Saturday, March 31, 2007

Cliches about Paris Are True

I arrived from Switzerland in Paris in the late afternoon. No one wanted to speak English. I wandered around the station with no maps and no instructions. I asked at a counter and a man through the wire mesh simply shrugged his shoulders. Very conscious that I looked out of place and lost - not a good thing necessarily in a station such as this. So kept moving. Asking, looking, asking some more. To no avail and lots of shoulder shrugging. Eventually stood in the middle of the platforms and studied the flow of pedestrians to see how to get to the Metro. The pulsing throng suggested a particular direction so I headed into the flow of commuters and found some stairs down which I descended. Wandered a maze of tunnels and platforms. Finally found man behind a wire screen who gave me a map in French. On and off trains. Connecting names to the map. Exploring and familiarising by trial and error. Eventually resurfaced into a warm Paris spring afternoon, amid street side tables and the smell of coffee, about fifty metres from my hotel. That was a small affair, full of Americans. So small the door to the room was constructed like a stable door, the top half opening over the bed. Throw your suitcase through that opening and onto the bed. Slide through the bottom half which is butting up to the bed and preventing any overweight guests from entering the room! Access to the room is via a narrow winding stair, so narrow it is only good for one person. Shout up or down the stair well before moving between floors to ensure the route is clear. The Americans think it is hilarious. I guess they are told to tone it down so often the licence to shout must be a relief. That evening I walk 17 kilometers taking in as much of the town as possible. The benefit of all the experimentation in the Metro came the next day when I was able to give instructions to an elderly American couple who had no French and were completely lost. They were impressed by this Australian who knew his way around after only 18 hours. Little did they know the intensity of the orientation exercise but were grateful to be delivered to their stop. In my wanderings that afternoon across cafe streets and through parks with kissing lovers, from crowds under "the tower" to railway porters and ticketeers who refused to engage in conversation it was pretty obvious that in this initial sampling of this city I found that every cliche about Paris to be true. I love it.

May 1995

Space Age Train in a Paddock

Today I had a slightly weird experience. I am not too sure what to make of it. I departed early in the morning on a diesel powered passenger train out of Bern after a F5 slice of pizza for breakfast (it was better than the F25 can of XXXX beer I found last night - that can had been out of Queensland for at least a decade!!). We had a beautiful, clear day and the rumbling train took us through classic postcard scenery of Switzerland, tracing a train preferred route though valleys and across plains with snowcapped mountain backdrops. As the valleys narrowed we were pushed more and more into farmer's yards and each "clickety click" took us in and out of small farms, and chalets, and firs, and poultry and goats, sheep and cattle. And all very green. I think an indication of ones "Australianness" is how much you notice green fields. I see them everywhere.

I had a ticket that said I was on the French TGV so was a little disappointed in Bern to find myself on a more plain and ordinary carriage. Comfortable. But stock standard. A short time after we crossed the Swiss border our train slowed and then stopped. Everyone started to get off. I stayed in my seat - there was no station! We were stopped in the middle of an open meadow, covered in knee deep grass. I was the only remaining passenger before a guard insisted I get my luggage and get off - or risk going back to Bern. I did as I was told.

For about fifteen minutes we all stood in the field. There was a low grass covered rectangular mound that hinted at an earlier platform perhaps. But other than this, a small crowd of fellow passengers (all very relaxed) there was nothing, from horizon to horizon, to suggest this was a other than a normal part of the trip. Conscious of the unseen larks in the sky twittering away I was gazing to the West when to my surprise a TGV slowly slid into view, coming through the grass, around a bend and eventually gliding to a silent stop beside us. I followed what everyone else did and climbed aboard. Once we were seated the TGV quickly took itself to blast speed and we did not stop again until we reached Paris.

That was very bizarre. No marked stop. Open paddock. TGV appearing out of nowhere. All very well if there was no snow or rain. The experience would have been something else if it had not been a beautiful day. I could see nothing on the map that shows where we stopped. Bizarre.

May 1995

A Good Therapy...

In fact, the best. There is no question that getting out and helping someone else is a good way to take your mind off the daily things that are nibbling you to death. The trouble is, our community is so insular, and we are so reluctant to ask if anyone needs help that we end up helping no one, including ourselves.

I found a rather extreme example of people helping others in a story of a group of people who got together to help build a house for a family in all sorts of need. Building a house is out there, but a good example of putting someone in front of yourself. While it is not really covered in the story, I bet there was more gained by those who did the giving. Working together in a community way can be stimulating, healthy, objective and usually puts your own distractions in perspective.

That challenge has been put to our own church community and last week some of us got together to do something about some needs at the local Spastic Centre. Mail-outs, weeding and painting had us all come together to help some of our community. Painting included this mural which Athalie is working on, decorating a wall in one of the therapy centres.

