There’s something to be said…

.. about the ability to turn your own hands to making something. Anything! Even more so, if that making has meaning. It might not have actual practical use in today’s modern world on some levels – but your involvement in the making of it, reminds you of some of those things that make up who you actually are.

(Filmcip courtesy of FTI WA and Youtube)

Living in Western Australia’s capital city, sometimes removes you from those things that connect you to the place where your family and stories come from. It’s not an unusual story – it’s one that we’re experiencing all over the world. Today the nature of global upheaval is such that we’re experiencing a level of displaced peoples and refugees – the likes of which we’ve never seen before. People are being forcibly removed from those important places and expeirences that informed them of who they actually were / are as a peoples – who they belonged too, where they came from and all of the who-was-who /what-was-what business a person needs to know – just to feel like they belong.

For me – when I was a boy – the simple act of being taught how to make a fishing spear by my big brother, was an amazing experience. To be taught this in a place where you could actually use this immediately to spear a fresh feed of fish, made it all the more richer – but it was the story telling that happened as you did it – as you took part in the whole experience that made it the ultimate of experiences for me. Lighting a fire out bush (or at home for that matter – because I do) and the smell of smoke – takes me right back to that day. It puts me right there – rolling the spear wood in the fire – treading on it and bending it to get the kinks out, the smell of the burnt bark, the feel of the heat trapped under the bark and deep in the wood as you handle the spear.

Today, a very long time after I was taught those things as a young boy, I find myself teaching my boys. We live in a city suburb, far removed from the place where I was first taught these things – so the context is somewhat removed I know – but the expereince is an important one. I need to teach my boys these things, they need to know how to light a fire safely, need ot know thata big fire isn’t a smart fire and that fire is a tool – not a toy. They need to know how t ogo and select the right spear wood and feel the young tree in their hand. They need to thank the country they take this wood from and be mindful of taking only what they need, not what they want.

They need to learn how to be safe and responsible for a sharp tool. They need ot know how it sits in the hand and feel the heft of it, adjusting the way it sits and is gripped in their hand, so that they can use it safely and not chop their toes off! They need to unerstand the continuity of such an experience: right from the getting ready to leave part, to the cooking of the fish you speared – right there on the beach. So sure – I’m not going to be able to give my boys this full experience here in Perth (they’ll have to bring their fish home to cook it) – but with my help, they’ll eperience the essence of the this little lesson in their life and they’ll learn to adapt it –  like I have – when they pass on this experience to their children or their children’s children.

In a world that is changing so rapidly, where every day, hundreds of thousands (millions) of people are being uprooted and bumped aside from those places that were once their homes, people are forgetting – on a daily basis – the importance of making with meaning. This is a world problem the likes we’ve never experienced before and I’m wondering how long it is, before we begin to see the long term effect of such things – as our young people forget where they come from and – as a result – struggle to determine where it is, they want to go…

Belongum – Out

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“You’ll just die…

…a drunk boung in the park, like all the others,” he roared. “I don’t know why I bother.”

He stormed over to the door and wrenched it open, screaming as he did so – spittle flying from his mouth:

“Get out!”

We did as we were told. We got out!

I was 12 going on 13.

So were the other nine Aboriginal kids with me that day.

We hadn’t even completed a month of high school and – looking back on it now – we were receiving our first real social studies lesson in life. I found out some year’s later that this man had been going through an extremely difficult time that year.  But that didn’t explain the nature of the rage he displayed that day. It also didn’t explain how in my third year of high school, upon once again having this teacher for year 10 social studies, he made us feel exactly the same way: dirty, unworthy and black.

That’s the simplest way I can possibly put it. That man had made us feel black that day and as a result of that encounter with that man, my known world flipped quietly over.

*    *    *    *    *

I have never thought of myself as being belligerent in my behaviour. A friend of mine jokes about this often and I – still, today – struggle to understand why he might say this kind of thing in jest, when he needs to rib me.

Perhaps he knows me better than I know myself.

