.  Other Australians commemorated the day in Gallipoli and at the Australian War Memorial on the hill above Villers-Bretonneux in France.  46,000 Aussies died on the Western Front.  For a country with such a small population, the decimation caused by the First World War reverberated through every single community.

Every evening at dinner I pick up a silver napkin ring that once belonged to my wife’s grandfather.  It is inscribed “My Dear Boy 1914.”  He was seventeen when he went off to war.  His mother told him before his departure to the Western Front that she would rather he came back in a pine box than dishonored or disfigured.  When he got a leg full of shrapnel, the young man refused amputation, knowing that it could cost him his life.  Fortunately, he survived the bullets and bombs and managed to keep the leg.

In a recent interview, Amos Oz, the Israeli writer and peace activist, suggested that his politics have been shaped by his imagination, a novelist’s primary tool.  It has allowed him into the heads of Palestinians, many of whom are living in conditions not dissimilar to those Oz knew as a young man before the United Nations voted to establish Israel. Oz grew up with the sensibility of a Zionist terrorist; his first words in English were “British, go home.”  But now his point-of-view has shifted completely and he is considered a traitor by mainstream Israelis for suggesting that real peace can only come with the creation of a Palestinian state.

Maybe that is what war comes down to, in the end:  a willingness to be blind, a failure to look at the shades beyond black and white, between us and them, between good and evil.  A failure of imagination.  Let us honour brave soldiers and honor the fallen, but imagine the world John Lennon sang about, a place where peace grows and spreads like poppies on the fields of Flanders.

I did a lot of foolish things in my thirties.  I thought about some of them while I was under the knife.  One or more may have helped trigger the cloud in my left eye that the doctor was attempting to remove.  The whole procedure wouldn’t take much more than ten or twenty minutes.  It was the preliminaries which took forever.  Antibiotic drops, drops to dilate, drops to numb.  At some point the assistant anesthesiologist slipped in an IV to help reduce my anxiety level and I ceased to be concerned about anything at all.

When I lost my glasses over a year ago, I was dismayed to discover that my eyesight had deteriorated considerably.  I had cataracts.  I could have had an operation then, but I’m very reluctant to have surgery of any kind, especially on eyes, so I procrastinated.

I ordered new glasses based on the stronger prescription and started to do my research.  I asked around among our limited set of acquaintances here and finally came up with the name of a doctor who had operated on both eyes of a fellow cyclist.  She was very pleased with the result.  Dr Burgess has been at this awhile.  He has done thousands of cataract operations.

The last postponement was for the trip to Italy, but when I returned there did not seem much point in putting it off. Despite my trepidation, the surgery went well.  I did not need anything more than a topical anesthetic.  I had actually watched my wife’s cataract surgery on a large screen video monitor, so it was not difficult to imagine what was happening.  But I can’t really say I was aware of very much during the operation.  The mind goes elsewhere.

In post op I was offered a sandwich and coffee.  They had sent a car at 6:45 AM to pick me up and bring me to the clinic and it nearly 10 AM when I came out.  I was going into caffeine withdrawal.  I inhaled the coffee and watched other patients wheeled out.  Some had eye patches, which meant they had required (or requested) more than a topical anesthetic.

One of the foolish things I did in my thirties was to accidentally blast my eye with compressed air.  Another was to drive around for days on the freeways of Los Angeles scouting locations for TV shows most people have never heard of.  It exposed the left side of my face (the driver’s side) to a heavy dose of California sunshine, to ultraviolet light.  Even with decent sunglasses, that much exposure to strong sun is hard on eyes.

One of the directors I met was an eccentric old-timer by the name of Andre de Toth.  He had an eye patch.  His claim to fame was one of the most successful 3 D films ever made, “House of Wax,” with Vincent Price.  Not bad for a guy with no depth perception.

By the time he came to work for “This is the Life.” a Lutheran television series I worked on, his glory days were over.  I was utterly charmed by his larger-than-life charm and his great stories.  What I hadn’t counted on was his lack of tact.

For some reason I no longer remember, Andre blew a hole in the minuscule budget of the show by replacing the lead actor two days before production.   Before the filming began for every episode, the producer (an ordained Lutheran minister) said a prayer.

