…a young man took himself off to join the Royal Australian Navy. He was a big, strapping young fella – strong-jawed and a clear head and shoulders above the rest. He had what I can only describe as a cheeky personality, one then that would have been well placed in an Australian Navy in those days, one that would see him through to the passing of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Recruit School was a breeze. Nothing in HMAS Cerberus shocked or fazed him. Working with new faces, building new relationships, determining who was a mate and who was a dickhead – were all relatively easy things for him to do. His grounding in a country Victorian town had prepared him reasonably well for that. Working the land with his family had made him strong and practical, his ability to form friendships came naturally and he wasn’t one to hold grudges.
There was one surprise though; something he’d not come face to face with before – he befriended an Aboriginal man from the Kimberley, in the far north west of Western Australia. They were as different to each other in many ways as chalk was to cheese, black was to white and Western Australia was to Victoria. Yet; in the ways of men, they carried themselves in a similar fashion and they related to those around them with an easy carefree manner. Such was the nature of how similar they were to each other that it appeared to him – upon reflection much later on in his life – they were destined to be the best of mates and continue to see good times together for the remainder of their lives.
Their career path in the Royal Australian Navy seemed to agree with them. They were of the same recruit intake and passed out together with very similar traits and possibilities open to them. They were then sent to the same category training school. This would determine for them both, the nature of their main role whilst wearing the uniform of a sailor aboard an Australian warship at sea.
Both men passed out with high commendations and both men were posted as Radio Operators to the same ships. As the next few years passed, they served on several warships together and became well known for the close ‘stepping oppos’ they’d both firmly become. These two were inseparable. When they took leave, wherever possible they did it together. They visited each other’s homes and met each other’s family. As wrong as it might seem to say it – there were times where you weren’t sure which one was the other person’s shadow.
One early December day in 1966, whilst tied up alongside at HMAS Stirling, both men were preparing to go on leave. The Aboriginal man was going home to the Kimberley and the big Victorian was heading home to country Victoria. It was going to be one of only a handful of times they had ever spent some time apart from each other. That next morning, the Victorian put his best mate on the bus and waved him off. He wished him well and re-checked their rendezvous point, upon both of them re-joining their ship after Christmas finished. They both had rowdy New Year plans on the cards and they were looking forward to the up and coming pub-crawl through Fremantle.
On Boxing Day – just after lunch – the Victorian got a sombre phone call from the Kimberley. His best mate had died earlier that day, in a freak accident at home and his big brother wanted to be the one to tell him this sad news personally. He had known how close these men had become to each other and knew how much this man would now be mourning. That same day, the Victorian made arrangements to return back to their ship. Cutting his leave short, he set about putting things in place that would see him emptying his ‘best mate’s locker and packing up his personal effects for the return home to the family. An emotional, cultural funeral and a posting later and the Victorian found himself on the beginning edge of several Navy postings that would see him through to end of Australia’s engagement in the Vietnam War. Life continued on and – hurting deeply inside – he continued on too. There was nothing else to be done.
Over 50 years later; as part of my daily business, I found myself packing up a small exhibition in a renovated space, off the ‘bustle’ that is down-town Leonora. An old Toyota Hilux 4WD pulled up nosily outside and inside the space it takes for a car door to close and boot heels to clack across the sidewalk; I hear a clear, strong voice outside asking:
“Can I get a light?”
I look up and out to see a tall, bearded old man, building himself up for a conversation over a tailor-made cigarette with an older redheaded lady, who was largely responsible for my being in town. As smokers have done for ages past, they ‘gurped-on’ socially through their introductions, passing the one cigarette-lighter back and forth between themselves as they mumbled around their multiple durries, setting the groundwork for one hell of a yarn!
Next thing I know, the redhead leans in through the doorway, where I’m packing away the last of the artwork and says:
“Hey… Belongum? You might want to come out here. I reckon this fella’s served on some of the same ships you have!”
As I step out into the arvo light and grasp this old man’s hand in greeting, two things become immediately clear to me: he’s strong and upright and he’s been doing it tough. I can see he’s hurting inside!
We exchanged our G’day’s, laughed about the fact that 2 ex-Navy men find themselves having a yarn in sun-shiney Leonora and immediately began to establish credentials amongst each other. He commissioned ships I’d served on and repaired. He was on the bridge most times and I was on – or below – the gundeck. He was a hard working ‘watch-keeper’ and I was just a loafing ‘day-hand’. The friendly banter ran back and forth between us freely, as if we’d known each other for years and I watched the years fall off him right there and then – as a decent smile finally begins to form on his face and he begins to tell me about his best mate who was an Aboriginal man from the Kimberley. We clearly had much to talk about.
The redhead left us to it, she too had sensed a deep sadness in the man and her want to call me out that day was largely to try and see if that might shift some, in his meeting me. It had and she moved on. Once she’d gone we had a small gap where we caught our breath together. He looked at me deeply then – right through me – gauging me up on the spot as he prepared to share. I beat him to the punch: asking him outright whether he actually wanted to wake up that day?
