How Father Christmas made of me a cynic

During a temporary bout of lust-induced insanity, I once impersonated the god of European Winter
During a temporary bout of lust-induced insanity, I once impersonated the god of European Winter

During my five years in the USA I’d occasionally be laid low by bouts of cultural malaria, that recurring melancholia triggered by sights, sounds or even things that don’t register on our conscious mind. Once or twice a year, I’d find myself feeling like a stranger in an unfamiliar land, and it was Christmas that was mostly to blame or, strictly speaking, the season in which it arrived. Perhaps due to a twinge of homesickness or maybe because I hadn’t had a sight of real sunshine for weeks, one day around Christmas I found myself looking at the weather data for south-western Australia. In Gingin, the town I’d left to come to the USA, the temperature was just breathing down the neck of 21°, falling from a high of 38. Pretty well normal for that time of year. During the last Christmas I spent there, Gingin registered the highest daytime temperature of any inhabited place on the planet – any place with a weather-recording station that is. The official reading on Christmas Day was a tad over 48° and on Boxing Day a couple of degrees higher. That would have put the temperature in my baby sister’s backyard, where we had the family get-together, at somewhere round the 55° mark, perhaps even higher and Tony Abbott notwithstanding, Christmases will only get hotter. While in Kentucky I didn’t miss the ‘new’ Aussie tradition of a seafood Xssie dinner, not too much anyway, largely because Kentucky cooking can wipe away all cares, but a bit of hot sunshine would have been nice and I reckon I even would’ve welcomed a few flies.

Now that all this reminiscing has got my brain creaking into action, I’m going to add my feelings about other reminders of Christmases past – might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, I suppose. Ever since I was about 17, December has always brought the same stupid greeting from the self-styled wits: “G’day Father Christmas.” Though “silly young bugger” and, later, “Are you a beatnik?” and later still “Bloody hippy” joined the list of things that rankled, the Father Christmas tag was the worst. Now that people have forgotten that hippies and beatniks ever existed and now that nobody in their right mind would now call me a silly young bugger, “G’day Father Christmas” has regained its position in first place on the list of clever things to say to Frank; “How often do you get asked to play Father Christmas?” running a close second. This last has become even more common now that what’s left of my beard is mostly white. So right here, right now I’m stating for the record that I’ve often been asked to impersonate the other impersonators of the original impersonator of whomsoever it was they’re all impersonating, but only once have I succumbed – and that for ulterior motives. I want to put that aside to perhaps resurface at another time, it was a one-off event, triggered by a temporary bout of lust-induced insanity.

I don’t mind when kids gawk at me in stores, becoming more  wide-eyed as the Big Day draws nearer, it’s the adults’ sniggers I can’t stand and it’s getting even worse now that I know that the pretty mums who give me a big “thank you” smile for tipping the wink and secret hand signal to their staring kids are mostly young enough to be my grandkids, and know it – and know that I know that they know it. Sad it may be, but all this is as a mere backpack when weighed against the dray-load of luggage with which the Christmas season has burdened me and has very little to do with my dislike, hatred almost, of the red-garbed impostor. For you see my first and only childhood encounter with Father Christmas – or Santa Claus or Saint Nik or whatever else you want to call him – was a bitter one and rankles still. I was about knee-high to a bull-ant’s nephew when my beloved Nana and Mum’s best friend Bernie took my cousin John and me to Boan’s Department Store in Perth, Western Australia, to sit on the Yule Figure’s knee and have our photo taken, a commercial bonanza still in the early stages of being mined. There was a big crowd of parents and kids, the latter in mental states ranging from excitement to abject fear, so when it was my turn to be lifted onto the red-trewed knee and crushed against the kapok paunch there was a large audience for what was to happen next.

Cockatoos are well-known for fixation on one person, expressed either as love or blind hatred. Woodrow W Woody, my ex-wife's male galah, would have shredded anyone else who tried this.
Cockatoos are well-known for fixation on one person, expressed either as love or blind hatred. Woodrow W Woody, my ex-wife’s male galah, would have shredded anyone else who tried this.

After an exchange of social niceties, Daddy C. asked the traditional question: “And what do you want me to bring you for Christmas, little man?”

“A cocky,” I replied – in a loud, clear voice it was later said – “A galah.” The “little man” had been bad enough, but his next response was startling.

“A cocky,” he almost shouted, “A cocky,” then, milking the moment for all it was worth, he swept his sherry-tinged eyes over the waiting crowd and in a voice loud enough to be heard down at Perth Railway Station he informed the world: “This young feller wants a galah for Christmas!” and roared with laughter. There was a bit of a giggle from the waiting crowd, I seem to remember, but I wasn’t going to hang around to hear any more. I wriggled out of the comedian’s clutches and fled. Bernie later said it took her 10 minutes to catch me, but she may have been exaggerating.

