Touching Greatness #BackOurBoys

A few years ago Dad (our Collingwood patriarch) was at Darwin airport on his way to visit me in Canberra – he spotted Michael Long* and went up to him “Could you please touch my hand Michael” he requested. Michael looks at him with a bemused/perplexed look. “Touch my hand” my father repeated holding up the back of his hand – explaining that he was on his way to visit his son a life-long Essendon supporter. So Michael generously indulged Dad his whimsical request.
On arriving in Canberra several hours later my father extends the back of his hand towards me saying “Touch my hand”. Reacting much as Michael must have initially done I hesitated, so Dad repeated his instruction. When I warily complied, he explained how he had been touched by greatness and was passing it on to me 🙂
*For the uninformed: Michael Long
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Musings on Mother

Recently the extended clan gathered to celebrate Mum’s 80th Birthday – which inevitably led to some “Musings on Mother”
“Friends”
Mum once said about us kids growing up (something along the lines of):
“It was good when you became old enough to play with and entertain each other, and even better when you were old enough to be helpful with the household chores and be more independent, but it was really nice when you were mature enough for us to be friends (i.e. more than the parent – child relationship).”
“Pat cf Mum”
Not long after I finished Form 6 and was travelling around NZ, in one of the letters that Mum wrote to me she queried as to whether, having passed the (maturation?) milestone of finishing secondary school and approaching the ripe old age of 18 i.e. bordering on “adulthood”, I would prefer to call her “Pat” rather than “Mum”. My unequivocal and immediate response was that everyone who knows her can call her Pat but only four of us (at the time – though since then also a few select others) have the privilege of calling her “Mum”.
“Glowing”
When Mum finished working at Darwin Hospital – after some 21(?) years in a number of key roles there was a large farewell afternoon tea for her at the Hospital. When she came home she humbly commented that she was surprised at the number of people who were in attendance including some notable senior staff and NT government dignitaries but she did admit that the many wonderful and effusive compliments that people made to and about her did make her feel “all glowing”.
“Protests”
Whilst both our parents engendered in us a strong social conscience, Mum did add a more overt political expression. I have a memory of attending with Mum (and perhaps a sibling or two) an anti-nuclear (?) rally in the Melbourne CBD in the mid 1970’s and being part of a mass lying down in one of Melbourne’s main streets. as a teenager I thought that that was pretty cool.
“Cleaning”
Another influence of Mum’s (absorbed to varying degrees) was house cleanliness. After we moved out of home, we used to joke, that the first thing Mum would do when she visited us in our own homes was wipe down the kitchen benches! Of course the other sentiment behind such acts was being a helpful visitor. When Mum and Dad visited me in Laos (2002) Mum started off being her useful self e.g. making up their bed in the mornings and cleaning up around the place. As they were on holiday and I had a full-time cleaner-cook there was no need for Mum to do this. So I told Mum that she risked offending Khing (the cleaner-cook) if she kept “helping” as Khing might feel that Mum’s actions were implying that Khing wasn’t doing a good enough job. This logical was both true and very effective and putting Mum into proper holiday mode. Both my parent’s developed a genuine fondness for Khing during that visit.
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Big Name No Blanket – Warumpi Band – A Passing Connection

I lived and worked briefly (10 weeks) in Papunya in 1978 and then later on at Galiwinku (Elcho Island) for approx 4 years 1978-1981 doing community recreation work with the YMCA (starting as an 18-19 year old). So the Warumpi Band has (and still does) always held a special place for me linking my formative experiences in those two place. It was in this context that I’d known George – the lead singer of the Warumpi Band i.e. at Elcho Island – though we weren’t close friends as such. I also had met – prior to meeting George – his (at that time not yet designated) wife-to-be Suzina from my brief time at Papunya.

Sometime in the late 1990’s just after an Australia Day/Survival Day I was passing through Sydney airport, returning from an overseas work trip. Whilst walking from my arrival to gate to where I would catch my connecting flight I happen to cross paths with George. Neil Murray and the other current members of the Warumpi Band at the time were sitting further back in the waiting area. I hadn’t seen George to talk with since I’d departed Elcho Island i.e. possibly some 15 years earlier (although I had been to a Warumpi Band concert at ANU sometime in 1993-1994 and may have spoken with him briefly then).

Anyway, George looks up and recognises me, “Gidday William” he says nonchalantly (as though we saw each other every day). I said “Hi George, How is it going?” “You missed our big concert” replied George “We just played at a big Survival Day concert. It was great.” “Did you George, that’s good. Sorry I missed it.”

