by Bill Williams
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Dateline: May 2001
Who would have ever imagined when I graduated from Hickman County High School in Clinton, Kentucky in 1962 that I would end up retiring in Australia! It's been a long journey from Clinton to Melbourne, Australia, with many blind curves in the road, numerous plot twists, and some downright setbacks. But, it's all been worth it.
Straight out of high school I moved for the summer to Memphis, Tennessee to attend Memphis State University. Then in the fall I moved to Murray, Kentucky and attended Murray State College for 2 years. Then it was off to the University of Kentucky in Lexington for 3 more years to finally get my Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering in 1967. While there I was interviewed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Florida and, much to my surprise, they offered me a position at Kennedy Space Center. Well, I jumped at the chance, accepted the position, and moved to Cocoa Beach in May 1967. While with NASA I was involved in flight electrical systems testing and validation of many flight vehicles, and worked on all the major programs, including Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz, Skylab, Mars-Viking, and the Space Shuttle.
But, that's all ancient history. My purpose here is to write about the most recent 6 months of my life.
But first some background. My wife, Sandy, and I met in 1976 while I was working in California on the early Space Shuttle Program, and were married in October of 1977. She is a native Australian and had been living in America since the age of 12 when her family immigrated. We made Florida our home until the middle of 2000 when we both realized that the rat race we were in was not what we wanted. She was working long hours in a very stressful nursing supervisor job, and after 34 years of service at the Cape, I was ready to retire. So, we put our house on the market and started making plans to move to Australia.
Back in the summer of 1998 we had vacationed in Australia (see photo album), spending a month traveling and exploring New South Wales and Victoria, the eastern and south eastern states of the country. Sandy had never been back and wanted to visit all the little towns and schools where she grew up. After a couple of weeks of driving around on the wrong side of the road, we both realized that "This is it! This is where we want to live!" We had been looking in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky as possible retirement communities, but nothing really "clicked". Now here we were on the other side of the world and we knew that was where we wanted to be. But, in 1998 I was not yet eligible to retire, so we waited. Even when I did become eligible 2 years later, it took Sandy's developing a very serious illness to make us stop and take an assessment of our lives.
So, by late 2000, I had over 34 years with NASA and Sandy had about 15 years with the State of Florida, so the time was right. I began the enormous task of applying for an Australian Immigration Visa. Without going into all the details, you must understand that one does not undertake that process unless one is very serious and very determined to immigrate. Sandy had become an American citizen, but had also maintained her Australian citizenship, so she would be my sponsor for immigration. Finally after an exhausting amount of paperwork, I got my Immigration Visa in October of 2000 and we waited for the house to sell.
And sell it did. On December 2, 2000, we accepted an offer on the house that contained a stipulation that we vacate in 2 weeks! Gulp! So, Sandy quit her job with 2 days notice and started selling, donating, auctioning, and giving away about half of everything we owned. By December 14th international movers had come and removed everything remaining, the house was clean and empty, and we had moved into a hotel ready to live out of our luggage for the next 3 months. I had to work until January 3rd, 2001, so we made our plane reservations to leave on January 5th. After selling the last car and saying all our "Goodbyes", we hopped on the plane on the 5th and flew straight through to Melbourne, Australia via Los Angeles and Sydney, in about 30 hours.
As planned, we arrived here in Melbourne on January 7th and stayed at the Radisson Hotel downtown. From there we could accomplish some of the more important things like opening a bank account, applying for a credit card (everyone buys on credit or direct debit here; not many checks to speak of), and so forth. And we had to investigate the high schools so we could get our son, Jonathan, registered to start in February. (By the way, in Australia high schools are called secondary colleges.) By the time Jonathan started school, we had moved to a motel in the suburb of Croydon nearer to the school we had picked for him.
We finally got a computer the last week of January, so we could send and receive e-mail without going to an internet cafe. We got Jonathan enrolled in school, purchased his uniform (that's right, a uniform), bought all his books, and he started school on February 1st. He has already made friends and has been asked to produce a video about international exchange students for his school. It's on a government grant and he'll have his own budget and will get paid to do it. He also has a job at Lone Star Steakhouse working 3-4 nights a week and is excited to be making his own money. One good thing about Australia, kids can work at age 15 and most have jobs at that age. And all high schools require the students to do "work experience" for 2 weeks every year. That involves them finding an 8:00–5:00 job and working for 2 weeks at about $5.00 minimum per DAY. Jonathan's work experience was at The Disco Factory. They sell, lease, and repair DJ equipment like amps, mixers, speakers, lights, smoke machines, etc. That's exactly to his liking and was very good experience for him. Jonathan has continued to develop his music production skills, has released his 3rd CD, and earned his Bachelors Degree in Electronic Production & Design from Berklee College of Music in Boston and is currently working as the Production Assistant for a well-known Grammy nominated music composer and recording artist. You can visit his web site and listen to his music at ACID Planet page.
