Whose Rules – Part 2
Part 2 – Rules along the road
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.