Grace in the Army and at University
I was called up for National Service, with the infantry, in the Melbourne University Regiment at Puckapunyal. I found that distressing because, for the first time in my life, I had to obey orders. I missed Milena terribly and exchanged letters frequently which she has kept to this day. I have enclosed a segment from one of our many letters for interest.
At first I hated it because we did little else than march around and clean horribly smelly kitchen drains in the heat. I couldn't see the point of doing those things. I became interested once we began weapons training and mysterious night marches through swamps, and mock ambush practice. Frustrated for being away from home I began to swear heavily copying our tough Corporal from the regular army who had been demoted from Warrant Officer in Korea for knocking an officer flat. He hated anybody with an education especially university men and that included all officers who had graduated from military college. He was a rough, practical man. According to him we were all just little boys playing soldiers in uniform.
However, the combat-experienced veteran I hated was to save my life later. I now thank God for him.
As a Regiment we could not understand the gross incompetence of those in charge. For helmets we had British-style dinner plates on our heads. No matter how tightly I fixed the strap under my chin I had to keep my head upright and hold my helmet with one hand, as we were running, to stop it from slipping over my face. Telling my platoon commander didn't help. That would never do in combat. I tried a WWII German helmet on in an antique shop recently and it fitted snuggly and securely over my head. I suppose the officers had to work with whatever they were given in peace time.
The second issue was that one of the conscripts suffered from a sleeping syndrome and was painfully clumsy which caused the Corporal to pick on him all the time. He should have been discharged within the first week. He would be missing at roll call. I would find him sleeping with his head in the wash basin and the water running. He would collapse and sleep under a running shower also, but they stubbornly kept the poor guy on. No wonder they and the British officers messed up Gallipoli, I thought in later years. The commanders are too aloof and just don't listen to the troops. I wonder whether it's the same at some churches.
In the last two weeks of our first year of training we were out on the rifle range firing Thompson sub-machine guns on this occasion. These light machine guns were handy in close combat jungle warfare because the slightest touch on the trigger would spray out a fierce round of bullets. If dropped the Corporal said the gun could spin like a bicycle wheel spraying out bullets 360 degrees.
On this day, the hapless conscript was about three or four soldiers away from me. We all stood in line and had to face the front with a strict warning not to turn sideways. So here we were blasting our targets to bits. The boy’s gun jammed so he swung sideways pointing his machine gun towards us with his finger still on the trigger, calling out, “Hey Corporal. My gun is jammed. What do I do?" The quick thinking veteran knocked him to the ground and grabbed the machine-gun. The same conscript, a few days later, in a trench with others on exercise, accidentally dropped his hand grenade at his own feet after having pulled the pin. A quick thinking soldier picked it up and threw it forward.
Milena kept all my letters from National Service. On reading my own letters I discovered that I had led a convoy for 150 miles through the bush using my compass and map. I loved the night marches through swamps and rough terrain which involved ambushes along the way. One poor chap lost his rifle in a marsh which was a strict no, no. I have reproduced a portion from one of my letters which demonstrates how Milena and I loved one another. I couldn't wait to get married.
The following years we only had to turn up for National Service during the long university vacations. I was attached to the Intelligence Unit responsible for making accurate landscape sketches that unit headquarters could use in the field – this was well before the days of the cell (mobile) phone.
After completing my compulsory National Service my major encouraged me to stay on with the Citizens Military Forces to do an in-depth study on expected casualty rates if an atomic bomb was dropped near a dug-in battalion with tanks. Since further duties involved little marching I was glad to reenlist in the army on a voluntary basis. After much work and examination of all declassified reports on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which were made available to us, both the major and I were disgusted by what the army considered a ‘casualty’. When we labelled a perimeter from ground zero as ‘no survivors’ we received instructions from headquarters to change our final report. Even though all personnel would die within two weeks from severe radiation in this zone we had to remark the zone to ‘no casualties’ on the map because replacement units could be brought in within two weeks. I resigned not wanting to waste more time on such foolishness. It just made my blood boil. I hope the armed forces have more intelligent men on staff these days.