Like all good melodramas, this one also has a happy ending. I woke up on father-xChristmas Day to see, sitting on the homemade, kerosene box dresser that stood against the wall, a makeshift cage and inside it my cocky in the form of a young, female galah. Grandpa Frank, that gentle man with the faint Welsh accent inherited from his father, and who trapped crocodiles for a living, had gone out and caught me a bird. And more was to come. Sitting on the bare boards of the back “sleepout” was a large and beautiful cage. About 6 x 3 x 3 ft with a Cyclone mesh front and a gabled roof, it had a small feeding door and a larger door I could open to clean the cage and take Cocky out to play with her. Thanks Frank. You were a lovely man and you saved Christmas for me. I had Cocky for more than 15 years, up until the time she died in the 1960s. Father Christmas and I haven’t spoken since. As I said, I’ve been asked to represent him many times and have done so once, but I didn’t really enjoy it, the memory still hurts. And knowing what I do now, I think it’s a bit dangerous for me to impersonate him.

On the  other hand, if he really is the Green Man…

Blues for the Clothes-prop Man

Whenever I begin to write down reminiscences it seems that I have to approach my tale widdershins, and this telling is no exception. It must be the Celt in me still longing, after generations in exile, to use openings such as “Morgan was a strong, sea-wise man in the summer of his days” and to a certain extent succeeding. That’s my excuse anyway, so I’m asking you to bear with me for a while as in my long-winded way I get around to telling you about a man whom I never actually met but whose influence was great, though it went unnoticed until many decades after I first saw him. I’m speaking of the clothes-prop man, an much-anticipated visitor to our street when I was still a small child.

Before the Hills' Hoist and the retractable clothes-line, Number 8 wire and saplings held the washing
Before the Hills’ Hoist and the retractable clothes-line, Number 8 wire and saplings held the washing

Before the days of the now-ubiquitous Hill’s Hoist – itself in danger of being replaced by the indoor drier, a stupid indulgence in Australia’s climate – most of Australia’s Monday washing was hung on homemade backyard clotheslines. A couple of stout poles or 4 x 4s were sunk in the ground and fixed to the top of each was a cross arm, like that on a utilities pole, loosely bolted at the centre so it could swivel up and down. The line was often number-8 galvanized fence wire and to prevent it sagging under the weight of the wet clothes and allowing them to drag in the dirt, the wire was supported by one or more hardwood saplings, 2 to 3 metres or so long with a short fork at one end and roughly sharpened at the other. This is what the clothes-prop man sold.

The man who visited our area was tall and rangy and always dressed in cast-offs, pants rolled up at the cuffs and held up by an old tie or rope. Shoeless, he wore a battered hat tipped to one side so that it wouldn’t be knocked from his head by the load of clothes props he carried on his right shoulder. Beautifully dark-coffee brown, like many of the Nyungar people, he had a voice that caressed the air like an owl’s wing. “Cloooo-otse prups, throop’ns heach; cloooo-otse prups, throopn’s heach. Clotse prups missus?” Poor bugger. He would’ve cut those saplings miles away, in the hills perhaps or out on the sandplain towards Gingin or Wanneroo, then walked 20 or 30 miles with them on his shoulder to tramp the suburbs of Perth to sell them for a trey bit (threepence, roughly 3 cents) a throw. He could carry perhaps six, so two or three days’ work might have netted him the equivalent of a couple of loaves of bread. When she heard him, Mum would take out a glass of water and a biscuit, or a sandwich if it was around lunchtime. This country’s indigenous peoples were never invisible to our family.

Australia’s  treatment of the country’s traditional owners was – still is – shameful and deserves a hearing by an international tribunal. To the vast majority of the population, Aboriginal people and the conditions under which they were forced to live were invisible. Things were beginning to improve till John Howard came on the scene. His government, bigoted, xenophobic and, at times, overtly racist, set Australian attitudes back 50 years or more. Howard opposed a multicultural society, introduced legislation that stalled or complicated previous court decisions on Aboriginal land rights, insulted Australia’s Chinese community – many of whom have a history in this country at least as long as Howard’s – and gave covert support to the anti-immigrant-for-any-reason-or-just-because-they’re-not-like-us fringe. Faced with a loss of votes to a newly emergent One Nation Party, a sort of neo-conservative thoughtless tank very similar in thought and deed to the US Tea Party, Howard’s Government had no hesitation in enthusiastically adopting many of its policies and sentiments and pandering to its uninformed, unthinking extremist views. The present mob are following in his footsteps with gusto. It is worth mentioning, however, that at least in Australia, Aboriginal issues are raised on the news. In my five years in  the USA, there was only one news item I recall concerning Native Americans, and that was a sensationalised, obviously ill-informed child-custody battle.