We also leased a nice house and moved in on February 2nd, bought a car, a cell phone, and all the major and minor appliances we'd need. The house current over here is 240 volts, so nothing we owned in the U.S. would have worked. We also have signed up for Medicare (Australia's socialized medical care system) and purchased private health insurance as well.
Over all, life in Australia is very good. The economy seems to be booming. There are shopping malls all over the city that are identical to American malls in every respect, the stores are just different, and they close at 5:00 PM, which I think should promote family togetherness. And the largest mall in the southern hemisphere is just 30 minutes away. But there are still the smaller shopping centers in each suburb. And we get new movies about 2 months after they are released in America. Until recently we had not been able to hear too much news from America, just the occasional snippet. All that changed a couple of months ago when we finally got cable TV and were able to get CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Discovery, History, Hallmark, Showtime, etc.
Oh! Let me tell you about the restaurants! Well, they are great to say the least. And so plentiful and of such variety! There are Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, and American (Mackers [McDonalds], Subway, KFC, and Burger King, called Hungry Jack) restaurants. And that's just in the food court at the mall. Then there are the traditional little Australian cafes and bakeries everywhere serving the very Australian meat pies, a wonderful selection of pasties, sausage rolls, & desserts, focaccias, sandwiches, salads, and the most delicious pastries, tarts, and cakes. And then there are the meat markets offering various cuts of lamb, the delicious pumpkin bread at all the bakeries, and the best produce markets anywhere. You'd think you were in Denmark! Many restaurants have fresh lamb, beef, chicken, and pork rotisserizing on a spit and ready to cut for your sandwich, souvlaki, or falafel. And all the little restaurants offer "Baked Beans on Toast" and "Spaghetti on Toast" on their breakfast menus. Simply unbelievable!! One could become overweight very quickly here. Aussies LOVE to eat.
About 5 hours west of Melbourne is the beautiful little town of Portland. We saw a real estate ad for a house overlooking the ocean for "just" $500,000 (That's about $300,000 US.) Not a bad price, so we drove down and spent 2 days looking around. But the big surprise was the location of that house! As you can see in the photo, it was located adjacent to the Whalers Bluff Lighthouse! The lighthouse and house for sale sat on a bluff overlooking the waterfront and harbor in one direction, and the ocean in the other. The views were spectacular and having the lighthouse next door would have been sensational. But, when Jonathan started university, he would have to move back to Melbourne, and the house was a bit out of our price range.
Then to the southeast of Melbourne is a region called Gippsland, which could be a transplant from Ireland. Gippsland has huge, vivid green rolling hills (an 11-acre farm we almost bought), the likes of which I've never seen anywhere else, and has very fertile soil for growing crops of all kinds as well as for pasture land for cattle, sheep, and horses. At the top of one of these hills you really can see forever, so we purchased a small 8-acre farm at the top of the hill. (We had house plans drawn and building permits ready, but at the last minute decided to sell the farm and instead buy a house in Croydon, a suburb of Melbourne.) Words really can't describe the area adequately. Sandy still has 2 relatives living in the region, so we always enjoy visiting them. Traveling to Gippsland you pass through little towns like Lang Lang, Koo-wee-rup, Wonthaggi, Poowong, and Korumburra. So many of the town names are Aboriginal. It really is a shame that Hollywood uses only the Outback when filming about Australia. The geography and scenery have so much more to offer. Try watching the "McLeod's Daughters" series on the WE television channel. It is filmed on a farm in the state of South Australia, and the scenery is beautiful. Plus you get a good feel for the way Aussies live and some of their accent and expressions.