It was a day of putting others before ourselves. But in the giving we were all blessed, by working together and most simply through the action itself. In this therapy centre for spastic children and adults we got the best therapy of all. Each other.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Casino Disloyal

As I stroll past the Baccarat room I see his Asian, farmer’s face cupped in his hand. It is a striking face for its length, fifty or so years in the sun, and its whispery whiskers. And its solemn concentration. He looks like a rice farmer from the back blocks of Shenzen, and very well might be – or is a descendant of a Ballarat gold miner and longer in this country than I. Jostling his side are younger faces and more eager hands. Clamouring around the table for what he seems to know is not available. In half a pace he is gone and I am stepping around a fat man in long shorts, T-shirt and a colourful anklet around his ankle. Somehow he has gotten in without any shoes. Or he has lost them in here. He is looking for a Blackjack table but even on this Monday night the tables are full. He falls behind my stroll and I don’t look back at him. A pair of short denim shorts capping of long legs and high heels wiggles through the crowd and vanishes, like a lost catwalk model, but lost in a jungle of prosaic singlets, raucous laughs, intense gazes. Past two country boys in cowboy hats playing an electronic game of some sort and giggling at each other like two school girls. Finding the inane hilarious. They seem to be the only ones having a good time as the place fills up and the rolling din of pokies chatter into the night, the music volume lifts, the constant hum and chatter of the crowd and the rhythm of the calls from the game supervisors keeps up a constant chorus which seduces with the momentary thought is the only place to be.

You could write a PhD on those who frequent this place but as we had dinner in a restaurant that is part of this complex and watched the flood of visitors it is patently obvious that it attracts those who look like they can least afford it. OK, the Chinese lady who popped a nonchalant $800 down might have been deceiving us with her looks but she was pretty casual about her loss and moved on to another table to place other bets. The Asian farmer and his Asian baccarat friends intently focused on their game. Lebanese playing the blackjack, students playing the same. Old geezers placing sports bets looked out of place – more at home in a run down TAB, with an air of the drunk and the homeless about them. Sadly, while the occasional couple strolls through, as do groups of friends, most people shamble in on their own. Maybe attracted to the prospects of winning something but I wonder how many come here for the social interaction as well. Well, at least being around others, if not actually interacting. And how many come here with a movie induced notion that there is something glamorous about a den like this?

But in this place there is no discernment. That is one thing that might be said about gambling – its sucks them all. And accepts them all. Dressed in any attire. From any social strata. Look like a homeless bum? Come on in. Dressed like a poor student. Welcome. Knocking around with your spiky haired teenage mates. Place your money fellas’ just don’t come into the bar area. On the pension and can only play one or two cent games – Welcome too, we have dozens of machines for you. This is fiscal hell, with flashing lights, noisy demons, bandits that will play you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, red carpets, orange lights, and you can’t stay away. Bands and entertainment and coffee shops and fast food diners if you need them. Cup your farmer’s head in your hands and gaze at your table and be mesmerized as your hard earned cash is easily lost. And don’t be surprised when you run dry and our warm hospitality is no longer warm – at least not until you turn up again with more chips. We’re loyal to the last – your last.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Oh Dear, Loose Moose

I cleared Massachusetts this morning, departing Hanscom AFB (I have since discovered that Hanscom is heavily pixellated on Google Earth (lat=42.4662646665, lon=-71.2843313498) – its facilities are classified in some way but the focus on their electronic warfare capabilities is well recorded on various sites) and headed for Worcester via the 495 before getting onto backwoods road “9” and heading west to Northampton and then on to Pittsfield. On the way through to Worcester I was continually surprised by the number of deer either grazing quietly on the side of the road, in the median strips, or every few miles spread across the road in a pile of minced meat not unlike the way kangaroos can end up. I don’t think I had ever thought of deer being this numerous, this relaxed around traffic, or even being this visible in the middle of the day. Not being sure about how skittish or otherwise they might be around traffic I moved into the centre lane after coming across the third or fourth grazing on the side of the road. After a while I realised they were going to care less about my little car if they were not batting an eyelid at the semi trailers blasting past every few seconds.

When I was in primary school, at the age of about ten, I developed an obsession for all things to do with the War of Revolution. I think it was Paul Revere’s ride that did it but the concept of the Minutemen caught my imagination as well. I got my hands on anything I could read about it and the subject was the first thing I researched when I got to High School and found books about it in the library. So I was keen to visit Boston and at least get to Bunker Hill. Poor Mr Revere would have a hard time of it now. I got the sense that unless there had been a bi centenary (1976) Bunker Hill and just about everything else of significance to this period would have disappeared under houses or freeways. Yesterday I walked to Bunker Hill and did so along a dilapidated path which took me under a freeway and through a collection of cardboard houses lived in by homeless men. It went by the grandiose name of the Freedom Trail but it was one track on this trip so far where I was wary about my personal safety. That it is not clearly marked only underscored the sense that 1776 is not well respected by those who live on top of it. I finally found Bunker Hill, a small patch of grass nearly swamped by development. I guess we do the same at home – treat with indifference the sites that are significant to our shaping and history. I left Bunker Hill with a different picture in my head to the one that I had formed in High School.

