The Blog from Beau
Each of these areas need addressing at the highest levels of Government, Science, Policy making and Infrastructure.
Australia – A short History of Development from
2014 to 2033
Americans eat out a lot.
Americans eat a lot.
Five generations of fast food have created endemic obesity. Diabetes is a ‘when’ more than an if. Food additives are an amazing substitute for food. A loaf of sliced bread will last for a month in the US without ever having tasted like bread, but also without ever growing mold. Give us this day our monthly bread!
I know many Americans that eat out more than 15 times a week – breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cost of these ‘food substitute’ meals is enormous, even though the price at the register may seem small. Many people purchase from the dollar menu – $1 double cheeseburgers and a $1 coffee, $0.79 tacos and a large Pepsi the list goes on…
The custom in the US is to tip whenever there is table service. Those costs are added to the direct consumer cost, but not really figured by anyone when they work out their budget.
Pricing of many products is a hidden thing.
Cars are $159 per month, houses are $750 per month, with the real cost being obscured in paperwork somewhere. Consumer goods have a variable Sales Tax added at the register – except for gas…. (go figger!)
So, we sit down at a small restaurant, order a cheese and ham sandwich and a coffee for a total of maybe $5.00. Tax is added at 7.5 % at the register and then we struggle to work out the 15% tip that is to be added to that. Some will leave a tip on the table, some will add it to the register total, some will pass a waiter a few $1 notes and hope it covers it.
This is all because Americans know that the minimum wage for waiters is below the poverty line, and they are ‘obligated’ to give the waiter a tip to offset these pay rates.
I know of staff that are paid $2.50 per hour by their ’employer’ and survive on tips. Obviously the system works, because students (especially) are lining up for $2.50 per hour jobs, betting that they will have a happy group of clients arrive that will tip (pay) them well.
To an outsider, this is classist, demeaning, exploitative, archaic and an echo of the slave trade.
This defines the employee as one that has no job security, that has to take as much of a gamble on their earnings as the owner, but without any say in the marketing or running of that business.
To me, tipping is graft.
I say that because the definition of graft includes paying someone else’s employees to receive special service. As a consumer, I am paying someone to serve me, not the restaurant owner – where can an employee show loyalty in that equation?
How about this America….
Come clean about the pricing of everything. Add the Sales Tax, reasonable wages and the real cost of that meal all in together on the Menu, so the consumer is aware of the full price from the outset.
Ban tipping – full stop. No handouts to people, no creating classism, no fostering a system which is archaic and demeaning, just vote with your feet and only eat at those places that have an all inclusive menu.
The actual prices won’t have to change – but the menus will have to be re-printed to show the real price. Just the way that the advertised price of gas is the actual price of gas.
I realize that you are used to the system and it seems to work. But that’s the reason it seems to work, because it’s always been done that way. It doesn’t have to be done that way.
Disallow tipping – make it illegal across the country. We don’t need to round up to save carrying a wad of change, we use credit cards. Be honest – charge the real price.
Of course, parts of Southern Europe do it worse… There can be seating taxes, footpath taxes, city taxes, cover charges, and gratuities all automatically added to the bill, and that’s all for the owner – then you are supposed to leave an extra 15% (+) on the table for the waiter. Welcome to the $19 coffee!!!
Is that the way to go America?
Hitting the road was a huge move for Bernie, he had rarely ventured out of his semi-rural hometown, having only distant memories of other places that he had been taken to as a rear seat passenger and had little to no interaction with anyone other than his immediate family and a few of the kids from school. He had seen hitchhikers and and knew this was his his ticket to freedom.
He scored a railway timetable from one of the suburban stations and that gave him a map of the suburbs and the direction of the regional centres he had heard of, but had no knowledge of.
Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Mildura all had images in his mind, perhaps from old photographs he had seen, perhaps from is own healthy imagination. This was his time to find out.
He made up his mind to keep away from the police and anyone that might send him back to his parents’ home. He was aware that he would stand out like a sore toe if he hitchhiked late at night, so he decided to always look out for a place to stay, whenever it started to get dark. His Railway Map had no indication of main roads and highways, so he was at a loss to define addresses to those people that picked him up. That’s when he worked out that he needed a bunch of stories to keep him free.
“I got kept in after school and I missed my train home to Ballarat”, the first story began.
The stories got better, but the basis was always that he was going ‘home’, not running away. People were always helpful to someone on the way home, well nearly always. Plotting a route became more involved. Bernie would go to the Post Office and look up a real address in the next country town, then he could quote a street name. He would usually arrive at his ‘home’ town in the mid afternoon, and as he was being driven through town, he would shout “There’s mum! She’s just at Aunty Joan’s shop – Can you drop me off here?” That would get him out of the car in the middle of town, without ever having to go to the house address, where the driver might be tempted to see him in, or wait for him to enter before driving off.
Lesson Learned: Having a destination makes you seem grown up.
Then along came the family from Weirdsville to give him a lift. Mum and dad Weirdo were in the front seat and they were on their way to collect their teenage daughter from netball practice, before heading up the highway to a country town on the way to Adelaide. This suited Bernie down to the ground, they weren’t concerned with his age and invited him into the front seat with them as the daughter would have all her clothing gear and a ball to go in the backseat.
Bernie squeezed in beside the mum on the bench seat of their sedan and before they had travelled a block, mum had squeezed her ample bosom into his face and then settled her hand between his legs. Bernie was learning that middle-aged women can be a little frisky, and with her husband right beside her, she must have guessed that Bernie was too scared to say boo. For 15 minutes they drove with mum’s hand between his legs and her bosom booming into him. Of course, Bernie had only fears and phobias and a little amazement. He had never imagined a strange woman being overtly sexual and had no idea how to react.
In due course they arrived at the sporting complex to pick up the daughter. Being a perfect gentleman, Bernie bailed from the front seat to open the door for daughter who slid straight in as though she was used to having a chauffeur all the time. She then grabbed his arm and almost hauled him in after her. Bernie sat on the backseat beside teenage daughter.
The ride was crazy, he was sure ‘daughter’ was playing with his leg, but then decided it must be because the mum had woken something in him that he never knew existed. As late afternoon turned into evening, the group continued up the highway. It was dark in the back seat as the fingers started probing. A hand collected his hand and pressed it onto her breast. Bernie was too young to be excited, just shocked. He didn’t resist, it was pleasant and exciting. Within a minute she had guided his fingers inside her and Bernie had his first touch of a woman. Once it was established that he could touch anywhere, he explored. Within another minute he received his first experience of fellatio. Although not at all mature, his body still responded as best it could. Small, tight, rigid and not having any real idea what was going on, he groped around enjoying the experience as best as his body and confused mind would allow him to.
They arrived, and dropped him off at a bus stop before heading into the side streets to go home. No-one knew any names, Bernie had no clue who they were, but there were two very out of control women in the car as papa drove them home.
Lesson Learned: Women expect more sex than I can give.
Apart from wandering in a daze, and realizing that the world was entirely different from the picture he had when he left his home, it was time to find out where he was going. Bernie had never had the opportunity to travel beyond his outer-suburban home and the hospital in the middle of Melbourne’s Business District.
The next few days were spent gradually moving across Victoria. He found that most Pubs would give him a sweeping or dishwashing job for a free lunch, some even gave him a few shillings. One night he stayed in a hotel room for free, but had to mop the whole tiled floor of the hotel before the key was his. He awoke in the dark night, in a wardrobe, sobbing silently. Bernie was learning the way of the world.
He wandered through the Victorian Country town of Terang, short pants, school shirt and schoolbag in hand. On the outskirts of the three streets that made up the tiny bedroom community, there were small farms. The very first farm he scoped out had a small barn 1/4 full of hay and with a small tractor. He called out – no answer, he went inside and sat on the hay bales to catch his breath before spotting a large feed box – oats he reckoned. He lifted the heavy lid, climbed inside, lowering the lid silently and fell sound asleep.
Bernie awoke, starving hungry, to the sound of little kids. The high pitched squeals that four and five year-olds are so good at. He jumped, banging his head on the lid of the feed box as they popped their heads into the barn for the second or third time – ‘Are you baby Jesus, Mister?’ They teased. It was the first time that someone had automatically called him Mister, he felt pride, even though he was still wearing school clothes.
The kids ran off, and came back in what seemed like seconds, they had fruit cake and chocolate and milk for him. It was Christmas Morning and Bernie had slept in a manger in the barn overnight! No wonder they asked him if he was Jesus! He gorged himself before emerging into the blaring Summer morning light. He went up to the farmhouse and practiced some lies on them. He told them his father’s car had broken down in the next town and he had to wait for spare parts to arrive, so had decided to hitchhike out to see him for Christmas. After lunch Bernie was offered a trip to the next town, but declined, staying for the afternoon to help them around the kitchen and tidy up after the littlies Christmas mess. Bernie was able to tidy himself up before hitting the road again in mid afternoon. The family had packed a small Christmas feast for him and all waved him goodbye.
That night Bernie slept under a railway bridge. It had been a hot day and the heat lightning was putting on a magical display as he thought of Santa’s sleigh, laughing out loud at the thought of him dodging the flashes trying to get back to the North Pole.
The bridge ran over a little stream and apart from the mosquitoes which weren’t too bad, it was an idyllic spot. He had no problem getting off to sleep, although he vowed to steal a handful of toilet paper from the next pub he stopped at. He was working it out.
Sometime in the dead of night, Bernie heard the thunder and then a moment later, a bomb hit. Terrifying roar, boom and screeching sounds scared him totally rigid. Flashing lights making crazy shadows along the creek bed – and then the rhythmic clack-clack as the train went overhead. He had learnt that railway bridges aren’t always the best place to sleep.
He was up, he had no idea what time of dark night it was, but he was far too wired to sleep. He lay awake and watched the dawn, dreaming of a future on the road, perfecting the art of being free. He wondered at the time whether he would remember that dawn. It changed his life.
Breakfast of blackberries tore him up a bit, but gave him a energy to get on the road and provided snacks on the way. If someone could invent a blackberry without a thorn, life would be just about perfect.
Back on the road, hitchhiking, wandering and fearful of getting hungry – he started to watch what birds ate and decided he could eat anything they could. New fruits that he made up names for existed on trees he had never seen before. Most were too bitter to eat, a few were sweet but crawling with grubs – it was tough sorting the good ones from the yucky ones but he slowly learnt.
Lesson Learned: Free food isn’t always good food.
Hot and weary, Bernie wandered into a country Pub for a Lemon Squash – they were always hand made and 1/2 the price of a Coke! It was 4 o’clock and the farmers were drifting in for a beer or ten. He was jibed by the farmers as young and scrawny and in the hotel with all the big boys. One of them mocked him by asking if he was chasing work. As a form of automatic defence mechanism, Bernie declared his readiness to take on any task. He was offered a job if he could beat ‘Ces’ at an arm-wrestle. Ces looked like he had been pushed out of his tree by his mother. Ugly as sin, filthy muscles bulging between pornographic tattoos and 3 days growth on his toothless face, Ces was the sort of guy that people walked out of their way to avoid confronting.
Too scared to say no, Bernie sat opposite the hulking brute and thrust his arm out in a show of determination. Ces, just ruffled Bernie’s shock of red hair and said, “He’ll do!”
Bernie had passed his first job interview with an ape.
Lesson Learned: In the absence of sanity, bravado has a place.
Bernie spun a similar yarn about his father being a few hours away, stranded, and that he was supposed to meet him here in town when he got the car fixed. He was told to meet the farmer outside the Pub at 6 am and they would give him some work.
Bernie slept in an old truck that was missing its wheels and sitting in a lean-to shed at the back of the pub. Bird calls signified dawn and he was up and ready for work in 30 seconds.
A beat up Ford Zephyr ute pulled up at the pub with another 2 workers already in the back. They all had various provisions with them and laughed at his schoolboy shorts. The job for the day was hay-carting. This involved tossing bales of hay from the field on to the back of a large flat-top truck.
Ces collected another couple of workers at a road junction just out of town and proceeded another few miles before heading down a long rough driveway to the waiting flat-top. Everyone and everything was transferred across and the truck drove through a couple of small fields and a series of gates until they arrived at their first field for the day.
Each of the bales weighed just a little more than Bernie did and was held together with two spaced strands of long fibered jute rope. Lifting those from ground level and heaving them to his own shoulder height required him to get his knee under each bale and use a knee jerk to get the extra lift. He ignored his shoulder surgery and just ploughed on as best he could. The day got hotter and after a few hours, everyone stopped, sat in the shade of the truck and boiled a billie of sweet, soupie black tea on a small campfire.