Ignoring other incidents that happened at the time, I was driving Milena and two of her relatives in the car. Something was said. I snapped and pushed the accelerator to the floor in anger. We were shooting along a stretch of an empty suburban street when, without warning and coming out of nowhere, an old lady suddenly stepped off the kerb. I slammed on the brakes and the car swerved against the kerb. She disappeared under the bonnet. I got out in a cold sweat fearing the worst - manslaughter! I freaked. When I got to the front end of the car the old lady crawled from under the car picked herself up and proceeded to cross the street with her walking stick as though she had only stopped to pick up a handkerchief. She didn't even look back at me. I was speechless. Did I apologize? I don't know. I was lost for words. I am now wondering whether she was an angel sent by God to prevent me from killing all four of us. The whole situation was unnatural and spooky.
On another occasion, in summer, I was on the lagoons about 40 km north of Sydney. Walking along Palm Beach, opposite the other peninsula, I came across a kayak hire. I put my belongings inside the kayak and started paddling to cross to the other side. It was a huge lagoon, about 2 km across at that point, with the open sea 5 km to the north. There were no other boats on the water that I can remember. I was sitting unsteadily in the kayak when, about 1 km offshore, I lost my balance. The open kayak overturned spilling everything into the sea. I was worried about having to pay for the kayak so I grabbed it with one hand and began the long swim back to the beach. In those days swimming vests were not a requirement. When I eventually reached the hire shed the attendant got up from his deck chair with binoculars in hand. I dragged the kayak onto the beach and told him what happened. ‘Yeah’, he said, ‘I’ve been watching you and thought you might be a goner. These are shark infested waters’. There had been many shark attacks in Sydney waters in those years and I just didn't think. I am much more wary now. Shark attacks are more frequent off the West Australia coast now.
In those early years I was optimistic and enthusiastic, promising Milena so much should she decide to marry me. I spent lavishly on her before we married, but that came abruptly to an end once reality bit in. I came across an old sketch of the dream house I had promised her. It would have been quite a modern house for early 1962. My other wish would have been a house perched on a cliff face with an internal staircase leading down to the boat below. Although we live comfortably in a detached house, in a retirement village now, neither of the dream houses ever came to pass - neither did the motor home that I always wanted!
In 1962, the Lord saved my life from a gruesome and painful death at Melbourne University. Again, this was before I knew the Lord. I was working well past midnight in the, so-called, Danger Laboratory on the roof of the Chemistry Building. It was dangerous because we prepared fluorine gas, using electrolysis, from molten sodium fluoride, in a large reactor at 993 degrees Centigrade. An explosion, though unlikely because we had safety measures in place, could potentially make a floor uninhabitable. Fluorine is one of the most violently reactive elements. Physiologically it is extremely dangerous because it and its acid formed on reaction with water can't just be washed off skin. It is quickly absorbed and acts physiologically in the way no mineral acids do, spreading through tissue and rotting everything in its path. Many people have lost their hands or fingers etching glass with just its acid, hydrogen fluoride. Our laboratory was located on the uppermost two floors of the central tower.
I was vacuum distilling highly volatile fluorine compounds using an absolutely dry, glass vacuum line connected to various glass tubes, some immersed in liquid nitrogen (-196 deg Centigrade). The 10-foot long glass vacuum line was dried using a blow torch until the walls glowed and would almost implode. It was a very time-consuming job and often I did it after my day job at the city Post Office (I needed the money to frequently visit Milena on the other side of Melbourne).
On this occasion I started my laboratory work at about midnight with no one around. I felt good and very proud about working so hard, sometimes many nights in a row.
Having prepared the glass vacuum line, I began to vacuum distil liquid fluorine onto pure tungsten metal. The reaction produced clouds of material in the glass vacuum line which I trapped into another glass tube using an acetone/dry-ice slush bath around the tube at -78 deg Centigrade. Acetone vapour is also potentially highly explosive and several chemists were killed two or so years earlier in an Adelaide laboratory when an explosion occurred.
I was excited that I was collecting reaction products in the cold tube - it was the very first reaction of tungsten with fluorine gas in the world. Anything I could isolate, fractionate, purify and analyse would be previously unknown compounds.