Now I'd like to discuss the beautiful scenery that is so very close to home. The Dandenong Mountain Ranges (I took this photo from the front patio of our home in Croydon) with its primative forests are just a 20-minute drive away and are dotted with little mountain towns like Olinda, Cockatoo, and Sassafras. You can spend the day shopping in the little craft stores and visiting the local restaurants, then be home for dinner. They remind me of the Colorado Rockies. Then less than a hour away is the Yarra Valley with its wine vineyards, Healesville with its wildlife sanctuary, and Marysville with its B&Bs, waterfalls, and ski slopes. Then Phillip Island with its penguins that come ashore to nest every night, is just 2 hours away.
Another thing that's really great is the architecture of Australian homes. Except for the obvious cookie cutter apartments, no 2 homes look alike, and there is a definite English, even Victorian influence in many of the home designs. But the best part is that about 99% of all houses are brick and have a tile roof. The rest have a tin roof. But it is the older homes that have a character of grace and style that we've not seen in America for decades. Each one just says that there is a lot of history there; people have lived and raised families, and made that house a home. I have placed many of my photos of Australia on my web site at Australia Vacation – 1998.
Now let me talk about all the beautiful wildlife in Australia. I'm sure you are all aware of kangaroos and koalas, so I'll limit myself to the very beautiful and exotic birds, possums, and spiders of Australia. And I'll further limit myself just to the birds that live in and around our home. First there is the Rainbow Lorikeet (at right). They are the most multi-colored birds we've seen. It seems the most common of the beautiful and exotic birds here are the Galahs. You see them in flocks everywhere; in the trees and on the ground eating. And of course there are the Kookaburras. You can hear them in the morning with their laughing calls to each other. But the best birds to wake you in the morning are the Magpies, or Maggies, as they are affectionately called. They'll start their day around 4:30 AM. Then we have 2 pair of Crimson Rosellas living either in our trees or very near. They come around often whenever we put out seed pods for them. We hang the pods on a tree branch, and they love to crawl down and nibble off the seeds. Then one day we had an invasion of at least 50 Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos into a tree on our lot that contained large seed pods that they just loved. Cockatoos are very, very noisy, squawking constantly as they fly from one branch to another. Then on another occasion we had about a dozen Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos move into an Australian Flame Tree in our lot. They were around for about 30 minutes eating the seasonal small, red flowers. Now let me talk about the very cute little Possums that are quite common, even in the residential areas, and come in many varieties, such as ringtailed and brushtailed. We have about 4 living in the shrubs and trees on our lot. They are nocturnal, so we only see them at night moving around in the trees, or dropping onto the roof of the house and skittering along to lord knows where at the other end of the house. I hear one almost every night. One day as I was trimming a large English Ivy hedge, a possum who was obviously asleep there, jumped out and raced up onto a tree branch and just sat there quite dazed. They are so cute and not at all like the rather ugly Opossums living in America. Finally, I can't go on to other topics until I talk about the Huntsman spiders that are so common here...and they are disturbingly large! One will occasionally find them in the house hiding behind a curtain or crawling across the wall. But no matter where you see one, it is ALWAYS very large and scary (at least to me because I hate spiders)! Some people say they're harmless, but I always killed every one I saw.
The big passion in Australia is football....Australian Rules Football, commonly known as "footy". The rules of the game in Australian Rules Football are quite different from American football. There is a set of 4 goal posts at each end of the field, and a team gets 6 points for kicking the ball between 2 center and tallest posts. If the ball passes between outside posts, the team gets just one point. But the biggest difference is how often a team will attempt a field goal. You see, there are no "downs", but pretty much continuous play for each of the four 20-minute quarters. There are a couple of instances when the clock will stop to "toss" the ball (like a tip-off in basketball). But the ball moves very quickly around the field because the players must either kick, pass, or bounce the ball as they move it down the field, and must pass the ball off to a teammate before being tackled. If the ball is dropped or the other team intercepts it, play just continues. And when the ball gets within 50 meters of the goal, a player, any player, can and usually will kick for a goal while running. Always while running. It's a very fast game with lots and lots of turnovers. And don't forget, the players wear absolutely NO equipment and no padding of any kind. My team is the Essendon Bombers, who won the Grand Finals in 2000.
