Leo Nicholas Raphael wins the Public Speaking Award for Leo of the Year at this year’s Geelong Multiple District Convention. View Nicholas’s speech below.
A year ago, ‘Solidarity’ meant little to me. Today, it means everything to me.
To communities across our country, Solidarity is not a noun, but a verb. It’s a power that
saves lives, and transforms them. Lives like mine, in ways I will never forget.
It was hour ten, day two. My first deployment.
As we sat down to rehydrate, the moonscape smouldered. Pasture once browned with dry lay
blackened with flame. Where the bush ended and the farm began was no longer possible to
Amidst the sooty fog, the wind breathed a single spark from the ashen wasteland, and brought
it to rest on the floor of a distant gully.
We were too tired to notice. But as the flame crested the canopy, the radio screeched its
orders. Helmets donned, hoses wound, the dusk flared red and blue as one by one, our
engines made of the road.
Besieged with a wall of light on one side, and the shadowy depths of a clifface on the other –
we turned onto the narrow highway. Hoses bowled, we dismounted in the night, advancing
across the lanes of traffic towards the blinding inferno – the zooming trucks and cars dodging
between us as we ran.
All of them that is, except for one.
Upon a distant hill, a phantom shadow careered around the blind corner towards us at full
speed. The driver didn’t see the sign, or didn’t care. At 120 kilometres an hour, 40 tonnes of
B double were about to meet 13,000 kilos of our fire truck, perched atop the darkened ridge.
Our day was done.
We were oblivious to our impending fate. The fire out, we had returned to the road when a
faraway ember caught the corner of our driver’s eye.
Whether by fate or instinct, he pulled over to inspect. And in doing so, saved our lives.
Missing us and the crew on the hose, the road train hurtled between us and the clifface by a
fraction of the width of my hand. For a single terrifying instant, the whole earth seemed to
shake in the dark as we were dodged by certain death. It was a close call. But in the
adrenaline of the moment, it was almost thrilling.
From that day forward, the action, the team, the drive – were all sucked away. Driving home
from base, my fingers couldn’t quitter grasp the wheel of the car. Driving at night chilled my
blood cold. A dark shadow lingered permanently in the rear vision mirror.
The solidarity of the team, that empowering bond born from risk, had given way to the
bleakest, darkest isolation that I have ever known.
Then the phone rang. It was our driver, the man who’d saved my life. Knowingly, he asked
me how I was doing. I told him. I asked him, and he told me.
Alone, it felt like we had nothing. But as time passed, we began to feel that curious
magnetism of the team that grows us and unites us. The power of solidarity.
He referred me to the Critical Incident Support hotline. They gave me to a mentor. We called
each other. It wasn’t much. But between the outreach of these two good men, I was taught
life’s greatest lesson. That wherever duty takes us, the solidarity of friends, the solidarity of
the team, binds us and guides us in our common purpose.
Because without that bond, without that fellowship of adversity, I would never have gone on
a second deployment, I would never have seen towns, farms, livestock spared the wrath of the
firefront. Friendships would have gone unmade. My character would have gone unshaped.
Without the solidarity of my comrades, I would not be the man I am today.
Because in all things, the great and the small, the mundane and the momentous – at all times
in all places for all people – solidarity is power.