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.
I’m tempted by one of those rare opportunities that’s occasionally offered to students of Australia’s Film and TV School – but I’m conflicted. I have the chance to do a day’s attachment on an INXS film clip. Problem is – I hate INXS – especially their poser of a front man. Although I begrudgingly admit to liking a couple of their songs, as a whole I’m dismissive of their try hard efforts. But… the clip is being directed by Richard Lowenstein – arguably the most ingenious clip director of the era. So I decide to shelve my distaste for Michael Hutchence and his band of rock and roll wannabes and head off to the set. The only people vaguely interested in me are the camera crew. “Great. Glad you’re here. You can load and unload camera rolls. The black bags are over here.” My heart sinks. “Ah – sure…” The camera assistant picks up on my reticence. “Uh – you are a camera student, right?” “No. I’m a production student. But I’ve loaded before. A while a go…” Frustrated that somebody sent the wrong sort of film school student, the camera assistant wisely decides to steer me away from the precious film canisters and over to the clip’s producer. She too seems annoyed by my presence but decides I might at least have some use as a runner. So I’m sent on a mission to buy super shampoo for some especially temperamental hair follicles. I return in time to see this amazingly good looking and charismatic curly haired dude walking around set, joking with the crew. I do a double take – is that Michael Hutchence? No… he’s not that handsome – is he? Where are the acne scars? Either banished or under a pancake of make-up. The crew are ready for a take. Richard Lowenstein – himself a decent looking guy with a fine head of hair – gives the singer a couple of directions. The playback operator flicks a switch and this super catchy song starts blaring out from the speakers. Hang on – is this really an INXS track? It sounds fantastic! The cool dude starts slinking towards the camera. I have a look at the TV monitor and lo and behold – there’s Michael Hutchence! How bizarre – turns out he’s not all that photogenic. Much better in the flesh. After a few more takes, Lowenstein does something I’ve never seen a director do. He turns to his crew and asks “Anybody got any ideas?” I don’t – which is just as well as I’m too terrified to speak up. But someone else has no such reservation. “Hey – why don’t we give Michael the rat?” The rodent in question turns out to be Michael’s brother’s and is soon sitting on the singer’s shoulders as he croons “I need you tonight…” In between takes I muster up the gumption to approach Michael. “Hi. Great song.” “Thanks. Glad you like it.” “Hey – my teenage sister is a huge fan. Would you mind signing something for her?” “Sure.” He grabs a film can label. “What’s her name?” “Kirsten.” “What’s she into?” I’m a bit thrown by the question. “Uh – you. And basketball.” Not finding this information overly helpful, he nonetheless manages to write a short but sweet little dedication and signs it. I thank him, not knowing that my sister will later embellish my involvement with her idol by promoting me to director of the clip. Given that it goes on to win the MTV music video of the year and catapults the band into the stratosphere, it’s an embellished achievement I’m quite proud of. As for the reality of just being a shampoo fetching runner, it’s a transitional experience – turning me from an INXS hater into a full on fan – one who mourned the passing of that charismatic curly haired dude a decade later.
To look at him, Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle doesn’t appear to be an overly fierce creature, with his woolly shag and goofy grin. But it turns out ferocity is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a mild sunny afternoon – the last day of winter. Nitro and I are walking along the Bondi Beach promenade. He’s off leash – always a slight risk as he enjoys greeting people by jumping onto his hind legs and placing his paws as high up as they’ll reach. With toddlers, this tends to be head height. While most people are happy enough to return his affection, others are not so keen (especially those attired in white pants). But he knows that if he becomes a nuisance it’ll mean being hooked back up to his leash. So lately he’s been suitably restrained, more interested in sniffing the latest piss stains than harassing people. We are walking past the set of steps that leads up to the grassy hill. Suddenly, a Muslim woman decked out in full hijab and a long dress spots Nitro and starts screaming. She scrambles up the steps, Nitro on her heels, thinking this game is great fun. The hysterical woman then starts running along the grass, shrieking. Nitro’s loving it. Then, about to lose her mind, the woman sprints to the edge of the grass and jumps off the wall, sailing through the air. The bizarre sight momentarily transports me back to my childhood when I used to watch Sally Field as ‘The Flying Nun’. Unlike Sally, this woman only flies for a few metres – a pretty impressive feat nonetheless – before rushing into the arms of her bemused and smiling husband. Once she feels safe, she too manages a nervous smile. I shake my head and laugh. Better beware the Killer Cavoodle.
