The past returns

The rise of the racist right and the behaviour of some of our keepers of law and order as witnessed in television footage from Sydney and Melbourne leads me to wonder into what abyss my beloved country is sliding. What is perhaps worse, is the encouragement this regression to a dark past is receiving from many of our elected representatives. The aggression towards two Afghani women recently displayed by two Sydney policemen bought my first real introduction to racism flooding back.

I was eight years old that morning in mid-1949 when Mum, Kerry, 4, Dan, 2, and I boarded the regular MacRobertson Miller* flight from Perth’s Guildford Aerodrome to Derby via just about everywhere on the way. Under normal circumstances it would have taken a full day; back then, flights going north carried newspapers, mail and some supplies, not only to the then very small towns on the route, but also to some of the remote stations. But as things turned out the flight was to be anything but normal and I would again find myself wondering just what made some adults tick.

Just boarding the Douglas DC-3† was an adventure in itself. We’d been booked to fly to Derby a couple of weeks before, but Mum had come down with something and we had to cancel. Just as well, that plane had crashed just after take-off, killing everyone on board. Kerry and Dan were too young to be aware of it, and though I’d read of the tragedy in the West Australian, mortality wasn’t yet on my radar. It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate what my poor mother – edgy at the best of times – must have gone through during that trip and the one after.

I have no clear recollection of how many were on board the flight, though I do remember there was a crew of three: two pilots and a “hostess”, as female flight attendants were known in those less enlightened days. All but one of our fellow passengers are a fuzzy memory, but I can see the exception as clearly as if it were yesterday. An archetypal Pom dressed in Bombay Bloomers (long, baggy shorts all same British Raj), a white shirt and tie and, horror of horrors, long socks and sandals, all topped off by a large straw hat. He completed the stereotype by loudly proclaiming in a BBC accent that he was “travelling to Darby”, something he continued to do until we parted ways, no matter how often he was told: “It’s Derby, mate.”

Along with the human cabin cargo, much of the centre aisle was taken up by lengths of building lumber and a few rolls of chook wire through which the flight attendant had to navigate, and part of the space between the front seats and the cockpit held newspapers and other odds and ends. The wire featured in later events.

We must have made a stop at Carnarvon, but it doesn’t register in my memory, overshadowed perhaps by the events surrounding the next one, which has never faded, the colours, the sounds, sight and scenery remaining as vivid as ever they were. The plane circled over the claypan serving as a landing strip on a station‡ inland from Exmouth Gulf – Madman’s Corner as it was once known – and came in to land. The DC-3 slowed very quickly and then stopped almost dead as the wheels began to sink into the mud beneath the claypan’s harder surface. The pilot killed the engines, we all disembarked and it was obvious that the flight wouldn’t be resuming any time soon, the wheels were already half submerged. It was already hot and the passengers stood in the shade of a wing as the pilots assessed our predicament and the Pom loudly complained about everything to anyone who would listen.

One of the pilots quietly told Mum that they’d got Port Hedland on the radio and the airline would be sending a small, lighter aircraft to pick our family up. It’d take a few hours, he said, but she wouldn’t have to worry about feeding us and we’d be sleeping in a bed that night.

We hadn’t been on the ground all that long, when the station boss, The Missus, a taut, wiry woman in moleskins and a checked shirt, and two Aboriginal stockmen approached on horseback, one of them leading a packhorse. It had obviously been a struggle to reach the plane; the horses were coated in mud up to their bellies and their riders’ trousers were caked with the stuff. I learned later that the Missus told us there’d been a big storm through a couple of days before and the homestead radio had been knocked out, making it impossible to contact the airline and cancel the scheduled stop.

The Aboriginal men, directed by the Missus, began digging the wheels out, and after an hour or so we all retreated to a safe distance while the pilot attempted to get the plane to move forward, engines roaring.

This was great stuff as far as I was concerned. Mud flying everywhere, the occasional not-so-indiscreet curse and the stockmen fighting to restrain the very worried horses, but the plane remained well and truly stuck.

By now things were getting a bit tense. It was getting very hot, Kerry and Dan were intermittently crying and needing drinks or food, and a couple of the passengers, the Pom included, were getting more than a little aggressive with their questions and seemed to be looking for someone to blame for our predicament. As for the stockmen, they were doing what Aboriginals always do when there’s white-fellers’ business going on; sitting quietly in the shade of the aircraft’s nose while the pilots discussed the next move.

The lumber and rolls of wire netting were dragged from the plane, and the stockmen dug a long, broad, upward sloping trench from the wheels out past the nose and laid the netting and lumber on its floor. Again, we all stepped well back, the pilot again climbed into the cockpit, the engines roared and the aircraft began to crawl forward. It managed a few metres until the wheels hit another soft patch and sank again, taking the netting and lumber with them. That was it. The pilots decided that enough was enough; everyone was exhausted and they may have been worried that any further attempts might damage the aircraft. It was now late afternoon and stinking hot. The passengers and crew gathered in the shade of a wing with the Missus while the stockmen, coated in mud from head to foot and no doubt absolutely spent, squatted in the shade of the nose.

The hostess announced that she’d go into the plane’s galley to organise sandwiches and drinks for everyone and Mum went with her to lend a hand. They handed them around on trays to the passengers and then the hostess, in hindsight probably a young, city girl, went to take a tray to the stockmen. Well! That. Was. It. The boss woman stood in front of her, grabbed the tray from her hands and – I can still hear every word – spat: “Don’t you dare try to feed those boys! They can wait ’til they get back to the blacks’ camp.”

Mum wouldn’t have been much older than the hostess, she’d had us all young, but she waded in. “You lousy so-and-so! Give me that tray. I’m not going to take them over to those poor MEN now,” she hissed, “because I know they’ll be too embarrassed to eat them. But don’t you come anywhere near me or the kids while we’re still here.” And she ushered us closer to the plane. The thoroughly embarrassed flight attendant had burst into tears.

“Why was she like that Mum?” I asked later. But deep down I knew. Grampa George had once warned me against judging people by their skin colour and I had heard the taunts aimed at some of my relatives. When I was much older I understood why Mum would offer a cuppa and sandwiches to the Clothes Prop Man, though as a youngster I thought it was just friendliness.

Later that day, an Avro-Anson arrived to take Mum and us kids on to Port Hedland where we’d spend the night before taking a plane to Derby then the boat trip on Yampi Lass II to Cockatoo Island, the place that shaped my life for both better and worse. But that’s another story.

* MacRobertson Miller Aviation was once a household name in Western Australia, as was MacRobertson’s chocolate, made at a factory founded by one of the partners in the airline, MacPherson Robertson. The airline’s logo was in the same florid script as that used for the chocolate.

The Douglas DC-3 was a popular aircraft that featured prominently in early commercial air travel. Its military equivalent was the almost ubiquitous Dakota, known to the ground troops in the WWII Pacific campaigns as the “Biscuit Bomber”. They flew countless missions parachuting supplies to allied troops in Papua and other South Pacific islands.

I haven’t mentioned the name of the station for two main reasons. First, though I’m pretty sure my memory is accurate on that score, I would need to be absolutely sure. Second, and this is tied to the first reason, I would hate anyone still living to recognise a loved relative in my description of the station Missus. And remember, they were greatly different times. Having said that, with our country under a conservative government led by a fundamentalist Christian, some of the worst aspects of that era seem to be creeping back again.

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