One of my grandfathers was a man named George Hamilton. In his younger days George was a boss drover and had on several occasions taken mobs of cattle from the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales to Victoria River country in the north-west Northern Territory – in ruler-straight terms and ignoring deserts, rivers and dry-staging, that’d be from Atlanta to, say, Clovis, on the Texas–New Mexico border. The Aboriginals in his home district said he could smell water. In later life, George drove a Chandler Six that his foster sons had cut down into a pick-up truck (‘ute’ in Australia), complete with a wood-framed canvas canopy over a tray that could hold wooden bench-seats when the occasion demanded. Years later, my Dad converted it into an iron-wheeled tractor.
But none of that has much to do with this story, though the ute does feature in it. Rather, I’d like to tell you about a lesson George taught me when I was just a nipper, way back near the end of World War II or perhaps in the months following the surrender of Japan – it was a long time ago anyway.
George had taken my sister Kerry – then about two, I’d say – for a run in the Chandler to visit rellies. We were almost home when we passed a group of maybe eight or 10 white and blue-uniformed sailors, walking back to their ship in Fremantle, six miles away. Grampa George stopped the ute, waited for the men to run up to us, then offered them a lift.
Talking excitedly in one of the languages of the Indian sub-continent, they piled onto the benches in the back, slapping George on the shoulders and laughing and grinning all the while. We hadn’t even got going before, with gestures and animated faces, they asked Grampa could they have us kids in back with them. No sweat. George handed us over, one of the men clambered into the front seat and we were off to Freo.
Kez and I were enthralled. We’d never before seen people exactly that color, a sort of watered-down Bushell’s Coffee and Chicory Essence-brown. The Indian sailors were equally fascinated. Kez is as dark as I am fair but we were both treated equally, having to endure hair strokings and cheek pinchings, along with being knee bounced and all the other things that adults do to little kids the world over. Having it done by such exotic beings made it an exciting experience. All the way to North Wharf, George and the matelots were chatting away in some sort of sign language punctuated by the odd word of English and lots of grins and “aaah”s.
We got to the ship at last and when the Officer of the Watch spotted the men climbing out of the Chandler, we were all invited aboard the warship, sailors lining the rail to watch us come up the gangplank. It was a tour I’ll never forget.
When we got to the galley there were three or four cooks shaping what I thought were big, flat Johnnycakes. George explained, “It’s how they make their bread, sort of like damper.” A few minutes later we were ushered into the mess to sit down with the watch, Kez and I hoisted on to new sets of knees. In front of us a sailor placed the warm bread, straight from the ovens, and a small portion of their meal. The men holding us broke our bread, dipping it into the food and feeding us just like Mum did when we were smaller. We both tried to show them that we could feed ourselves, but it was no use – our sailors wouldn’t have it.
The food was strange, but tasty. We were used to what passed for curry in Australia back then. Made with Keen’s or Vencatachellum curry powder, curries were a regular part of our diet; useful stuff if the meat was getting a bit past its prime or to dress up sausages when they appeared on the table for the third time in a week.
Driving home, I asked Grampa why the sailors made such a fuss over us. George explained that they were grateful for the lift and were trying to repay us. He added: “The poor beggars are a long way from home. They’ve probably been away for years fighting the war and will be really missing their families. People are the same everywhere,” he said. “Never look at the color of a bloke’s skin.”
It sunk in. Trouble was, until I understood what he actually meant I’d worry about the fact that I could still see people’s color – even one of my childhood heroes, Old Sam, always looked black to me.
George would have enjoyed Noel Holston’s anecdote about Jackie Robinson.