Visiting Concord was another matter altogether and I enjoyed a sense of history of the area that I did not get in Boston. Though still in a very built up area of the country there had been bit of a disturbance up the main street that morning, with a moose wandering around loose, giving everyone some excitement. I had pulled into the railway station to park my car before walking around, and was told by some locals to look out for a moose. I thought I was being conned, not expecting these animals would exist this far south, until I saw a notice pasted up by a local authority warning that a moose could be an ornery thing to tangle with and advising they were best to avoid. Apart from an elusive moose Concord held an unexpected pleasure in its graveyard. I spent some time walking through reading the stories engraved there. Fortunately there is more here than simply a name and birth and death date although the slate was not holding the details from the weather very well.

This is an area of the country I need to spend some more time in but I am on a tight timetable and am now ensconced in a little bit of Revolutionary history for the night, this being Washington’s old accommodation in Carlisle. This diary is getting harder to fill out the longer I spend on the road but some more on Boston will be worth the effort. Later. Now to bed.

October 1989

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Handicapped Have no Rights

Two months ago the press down here got hold of a story that had a lot of resonance in the US - that of the so called "Ashley Experiment". It is a story that has been rattling around in my head ever since, the more so for the negative responses to what has been done to Ashley. It is a story of parents of a daughter (Ashley) who is severely handicapped but is clearly part of the their loving family. In order to guarantee a quality of life they thought ideal for Ashley her parents have had a number of medical procedures undertaken on their child, the one gaining most attention being the hormone treatment which will keep their daughter small and lightweight for the rest of her life. She has also had a hysterectomy and her breast buds removed, in order to deter potential sexual harassment. Her story can be found at

Critics of the process and the parent's decision have focused, in part, on the rights of the child (she cannot talk and could not be involved in the decision making process) and the ethics of the decision. Indeed typical commentary was distracted by the so called ethics, or lack thereof, of the "experiment". But the irony of this scenario is that if you argue in defence of these kids on the basis of ethics, or "doing the right thing", they end up with no rights such as you and I enjoy. Our own daughter cannot speak. Or make any decision about her lifestyle. If our social security people had any say she would have no rights since we are not supposed to make decisions on her behalf - she is after all an adult. It gets to a ridiculous point where to even get her pension we have to take her into the social security office to "parade' her - necessary to convince the retarded staff behind the counter that she can't sign her own documentation. Left to her own devices she has no rights. It is only that someone speaks up for her that she has any rights, and quality of life, at all.

A touchy point with young handicapped women who live in a group home, as our daughter Jocelyn does, is their contraceptive regime. On the one hand we are accused of interfering in her life by putting her on the pill. That assumes she has the ability to make choice about who she might have sex with. (She does not, a separate issue altogether.) Most often with these dear people their rights only come about if we interfere and facilitate those rights. Of course that is when, as with the parents of Ashley, you are accused of being self serving and not looking after the interests of the child. It is a battle you never win.

For the record I applaud what Ashley's parents have done. If you want to be provoked have a look at their site. And be encouraged by the notion that sometimes the rights of these people come about when people "interfere" on their behalf. Left to their own devices these children would have no rights at all.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

An Extraordinary Well

Our prowl around Delhi with Nigel Hanklin turned up some surprising revelations. Some of which helped remind us that the modern day has no exclusive claim on art, inventiveness, science or creativity. Sure, we know all that, but sometimes it requires something to be in our face to understand it.

We paused for a stop at a low brick wall in the shade of a large tree, then walked around to one end of the wall, ascended a few steps and were presented with this rather odd view, looking down into this structure with a small green pool at the bottom. Its scale can be gauged by the figures in the top right hand corner. I exhausted all ideas about what this structure was before Nigel revealed that it was in fact a well. Albeit a very large one. Once filled to within about eight feet of the top. But which had in fact been only about a third full for most of its life, as the lighter, less weathered brickwork shows. In fact the water level was most consistantly at the ledge above the largest and lowest arch at the far end. Steps at one end descend to this depth. It still eludes me as to why a well would be build with the arches and interior architectural decorations if they were to spend all their life under water.

As it turns out modern Delhi has put so much pressure on the water table that the well is nigh on empty, the current small pond revealing the depth of the table. But that earthen mound of centuries old silt covered in weeds must be ripe for an excavation, surely. As a kid I used to watch people excavating old wells, of the more traditional kind, around the goldfields of Otago, pulling out old bottles and crockery. What would a 3-4 century well of this size reveal?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Art or Science? Me or You?

