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Ancient history

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(I was considering making an up-front apology for those who might judge the following to be lengthy self indulgent twaddle, but I hope it has a sufficient veneer of objectivity to make that apology unnecessary)

Reflecting upon ones own life from the vantage point of older age is sometimes rather like reading a tattered autobiographical account of someone elses life.     Mine contains many examples of gross stupidity and incompetence, but it also, in an early chapter documents one single decision which would continue to shape my life to this day.

At age 19, partly to avoid being conscripted to go and kill other humans in Vietnam, I found employment with the Department of Agriculture in New Guinea.

My "office" was mostly a mobile one.  Transported along jungle trails, up and down mountains, across vine structures bridging rivers, into remote villages, and through subsistence gardens, on my own two skinny legs with large feet. 
Vehicle roads were almost non existent, but light aircraft landing strips were conveniently scattered like aeronautical confetti around the country.  A lot of them amateur engineering masterpieces excavated from incredibly steep mountainsides by pick and shovel.

One minute of light aircraft flying time roughly equates to one hour of walking distance on the ground. Trust me, I did all the research.

After eight years of walking apprenticeship, (and with lots of encouragement from my employer)  in a moment of staggering naivete, I decided to learn to fly, and sell everything I owned to buy a very old Cessna 182A in order to more effectively and efficiently travel around to work on our village development projects.
These included introducing and marketing cash crops like coffee, cardamom and rice, improving drinking water supplies and human nutrition, and building micro-hydo power installations to provide light in village houses.

Naive firstly, because the 6 weeks of full time theoretical and practical pilots training remains to this day the most intense learning experience of my life.

Naive also because I had no idea that some other commercial light aircraft operators would view my addition to "their" skies unfavourably.
Some pilots made that abundantly clear to me.
Many years later I discovered that a couple of these sensitive souls were, at the time, betting on just precisely which month and year the inexperienced young GOF would kill himself either flying into a cloud with a solid centre, or trying to land at one of the slippery and steeply sloping landing fields in his area.

My continuing survival, which eventually included almost 1000 hours of PNG flying time, must have been a huge financial disappointment for them.

I was naive yet again, for failing to predict the undermining forces of jealousy which were to emanate from office-bound public servants in other Government Departments based in the administrative town of Lae.

Life, however, is not a popularity contest. 
Had it been so then I would have been dismissed in a very early elimination round.

So, judged from a distance of thirty years, what lasting benefits were gained by my Papua New Guinean friends from all my young enthusiasm to improve their lot in the world?

Probably none.

Perhaps a small handful of people will remember the convenience of having an aircraft based in their village 7 days a week, and the day when it was needed to medically evacuate them to hospital.
Most projects eventually fell into a state of dilapidation, as did the whole country of Papua New Guinea.

However, in a world where the inequality between peoples is a hot topic for discussion in the United Nations, and huge chunks of money allocated for its alleviation are squandered on conferences held in luxury resorts, or stolen by corrupt politicians, at least, for one brief moment of my life, I actually got off my arse and tried to do something about it.

I know that it was the best I could have done at the time, given the natural restraints of youthful ignorance and inexperience, and today, looking back, that provides me with just a modicum of satisfaction.

Footnote:  Tragically the person to whom I eventually sold
P2-WKD along with his young son, died when the aircraft crashed in the Markham valley. 

I still think a lot about that.

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About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

22 responses »

  1. Thanks for that, GOF. Interesting times indeed, and very character building. It must be indeed satisfying to know that you made a difference, at least while you were there. Far more than any politician did, or shiny bummed public servant.

  2. Your life has been quite exciting! What always to me seems unfair is that those like yourself who actually got off their arse and did something useful always earned so much less than the shiny-bummed public servants Snowy mentions.

  3. Bravo. Thanks for posting this.It amazes me that it worked out that you had to foot the bill for WKD yourself? What about avgas and maintenance? Were you able to recoup that?Also, what about weather? Were there any nav-aids up there or did you wind up with a lot of scud-running experience??How long total were you in PNG and what were the best and worst things about the experience? (Feel free to point me to an earlier post on this subject, if you've made one.)