You’ll be pleased to know that the clothes-prop man still lives. Years ago, while performing at a blues festival in Queensland, I was being interviewed for a magazine. The writer noted that I had been described by another publication as having a voice like “gum-leaf smoke on gravel” and asked who were my influences. Of course I stoutly denied that my singing style had been influenced by anyone. More recently and for a different sort of audience, I was singing one of my favourite calm-the-drunks songs, Dave Guard’s Scotch and Soda, and I heard the clothes-prop man singing through me from the past.

How I found that there can indeed be liberation in work

I HATED SCHOOL – absolutely hated it – and almost from my very first day there couldn’t wait to get out. There were lots of reasons for my loathing and I’ll be first to admit that as my school years crawled by a lot of the things I hated were magnified by my own pig-headedness, but a lot weren’t; they were irritants engendered by a system still operating in the past and geared to deal only with privilege, the status quo and blind acceptance. I’ll also concede that I started my academic non-career at a bad time. Early on many of the teachers were probably dragged out of retirement to fill gaps left by those who were away fighting the war. These servicemen and women then returned to teaching no doubt finding it difficult to cope with a world far removed from the one they had known since 1939 – maybe since 1929. All that aside, I still hated it.

Bernie Jamieson aged around 21. She remains among my pantheon of major heroes.
Bernie Jamieson aged around 21. She remains among my pantheon of major heroes.

On my very first day I was involved in a Disturbing Incident (more of that another time) but it was literacy that was the real wellspring of my bitter gall. Yes, literacy. You see, I could read tolerably well by the time I was four and more than tolerably well by age five. I’m not sure how, I think I taught myself by linking words to pictures in books being read to me, but I can still vividly remember the day the penny dropped. I was being taken out for a walk by Mum’s younger friend and one of my pantheon of major heroes, Bernie Jamieson, who at the time would have been around 16 or 17, give or take. Mum worked on the metropolitan buses as a connie – bus conductress, i.e. ticket seller – during the war and Bernie and my equally young Aunt Tina baby sat me after school, and at weekends if Mum was working and Nana needed a break. Bernie had a beautiful mind, and as she pushed me around in my stroller or walked at a pace befitting my short legs we would make up stories based on the names of the streets we travelled. “Violet Grove was a shy, reclusive girl who longed for great adventures,” I can still hear her saying as we turned into the little street bearing the name of that imaginary pale beauty. Then one day – I wasn’t much more than three – I pointed to the street sign above us and said: “This must be where Robinson Crusoe lived.” Bernie didn’t bat an eyelid: “It is little known, but in his declining years, Robinson Crusoe kept a house in Shenton Park, in the street that now bears his name.” We were, indeed, in Robinson Street. It was, I realised years later, A Huge Mistake.

Why? The upshot of it all was that when I got to the Reading Primer stage at school, it all came crashing down. Come my turn at reading aloud and I opened my book and began: “Sam, can you see the ball? Rover (or Spot, I can’t remember, but it was a half-pie border collie-looking thing) can see the ball.” And on I went at my usual storytelling speed, reading for punctuation and all as I’d been taught when reciting poems at home. I’d only got to the bottom of the page when the pedagogue spoke: “Sit down, Francis, no-one likes a showoff.” I was crushed.

Doubly so. Not only had I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do – despite the stupid storyline – but she had called me by the wrong name. I was Frank, registered as such in Official Government Documents and one of a long line of Frankish-eyed men in the Clan Hwfa, and not Francis. By the time I was a teenager, I swore to refuse to have anything more to do with any girl who asked me “Were you christened Frank or Francis?” It was a vow I didn’t keep, but back to my tale – that was that for primary school, and it went downhill from there on in. Salvation came just a few months shy of my fifteenth birthday, in the form of a classified ad in the West Australian:

APPRENTICE HAND COMPOSITOR
Position available in Fremantle at small jobbing printer.
Apply to Mr R. Wade at
Fremantle Printing Company Pty Ltd
cnr Cliff and Phillimore Sts.

Next day, and without a word to anyone, I went into Fremantle instead of to school in West Perth. Cocky as a bantam rooster, I fronted up to the office counter in what is now a heritage-listed building and asked to speak to Mr R Wade. Ron, as I later knew him, sat me down in the tiny front office, asked me a few questions then, to my delight said: “You’ve got the job. When can you start?”

“One o’clock this arvo,” I promptly replied, and then overrode protests that there indentureswas no need, that I could start Monday – it was a Thursday – or in two weeks or whenever; but I was insistent, here was my chance at liberation. I was going to take it. Now! I caught the train back to West Perth and, as I’d expected, was grabbed by the headmaster. “Why are you late, Povah?”

“I’ve got a job and I’m startin’ terday. I need a letter sayin’ I’ve left school.”

“I’ll do it and glad to. You’ll never amount to anything, Povah, you’ll be a nothing all your life.”

“She’ll be right,” I replied. Failure I might be, but I was after all an Australian.

An eternity of long hours later and I was back in Fremantle to begin work as a probationary pre-apprentice. I got home a couple of hours late that day and was immediately bailed up by Mum: “Where have you been? What have you been up to.”