With more than 100 blogs under my belt what has this medium turned into? How much of it is art? How much should be intuitive and off the sleeve? And how much thematic, scripted, planned, scientific? I have to confess that the exercise of writing this blog has evolved through a number of phases reflective of my intentions. It started out with a hard focus on my travel diaries, and then moved into some attempts at posting up past and current creative writing. I even invited some serious, journalistic writing houses in the US to comment. Surprise surprise, they replied.

Then some kids responded to the blogs and I found myself writing not for myself but for an unseen but imagined audience. I went searching for tools that would broaden my readership and perhaps even earn the site a few dollars. (So far $5.10!!). I don;t think that should be the focus and I have resisted Google's Adwords. Where I have used the blog to help shape the novel I have been grinding away on for the last few years that imagined audience has been very helpful, freeing up thoughts and forcing some discipline into the writing.

Now it has settled down into what I really think it should be. Something that has proven cathartic and therapeutic. Something for myself. Writing about my recently killed friend, JD has confirmed that. Perhaps writing for myself will infuse a more honest air to the posts. And if readers respond to that, well and good.

Mind you that has not stopped me prodding for feedback. Dave, had a look and kindly posted some feedback. Not everyone reacts well to his advice but if you are going to hang your shingle out you need to expect the occasional egg to be thrown at it. He does what I should really do and create a separate blog for different themes. He has a few out there including I think I will be sticking with this blog alone, writing for myself, and keeping fingers crossed that the posts have a resonance with those that stumble over them. Comments always welcome of course!!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Death Before Dishonour, Nothing Before Coffee

So inscribed in Latin on your casket by your brother Tom, and a touch that everyone enjoyed. Everyone – maybe 400 or so. I did a quick headcount in the service. Sorry. But I know you would understand. We all loved the fact that we were all here for you today. What a great testimony to the impact you have had on our lives. What a diverse collection of people you touched. Plumbers mixed with AMs. The former DG of the Secret Service stood in the same crowd as the law clerk you recently helped with accommodation when she was getting settled into a new town. Smart suits mixed with the bohemian – mainly a little grizzled nowadays. You would have enjoyed the fact that all your Army mates and ex Army mates stood out like, well Army types, only underscoring how atypical a military type you once were.

Part of that was explained today as your parents revealed your gypsy roots – travelling as a kid in a horse drawn caravan across NSW and QLD. The photo here of you as a boy was taken in those years. It is you in all your studious seriousness with a hint of the rogue. The later photo, below, captures more rogue but hints at your love of toys (check the watch), nice clothes (silk tie) and dining out (photo taken in a restaurant).

As I drove to Monsalvat I thought it was a perfect day for flying. You would have loved it. A clear Australian, brilliant, hot, lucid sky. As I thought of that, the knot in my stomach tightened and I found myself getting more and more emotional as I got closer to the front gate. As I pulled in, an old blue heeler wandered out and scratched himself. Somehow that tattered beast was what I needed and I laughed out loud and instantly felt better for that. In part because it was the sort of mongrel you loved.

All the gang are here mate. All those grown men who have done amazing things around the world, now mixing laughter and tears over you and with each other. All united at this artist’s retreat which is so appropriate a setting for your farewell. Your Dad and Mum made us laugh and cry – gave us all insights we never had but which were true to what we knew of you. Shauna did a sterling job. You would be proud of your “gorgeous girl”. We all are. Of course Mark was necessarily irreverent at spots and we thank him for that, for making the bitter a little sweet.

We saw you out to a trumpet solo then drifted in suspended disbelief to the Great Hall where we were treated to a collection of video and photos which brought more tears and laughs and lots of affectionate “Damn you JD”s.

I am sitting on an old stump, in the shade of a veranda jotting these notes, and finding myself enjoying the scene while I try and capture something of the essence of the day. Down the hill is the Great Hall, a stone and timber structure in which a number of folk are still catching up, watching the AV display and shedding a tear or two. A few dozen mingle on the paved courtyard outside and their chatter and laughter drifts up, punctuated by the soft warbles of a magpie and the distant sound of a light aircraft. It drones out of airshot but the magpie continues its consoling lament.

It’s been a strange day JD. A part of me still hopes you have staged all this and run off to Peru. Another part simply fails to make the connection. There is a surreal, unreal sensation to all this. Your mates share the sentiment with me. It is not right. It is not happening. But we were all confronted by the reality of the place, the occasion, the grief of family, of the casket, and there was the raw and painful truth of it all. You would have loved the casket by the way. Not just because Dad and friends made it but because the routered and mitred joints were perfect and its lines square and clean. In fact you would have loved the whole occasion and therein lies the rub.

You should know that through all this there have been some reconnections of friendships that too idly have been allowed to slip away over the years. And that there have been some reconciliations today by some of us confronted so dramatically by your unholy accident.