He certainly knew of me then, back in our high school days, where we became the closest of friends and hooked into each other.  Perhaps he saw me change in that first year of high school and witnessed my wearing of that change until I dropped out of that school in year ten. He was in another classroom for social studies, so he never witnessed that day’s display, but I knew – deep down inside of me – at my very core, a part of me broke clean in two that day.

You see – when that teacher had screamed those words out loud in that classroom on that day – he’d been screaming them at me.

That morning, I’d asked a question that didn’t get an answer and I didn’t get the hint. I asked it again and my doing so set that teacher off like a bomb. His outburst couldn’t have done more damage if he tried and for the first time in my life, I began to hate someone.

*    *    *    *    *

Many years later, after joining the Australian Defence Force, I returned home for my first major leave. I believed I was a grown man in my own right, with my high school experiences far behind me. My ultra-short haircut gave people a hint as to where I might have been hiding over the course of that year and if that didn’t give it away, this was quickly reinforced by my new military mannerisms. Recruit School and my first Defence Force posting had drastically changed me: I spoke differently, carried myself differently and the place I’d been brought up in, now seemed so much smaller than the place I’d been ‘growing up’ in since I’d been away.

I’d thought my home town had been left far behind; the life I’d lived, the lessons I’d learned, the friends I’d developed – bumped aside by a lifestyle so intense and intrusive – there was no room for sentimentality and the yearning for the comforts of home. Over the years in uniform, I developed the ability to not connect to Birthday’s and Christmas’s – holidays happened when operational requirements permitted them and personal celebrations existed only in the operational bubbles I occupied at the time. A personal life wasn’t something you needed in such an environment – you lived entirely for the one issued to you and it had no room for those things that connected you back to your home.

But deep down inside of me, anger still bubbled. I’d squished it down deep and had no idea it was festering away all on its own. It had added fuel to my determination when I hadn’t realised it. It had pushed me past other people’s boundaries and made me seek that spot out in a line where it made other people uncomfortable to have me there. It tipped me over the edge when I needed to succeed and top the tests I took to get my tradesman’s ticket as an electrician. All of those things I’d achieved between the time I’d had that experience at school and I’d returned home as a man – I’d been dipping into this hidden pot.

So, home on leave – relaxing – or so I thought, when one morning I simply got up, showered, shaved, dressed sharp, ate, got in my car and drove off – only to find myself parked up – outside the front of my old high school.

Out I get, following my feet, footsteps slapping out a drumbeat of determination I had no idea I was feeling at the time. They took me to the door of my old social studies classroom and lo and behold if it wasn’t that same teacher, still teaching this subject – looking somewhat older – but very much the same.

I knocked on that door and waited.

He answered it.

I smiled a very big smile which took him by surprise.

HE smiled back and I extended a hand to introduce myself – using this motion to push him into his classroom – smiling all the time.

If he felt threated then – it didn’t show. He was still smiling as I pumped his hand and looked around the classroom, where very little had changed.

“Hello Mr …..’” I said. “Do you remember me?”

I still had his hand in mine – I wouldn’t let it go – he was looking puzzled by this time – but he shook his head and told me “No”, as he tried to place me.

I looked him squarely in the eye then, smiled a much bigger smile and gripping him tighter said:

“I’m that boung that was going to die drunk in the park, just like the rest of them. I’ve been to 13 different countries this year. Where have you been?”

He paled as the blood dropped from his face right before me. He wobbled and for a moment I was convinced he was going to feint. I still had hold of his hand when I realised then, where I was and what I was doing – putting the fear of God into this man. I let him go, watching the moment dawn on him some more and – without saying another thing – spun on my heel and marched out of the classroom.

I don’t remember very much of the drive home after that. I don’t remember getting out of the car or letting myself into the house. I don’t remember if anyone was home, I don’t recall if the phone rang, or whether my dog was barking as it probably missed out on getting my attention that morning.

The first thing I remember was sitting in my room afterwards – my face in my hands – my feet planted firmly on the wooden floor. I felt ill and ashamed by what I had done and I was scared too! I’d forced myself upon a man and scared him to the point that he felt in fear for what he expected to happen next. What do you do about that?