“I’ve been at work.” “Work? Work? What do you mean work?” and I told her.

 

And that’s how I became a hand compositor. I’ll tell you about the job and the people I knew another time, but I still get a thrill when I recall how proud I was to be a Probationary Apprentice beginning his six-year journey as an Indentured Apprentice on the way to becoming a Tradesman Hand Compositor and still later a Journeyman. Years later, Ron – who’d been a navigator in Lancaster bombers in wartime – told me he was so flabbergasted by my cocksuredness and the fact that I’d fronted up on my own and full of confidence (the ad had been running for a few days before I saw it and several other applicants had arrived with parents) that he’d had “no choice”.

The headmaster was right, of course. But I’ve had a better life than he ever did I’ll bet.

Sandshoes, a teacher, dress codes, and a declined invitation

Cockatoo sandshoes

Cockatoo Island c. 1990s, in its tourist period. Some of the 1940s infrastructure still remained, though the scars from mining in the 50s and on can be seen. 1: Our old house, once the last one in the row, it has a darker roof. 2: The little swimming beach. We took it in turns to keep cockatoo for sharks and crocs from the top of the little cliff. The butcher, baker, post office, school and a jury rigged cinema screen were on the flat out of sight behind the beach, 3: Nob Hill where the BHP bosses stayed on the rare occasions they flew in by, I think, Sunderland flying boat.  4: This is where the butcher kept the pigs. The goats ran wild and we occasionally had beef obtained from a station on the mainland and brought over by MV Yampi Lass. 5: Paradise Point, where Two-Ton Tony dumped the guts on killing days. The Buccaneer Archipelago was once a vast, coral encrusted Garden of Wonders.

Weird, isn’t it? You think that you’ve outgrown things that got at you in your childhood, or at least learned to cope with the major hurts, when something happens to trigger a memory and it all comes flooding back. It happened to me recently and I just couldn’t cope with it so I regressed many decades and responded in exactly the same way as I would have done – did – back then.

Many, many years ago I attended a vey small two-roomed school on an island in the Kimberley, a school with a student body of about eight at its peak (and more of that island in another post). The teacher, a Mr Miekeljohn – I hope I’ve remembered the spelling – was young, enthusiastic, and in hindsight full of the latest theories about education. Once a week his equally young wife would don a red, polka-dotted dirndl skirt and a white blouse and skip lightly down to the school to lead us kids in folk-dancing in the otherwise unused second room.

Now Mr M. may have been in the vanguard of modern educators and his wife’s penchant for folk-dancing suggests an empathy with the proletariat, but he must have been very lacking in life experience and knew next to bugger all about the kids that existed outside the text books he’d read at Teacher’s College. He didn’t know that kids had parents and other family that affected their lives and attitudes and that they were all different and all the same, adhering to an unwritten code of conduct that was inviolable and unknown to adults, especially those with no life experience.

With every good intention I’m sure, he arranged a tour of the tiny island by which we would “learn to observe nature”. That was a bad start, we were already familiar with nature. Every rock in the cleared area around the small cluster of houses was fought over by goannas and pythons wanting to use them for reflective sun beds and we knew just how far we could push them before they’d retaliate. Boys’ heaven was to ride with Two-Ton Tony in the open rubbish truck to dump the pig and goat guts from the fortnightly butchering over the cliff into the sea at Paradise Point. Watching the wedge-tails, sea-eagles and hawks scoop smaller tidbits from the air and the sharks and other fish in a feeding frenzy below was a sight to behold. And didn’t we take it in turns to stand cockatoo for sharks and crocs during the daily swim?

Never mind all that, next day he was going to teach us about nature. We must wear sandshoes, we were told, so that we wouldn’t damage our feet, while The Department in the form of Mr Miekeljohn would provide paper, coloured pencils and expertise. The boys sniggered at this. We spent all day every day barefoot, running over rocks and coral shards and our feet were like bullock hide. Even walking on the coral flats at low tide we went barefoot, though keeping a trepidatious eye out for stonefish. But the word was out, sandshoes were compulsory, without them you couldn’t go. So next day we all turned up at the usual time of 6.30 am, all but one pupil shod with the requisite foot torture.

“Where are your sandshoes, Frank?”

“Indistinct mumble.”

“Speak up.”

“Mumble.”

Louder: “Where are your sandshoes? Answer me, you stubborn boy.”

Silence. Then, no doubt exasperated, he grabbed my arms and shook me back and forth, yelling: “If you don’t have sandshoes you are staying behind. Now, where are your sandshoes?”

“I don’t want to go.”

That was it, he pushed me against the wall, said “Stay here, then, you ignorant boy,” and walked out with the rest of the by now embarrassed kids, leaving me to sit all day in the schoolhouse being lectured about obedience by his wife.