The day was a day of love and affection and you were the catalyst for it all. By mates, by mates of mates, by your mates. You made us all an extended family and we all felt that today. Thanks.

By the way your favourite tie made it there today. You left it at home seven years ago and it has hung in my office for the last couple of years. You always promised to pick it up but never did. I am glad you didn't - I wore it today.

So this is my farewell. The last two weeks have been turgid, weighed down, surreal and hollow. I need to move on. To pull myself out of this dark cloud. Farewelled but not forgotten. Farewelled but forever engraved on our hearts and lives. On my heart and in my life. A part of the sum of me, my beautiful friend. I love you still.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lentil Burger Eating Surfers

If the number of ships lurking off the Newcastle harbour is one sign of our times (previous post refers) then what I experienced at this little slapstick eatery in Newcastle is another. Newcastle, and specifically Nobby’s Head is famous for it surfers. Last week I stopped for lunch here. It is a block from the beach. While reading the papers and then eating our meal (on our own, it was quiet for a moment but soon livened up) a handful of bare chested, blond headed young men walked in. Sand between their toes and on the tops of their feet, laced in bracelets around their wrists and salted across their shoulders. Hair still damp. And without a moment of hesitation, while gazing up at the menu board above the counter, ordered lentil burgers. Thirty years ago I surfed, very badly, at Bells Beach. Let me assure you that at that time no surfer then would be heard ordering a lentil burger, let alone be caught eating one. Another sign of our times.

Great Pheasant – or “The China-Australia Health Index”

I prefer Great Pheasant. It is a little more poetic than the latter. But they are connected. I was reading somewhere in the last few weeks that the backlog of coal ships anchored off Newcastle is currently at record highs. Newcastle is the loading port for Hunter Valley Coal which is being shipped at enormous rates to China. It has been a while since I had taken a look at the ships so when that town on Friday I had a quick peek. Ships as far as the eye can see. Actually 37 that I could see. Some dimly visible in the salt haze of a warm, windy day. All waiting their turn, standing high in the water revealing their rust red oxide, rust proofed bottoms. The crews must groan when they hear they are coming down here on a coal run since they spend a crazy amount of time sitting off the coast and have no opportunity to come ashore.

Tied up along side the coal terminals were three coal ships, the largest named Great Pheasant. It is difficult to get a close up photo of them since all the conveyors and loading machinery gets in the way. But if here is still a little boy lurking in you somewhere then this place is a great port to poke around in. There is a lot of machinery to admire. And some quick maths reveals some stunning statistics. Guessing that the Great Pheasant would carry 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes of coal the ships sitting of the beach represented 5.5million tonnes of coal. (The Great Pheasant actually carries more than 170,000 tonnes).

The mineral export boom to China continues, people are making a lot of money out of it, the share market is propped up on it, the government is counting on the healthy export driven economy to carry it through the next election, and China Health index, measured by the number of ships off Newcastle, sets new records. Signs of our times.

Friends and Planes Do Not Mix

JD perished in the crash of his friend’s aircraft only two weeks ago. At the point when we expected JD’s details to be published in the papers Garuda Flight GA200, a 737-400 crashes in Indonesia. One of the survivors is Mick Hatton, close colleague and friend with whom I served while in the Air Force. I read his name in the papers but in the initial reports his name was not associated with the Air Force. So I figured it really could have been anyone. But the following day the press revealed his rank so I guessed it may well be my friend. That evening I saw TV images of him on a stretcher on a Yogyakarta hospital floor. The following day TV footage captured him hobbling off his flight home to Darwin with his arm in plaster and looking a bit worse for wear. It’s a thin joke around some at the moment - If you know me, stay away from planes!

There is a lighter side to all the press that I know Mick will appreciate, as will anyone who has served in the military. Mick is a military policeman. And a Senior NCO at that. Over the last few days Mick has been reported in the press as an officer, and as a pilot. He is neither and the standard retort of a "I am not an officer, I work for a living" comes to mind. He is a gentleman though! And even though he looks pretty beat up here (in bed) with fellow air force crash survivor, he is a fit fellow and will bounce back. Even though he can't catch me on Castle Hill!!

A Century, One Ton, 100

In this country "a ton" usually refers to the 100 runs a cricketer might amass in a solid innings of play. Otherwise known as a century. I don't think I ever made "a ton" in any game other than the backyard ones in which there was lots of cheating, reduced wickets, and a players ability to influence the umpire's decision. Especially if the umpire was a little brother. A random blog here to do nothing except record 100 blogs. And in so doing defer to something Chinese which reflects one hundred as well, in this case one of the numerous types of silver coins the Chinese government (and Chinese copycats) issue each year. See, I said it was random.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tractor Accident (9)

Previous Chapter

In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next few weeks. And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.

