Peter’s Story Part 3

I was totally captivated with this new family life, enjoyed having our own freedom and the choice of spending time together as a family I looked forward to the time that we had spare money and do more of the things we dreamed about. Eventually my traineeship was completed and I was automatically promoted to Geological Draftsman Grade 1 with what seemed at the time a gigantic increase in salary. Life was complete. I had a wonderful family, lots of good friends and an exciting career path.

My first field work was for a couple of months doing compilation geological mapping of an area north west of Canberra in the Brindabella Ranges. Our camp was on the shores of Lake Burrenjuck about an hours drive from Canberra. We would travel out every Sunday night and return to Canberra on Friday night. The camp consisted of a large ‘mess tent,’ several individual sleeping tents, a ‘kitchen caravan’ and a caravan that was set up for me to do my compilation in. The various geologists would go out in the field and return with their mapping done on plastic sheets that over layed on top of black and white aerial photographs of the area. It was my job to take these overlays, transform the information into a readable form on to large plastic base sheets that in turn over layed a base map of the topography provided by National Mapping. Eventually all this would be reduced photographically to form the basis for the drawing of a printed geological map. As my caravan was only a few feet from the edge of the lake it made sense to me to have several fishing lines set at all times. I wrapped the lines around empty coca cola tins so that should a trout bite I would be made aware. This was before the outbreak of European Carp into Australia’s waterways so any bite was a good bite.

Plenty of trout were caught that supplemented the camps diet and allowed me to take some home each weekend.

We had a large aluminum tin boat to help us do the mapping around the lakes foreshores. This also was put to good use finding suitable fishing sites at dusk after work. I bought my surfboard over early on and we all had great fun ‘waterskiing’. An ax handle was attached to a ‘cloths line’ that was anchored to the back of the boat and quite a speed could be reached. After many wipeouts and lots of practice we became quite proficient and several afternoons a week we would venture out for some skiing. Most afternoons the local land owner would sit by the lake chewing a piece of grass observing us. We would often pull in to the shore and invite him to have a go. He would say no but we had the feeling that he would like to try so we kept asking him. Towards the end of our mapping he eventually gained the courage. We gave him the basic instructions to lie on the surfboard and hold on to the ax handle tight. Now if you turn the boat sharply a whip lash is created and the skiers speed increases dramatically. Our boat driver decided that a few tight turns followed by a full pivot was the order of the moment. At an accelerating rate of knots the landowner lost control of the surfboard and amid raucous laughter from the boat was still holding onto the ax handle doing gymnastic somersaults across the top of the water. Eventually he managed to let go and we took him back to shore with much laughter and patting of the back. A week later he came to our camp and asked for a hand to gather some fly blown sheep from the next valley. Only too keen to help we agreed and with several placid looking horses he came to collect us. No sooner had we mounted he let out an ear piecing whistle. The horses took off instantly throwing riders in all directions. We recovered only to see the land owner splitting his sides with revengeful laughter.

One of our field hands had a movie projector and would occasionally bring to camp some old fashioned x rated movies to show. We invited the landowner along to one of these nights and he asked if he could bring along a few male relatives. We said that would be OK but on the night the cars kept coming and coming and there was standing room only in the mess tent and a large queue outside so we had to have several showings. Never the less a good night was enjoyed by all.

Thirty five years later, on a visit to Carey’s Cave close to Lake Burrenjuck, I saw for the first time the finished coloured geological map that I had compiled. It was on the front of the selling counter of the cave kiosk.

With our new home in order and Michelle a thriving toddler Kris and I decided that we would like another child. Married life with its sense of belonging and the primordial instinct of protecting my brood I had no inkling that all may not be as well as I believed. Perhaps Kris was not as content as I was and another child may have been her last attempt to gain the magic of a fully complete relationship.