Bernie was given a turn on the tray of the truck, where the task was to take the weight from the worker on the ground and heave them up the growing pyramid of interlocked bales. The art was in the placement, but the work was still hard grunt lifting the bales.
Each of the workers was rotated through each of the tasks, including driving the truck at a steady 2 miles an hour, creating an assembly line effect. Of course Bernie was short and had never driven any vehicle, but they spent 30 seconds giving him instructions and away they went. It was while he was driving that he was able to see his own arms and legs. They were red raw from the scratching hay and his fingers felt as though they’d been cut in two by the bale ropes sawing away into his baby soft hands.
Bernie was able to put all his farm labourer’s swear words to good use.
He scored a nickname of Casper, which he clung to for years. It referred, of course, to his near transparent skin – although he was dotted with freckles between his hay-cuts. Someone explained that Bernie only needed another 24 freckles and he would be brown all over. He laughed with the words and secretly wondered if it was true.
Bernie associated his youth, pasty complexion, freckles and red hair as being synonymous with being ‘out of place’ and spent a lifetime over compensating for that.
Lesson Learned: Redheads are weak and puny and have to prove their endurance.
They all took a break to swim in the dam on the corner of the property. The dam was only 15 or 20 feet wide and was a clay construction. A bulldozer had taken a gouge out of the earth and left the mound of clay on the down hill slope, creating a dam wall. This also allowed cattle to walk in on the shallow end easily. Streaked with yellow clay and rich red mud, they jumped back on the truck, dripping wet and continued the day’s work. By keeping their clothes and mud on, they stayed wetter and cooler longer and had less problems with bugs.
Lesson Learned: Dirt is the friend of the worker.
At the end of the day, everyone returned to the pub and Ces, the boss cocky, bought a round of beers for the workers. Bernie scored a lemon squash and 2 ten pound notes. His mouth gaped as he received his first real pay packet, more in one day than his father had ever brought home after his two weeks working on the road. As Bernie started to stuff the money in his pocket, one of the workers reminded him to keep his cash out of sight, and Bernie vowed to find a way to keep his money from leeches and thieves that hung around in some of the pubs.
Ces asked where he was staying and when Bernie stammered, Ces remarked that there was a woman that ran a boarding house down the road. He took him down to meet her, and gave Bernie a glowing reference as the hardest worker in the team. Bernie beamed. Mrs. Findlay showed him to a very old but clean bedroom, showed him where the bathroom was down the hall and suggested in her very matronly manner, that he have a shower before dinner.
When he saw himself in the bathroom mirror, he was shocked – beetroot red sunburn on the outside of his arms, red raw skin on the inside and hands so swollen that they looked like boxing gloves. His face was puffy and almost iridescent. The tops of his legs looked like mincemeat – he was a mess. The shower hurt, but eventually took some of the fire away. It was then that he noticed that his wounds were like thousands of tiny paper cuts, all about pain, but no real damage.
Back in his room from the shower, Mrs. Findlay had left 3 pairs of boy’s rough jeans on his bed and a jar of ointment for his scarred skin. Bernie slathered the goo over his arms, sat in a strange rocking lounge chair, examined the cupboards and furniture and found himself absently staring at the unusually painted ceiling; then nodded off.
Each of the four walls was painted an entirely different bright colour. That wasn’t all that unusual in rural communities, but the ceiling consisted of four painted triangles, emanating from its closest wall. The effect was like a circus tent, quite bizarre. The kaleidoscope was Bernie’s first realization that interior decorating was not a natural talent for everyone.
Lesson Learned: Have access to all choices, but choose only one.
He fell asleep before dinner, during dinner and immediately after dinner. He was almost crying with pain, laughing at the money that was now stuffed into his shoe and fearful of the next day’s work. The fear was more about whether he would be able to maintain his bravado as his body was sagging so quickly under the strain.
He didn’t remember the dream, but woke long before dawn, crying, inside the cupboard in Mrs. Findlay’s Guest House.
But by sunrise, Bernie was better prepared. He was in the jeans that were left out for him, had scored a spare hat from one of the other workers and had on a long sleeve shirt. The team continued on in the same field for the morning and then moved on to another field in the afternoon. A real lunch was brought out to the truck that day and they all feasted on roast lamb and slabs of bread to soak up the axle grease looking gravy. The tea was bitter. Black, thick and sugarless today. It left a slake of tannin in his mouth that refused to budge for the day. His teeth felt furry, and the exhaustion kept creeping up on him, but he refused tolet it beat him. If the others could do it, so could he. He’d show ’em!
Bernie got a lot of smart talk from the other workers in that first week, but he grew to realize it was his initiation to the Worker’s World and stopped being embarrassed when they told dirty jokes or teased him about his immature body.
He was starting to give back a bit of cheek when he found himself flat on his back and a blackness covering his mind.
Lesson Learned: Give and take are not equal when coming from a twelve year old.
Boss cocky jumped in grabbing the assailant and was screaming as though he was going to fire the guy, until Bernie stood up for his opponent and admitted he had been asking for it, and had just been given a tap to wake him up. That’s when Bernie was accepted by the crew. They knew he could roll with the punches, figuratively and literally, so was not seen as a threat.
After four or five days, Bernie was ‘passed on’ to a sheep farmer. Farm workers in those towns were like a rough team that were referred from farm to farm, a few dropping by the wayside, a few being added along the way.
Bernie scored the unenviable task of dagging sheep. This simply involved clipping a bulls-eye around the sheep’s butts so that their droppings wouldn’t tangle with the wool, and attract ‘fly-strike’, where the sheep is attacked by flies which lay maggots in the manure still attached to the sheep. Infection could start and the sheep could eventually die from the invasion. Some of the sheep he saw had already been struck, and he had to pass them on to more experienced workers, so Bernie figured he was just a sheep-shit-shearer.
Work was unrelenting, the sun was draining and the boss cocky had no time for sky-larking, but they were a good crew. The lanolin from the fleeces was doing more good for his skin than any other ointment. Apart from making his 20 pounds a day, the shearers were given a sheep a day to split as food – so after some initial squeamishness, Bernie learned to slit and bleed a sheep, hang it, flush it and carve some usable chunks to toss on the campfire. There was often lamb to take back to the boarding houses that he stayed at.
That was supplemented with ‘roo shoots. As Bernie became more trusted, he was included in evening ‘roo shoots, usually as a worker’s pastime but sometimes as a farm chore. Kangaroos wreak a great deal of havoc on farmers properties and can grow into plague proportions quickly. Everyone seems to have a 2020 or monstrously heavy 3030 hunting rifle. Bernie considered himself a dead eye shot with a steady hand, but the rifles were simply too heavy for him to lug around everywhere. Still, spot-lighting in the back of a Land Rover or some old paddock car was ideal for him, as the car took the weight. At various times Bernie shot kangaroo, rabbit, wild boar, wild goats as well as having to put farm animals down from time to time and taking out the odd snake. He never developed a blood lust, but he did need to be accepted by the crew, and bringing back a fresh kill to the boarding house or hotel was always appreciated.
Lesson Learned: Bring food, make friends.
Bernie and another two workers camped out one night after spotlighting, so they could get an early start the following day. After returning from the previous evening’s shoot with a couple of rabbits, they sat around the campfire as they drank and Bernie nodded off. They all stayed close to the campfire to keep the bugs at bay, even though it was hot. They all slept in their clothes on blankets under the stars. A couple of times Bernie heard the others getting drunker and louder, but sleep owned him.
Bernie awoke to the loudest noise he had ever heard and clutched his head in pain – Mike had used his shoulder as a rest and fired his shotgun at an early morning rabbit. With the barrel on Bernie’s shoulder the explosion was inches from his ear. To this day, the ringing in his ear hasn’t stopped. Bernie never worked with Mike again.
By the time Bernie was 12 he had learned to drive or operate just about everything that could be found on a farm. Combine Harvesters, Tractors, Cars, Trucks and a lot of hybrid machines that would never make it to the made roads. He even drove a water tanker to replenish stock tanks – that was an experience. Wallowing over rocky tracks was hard enough, but pulling up beside a dam offered a new experience. One second after pulling up, the tanker lurched forward a yard as the weight of sloshing water hit the unbaffled end of the tank, immediately, it threw the vehicle back again and gradually rocked itself to stable again. The boss cocky was with Bernie on the first run, and he didn’t say a word – then laughed his head off as the boy sat open mouthed while the truck danced on. These days, vertical baffles inside the tanks dampen the effect, but in those days it was a free-for-all.
Bernie gradually worked his way North over the Summer. Many of the places he worked were only known by the local farmer’s name, creek or bridge, until he visited the Riverina District.
Citrus fruits and grapes went on for miles. They needed workers and there had been special trains put on to bring (mainly migrant) workers from Melbourne to Mildura. The weather got hotter and drier, the fruit was in high demand and no-one bothered that he was just a kid. There were tent cities to house the workers. Fruit picking is hard work. Everyone is paid by the basket, not by the hour, so they have to stay in good with the tallyman. But after hours, this was a new world. There were gambling tents, opium dens, brothels and sly grog tents. They raffled a girl every night and fist fights were as common as knife fights. This was like the gold rush days, Bernie thought. Here the boss cocky walked around with a rifle and a pistol, ready for whatever might happen. Police would roll up each night and drag a few more away. This was not at all like the small farms in the South where everyone knew everyone. It was exciting, frightening and above all, intriguing. Bernie made it his business to visit every tent or group that he could over the 3 weeks he was there. He never found the end of the rows of tents. He smiled secretly at the knowledge that few boys in his old school would have seen inside a brothel on a fruit farm on their twelfth birthday..
He learnt that nothing cleans your hands (or anything else), like orange juice, providing he had some water to rinse it off with before the bugs zoned in on him or it scorched his clothing. So the cuts he had from the hay carting were now clean, but they stung like fury as the juice inevitably found it’s way across every pore.
Theft was high at the camp and Bernie was sure he was only left alone because of his age. If they knew he had 500 pounds in his shoes, he knew his feet would have been carved off.
As he poked his head into various tents looking for the fictional ‘Charlie’ he learnt a lot about the way people live. He also got to sample foods from all over the world, and got clipped over the ear a bunch of times.
Lesson Learned: A washing line tells a lot about the people inside.
Bernie was too short to be very good at fruit picking other than grapes, he always had to get others to clean up after he had exhausted his reach, but he certainly did fine in the packing sheds. This was also his first time on a forklift and he had a ball. Of course most of the time was spent fetching wooden crates for the grapes, oranges, lemons, grapefruit etc… that were being lumbered into the shed via a tractor train. There was time for exploration in the rows of crates, fumbling moments with some of the migrant camp girls that gradually filled Bernie’s poor understanding of relationships.
Lesson Learned: Quick gropes without names beats the language barrier.
Most of the workers followed the sun and continued to pick crops along the Murray and Goulburn river systems. By now Bernie had acquired a road map of Victoria & the Riverina District that was given out to the migrants, and was certainly getting to know his way around the Western half of the state.
He moved into New South Wales, working all manner of crops and livestock, digging post holes, mending fences, building farm sheds with few days off. The main problem he experienced was the sun. Living under an Aussie slouch hat and (sometimes) wearing sunglasses didn’t stop sunburn poisoning from sending him into delirium at regular intervals. By the time Bernie had reached the tiny hamlet of Maude in the Hay Plains, the scars from his shoulder operation had swollen and turned to fierce looking rope that seemed to grow new painful knots every day. Time to have it checked and that meant a trip back to Melbourne.
Two days later, after having slept overnight in a St Vincent De Paul clothing bin (and scored some clean clothes) a twelve year-old scruffy, sunburned, redheaded boy shuffled back into Peter McCallum Clinic in a state of collapse. The wound was metastasizing quickly and they admitted Bernie for immediate treatment based on his prior history. A series of injections were required around the wound site before the chemotherapy began. The pain of the 220 steroid injections was intense and was a challenge that Bernie accepted as penance for the damage he had done to his family.
Penance was a huge part of the family/religious guilt structure that was not only endemic in the era, but a specialty of Bernie’s family values. It was important to maintain discipline and order. In the 1960s when the adult males in society had almost all been involved in World War, every aspect of society was based on the values of martial law. Harsh, stern, severe, respect and discipline were words of the 1950s and 1960s. Little was recorded, favours and paybacks were common. The farmers he had been working with were tough and although usually very fair, they were definitely rule based. Deviations beyond their norm were not tolerated, new concepts, machinery or ideas were stomped on quickly.
