(Courtesy of Waterways Magazine)
I was 11 years old when Grease came out in 1978. My crush on Olivia Newton-John was immediate and all-consuming. I didn’t know which version of Sandy I loved more; the charming doe-eyed cheerleader who I longed to date, or the leather-clad, bad girl that stirred up feelings I didn’t quite understand.
I knew little about her other than she was from an exotic land called Australia. All I knew about Australia was it was a vast desert and everything there was trying to kill you; sharks, snakes, and spiders. She was the greatest export the country could have imagined; I assumed everyone looked like her.
I created a special fund from a portion of my allowance, which became a portion of my summer jobs in high school, to cover the cost of a transpacific journey. I would one day find a “Sandy” of my own.
Despite my best efforts at saving, it was quite apparent that Australia was:
A. Very far away.
B. Extremely expensive to get to.
Why was it so expensive to visit a vast desert overrun with koalas, kangaroos, snakes, spiders, and surrounded by sharks? Evidently, thousands of other teenagers knew about the goldmine of blonde hair, blue-eyed girls with exotic accents just waiting to be discovered. The risk and cost were worth the undertaking.
In high school, I made a second investment- in myself. I got a gym membership once I realized that no good Aussie woman wanted some gangly teen when you had the likes of Crocodile Dundee running around all bare-sleeved and wielding a machete.
I realized that if it took longer than thought, it would be important for me to be somewhat appealing for the girls of boring old Austin. The only thing they shared in common with the Australians was the first four letters of the respective destination. Beyond that, they were both literally and figuratively worlds apart.
My Australian fetish earned me the nickname “Crock Dundee.” I went through alternating stages of being flattered and embarrassed. While most kids fell into the deep 80’s goth vibe and worshipped at the altar of Robert Smith and The Cure and Sisters Of Mercy, I went all-in on Midnight Oil, INXS, and naturally, the guys who practically created the new Australian National Anthem, Men at Work.
As a teenager, I remained diligent in my savings. College loomed on the horizon and a potential semester abroad in Australia was not out of the question. Worst case scenario, I could use the money to buy a bunch of cans of Foster’s and live the dream from my dorm.
At the University of Texas in Austin, I studied International Relations. I looked at the school like it was a community college since I was from Austin, but it held the key to my happiness.
At the beginning of my junior year, my dream presented itself as a reality. Through a joint program with the University of Melbourne, I would be able to do my spring semester abroad. Australia and “Sandy” were closer to becoming a reality; I could put my obsession with Olivia Newton-John and Kylie Minogue aside (for the time being.)
I could barely contain myself on the evening of the informational meeting. I wasn’t a nerd in the traditional sense, but I sat in the front of the class, ready to answer any questions and share the depths of my knowledge with the rest of my classmates. Perhaps I could be the professor’s assistant, given my background and inherent qualifications.
From the back of the class, a voice called to me. Wild Tasmanian honey; sweeter than Olivia Newton John’s, laden with the promise of the treasures from the land down under. I held my breath as she announced that she would be the professors’ assistant for the semester in Austin. It was a subtle blow but immediately forgotten as she lured me in with her Siren song. She would be accompanying us in our Melbourne study program, and serve as the coordinator in Austin.
What I would tell my parents? I hadn’t even stepped foot on the soil of my obsession and already found the woman of my dreams. Surely she would want to introduce me to her family while we studied there. Attempting to appear nonchalant, I turned in my seat to see my angel whose every sentence had an upwards lilt like she was asking a question.
I was stunned by the vision before me. Thick, black, ropy hair. Her skin the color of pure coal, with piercing black eyes that radiated joyous mischief. She looked like nothing I had ever expected, and yet, as she waxed poetic about her family’s native aboriginal lands, I was wholly consumed by her passion and fire.
As the semester went on she taught about the parallels between the treatment of America’s Native Americans and Australia’s Aboriginals. She spoke with fierce pride and generations of knowledge. I was in love beyond compare.
Under the pretense of class-specific study help, I asked her to join me for coffee. Coffees became beers, beers became intimate dinners, then weekends exploring Texas. By the end of the semester, she was as enamored with me and Texas, as I was with her and Australia.
We sat hand in hand as the plane taxied down the runway. I was 23 hours plus a layover away from my wildest fantasies coming true. When the program ended, her family invited me to spend the summer with them.
At the end of the summer, I had mustered up enough courage to ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was an antiquated gesture; she would have made up her own mind without his input, but I wanted to show respect. His initial response was less than favorable, but over time, I wore him down. With a promise of waiting until after graduation and graduate school, he gave me his blessing. I was going to be an anthropologist studying in the southern hemisphere with his daughter in tow.
A few years waiting was water off a duck’s back. I had already waited a lifetime to meet her and make my dream a reality. Her name was Boondie, which was Aboriginal for “hardened clump of sand.”
I had met my “Sandy” after all.