He had barely begun when Andre broke in in his booming voice and said:   “Thank God you backed me up when I fired that sonofabitch.”  There was stunned silence for a long moment as our small group digested that comment.  Then, a tentative chorus of “Amen.”  Andre was never asked back to direct another episode, but he had done  a slew of movies and TV shows over the years.  He finally took his comments and complaints to his Maker at the age of ninety in 2002.

The operation on my left eye was successful and my eyesight is back to 20/20.  The color blue has returned to my left side.  I hadn’t even realized that until I went to see the physician for a follow up visit.  He brought up Monet, pointing out that the paintings in his later years got more and more yellow because of his cataracts.  Finally he got up the nerve to have an operation.  Overnight, the blues and purples came back into his work. One more operation to go but that can wait.


The great news is we have a brand new granddaughter, Zooey Marie, born April 18th.  6 pounds, 12 ounces.  I have no doubt she will be the most photographed child in Portland, Oregon.  But she’s beautiful so it will be a treat to see her smiling face up on Flickr in thousands of permutations.   Bonne Anniversaire, Zooey!

The prospect of two days on the Southern Rail Trail sounded good.  I had ridden part of it in 2007 on the Great Victorian Bike Ride. I remembered a smooth packed dirt surface and trees lining much of the path.  An occasional break in the shrubbery offered views of pastures covered with sheep or a glimpse of rugged Wilson’s Promontory, the popular national park at the southern tip of Gippsland.

Our home base would be a motel in the small town of Meeniyan.  The main question mark for the Easter weekend was the weather.  Easter arrives  in the fall here in the southern hemisphere, and the weather is highly changeable.  It can go from summer to winter overnight.  There were showers predicted, so we packed rain jackets and fleeces.

The morning of our first day’s ride, my wife stepped outside and failed to see the edge between two concrete pads functioning as steps into our room.  She tried to cushion the fall with her arm.   Aside from some bruises and cuts, she did not seem to suffer from any lasting pain.  After breakfast we got the tandem out and started riding the path with the rest of our group.

The weather gods cooperated, and our 65 km (40 mile) ride to the town of Foster and back was tiring but uneventful.   We enjoyed the chance to catch up a bit with some riding friends we hadn’t seen in a long time.  The town of Foster was lively. There was a huge outdoor market going on in the sporting grounds where I had camped during the Great Vic ride.  Our odd recumbent bikes barely drew a second look.   We had a nice, leisurely lunch in the park, and returned to Meeniyan.  The climb toward Hoddle Summit seemed longer on the way back than it had earlier, the gates at each road crossing more numerous.  I was weary by the time we wheeled into the parking lot of the motel.

Dinner at the pub next to the motel offered such specialties as Outback Parmigiana (with cheese, bacon and gravy) and spatchcock (fried and flattened young chicken).  The food came quickly and filled us up.  We had nearly finished when I looked up and saw that the color had gone from my wife’s face.  She was getting sharp pains in the wrist of her left arm.  She had broken that same wrist two years earlier.  We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the knife and fork that triggered the pain.   By the time we got back to the room she was in shock.

In a Christian country like this one, Easter Sunday evening is not the very best time to head out in search of medical care.  We had ridden our bikes past a clinic in Foster, but Lorraine, our innkeeper, suggested the hospital in Leongatha.  I drove as fast as I could, but it was dark and there was fog hiding in the dips of the hilly road.

The hospital was right where Lorraine had said it was, but despite a scattering of parked cars, it looked dead to the world. There seemed to be no lighted area inside, and there was no sign of an emergency entrance.  I circled the parking lot, then parked and went on foot down a road designated ambulances only.  It threaded through a complex of buildings, none of which showed any sign of life.  I rang a buzzer at one building.  Nothing. I returned to the lot, got in the car and drove out in search of a petrol (gas) station.

The lady behind the counter was wary.  We had strange accents, after all, and we were asking for information that was not in her line of work at all.  I may have appeared a little anxious.  My wife was in pain and I did not relish the prospect of driving two hours back to Melbourne to find a hospital, then returning for our stuff.  Assured that the local hospital was open, we drove back.  Same action, same result.  Why did I expect it to be different?  There was no sign of anyone anywhere.  It was frustrating and I was losing my patience.

In the end, I asked our less-than-helpful gas station lady to call an ambulance.  It was the only way I could see to get the medical castle to let down the drawbridge.  We were less than five minutes from the hospital, so it showed up in no time.  The paramedics were very friendly.  They gave my wife a mild anti-anxiety drug in an asthma breathing device and popped her in a wheelchair.  I followed the ambulance back to the hospital.