I’m standing on Bondi Beach’s grassy hill watching Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodlle playing chasey with an especially energetic Boxer pup. Though young and boisterous, the Boxer is considerably bigger than my galloping Cavoodle. As Nitro zips past me, the Boxer barrels behind, his head ramming into my right knee. I collapse, pain shooting up and down my leg. I yell abuse at the big dumb dog and his owner. “I’m just about to go skiing – and now my knee is fucked. Thanks a lot!” The Boxer woman sheepishly apologises, clips a lead to her beast and drags him away from the crazy Cavoodle man. Despite the pain, I manage to ski anyway, discovering sliding on snow hurts considerably less than walking. Only after my return do I go to the doctor. I’m sent off for my first ever MRI scan – an annoyingly loud process. Reading the report, my doctor refers me to a knee specialist he respects for not being overly scalpel happy. “He won’t chop you up unless absolutely necessary.” How re-assuring. I rock up to the surgeon’s office and am immediately impressed. Hanging on the wall is an extraordinary collection of sports memorabilia – signed Sydney Swans’ and Roosters’ footy jerseys, an Australian cricket team bat and an autographed Wallabys’ photo. He’s a laid back and modest man, admitting that he’s not really much of a sports fan. But because he’s a knee guru, he gets lavished with gifts from grateful sports stars. He has a quick look at my knee and then sits opposite me at his desk. He places the large white envelope containing my MRI scans between us. He takes out his pen. “Ok – I’ll take a look at these in a tick but I’m pretty sure I know what’s going on with your knee.” He then proceeds to draw a knee and begins labeling each bit, highlighting where the damage is. But I find it hard to follow. Not because what he’s saying is especially technical or complicated. No, I’m distracted by the fact that this man has the mind blowing ability to write upside down and backwards. Everything from ‘Meniscus’ to ‘Medial Ligament’ to ‘Calsification’ is written so I can easily read it. In fact, his backwards upside down writing is much neater than my forwards right side up attempts. I point this out to him and he shrugs. “I’ve had a lot of practice”. After detailing what he thinks is the issue, he takes out the scans and places them on a light table. He nods. “Yes – just as I thought. The good news – no surgery.” Phew. “The not so good news – you’ll be in pain for about another three months.” Bummer. As I hobble out of his office, I conclude that if either of my knees ever do need to be sliced open, then I want it done by a man whose hand can write upside down and backwards.
Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle is a goofy, happy go lucky dog and I love him. But every time we encounter a Husky on one of our walks, I’m reminded that these majestic wolf-like creatures remain my favourite breed. The downside for their owners is having to endure my well rehearsed spiel each time I see one. “Oh – I love huskies. They’re my favourite dogs. When I was a teenager in Canada, I went to a school where I helped to raise them for dog sledding.” The reactions vary but most owners are at least mildly interested in my ramblings. And so, briefly, I am transported back to my second year at St John’s Cathedral Boy’s School (aka ‘Canadian Concentration School’) where, as a reward for decent grades and good behavior, I was assigned to ‘Dog Crew’. Every second day, for an hour after each meal, I helped feed the dogs and clean the kennels that housed about forty Huskies and Malamutes (the Husky’s bigger, stronger and generally dumber sled pulling cousin). Oddly enough, the cleaning was less stinky and generally easier in winter when the sub zero temperatures froze solid the chocolate like chunks of poo that could then be easily shovel scooped and discarded. The same shovels were then used to chip away at yellow slabs of ice from the kennel floors. At other times of the year, a hose was used to wash away the piss and softer mounds of poo – a considerably sloppier process. The other highlight in winter was the puppy house, which had to be kept warm with an old wooden stove – a nice place to be when it was thirty degrees below outside. It also proved to be especially fun when we used ether dipped gauze to wrap around their little ears to keep them from being floppy. Ether fumes within a warm confined space full of cute puppies facilitated a few of my more enjoyable moments at Canadian Concentration School. But it wasn’t all about looking after these magnificent beasts. I was also lucky enough to go on a couple of overnight sledding trips. This meant sleeping outside – without a tent but around a campfire, nestled inside two sleeping bags. Although this seems a bit crazy now, especially as we were unaccompanied by any adults, at the time it was a real buzz. Somehow the fact that the dogs were able to cope with just their thick fur coats made it seem an almost normal thing to do on a freezing midwinter’s night. One of the other upsides of dog sledding was Gloop – a mixture of chocolate, peanut butter, honey and nuts that was then frozen into fist sized balls and gnawed on throughout the journey. My team of three soon discovered that Gloop wasn’t only coveted by teenage boys but was also popular with dogs. We had a very cunning female lead with ice blue eyes who would stop every so often and could only be persuaded to take off again after a couple of licks of Gloop (this was before I knew that chocolate is in fact ‘Doggy Death’ – though fortunately that didn’t prove to the case in this instance). Once she did get going, leading the pack behind her, it was exhilarating to ride on the back of that dog powered sled. For over half a century, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a number of amazing things all over the world. But zipping along a frozen lake behind a pack of happy Huskies remains one of the most special.
