David Oke
Geelong, September 1976

As a child of the 1960s most of my memories of the Vietnam War were generated through the images beamed to our black and white television, often featuring in the 6:30 news. The tanks, gunfire, helicopter gun-ships, strike aircraft – jungle warfare. In my mind Vietnam was far away. However, my older cousin Bob went off on his tour of duty there. Even as a kid I could see that the American forces had a huge involvement in that conflict.

The eastern world, it is explodin’,
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’,
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’,
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’,
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’,
But you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

Growing up in Geelong we had the Avalon airport just down the road. Avalon was constructed post World War Two to accommodate the length of runway needed for the new technology of jet aircraft. Avalon was a mystery to me. I knew that the government assembled the Canberra jet bombers at Avalon. The CAC Sabre was pushed to its limits and broke the sound barrier there. The RAAFs frontline fighter – the Dassault Mirage – was assembled at Avalon and I remember their resultant sonic booms as they flew over Geelong- but what else happened at Avalon? What else lurked in the semi-circular hangars barely visible from the Melbourne road?

By my mid-teens the Vietnam War was winding down. Conscription had disappeared due to the Whitlam government. But my interest in aircraft had enlightened me to a greater threat – the Cold War between the world superpowers. The nuclear threat was real, but to a kid in Geelong it too seemed far away – or was it?

I clearly remember a sunny, but crisp morning in 1976 where I was on the outdoor basketball court at school. I wasn’t sporty, so  didn’t particularly enjoy physical education lessons at Geelong High.

In the blue cloudless sky something caught my eye.  At a really high altitude was something –  metallic silver. It was glinting in the morning sun and moving very slowly. My first thought was that it was too slow for a jet but I could not hear the tell tale throb of a radial engine if it happened to be a RAAF DC3 or Wirraway trainer. Reconnaissance? High-altitude bomber? UFO?

All I could think of was the story of the B29 Enola Gay approaching Hiroshima – a single silver bomber slowly approaching the city on a sunny day ready to unleash a weapon with destruction the world had never experienced.

The mysterious object above the Geelong sky rattled me with the realization that perhaps Geelong was not immune to the Cold War fear. It made sense that a city with an oil refinery, motor vehicle production, aluminum smelter and other primary and secondary industries could be a nuclear target in the event of war. It dawned on me that Geelong was closer to the Cold War than I had ever imagined.

Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

In later years my concerns about the Cold War became even more justified. My research into covert operations and the use of the Lockheed U2 spy plane led me to learn that from 1960 to 1965 the United States Air Force flew missions from East Sale, Laverton and Avalon to the Southern Ocean and towards Antarctica on a regular basis. Their mission was to take air samples that, through analysis, would reveal the type, and number, of nuclear weapons the Soviets have in their arsenal. I also read that, in the same era, a Martin B57 USAF support plane to the missions crashed into the water near Fairhaven – on the coast  40 minutes from Geelong –  and both crew were lost.

Forty years on the world is a very different place. (Or is it?) Warfare has changed. ‘Smart’ and precision missiles and weapons have generally replaced those of mass destruction and heavy deliberate carnage. ‘Stealth’ and ‘drones’ are terms that did not seem as prominent back in the sixties and seventies.

Avalon has been privatized and, along with other tenants, is used by the Jetstar domestic airline. Every two years Avalon hosts the Australian International Air Show. Lots of the industry in Geelong, mentioned earlier, has gone.

In 1959 the Shell oil refinery pier was used as a set in the movie version of the Neville Shute novel On The Beach – a movie about a post nuclear war world that is being consumed by a deadly wave of radiation. Victoria’s second largest city is possibly no longer a prime nuclear target. Geelong residents – you can breathe easier that you’re not on the eve of destruction.

But for other parts of Australia, and the world, there is nowadays reason to fear. The world is like a bar room and we are waiting to see who is going to throw the first punch.

David is a Melbourne musician, music teacher and primary school teacher. His debut Stereo Story was about playing Great Balls of Fire at Sun Studio in Memphis. He has assisted in the organisation, and leading of gospel music workshops and Sunday gospel celebrations at the Anglesea Music Festivals, and is a member of The Seddon Jammers. His son Dan is the creative force of the band Jarrow.