Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: August 1, 1998
Last month's story was well received, so let's explore some other themes in the framework of a story. Where last month I touched on fortune (good and bad) this month there are themes of trust and bonding to explore. I hope again there's a message here for everyone to identify with - that is, after all, the substance of a good story. This one was brought to my mind again by a recent discussion on the usenet about beer and hitch-hiking.
This time last year I found myself standing at a junction on the Sturt Highway some 6 kilometres out of Robinvale in the middle of the New South Wales Nowhere, thumbing my way from Adelaide to Canberra. I'd had a bad day the day before covering only a few hundred kilometres and was keen to reach Wagga Wagga today.
This old car pulled up at the junction, coming out of Robinvale, and stood their blinking to turn right, waiting for a chance to turn onto the highway. But there was no traffic at all on the highway - I don't know what they were waiting for.
I watched them intently, thinking they were looking me over. The driver's window winds down and this guy shouts out "Do you drink beer?" I wasn't sure I'd heard right, I was standing on the highway some twenty or thirty metres away, but I shouted back "Yes!" qualifying it with a "What?" thinking I'd misunderstood the question. He shouted back "Do you drink beer?" "Yes!? What?" I shouted back. He pulls around the corner, turning right onto the highway and pulling to a stop in front of me, where he leans over his passenger and says rather unambiguously now, "Do you drink beer?" "Sure, who doesn't?" I retorted, and he thrusts a beer into my hand and throws the back door open, saying, "Good, 'cause if you don't drink beer, you're not getting a ride ..."
The passenger is quiet, a wry smile on his face. He knew what was going on, I had yet to work it out, but now I sat in the back with a beer in my hand, and two salty old bearded tramps in the front, heading down the highway towards Balranald.
Well, they weren't actually going to Balranald. They had a camp some kilometres off the main highway, and about 25 km down the road from here. They invited me to stay the night at the camp, they'd have a fire going, and some music, and would take me into Balranald the next morning if I liked (some 50 km further down the road from the camp). I wasn't keen. It was still mid-afternoon, I was running a day later than I'd expected already, and could cover much ground on the way to Wagga Wagga today, which is where I was in fact aiming to spend the night if I could only get there. Besides, these two characters didn't much radiate "trust me" somehow.
Bill was at the wheel, a Maori who'd settled here some four years ago. He had nothing at the time, and started collecting Mallee, burning it for charcoal which he sold to restaurants, to win enough money for the car he now had, the caravan he had, the meat he eats, and the beer he drinks. He was middle-aged, and had a relaxed way of speaking, calling me Bro' all the time as is the wont of the Maoris in my experience. He had long unkempt grey hair, and long grey beard, which he kept tied in a knot to keep it out of his way.
His passenger was Joe, a middle-aged swaggie, who had been standing at the very junction I was, two months ago, and had been with Bill since then, collecting Mallee in the bush. I didn't think we still had any swagmen in Australia, something of our romantic past, a character from Waltzing Matilda. But here was the genuine thing in the car with me. He never had more than $50 to his name, travelled from place to place with his swag (a bed roll, change of clothes and a few meagre belongings), hitch-hiking, Salvation Army shelters, working for a dollar when he could, and he'd been doing this since he left school, a long time ago now. A very mellow soul he was, quiet, considered and gentle. He didn't smoke, or drink, though, and this was getting to bother Bill, who did, of course!
The two of them drove into Robinvale only once every three or four days to buy water, meat and beer basically. The rest of their days they spent in the Mallee, collecting wood, burning charcoal, and just passing the days, thinking about and feeling life. They had plenty of time to think and feel out there.
So it was that when Bill and Joe saw me at that same junction, exactly two months to the day after Joe was there (it seems - I'm not sure how they reckoned time out there), that the situation was deemed to be auspicious. It was clear that Bill had won hisself a drinkin' partner ... "Do you drink beer?" came the cry ...
I had to laugh - what characters! They could read my hesitance, though, and offered to take me into Balranald right now if I liked (hell, it was only a 100-km round trip for them). Of course I did go back to their camp - how could I let these guys slip through my net! This was something to behold. We turned off the highway, went through a locked gate onto a property (where Bill had an agreement with the owner, to collect the Mallee), drove some kilometres down a not so clear track among many that seemed to go here and there, and arrived at the camp.
The sentinel, so to speak, that greets us on arrival is a mountain of empty beer bottles a metre or more high, and some two or three round. There was a caravan, a lot of carpet laid out, a sofa and seats around a pile of glowing coals. All of this was in a dustpan, dust was everywhere, and everything was dusty. The carpet made it possible to walk around the camp and keep off the dust in a way, though the dust was of course on the carpet, and under it, and beside it ...
We stocked up the fire, it was cool even during the day, and got to talking, about them, about me, what we were doing, where we we'd been and where we were going. We drank and we smoked (well me and Bill that is). Bill, in smoking all my hash away (that I'd picked up on a ride the day before) told me how much better mine was than his. Of course I was glad to be rid of it, to be frank, it wasn't too comfortable a feeling crossing the border into New South Wales with a pocket full of hash in the first place. Not that border checks are likely, but I don't need the troubles any either.