The tractor accident is probably the vehicle event most synonymous with David. For many of us at least, for there was a fear at its occurrence that he would die as a result of his injuries. Years later I was surprised to discover that for many of his friends it had slipped from their minds. David never spoke about it so even his children seemed oblivious to what was a major event in the district. And all the more so for Rodney White being killed in a rolling truck that fell of a road at the Limestone works at Dunback. Or the sheep-truck disaster at Dunback at the Macraes Flat Road intersection. Accidents in a farming community can get the whole district focused and on edge. David’s was one of those. It was the talk of the high school for weeks and weeks. On the day, Warren Thurlow – his family farmed the property adjoining the Patons, grabbed me at school and told me there had been an accident. I am not sure how he found out – mobile phones were twenty years away. David had been thrown out of the tractor on a steep piece of country. He rolled down hill and the blue Ford rolled after him. The tractor was fitted up with a T roll bar which crashed against his body as it overtook him, crushing his pelvis and leaving him severely wounded. Mrs Paton told us later how she had always insisted that Jack and the boys always be in for meal times exactly when they were supposed to. Minutes after not arriving Jack went looking for him. (I had always thought it was Mrs Paton that hunted him out but family told me recently it was Jack). Drawn to a crowd of cattle he found him rolled up against a fence – David’s bellows of pain had attracted the cattle over. Some said later that some of the cattle had tried to lick his wounds. Part of the legend I suspect but something I want to think happened nonetheless. He survived a long trip to hospital. His recovery became the stuff of legend as well. Not only did he meet his future wife there (I suspect the meeting may have happened earlier but the relationship at least came about during his convalescence) but there is the story of nursing staff finding him gone from his bed in the middle of the night. He was not supposed to be able to walk. They found him in the pool swimming with the deadweight of his inert lower body being hauled through the water by his arms alone. Whatever the truth of that, he was always a strong and enthusiastic swimmer.

In fact there was a strong physicality to David. He was always fit and well and energetic. Wet or cold was better for him than heat and humidity. One May school holidays I was staying with him. The nights were clear and cold and the days bright and brief. He had recently caught a wild pig and locked it up in the woolshed. This big brute of a sow (isn’t it always a sow?!) had a couple of piglets. For a while she was happy with her little prison but after a few days started to eat her way out. If you don’t know pigs you need to know they have a “jaws of life” capacity to chew through almost anything. The light timber of the woolshed was disappearing very quickly as she tried to escape. She had to be stopped and David decided the most sensible way to do that was to build her a more spacious home. That late afternoon, under a grey sky and in sub zero temperatures we set about building a new sty against the back fence of the yard. The daytime temperature, if it rose above zero, probably never made it beyond one or two degrees. The green eucalypt timber, deemed tough enough to beat this pig, was frozen through, not a drop of moisture or sap other than it was additional binding on the hand held saw. We dropped posts into the ground and rammed and tamped the earth into place. It was too cold to mix cement. The light vanished and the temperature sagged a little more. I was wearing a brand new woollen shirt over underwear, and underneath a jacket. Still, I froze. David wore gumboots and an unbuttoned shirt but did concede a woollen beanie. A red and yellow one. But nothing else. Then we painfully cut lengths of timber to create the floor – joists and slatting. Planks for her enclosure. The hours passed and the temperature still kept dropping. Finally, after about five hours we had constructed a pigsty to house the sow and her two piglets. Trouble was she had given up her escape and had settled down to sleep, and flatly refused to budge. The next most dangerous thing to a wild sow on the loose is a wild sow that you have prodded loose. Besides, it was too cold and she was happy nestled under her pile of straw and hay. So we figured we would leave it until the next morning to move her to her new digs.

We retreated to the house where it took an hour to warm up but having done so we had dinner and sat down to watch television in front of a coal fed fire. Asked to fetch another bucket of coal I opened the back door only to have two or three feet of powder snow fall into the hallway.

Next Chapter

Vehicles (8)

Previous Chapter

In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next few weeks. And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.

Many of the memories of times with David relate in some way to vehicles. Somehow there was never any real affinity for, or affection for things mechanical although he was as adept at repairing them as any other farmer. But they were just tools and functional items that had a utilitarian purpose. Despite that there was one vehicle that has very fond memories for me. There was a very old Ford David drove. I think it actually belonged to his Mum and Dad. Its heater hung by wires underneath the dashboard, swinging precariously. But it worked. The door locks did not. I travelled on numerous occasions in that green machine with binding twine (designed for baling hay) stretched across my lap, the twine tying the two doors closed. We loved travelling with David in that clapped out thing to Dunedin and back on Bible Class trips. Usually with only one headlight working we wound our way down to Moana Pool, swam, bought fish and chips later then ate them up at the lookout or steamed up the car with them as we drove home. That was very special. Indeed, I want to tell you more about those times but they have faded too far, leaving me only with a warm recollection of being wrapped in the warm embrace of a toasty but dangerous car, and in the care of a bunch of older men who were quite accommodating of a couple of kids wrapped up in blankets in the back seat. David and the other young men used to compete with each other to see who could detect an oncoming car before anyone else. It took me a while to twig to the best clue – light gliding along the telephone lines strung beside the road – always hinted at the lights of an approaching car long before anything else.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Letter to a Friend

