My parents split up and my mother left when I was nine months old. Dad and I lived with his parents until he moved to Hobart to join the fire brigade two years later. I stayed with my grandparents and was a bit of a rascal. My name is Bill Telfer, born in South Australia in 1946.
As a boy, I only went to school sometimes and my grandparents never knew. That time gave me a good grounding of life; there were rough kids around, and as I was slim, some thought I’d be a fair touch. But I wasn’t. I learned quickly to defend myself and how to become one of the group.
When I was nine my dad decided I should join his new family in Hobart. I had a two-year-old brother and had to conform to new rules. I had to go to school, wear a uniform, and do as I was told. At school, I was often in trouble but soon realised that I had to change. I got a job selling papers and being good at maths and sports earned me respect. Teachers now spoke about me in a positive way, so I saw myself in a positive way.
In my second year of high school I was made a prefect, and in year nine became school captain. It was a dramatic change: I had to learn what to do, how to behave, how to speak with adults. I even got to have tea with Queen Sirikit of Thailand, which was a real eye-opener for me. Much of this was due to my stepmother. She brought me up, helped school me, taught me discipline. She’s my mother. She rings every Sunday at 08:30 am on the dot, and when she mentions the family, I know I’m the family.
Post-graduation, I worked at a timber company but saw no future there, so I joined the army. One day, while on leave, my parents invited me to a party. There was a girl my mother wanted me to marry, but I saw a lovely young lady and chatted with her instead. Her name was Chris. I went to the man behind the bar and asked for “something to make a young girl feel... comfortable”. I found out later that was Chris’ father. That night I offered to drive her home and every street I took was a dead end. To this day she claims I did that on purpose, but I just didn’t know the area well. After that, we’d write to each other every week, and 12 months after we met I went home to pop the question. On my next leave, we got married.
The first time I drove down Greensborough Road it was like driving through a country town, with trees everywhere, and a single lane road. Back then the army owned most houses, and while now they’re privately owned, and there’s lots more traffic, to me Macleod still feels the same because of the people. It’s a friendly place with friendly people.
I was in Vietnam in ‘67, before meeting Chris. I was artillery and we had to defend the infantry. There was this one operation where they needed more support; we lost many men in three days and were finally ordered out. Being the communicator I stayed till last and remember my heart thumping, and the ping ping of bullets hitting the plane as we lifted off.
When our tour ended we marched down Brisbane’s main street and were accepted well. But the war continued. It was the first war televised right into our homes, and many came to believe we shouldn’t be there. There were anti-war protests, and some blamed individual soldiers as a way of condemning the government. Today there’s acceptance of service men and women because the public realise it wasn’t their doing. And while many veterans still tear up when they talk about it, they’ve come to accept that the Australian public has accepted what they did.
Chris and I came to the RSL for a drink one evening and learned that the secretary had left. The president was looking flustered, so I offered to assist. 14 years later I am still here, and so is Chris. I’m supposed to be retired but most weeks I spend four days here; there are opportunities to help out, volunteering, looking after service men and women. It keeps me active and it keeps my mind active.
On a daily basis, I see people my age who aren’t using their brains as much as before. When people retire many sit at home, often arguing with their spouses for no reason, and being bored. As RSL secretary I do all funeral preparations and when I speak to the families I see the main issue was boredom. The RSL encourages everyone to come in and have a chat. You don’t have to drink alcohol or play the machines; just come out for a chat, have a cup of coffee, but get out of the house.