In such an environment, Bernie was astounded by the humanity and care of the nurses that held him as he vomited, shat, pissed, cried and whimpered during the chemotherapy treatments. There was nothing they could have done with more humanity. In all his twelve years, Bernie had never been held, supported and caressed as much as he was during this time. That didn’t stop the loneliness, the emptiness and the feeling of deep sorrow that seemed to be packed in his kit bag, travelling with him daily.
Three weeks later and after 24 hours without vomiting, Bernie was allowed to progress to the next stage of treatment. Radiation Therapy was still in its infancy in Australia, but the equipment was definitely space age.
Bernie was wheeled into a room that was a 20ft cube. What he had imagined as a Buck Rogers ray gun, was actually a 15ft tall inverted cone shaped barrel that hung from the ceiling, aimed directly at his shoulder. The nursing staff packed lead shielded aprons all around his body, reminding him that any movement would be fatal as the radiation was being aimed a mere inch from his brain. Fear froze Bernie solid. He knew that the medical staff were the only believable people he had ever really known and this was a fight for life. In those early days of Radiation Treatment the dosage was much higher than today and the duration was commonly three to five hours. Not a single nerve twitched the whole time he was in there. Three consecutive days treatment were required before they could operate, as they knew that most cancers in those days spread rapidly as a result of the cell disturbance during the operation.
After three treatments and before the waves of nausea overtook him, he was wheeled off to surgery. The four inch scar turned into an eight inch scar. The nausea returned.
A week after surgery, Bernie was taken back into Radiation Therapy for one more treatment and then returned to the ward for his Chemotherapy treatments. Nothing could stop the nausea, food was an enemy. Try as he could to comply with nursing requests, Bernie simply could not stomach the thought of food, let alone digest it. He gagged on water and rarely had the strength to swallow anyway.
Four months went by before Bernie was able to leave the hospital and he had to have weekly, then monthly checkups. His weight loss was dramatic, from skinny down to emaciated. Deep dark rings surrounded sunken eyes. His very ordinary teeth simply fell out of his mouth leaving craters that wouldn’t heal. His hair, of course had disappeared and even as it reappeared it would give up and fall back out. Fingernails and toenails dropped like Autumn leaves and Bernie’s skin dried and scaled, continually flaking. Open sores refused to heal and generally Bernie failed to thrive.
Evelyn was a nurse in the Chemo ward. She realized that Bernie had never had a visitor and would bring in medical books that she would leave on the bedside table. When he was to be discharged, she arranged to put him up at her place while he was attending Outpatients, as she had a house in Carlton that was very close to the hospital in the North Western area of the Melbourne Business District.
Leaving hospital wasn’t a sign of health, just an admission by the medical system that there was nothing more they could do.
Evelyn’s husband Gino, worked at the Baillieu Library, the main medical library at Melbourne University. He brought home books from the library and sample books from distribution agents for his own work, to review, to read and, quite accidently, to leave for Bernie to read. Bernie acquired a taste for reading medical books and spent the next six months recuperating slowly, while gorging himself on the information that was being made freely available to him. He often woke up in the wardrobe in his room, torn between a safe spot in the dark and his desire to read.
Gino provided the Medical Dictionaries that were required to decipher the medical books. Bernie also had access to their set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and found that to be essential reading to draw the variety of disparate knowledge together in some order.
It was during this time with Gino and Evelyn that Bernie started writing. It started with reference notes between the books he was reading, and gradually on to short tales of his environment before he moved to the required poetry of youth. It was the unearthing of those early notes, held for years in trust by Evelyn and Gino, that were the basis for these chapters. Those notes now remain a treasured manuscript, and a reminder of the times, in the words of the times.
Lesson Learned: Memory changes history just as history changes memory.
With chemo and radiation behind him, Bernie hit the road again. He found his oldest brother living in a tiny flat in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs, sharing with a motorcycle travelling companion, Dave.
Bernie wanted to move in when Dave moved on, but apart from a single night crash, that wasn’t to be. Bernie claimed he was living at his parents’ home to allay suspicions, but hung around the area, breaking into cars and sleeping in them most of the time. There were also large clothing bins for the Salvos or St Vincent de Paul Society at many of the Service Stations that were easy enough to crawl into and sleep. The clothing in there made for an often cleaner option and also for ideal bedding, even though the bins were too small to stretch out properly.
Bernie’s savings had all been passed on to Evelyn & Gino, so money and food was still a problem, he needed to get a job, but he knew the Winter months would be hard to score farm work and he could get spotted in the city too easily.
Moving at night and staying indoors during the day, gave Bernie the best cover. His food was often the bread from the back of a bakers cart, the milk from a front door step. There were times he watched for people to leave their home, waiting for a chance to steal fruit from their trees, but in Winter, the simple choices came down to criminality or starvation.
Moving quietly was natural for Bernie. Staying out of the way of police or anyone that might report him, was now standard operating procedure. Years later, when his own children were afraid of the dark, Bernie showed them that they had cover in darkness and could see people more easily at night than in the day. There was more safety in darkness than in the light.
It wasn’t long before Bernie was using his talents to break into people’s homes and eat his fill. He didn’t need to steal anything else, more because he wanted to travel light, or not have any incriminating evidence on him, than his high morals. He had no desire to be a ‘thief’, he just knew that his survival was always optional, and the worst thing that could happen to him would be a jail term.
That appealed to him as totally ironic, because that might also be the best thing that could happen to him, providing they didn’t send him home.
For now, Bernie vowed to stay out of the clutches of the law, at least until he was too old to be returned to his parents, then it would become a realistic option.
But for now, he had to be silent and careful. He would take mental snapshots of everything he saw on the approach to a property, pull his long sleeves over his hands to cover for fingerprints, walk on the edges of his shoes to not leave discernible impressions and knock on doors before attempting to enter. Once convinced that the house was empty, he would enter, only touching things that he could return to their place and take small quantities of food that would rarely be missed.
Entry was often gained from a side door or a window that was sheltered from the street and the neighbours. After entry, the door or window was closed and an escape route worked out, then he could head for the kitchen, open the brown paper bag that he always had folded in his back pocket and fill it with enough food for one or two meals. With his stolen food items in the brown paper bag he would then stop still, examine everywhere that he had been for give away signs before carefully leaving the premises, retracing all his steps for evidence, before chowing down a block or more away.
He had already realised that fairly dark, nondescript clothing was wisest, although that did leave his bright red hair as the only glowing impression that he might make on his exit. If he was seen by anyone, he would sing, whistle, throw a stone… anything other than run. If he was approached, “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers!” was his standard response as he hurried away.
Lesson learned: Looking like a cheeky kid was safer than looking like a threatening teenage thief.
The object was to be a sneak thief. The homeowners were never supposed to know he had been there, never supposed to notice anything out of place. Their food supplies had not been ravaged, just a few slices of meat, a few slices of cheese and no crumbs to show where he had been. He always washed any knife he used to cut with and returned it to the drawer.
This left less evidence, and it was not uncommon to see people walking down the street, eating from the contents of a brown paper bag.
By not stealing anything that wasn’t to be consumed immediately, almost all evidence was devoured with the meal. Bernie was sure he was not being discovered, but would sometimes return when the occupiers were home and listen at doors and windows to find out if they knew of their mystery visitor.
The risk was its own excitement. In lonely days and lonelier nights, Bernie might spend a week or more without speaking a single word to another person. This was also a way to see how ‘real’ people lived, how families got along when violence wasn’t the only currency.
Staying clean was a problem, there were just too few places on the streets to be able to clean up, and change clothes. Sometimes Bernie took the risk and would wash up at someone’s house. He would go to their laundry, and find a dirty towel to dry himself with, and to clean up any drops in their bathroom before returning it to the laundry.
During his wanders, Bernie might see an obvious chore that needed doing around the house. Usually a safety problem in the garden, or shelves that needed to be painted – simple things, usually ones that might have been a give-away during his escapades. He decided to cash in on these problems, by returning to the house when people were home and offering to do odd jobs. People seemed to welcome his enterprising nature and he gradually built up a small nest egg again. Oddly, Bernie was always able to offer the exact service that was required by that household as his specialty.
Lesson learned: Silent observation give one an advantage.
More lies. “It’s going to be a week before my transfer comes through at my new school, and my mum doesn’t want me hanging around the house all day”.
People believed what they wanted to, Bernie moved from clothing bins to his own room. That allowed him to start to gather some new clothing, a few basic tools and his small business was launched. His shower was shared and pokey, his kitchen was a toaster, but he had a door and a window and no names were exchanged. Thirty shillings a week ($3) was cheap, even in those days, and Bernie had a light bulb, hot water and a power plug included. There was no wardrobe, but Bernie still found himself waking up under the bed, sobbing, day after day.
The door opened outward, because it couldn’t open inwards. The room was far too small for an inward swinging door. The single bed was 6′ 3″ long and the room was 6’8″ long. The bed was 3′ wide and the room was 4′ 8″ wide. He had measured the room a dozen times to figure out if something else could fit into the room, it invariably couldn’t. The window was a rough 6″ hole that had been smashed in the wall with a piece of glass taped over it. The view was limited to the entangled weeds and straggly shrub that were jammed between his window and the old timber fence 3′ away. At least he could tell if it was light or dark, so he felt as though he had outgrown The Place forever.
Ventilation was by means of the door, it was open or closed, dependant on the weather.
Cleaning out garages, mowing lawns, washing cars, digging drains & gardens, felling trees or more often just removing nasty branches, and cleaning out grease traps that always made him gag, all led to their own opportunities. He would do a deal with a Fuel Merchant and sell a tree that he had toppled or get some rocks delivered in exchange and be paid for those by the home owner. He would get extra plants from a nursery and even sell them back the homeowners pots after planting the seedlings and shrubs. Almost every job had a waste component, and Bernie was finding ways to make more money from the waste than the original job. “Where there’s muck, there’s money” rang from a distant past. Bernie was still selling beer bottles to the Bottle-O, rags to the Rag Man and cleaning gutters when he turned fifteen. Whenever he was hired by one of his ‘food victims’, Bernie always paid them back by giving them extra work, bringing lunch to share, or delivering an extra plant.
With his fifteenth birthday behind him, Bernie was able to get a real job. After sprucing up in some newish clothes from the , Bernie scored a job at the now defunct Brunton’s Flour Mill in North Melbourne. He was an office junior, sometimes working in the administration, sometimes at despatch and more and more in the laboratory where samples were continuously taken and tested for quality control.
Shortly after he started, the company had a Summer Picnic and Bernie won the Brunton’s Gift – a foot race that was held in such high esteem that Bernie scored a trophy and had his name etched on a huge shield that was displayed in the front office. For a kid that had been told not to expect a thirteenth birthday, Bernie had beaten the odds.
Bruntons’s also distributed other grain and seed, mainly in large heavy hessian bags. Bernie went on deliveries enough to see the huge quantity of empty bags that were being stored at the major resellers. A few enquiries and Bernie was into recycling hessian bags. He was able to have the dirty old bags collected and taken out to the United Carpet Mills in Bell Street Preston, where they shredded them and used them as jute filling for carpet underlay. He dealt with Mr. Wolf.
One day while Bernie was weighing bags as they came off the truck, a woman came into their receiving depot asking for Mr. Fox. When corrected and told that she probably needed to speak to Mr. Wolf, she remarked, “He certainly was one of those animals!”
Bernie loved the look on Mr. Wolf(gang)’s face!
With a consistent pay packet and cash on the side, Bernie was enjoying some of the niceties of life. He began ice-skating at one of the rinks close to the city and found that after a short time, he was a natural. Speed skating, Dancing and even Ice Hockey led him to his first opportunity to perform on stage. A small ice pantomime was arranged and Bernie had a number of small parts in that production.
Seeing himself as a performer was never high on Bernie’s list, but once he started, the lights attracted him like a moth to a flame. Bernie joined an amateur theatrical group and over the years to come, was involved in shows such as Tommy, Gondoliers, Mikado, Mame, and a host of other productions. He even scored some chorus roles where he was part of the bulk fill adding volume more than talent. This led him to casual work backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre, in the props and costumes where he was able to work on such seminal productions as Hair, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Bernie had a family knowledge of photography. His father was a photographer and Bernie had been a witness to the magic in the darkroom. He hadn’t followed up on that knowledge but had confidence in his technical ability to understand the technology of the time. Bernie would follow the lighting gurus at the theatre and wondered what it would be like to take photographs in there.