I wasn’t going to admit I didn’t have any shoes at all, let alone sandshoes. The family budget was pretty tight and if I’d asked my Old Man could I have a pair he would have told me that he didn’t need sandshoes when he was kid, so why should I. No matter, I didn’t have sandshoes, but I wasn’t going to tell him any of the whys.

As I said, that teacher didn’t know much about life, or kids. We were never on good terms after that and the other kids stood off from him too. The code wouldn’t allow them to tell him I didn’t own any shoes, but they weren’t going to cut him any slack for not knowing that. He also didn’t realise that back then kids in the families of the working poor, the boys anyway, didn’t wear shoes at any time, ever. Oh I had a pair of sandals, but that was later when we lived on the mainland. But they were only for special occasions, school not being one of them, and because I went barefoot all the time they hurt like hell. It was barefoot to school and to everywhere else. We played footie barefoot and games such as stone-age hockey and kingie were played without shoes. That’s the way it was.

Fast forward to 2013

I still do advisory work, copy editing and so on, for a pretty well-known magazine and in all the years I’ve worked for them, through several owners, it’s been from home; at first in contact by mail and public telephone then mail and private phone and later by email. In all those years, I suppose I’ve been into the office perhaps ten times, certainly no more, and three of those occasions have been for the annual presentation nights at which people are recognised for their accomplishments in various fields of endeavour.

Years ago I opened one with a short performance, but others I’ve attended as a way to catch up with the writers and staff I deal with on a daily basis and to put a face to a name that some readers follow. All in all they were usually pretty casual and friendly affairs. I’m invited every year, but often I’ve been too far away to make it practical or other things have got in the way, but I really had no excuse this year, so I told the person responsible to go ahead and book my flight. I was really looking forward to going, I really was, until I received the formal invitation, noted the flash venue and so made the fatal mistake of asking what people would be wearing. The person I asked casually remarked, “Oh mostly slacks and a dinner jacket I think.” That was it, it all came crashing down. I took a deep breath and then emailed to say I couldn’t make it and to not make the bookings. When I explained to one of the staff that I really didn’t have anything suitable to wear, and despite her protestations that whatever I wore would be fine, I just couldn’t budge. My mind sat back on its hindquarters, reefed back on the lead rope and that was it. Off went my nose to spite my face.

As I said, I just can’t do it. Not yet. Give me a month or a year or so, and I’ll work my way through it, but not this quickly. I didn’t know it still hurt so much.

So why the Philippines, Pat?

A comment on twitter about a Philippines earthquake led me to revisit a piece I’d written while living in Kentucky. During the horror that was the great earthquake in Haiti, one of the USA’s noisiest and most hateful fundamentalist preachers – and they are legion – blamed Haitian history for the misery that they were suffering. I’d like to know what he’d have to say about the recent events in Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Ukraine and elsewhere. With minor changes that piece is presented here.

A little while ago I confessed that I have a tendency, probably genetic, to approach a tale widdershins, and I can promise you that this will be no exception. In my defense I’d like to say that I’ve always enjoyed the journey as much as the destination, until, that is, I flew for the first time in one of those jet-propelled drainpipes posing as modern passenger aircraft. Fortunately for those of you still with me, that has no part in this tale. I just mention it as one of those things that lead some to repeatedly accuse me – possibly fairly – of being able to gripe about almost anyything.

I’ve been re-reading America and the Americans, that collection of Steinbeck oddments, to make sure I’d remembered aright what first sparked my interest in this country, its institutions and its peoples. Among this collection are articles he wrote about living conditions in the camps of displaced Americans, forced during the Great Depression to scrabble for an existence among the unimaginable wealth that was – still is – California’s horticultural industry.

SinThen this morning I read Mike Williams’ touching piece on Haiti, bringing experience, knowledge and humanity in contrast to the horrors of the TV reports. Mike’s piece led me to Paul Raushenbush, who guided me to Pat Robertson one of that remarkable breed of moneygrubbers, the multi-something-aire pseudo religious who cause me, a non-Christian, to speculate about the particular version of the Gospels on which they seem to have based their business plans.

Robertson in turn led me to The Grapes of Wrath and Jim Casy. From Jim my mind wandered to Woody Guthrie’s Tom Joad and the origins of the Wobblies, from where, given my half-century-plus love affair with American folk music, it was just a short step to Joe Hill and the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook.

And so I come back to Pat Robertson, the Preacher Man, hammer of sinner and Democrat alike and forthright spokesMAN for the Righteous Reicht. In the midst of the horror that reduced me – along with millions of others –  to tears, a Kentucky sect whose charitable works apparently consist entirely of building churches in Haiti worries about its missionaries and Robertson spouts the sort of tripe that I thought had disappeared soon after witch-burning was outlawed. According to Pat – and he’d know – his god is punishing Haiti because during the slave rebellion of 1791, they invoked the old gods of Voodoo – fairly reasonable you’d think seeing that the god of Abraham didn’t seem much interested in easing their misery and suffering. This, says Pat, equates to a pact with the devil and so they need to be punished. He didn’t mention why his god had waited for more than 200 years to dish it out, but I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’re preaching sin and retribution.

