Dan’s leg and a guilt that won’t go away

Dan and his big brother, circa 1950 maybe
Dan and his big brother, circa late 1940s

We’d lost Dan by the time he was six; even at that age I reckon he’d already decided society really didn’t have much to offer a kid who had to wear an iron and leather calliper on one leg and who, if he couldn’t keep up, then no-one was going to wait for him. Problem was, by the time he was three or four years old, Dan, like so many kids in his position, had already experienced enough pain and mental anguish to last a lifetime, though no one seemed to notice. Problem was, Dan’s Old Man, like so many others, had not long been back from five years in the “Big Stoush” – World War II – and had his own demons to fight. Problem was, unlike his old man, he didn’t have the companionship of mates with shared experiences. Problem was, even had he been aware of their existence, there was no network connecting him with the millions of kids all over the world who were going through the same terrible, spirit-grinding mill and whose parents, like his, didn’t have the wherewithal to engage the services of flash doctors or world-renowned clinics. So Dan had to battle through it pretty much on his own. And he tried, he really tried; Dan is nothing if not game.

Sorry, I’ve got ahead of myself. Daniel is the third-born of the five kids in our family and this year he’ll be around 65, though I find that difficult to believe – just as I have trouble understanding how the years have managed to sneak up on me. Just yesterday I was belting out How Long Blues on a stage somewhere, and the day before that I was walking through the door of an already old building in Fremantle, ready to begin an apprenticeship with the Fremantle Printing Company Pty Ltd; but back to Dan.

One morning, on his first birthday, Dan began whimpering and refused to sit up or be comforted. Face flushed and in obvious pain, he was getting worse by the hour. I don’t know what moved Mum to act as she did. I know the Old Man was away working somewhere – Tasmania if I remember rightly – so there would probably have been no ready cash in the house, making a doctor out of the question. Maybe Peg didn’t want to admit she was broke, maybe she wasn’t thinking straight. Who knows? Whatever her reasons, she picked Dan up in her arms and with Kerry – at that time the middle kid – and me in tow she set out from Austin Street to walk the two miles or so to Princess Margaret Children’s Hospital, on the way asking our closest neighbours to let our relatives know where she was going. News must have travelled fast because they were at the hospital not long after we got there.

Dan was literally dragged from her arms and taken somewhere into the hospital, Mum was ushered to a waiting room and we were instructed to wait outside with Bernie, presumably so as not to disturb the calm of the Great Institution. An age passed, an aeon, until at last a sobbing Peg emerged to tell us that they weren’t sure what was wrong but they were going to “keep him in”. What it turned out to be was infantile paralysis, polio, and Dan was just another casualty of the great epidemics that swept Western Australia – and the world – until Dr Salk’s vaccine became readily available.

The next few months were hell, for us and for Dan. The expert view was that it would be better for him if he weren’t to see us during what was going to be his long stay in hospital; reminders of home would only upset him. During the early stages of his treatment Mum was only allowed to peer at her youngest through a glass screen, as she had done when he was a newborn and the first of her children not to be born at home and the hospital was closed to his brother and sister. It was very effective. On the first day he came home I returned from school to find a complete stranger crawling around on a blanket spread on the grass in the front yard and it was a couple of hours, I’m told, before they could convince me my brother was indeed back among us.

Later he was fitted with a calliper of iron and leather attached to a cumbersome boot with a thickened, cork filled sole and heel that was supposed to minimise the limp but I think served mainly to brand him as different.

A couple of years passed and we’d moved to another house a few miles away and right next to what was then known as Butler’s Swamp. Dan had started school by then and one day came home with a long note from the headmaster accusing him of being uncooperative, a vandal and badly behaved; in short, a budding criminal. He had, the letter went on, so badly damaged a fellow pupil’s pushbike as to render it inoperable. I already knew that. On the day the atrocity occurred, I was waggin’ it, and in my circuitous route to a hideout in the swamp had seen my brother using his booted and callipered limb to smash up the spokes in someone’s bike. That night I’d asked him why he’d done it and he told me that the bike’s owner followed him around the schoolyard every day, imitating his limp and knuckling him, all the while taunting him with “limpy, gimpy”. Mum was mortified – the Old Man was away again – and offered to pay for the damage over time. To this day I feel guilt over not revealing what I knew, fearful of the wrath I thought would descend on Dan and me. Now I know it probably wouldn’t have done Dan much good. The prevailing attitude back then was that kids should withstand the knocks of bullies, should stick up for themselves. Of course if they did there were often repercussions, but the philosophy held strong. No excuse though, and I still feel the guilt.

More years passed and though Daniel grew stronger, tougher and more withdrawn, he was still full of great affection for his mother and siblings – affection he wasn’t afraid to show – though his run-ins with the Old Man were every bit as spectacular as mine. He had long ago given up on the leg iron with the consequence that his foot turned under and he walked on the ankle, causing intense pain. To remedy this, a plate was inserted in his leg and the ankle joint fused – it seemed to work.