At that time a Publication called The Melbourne Trading Post had just hit the stands. This was full of classified advertisements for all manner of goods. Bernie scoured the Trading Post regularly for bargains in his areas of interest. Eventually, Bernie found someone that was selling an old camera for seven dollars. Bernie bought it, ran some film through it and decided he wanted better. He found a product at one of the camera shops called CameraLac that gave a new finish to old cameras and lenses. After cleaning up the camera Bernie put it up for sale in the Trading Post and sold it for seventeen dollars. Bernie continued to Buy, Use, Clean and Resell cameras until he had a range of both 35mm and 6x6cm cameras. He smirked, knowing that his original investment of seven dollars plus two dollars worth of paint had resulted in over five thousand dollars worth of equipment within two years.
While building up his photographic equipment, Bernie continued to build up his photographic experience, scoring small jobs through friends and acquaintances. Bernie had commenced something that would be with him for the next fifty years.
Returning to hospital for another series of radiation and another operation, weren’t really on Bernie’s ‘To do’ list, but it happened anyway. The pain from his shoulder was overwhelming and the loss of use of his left arm stopped all photography, and eventually resulted in so many days off work or late starts that his job at the flour mills was being jeopardised. He paid up his rent in advance and took the trip to Peter McCallum Clinic again.
Bernie was out of hospital and back home in nine days. No chemo this time, so no extended illness or rehabilitation time, just an arm in a sling and a few hundred stitches to slow him down. Bernie went back to his tiny flat and read all the magazines he could afford about the latest photographic equipment and techniques.
At one stage, Bernie’s father had worked for Peter Fox Studios. There had been some politics and Bernie’s father had lost his job, but here they were advertising for a Lab Assistant in the Camera Magazine. Bernie smiled at the irony and rang them the next day. He apologised for his appearance at the interview and assured them that the sling would be gone in a week or so.
They held the job open for the three weeks that it took to get rid of the sling, and Bernie was finally fully immersed in the Photographic World, even though he spent most of his time in the darkroom.
Cleaning was a big part of his job, but over time he gained more experience with developing and printing and learned the right way to achieve full tone prints. Bernie created a negative filing system that solved years of problems and he would also go out on School Photography jobs once a week. Bernie had the opportunity to work on a range of different cameras and lighting setups in the studio and on location. Spinoff businesses such as Restaurant Photography were also managed by Peter Fox, and it was here that Bernie learned the specialist equipment and procedures that were required in the Film days of restaurant photography. How to develop a roll of film in 2 minutes, dry it in one minute and print it before the restaurant served dessert became an art form.
Bernie was making contacts at many of the great Melbourne restaurants, and discovering that there was no photographic equipment specifically designed for the task, perhaps another opportunity.
By seventeen, Bernie was competent in the darkroom, able to shoot couples in restaurants and deliver the same hour and still had his hessian bag business on the side. Peter Fox was bought out by Milverson’s of Sydney who decided to open a retail store. Swanston Street in Melbourne was Bernie’s first retail stint. Collar proud, Bernie tried to stand straight behind the counter, but was usually to be found tinkering with components or trying to fix cameras in the back room.
Severe pain made it difficult for Bernie to concentrate when dealing with the retail customers, and always feeling that he had to be short, sharp and shiny for the front counter was difficult. Bernie continued for another 6 months, and then that 4″ rope on his shoulder tightened too hard, it was time for another trip to Peter McCallum Clinic.
Bernie went back, but they insisted on a Doctor’s Referral and because it had been so long since his last visit, Bernie went back to scratch and started again. The GP and then the surgeon, Bernard O’Brien agreed it was time for more radical surgery. Measurements, marking pen drawings on his scarred shoulder and two days went by before he was admitted to Royal Melbourne Hospital for surgery to be followed by Outpatient Radiation at Peter McCallum Clinic.
Four inches stretched to 8 inches, his shoulder immobilized with a type of shoulder splint that forced his arm into a hand on hip position and with plaster to completely fix his arm and even freeze his hand so that there was no use for that arm at all.
Bernie wasn’t able to work in the bustle of a retail store in the heart of Melbourne, and certainly couldn’t work in the darkrooms while he was immobilized, so he stayed at home and wrote the tortured poetry of youth and more of the stories of his hospital visits.
As fortune would have it, the operation needed to be repeated as there were still signs of the malignancy spreading. Of course they didn’t operate again until the previous wound was healed, which must have seemed a little pointless, as they took so much more off the next time. This time it was bolstered by Chemo again and Bernie was once more an Inpatient at Peter McCallum.
Sir Benjamin Rank was the consulting surgeon, and recognized the potential problems from the positioning of the wound. His answer was to completely immobilize the arm for six months, until the scar tissue was strong enough to take the stretching required in everyday movement. As the melanoma had already spread and was potentially into other tissue and the bone, the wound became much deeper with a section of bone removed as well as the surrounding tissue.
While it’s easy for a specialist to tell a teenager to take the next 6 months off, the reality was that Bernie had no income, had a small flat to maintain and no support structures. While he was aware of how to live on the street, the application of those practices of a few years earlier was simply not possible. Bernie learned to live cheaply.
His first investment was a large bag of rice. For the next eight months, Bernie cooked rice every single day. Some days he had it with salt, some days with sugar, some days with pepper. While he never went without at least a meal each day, he continued to lose weight, sinking into depression, fighting the morality, the courage and the uselessness of suicide.
There were no visitors, Bernie had become a complete recluse as he was never proud of his story, had no family to be able to discuss openly, and seemed to disappear for months on end to re-emerge trying to start again.
Finally the cast was removed and the full extent of the surgery was evident. Protruding from his 12″ long keloidal scar was a withered arm. The arm that was completely immobilized had severed tendons, nerve damage and circulation loss. The arm was a dry stick, incapable of movement. It hung like a dish cloth, there was no ability to move the shoulder, arm, forearm, hand or fingers. It was dead wood.
Further specialist visits to Australia’s top microsurgeons all resulted in the same answer, further surgery required to attempt to rejoin the damaged areas. This time, Sir Benjamin Rank was to perform the surgery, there simply was no-one better. He was to be assisted by Bernard O’Brien the younger and more radical microsurgeon.
Led like a lamb to the slaughter, Bernie signed himself in to St Vincent’s Hospital and sat in the waiting room, filling in the forms.
This surgery was Plastic Microsurgery, there was no cancer evident, so there was no need to go back to Peter McCallum Clinic for the extra Chemo or Radiation. A simple enough procedure. It wasn’t until the description of the proposed procedure was re-read at least a dozen times, that Bernie realized that ‘Attempt to rejoin lost functionality or amputate if unsuccessful’ was about his whole future.
Bernie walked out of the hospital, leaving the half finished forms on the chair in the waiting room. He simply wasn’t ready for this potential surprise attack. He conspiratorially wondered if his parents were behind this last attempt to ‘disarm’ him, but realized that his mind was travelling on fear, adrenaline and more fear.
He went back to his flat, angry, disillusioned and disappointed that this procedure had not even been discussed with him.
He started exercising his withered arm.
Without any knowledge of correct procedures and a loathsome fear of going to a doctor, Bernie set about trying to move his fingers. It took Bernie two years before he noticed a twitch in his finger, he replicated the ‘exercise process’ and produced the same result. Screaming with joy, Bernie was jumping up and down with relief. It took another year before he had relatively full movement of the first two fingers of his left hand. He could drum on the table! After that, it all started to come quickly. Although he still has only 50% rotation in the shoulder, his arms built up quickly over the next 6 months. After about four years from the proposed surgery, Bernie was able to do one armed pushups; he had regained all of his former strength, and then some.
Bernie wavered between physical health issues and severe depression. He had no idea that his loneliness was largely self imposed. He had been simply keeping people out of his life, because of his early training, general trust issues and his unusual lifestyle.
Bernie hadn’t had a real girl friend, a confidante or a buddy. Hell – he couldn’t keep a parent beyond age eleven, how was he supposed to know what relationships were about.
Bernie’s fumblings in the backseat of a car, or a fruit picker’s tent were hardly the schooling he needed to be able to maintain lasting deep relationships, they were about bravado, opportunism, curiosity and breaking the rules.
Within a year, he was married.
Allergies, an Evolutionary Adaptation?
Consider a relatively geographically closed group of people (e.g. Nepalese Mountain People) that have an adaptation to high altitudes and specialized available foods.
In order to adapt more fully, a gene allows extra oxygen flow (Oxy101), or higher oxygen content in the blood. For these people, the adaptation is gradual and allows longer and higher treks into the mountains to further establish their farmlands.
Consider a second group, Lowland Indians, that have a tolerance adaptation to sub tropical semi-poisonous legumes (e.g. peanuts).
Because they live in lowlands, the same gene (Oxy101) may have adapted to maintain an oxygen flow in the presence of a constrictive poison (peanuts).
Results of Migration
If Group 2 people migrate to the Highlands, they are breathless, as their Oxy101 gene is adapted to protect against peanuts. Many generations of successful adaptation would be required to allow a Lowlander to live effectively in the Highlands.
Conversely, If Group 1 people migrate to the Lowlands, their Oxy101 adaptation is counter productive as they may now have access to Lowland foods (peanuts). Even with increased their Oxygen intake, these people may succumb to anaphylaxis.
Drawing a longer bow.
Perhaps Allergies are a designed as a natural restriction that maintains a population within its adaptive food region. Slow (generational) migration allows for the re-adaptation, but the apparent current increase in reported Allergies could be attributed to the rapid (non generational) transport of people across differing adaptation zones.
A Nepalese can now travel to the peanut farms in Southern Alabama inside 24 hours, a trip that probably took his ancestors more like 24 generations. While that Nepalese may not be allergic to peanuts, he also may not carry the peanut protection version of the Oxy101 gene. He may also be mildly allergic to the leaves or pollen and instead of full anaphylaxis, may exhibit symptoms of skin rashes or asthma.
As foods are transported beyond their natural climatic boundaries and also hothouse grown, modern man demands a wider variety. Modern man is also travelling to different regions, beyond their climatic and adaptive food availability zone.
Perhaps the mechanism of ‘Allergy’ is the warning that this ‘Group’ is attempting to adapt to a new (food or climatic) environment too quickly. Man is known to be the most adaptive creature, but that is based on hundreds or thousands of generations, not based on an individual.
As anyone in the Genetic and Human Sciences will have already understood, I have a Doctorate in Ignorance, and my studies of Genetics have never progressed beyond this single thought…. But it’s still a thought….
Forty-one year-old Dad screams down at 6 year-old terror-stricken boy. The boy is slight, feeble and sickly.
Around six years of age, Bernie and his big brother Cory were playing tag inside the house. Their parents weren’t home, they were off at the pub. The object of the game was to flick/tag the other with a tea towel, the loser having to wash the dishes. Bernie was fast and agile, no-one could out flick him.
The front door was open – it was the only form of air conditioning in the tiny War Service cottage and the weather was oppressive. Long legged Cory chased nuggetty Bernie up the long narrow hall that led to the outside world and freedom. As he arrived at the doorway, a gust of wind caught the door, slamming it hard shut. Momentum won and Bernie sailed straight through the four panes of ripple glass.
Stunned and amazed that he had got off with only a nick on his shoulder, Bernie yelled ‘Barley’ to pause the game.
These were the days before mobile phones and in fact, few people even had a home telephone. Public telephones on street corners were a curiosity, but you needed to know someone with a telephone to call. The boys knew no-one.
In the mid 1950s, television was being talked about in newspapers, but hadn’t arrived in their semi-rural area and any form of communication was limited to how far and fast you could run or how loud you could shout. It was the days when boys on bikes delivered telegrams to people to inform them that their family member had been in a car accident, but there was no-one to send a telegram to, and anyway, the Post Office was closed.
The family didn’t own a car, although their father had some home use of a company car, as he was a commercial traveller, away from the house most of the time.
Cory helped steer Bernie the four blocks to see Mrs. Gay, a retired nurse that was known to assist the poor neighbourhood with various bumps and scratches.
Mrs. Gay was gracious enough to bathe and cover the wound and wrote a note for their parents, informing them the wound would need stitches.
The boys slunk off, then ran home and tried to clean up the mess on the front porch before their parents arrived home. Naturally their efforts were a total failure as every pane of glass was missing, and the separator strips had all been smashed.
Not a word was said.