Pat, perhaps you and others like you should take a bit of a decko at the Wobblies’ book of “songs to fan the flames of discontent”. Joe Hill penned one that might have been written for you and your soulless ilk and I’d like to put part of it down here. Sung to that beautiful old tune, In the Sweet By and By, I’ve changed the first two lines very slightly to suit the times.

Wealthy preachers on TV every night,
Like to tell us what’s wrong and what’s right;
When you ask them for something to eat,
They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat, by and by;
In that glorious land in the sky;
Hope and pray, live on hay;
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

There, dear readers, I got here at last. I hope the journey wasn’t too boring for you.

Oh! and Pat – sorry, I’d almost forgotten about you – if you and your band of Sin-Finders are entitled to a place in heaven, I’m bloody glad I’m not a Christian. In fact I’m thinking seriously of moving to Turkey after something I saw on TV last night. At least there I’d probably be pretty safe from you and your sanctimonious mob, knowing your attitude towards anybody who doesn’t go along with your perverted morality. Why Turkey, Pat? Read on…

During NBC’s coverage of events in Haiti, there was captured on the record an all-too-brief moment that deserves to be shown over and over and over again; one of those heart-wrenching incidents that if we are extremely lucky we may occasionally see in a lifetime and that remind us that we really all brothers and sisters under the skin. Oh I know you’re not, Pat, but bear with me anyway.

A numbed Haitian man is sitting outside the ruins of his home. Apparently his wife’s voice was heard a few hours before but all is now silent. He is exhausted from digging with his bare and bleeding hands and his face is a study in awful nothingness. He does not want to think. He wishes to be, not there, but in some other existence, one where his wife still is.

A Turkish team, experienced in earthquake rescue and, we are told, one that had done sterling work in Japan, has just arrived on the scene. One of their number, an ordinary-looking bloke in rescue gear, touches the Haitian on the shoulder.

“We are here, my brother,” he says, in English.

The light of his humble humanity was so blinding that I bawled like a child.

Dried fruit, Seventh Day Adventists, smallpox, AIDS and crackpot theories

The last row of the season. Uncle Tom is the man in the straw hat, Hadyn Judd is handing me the cuppa, and my picking partner and mother of our son is seated on my left.
The last row of the season. Uncle Tom is the man in the straw hat, Hadyn Judd is handing me the cuppa, and my picking partner and mother of our son is seated on my left. The temperature would have been in the high 30s–40s that day.

Back in late ’79 I’d just returned to the Old Brown Land from an extended stay in the Long Cloud, also known as the Shaky Isles and New Zealand, and after a brief sojourn in Sydney – where I worked as a reader of Acts and Bills for the State Government Printer – I decided it was time I rediscovered the Australia I had most missed during my time in voluntary exile. My new girlfriend suggested we go down to work in the fruit out on the irrigation country in the arid south-west corner of New South Wales, close to the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers, rivers now in the desperate stages of what will be a terminal  illness unless government listens to the scientists fighting for its life. This is a tragedy made even more poignant by the rivers’ iconic status, for the Murray–Darling system holds the same place in Australian hearts as the Mississippi does in Americans’ and the Thames in the hearts of the English.

We decided to head for the Coomealla district of NSW, just over the river from Mildura on the Victoria side, so with a few clothes, provisions and some camp-cooking gear in a couple of small backpacks and my guitar case in my hand, we got out on the highway to thumb the 1,000-odd road kilometres to Dareton. It ended up taking about three days – school holiday times were never the best for hitching – but there were still enough farmhands and ordinary bush people on the road to get us there in relative comfort and summer temperatures made for easy sleeping under the sky.

The old pickers' hut
The old pickers’ hut

We were lucky. We got there about three weeks before the grape harvest began – it was a late season – but a few enquiries over beers at the Coomealla pub directed us to the extended Judd family who hired us in advance of the harvest, telling us we could have the use of their old pickers’ hut, one of the last in the district. We were doubly lucky; most of the old-style huts had been swept aside in a wave of local governments’ passion for “progress” with its counterpart in State government rationalisations that had resulted in the doing away of the “Fruit-Fly Special” – a carriage attached to the regular passenger train service to Mildura that offered cheap transport to the fruit districts for itinerant workers.

We spent  a bit over two years in that hut. Shaded by huge old Atholl pines – tamarisks – that gave relief from the worst of the 120-in-the-shade summer days, it was basic but cosy. A small bedroom and larger kitchen with room for a table and chairs were in the hut proper, while outside were a shower – hot water courtesy of a little wood-fired donkey-boiler attached to a tank made from a 44-gallon fuel drum – and a traditional style outside dunny. The hut was ventilated by big corrugated iron-clad shutters that were propped open on hot days to allow for free passage of air.

