Dan's leg, and a guilt that just 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.

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.

father-x

Like all good melodramas, this one also has a happy ending. I woke up on Christmas 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…

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?”

indentures

“One o’clock this arvo,” I promptly replied, and then overrode protests that there was 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.