It was about this time that we found out that mother had cancer. Whilst staying with Jennifer she talked to her about pap smears and mentioned she had some bleeding. She finally went to a doctor in Canberra but the results were unclear. With further tests and a curette, cancer was confirmed. She went to Sydney for an operation and became part of some type of a cancer research project. After the operation Dad told Jennifer (my sister) that the surgeon said it was all clear but either the surgeon did not tell the truth or Dad did not understand. When the doctor sent her back to Sydney for more radiation treatment and some experimental anti cancer drugs Jennifer began to believe the cancer may be terminal. This was about the time I began to realize that mums condition was far from recoverable. My father had purchased a utility with a caravan tray back and they planned to travel and enjoy some holidays. They had set off on a holiday only to return prematurely because mum was feeling decisively ill. Jennifer remembers coming to Canberra and finding mum was very easily upset. Dad told her that mum thought the cancer had come back and Jennifer said “Well has it?” and he didn’t answer so she assumed it had. I remember seeing mum becoming thinner and rarely seeing a spark in her eye. At some stage I remember cuddling her and thinking “Oh my god, there is nothing there to cuddle” No one actually talked about it and when she went to hospital for the last time I don’t think I fully comprehended what was happening. Jennifer thinks the hospital staff must have known how close to death she was but still no one told us. I visited her a couple of times during the final week and I remember being very tearful as I realized how seriously ill she was. I recall telling her for the first time that I loved her, and her telling me how much she had always loved me. It still brings tears to my eyes every time I recall this moment and I made myself a pact there and then that I would tell my children often that I loved them! The effects of the morphine given to control her pain was making her delirious and her mind would often wander. She would drift into conversations with her pet Pomeranian dog to talking about the beautiful colours of a piece of opal and then talk quite sensibly to me. Once I had to carry her from the toilet to her bed and there was nothing to carry but skin and bone. I remember sobbing uncontrollably after leaving her that night. Jennifer was staying with Dad whilst Mum was in hospital. On the final day the nurse sent Jennifer and Dad home for lunch. Their lunch was interrupted by a phone call from the hospital requesting them to come back without actually saying why. Jennifer went to her room, but the door was closed and the nurse said “We are washing her. Your father is in the lounge”. Jennifer went to the lounge and says dad looked so awful that she realized that mum must have died. She can’t recall what she said to him but he said “Did they tell you anything?” At this time the Dr came in and asked about doing an autopsy (which kind of confirmed she was dead). It was about this time that I was called. I remember going to the hospital and straight to mother’s room. I opened the door as no one was there and could see that my mother was dead. In a state of shock I reversed out of the door to be told that my mother had in fact departed.

The job to arrange the funeral fell to Jennifer and me. I remember the surreal feeling when we went to the undertaker to choose a casket. We were given a tour with the spiel on the virtues of each casket. I had the distinct feeling the impression purveyed was the amount of love for the deceased could be demonstrated by the amount of money spent on the casket. We chose a simple basic wooden one.

My sister recalls “How we ever got that funeral organised so quickly I don’t know. She was buried the day after she died – she had told Dad she wanted to be buried as quickly as possible and we just told everyone that and got things happening – the hospital did the autopsy the same afternoon, the Methodist minister who we had never (as far as I know) had anything to do with us co-operated (he came to visit us that night. Dad was drunk) – people we phoned spread the word – Like Pam & Ross Hardy and Daphne Davis and others. Uncle Babe and Auntie Nell drove all night from Armidale to get there – they asked why we had it so quickly and were OK when told Mum had wanted it like that. We also had a private burial because that was what she asked for – just as well Ken Titherage came though to help carry her to the grave (that is another snapshot memory – the undertaker coming to ask you at the cemetery “Can you help us carry your mother?” he was really nice about it).”

