To all those unfortunate
who are officially
referred to in humiliating terms
as ‘slow learners’,
‘oppos’, ‘GAs’ etc
in our education system
and often emerge after
10 long weary years
without being able to
read a single word.
Life was not easy in the Thirties and Forties, especially
for the poor, and my family was poor. My father enjoyed the privilege of having
a permanent government job as a cattle tick inspector, commonly termed a
‘tickie’, in the north of New South Wales, nestled on the eastern watershed of
the Border Ranges.
The Ridge, as the name suggests, was a relatively unspoiled
natural paradise where pockets of dense tropical rainforest and stately stands
of tall eucalyptus existed silent and beautiful on the rugged terrain. The pale
blue outline of the McPherson Range to the north formed a perfect backdrop to
this gigantic picturesque stage on which nature’s children each played its part
in perfect harmony. My father, a rugged man of the bush, taught me to be one
with this natural wonderland.
“Love, respect and protect the things you see around you.”
My father was a true conservationist before the word secured a prominent place
in our language.
The pristine nature of my life was torn apart at the sudden
death of my father from the ravages of that terrible conflict known as ‘The
Great War’. My mother and I moved to a small village on the coast known as Black
Wattle where we occupied a small shack-like dog house for rent we could afford.
Our living conditions were bad enough, but the attitude of the locals was
abhorrent. Day after day I suffered the indignity of torment from my school
peers. I once witnessed a bullock being attacked by a pack of dingoes. The
plight of the unfortunate animal was akin to my situation here.
The Ridge was born from the discovery of alluvial gold in
the late 19th century. The source of the precious metal was never
found, but what there was created enough interest.
In 1940, when this story begins, there were still a few
stragglers etching out a pittance from the patchy alluvial deposits of the
‘yellow joss’ scattered along gullies and creeks in the area. Unfortunately, the
original miners, goaded by the elusive promise of fortune, scarred the landscape
in places in their mad quest for the treasure that ‘maketh glad the heart of
man’. Most of these adventurers left disappointed and disillusioned while Mother
Nature was left to heal the wounds.
Prominent among those who were left on the goldfield was a
colourful character known to all simply as Old Harry. He was a descendant of the
Bundjalung Aborigines, the dominant original inhabitants of the area. He was a
giant in stature and carried himself erect and stately. He possessed a silent
pride and quiet dignity born of thousands of years of freedom. He carved a
meagre existence from panning a few ‘colours’, as he termed them, from secluded
pockets of ground known only to him. The results of his labour were cashed at
the local store for flour, sugar, tobacco and other simple items of subsistence.
Old Harry never sought more gold than would satisfy his
immediate needs. I questioned him on this one day, to which he replied, “No,
Danny, five shillin’ enough.” I didn’t realise it at the time, but what a
different world it would be if everyone lived by this simple philosophy. I
learned much from this old man. For two years I trudged behind him through the
bush and learned about the seen and unseen of Aboriginal culture. Through him I
became aware of the true import behind the adage. Most people say “The land
belongs to me” while Aborigines say “I belong to the land”. Old Harry made me
privy to another facet of his culture.
“No matter where blackfella is in bush, Danny, he light a
fire and he home. When old people too tired to walkabout, his people light him a
fire and leave him die. He happy because he home.”
A few years on, a stockman found a body, thought to be that
of my old friend, propped against a stump deep in the bush with the embers of a
small fire nearby. He had died happily at home. I hope he reserves a place for
me by his side, so I may continue to follow him through the bush of Eternity.
Dad’s job, probably the most menial in the Public Service,
was, in most cases, reserved for returned soldiers; a kind of reward, you might
say, for services rendered. This suited Dad for he was a bushman born and bred,
and an expert horseman. I might add here that, at this particular time, jobs
were scarce, and a government job was tantamount to ‘knocking at Heaven’s door’!
We also had the indulgence of a residence – two tents
kindly supplied by the Department of Agriculture. Dad, using his bushman’s
ingenuity, fashioned these tents, with the addition of many sheets of bark, into
a comfortable dwelling.
Father was an ex-Gallipoli and Western Front veteran and
wore the badges of conflict: a thin broken body ravaged by poison gas, and
hearing and breathing impaired by shell-blasts. In spite of the physical
impairments, Dad was nimble in his movements, while his lined sun-tanned face
radiated warm good humour. There were few pensions handed out in those days; one
had to be completely incapacitated or have a relative or friend ‘at the top’.
Dad’s ingrained hatred of war, and those who profited by it, knew no bounds, and
was on par only with those who rode to wealth on the sweat of the common working
“Never go to war, Danny,” he would advise. “Let those who
profit from it do their own dirty work!”
Though sadly lacking in formal schooling, Dad was vehement
in defence of his principles, but the flip side of his personality – devotion
and kindness to animals, and mercy and understanding to those in need – were
omnipotent. I both loved and respected him and, looking back, every worthwhile
thing I have ever accomplished was motivated by his influence.
Mother was the stereotypical country woman. She was raised
to understand that her lot was one of servitude and devotion to husband and
family, and in this role she never failed.
“We want you to make good, Danny,” she would impress upon
me. “Your Daddy and me never had no learnin’ and that’s why we’ve got nothin’.”
