2018 Calibre Essay Prize (Winner): 'We Three Hundred' by Lucas Grainger-Brown

I signed away ten years of my life at high school. Three hundred or so teenagers did likewise around the country; from Sydney and Melbourne to the wind-rustle quiet of burnt umber townships. We had similar reasons – wanting to be heroes and leaders, chasing self-respect, escaping loose ends, following Simpson and his donkey.

After graduation we cut our hair to regulation length, checked off items on a list in a thick wad of mailed instructions. We packed our luggage, teenage surfeit shrunk to military limits. Stiff in two-piece suits and shiny new leathers, family members farewelled, we converged on Canberra.

Canberra from above, in the throes of summer: a slice of suburbia deserted amid the pivot of a tumbleweed dust bowl; kindling grass chequered with vacant car parks; dark green mountains at the edge of the plateau. It was almost deserted. The politicians had gone home; locals had fled to the coast. The bushfire season consumed the headlines at a newspaper stand by the luggage carousel.

Buses with tinted glass awaited us. In a strange quiet, cocooned by the thrumming air-conditioning, we endured an anxious trip along the highway. Halfway up a gradual rise overlooking dry scrubland dotted with brick whitewash, our convoy turned through insignia-crusted walls. Into a strange city we burrowed, among Brutalist buildings stacked on the concave hillside like a Brazilian favela. Strangers began shouting at us. I caught the eye of another passenger and we shared a moment of sangfroid. We had arrived at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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Published in April 2018, no. 400