The funeral is a daze. Sitting in front of the casket I could only recall my mother’s smiling face. It was as if she wanted me to remember her smile forever, above and beyond the terrible pain and suffering she had been through and her condition in her final days of life. I remember being a pall bearer and thinking as I carried my mother to the grave how much she meant to me and how strong my love for her was. At this moment I learnt the finality of death and the incredible pain of losing someone so close. The next thing I recall is the hand of Ross Hardy our neighbour on my shoulder pulling me away and bringing me back to reality.

A few short weeks after the funeral on the 4th of June 1972 our second daughter Kim was born. I believed Mum had tried to hold on to life long enough to see her but that was not to be. Once again I was not allowed at the birth and waited impatiently outside. I was hoping for a son but the instant I set eyes on our new baby I realized how lucky we were. Kim was the cutest little baby that had ever blessed the earth. Her little ears were as perfect as they could be and complimented her tiny nose

After Kim’s birth my life began a rollercoaster ride. A new baby, a toddler and a new career helped me move on. I was attached to a geological field party that was mapping the Georgetown area in northern Queensland. I was intensely interested because of so many wonderful areas to explore such as Agate Creek and Mount Surprise. The area is quite geologically complicated and so the compilation of the maps would be challenging.

So in the winter of 1973 we drove from Canberra to the field party camp site located on the banks of the Einsliegh River midway between Georgetown and Mt Surprise and settled into our new family home for the next three months. This was a twelve foot square tent lavishly furnished with a fold up table, gas stove and enough bunks for the family. My office was a silver caravan such as is seen at most road work crew camp sites. It had two drafting tables and plenty of space and was located right beside the river.

Three geologists were involved in the field work of the Georgetown area and several 1 to 100,000 geological maps were being compiled at the same time. To assist the geologists were three field assistants, a mechanic and a cook.

A normal week started with the field hands packing their four wheel drives with provisions for the weeks work and the geologists selecting arial photographs of the area they were working in. These photographs were covered with clear plastic overlays on to which they recorded the geological information. They would return at the end of the week and hand the overlays to me to begin the mapping process.

Peter collecting rocks
Peter, collecting specimens

Weekends were spent relaxing or spending time visiting the many potential sites around Georgetown. Having all the geological information on hand as well as introductions to all the land holders as well as three geologists who knew the area exceptional well was a major advantage for my weekend trips. Often the entire field party would spend the weekend digging topaz at Mount Surprise, agate at Agate Creek or chasing gold in one of the many productive areas close to Georgetown.

Mount Surprise, although a well known collecting spot, was still producing a lot of easily found topaz. On an average day I was finding half a sunrise milk tin of topaz. These varied in size from a few grams to the occasional piece the size of an egg.

I remember one trip that we had my daughter Michelle (Miss 4 year old) with us. She was getting in the way and always climbing into the hole we were digging. In exasperation I took her aside and said “Michelle this is a topaz!” showing her a pale blue piece about the size of a marble. “Why don’t you walk along the bank and see if you can find one?” She walked off dejected and returned about twenty minutes later. She says “Daddy is this a topaz?” holding up a stone the size of duck egg. It was indeed a flawless piece of blue topaz. It was by far the best stone any of us had found that day. Several years later I had the stone cut into a magnificent gem. It was my intention to give this to Michelle when she was old enough to appreciate it. It moved house with me several times and sat on top of the fridge for years. Somehow, though, I managed to loose it. Michelle has never allowed me to forget this and often tells the story to customers in my shop. (Michelle is the manager of Mineshaft).

A large Mt Surprise Topaz
A large Mt Surprize Topaz

Agate Creek was producing a lot of agate at the time. A local Georgetown identity (Arthur Vievers I think his name was) had a couple of excellent patches that produced some wonderful agate. Herb Bruce from Canberra was spending many months each year excavating enormous caverns under the overlaying rocks to assemble one of the best collections of Agate Creek agate in existence. I remember seeing his collection years later and being absolutely impressed with the quality, variety and size of it. There were so many unique and special agates that these filled entire cases. I have no idea what happened to his collection. I know at one stage it was up for sale and would today be worth far more than the price he would have accepted.