Father just took Bernie out to the sleep-out in the back yard and tossed him inside a cupboard. The lock slid and clicked. There was no protesting or even crying. Six year old Bernie was just entirely dumb struck. His father had never said more than two words to him – ever – he was simply not on his father’s radar, then all of a sudden – this. The speed of his actions just confused him – he was like a footballer heading for goal.
“OK dad, I get the message – you aren’t happy with me….. can I come out now, I have to pee?” Please? Pleeeease!
Late that night, when Bernie had been crying for 4 or 5 hours, his mother came and got him out. She never did that again.
Mum used to tie Bernie’s tiny hands around a kitchen table leg with a length of rag so he wouldn’t get into any more trouble during the day, and she would even put a cushion on the floor for him to sleep on when he stopped struggling, but she had never actually locked him away in a cupboard. Mum was loving, always close by, delivering her ample bosomed hugs with cooing, “I will always love you” noises. She liked to have Bernie around, unless his father was home. Little boys were to be seen and not heard, then.
The front door panes got fixed, life went on. The daily routine was well established, up in time to run to school, St Mary’s Greensborough, and do battle with the swamp around the ‘Yabbie Pond’ or the dust bowl that attracted the snakes, depending on the season. There was an unmade road that went to the school, but it was circuitous and reserved for coming home with other kids. The fast way was direct, through the cow paddock (Bernie always considered the black one to be mean) and through the horse paddock, skirting the edges of the Yabbie Pond across the railway line and into the end of the school playground.
There were nine barbed wire fences to negotiate, lots of sticks and stones that needed to be hurled, old bits of corrugated iron from dismembered sheds and forgotten projects and all manner of booty to collect along the way.
School was a bit boring. Lining up and being presentable didn’t fit Bernie’s country boy image that needed a bit of scruff to define the edges. Bernie was helpful, maybe too helpful. A thin and puny boy that considered himself wiry and strong – who knows? He certainly didn’t make a great impression as he went around the playground at lunchtime, drooling over the other kids sandwiches. Bernie was one of the poor kids. He only had shoes at school when one of the teachers found a pair that someone had left behind because they had grown out of them, but he never wore them home, because he didn’t want to show up his siblings or seem superior – whatever it was that went on his mind, it didn’t allow him the luxury of shoes.
The bright red hair, three dimensional freckles and smart ass attitude meant that he was never forgotten in the schoolground – it also attracted its share of scorn and ridicule. He really wasn’t pugnacious, but had learned to stand tough and sound tough – he seemed like a yapping miniature dog.
Lesson learned: Redheads have fiery tempers.
A couple of friendships stuck by Bernie during his Primary school years, but none lasted beyond the geographical need for someone to play a ball game with. Bernie was not allowed to enter anyone else’s home, and he wasn’t allowed to invite anyone back, so most friendships were forged in a spare house lot as the kids were drawn out of a common need to have someone kick the football between, or throw the ball back.
Football was played a little differently back then. Living poor in a poor neighbourhood, the footballs were wadded up newspaper, tied tightly with string. Even the school football team always used a ‘wadball’ as a football, unless they were playing against another school.
The school playground was next to the railway line and there wasn’t a fence when Bernie started school there. The first football that ever came to school was eaten by a train. From then on, it was wadball. The fence must have gone up when Frankie got hit by the train on his way to school, not that any fence would have ever got in the way of those kids.
Frankie was a tiny kid with a full set of decayed teeth clinging precariously all over the inside of his mouth. He was the only kid smaller than Bernie and they sometimes banded together. Marbles, brandy, keeping’s off – that sort of thing. As the youngest in their respective families, they were both always voraciously hungry. They would stand together beside others that were eating with big eyes and drooling mouths, often scoring the scraps, just to make them go away.
Frankie and Bernie were sparring one day. A quite formalized game of chicken, where they would stand at arm’s length and punch at the other one’s face, with the aim of being short by a hair. It was almost like a martial art, no flinching, no hitting, just maintaining fearless control and allowing a fist to come straight for the chin. Then, one of the on-lookers pushed Frankie in the back at the critical moment. Out went Frankie’s teeth – five of them in an eruption of blood.
Within a week, Frankie was dead.
To this day, Bernie has never tried to hit someone in the face. He just can’t do it. Thanks Frankie.
Lesson learned: If you hit someone in the face, they will die.
Bernie had already experienced the death of both his father’s parents, that was back when he was a little kid of four. Seeing them laying peacefully on their beds was far less traumatic than seeing Frankie swatted like a fly by a train hurtling by at 50 mph.
Six months later, Bernie is riding a neighbour’s bicycle down the unmade road outside his house. Recent rain had created puddles, and the small amount of traffic turned the puddles into potholes. As a 6 year-old, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, his job was to slalom between the potholes to prove how well the bike could be controlled. He ran a ridge between two holes, the bike slid sideways into one, and he was thrown from the bike and the bike was thrown in the air. Needless to say, the bike landed firmly on Bernie’s bright red head. There was shock, but really no pain. Bernie walked around the back of the house to where his mum was hanging out clothes, not even crying, but in need of some attention.
His mother saw him and screamed, blood was spurting from his head, creating a fountain that had entirely covered his body. He consoled her as best he could, but until he ran the hose over himself to prove, ‘it’s only blood, I’m not mashed up’, she was hysterical.
Once again, Bernie gets hauled over to Mrs. Gay, who once again, bathed the wound and pronounced that he needed to see a doctor, but this time, his mother was present. Then Mrs. Gay saw the old nick on Bernie’s shoulder, and asked what the doctor had done about it. Of course he hadn’t been to a doctor, and there was certainly no money for that kind of thing. Mrs. Gay wrote a note, put it into an envelope and instructed his mother to take it all along to Dr. O’Shannessy today. His mother’s financial protests fell on deaf ears as Mrs. Gay drew her mother aside and whispered something.
They went along to the doctors immediately. Bernie was seen next, as soon as the patient in the doctor’s surgery came out.
Lesson learned: Nurses can give orders to mothers.
Bernie’s mother accompanied him into the consultation room, and after a few words from the Doc, she left. The boy was ordered to strip off for an examination, because there might be problems anywhere on his body. He was really scared and shaking. He held his breath and closed his eyes as he was probed and prodded for scars, fissures and any other examples of the ‘devils work’. He needed to have a prostate exam – ‘That’s why we don’t need your mother in here.’
This involved a digital rectal exploration, while his penis was being stretched and rubbed. It felt weird and little tears kept burning the corners of Bernie’s eyes. Eventually, he was told to dress and ‘not to worry my mother about what tests we had done, but you will have to be operated on’. The head wound was forgotten about until Bernie started slurring words and stumbling. His mother was told not to let him out of her sight and not to let him sleep. He vomited. The pain of a migraine took over his body and he experienced his first delayed concussion.
Lesson learned: Pain delayed is pain doubled.
Bernie immediately burst into tears, realizing he had been taken over by the devil and that he would burn in hell for ever and ever. He was escorted back to the waiting room and then taken to the local District Hospital in a car driven by the doctor’s wife. This was to be the first of a total of 43 operations on the melanoma that had formed after repeated sunburns on the wound site had gone unnoticed for the last 6 months.
The first series of operations were ‘Locals’, performed at the nearby District Hospital, which consisted of a day surgery and about 10 beds, mainly used for observation. Each of these operations required the excision of the scar area and an area immediately surrounding it. From the original one inch accidental scar there was now a four inch long caterpillar of stitches on Bernie’s shoulder. He kept getting weaker as keloidal tissue pushed back through the opening and a tumorous growth emerged.
Lesson learned: A child of the devil needs to be exorcised, regularly.
Bernie’s language skills were good for a kid, but understanding the difference in meaning between ‘excise’ and exorcise’ when both were out of his range of vocabulary and they were referred to by the learned doctor as the ‘The Devil’s Work’ and ‘Excision’ in one breath… frightening.
Bernie followed their every instruction to the letter to try to get the devil off his back.
Within three months, Bernie was scheduled for Ray Treatment on the newly installed equipment at Peter McCallum Clinic, and he is to have chemotherapy, also in its infancy, to try to stop the re-growth. The schedule was, Chemo – Ray – Operation – Ray – Chemo.
Father is screaming about how much trouble Bernie’s caused the family. His drunken anger calls for him to pick up a knife to make his point and as he is waving it in Bernie’s face – he must have seen his own reflection. He dropped it to the table, picked the boy up in one hand and carried him off to the place.
Three days in solitude sorts out most six year-olds.
The place is a closet, 2 feet by 2 feet by 8 feet tall. Bernie can stand in there, he can squat into a tiny ball so that he can muffle his sobs. The smell, although foul, has become almost friendly now, it’s the place and no-one else ever goes in.
The closet is part of a ‘sleep-out’, a single room that was used by workers on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Project that had been transported to the back of Bernie’s parents home in the 1950s to create extra space for the adult inhabitants of the tiny weatherboard cottage. The finish of the sleep-out is rough, creosote stained vertical weatherboards that have been nailed over tar paper. The joists are showing inside; raw, rough hardwood. The timber floor is uncovered and scarred with cigarette burns.
The room has two louvered windows, about 2 feet wide and 3 feet high. They stand aside a single door that drops down 3 feet to the ground below. A simple sad-face room with a dirty green door. There are no steps, they don’t arrive for a couple of years. There are a number of variations of sawn logs on end, banana boxes that rot and later a large concrete paving stone that serves as a welcome mat, but for now, it’s just climb up onto the door-sill with toes-only on firm footing and reach for the pad-bolt, slip it open and fall in.
There is no furniture, not a stick. A mattress arrives some months later. it’s just a 12 ft square room. Roasting hot in Summer, mind-numbingly cold in Winter. There is a small shelf that has been tacked on under one window, just a plank of undressed hardwood, also soaked in creosote, held in place by a couple of prop supports. The place has an 18 inch wide wooden door, fitted by nickel-plated steel hinges to the closet that occupies the back corner of the room. Inside it there is a 4” nail to hang clothes on, otherwise the closet is just a scaled down version of the room. The place is dark, totally dark. To guarantee darkness, the closet has a pad-bolt and padlock. There is another nail on the outside of the door.
On it hangs the blanket that he is sometimes allowed, sometimes denied.
There is a ball of chicken-wire that lives in the closet. When he’s bad, he gets rolled in the chicken-wire before being put in the closet. The chicken wire is his own folly, he brought it home one day and wouldn’t say where it came from.
The chicken wire has a few of the corners twisted over themselves to keep it secure. Inside the closet there is little room to struggle, and the fear of making a noise, gouging out an eye or being subjected to other punishments was usually enough to keep him still. The cuts and pressure marks still break out to this day, 56 years later. So do the cigarette burns. Cigarettes were a pretty standard way to elicit truth and Bernie was not getting any better at honesty.
Bernie contemplated Crime and Punishment a lot in those days. The philosophy of a six year-old is pretty basic, but time allows all sorts of scripts to play out in the mind. Sometimes Moochie, the Foxhound/Labrador looking mutt that hung around the house would crawl up under the sleep-out and whimper with him. He had probably been beaten too and knew the punishment corner as well as Bernie did. They philosophized together as only a boy and his dog can do, and when they were able to, hugged and nuzzled for what seemed like hours on end.
Lesson learned: Dogs can be trusted.
Both of Bernie’s parents worked, and they indulged in a standard after work practice of the day known as the six-o’clock-swill. As all bars closed at 6pm (last drinks at 6pm, off the premises by 6:15pm) it was the practice of Australian workers at the time to barrel out of their workplace and run to the closest pub and order a dozen beers which they lined up on the bar and poured down their gullets as fast as they could.
By 6:15 they were in their cars for the peak hour crawl, along with a million others in the same state. By 6:30 pm the effects of the beer had fully hit and car accidents were commonplace. Most police simply got off the road in the swill times, as they were checking all the pubs to make sure the drunks were off the premises, and sampling the brew at the same time.
These were simple times. The police were there to uphold the law and they did it with an iron fist. They didn’t want to charge anyone and send them off to court, they simply bashed the living shit out of you in a back alley, took an ‘On the spot fine’ and you knew to stay out of their way. Bernie’s father had been ‘done over’ a number of times at the pub – he liked to stay as late as he could and sometimes ran into the burly boys in blue.
“It wasn’t me! I never saw your sunglasses, honest!”
In fact it was him. Bernie had been let out of the place at around 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon after what he believed was 3 days inside his pitch black crypt. He stumbled, and stretched and stumbled some more. He covered his eyes with his hands and dropped down from the sleep-out to the backyard.
