11 December 2008

Cadet driver

Canberra is home to two of our military academies. Oldest is Duntroon, the Royal Military College built around the homestead of the region’s first land owner, Robert Campbell. The first intake of cadets predates Word War One, at a time when Canberra consisted of the Campbell property, a church, a few workers cottages and the bleak Limestone Plains. There’s real tradition here.

The second establishment is more recent. The Australian Defence Force Academy opened in 1986, the year I came to Canberra. It’s softened into the environment now, but in those days it was raw white against the dry brown landscape and it really stood out. It’s a tri-service acadamy, giving officer cadets a three year degree and a lot of military training before they attend the Army, Navy or Air Force college for a year to complete.

Duntroon’s for the Army cadets, and their graduation and ball was Wednesday night. They held the ball at the Old Bus Depot, and after pinning on their pips at midnight, there was a run for taxis. Typical army efficiency, they organised marshals to keep everything flowing and the queue disappeared in short order.

Thursday evening, and I got a call to the ADFA roundabout for a Silver Service job. The place was loaded up with cadets, all in formal mess dress, ready for the big night. One cadet approached me and he gave the name of the booking, so he was in, and most of the others looked downcast.

Usual story: three other cadets joined the one who’d booked the cab and we set off for the ball at the National Convention Centre.

The reason why it’s difficult to get a cab to pick up at ADFA, or Duntroon for that matter, is that if several different cadets order a cab, they’ll meet at the pickup location at the roundabout, and being good team players, they’ll share the first cab to show up. Which means that the other cabs booked there find no passengers, unless they hang around and steal another cabbie’s fare.

So I don’t pick up from the defence academies unless I’m really scratching for work.

But, having said that, cadets are excellent passengers. Well-behaved, law-abiding, a fine sense of discipline and generally intelligent and well-rounded characters, I love having them in the cab. No trouble at all, and frequently entertaining.

Force of habit almost kept me going along Constitution Avenue to Mooseheads, the regular cadet pub, but at the last moment I remembered and pulled into the drop-off point outside the convention centre. The place was alive with cadets, their parents, their girlfriends, their brothers. All dressed up in their finest.

“Don’t you move,” I warned the young lady cadet in the back, “until I get out and open the door for you.”

A special occasion for her - and her male classmates, of course - and having a uniformed chauffeur open the door helps the evening swing.

I then ignored the convention centre until midnight, when I knew there’d be a flood of passengers. Some of the cadets would walk down to Mooseheads - the only night when they were allowed out at night in uniform - but others would need taking back to the academy, and their guests would want rides to their hotels.

Come midnight and I lined up with the other cabbies. It was full-on for about an hour, and I had passengers going in all directions. One party stuck in my mind. He was an Air Commodore, proud of his son graduating. He opened the door for his wife, and his daughter got in on the other side. Mother was a little tipsy, and she exclaimed over my slide show of “happy holiday snaps” on the iPhone. I liked her.

Daughter was a little miffed that she hadn’t been allowed to go out clubbing with her brother. “But you’re not old enough,” her father said, “wait until next year and the Duntroon graduation.”

“I could get in,” she pouted. “I look eighteen.”

“Ooh, there’s Tower Bridge!” exclaimed her mother. “Can you take us to London, driver?”


We got to their hotel, and Father helped his ladies out. “I could drive around with you all night,” I told Mother.

Father leaned in the window and paid up, adding a generous tip. I thought he was pretty cool, too.

For the remaining hours of the morning, Civic was full of happy cadets, exhilarating in the completion of three hard years. I drove a few home, enjoying their company. I love having happy people in the car.

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