Dear JD,
It's been more than a week now. I drove home last Friday afternoon up the Waringah Expressway. I was enjoying the sunshine and the clear blue Sydney sky - and the fact that the air conditioning was keeping the humidity at bay. The traffic was light which was surprising since these 6 or so lanes of traffic can get pretty clogged on this side of the bridge. So I glanced at the clock thinking it was earlier than usual. Well, it was but the clock jolted me for another reason, that being the 5.40 I read on the dial. Suddenly the day was less bright as it occurred to me that this was about the same time last week you were enjoying the last minutes of that plane flight. That it was exactly this time a week ago you were enduring something that should never be suffered alone. Away from all your friends and those who have declared their compassion and love for you this week.

You will be delighted to know that such is the memory most have of you. Enjoying life to the full and revelling in anything that was tactile, sensory and dangerous. And of course if it was slightly irresponsible in some way there was an added measure of delight that lit you up. But damn you, last week was thoroughly miserable. I waded through the week feeling a constant knot in my gut and was thoroughly demotivated. I made a checklist of things that needed doing and ploughed through them. Some of my colleagues noticed. Fortunately most did not.

You would enjoy the fact that (ironically) last week I kept turning up things that reminded me of things we did together. I was looking for an old residential address on a bill so I could file a claim - its a long story. Your CV fell out of the file. The one we wrote at the end of 1997 when you were finally convinced that leaving the military was a real option. It was not put into action for another twelve months or more. It is an impressive read even after all this time. You made the time in the Pilbara sound like it was a critical qualification for any future employer. It made me laugh. Then I put it on the dining room table where it still sits. I can't bring myself put it away. The next file upended the training business plan we wrote. That made me grin too - I won't divulge where the guts of it came from but you turned up with a massive fax which we turned into a plan. It is probably just as well we never turned that into substance (someone would be chasing us for breach of copyright) but considered it an iterative or instructional exercise. Later in the week I pulled a postcard off the wall at work. From you at Gettysburg. We spoke for hours about the Civil War and Gettysburg was one place I encouraged you to visit. There was your chicken scrawl handwriting telling me you had gotten there at last. I pinned it back but see it every day now when for months I simply walked past it.

I have told maybe fifteen or so folk about what has happened. Everyone has been appalled. But there has been something cathartic and healing in the telling. Something bitter-sweet as the instant memories people have of you and your madness were fond, affectionate and sometimes hilarious. I have spoken with people who have separated from me for some time. Spoken with others from whom I have drifted. And with others still whom I do not know directly but who I know knew and loved you. Laughter and tears. And more tears. From grown men all around the world. You would be a bit abashed. If the overall tenor of the week has been black and depressed the light and bright tone has come from all these reconnections. Thanks mate. Sadly those two or three I told who did not know you were dismissive of the event. I am not sure what to make of that. Maybe I caught them at the wrong time but the end result is that most of last week was spent keeping all this to myself. You would relate to that - the malaise of being a bloke!

You know my world view. Better than most. And would not be surprised that I did share with some sympathetic friends on Thursday evening what had happened. They prayed for Shauna that night and for your parents. I know you never minded that and had an idle curiosity about God. Grace at our table when you stayed with us with a wrecked knee was something you enjoyed. I was encouraged that Thursday night by the fact that somehow, even though Shauna has never met these people, she was being supported and encouraged. I hope she was.

I love you still my friend


Friday, March 02, 2007

Taking Ourselves Seriously

Some more thoughts about my friend Ewin. It is actually proving an interesting exercise to try and quantify and describe exactly what it is about the friendship that is so valuable, and what the chemistry might really be. Of course you can be too analytical and forensic on something that is abstract but no less real for that. And I run the risk of trivialising something by not being able to do it justice with words. One way to tackle the challenge is to describe as simply as I can the things we find ourselves doing through which the relationship and especially his qualities can be highlighted. Don't forget this is in part an exercise of acknowledging his qualities while he is alive and not waiting until he is dead before admitting them.

Ewin and I go fishing, but never as often as we should. We have good intentions - I even leave my rods and gear at his place to help prod us along to the beach when I am visiting his part of the world. He has even gone to the trouble of building a special rack from which to hang them in his garage. We admire the rack (his beer fridge is out there so we often do what blokes do and drink a beer and stand around in the garage admiring the latest hardware adventure) more than we use the rods!

