It pays to stay sick
At odd times things happen that throw up the thought...I remember when...
Especially these days and especially in this country.
A week or so ago I had the occasion to go to a chiropractor who decided he needed some x-rays of my lower back.
Now, I'm fairly healthy, so healthy in fact that it had been some years since I'd been to a doctor. I'd misplaced by Medicare card.
No worry, said the receptionist, just ring up, get your number and we'll bulk bill you.
When you ring Medicare it's a one three number and the connection is to a call centre somewhere in the country.
Yes, the call centre person said, we have your number and your old address and she added, your card expired five years ago. You've been living out of Australia, haven't you?
You're not entitled to it, she said.
I would have to prove that I had been living in Australia for the past five years.
Records from employers.
But I had been self employed during that time, I said.
The call centre person patently could not believe that anyone had not worked the Medicare system for five long years.
When I asked whether I as an Australian born citizen was automatically entitled to a Medicare Card, her suspicion drooled through the telephone.
No, she said, and if I did not present five years of acceptable evidence I would not get one.
I rang one three again and asked to speak to a supervisor. Her bureaucratic hackles rose when I asked what difference it made if I had been overseas for the past five years. They had my old number and here I was making a local call.
Her response: That's the rule. She buttressed her statement with an example...you can't just walk into a bank and open an account.
It was at that precise moment that the "remember when" thought kicked in.
Remember when you could walk into a bank with your own little piggy bank and open an account? Remember when the bank didn't charge you for simply walking into their premises and dealing at the counter? Remember when the bank didn't charge you for the use of your money? Remember when the bank was physically there, in your local shopping centre? Remember when they didn't make such disgustingly huge profits from us poor sods?
Wearily, I asked the Medicare call centre supervisor for the number of my local Medicate Centre.
We don't give out telephone numbers, she said.
Remember when they did?
The man who couldn't say NO
Pete says, at least once a day, oh God, why was I ever born?
It's a statement of despair.
Pete believes he was meant for an earlier period in Australia when one's word was his bond, when life was more straight forward, when you knew where you stood in the society, when the working man was accorded some kind of dignity and respect.
At least that's Pete's memory of an earlier time. Perhaps it's an illusion.
Pete's the kind of guy who believes in and is respectful of government authority.
So, when he was called up for Vietnam, it never occurred to him to try to get out of it. He went and it was that experience that soured his life.
From the above, you would realise that Pete's a sensitive soul and people today know that and many - because this now a dog-eat-dog society - take advantage of it.
Pete, as he did in Vietnam, has trouble saying no.
His one joy in life is cars and not just any cars. His interest is Volkswagens and only the beetle, from the time it first entered the country in 1949 to the change of windscreen sometime in the fifties.
Pete can tell you the most precise detail about the beetle for this period. He's a practical man. He can take 'em apart and put 'em back together with his eyes closed. I'd wager there's no one in the country who knows more about the beetle than Pete.
He acquired his first beetle in 1964. Since then he's acquired a great many more and now there's a sea of beetles in his yard and extensive workshop.
When Pete's working on beetles he doesn't have to think about his life - or Vietnam.
His marriage broke up, his wife simply announcing when Pete got home from work one day, that she was leaving.
It was an extraordinary surprise to him and so devastating that years and years later, he asked a recent acquaintance - myself - why I thought she may have left. Was it the cars?
Most of us develop a shell, particularly these days when life in this country has probably never been more stressful since the days of the Depression back in the thirties. No matter what are the official unemployment figures.
But Pete's problem is not money.
He had a nervous breakdown after Vietnam and he has a reasonably generous pension.
When Pete safely got back home, each night he would climb the steep hill at the back of his house and look out over the paddocks..
Yes, for the peace of it - because what he remembers most about Vietnam is the unrelenting noise, - but mainly to delay the nighmare he still has almost as soon as his head touches the pillow.
Pete's assignment in Vietnam was as a spotter in light aircraft, a Cessna, armed on each wing with phosphorous rockets.
This day, with only the pilot and Pete in the plane, they flew over a jungle clearing as a woman and her children stepped out from beneath the canopy.
Pete noted with relief that they were flying away from the group but the pilot banked and turned and bore in on them and said to Pete, "okay, press the button , now!"
Pete, the man who could never say no, pressed the button that released the rockets and watched as, characteristic of phosphorous shells, the woman and children were incinerated before his eyes.
What do you say to a sensitive man who has that to live with for the rest of his life?
Copyright 2000 (c) Newtons Pty Ltd