The cook and the mechanic played darts during their spare time In fact they had been doing this at different field parties for years. During the week, when the geologists were away working, they had a lot of spare time to hone their skills, often spending twelve hours a day in fierce competition. Occasionally I would play around the board with them. To make a competitive game they would play left handed or go around the board in the triple score space whilst I simply had to find the number anywhere. I never won! One weekend they took the Landover and trailer into the Mount Surprise pub to challenge all comers to a game of darts for a carton of beer wager. They arrived back at camp early Sunday morning with a full trailer of beer.

Mt Surprise topaz
Two nice Mount Surprise Topaz

Georgetown had an annual ball. This was a chance to socialize with the local community and the whole field party attended. As with a lot of country balls at the time, the men attended the pub, whilst the women set up the hall and the dining area. When the men had drunk a few beers and had the courage to ask for dances they would, ‘en masse,’ move from the pub to the more frightening dance hall. I remember vividly an incident that occurred at this ball. One of the largest land holding families had a lovely young daughter who had attended a most elite private boarding school somewhere. She was quite aloof and beyond talking to mere field hands and their like! When we had all adjourned to the hall the band was just starting up. The men were standing at the end of the hall and the ladies were sitting on the chairs around the walls. On the far side of the hall sat the “royal” family. Mum, Dad, Miss Proper Spoilt, Head Stockman etc. etc. Well our six foot six field hand (He was built like the preverbal country outhouse) told us he was going to ask Miss Proper Spoilt for a dance. When the band finished their number he walked directly across the empty floor and bending over obviously asked her for a dance. She must have declined because our field hand took an abrupt step backwards and in a loud voice that every one could hear exclaimed “What Fifty Dollars!” and returned to join us.

A mornings best stones Mt Surprise
A mournings best stones Mt Surprise

Georgetown had an identity shop keeper “Charlie”. Charlie, although Australian, was born of Chinese parents. He looked more Chinese then most Chinese but had the language of the most experienced Aussie bullock team driver.

It was this contradiction of looks and language that made him a true character. Every second word was a swear word and was delivered in such an eloquent flurry I could have listened to him for hours.

His store was filled with boxes of everything and there appeared to be little order to it. In fact the only way to know if Charlie stocked something was to ask. There was absolutely no spare space with boxes on top of boxes.

At some stage in his life a woman close to him must have done the wrong thing resulting in Charlie not being particularly pleasant to any woman he crossed paths with. I was in his general store one day when a lady tourist stumbled in and asked for something. At first Charlie totally ignored her but after several repeated and heated questions. Charlie simply said to this amazed lady “Why don’t you #@!* go to the *$#@ shop in #$@ town. They might $#@ look after you.

Georgetown Garage repair bay

Charlie loved the races and listened intently to the radio on race day. We all knew not to interrupt him, until the race was over, unless you wanted to be sprayed in a torrent of foul abuse. I think race day was the highlight of his life.

One day I asked Charlie if he had any fishing line. After climbing over a pile of boxes he came back with some thirty pound breaking strain line. I asked him if he had any lighter line, perhaps five to ten pound. Charlie’s response was. “You want #@*^ fishing line or *%$@ cotton. You catching**&% fish or *(^#% tadpoles.

Another time I asked him for a couple of toothbrushes. He would only sell me one saying, “You use this #$&* toothbrush and when it’s *$##, ###$! Come back and get another #$&# one!

Georgetown opened my eyes to the wonderful nature of the Australian outback character and I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to Charlie.

Perhaps it was the wonderfully exciting lifestyle I was living or perhaps I was not paying enough attention to my marriage but nevertheless cracks were beginning to appear even whilst we were at Georgetown. I think I believed that these periods were normal and that all problems would work out. With mixed feelings we returned to Canberra to resume a ‘normal life.’

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