Though we loved her – Petula was a pathetic cat. Often jumpy and slightly unhinged, her life was cut short before she reached her second birthday. She started losing control of her back legs and bowels. The diagnosis was not good. She had nervous system issues and would eventually be paralysed. My wife at the time was extremely upset but agreed that the best option was to have Petula put down. As the whole ordeal was too much for my wife, I took poor Petula to her last vet visit on my own. The process was quick but sad. Thinking that the best way to take my wife’s mind off the departed cat was to get a new one, I asked the vet if he happened to have any in need of home. “As a matter of fact, I got a black female that followed a guy home from the service station.” Hmmm. Intriguing. So he takes me out the back, opens a cage and hands me a sleek shiny black cat. I hold her up in front of me. She stares at me with her gorgeous green eyes. Then, ever so gently, she bites me on the chin. “Oh – you’re such a flirt! Come on then – let’s go.” So Jezebel came into our lives – a very different beast from her predecessor. Far from jumpy, she was one of the most confident creatures I’ve ever encountered. Just as she did from the servo, she would often follow us when we left the house – though never much further than a couple of hundred metres. That’s when she would peel off in pursuit of her own adventures. I suspect she had many. Sometimes we wouldn’t see her for days. Then she’d suddenly pop up, looking well fed and groomed, smelling of perfume. We suspected that we were not her exclusive carers. Then, maybe not quite a year later, she went into heat. Three tomcats lined up along the fence in pecking order. The first was the biggest, meanest and ugliest – a one eyed feral that no cat (or cat owner) dared mess with. The second was most likely a well trained house cat but also fairly burly in size. Last in line was the pretty boy – an all grey teenager who barely looked old enough to pass along his pretty boy genes (though he managed to do so – the litter featuring one grey kitten). So the three of them took their turns, two resting up while the other went at it as Jezebel screamed (having since learned that cat penises are apparently spiked, screaming seems a logical response). When Jezebel finally staggered in for food and water, we figured that she’d had enough. But half an hour later, she was scratching at the door, desperate for more. Turns out she was well named.
I unfurl my yoga mat. It’s a bright winter’s day at Bondi Beach. The concrete platform at the south end has the usual sprinkling of yoga stretchers, tai chi posers and seated coffee drinkers. I spot an especially lithe young woman with a pony tail contorting herself into some pretty impressive positions. But me – I’m just here to do my daily stretch – nothing too fancy (though I will end up in headstand a bit later). I begin my salute to the sun and notice an old fella near a rock with a pair of binoculars. It’s that time of year when then the humpbacks migrate north, so he’s no doubt here for a spot of whale watching. But just at the moment, it’s not whales that he’s watching. I follow the direction of the binoculars and surprise surprise – they are pointed at the pony tailed contortionist. Given he can’t be more than about twenty metres away, the dirty old bugger is getting an eyeful. An eyeful of what exactly is anybody’s guess. I suppose he can focus on whichever part of the lithe body he fancies. After all, it sure the hell beats whale watching.