He swayed to the outside tap and splashed water over his burning eyes and his blood encrusted nose. One of his ears was still oozing something that was more green than yellow, there was blood too. His mother had always said that blood was there to wash out the bad stuff, so he guessed it just needs to bleed a bit more.
He made his way into the house to wash properly, because he had fouled himself again, and he knew he would get into trouble if he smelt at the dinner table. It was Summer, the stench was over-ripe and the sun was glaring at him, another accuser. He saw his face in the mirror and was still squinting from the bright light, even inside the house. He washed away the blood and tear stains and scrubbed himself over with a piece of rough towel. He put on a pair of sunglasses that were beside the sink and felt that he could hide behind them.
With the change in light, he walked straight into the door and the sunglasses hit, flipped and got stood on. Bernie picked them up and put them back onto the sink, hoping that they would self-repair as he was just too scared to own up to having broken them. Now he knows, he should have disposed of them, then. Bernie still had this wishy-washy attitude to deceit.
“If you tell me the truth now, I won’t hit you, but if you lie to me, I’ll give you a hiding like you’ve never had before!”
Now the dilemma.
Does he come clean and alleviate all guilt, admit the mistake and of course admit he had been lying? Or does he hold out and protest his innocence, with the fear that one day he would be found out. All kids want their father to recognize them, want their father’s love and want to be forgiven for making mistakes. He was young and naïve. There were so many games to learn and there was always a harsh punishment for trial and error. His father lit a cigarette.
Lesson learned: Cigarette smoking makes other people tell the truth.
The family’s ‘War Service’ home was in Watsonia, on the outskirts of Melbourne. The home was pretty dingy in an area of pretty dingy homes. There was a neighbour. The people were from Latvia and were refugees from the Russian takeover of their country. They were nice enough, but they didn’t know any English. Beyond them there were unmade house lots, soggy ground that was dotted with stands of mainly small gum trees, saplings that stood among burnt out stumps and grotesquely gnarled hollow logs, remnants of earlier bush-fires. There was a glimpse of another house in the distance and only 3 blocks away, a grove of pine trees stood ready to explode in flames if a spark blew in. The road was not much more than a half dried creek bed, about 8 feet wide, and had stinking black oily drains on either side that teemed with inch long red wrigglers. The local kids used to say that the mosquitoes were large enough to be packaged for dog food.
The family was poor. Even at age six, Bernie was in charge of the vegetable garden, and potatoes were required at every meal. The soil was a sucking mass of clay that was unyielding. He eventually got potatoes growing in enough quantities to feed a family of six. That took a willow tree to suck the water out and masses of sawdust from building sites a few blocks away. The addition of bags and bags of chicken manure, hauled in on a billy-cart from a farm five miles away, eventually did the trick. He was in production. Of all the things that he could do or not do in that phase of his life, his ability to supply copious quantities of potatoes and beans was the one thing that stood him apart as the provider.
Bernie’s father was away from the house for two weeks at a time. He would go on long country runs, selling the new plastic home-ware to gift shops and hardware stores. Those were the quiet times. He would roll up on a Friday night after playing travelling salesman and the fights would start. Mainly it was about money. He had always lost his money at the pub before he got home. Bernie’s mother once burst into tears because there was no money to buy soap to wash the kids. ‘It’ll all be fine when your father gets back, he’ll bring us some soap from one of the hotels he stays at..’. but of course he never did. He forgot the money too, although once, to his credit, he brought a case of oranges with him. Bernie had never tasted an orange before and just went into meltdown.
It was about then Bernie decided to make some money. There was a huge fortress like monastery about three blocks away from them, and they had groves of hundreds of pine trees. Climbing trees was one of Bernie’s favourite pastimes so they all had to be gradually conquered. They were his Everest. Together with his Latvian neighbour, Johnny, they divided up coloured fabric and raced to see which of them could work their way through a row of trees with their flags on the top foot of each tree.
The very tops of the trees would sway wildly if they got their balance wrong, or if there was the slightest breeze up there, but the rush of the achievement was amazing. After months of doing this, and falling a few times, usually from the very top, they figured the next extreme sport was to jump from the top and cascade down the outside branches. When Johnny broke an arm, they were banned, but Bernie continued until all 635 trees were conquered.
With an old piece of sheeting, Bernie would run up to the monastery’s pine forest and toss the pinecones onto it, eventually having enough to draw into a swag, hang off a stick before commencing the trip home. In those days, hot water came from either a wood fired copper that would have its contents bucketed into the bath or sink, or if you were rich and had a separate hot water service, it was a chip burner. Many homes still had combustion stoves or pot-bellied stoves as electricity was usually restricted to one or two light bulbs, often with an adaptor trailing from it to power the odd electric appliance. In Bernie’s house, the appliance of choice was the revered electric iron.
So sauntering back from the pine groves with his cache of cones, people approached Bernie with offers to buy his firewood. The population was small, but so were Bernie’s arms, so fair rewards were earned for pine cones. The family was never without soap again.
Bernie gradually saved up pennies and placed them in a tin along with a bar of soap. These were then hidden in the crawl space under the house, where only a scrawny boy could reach them. Bernie had vowed never to be hungry or without soap, ever again.
Lesson learned: There is always a way to make money when you need to.
In those days, ‘burning off’ was very common. As there were no council rubbish pickups, household waste needed to be burned and then buried to keep the rats away. Most families had a concrete lined incinerator that could swallow all manner of refuse. Bernie’s family had a simple campfire style incineration technique. This was where he learned to separate the garbage from the compost, the tins from the bottles and the paper from the decaying cooked food scraps. The Latvians next door had, through osmosis, taught him the value of compost and with limited language, a lot of gesturing and occasional fence jumping, Bernie found that the ashes when mixed with green waste and left to marinate for a while, created a healthy environment for earthworms, and this was the sign of a healthy soil.
The family weren’t allowed to mix with the neighbours, they were not like Australians, they drank vodka, not beer, spoke funny and then the all pervading, ‘We’re not telling anyone about family business’.
Of course with similar age kids, they still got together and played, before the parents got home, when Bernie was supposed to be peeling the spuds and preparing dinner.
“I tripped, I stood on them, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry, I lied.”
Fear is an amazingly powerful tool. Having convinced himself half an hour earlier that he would never tell a living soul, that he would take the secret to his deathbed, Bernie gave up without a fight at the mere sight of a glowing cigarette.
He was ashamed at himself for having given-in at all, he was ashamed at himself for lying, he was ashamed at himself for being so clumsy that he broke the sunglasses, he was ashamed at himself for being a habitual criminal that could never be trusted, he was ashamed for disappointing his father, yet again.
Lesson learned: Punishment is deserved
Sister Mary Francesca ran the local school. She was, stern, strict and intolerant and yet, there was a softness to her that Bernie never understood. She was running a school of 56 kids with another teacher, Sister Mary Santa Claus (actually Stanilaus, but kids would be kids…) The pupils ranged in age from 4 to 14 and from a wide socio-economic background. There was the Publican’s son, he was brought lunch each day by a waiter and sat down in the playground, picnic basket, rug, cutlery and a flask of juice. He was so far removed from reality that he was called Richie Rich. He wasn’t picked on, it just seemed accepted that he needed to have things done differently. In those days, every child was handed out a one-third pint bottle of milk at morning recess. During summer it had always turned sour, because the crates were left just inside the gate, in the sun.
Being a naughty boy, Bernie was always being summoned before S.M. Francesca and always given extra tasks. He suspected that she understood more than she said. He was always tasked to bring in the milk, go to the store (2 miles away) to get supplies or even clean up in the staff room after the two nuns had finished their lunch. There was always some tid-bit or leftover that would ‘Be a sin to waste’ that Bernie was left with.
Lesson learned: If you work with food, you get to eat.
The Parish Priest, Father Adams, was a dour man. He was as Irish as Paddy’s Pigs and as well presented. He muttered and mumbled with a brogue so thick, that no-one ever understood him. He also had a strong drinking ability that didn’t stop at the altar wine. He was never seen to smile, and like Bernie’s father, he was never seen sober. He was a train wreck.
S.M. Francesca often had huge screaming matches with him – it was always over one of the children that had been sent up to the Presbytery to help him with cleaning or other tasks. Bernie never knew what those fights were about, but in a culture where nuns were always subservient to priests, this stood out as being earth shattering.
Bernie was never allowed to go to the Presbytery, even when his presence was demanded. It was always, ‘Over my dead body’ and ‘I’ll kiss the devil first’ from S.M Francesca. Bernie never discovered what the fuss was all about. In his six years at that school, he never once entered the Presbytery and he treated it as though it was a haunted house – giving it a wide berth.
Father Adams eventually gave Bernie the opportunity needed to give up Catholicism – which he jumped at.
The loud cracking sound inside Bernie’s head was new, the force behind it was not. He literally saw stars as his head and shoulders were forced through the wall. He sank to the floor before remembering to never sink to the floor. Bernie’s father kicked him, just once in the face, shattering teeth and ramming his head back into the wall to create a second hole. Bernie felt the black cloud of unconsciousness roll into save him from the pain, ‘perhaps this time I will die and not have to clean up the mess I have made’. He awoke to the booming voice of God.
“Never, ever lie to me boy.
You are a worthless loser, you’ll never amount to anything.”
Bernie’s mother came in, and whispered to the boy, ‘when you lie to him, it makes him angry’. Then ran off to pour her husband another beer, before he came after her. When Bernie’s father passed out dead drunk, Bernie scampered up the road to see Mrs. Gay, who put a couple of tiny clips in his face, squeezed stinging lemon juice over it to kill the bugs and sent him home quickly before anyone missed him. She was a godsend that was only there to minister First Aid, and when he left his parent’s house, he never spoke to her again – but today, Bernie swears she has a special place in heaven.
Bernie was allowed to eat, but this time his food was set on the floor, without a bowl. Lying dogs should eat with dogs. Bernie’s damaged face and painful gums made it nearly impossible to slurp up the food, but he knew the alternative would be more punishment. Mum cried a bit at the thought of her littlest one having to grovel on the ground, but shut up when threatened. Bernie’s father was a big, powerful man and his mother was the weakest person Bernie had ever met.
Bernie slept in a bed that night, inside the house, but his parents were arguing about him and he just knew that she was going to be hit. ‘If I had only told the truth the first time, or never told the truth, maybe she wouldn’t be threatened.‘
Lesson learned : Never go back on your word.
Bernie’s father would be going away the next night after dinner, so everyone attempted to lay low until he left, to stay safe.
Bernie knows he can’t confide in his mother either. She always tells, and that usually ends up in a visit to the place again. She doesn’t understand that by confiding in her husband, her children are threatened. If Bernie was late for school one day, he might be locked up for another weekend. Maybe that was to give her more free time with her partner, which was impossible to understand, even in later years. Bernie was told in his thirties that his mother was the one that suggested locking him in the cupboard, not just as punishment, but apparently to safeguard him from greater danger whenever his father was home. In a strange way, Bernie wanted to believe that, but…. he doesn’t.
Every second weekend, when his father was away, Bernie would go exploring, often with the next door neighbour, Johnny, sometimes alone. There was the hidden billabong in the Plenty River which for no particular reason, was called Bucks Dam. It was a place to fish and swim, although the red-bellied black snakes loved the area as much as the boys. There was the aqueduct which was a largely open, man-made stream that sped along at faster than running pace. It travelled from the Yan Yean Dam, the main water supply for Melbourne to within five miles of Bernie’s home. The trick with the aqueduct was to hike and fish as far as they could walk in a day, and then strip off their clothes, tie them in a bundle and jump into the aqueduct with the bundle held above their heads. This offered them high speed transport and they only had to tread water. Sometimes their clothing got wet, but panic only set in when they were separated from their clothes and they feared having to go home naked.
Johnny and Bernie would often see distant bushfires and attempt to plot their direction and size. When they could see the flames licking into the sky, they knew it was close and threatening. On their way home, they would call into farmhouses and warn them of the fires. In those days, this simple bush telegraph was a necessity as there was no other means of communication.
Bernie goes to church most Sundays, it’s a way to get out of the house and as there is rarely any real curfew, he usually dawdles aimlessly, plotting his escape, ‘They’ll miss me when I’m gone’, says the ‘poor me’ in him.