We went to the main entrance.  There was still no sign of an emergency entry, but there was a button I hadn’t spotted earlier and a special keypad for the ambulance guys.   They wheeled her in and I followed.  A nurse came in right away and asked her questions.  One of the paramedics kept us company while we waited for the doctor.  He had participated in the creation of the bike path so he was keen to hear the good things we had to say about it.

The doctor came at last.  She was an older woman, friendly and nice.  She would wrap it up and put it in a sling but the X ray technician was not on call and would probably not be in the next day.  She could hand out pain killers.  That was the key thing.  My wife slept better than she had in years.

Next morning we packed up and drove back to Melbourne.  We hit the Royal Melbourne emergency ward in the early afternoon.  They had a busy waiting room.  On holiday weekends everyone drinks too much and gets careless.  The X ray guy was available, but there was a two hour wait for the doctor, a very young woman who seemed like she could still be in medical school.  There was no discernible fracture on the X ray, but she slapped a cast on anyway.

Scaphoid bones in the wrist are very small and sometimes breaks don’t show up for a week or more.  We’re still waiting to confirm the fracture, but our family doctor has no doubt it is broken.  In the meantime, I’m keeping the codeine just in case.  It is going in my medical kit.  I may need it for the next adventure, or I might need it for walking out the front door. You just never can tell.

I had a glance at the post I wrote last year about my first visit to Canberra.  It starts by revealing the basic elements of my one good joke, then fails to offer up the punch line.  The joke is dated now, but it still appealing to anyone who loves the  peculiar way Bush had with the English language.

Bush scheduled a power breakfast with Karl Rove, his confidant and advisor. When the White House aide came in to take his order, George couldn’t make up his mind.  Finally, he told her he wanted a ‘quickie.’  The pretty young woman turned scarlet and told the President that she might have expected to hear that sort of talk from Clinton, but not Mr. Bush. Rove leaned over and said:  That egg dish you want, George.  It’s pronounced keesh

It was a conference that took us back to this country’s capital.  While my wife was doing her duty with her colleagues, I played tourist and did a good job of it.  I had learned from our previous (ill-considered) decision to drive that it was a long way from Melbourne to Canberra.  This time we booked flights.  Since there was no designated hotel for the conference, I decided to book one near the city center.  On the map, it looked like no more than a twenty-minute walk to the conference facility.  That was mistake.  Canberra is really, really spread out.

A brief recap here for those who may not have read my previous post about the place. Canberra is a purpose-built city,  like Brasilia.  When the States federated, neither Sydney nor Melbourne was willing to cede the seat of government to the other city, so they decided to build a capital from scratch.  A search committee considered several potential sites, (all of which had to be at least one hundred miles from Sydney), and a competition was held to elicit designs for a city plan from architects around the world.

Out of 137 entries, an architect from Chicago by the name of Walter Griffin won the field.  It would change his life forever.  He had worked for five years with Frank Lloyd Wright, but after the headline broke,  Wright never spoke to him again.   Griffin and his wife would end up moving to Australia.

Although the city’s plan had been chosen in 1912, it would take more than half a century for the most attractive and ambitious part of the layout to be constructed — a large expanse of ornamental water, a lake.  The site had been selected partly because of its steady source of water,  the Molonglo River.  Coming from almost anywhere in the parched country of Australia, Lake Burley Griffin looks lavish, almost looks like a mirage, simply too large and too blue to actually exist.

During our brief visit,  I was able to tour the Old Parliament House, the High Court, the National Gallery of Australia and the spectacular new Parliament House.  The Old Parliament House, home to my wife’s conference, is a substantial and pleasing white Colonial structure that would not look out of place in India.  It was built as a temporary parliament, not intended to serve for more than fifty years.  It is currently being turned into a Museum of Democracy.  I’m glad we got to see the building as Australia’s previous Parliament building, not an interactive museum.

The new Parliament is almost brand new.  It was finished only eleven years ago.  Its design was the result of yet another competition, won by an Italian architect, Romaldo Giurgola, based in New York City. It is a billion dollar building buried into the side of a hill.  Unassuming from the outside, its interior is grand and impressive.  In addition to the senate and house chambers and a grand hall, there are an additional 4,700 rooms.  Its roof is  covered with grass, the greenest I have  seen outside of a golf course.  Over this towers a stainless steel flag pole that can probably be seen from outer space.

