My wife and I are at the opening of Reg Mombassa’s latest art exhibition. She’s already been proactive in purchasing a small painting prior to the event. It’s exciting seeing the little red dot next to it as an assortment of oddball art lovers and musos mill about the gallery. I spot Greedy Smith and Martin Plaza from ‘Mental as Anything’. They turn to pose for a photo, standing either side of what from behind looks like a little old lady. Photo taken, they start chatting to the old dear. But I soon realise it’s actually the artist himself, catching up with his former bandmates. They all look so much older. I remember discovering ‘The Mentals’ shortly after arriving in this country as a clueless teenager. ‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’ was the first of many catchy, cheeky hits that eventually established them as my favourite Aussie band. I became especially fascinated with their skinny rat-like guitarist. Reg defied any of the usual ‘Guitar God’ clichés. He seemed like an especially out-there character, which appealed to my own sense of self proclaimed weirdness. So when the opportunity came to produce three of their music clips in the late 8o’s, I couldn’t have been more excited. Although I found his witty bass playing brother Peter easier to relate to, it was a buzz just being around Reg. Holding an umbrella above his head in between takes, having some of his fried garlic cloves at lunch and watching him attack his guitar like a madman all remain magical memories. Shortly after shooting the clips, I was attempting to start my own media empire via a video magazine project called ‘Video Manic’. The main presenter was another celebrity weirdo, Maynard F# Crabbes and much of the focus was on the emerging dance party culture. But when the opportunity came up to record an interview with 60’s LSD legend Timothy Leary, I knew that this was a job for Reg Mombassa. He was both thrilled and a little nervous to meet one of his idols. He brought along a couple of his fluorescent Mambo T- shirts to give to the old acid head. Leary loved them, declaring them as very ‘cyber-delic’ – his new catch phrase for the mind expanding possibilities of the emerging digital age. After the interview Reg and I went to the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills for a beer. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m having a beer with one of my all time favourite people.” A few months later Reg’s wife invited me to his fortieth. I felt out of my depth, surrounded by some of Sydney’s most talented eccentrics. As the years flew past, I would see him from time to time, at an exhibition or a gig. Gradually my specific significance to his life faded to the point of being a vaguely familiar face no longer attached to a name. But I can live with that. For a brief window in my life, I had a few adventures with one of the most talented weirdos to have ever crossed the ditch.
I am enjoying an all too rare solo bushwalk. It’s a trail that’s becoming my favourite, not only for it’s natural beauty but also it’s convenience – a slice of heaven nestled in Sydney’s northern suburbs. During those moments where a plane’s not flying overhead or there are no echoes of an especially feisty picnic, I imagine that I’m all alone. Just me, the birds and unseen critters scurrying through the undergrowth. But, inevitably, I hear a plane or a picnic or pass other bushwalkers and the spell is broken. I reflect on my attraction towards solitariness and a memory drifts into focus. I am fifteen and working with my Dad in Canada’s vast North West Territories. Although we are there to dig and prod the earth in search of ancient artifacts, I am fascinated with the ruins of an old cabin, possibly less than a hundred years old. It is literally in the middle of nowhere – nothing but trees and water for miles and miles. We are there in summer and, apart from the never receding sunshine and mosquitoes the size of birds, it’s a stunning location. But in winter, when the sun has well and truly retired, the snow is piled high and the temperature’s never above minus twenty, it’d be one hell of a place to live. But, once upon a time, someone did. Probably a trapper. Just him and a magnificent but unyielding wilderness. I am envious. I imagine what it must be like to survive in such a place with no one but yourself to get you through. What happened to this recluse? Did he go mad in the end? Did he freeze? Starve? Who knows. The bits of broken plates and rusted pots don’t reveal much – even to my archeologist father (who’s not much interested in anything less than a thousand years old). And although I’ve always lived in cities, there still remains that urge to one day go bush and fend for myself. If anything, it’s growing stronger as the years slip away. But who knows if I’ll ever get the chance. In the meantime, going on solo bushwalks might be the only way to indulge my inner hermit.