The Judds were a close-knit family of Seventh Day Adventists whose dinky-di Australian-ness somehow blended with their religious beliefs, seemingly with no effort. They may have inwardly shuddered at the lifestyles of neighbors and employees, but without exception were neighbourly and polite to all they encountered and always willing to help someone in need. More than once we were “loaned out” to help one of their fellow growers who’d had difficulty getting enough labor to do essential work. For two full seasons and a bit more we picked sultanas, currants and raisins, pruned and “pulled out” – removed the spent sultana canes from the trellis wires – and sweated on the drying racks. When not working for the Judds we picked oranges for Col, a very irreligious neighbour who was also a good drinking partner with a fine singing voice. With me on guitar we worked out a great arrangement of “Lucky Old Sun” that brought the house down at a hooley one night.

Being Seventh Day Adventists, the older generation of male Judds would not take up arms during World War Two, serving instead in the Medical Corps. At war’s end, not a few went back to the South Pacific to serve as what they called “medical missionaries” in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia; one such was a Judd family member known to all as Uncle Tom.

I liked Tom. He had a wicked sense of humour and loved a yarn; he also had one of those minds that ceaselessy wander through the pastures of the imagination, picking a bit from here, a bit from there and chewing them  over and over till he’d extracted every bit of mental sustenance that he possibly could. I also admired his religious conviction. Like the rest of the Judd clan I never once heard him curse anyone. He might admit that he couldn’t understand this or that, but he would never condemn. A town desperate, known for his violence when the booze was on him, was known to have badly beaten his wife and Tom was so moved as to criticise: “He could be a better man were it not for the drink.” The elder of the clan, Charlie Judd was the same. Some local brats had opened the water channel near his house, flooding the front yard and a workshop. “I wish you had been there, Frank,” Charlie said. “You could have told them off much better than I was able.” Hadyn, the youngest Judd, was not without a sense of humour. Within a few days of the water incident, a neighbour was spraying orange trees at what seemed a strange time and I was moved to wonder aloud what he might be spraying for. “Kids, probably,” was Hadyn’s immediate and laconic rejoinder.

Back to the yarn. Uncle Tom had been a medical missionary for 10 years and smokos and the meal break were enlivened by stories of his time in the islands. Having a mind similar to Tom’s, I soaked up his anecdotes like a sponge. Being a staunch SDA, Tom was also a firm believer in natural foods and was full of criticisms of the modern diet. Homogenised milk was, according to Uncle Tom, very dangerous, because the process rendered the fat molecules small enough to pass through the stomach wall and directly into the bloodstream. Recent findings have borne Tom’s theories out, though the mechanics are a bit more complicated. I once put to Tom my  belief that we were doing ourselves harm by eating foods out of their season. I argued that humans have evolved to eat feast-or-famine fashion, gorging on what was abundant in its season and going without when it was scarce. How is it, I asked Tom, that south-eastern Aboriginal peoples, who during the season gorged on bogong moths until “every pore oozed with the oil they had consumed” and the Top End clans who during the nesting season eat goose eggs by the canoe load, how is it that they didn’t drop like flies from the cholesterol and fat overload? Tom sort of agreed with me, reckoning that it was probably better to scoff homegrown tomatoes by the bucket for their limited season and then go without for the remaining nine months.

Then there was his yaws story. Yaws is an ugly, tropical disease of the skin and bones caused by a spirochaete bacterium. The disease, Uncle Tom told us, was rife among the islanders he worked with and its control became a major concern. However, as yaws was brought under control, the incidence of syphillis began to rise. It was believed, Tom said, that the yaws spirochaete supressed that which caused syphillis.

And so we come to the point of this discourse – and if you think I’m a long-winded writer then be warned, never engage me in actual conversation. It must have been a year after I left the grape blocks that I was listening to a radio documentary on the rise and spread of AIDS. One of the scientists involved in the hunt for the culprit described how it had for so long eluded them because, and this is how I recall it, the virus “hid behind” the smallpox virus, to which it was very similar. Uncle Tom’s yaws story sprang  to mind. Didn’t AIDS proliferate at about the same time that smallpox was eliminated?

I remember another radio documentary about the rise in heart disease and the link to changes in the diet. The increase in consumption of fatty foods was seen as a major culprit and much discussion ensued about fats from seafood and fats from land animals – Omega-3 and cholesterol were soon to become enormously profitable buzz words. Yet another radio program, this one on the decline of traditional farming, contained a comment by an English farmer bemoaning the loss of diversity in livestock breeds, particularly pigs – there are now, generally speaking, only two or three breeds of pig raised commercially. This and the rise of factory farming, he said, has led to animals putting on what he called “soft fat”. Prior to WWII, he went on, animals were hardened by roaming pastures for feed and their fat had a different composition, “hard fat” as the old-timer put it.