I left home and began my rambling years, wandering the length and breadth of Australia and New Zealand with only sporadic contact with my family, mostly in the form of letters written when the urgings of my conscience triumphed. One day, like a kick in the guts, I received a letter postmarked Fremantle Gaol, the old convict-built hell-hole that is now a major tourist attraction: “My Dearest Big Brother,” it began, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m writing to you from between these four walls…” that’s verbatim, it’s as clear now as the day I opened the envelope. Dan went on to tell me that he’d been sentenced to eight years for car theft and subsequent burning of the car. That was it. I was too stunned to take much notice of the don’t worries, and I love yous. It was the eight years; eight years! For car theft? Even with the arson added it seemed to be coming on a bit strong.

I telephoned my sister to get the full story, a story later corroborated by others. This was the early 60s and the always conservative and pro-establishment West Australian press was expressing concern about the evil ways intruding from the Eastern States. Rising crime rates, violence, underage drinking, car theft, rock and roll, bodgies and widgies; all could be laid squarely at the doorstep of the Eastern States and must be stamped out. The judiciary must act. So Dan got eight years for a first offence. His accomplice, who had prior form, was given 6 months but, the judge said, he would make “an example” of Dan.

There was one positive outcome. Her Majesty’s representatives were duty bound to take care of Dan’s health while he was a guest in one of her prisons and a routine X-ray revealed that his fibula had been split by the screws holding the plate in place (Dan later told me it had hurt like hell for years) so they amputated his leg below the knee. But life was never easy for my brother. One day during his recuperation, a wheelchair-bound Dan was taking his allotted hour in the sun of the exercise yard. That was the day that the long-suffering inmates of Freo had chosen to begin a food riot or, more correctly, an anti-food riot. Everyone, including Dan, was locked out and firehoses were later used to quell the rioters. In the aftermath, all parole credits were revoked. A few years later, a more enlightened administration allowed Dan to finish his sentence at a community prison in a town up the coast a few hundred miles. Mum, the Old Man and the two youngest kids had moved up there a couple of years before.

I made the long trip back to WA to visit him there which led to my first meeting with my youngest sister – then 5 years old – but that’s another story. I stayed 6 months and Dan and I rekindled our affection for each other but soon the road called and I was off again. I should have stayed, I know I should have, but I was young and the home State felt stifling after the freedoms I’d found. I could have found them there, too, of course, but you don’t think like that when you’re a kid.

A few years later I heard from him again – this time he was in Grafton jail, one of Australia’s toughest. Apparently he’d picked a fight with a walloper and won – bad on two counts, previous record and winning a stoush with a John Hop. After that things went a little smoother. He went back to his roots and worked as a stockman on a big cattle run for a while. His plastic leg was a hassle at first, he said, but he soon worked it out and there weren’t too many horses could put him on his arse on the ground, he said. He got a job with a State forestry department and that went really well until a tree he was felling busted his good leg up pretty bad. With his compensation payout (the arbitration judge wanted to know why the department had allowed a one-legged man to fell trees alone in a forest. I could’ve told Hizzonner there was no way they could’ve stopped him) he bought a house and a motorbike and took up leatherwork and later became an illusionist. I was singing on the festival circuit a lot in those days and we saw each other often, Dan always had a concession stand at the major festivals. This surprised me a bit; given the way the world had treated him I thought the bike might have led to a life with a gang but now I can dismiss that as an unworthy thought, Dan liked people too much for that, he was too human.

I neither saw nor heard from Dan for years. I thought he may have done a perish or had decided at last to withdraw from the world, which would be sad, though understandable. At night, when the old ones come visiting in the soft dark, I couldn’t find Dan among them, no matter how hard I tried. I liked to think he’d found someone whose company was all he needed to heal the wounds; it made me feel better though it didn’t wash away the guilt.

Then one day, not long after this piece was published in an excellent Southern US online review titled LiketheDew, an email from a couple in northern New South Wales lobbed on my screen. Dan was alive and well, it read, and often stayed with them in his travels on the market circuit. They sent a photo, and there he was, large as bloody life. We’ll get him to email, the girl wrote. And he did, once or twice, and then nothing. But I know he’s alive and I know why he doesn’t write. And he’s survived, and he’s happy and I’m delirious – but the bloody guilt won’t go away and probably will go with me to the grave.

Why am I putting this out there? Perhaps I needed to get it off my chest in the hope the guilt might go away, but I think not. I’ve always liked to pick and probe at my psyche in an effort to understand the what and the why of me and it’s getting worse as I get older. Dan’s life is a not insignificant part of the fabric of my own. His experiences reinforced an already jaundiced view of the education system of the times and strengthened my own Australian-ness, that almost-vanished culture that beatified Ned Kelly and wrote irate letters to editors when the police, in collusion with a former Prime Minister John Howard, mounted a campaign to blacken his name. The old Australian-ness that still holds a gut-searing yearning after Home Rule; that calls its dearest friend a bastard and pronounces jesus christ in lower case; that Australian-ness that led my grandfather to often remark that our beloved country was “stuffed for the want of an Irish king”.