Sometimes his mother comes to church with him, his father never does. Today, Bernie’s mother is wearing hand me downs from her twin sister. Twinny is wealthy, married to another bitter twisted man, but bites her tongue too. It’s not Christian to say anything bad about your husband. Bernie’s mother has a hat on as they walk the four miles to the church. His Sunday shoes, tied together, are looped over his shoulder, one in front, one behind, socks stuffed into his pocket. The mud along the roadway will ruin shoes, and it might be another year before he can wear his brother’s cast offs. One of the other kids from school sees him barefooting it toward the church and calls a few names, and in front of his mother too. There’s a water tap near the entrance to the church where Bernie rinses his feet and finishes dressing while his mother dobs at her shoes with a handerkerchief.
They go inside. The Mass is in Latin and Bernie has already been instructed in some of the meanings of the prayers. It seems so surreal to him, there is all this talk of love, while people he knows are plotting to leave their families, beat their children and abuse their neighbours. The full irony of an hour of platitudes doesn’t yet strike home to him. Everyone is on their best behaviour, but he notices that his mother never talks to anyone, she keeps her head bowed the whole time. She asks her son to sit on the other side of her. It’s not until they swap places that Bernie sees her bruised and puffy cheek and the black eye that makeup can’t hide. She rattles his arm and says, ‘You pray for forgiveness for what you have done to me.’
He looks down at his shoes, rough, but clean and wishes the floor would swallow him up.
He thinks of the Page family. He was a builder in the area. He was tough and hard as nails. His kids were always damaged and battered. Then Bernie found out Mrs. Page had taken to her husband with a hammer in the middle of the night and was in jail on murder charges. Somehow she got off, but was never allowed to enter the church again, presumably because the priest had not seen her at confession. The kids moved from the Catholic school to the state school and Bernie rarely saw them again.
Bernie’s mother went to communion at the head of the row, came back to her seat, grabbed him and her handbag, and headed out the door before the Mass was over. Her eyes were red with tears. Shoes off, they arrive back home, not a word spoken.
Lesson learned: I know how much harm I have done, I can’t undo it – I’m powerless, beaten.
Without saying anything to anyone, he goes straight back to the place and sits in there, no wire, door open, but safe in his sad world.
Later, his father comes to the door,
‘What are you doing in there?’
‘I forgot to ask God’s forgiveness.’
The door to the place slammed and the darkness closed in – but Bernie had won – He’s not in the chicken wire at all. Perhaps his father will forget about it.
In the darkness, Bernie carefully lifts the wire up and hangs it on the nail above his head giving him more space. As he lifts it, he hears a strange flapping sound. He feels around to find the 18 inch square of linoleum is loose underneath him. It has been nailed in place, but over time and probably his own shuffling, the nails have all pulled through. He’s able to stand on the wall support that is an inch higher than the floor, and lift up the linoleum. He can see shards of daylight through the gaps in the floorboards. It smells pretty bad under there, but there is a puff of fresh air every few seconds that makes his heart beat faster. He resolves to replace the lino and say nothing until he has found a way to make better use of this eureka moment.
Before dinner, Bernie’s father pulls him out of the place and tells him to wash up. He’s drunk, but he doesn’t seem aggressive. Bernie’s subdued, compliant and not looking for a beating. He asks his son what he is going to tell them at school about the missing teeth and Bernie responds with the required lie.
“I was playing and fell out of a tree and must have hit a rock”.
“Have some dinner.”
Lesson learned: Lying is OK to protect your family, but not okay to protect yourself.
So after a few extra lies to the nuns when he returned to school, some bragging rights to the other boys – “You oughta’ see what I did to the other guy!” and a few whispers from his siblings, that episode went away, his Father went back out on the road and his mother went off to work, smelling of way too much cheap makeup.
To everyone else, Bernie fell out of a tree. The ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was firmly in place at the family home, and he realized that while he was the current whipping boy, all the others had been the primary focus at some time or another.
Lesson Learned: Survival meant silence, failure was terminal.
With his father away, out came play. Even though Bernie’s mother would tell her husband everything, there was that magic time between 3:30 pm when school let out and 6:45 pm when Bernie’s mother rolled in. Sometimes there was a sibling around, sometimes not.
There was a garden shed at the very back of the yard. It was a reclaimed packing crate for an imported car. It was naturally ventilated with 1/2 inch gaps between the palings. These were the days before containers, when oversized wooden crates were cheap and plentiful. There were a few building sites within a mile or so. It was easy to wander onto the sites and pick up scrap timber and nails that had fallen during the building work. On the way home from school Bernie grabbed a few pieces of timber and a whole bunch of nails, he also got some paint tin lids – but he had always collected them.
Paint tin lids were quite simply the original Frisbee. The local boys had paint tin lid wars with each other – 8 inch metal disks flying back and forth until someone ended up in tears. A great game. This time, Bernie took the builder’s booty back to the garden shed and left it there – then inside to peel the spuds, and slice the tripe.
Tripe is the only food stuff that can be mistaken for whitewall tyres (remember them?). Kids were told that tripe was ideal for youngsters, because growing children needed meat and that was the best there was. It was diced into one inch blocks, and boiled forever before being served with a white sauce that was flour and milk. It created a globulous, gelatinous mass that always made Bernie gag, but had to be eaten to keep his strength up. After years of this, Bernie finally figured out that bread squares, soaked in white sauce looked similar enough to tripe, to be able to pull a sleight of hand when it came to his plate. He wolfed down the slurry before anyone could notice the difference – more for them, none for him. Bernie’s health picked up immediately as he left tripe behind. These days, it’s the one food he refuses, still. He passes it off as ‘A Fashion Statement’ and lets it go – but it always makes him shiver.
Lesson learned: Stealth and deceit are a good thing.
When Bernie’s father was home, he always ate steak. He always ate potatoes and he always drank beer. 3 meals a day, seven days a week, he ate steak and potatoes, although he was rarely seen to drink beer before noon. The family had to feed him steak because he was the ‘bread winner’ and men needed to have their red meat. Bernie’s mother worked too, but in those days, women’s wages were a third of men’s, so they didn’t need to be fed so well and women were obviously less important.
Lesson learned: There is a pecking order that can never be questioned.
The myxomatosis virus that was released to combat the rabbit plagues were starting to close in on the local area, but that didn’t stop young boys from spearing and even netting the tasty rodents. They quickly learned about the look of a Myxo rabbit and only used them for skinning contests, while those that were unaffected were kept for the pot. This was the red meat supplement and Bernie’s father wouldn’t dream of eating them, ‘Give me a steak any day’ – so for at least 6 months of the year the rest of the family had a good chance of having rabbit on the menu once or twice a week.
After a time, hunting became an art-form, and Bernie’s neighbours invested in some ferrets. They made a big coop to keep the ferrets in and covered it in chicken wire. The roll of chicken wire was endless, so that’s when Bernie decided to cut himself a length and hide in his sleep-out, he had no idea, he had been instrumental in creating his own torture chamber.
Mushroom Harry was a local character that lived an extraordinary life. He had an air rifle and lived on rabbits and mushrooms, or at least that’s how it worked out in Bernie’s head. In the forests of the grounds of the Gresswell Sanitarium were a few abandoned car bodies that Harry had set up as his home. Over the years Harry had gathered junk that had been hurled out of cars, in those days before rubbish collections. His collection was neither an artistic statement nor of any utilitarian nature, it was just his stuff.
Johnny’s mum worked at Gresswell and knew the story. Harry had been an inmate of Gresswell and had been ordered to never leave the grounds. That order stuck. He had been dragged back into the dormitories kicking and screaming too often. They finally let him just sleep in the woods. Bernie and his friends had a fear of Harry, he was as mad as a hatter and they were young and freaked out by his living conditions. In summer he was naked and they giggled as they watched him through the dense scrub. In winter he had on a huge army great coat, gum boots and an old army slouch hat, with varying amounts of rags underneath. At an early age, the boys discovered Harry talking to himself, swearing at everything, rambling. He was not a subtle man. They saw him keep walking up to one tree and then another like a sentry on duty, barking orders or having an animated conversation with each of them.
The boys decided to play a trick on Harry. They would bring things to one of his favourite trees for him to discover and then see what he would do. Harry wasn’t to see them, and it took all their courage to venture into his realm. Many double-dares later and either Johnny or Bernie would leave a bottle of Slades Lemonade or a pack of cigarettes under his tree. He was really suspicious and would watch to see what was going on, so then they would leave something at one of his other perimeter trees.
Over a period of five years, they left Harry all manner of things from fishing poles to an armchair, from clothes to rations. He was their Smith Family, and they got a great kick out of not being discovered. After the first couple of years, Harry left things by the trees, which the boys decided were for them. A couple of matchbox cars, a little whistle, various pieces of wood. They never met face to face, but Harry knew as much about the boys as they knew about him. They collected his toys and left their treasures for him. This was the start of a number of hidden relationships that Bernie forged over the years.
Bushfires went through the area, Harry couldn’t leave. He perished alone in the grounds of the asylum. After discovering him, the boys never went back, it was like a shrine that needed to be left for Harry, and he wasn’t returning. Bushfire is not an easy death. Harry had bloated and swelled where he lay, half underneath one of his car bodies.
Each day Bernie rushed home from school and straight to work in the shed. This time he took a piece of string and a knife. He returned to the place and measured beyond the piece of linoleum to the wall supports that he had previously stood on, and cut one string to its length, the other to its width. He ran back out to the garden shed and began piecing together timber slats until he had recreated the flooring of the place complete with extra size, so that it would fit firmly on top of the linoleum. A little jiggling, hacking with a saw and the size was right. He took the floor back into the shed, and poured oil all over it and then buried it in the mud. Bernie had never tried building anything before and marvelled at the patterns made out of the bent nails as he learned the craft from scratch. But for now, time to peel the spuds.
After a week of running backwards and forward from the shed to the place, he had recreated flooring that he was sure would pass inspection for age, roughness and colour. He carefully lifted the lino out of the closet, placed the new false floor into place and then replaced the lino. The floor inside was now raised by 1/2 an inch, but otherwise it was identical. He covered all his tracks in the garden shed, burying sawdust and hiding spare nails and then to leave it all alone until his father had seen it.
Bernie had no intention of showing it to him, he just wanted it to pass inspection unnoticed, before he went any further.
It went unnoticed.
Now came the task of making a false ceiling. The door was short, maybe five feet tall and the ceiling in the place was eight feet tall. He wondered if anyone would notice if he brought it down a little. The ceiling was tar paper, which he sliced with a razor blade until it fell. There was nothing above it at all, other than rafters and a corrugated iron roof – it was merely looped in place. Before threading some unwound pieces of fine chicken wire through the corners of the tar paper, he used the tar paper as a template for the false ceiling. Then he was able replace the ceiling temporarily. By using the template to measure, Bernie found a piece of Masonite that was almost the exact size. The boy test-fitted the masonite and marked the upright supports at about 9 inches below the ceiling. He counted the supports and went back to the shed to cut some blocks. After cutting, they were soaked in oil and then buried in dirt to age appropriately. Back to peeling spuds.
Over the next few weeks, whenever he had a private moment, he worked on his project. The ceiling tar paper was now glued to the masonite, which was sitting on small blocks that were in turn, nailed to the support joists in the place. To remove the false ceiling, it needed to be lifted and tilted slightly, then it would come free. Now, the time had come to work on the floor again. Home alone, Bernie lifted out the false floor and broke through the original floor with a tomahawk. Once there was space, he inserted a saw, and took out the whole of the square closet floor. He disposed of the old floor pieces under the house, rasped at the newly cut edges to smooth them, and applied oil and dirt to the newly sawn edges. They disappeared into the general character of the woodwork. He then simply lifted the new, oversized floor into place and it was supported by the wall joists. Standing back, nothing had changed. Inside, it felt no different, but now he knew, he would never be a prisoner forever – he had made a trapdoor.
There had been a constant fear in Bernie’s mind that he may be locked in the place and his parents would go out drinking and be killed in a car crash or that a bushfire would follow the smell of smoke that often wafted on the summer winds, causing him to quietly starve to death or burn like Harry. This fear was gone.
Lesson learned: Bottom line, you have to have control over your own life.
Over the next few months Bernie was sent to the place regularly, but now, just before his seventh birthday, he had created the tunnel to freedom. He was too scared to use it at first, but eventually he vowed never to soil himself again. He readied the space by clearing junk from directly below the drop zone under the place so that he could move about in the dark if necessary without being cut or making a noise. As the family gardener, he had a number of planter boxes that covered the underneath of the sleep-out on stilts, so he made sure there was a simple push at a small wooden box that covered the drop zone.