I am tossing a Frisbee with my mate Jezza like we do most Saturdays. We are in a fairly enclosed area of Centennial Park. Although we aren’t in the main dog walking thorough-fair, dogs and their owners drift past. We suddenly notice four big black dogs having a bit of a romp. In fact, they’re having more than a romp – they look like they’re pretty keen on making more black dogs. We have a bit of a laugh at this, assuming they’re all part of the same pack. So it surprises us slightly when they eventually split off into two pairs. A little later, we see what we assume is one of the pairs coming back towards us. But it turns out to be a completely different pair. Ok – that’s a bit weird. We keep tossing and here comes another black dog, indistinguishable from the others except for having a different owner. “Looks like it’s Black Dog Day” I shout to the dog walker. “Yes, we’ve just past several.” It’s only when yet another pair of big black dogs gallop past that it starts to get freaky. “Bloody hell – that’s seven in a row now!” Finally, a German Shepherd and a brown Beagle break the spell. It’s a few weeks later and Jezza and I are tossing in an open area of Queen’s Park. This time I’ve brought Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle, who’s having a great time. After a while, Jezza points off into the distance. I look and see a pack of about five little white dogs. I laugh. He then tells me to turn around. I do and see a tall white dog next to a short one. But Jezza’s not done, pointing in the other direction. There’s another pack of about six white dogs, one of which is a poodle whose white afro matches that of its old lady’s. I decide to do a quick head count and of about twenty dogs I can see, Nitro is one of about four that isn’t white. Very bizarre. But given it was Black Dog Day a few weeks earlier, I guess the universe decided to square the balance with a White Dog Day. No doubt Brown Dog Day is just around the corner.
There’s a scene in the film Jasper Jones where the thirteen – year old main character (who happens to be named Charlie) is punished by his mother, magnificently portrayed by Toni Collette. Because he had snuck out the night before, his disappearance causing a big fuss, she has him dig a huge hole and then fill it back in. Although I had read the book, something about actually seeing young Charlie toil in the blazing WA heat triggers a memory from when I lived in Perth. I was older than Charlie, probably about seventeen. I too had snuck out at night and would have managed to have snuck back in unnoticed except for one thing: I can’t vomit quietly. The entire household would have been aware that I was spewing my guts out in the wee hours, thanks to an overindulgence in substances prohibited to seventeen-year olds. But no one got up to scold me, so I crawled into bed thinking I had dodged a bullet. Not so. The next morning, the sun already well on its way towards a scorcher, my old man walks into my room. “Get up and get outside. Now!” Disorientated, nauseous and my head pounding, I stagger out into the blinding light. My dad gestures towards our unkempt garden. “You pull every weed in the backyard. Then you do to the side and then to the front. When you reckon you’re done, have another look. Because if I see a single weed anywhere at all, your ass is grass.” Unable to utter a word of protest, I get on my hands and knees and start weeding. The sun climbs higher and my spirits sink lower. My head feels like its full of a million monkeys, each armed with a tiny hammer. My hands blister within minutes and sting for hours. My back aches, begging to be horizontal and asleep. But I persist, my skin sizzling as the temperature soars. Finally, I finish. I stagger back in and collapse onto my bed, hoping my ass won’t end up as grass. But looking back, I now rank that hellish morning as the most effective punishment my Dad ever dished out. Productive too – unlike digging a hole just to fill it back in.
My fourteen-year old son is offered his first ever babysitting gig – a significant milestone. I’m fondly reminded of my own babysitting career back in Canada and how I always saw it as easy money compared to shoveling snow, pulling weeds or painting fences. I would be told to make myself at home and would immediately do so by eating whatever took my fancy, listening to my Kiss records and watching old movies on TV. So I think the $50 offered to watch an eight-year old boy for four hours before the ‘real babysitter’ arrives is indeed easy money. All seems to be going well until I learn there’s an issue. The four hour time period has expired and the relief sitter hasn’t arrived. So, according to the call from my wife, our son has had enough and is about to leave the kid on his own and head home. I’m shocked. If there’s one fundamental rule to babysitting, it is, simply put, to sit with the baby. No pissing off home to jump on your Play Station. I tell my wife not rush over and to let me call him first. When I do, he slides into whinge mode. “I’m so bored. He’s just sitting in the other room on his own and my phone’s almost out of charge and I was only supposed to be here for four hours.” I explain, as calmly as I can, that he just needs to literally sit tight until the other sitter arrives. He decides to hang up on me. I call again, fuming but still determined not to lose my shit. I’m unsure if he’ll even answer. When he does, I coolly explain to him that if he hangs up again, I’m taking his Play Station and throwing it in the bin. This seems to get his attention. I go on to tell him that he is under no circumstances to leave until someone else gets there. He agrees, unhappily. I hang up and shake my head. My son is a boy with many talents. Babysitting, however, is not among of them.