I have heard it said, both here and in Australia, that everyone is a radical until they turn 40, when they gain maturity by realising the establishment was right all along and so become sensible conservatives. I’ve never believed that but, if there is a glimmer of truth there, then the thing that calls itself the establishment is doing its level best to give the lie to its own smug, self-serving platitude. And I’ll never change – Dan helped make sure of that.

A boy’s catalogue of useful things

It pains me to say it, but if you’re a 21st-century kid, please don’t experiment at home with anything mentioned here. Not only is there a risk of injury to yourself and others – indeed, in some parts of the country you may really get eaten by a crocodile or Admonished by a Stranger – but, and perhaps this is worse, your parents may be thought too poor to buy you an X-box.

There’s an old Australian poem with a chorus that goes something like: Stringybark and greenhide, it’ll never fail ya! Stringybark and greenhide, it’s the mainstay of Australia. By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, greenhide was still in common use on the big cattle stations – probably still is in some places – but farmhouse roofs of stringybark had long been replaced by that enduring symbol of Australia, corrugated iron. Relatively cheap, easily transported, white-ant proof and to a large extent fire resistant, it was the wonder material of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To an Australian kid growing up in the 40s and 50s, discarded corrugated iron, no matter how small or damaged the piece, was a commodity more precious than gold and number one in childhood’s Catalogue of Desirable And Useful Things To Have. This catalogue, verbally handed down through generations of child-artisans had at its head three items, the first two of which were scrap lead and Number 8 fencing wire.

Hard to come by, the lead was assiduously hoarded to use as a trade good or to make sinkers for fishing lines. Easily melted in a jam tin over a fire in the backyard, the metal was poured into sand moulds formed in another tin, or dropped by the teaspoonful from shoulder height into a bucket of water. Number 8 wire could be used for many things, but if you were lucky enough to score some offcuts in good condition, reasonably rust-free and more than a couple of feet long, they could immediately be converted into bob wires for the entrance trap on a pigeon loft or, in the case of AAA-grade samples, into tines gidgeefor a gidgee, the three-pronged, barbed fishing spear, the design and name of which came to its makers from the Nyungar-speaking peoples of the south-west.Three lengths of wire were hammered straight then one end of each was bent at 90 degrees to fit into holes burned with wire into a shaft made of a very young sapling, preferably tea-tree or paperbark. The other end was heated and bent into a tight tick; the bottom of the vee sharpened as much as could be without weakening it too much and the upstroke highly sharpened at its end to make a very effective barb. The tines were then fastened to the shaft by wrapping with finer wire or, if you were lucky to have a piece of the right size, by forcing a short piece of water pipe down the shaft and over the tines. Gidgees were used to spear flounder, mullet, blue manna crabs and cobbler, the large estuary dwelling catfish whose poisonous spines made their delicious flesh a perilous prize.

Wonderful stuff lead and wire may have been, but it was corrugated iron that topped the list. A piece 60 cm or so long could be folded lengthwise, belted flat with a length of pipe – fathers’ hammers were precious things, reserved strictly for nails – folded and flattened again then bent over at the centre to form a vee. This was a kylie, the south-west’s hunting boomerang and another legacy of the Nyungar, used to throw into the shoals of mullet that in those days schooled in shallow water by the tens upon tens of thousands during the annual run. But all these desirable things paled into insignificance if you found a sheet big enough and sound enough to make that most prized of all possessions – the tin canoe. Such a treasure was lugged or dragged home and laid reverently in the backyard, weighted down with old bricks or coondies – big stones – until the other necessary materials could be gathered: a fruit crate, preferably an orange dump; some flathead case nails – these could sometimes be salvaged from the crate; a short length of 2 x 4 or thereabouts; and some tar, gouged from the roads on hot days or scrounged from council patch gangs. The rest was easy. The corrugations at each end were hammered out as well as could be done with a piece of pipe or heavy wood, the stern was one end of the fruit crate nailed in place and the bow was the 2 x 4 similarly attached. The tar, heated over a fire, was used to patch nail holes and the “seams” around the wood. A thin board from the side of the crate was sawn in half to make the hand-held paddles, the use of which was an art in itself, almost as difficult as balancing and steering the canoes whose combination of construction method  and materials often made for interesting forward progress.

With a good kylie and a well-made gidgee you had dominion over the denizens of river and shoreline, able to provide a bounty of fish and crabs for the table – if they weren’t so badly damaged that your Mum made you feed them to the chooks. The “thwoock” as a kylie caused panic among a school of mullet was enough to wipe away the cares of the world and three feet, a metre, of cobbler – okay, okay, two feet then – wriggling on the gidgee made the sky blaze with righteous light. But a canoe made you King of the World; Master of River and Swamp; intrepid explorer of Hitherto Unknown reedbed and billabong and beholden to none. Until, that is, you heard your little brother yelling from the water’s edge: “Ma said if yer don’t come home for yer tea she’ll bastard skin yer alive.” Dan took a while to master the art of swearing. Image