We all learned the Australian salute right away. What's the Australian salute you ask? Well, just imagine swatting at flies around your face and you've got it. Everyone learns it fast because there are so many flies in Australia during the summer. And they are BOLD! They'll land on your lips while you're talkin'! But what we really like are the cute differences in the language, like "Take Away" food instead of carryout, "Smash Repairs" instead of body shops, "No Worries" instead of You're Welcome, "Ta" instead of Thanks, and "Keep Left Unless Overtaking" instead of Keep Right Except to Pass. And the temperature won't be a high of 80 today, it will be a "top" of 25 (centigrade), and the sky will be "fine" (clear). How about being careful not to hit the "kerb" or you might blow a "tyre" on your car. And the standard greeting is "How ya going?" or "G'day". But a couple of the most puzzling examples is that towels, bed linen, blankets, etc. are referred to as "Manchester" and kitchen appliances are "white goods". However, 99.9 cents per liter for gas is not cute, even if my pension checks do double coming over. That's close to $4.00 a gallon! But the Aussies do make a really nice Ford utility vehicle (ute) that I wish they would make in the U.S. I must also mention that the postman all ride on the sidewalks from mailbox to mailbox on their motorcycles. And they only deliver the mail, they don't pick it up for mailing, you must go to the Post Office or drop your outgoing mail in a neighborhood mailbox. And there is NO weekend delivery!
I had the wonderful and fortunate opportunity to volunteer for a year on the Puffing Billy Railway in Belgrave, working in the Gift Shop and Snack Bar. I got to meet people from all over the world and especially liked meeting Americans who came through. Check out my Puffing Billy photo album and photo albums of Locomotive 7A and the Beyer Peacock Garratt Articulated Steam Locomotive (G42), the newest locomotive in the Puffing Billy stable. Also check out the Regatta to Bendigo and the Ballarat Shuttles D3 639 and Y112 photo albums.
The Puffing Billy Railway is a narrow gauge 2 ft. 6 in. (762mm) heritage railway in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne, Australia. The primary starting point, operations and administration center, main refreshment room (also selling souvenirs) and ticket purchasing are located at Belgrave station. Journeys may also be commenced at out-stations of which some have limited facilities for the purchase of tickets, refreshments and souvenirs. (Tickets may also usually be purchased from the conductor on the train.)
The railway was originally one of four narrow gauge lines of the Victorian Railways opened around the beginning of the 20th century. It runs through the southern foothills of the Dandenong Ranges to Gembrook. Being close to the city of Melbourne and with a post-preservation history spanning over 50 years, the line is one of the most popular steam heritage railways in the world, and attracts tourists from all over Australia and overseas.
The Puffing Billy Railway is kept in operation through the efforts of volunteers of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society, although intensive year-round operations necessitate a small band of paid employees to keep things going behind the scenes.
The railway aims to preserve the line as near as possible to how it was in the first three decades of its existence, but with particular emphasis on the early 1920s.
Operations are centered on Belgrave, which houses some of the offices of the railway (other offices are located at Emerald) as well as the locomotive running shed and locomotive workshops. It is also the base for track maintenance operations.
Most trains start from Belgrave and travel to Lakeside or to the terminus at Gembrook, and return. The railway operates every day of the year except Christmas Day, with at least two and up to six advertised services departing Belgrave each day. One service each day has the option of first-class carriages and lunch.
A semi-regular service is the Dinner Train, which usually departs Belgrave on a Friday or Saturday evening and travels to Nobelius Siding, where the passengers disembark and have a sit-down dinner in the converted packing shed of the former Nobelius Nursery. After the meal, the passengers rejoin the train for the return journey to Belgrave. Savouries and drinks are served on the train.
A popular feature of a ride on Puffing Billy is sitting on the ledge of the open-sided carriages (see picture).
There is a narrow-gauge railway museum near Menzies Creek station.
Another thing we find amazing is that the Aussie's have really got a handle on recycling and waste management. They are quite proactive and organized. At least in the area of Victoria where we live, the City Council has distributed three different types of "wheelie bins" to each resident: one for garbage, one for recycling, and one for garden organics. The recycle bin has a blue lid and is partitioned to separate bottles, aluminum cans, and plastic from newspapers. And the garden organics bin with a brown lid is for yard clippings. And they mail each resident a yearly schedule showing when each is picked up so there will be no confusion. America could learn something here!
Oh, one little word of caution. You must be very careful what you say in Australia or you might be saying something quite vulgar and not know it. For example, never say "I'm stuffed" after a big meal. Never say that you "root" for your favorite football team. And if you get hit from behind in your car, never, never say you got "rear-ended".