  4. WOW! A pioneer from beginning to end! Mr FD is an agriculatural man and I know that you made a far greater difference than you can ever imagine – plus no doubt given years of after dinner yarns about the crazy young Aussie who flew the skies….GO GOF!

  5. Wow, GOF, this is a really interesting chapter in your life. I had an inkling from your other posts that you were qualified to fly but had no idea you'd put those qualifications to use somewhere it was actually needed and appreciated, let alone gained your qualification in that same place.
    An excellent post, and not at all tainted with self-indulgent twaddle.
    Were you as grumpy back then, by the way, or is this an insight into how GOF became GOF?

  6. My hero! Seriously, you're the bomb and everything but you've really done some Good.The area I'm from received trickling help from the outside. Yeah, we were the charity cases–we could've used a lot of things (healthcare, transport, water, sewage…). I was lucky enough or perhaps it simply suited my soul/ brain/ whatever you want to call it but lucky enough to notice the theatre troupe who came through most years. They did a panto for us kids at the school. That one thing alerted me that there was something outside.It got me asking questions and that's when I came to learn that virtually all of our teachers were from other states, big cities, had Santa's lists of degrees (totally NOT required at that time in our district, believe me! The requirement was 60 hours of undergraduate study, about 2 years…the generation before required a high school diploma to teach and the generation before that was to have completed 8th grade before teaching). These people had finished up with the Peace Corps and tried to form their own version of it where it was apparently needed the most (relatively, of course I understand our area was the worst in the US but the worst of the US is a far cry from other areas).They didn't make that big of a dent but most of them dedicated 20 years of work to it. I'm humbled.I tried it for 2 years and couldn't stand the administration. I ended up having to be content with providing a good example (normally, that would be impossible for me but compared to no expectations other than selling drugs, having 3 babies by age 19 or going into the military to escape…).Two lame arsed years was all I could do. I know that I affected hundreds of kids in that time, for better or worse. I truly hope that the other young teachers were affected (oh, they hated me! The old teachers loved me — I wasn't there for a steady paycheck, simply baby-sitting drunk & high teenagers to eventually collect my Union retirement. I was there with a Calling). I'm still … ashamed. I didn't have it the fortitude to hang in there. I survived this shit-hole, got out, came back with dreams of making it better. Now, I focus on my nieces. They live away from this area, thank goodness, but we have the whole family issues to deal with. My eldest niece studies opera and violin — provided at her school. Can you imagine?

  7. No apology needed. No self-indulgent twaddle detected. A very interesting post.

  8. Thanks m-t for drawing my attention to similar issues in your part of the world, and for your own story of personal involvement."I was there with a Calling" ……that is why the older teachers would have loved you. They recognised something within you that they themselves had. I didn't have it the fortitude to hang in there.Neither did I m-t, after an additional 4 years of bashing my head up against the bureaucratic brick walls I simply concluded that if PNG did not want me then I would spend the remainder of my life doing the same stuff…….but this time just for me and my family. Hence the continuing GOF's Paradise project.

  9. My contribution was insignificant compared to many other well motivated people…..many of them nominally "employed" by Christian missions but who spent whole lifetimes in PNG working on humanitarian projects and for whom religion very much took the back seat.

  10. Thank you Pete, it certainly was an exciting few years of my life.GOF emerged grumpy from the womb, but these experiences probably aggravated the condition.

  11. Thanks FD. I made a nostalgic trip back there in 1998 after 19 years of absence.All the people in the area had always known me by my first name, and there indeed were stories (or course with no basis of truth) passed on to a younger generation about some idiot who used to take off in morning darkness for destinations unknown.