Another documentary, another bit of trivia. The traditional meats consumed by Australia’s indigenous peoples contain higher levels of Omega-3s than does meat in the modern diet. Wild sheep, the ancestors of today’s breeds, also contain significant levels of this fatty acid. Has intensive farming and the livestock feeds associated with it changed the chemical composition of the meat we eat? I know that grain-fed beef smells and tastes faintly of the pellets you feed domestic chooks if you’ve run out of grains, so why wouldn’t this be so?

Okay, so you reckon it’s all far-fetched and fanciful, but spare me days, I have to do something with my mind.

Of grampas, warships and inter-racial relationships

I'm not sure, but I think this was the model Chandler that George's boys converted to a ute. My Old Man later turned it into a tractor
I’m not sure, but I think this was the model Chandler that George’s boys converted to a ute. My Old Man later turned it into a tractor

One of my grandfathers was a man named George Hamilton. In his younger days George had been a boss drover who on several occasions had taken mobs of cattle from the Snowy Mountains to Victoria River country in the Northern Territory. It was said among the Aboriginals in the Kimberley, his birthplace and home run, that he could smell water.

In later life, George drove a Chandler Six that the older boys had cut down into a ute complete with  wood-framed canvas canopy over a tray that held wooden bench-seats when the occasion demanded. Years later, my dad fiddled with the gearing and converted it into an iron-wheeled tractor for use on the small farm George had by then bought. Testament to Norm’s genius with things mechanical, that tractor lasted George until the day he died, in the mid 60s.

But none of this has much to do with this story, though the ute does feature in it. Rather, I’d like to tell you about a lesson

George taught me when I was just a nipper, way back near the end of World War II or perhaps in the months following the surrender of Japan – it was a long time ago anyway.

George had taken my sister Kerry – then about two, I’d say – and me for a run in the Chandler to visit rellies. We were almost home when we passed a group of maybe eight or 10 white and blue-uniformed sailors, heading no doubt for their ship in Fremantle, six miles away in the other direction. Grampa George chucked a uey, pulled alongside the men and offered them a lift.

Stockmen butchering a bullock. The hide was removed from the back rather than the belly in such a way as to keep the carcass free from dirt. The green branches in the foreground would be used to help it cool and the majority of the meat would be corned or salted. Fresh ribs and steaks would have only been possible for the first couple of days of a long drive.
Stockmen butchering a bullock. The hide was removed from the back rather than the belly in such a way as to keep the carcass free from dirt. The green branches in the foreground would be used to help it cool and the majority of the meat would be corned or salted. Fresh ribs and steaks would have only been possible for the first couple of days of a long drive.

Talking excitedly in one of the languages of the Indian sub-continent, they piled onto the benches in the back, slapping George on the back, laughing and grinning all the while. We hadn’t even got going before, with gestures and animated faces, they asked Grampa could they have us kids in back with them. No sweat. George handed us over, one of the men clambered into the front seat to keep George company and we were off to Freo.

Kez and I were enthralled. We’d never before seen people exactly that color, a sort of watered-down Bushell’s Coffee and Chicory Essence-brown. The sailors, who were actually from Pakistan, were equally fascinated. Kez is as dark as I am fair but we were both treated equally – having to endure hair strokings and cheek pinchings, along with being knee bounced and all the other things that adults do to little kids the world over. Having it done by such exotic beings made it an exciting experience. All the way to North Wharf, George and the matelots were chatting away in some sort of sign language punctuated by the odd word of English and lots of grins and “aaah”s.

When the Officer of the Watch spotted the men climbing out of the Chandler, we were all invited aboard the warship, the other ranks lining the rail to watch us come up the gangplank. It was a tour I’ll never forget.

In the galley there were three or four cooks shaping what I thought were big, flat Johnnycakes. “Not Johnnycakes,” George explained, “It’s how they make their bread.” A few minutes later we were ushered into the mess to sit down with the watch, Kez and I hoisted on to new sets of knees. In front of us a sailor placed the warm bread, straight from the ovens, and a small portion of their meal. The men holding us broke our bread, dipping it into the food and feeding us just like Mum did when we were smaller. We both tried to show them that we could feed ourselves, but it was no use – our sailors wouldn’t have it.

The food was strange, but tasty. We were used to what passed for curry in Australia back then. Made with Keen’s or Vencatachellum curry powder, curries were a regular part of our diet; useful stuff if the meat ration was getting a bit past its prime or to dress up sausages when they appeared on the table yet again.

Driving home, I asked Grampa why the sailors made such a fuss over us. George explained that they were grateful for the lift and were trying to repay us. He added: “The poor beggars are a long way from home. They’ve probably been away for years fighting the war and will be really missing their families. People are the same wherever they come from, son,” he said. “Never look at the color of a bloke’s skin.”

It sunk in. Trouble was, until I understood what he actually meant, I’d worry about the fact that I could still see people’s colour – even one of my childhood heroes, Old Sam, always looked black to me. Old Sam? I’ll tell you about him another time.