Now Bill had two names for Joe in the time I was there, neither of which was Joe. The first was Hannon. Both of them had a thing about the police, and about being photographed and/or identified. Neither was good. I can imagine why. Bill had had so much trouble with the locals on account of his appearance and manner. He claimed all kinds of mindless discrimination on the part of the local police. Joe no doubt had his fair share of ill experiences too - a swaggie somehow doesn't engender the conservative fold with as much respect as a doctor or a lawyer, after all. So it was that Joe preferred in many ways to remain anonymous. The idea of being identified didn't gel well with him, and as a mark of respect for that, Bill would call him Hannon (Anon. - Anonymous)
Bill said to me once, "Don't trust anyone, bro." This kind of irked me a little as I practice trust very openly. Trust is something you give, after all, it isn't something you can take, nor expect. Those who do inevitably run into grief, I find. So we can begin by giving it, to find it generally engenders more trust and reaps more rewards than the occasional breach of it costs us. I said to Bill, "But that's odd isn't it, Bill, you trusted me."
"Yeah, but that's different Bro', you're a stranger. You can trust a stranger, just never trust no-one you know, specially not the locals."
I had to smile. Bill was saying things which, while they weren't reflecting my own heart in all their depth, captured a good part of it all the same. Of course he had a point. Hadn't I read again and again, that if you were going to be raped or killed, odds were it was going to be someone you already knew - friends or family that perpetrate the crime. Put flatly, strangers might well be safer than the people we know. At least strangers rape and kill fewer people than do friends and family, after all. Those I'm led to belief are consistent truths in this modern world of ours, and wasn't Bill saying just that somehow? Wasn't that his experience on another level, that familiarity breeds contempt, absence helps the heart grow fonder?
Sure his angle was different. He'd just had a hell of time with locals and with people he knew. He'd been let down time and time again, misunderstood, mistrusted and blamed for things well out of proportion to what he'd done. All things that will happen to you if you live out in the bush, have dark skin, long grey unkempt hair and wear a beard tied up in a knot, speaking the language of the homeless, bro' ... The establishment and the middle class just can't cope somehow. If something goes missing or broken, who will they suspect?
So Bill and Joe had good seeds for the mistrust they held. They knew what they were on about. They knew what trust was, too, and friendship. Joe was here two months already after all. These guys were mates. In their opposition to the established culture, they were Bro's.
The second name that Bill had for Joe was Two Moons ... for Joe had been there two months now and Bill measured the time roughly by moons, at least when the poetry fit. On my arrival Joe was christened Two Moons ... Hannon was a thing of the past, and an identity, however transient, had been won. It was an auspicious occasion Bill kept repeating, an auspicious occasion.
As the night drew in on us, the cold began to bite. It bit hard. We stood close to the fire, we stocked it with Mallee roots, and it burned well. We cooked and ate, we drank and talked and smoked. We sang along to rock from the '50s to the '70s, and the cold began to bite. Our faces were sweating from the radiant heat of the fire, and our backs were icy cold. I'd rarely felt such a sharp gradient of temperature in my life between my nose and the back of my head.
There weren't many options for a bed. Bill had a caravan, and Joe had a sofa and that was it. The dust wasn't too inviting somehow. Joe though had built a hut recently, and felt my arrival was a sign that he should break it in. He'd never slept in it yet. He offered me the sofa for the night, and a tarp to throw over me, to keep the frost off. But I looked at his hut, all of ten or so metres away from the fire, way out there in the middle of that cold that was biting at our backs - I shook my head. It was all gaps. He'd built it by laying two long sticks on the ground, then two across those, and two across those and so on, building a pyramid in the process which was half sticks and half gaps between the sticks. It certainly wasn't going to keep any draft out, let alone a frost.
"You sure there, Joe?" I asked. He was sure ... I asked again, I told him I couldn't see him sleeping in there, only shivering. But he was sure. It was a sign. It was time to break his hut in.
Well, I pushed the sofa as near the fire as I dared without setting light to it. I went and fetched another few Mallee roots to have on hand should the fire grow small, and threw a couple on right now to work the coals up a bit. I put on every piece of clothes I had (that night in a creekbed by Coober Pedy two weeks ago taught me my lesson) and got into my sleeping bag and threw this heavy tarp over me, before trying to sleep. Even so I wasn't real warm.
Some time early in the morning, Joe got up, paced around the fire, worked at it with a shovel, threw those extra Mallee roots onto it, and sat quietly by the fire making and drinking tea, in lieu of sleeping, which he'd evidently found impossible being so far from the fire in that hut of his. His moving around, and slight pangs of guilt kept me half awake of course until the sun finally came up.
There was a frost out when I got up, and Joe and me had some tea for breakfast, before we packed our things, and bright and early he got ready to drive me out to Balranald. I almost missed my chance to fare Bill well, but he emerged from his van just as we were ready to leave, and we said our goodbyes. We were both better men for the encounter, it was in our eyes, and in our hearts as we left one another there. We knew full well we were from two very different worlds, but we found a bond of kinds all the same.
I was sad to go so soon. Alas, I was running late and had a lot to do in the coming week, or I might well have stuck around for another night or two. Of course the thought of a shower was appealing too ... the dust was everywhere. Joe drove me out to Balranald ...