I let the tube warm up to have a look at it before considering fractionation. As it was warming up, with icy clouds of air descending from outside the tube, I detected several layers of coloured and clear liquids in the tube. I didn't like the look of it. The first distillate at the bottom would have been the most volatile and now it was covered over with less volatile layers of material that looked pretty solid, one layer of which was yellow/brown.
While I was considering the situation, an inner voice that was almost audible told me "put your safety glasses on". The safety glasses had only ordinary optical frames but were fitted with shatter proof glass. I should have used a complete face mask but it wasn't within reach. Twenty seconds later, while I was closely studying the tube, the whole thing exploded spraying the contents and glass onto my face. There was a huge scratch across one of the lenses, but that didn't worry me immediately as much as the liquid fluorine compounds on my face. If I had not had the glasses on the stuff would have entered my eye ball and started rotting my brain from inside out.
We had been given ampoules of antidote in case of accidents. I grabbed them all and rushed, in the early hours of the morning, to Emergency at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, about a kilometre away. Heavily breathing, I anxiously told them what had happened, gave them the ampoules and told them to inject the calcium gluconate below the skin all over my face. IMMEDIATELY. To my relief, they believed me and two of them spent half an hour injecting all the ampoules, and into a spot on my hand as well. After a few months all that could be seen was a round area about an inch in diameter on the side of my hand. It's still there, but it's only very faint today. The purpose of the antidote is for the highly solubilised calcium to quickly spread through tissue rendering any fluorides inactive as solid calcium fluoride. Considering legal accountability these days would an emergency department be so co-operative, so quickly, today? Not only do I thank the Lord for saving my eye, but I thank him for my life as well.
As I frequently tell my wife at devotions, over breakfast, if it wasn't for God I would have been dead meat long ago! Not only that, I would have had an agonising death and euthanasia wasn't permitted in those days. This occurred fourteen years before I became a real Christian. That is surely prevenient grace. Moreover, on top of that, had I died I would have spent eternity in hell! I was not a Christian yet.
I have so much to thank Jesus for.
Anecdotes from Melbourne University, 1962-3
1. Eventually, I repeated the reactions and fractionated the substances, but not to absolute purity. I no longer have my notes, but according to my analysis I was the first discoverer of either Tungsten Tetrafluoride or Tungsten Hexafluoride, substances now important to the electronics industry. Fluorine was a tricky element to analyse quantitatively in those days. I greatly admire Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium, whose analytical skills in 1898 far surpassed what I could achieve much later in 1962.
I lost interest in research and abandoned my Master’s project, because, by marrying Milena in March 1963, we broke her Diploma of Education contract. I had to join BALM Paints ICI to help pay her studentship money back. As mentioned before, women were discriminated against in those days, though we pleaded with the Director of Education promising that we would not have a child during her period of contract. The Victorian Department of Education refused to employ her, after that, for many years, but as a Bachelor of Arts, the Tasmanian Board of Education readily accepted her to teach German, History and English at Ogilvie High School, in Hobart, which she thoroughly enjoyed. The Head of Chemistry was very displeased when I abandoned the project because the workshop department had built for me a very expensive vacuum gauge made purely out of Teflon, according to my design. It turned out to be utterly useless because it would continually release the tiniest amounts of gas and I could never achieve the required ultrahigh vacuum in the glass line. I lost so much time because of it. My boss at CSIRO, when I joined them in Canberra, during 1967, suggested that I never again ask that chemistry Professor for a reference. Yet, by the Lord’s grace, CSIRO decided to ignore his scathing reference because the references from two other overseas experts far outweighed his. Thus, I began to mingle with Australian and international scientific cream who were either employed or passing through on six-month stays in Canberra. My boss became adviser to the Prime Minister.
2. Being part of the Fluorine Laboratory one had to be an efficient glassblower. On another midnight experimental run I was finishing my glass blowing to add an all-glass vacuum gauge to my line and did not hear the night guard creeping up on me from behind. I extinguished the flame, and sensed something behind me. I turned around to find myself staring down the barrel of his revolver only one foot away from my face. The guard thought it was a great joke. The shock could have caused a nasty accident. He was unaware of the danger of me accidentally breaking any vials by my reaction.