Bernie set about making his toolkits. He made sure he had a similar size piece of chicken wire in the ceiling cavity, and was able to find a couple of cans of sardines, small and flat and with their own key, a bar of soap, a candle, pliers, matches and of all things, some underpants. Other items he stashed under the house, or buried in the garden shed included a screwdriver, a penknife, a length of rope and another box of matches. Over the next months, the various stashes around the place, under the house and in neighbouring front yards grew. He became increasingly aware of his surroundings. Bernie really didn’t want to live there any more. Bernie was sad that pride in his work could not be shared with anyone.
Lesson learned: Everyone will give you up rather than get hurt.
This was his personal secret, perhaps the first of many. Once he was able to walk away from his prison, he would wander the neighbourhood in the dead of night. That’s when he learned a little too much for a seven year-old.
Bernie had progressed from Local Anesthetic operations to General Anesthetics. He progressed from scarred to immobilized as the operations cut deeper, the chemo got wound up and the Roentgen of the Ray Treatment increased. He spent more and more time in hospital seeing less and less people. His parents never visited beyond the original sign in and final bail out; the hospital was not on the way to the pub. Bernie was isolated and felt no-one really knew where he was apart from his parents, he had just disappeared like the siblings before him.
By the time he was 10, Bernie’s life expectancy had grown from 6 months to 2 years. He gave himself credit for this, although he knew the good doctors and nurses had definitely played their part. He was now on the Outpatients Register and was able to make his own way back and forward from home to hospital. He did a few weeks at school, and was given some work to take home, but his focus was elsewhere. In fifth grade Bernie came bottom of the class, but in sixth grade, he turned everything around, came dux of the school, won a 100% scholarship to the best Catholic College in the state and had a lot to live for, but still only 2 years to live.
As he left the place one weekend evening, he saw a light on in the bathroom. The bathroom window faced the rear of the house and the front door of the sleep-out, it was frosted glass, but it was obvious that two people were inside. Caught between fear and guilt, Bernie crept closer and heard the rough drunken mumble of his father and his sister, whimpering. He couldn’t fathom what was going on at that stage, he simply had no clue. His sister Clare was 13 and he only knew that she must have been getting into trouble. Bernie was very short of bravery and simply went back to the place and sobbed for her.
Bernie realized how separated each of the kids were. One had left home, and Bernie was a virtual stranger to a brother and sister that shared the same house as he did. Bernie’s closest sibling, Cory, had an identical sleep-out, but his was a lined, painted bedroom, not a punishment chamber. He never did anything wrong, never got into trouble, and simply sold Bernie out at every chance. He looked like his mother’s father and for some reason, that gave him the status of the fair haired child. He was 16 months older than Bernie and simply never got hit. The boys’ sister lived in the main part of the house. She had her own room, never got beaten, but was always timid and shy around people. She was a regular churchgoer, beautiful and radiant young lady, but she could never look anyone in the eye.
Clare made school holidays so special for Bernie on a couple of separate occasions. She played a game, hiding notes around the house and even outside in the yard, creating a form of treasure hunt. The prize was always simple, everyone was poor, but the fun was in the fact that she cared. She moved out of the house to live with neighbours and then was magically getting married although she’d only ever been on a couple of dates.
This loving behaviour of hers was seen to be some sort of repayment for having interrupted dad while he was abusing her. Bernie had made it his business to barge into the bathroom whenever he heard her crying. Father swore he was just washing her in the bath with him, but she was in tears, 13 or 14 years old and forced to be naked. It wasn’t until Bernie was 35 years old that Clare gave him the complete run down – because at the time he was pre-pubescent and had no knowledge of sex other than sniggering at a bare bum.
Between the ages of 18 months and 16 years, their father sexually abused, molested and raped Clare. At one stage Clare quit school to be the house mother to look after Bernie between medical treatments, after school and during holidays. Their mother could earn more money because of her experience and age. During that time, their father would come home every day for lunch and rape Clare. It was as regular as morning coffee. She would beg him to stop – he never did. When Bernie was well enough, he intervened. Clare, ashamed that her little brother knew too much and wearing her own guilt inappropriately, left home. That was when their father taught Bernie about sex – the hard way.
Lesson learned: Sex is dirty, hateful, overpowering, painful, demeaning and shameful
Clare never came back to save Bernie, never came round to take him away for a weekend, never bothered, but she was ‘safe’ at last.
Lesson learned: Once you get away, never look back.
Then, a few years later, Cory left also. Bernie was now alone with a madman that was hell bent on destroying him. Bernie was bright at school, too bright and with a warped sense of humour. He was in people’s face all the time, challenging them and began to get into all manner of scrapes. The lessons learned at home weren’t as valid in the real world. ‘The Brothers will sort you out in no time!‘
Like so many baby faced cherubs that went to Christian Brothers Colleges, he was raped. In the name of Jesus he was raped. He felt shame, fear, anger and revulsion at what was happening to him, he was a pawn, he was 11 years old and he had nowhere to go.
Bernie couldn’t tell his family, they wouldn’t believe him, or would somehow have twisted the blame on to him. He couldn’t go to the priest – Fr. Adams was now well known for his misdeeds around the parish. The local Doctor forced everyone to have internal exams for the common cold, and the police just took you out and bashed you, then would tell your parents you started something so they finished it.
He didn’t know anyone with a telephone, he was lost in his own world. Simply nowhere to go. Bernie vowed that he would never be in that position again – but everything had to change for him to take charge of his life. Alone with tears, he set a timeline of 3 months to get some money together and leave.
He roamed the streets at night, stealing the coins that were left out for the milkman. He organized a raffle of a chicken, saying it was for a local school, selling tickets from a blank book he had bought from the Newsagents. There was no chicken, just the cash from tickets sold. He jumped the back fence of the Milk Bar, stealing their lemonade bottles that were waiting to be exchanged for new ones, then brazenly walked in the Milk Bar’s front door and cashed in the bottles.
When the Bottle-O drove his horse and cart from house to house to pickup beer bottles for recycling at 2 for a penny, Bernie would direct him to all the biggest drinkers houses, and get paid for selling bottles that weren’t his. He was eleven, out of control, on a mission and a street thief, a rich one. He had more than 20 pounds, he could survive.
Bernie wanted to catch up with a couple of the kids he had gone to the Christian Brothers’ College with, as he had just thundered out of there and never returned. He wondered what was being said, but had his suspicions. Bernie decided to catch up with them at Mass on Sunday. While he was still about a mile from the church, an horrific car accident happened. The car was heading toward the church, and ran off the road into a power pole, disintegrating. He stayed with the dying people until another car came along, then left to run to a nearby house that had a telephone. The second cable coming from the power pole was the give-away sign of a telephone service, and as this was a richer area than where he lived, it only took a few minutes to get to a house, break-in, use their phone to call an ambulance and head back to the accident scene.
Other passersby had arrived and needed to shield him from seeing the full gravity of the tragedy, so he went on to church, to pray for their souls. He was late, the service was well under way, but he had done his civic duty.
Bernie entered the rear doors of the church, and commenced the walk down the aisle, looking for a free seat, or more likely a friendly face, when the pulpit erupted in the maniacal raging of Fr. Adam’s hatred of people who didn’t love God enough to be on time. He belittled Bernie, and ordered him from God’s house. He had been unofficially excommunicated by one of the least godly men that he knew of.
Bernie walked quietly from the church, remaining composed – at least until he got outside – then ran back to the car accident, realizing what was more important to him. The hypocrisy of organized religion has never eluded him since that day.
Lesson learned: Hypocrisy and religion are synonymous.
Someone dobbed, the chicken raffle had come back to haunt him, because an eleven year-old kid with a shock of bright red hair had been trying to sell them phony tickets. Bernie’s father was at the front door with a stranger, yelling at Bernie for blood, while his mother was at the back door, begging Bernie to just Go.
Lesson learned: Never stay where you aren’t wanted, and figure it out before you’ve wasted eleven years.
Little has been said of their mother, there is little to say – she simply wasn’t there for her children. She clucked and hugged them arduously, but always pushed them away if their father was around.
Just before Bernie left, his mother told him a couple of family secrets. There was another brother, Laurie and that he had been institutionalized from an early age, because of a head injury. It was many years before their mother admitted their father had been jealous of a 6 month old baby that was in his bed when he came back from Military Service. There is no admission, just an opportunity to draw the conclusion that their father had mistreated Laurie and the ensuing brain damage meant that Laurie was legally blind, legally deaf, had an IQ of around 70 and was so spastic that he only stumbled with the aid of a walking frame. Laurie had a vocabulary of around 50 or 60 words, was never fully toilet trained and could barely find his mouth to feed himself. Laurie was living in Sunbury about 40 miles away in an institution that was also (rightly )known as ‘the zoo’. The conditions were horrific, the zookeepers worse. Laurie’s life didn’t get any better when he was transferred to another establishment at Ararat.
Bernie knew one of his tasks would be to track Laurie down and spend some time with him.
As their estranged brother David wrote when recounting his own story, “And she held his coat” should be written on their mother’s tombstone.
So within 3 minutes of Bernie’s mother telling him to go, he was officially launched… No more school, no more church, no more home, no more family, no more hospital, no more tripe – he was on his way.
That night he crept back home, into the place via the trapdoor and slept more soundly than he ever had. In the morning, when his parents had left for the day, he crept into the house, took all he could fit into his schoolbag and left. He never returned to that house, there are probably still sardines imprisoned in the ceiling of the place.
Thirty years later Bernie did call in to see his parents again, in their retirement village unit. He wanted his own children to be able to say that they had met their grandparents. They stayed 15 minutes, everything was hypocritical smiles in front of the children and then everyone moved on to ‘another appointment’.
As an eleven year-old walking the streets with only minimal concepts of direction, Bernie was a target. He had to get off the street, but there was no-one to trust, and he was by now a wary little boy. He had a small address book that had a few names in it, but had no concept of how to get to their homes and wasn’t sure if he would be welcomed, as an embarrassment or returned to his private hell.
Hitchhiking was a standard method of transport in those days, but there were still many times that Bernie told the driver that he was on his way home from martial arts lessons. A few times he jumped out of a moving car, a couple of times he was groped, once he was driven out into the bush and dumped.
Bernie pictured himself leading the life of Mushroom Harry, squatting somewhere and beating off anyone that came by.
Completely Stolen, without permission from: Australian Museum
The Drop Bear, Thylarctos plummetus,
Drop Bear distribution map
© Australian Museum
Around the size of a leopard or very large dog with coarse orange fur with some darker mottled patterning (as seen in most Koalas). It is a heavily built animal with powerful forearms for climbing and holding on to prey. It lacks canines, using broad powerful premolars as biting tools instead.
120kg, 130cm long, 90 cm at the shoulder.
Drop Bears can be found in the densely forested regions of the Great Dividing Range in South-eastern Australia. However there are also some reports of them from South-east South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges and Kangaroo Island.
Closed canopy forest as well as open woodland on the margins of dense forest. Never encountered near roads or human habitation.
Vegetation Habitat: closed forest, tall closed forest, tall open forest, tall open shrubland
Feeding and Diet
Examination of kill sites and scats suggest mainly medium to large species of mammal make a substantial proportion of the animal’s diet. Often, prey such as macropods are larger than the Drop Bear itself.
Drop Bears hunt by ambushing ground dwelling animals from above, waiting up to as much as four hours to make a surprise kill. Once prey is within view, the Drop Bear will drop as much as eight metres to pounce on top of the unsuspecting victim. The initial impact often stuns the prey, allowing it to be bitten on the neck and quickly subdued.
If the prey is small enough Drop Bears will haul it back up the tree to feed without harassment from other predators.
Mating and reproduction
Breeding occurs during summer and usually one baby, or joey, is produced each year. After six months in the pouch, the joey is gradually weaned from milk.
Era / Period
Danger to humans and first aid
Bush walkers have been known to be ‘dropped on’ by drop bears, resulting in injury including mainly lacerations and occasionally bites. Most attacks are considered accidental and there are no reports of incidents being fatal.
There are some suggested folk remedies that are said to act as a repellent to Drop Bears, these include having forks in the hair or Vegemite or toothpaste spread behind the ears. There is no evidence to suggest that any such repellents work.
Species: plummetus Genus: Thylarctos
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Images of natural humanity may exist here - they are expressions of beauty and trust. We are all proud of them - if you disapprove of them, I feel sad that you are limited in your appreciation of beauty.