Though crudely put, therein are found the wishes and
expectations through the whole spectrum of society. From an early age, I grew to
respect the moods of her delicately rounded facial features and appealing,
My primary schooling was rough, to say the least. I had
intermittent classroom tuition, as the family led a nomadic existence in search
of work. But by and large, I was a product of the Correspondence School. This
school was administered from Sydney and lessons were sent through the post to
those students residing in remote places not serviced by normal educational
institutions. At this time, it was Australia’s largest school. My insatiable
thirst for knowledge goaded me in my reading skills. Reading material was scarce
but a daily The Northern Star, printed in Lismore, was passed around the
little communities. When these treasures came my way, I studied them carefully,
building a reading vocabulary from the various articles and words familiar to
We had an old battery-powered radio and the Australian
Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was my window on the world. Every morning at six
am I listened to the World News which gave us the latest on the war. The
broadcast was on short wave direct from London and relayed through the ABC. It
always began with the aristocratic voice of the newsreader: “This is London
calling. Here is the news from the Beer Beer Seer!”
Following the news was the breakfast session from the ABC.
Old Harry had a granddaughter, Veronica, who came to visit
him at regular intervals. Veronica lived in the small town of Bonalbo about 30
miles away. She was about the same age as me, thin and spindly, with delicate
facial features and large bushy eyebrows framing two piercing black eyes. Her
lips were large but perfectly shaped, and reflected her moods. Displeasure
caused her bottom lip to protrude.
This small Aboriginal girl was my sole childhood companion
and I both adored and respected her in spite of the frequent outbursts when she
would admonish me with phrases like “You just silly bloody dog eye!”
The term ‘dog eye’ was and still is the ultimate insult for
a European in the Bundjalung language. Using the vernacular ‘darg-ai’ translates
to ‘stinking rotting body’.
The fiery nature of the little girl was counterbalanced by
gentle sincerity and kindness rarely seen in general assemblage. She was always
boss at play and dictated the form and direction of our ventures, which were
always centred around ‘white’ society. She was exceedingly fair, and because her
reflexes and manual dexterities were much sharper than mine, would trounce me in
simple ball games where she would build up an unbeatable lead, then deliberately
freak out and let me win. Veronica’s frequent eruptions revealed the scars of
racism, but I was unaware of this rift until I moved into what is generally
termed the ‘civilised world’.
“Whities hate us” was her standard retort when I broached
“Because we black, that’s why!”
This little girl was a part of my life and I could not
adjust to the concept of how the colour of one person’s skin could dictate the
feelings of another.
Dad was concerned about my future and he and Mum were often
overheard in quiet discussion wherein my name, coupled with the words ‘high
school’, ‘future’, ‘earning a living’ and like phrases, all adding up to one
thing – my good times in my beloved bush – were running out.
The bottom dropped out of my world at the sudden death of
my father. The ravages of poison gas and battle scars from that terrible
conflict known as the ‘Great War’ finally caught up with him and he was taken
from me, but he left a legacy that guided me through the rest of my life.
With my Blue Heeler mate, we visited for the last time the
quiet little places of special interest to me. The huge spotted gum at the head
of the gully, the crystal-clear rock pool, into which cascaded a curling
waterfall, and the fascinating man-made ‘Race’, the artificial waterway, about a
foot wide, which snaked its course for about three miles around ridges and
gullies – the life artery of the diggings.
Before going to bed on the last night prior to our
departure, I wandered alone into the bush near our camp and soaked up the
atmosphere of the night. Darkness brings the animals of the bush to life.
Startled kangaroos thump the ground heavily with their tails in their haste to
escape, thus warning other bush creatures, who in turn react in their own way.
The saddest duty of all was saying goodbye to my old
Aboriginal mate, Harry. It wasn’t his nature to show emotion, but he gave me a
small pill bottle containing a few specs of gold – “five shillin’ worth!” It
remains my prized possession through all these years; a constant reminder to
curb greed. Veronica, my little Aboriginal playmate, had not arrived home for
the holidays, so I wandered sad and alone for the last time over the places
where we played. I did not realise then, but the door was closing on my
beautiful childhood, a unique phenomenon of which few can boast.
I vowed to return next holidays to be reunited with
Veronica, but I never did. I lost contact with the little girl and learned later
that she had fallen victim to the ravages of malnutrition and disease, brought
on by our society’s shocking neglect.
The transition from bush life to what is termed ‘civilised
society’ left me with nefarious scars which remain with me to this very day, but
in spite of this I was able to emerge from the tangled web of this transition a
wiser person, which stood me in good stead in my future profession as a teacher.
Mum and I moved to a small village near the coast called
Black Wattle. The transformation from the bush to ‘civilised society’ was like
being thrown against a brick wall. I once witnessed a small bullock being
attacked by a pack of dingoes. The helpless creature fought like a demon, but as
he parried one, another two would attack from behind. This atmosphere, coupled
with an unsympathetic teacher, was my introduction to civilisation, and I left
primary school wanting to declare war on society in general.
I left Black Wattle behind when I went to high school.
There was a scheduled daily school bus which transported children to the local
secondary establishment. The one shilling and sixpence a day for the fare put a
strain on our family finances, but this impasse was soon sorted out. Aunty Pat,
Mum’s elder sister, lived by herself in town and she welcomed my company during
the weekdays. Town life did not suit me as I still longed for the wide-open
spaces. It was a case of ‘you can take the boy out of the bush but not the bush
out of the boy’.
I took to the new form of schooling like a duck to water. An exciting,
interesting world had opened before me and I faced the 1944 school year with
renewed confidence and eager expectation.