However, competing for space amongst my feelings was also a sense of elation! Somehow, somewhere my actions – rightly or wrongly – had released some of that pressure I’d been building inside myself. I’d railed against the man who set the seed for my hatred as a child and I didn’t even realise it was going to happen! How do you process such things without an understanding of how these things exist inside a person? How do you balance such ugliness and purging? At that time then – I didn’t have a clue.

I’m not completely convinced that I know now, either.

 

I waited all morning for the police to come and get me. Somewhere after lunch I came out of my cave – still feeling foul but resolute that if the police came, I’d own my behaviour and accept my punishment. I spent the remainder of my leave fully expecting a knock on the door, a hand on my shoulder or a firm word in my ear. It of course, never came! My disgust in myself was fading and by the time I returned to my ship, it too joined the ugly little ball of anger, deep down in the bottom of my gut!

Did I feel the need to apologise for what I had done?

No… I did not.

I feel now that perhaps I could apologise for my actions that day, but I don’t want to. My ‘education’ around racial nastiness grew at a phenomenal rate that year. Our sitting out of the classroom each social studies lesson drew the attention of staff, students and parents. People asked questions. Assumptions were made. We all had one thing in common and it was a small country town where these kinds of behaviours weren’t all that far from the surface.

Primary school wasn’t like that. I’d had completely different experiences in my primary school days, but amongst the kids – for the main part – younger kids didn’t understand or use such things to hurt you in the ways that grown-ups did. Teenagers take these things on though and it’s the bullies that try to make more of this than kids did when we were at primary school. In those few years of high school I learned more about confronting bullies and standing up for myself, than I ever did at primary school.

I had too. We couldn’t confront those adults about us. We couldn’t ask our parents to help us. We couldn’t expect the school system to defend us – so we did what was expected of us. Some of us ran off. Some of us fought with others at the drop of a hat. Some of us became bullies and went looking for white school victims. I just got angry and – one day – I bubbled over, ambushing a bully one early morning as he rode to school and I could get him alone – away from all of his bully mates!

I learned that day that I too could be a bully. I made that boy cry and nearly wet his pants. I didn’t feel good about that either, but I was damn tired of it happening to me. Such was my experiences amongst this stuff that I really didn’t like taking it out on others and I learned to sit on it and make it disappear. I swallowed my anger and tamped it down, without even realising that this was what I was doing.

This then became the way in which I managed those things that challenged me.

 

I think of this time in my life, every now and again. I reflect on what might have happened if things had been different. What if one of the Deputies stuck up for us and made that teacher responsible for his actions? What if the Headmaster cared about his students? What if that damn, fool man – hadn’t of opened his mouth and screamed at us, those fateful words?

So many ‘what ifs’ and, for what? Sod all bloody clarity – that’s for sure!

Let me share this then: of that group of Aboriginal kids on that bench seat that day, nearly half of them left that school and simply never returned for their subsequent years. Of this group so many I know have succumbed to serious illness and had their lives ravaged by alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. Many went to jail. Some have been several times. Most, really haven’t had much to aspire too and, I’d be willing to bet nearly ALL of them, like me got bloody angry that day.

If enough of this type of anger builds up inside of you, it undoes any better choices you might have in your life. If you don’t have access to many of these kinds of choices in the first place, it reinforces much of the way you might undo your own worth and slowly start to destroy you. If you have nothing – you own that anger – you make it the fire in your belly and you make others pay for it.

People die young on such anger. People commit crimes. People hurt other people. People poison themselves in all manners of ways and, for the most part – like me – they don’t even realise it’s happening. Of those kids that were with me in that class that day, only a few of us are still about – taking part in a life – not expected of us then.

I’ve just turned 46.

You make of that what you will.

So should I feel bad about what I did that day?

Yes – definitely!

Do I?

No.

Am I angry still?

No – and – yes!

Am I a twisted up, worn out, knot of human contradictions?

Abso-bloody-lutely…

Belongum – Out!

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In the early 1960’s…

…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…

Belongum… Out!

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