That sad smile came back. He shook his head in answer and proceeded to tell me how he’d tried to end his life that morning but just couldn’t finish the bloody job off! He was a Vietnam veteran who lived on the outskirts of town in a bush camp that he simply shifted around, to avoid locals and tourists who got nosey. He’d been there for over 20 years. His wife and family lived in Victoria but he saw nothing of his boys and allowed only two visits a year for his wife, where she would fly into Kalgoorlie and join him for 2 weeks, twice a year – in the place he now found himself, deep in the Goldfields of WA.
It was a lonely life. He had demons. He couldn’t go home. The bush made him feel the most peace he was ever truly able to feel and his wife’s visit simply reminded him that he had connections back to a place that had once been his home. But… he didn’t want to be alive. He missed his best mate and – on saying this – his face fell completely. He was a broken man who was so deep into his mourning on that sad day – I couldn’t possibly see a way that he could ever overcome it.
Then his face changed. He stopped right where he was – his mind tripping quite suddenly on an idea and he’d gone immediately into pause mode, as his brainbox brought that idea towards some sense of solidity.
“You can help me!” he declared loudly and his face split into such a big grin, I thought the top of his head was going to fall clean off his body!
“You’re Aboriginal and from the Kimberley” he blurted out. ”You might know his family.”
With that – he spins on his heel and goes back to his car, digging out a scrap piece of paper and a pencil, he begins to scribble down the name of his mate and how I might find this man’s family.
Spinning back to me – with a brand new energy that frankly, is beginning to scare me – he hands over his note and I pause to see who’s name it is that he wants me to help him with.
And it’s here that my world on that day, fell clean away!
The name of the man who was his best friend for all that time – was actually a cousin/brother of mine. A man I’d heard so much about but had died during a freak accident during the early hours of a Boxing Day morning, in 1966.
The man before me was the man that my other cousin brothers used to talk about when they referred to their lost brother. This was his gadia bubbili – his white brother from another mother. They’d spoke highly of him when I was growing up, often when talking of their own brother, they’d speak of a tall white man who used to come home with him some times. They were proud of their brother and what he’d been able to do and here I was… sharing ‘space’ with the man who was his best mate and, feeling this man’s pain.
He burst into tears then. I was right on the verge also and we held each other until we calmed down. We both couldn’t believe what fate had delivered to us and right then and we didn’t know what do about it.
He ran back to the car again and rummaged in the glovebox some more – coming out with an old tobacco tin – holding it with such care and reverence that I felt I was about to be handed the Body of Christ.
“I want you to have this,” he said, passing it over.
I opened it and inside it was a folder newsagency bag – a small one – the kind you would have wrapped a pack of cards in. It’d spent some time in that tin, taking on some of the colour of the left over tobacco and the edge of rust around the lip of the lid. It looked well-worn too – like it’d been handled a lot and was malleable, but with care and precision. It has fold creases that had a life all of their own and the paper had become soft and supple.
Inside this was a little parcel wrapped in toilet paper. It looked like the kind of toilet paper you can find in any government or military site, the kind that does it job with no frills – plain and simple – able to be stored and pulled out, looking like it did the day it was produced, right off the factory line. As I unfolded this package I found at its core the most carefully wrapped three-quarter-smoked hand rolled cigarette I had ever seen! It still smelled as if it had been rolled that morning and it felt dry and crisp – ready for a new flame.
I held it in the cup on my hand, where I’d gently tipped it and marvelled at this thing –this object – still in such pristine condition, like I’d pulled it out of my locker myself.
The Victorian said:
“It’s all I’ve got left. You can have it.. smoke it, throw it out – do whatever you want with it – but it’s all I’ve got. You should have it – he’s your family – you should have it…” and he petered off with that.
In an instant I saw what he was doing. He was closing shop. Finalising business and getting ready to say goodbye. He was passing on his business to me – so that he could finally pull the pin and go to sleep forever.
I wrapped it back up. Put it back in its little paper bag, folded the item up carefully and tucked it back into the tobacco tin in much the same way that I found it. I then took his hand and placed the tin back in it, closing his big fingers about it as I did so.
“No” I said, “You take it. It’s yours and I’ll come back for it.”
He smiled a sad smile. He knew what I was doing see… I wasn’t letting him say goodbye just yet – I wasn’t allowing him to step away from life quite that easily.
He then nodded. Accepted the responsibility once more and put that tin in his pocket.
And that was that.
We went our separate ways then. He had my number and my details with instructions to contact me if I didn’t get back to Leonora and we could take care of business at a later date.
I never got back to Leonora.
The Victorian held up to his end of the deal and sent me a letter from Victoria. In it was a small parcel. He’d mailed me the tobacco tin and some photos and in the letter, explained what had happened. He’d developed cancer and like it or not now, the choice had been taken from him. He was in a respite hospital and he was dying. There was no coming back from his diagnosis – it was pretty clear he wasn’t expected to live much past the end of the year. Call me it said.
So I did…
…and so you have the story of the Victorian and how we stumbled across each other in our bizarrely connected lives.
I knew when I spoke with him that day that I would never speak with him again.
I just had to share with you his yarn and marvel at the way, it then became mine.
Life – it would seem – is odd like that…