And then for some perverse reason (perhaps so I could tell this story for the years to come) I decided that the essence of our communication had occurred and that anything further would risk tainting or diluting the moment so I finished off the conversation with ” Good to see you George” or words to that effect and kept heading towards where I had to catch my connecting flight!

That was the last time I saw George in person.

The lyrics of this Warumpi Band song are very evocative for me as they link my Papaya and Elcho Island experiences. Particularly the phrases “west of Alice Springs” / “dry winds”/ “in a boat on the sea again … holding that long turtle spear”
In November 1996 a group of us travelled up from Canberra for the final Crowded House concert held on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. This, their last concert, was the first and only time for me to see Crowded House. One of the highlights was when the last of the supporting bands – Powderfinger – performed Black Fella White Fella as the final song of their set. Two months earlier Pauline Hanson had made her infamous maiden speech in the Australian Parliament and her racist views were very much colouring the political discourse of the time. So with no introduction or fanfare Powderfinger launched into Black Fella White Fella – a rendition  all the more potent for the unstated but heightened context in which It was being played.
“Well I’m a stranger to your life for a start, and I’m not sure if I can really play a part, still I came to your country I don’t know what you’re thinking of me, all I know is that I can’t forget these times with you. see I don’t want to lose you not your warmth nor your humour, you see how sad it makes me to have to go…believe what I say….for I know many have spoken before and gone again with nothing more”
I have always kept these lyrics in mind when departing from a place where I have stayed (lived/worked) long enough to have formed substantive relationships with people for whom such places are home i.e. not promising to return until such time as I am reasonably certain I will do so.
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“More Irrelevancies of a Banal and Rambling Nature” – Laos June 2001

Whilst I was living and working in Laos I would note various anecdotes and collate them in emails which were then periodically sent out to family and friends. Below is one such missive.

Sunday 3 June 2001
Due to unprecedented public demand (read: complaints about lack of communication) I have decided to take some time out from the hammock and tap out a few “More Irrelevancies of a Banal and Rambling Nature”.

I should however point out that I do so at great risk to my personal safety i.e. last time I got into trouble with my mother. Not for any particular elements of the content of my missive but for the fact that there was content which was in marked contrast to my normal paltry responses to queries via the phone as to what has been happening in my life.

As some of you will be aware I have just returned from 3 weeks in Australia. First up an apology to all those whom I didn’t contact (either by phone or in person) – now we are all sensible mature people so I wont try to worm my way out of this social dilemma by contriving pitiful excuses.

Actually the trip was undertaken at relatively short notice the reason being that my father had being diagnosed and operated on for a large (5cm) tumour on the pancreas. Although he didn’t know that he had it, this tumour had been giving him the “shits”, literally, for the last 1-2 years. Fortunately, the type of tumor, although cancerous, was an extremely rare type that was non-aggressive and therefore relatively easily and comprehensively dealt with by surgery. Of course this is all stated in the benefit of hindsight and there was a degree of apprehensiveness prior to the operation e.g. One reputable medical website quoted figures of a treatable conditions of only 20% and an median life expectancy from the time of diagnosis of 6 months.

Anyway so I headed off to Brisbane where my father was being treated. He had been operated on (removal of a large part of his pancreas) two weeks prior to my arrival and was recovering at such a rate that he was able to meet me at the airport – if I had arrive much later I would not have been able to play any significant role as the dutiful son returning to buoy the spirits of the ill father! In fact Dad’s recovering has been such that he was able to drive back to Darwin, accompanied by my mother, in late May – a few weeks ahead of schedule. Being fit (he normally runs three times a week), having a positive attitude, a high pain threshold (which derives from supporting Collingwood for many years) and receiving a lot of moral support certainly helped.

Most of my time (two weeks) in Brisbane was spent at my brother’s house, where Mum and Dad were also staying, and doing the odd excursion, reading, having the occasional chat etc.

Just a few days prior to my planned return to Laos, arrangements were made for me to stay on in Australia for a little while longer so that I could go to Canberra for work related reasons. It was great to catch up with a number of colleagues and friends (though time did not allow for all to be covered).

Sunday 17 June
The pleasing thing for Mum and Dad returning to Darwin ahead of schedule was that Dad was able to attend the ordination of my mother as a priest (Anglican church) at the ripe old age of 66. The ordination took place on 11 June and was reportedly a fantastic event.

It’s now the rainy season which means that whilst it is more humid there are also periods where coolness prevails eg if it is raining at night then I am able to sleep with no fan (and certainly without the turbo-charged air conditioner). I am enjoying the variety of the wet season.