I am up much earlier than usual, getting the teen ready for school – a job usually done by my wife. But as she’s away, it’s up to me. Bleary eyed, I remember there’s something I wanted to show him on the computer. “Hey – look at this story that broke last night.” I retrieve an article about the Melbourne woman who consented to having her photo taken by one of the victorious Richmond Tigers, his AFL Grand Final medallion hanging over her bare breasts. Though her face wasn’t in shot, she’d asked him to delete it. And he did. Or so she thought. Turns out he sent it to some of his team mates. In no time, it went viral. My son stares at the photo – which the Herald Sun posted but with a black box over her boobs. I make a point of telling him that this is being investigated and a number of Tigers will be in trouble, having broken the recent laws against ‘sexting’. I then casually look away from the screen and out the window. I see a figure framed in the kitchen window of the apartment opposite ours. My eyes are still bleary so I’m unsure of exactly what I’m seeing. I check with my son. “Um – is that a topless woman standing in that kitchen?” He turns from looking at a censored picture of a topless woman to the real thing. “Yep.” We stand there for a moment, stunned. The timing is what makes it especially bizarre. Becoming conscious that she could look up at any moment and see us staring, I grab my son and pull him into the lounge room. The windows are still shuttered, so we can no longer see her. I guess it’s kind of like putting a black box over the whole thing…
9:56. Every time I glance at a clock displaying 9:56, I’m hurled back through the decades to the two years during which 956 was my number. I was the the nine hundredth and fifty sixth teenage boy to be admitted to the original St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ boarding school, located about an hour out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Labels featuring 956 were sewn into every article of my school issue clothing – my lumberjack shirts, my black and gold sweaters and my quick drying army pants. Given every student had the same limited attire, these labels were crucial in assuring that the boys assigned to Laundry Crew put the correct clothing in the correct cubicle. But no clothes were washed during my first couple of weeks – at least not in a laundry. Every student starting St. John’s had to survive the ‘New Boy Trip’ – a three hundred and fifty mile canoe trip along routes once used by the ‘Voyagers’ to transport furs from the wilds of Canada to civilisation. It was a confronting and, at times, terrifying experience – boot camp with canoes, burnt porridge and wooden paddles: most used to propel us through water, one used to whack us on the backside. This was called getting ‘swats’ – sanctioned corporal punishment paid for by our parents. The most a boy could receive at one time was ten – usually reserved for the most extreme transgressions. But I was unlucky that my first ‘swats’ experience was for something I didn’t do. Perhaps the only pleasure during this hellish trip was occasionally getting a small square of chocolate. But when a thief (or thieves) stole all the chocolate rations, they were given a choice – fess up and get ten swats or keep quiet and everyone will get ten ass stinging smacks. He (or they) choose option two. Perhaps they figured that if they were going to get their butts smacked anyway, then doing so anonymously was preferable to also getting beaten by boys pissed off that there was no more chocolate. I did my best not to cry when I got my undeserved punishment, furious at the people who had put me in this position – my parents. Any relief at having survived the New Boy trip was short lived once we encountered Old Boys upon our return. Various ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenarios played out over the subsequent months – sadistic Old Boys dishing out cruelties they’d once suffered during their own time as New Boys. We were assigned to our various work crews and I soon discovered, to my surprise, that cleaning toilets was preferable to looking after chickens or making sausages. But there was no escape from selling these (dead) chickens and sausages door to door – the money from which helped to keep our school fees so low and attractive to parents. Also minimising fees were teachers (‘masters’) willing to work for just a dollar a day – plus their food and board. The temperature dived and the snow dumped. The rivers froze – making canoeing impossible but enabling us to walk on them with cow gut tennis rackets tethered to our feet (also known as show shoes – though nothing like the light as a feather modern day ones). Every Saturday afternoon in winter, despite the sub zero temperatures and howling winds, we would walk on rivers for hours. Before my time, a boy actually died of hypothermia. He then came back to life minutes later. Needless to say – he was a St. John’s legend. Eventually, spring shuffled along and the rivers flowed again. This meant it was back into the canoes for any boys returning the next year. Sadly, that included me. So, on my way to being an ‘Old Boy’, I started paddling the longest route the school tackled – the eight hundred and fifty mile ‘Grande Portage’. A ‘portage’ is when you have to carry the canoes across land – with the ‘Grandest’ being eight miles long – an ordeal which reduced me to a whimpering mess. But I had a smile on my face days later when we pulled into a small town and were given a bit of cash for a much desired sugar hit. When we returned to the canoes, babbling and carrying on, we were told that our trip leader (who happened to be our Head Master and founder of St. John’s and its two subsequent schools in Alberta and Ontario), had an announcement. The man was as white as a sheet. He told us that while checking in with the school via payphone (these were the days before mobiles or even satellite phones), he was told that an accident had occurred during one of the Ontario school trips. Thirteen boys and two masters were dead. They didn’t drown – their life jackets wouldn’t allow it. Instead, they had succumbed to hypothermia. Unlike the St. John’s legend, none came back to life. We were shocked – especially when I discovered that three boys on that trip had been in my canoe months earlier during our New Boy trip. One of them was now dead – one of a pair of identical twins. In a bizarre twist – that doomed group had three pairs of twins. One of each pair had perished. We got back into our canoes without our Head Master. He had been whisked off to face the media and defend a school that pushed boys to the extreme – and beyond. With each stroke of my paddle, I thought about those dead boys. I wondered if their parents regretted sending them to St. John’s.