But the fact of the matter is that when Ewin and I fish we catch absolute crap. Apart, and we have great tales to tell of amazing catches. Together, we land the tiniest fillet, stand for hours and catch nothing but the breeze in our hair, or land the ugliest thing cruising the coast that day. I mean, that catfish was seriously disturbing.

Regardless of the result there is always a lot of hilarity, stupid jokes, long drives, insect bites, moaning kids, and a cold beer at the end of it. And an irrepressible Ewin who refuses to let the fact that we invest more bait into the water than we take back deter him from having a GREAT day. If you need any instruction on how to let go and not take yourself too seriously come and spend a day with Ewin. I can promise you it will be remarkably therapeutic. And yes, we did throw them all back, both the small and the ugly. The eel did not fare so well as he had wrapped himself up in the line and refused to give up the hook. Oh yes, there was a single squid as well that got turned into bait. A splendid, hilarious, productive day.

Singapore -Same But Different

There are always little hints about a place that tell you there are more differences between cultures than necessarily meet the eye. I am constantly intrigued by these, especially where we try and put our fingers on the subtleties of difference between ourselves and New Zealanders, Americans, Brits and Canadians. The obvious comparisons I guess. But some of the cultural differences with our neighbours have an air of similarity but at first glance mask major differences.

This sticker struck me as a good example of those. At first glance the instructions here to a Singapore driver seem straight forward. But I was then bemused by the explicitness of the requirement to take 6 photos. Not 2. not 10. But 6. Not "at least" 6. I strongly suspect that such an instruction would not carry any weight to most Australian drivers. Take some photos sure. But an instruction like this is just as likely to invite 2 photos or 20 photos as an interpretation of compliance. Singapore citizens will take precisely 6 - you can be sure of that.

And of course it is reasonable to assume everyone in Singapore has a camera on them? Actually it probably is, at least via their cell phones. I am not so sure you could guarantee a camera will be around in an Australian car accident.

Respite in the Forbidden Palace

September 12, 2006. Beijing morning with the early sun on my back and cool freshness of the morning breeze on my face. On my left the still moat of the Forbidden Palace and on my right the bustle of the early morning traffic. Trolley buses pour past, cyclists and of course the normal flood of cars. A bespectacled gent with wispy hair sits down with me to read the paper. Long poles dip in and out of the moat, at one end held and watched intently by old men - hoping for the tiniest fish which surely would hardly hope to cope in such putrid water.

The sun has ascended to a point from which it is better placed to conduct its assault and I have pressed ahead of the rest of the group and crowd that surges through the Forbidden City, for the crowd is starting to irritate me. As any mob of sheep eventually do. It is a tough complex to get your head around at the best of times but trying to do this place without a local guide is pretty pointless - apart from being able to take in the amazing art and architecture of course. I was spoilt in my first visit here given that I had two local guides and a friend who knew the place inside out. So I have pressed ahead to the northern end of the complex, where a cafeteria and garden are located, bypassing the various gates and Royal houses that attract all the crowds.

It has turned into a classic hot Beijing day and getting hydration is doubly important in the baking courtyards of this place. We started the day with a leisurely stroll south to Tienanmen Square where we wandered with the crowds and for those who had not been here before "dropped them in it." As I look around I am more interested in my fellow Chinese visitors than the buildings. Our Chinese friends seem to get more and more socialised (poor pun I know) to things Western every time I am up here. That is evident less in what they might own but in what they wear and how they wear it. Even the tanned, broadfaced peasant stock in from the bush to see the sights have a veneer of care about them. Perhaps not Chanel care but a sense of dress and an awareness of themselves not evident in previous trips. And of course the local kids are stretching the envelope - perhaps not as much as their counterparts in Hong Kong but not too far off their shoulder at all.
A young couple sitting across from me is typical. He has a neat tidy hair cut, a number two, a clean T-shirt and new jeans. She has a long haircut, is lightly made up, wearing a very modern European cut jacket and pants. Hair is streaked and permed. High heels, anklets, frills and lace. Very composed, poised and aware of the the statement they are making. And conveniently contrasted by the elderly gent immediately behind them. He is wearing a Mao suit with its high collar, has a salt and pepper bristle cut and he looks about him in bemused wonder. I bet the Chinese hip hop that is belting out of the sound system is beyond his ken. Its moments like these you wish you had the local lingo so you could chat with him. Imagine the changes this old man has seen.

In May 1989 Tienanmen happened - as we now cheaply refer to it - and the two people we met the other day had no real understanding about what had happened then. No concept at all. I suspect partly because the state is reluctant to allow it to be part of the the lore of this place. But also perhaps because, like the young people of Vietnam they are really mainly focused on getting on with their studies so they can make money or to get on with their money making.

One stale sandwich , some cheesecake of an indeterminate taste and two chocolate mochas later I am ready for a bathroom break and another foray into the heat. Lets go.