I now am fully gadgeted up, kitchenwise, including microwave. Back in March I undertook a big shopping expedition to Thailand. There is a place called Udon Thani which is about 55 KM the other side of the border. Takes between 1.5 and 2 hours from Vientiane to get there. All up it was a full 12 hour day spent purchasing supplies and equipment to outfit the house. I was accompanied by my housekeeper and the Office Manager (CARE Laos) – they took great delight in spending my money.

One of the challenges in a new place is learning the road “rules” etc. A recent episode involving my boss, was instructive in this regard. My boss was riding home one night on a motorbike when he was run into by another, much faster, motorbike. Both my boss and the other rider were okay. As the collision took place on a reasonably busy road, My boss decided, for safety sake to move his bike off to the side of the road – this however contravened the road rules which require vehicles involved in an accident to remain in situ. Whilst waiting for the police, my boss suggested that the other bike be moved as well but the other rider did not want to. Not long after a speeding truck came through and collected the aforesaid motor bike causing some damage to both vehicles. So now three parties were involved. All vehicles were impounded for a few weeks whilst the police conducted their investigation. The result was that my boss was fined for moving his bike and also because he had admitted to having had a drink prior to the accident (apparently there is a 0.00 blood alcohol regulation – the other two parties were careful not to make any such admission). The driver of the truck was fined for speeding and the other motorbike rider (who had caused the accident in the first place) was effectively fined as he had to pay most of the costs for the repairs of his bike (there was only minor damage to my boss’s bike).

The CARE Office (a converted two storey house) has one toilet inside downstairs and at the back of the office, one toilet upstairs but accessible directly from outside via a verandah. There is also a third toilet used by the office guards however at one point the guards toilet became unserviceable. Therefore the guards needed to use the upstairs toilet but the problem was that the verandah by which the toilet was accessed was often used by groups of staff for meetings and the guards were therefore too shy to use the toilet. Senior management were made aware of this problem not directly but by way of the fact that one day the bamboo awning that shielded the verandah had been moved (to the upstairs verandah on the front of the house). When queries were made as to why the awning had been moved the applied logic, of the Office Manager, that became apparent was that removing the awning would make the rear verandah less appealing as a place to meet and people were prefer then to meet on the front verandah), With less meetings being held on the rear verandah the guards would have, to their mind, unfettered access to the upstairs toilet! Whilst the tactical logic was to be admired a return to the previous status quo was requested i.e. the awning reinstalled.

There have been three lots of visitors stay over the period March – May which has been great. Kim Murray, Danny MacAvoy (& Jo) and Vic Sukacz. All either gave or endorsed the **** .5 rating. I think the people who had the best time were Danny and Jo, who were cycling around parts of Laos, and arrived in Vientiane rather hot and tired one Saturday afternoon. It had been arranged for them to meet up with Peter (Office Manager) who showed them to my house which they enjoyed the facilities of for the next three days – in my absence!

I was away at the time (early April) on a trip with one of CARE Australia’s Board members and her husband (yes they paid for all the expenses involved). Although they are in their seventies the travel itinerary was reasonably demanding. They had one night in Vientiane and then we flew up to Luang Prabang for two nights to see one of our HIV/AIDS/STDs projects (plus take in some of the sites of the area which is a World Heritage listed site). Then it was a three hour ride up the Mekong river by jet boat (not the normal means of river transport for CARE staff) with a break to visit some caves and another for a swim (my first time to swim in the Mekong). Once we docked at our riverside destination it was another 1.5 hours drive to the District headquarters (Hongsa) where we stayed for two nights visiting an agriculture project. Six hours mountainous road travel, including a couple of breaks to visit project activities, got us to Sayaboury by Tuesday afternoon. We were then able to rest up prior to the flight back to Vientiane the next day for some Pii Mai (Laos New Year) drinks with the staff.

Pii Mai is a whole story in itself which may have to await another missive. as will the change in my work context (still with CARE still in Laos but different). And I haven’t even mentioned weddings or the trip to Cambodia or being sick or ….

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The Start

We all have stories that we have accumulated over the course of our lives and that overtime in the retelling, have been refined, either consciously or not, with an element of “Never let a few (forgotten or misremembered) facts get in the road of a good story”. I heard this sentiment expressed recently as our stories being a mixture of personal mythology and selective recollection!

In deciding to capture on paper some of my stories – partly in response to suggestions that “you should write a book” – I thought that I can at least be true to my memories if not always all of the facts – hence the tag line “Stories My Memory Tells Me”

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