OF all the extraordinary moments he had experienced in his 100 years on earth and in the sky, this was one that left Sid Handsaker speechless.
For standing before the World War II veteran in a Lake Macquarie apartment in northern NSW on Tuesday afternoon was the man he considered "magnificent". The man whose memoir he had just finished reading.
General Sir Peter Cosgrove.
"I'm staggered," said an overwhelmed and weeping Mr Handsaker, as Sir Peter entered the room, offering his hand.
"Of all the people! There I was reading his book and thinking what a great bloke he is, and he walks into the room. There he is!"
The former Governor-General, one-time Chief of the Defence Force and Vietnam veteran was providing Mr Handsaker with the birthday surprise of the century, meeting the World War II fighter pilot as an early present.
Mr Handsaker turns 100 on November 29. As he told Sir Peter, he was born in 1921.
"So when you're looking at former Governors-General," replied Sir Peter, "and they look young..."
The older veteran burst into laughter.
"So you were on Spits, Spitfires?," asked Sir Peter.
Sid Handsaker explained he had entered the Royal Australian Air Force when war was lapping at the nation's shores in 1942, not as a pilot, but as a wireless air gunner.
However, an officer recommended Sid Handsaker, who grew up in Jesmond near Newcastle in northern NSW, enter pilot training.
He was eventually posted to Britain, trained on Spitfires and, as a member of the RAAF's No. 451 Squadron, he escorted bombers on missions over Europe in the final days of the war in 1945.
"The bombs were just dropping and opening like flowers on the water," Mr Handsaker explained to Sir Peter.
He showed Sir Peter his flying log, a treasure he had kept since the war, and told the story behind the entry on April 18, 1945. On bomber escort duty over the sea off Germany, a burst of anti-aircraft fire tipped Warrant Officer Handsaker's Spitfire upside down and his engine stalled.
"The funny thing, Peter, was there was no panic," he said.
"Panic won't help," Sir Peter replied.
Sid Handsaker recounted how he managed to get the propeller blades spinning again and pulled out of the dive towards the sea.
"And then you had the comforting sound of the engine saying, 'Yes, I'm with you'," said Sir Peter.
Arranging this meeting between Sid Handsaker and Sir Peter was a covert operation.
While interviewing Mr Handsaker for the latest episode of the Voices of the Hunter podcast series about his life and experiences as a Spitfire pilot during the war, I noticed on the table in his Lake Macquarie residence a copy of Sir Peter's 2020 memoir, You Shouldn't Have Joined ...
Mr Handsaker declared he had almost finished the book and said how much he admired and liked Sir Peter. I asked if he had ever met Sir Peter.
No, he hadn't, but he wished he could, Sid Handsaker replied.
Having wrestled with what to give someone for their 100th birthday, I finally had a clue as to what would be a good present. For a man who has collected so many experiences in a century of living, I wanted to help provide him with one more.
I've had the privilege of interviewing and talking with Sir Peter on quite a few occasions over the past couple of decades, since his time as the commander of INTERFET, the international force restoring order in East Timor, in 1999 and 2000. I considered him an immensely affable person, and that he held great respect for those who had served before him.
As coincidence would have it, Sir Peter was coming to Lake Macquarie on Tuesday to speak about his book at the council's History Illuminated event.
So I figured there would be no harm in asking. Within 10 minutes of my contacting his office came the reply. Sir Peter would be delighted to meet with Mr Handsaker.
For almost an hour, the two men talked. Sir Peter asked permission to sign his name at the bottom of Mr Handsaker's log book, and he inscribed the birthday boy's copy of his memoir.
"To Sid," Sir Peter wrote. "A wonderful member of the greatest Australian generation. The nation is proud and grateful and salute your birthday, 100 not out! Warmest regards, Peter Cosgrove."
"I'm thrilled to meet you," said Sir Peter.
For Sid Handsaker, this was a 100th birthday present wrapped in mutual respect and the shared knowledge, learnt in the midst of war, of how precious life is.
"I never dreamed I'd meet Sir Peter," said Mr Handsaker.
"I won't have my feet on the ground for weeks."