From the roof, you can see Griffin’s vision– the long sweep of the boulevards, the grand design of the lake, the concentric circles, the placement of the government buildings.  The scope and scale are impressive, but even with 340,000 people the place seems empty.  Everyone lives in the suburbs.  The city offers some wonderful cycling, but it is not pedestrian friendly, and hardly anyone appears to live downtown or even in the government quarter.

On weekends, the capital is deserted by everyone but tourists.  With the exception of South Capitol, it is much the same in Washington DC.  It’s the capital syndrome, I guess, and it’s a shame.  Beautiful cities, but no people in them.

The development of the city of Melbourne and the state of Victoria was a land grab, initiated by a handful of settlers who had arrived in Australia a little too late for the first big land grab– New South Wales.  This was Terra Nullus, after all, the “empty land,” and land was there for the taking.

According to British law, the territory of Australia beyond the borders of NSW belonged to the Crown.  The Crown acknowledged the rights of Aboriginal people to occupy it and discouraged squatters, but these were niceties.  And niceties did not discourage people like John Batman, who let it be known that he wished to establish a new settlement along the banks of the Yarra River and to call it Batmania.  I want you to know, dear reader, that “Batmania” very nearly started here, long before the comic books made their appearance.

What attracted Batman and other members of the Port Phillip Association to the area was the temperate climate, fertile pastures and fresh water.  Realizing that the new squatters could not be stopped, Governor Richard Bourke dispatched a party from Sydney to set up a government, survey the land and lay out a town plan.  Surveyor Robert Hoddle laid out his street grid on the north bank of the Yarra.  Governor Bourke named it after Lord Melbourne and the town was born.

The one drawback to the location of the settlement was that even with a fine port nearby, large ships could not reach the town itself.  Hoddle realized the problem, and his plan for Melbourne included a railway line to the sea.  But Melbourne was built on the backs of sheep, and wool did not require an extensive network of expensive railways.

It would take seventeen years for the rail line to be built.  In 1854,a private enterprise called the Hobson’s Bay Railway ushered in the era of railroads.  Three hundred guests enjoyed a lavish banquet in an engine shed in the village of Sandridge, accompanied by long speeches, bottles of champagne, and beer. It would prove to be the first of many such lavish banquets.

The gold rush drove the development of the iron horse.  Gold mining required many men, supplies, heavy equipment, and it was profitable.  The first railroads were privately funded, but despite the success of some lines, others were expensive failures.  Most of the investors were interested in the land speculation it afforded.  The Essendon railway was one such example.  Built in 1860, the directors were reduced to offering to sell it to the government three years later.

Flush with the tremendous wealth generated in the goldfields, the Victorian government invested 9 million pounds from 1854 to 1864 to build just 409 kms (254 miles) of track.  Over the next sixty years, the lines expanded rapidly, reaching 4,670 kms (2,900 miles) by 1891.  By 1930, every town in Victoria with a population of over 500 had its own railway station.  The grandeur of some stations were astounding for the size of the rural populations.  Mark Twain wrote:

“Why, do you know, in order to curry favour with the voters, the government puts down a road wherever anybody wants it– anybody that owns two sheep and a dog; and by consequence we’ve got, in the colony of Victoria, 800 railway stations, and the business done at eighty of them doesn’t foot up twenty shillings a week….”

There were two problems with such a huge investment:  insufficient traffic and rail gauge incompatibility.  New South Wales and Victoria had different gauges.  Each state’s engineers favoured the gauge with which they were was most familiar.  The English had one gauge, the Irish had another and this was reflected in the colony.  A third gauge was chosen for Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.  Narrow gauge lines were used for timber cutting and mining.   In 1917, a person wanting to travel across the country east-west had to change trains six times.

The depression of the 1930’s, World War II and increased competition from roads saw a decline in railway investment.  The affordable automobile ushered in an era of personal transport.  People took to cars and goods went on trucks. From the 1940’s to the 1980’s many branch lines were closed.   Contraction of the extensive and expensive Victorian railway system became inevitable.

But the death of the rural branch lines provided a bed that cyclists would adore.  The era of rail-trails was born.

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