  12. What always to me seems unfair is that those like yourself who actually got off their arse and did something useful always earned so much less than the shiny-bummed public servants Snowy mentions. Thanks Vicola. To start this project I had to reverse normal public service procedure. I had fortunately reached a point of seniority where I was able to "demote" myself back to the village posting, effectively foregoing any chance of future promotion or salary increase. I have to say it did not bother me personally, but you have correctly identified why development programs worldwide fail so miserably. As soon as field staff gain experience and the confidence of the people with whom they are working, they are promoted into offices in cities where they are next to useless.

  13. Thank you koan911,I had to buy WKD (for not much more than a good 4WD vehicle cost at the time).I sold it 4 years later for the same price, but during the intervening period had the mandatory engine, propellor, and airframe major overhauls (and a repaint) done. Some of my critics accused me of profiteering. Hardly so.My Dept of Ag modified a public service provision designed for staff using their own road vehicles to be paid a "mileage allowance" for travel done in the course of their duties. We settled on sharing the operating costs. I was paid $26 per hour at a time when the real cost was probably about $50.Weather is always a major factor in PNG aviation. As a general rule flying is done early morning. In the afternoons storms develop and the cloud layer progressively lowers. Local knowledge….of weather and topography….. was vital to me. I could often do my "short hops" of 4 or 5 minute time intervals to the next strip during temporary breaks in the weather whereas aircraft based further away in Lae could never find their way through the weather into the hinterland valleys where I operated.Most strips had no navaids. Lae and Finschhafen had NDB's, which I only ever used when "temporarily unsure of my position" for all PNG aviation was (nominally) strictly VFR and on full reporting procedures with Flight Service.I was in PNG for a total of 12 years. There are a few stories in my blog under the "png" tag on the right of screen. What were the best and worst things?The only bad thing was that in the last couple of years I had to fight some elements in the bureaucracy to do the work I had such a passion for. The remainder was quite simply a fantastic adventure.Beautiful, spectacular country, wonderful warm hospitable village people.Oh, and I guess I should not forget that I also found the best wife on the planet there as well.

  14. This is a great post. I love stories like this. I have just finished reading it to the manservant.rather like reading a tattered autobiographical account of someone elses life. Sometimes I look back on my own life and think was that me? Or catch a fragment of memory and wonder if it was a scene out of a movie I might have seen rather than a real slice of my own life. (of course my life is pretty ordinary compared to yours).

  15. Thank you Emjay, and I am honoured that you would choose to read it to the manservant.Your life is equally interesting and your blog constantly reflects that.I completely understand your difficulty at times recalling what was real in your own life and what might have been imagined, heard or seen somewhere else. I had the same problem recalling events for this story. Fortunately I have the benefit of a pile of diaries written since 1968, but for events not written down I think I should recall them soon because what is left of my memory and brain power is rapidly diminishing. 😉

  16. That's a lot of years, you! You're a gentleman and a scholar 🙂

  17. Way too many years m-t. I try to be a gentleman, but the "scholar" project ran off the rails somewhere very early in the journey.

  18. I can't help thinking there is a bloody good book buried in here GOF. The teasers about those wanting you to fail, and the demise of the country leave us waiting for the next part of your story.My only other comment is everyone bagging the "shiny bums". Aside from the rorting and stuff ups, a lot of good work has gone into helpful programs but those who have used the programs for their own advantage have really taken the focus. It's a shame because the folk who go hard, like yourself, should be celebrated.

  19. Thanks Peter. This blog will be the closest thing I come to writing a book.There are many much more qualified than me to do that. From time to time, as they come to mind, I will post any anecdotes which I think might be interesting.Meanwhile, I very much appreciate the encouraging comments from my friends here.Australia has an excellent AusAid Government Department, but like most it is extraordinarily "top heavy" and there are very few competent or committed people available to do the field work. I have some small insight as to why that might be 😉

  20. There may be other writers but none of them use GOF speak.I look forward to further flash backs.Even (maybe especially) in remote site computer support the lack of Managers with field experience is a real problem. Field experience is invaluable and about as rare as common sense.


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