The Ambiguity of Courage

Thor May

30 May 2018



I am not brave. Can you be brave without being afraid? A madman rescues a child from a burning house but feels no fear. Is he brave? I don't know. I do know there are lots of things that I fear - boredom, a painful death, missed opportunities ... Most of all I fear cowards. They'll do you in every time, just when you have stopped looking. I fear my own cowardice, but not always enough to be brave.


Springwood, NSW 1955. Sister and me


Once my family lived in a place my father called The Horse Paddock. He had a name for everything, dogs, cats, our old bitser of a car, me. My nickname was Beanhead. Maybe it was the big ears, or a small head, or a cartoon he'd seen. It wasn't kind. He didn't like me much, thought I was a wimp. Our family wasn't into liking each other much. We were poor, and stuck together because no one else liked us much either. I had a younger sister. I was nine and she was seven. I didn't like her much. I thought she was a wimp. She didn't talk to me and she still sucked her thumb. That was ridiculous, and made her embarrassing to be seen with.


The horse paddock house was in the middle of some swampy paddocks. A couple of scrawny horses hung out in the paddocks. Nobody ever seemed to visit them, and I don't know what they really ate. The grass in the paddocks was in coarse green and brown lumps. The ground was always muddy. Walking across the horse paddock wasn't nice, but there were some sandhills behind it, which you could slide down, and over the sandhills there was a long, empty beach and dangerous surf. On stormy nights we could hear the surf pounding out its tireless rhythm. The house was small, made of brittle fibro cladding and wood. It was painted yellow. Our proudest bit of furniture was a big brass wall clock with roman numbers on the face and a glass cover you opened once a week to wind it up. When he was a bit drunk, dad would boast he'd pinched it off an aircraft carrier and smuggled it out of Cockatoo island dockyard in his duffle bag. Rent for the horse paddock house was cheap, which is why we lived there. We didn't expect to live there long. We never lived anywhere long.


The horse paddock house was at the back of its block. In front of it, down a long dirt driveway, was a highway. Every day I walked a mile down the highway to the school. Probably my sister walked behind me, but I didn't want to notice. The school was like any primary school in 1954, a collection of classrooms around a playground of dusty grey sand, with a square of bitumen where we assembled in lines every morning. There was a flagpole with an Australian flag, and after roll call they would play The Recessional.


God of our fathers, known of old,
  Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
  Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!  ...


I didn't know about that stuff. Didn't know that the headmaster was still sighing over Britain's recently departed empire. The one on which the sun was never meant to set. The queen of that other place was still our queen, they said. That other place was still always called 'Great' Britain. Much later I would understand that Rudyard Kipling, writing in 1897 for Queen Victoria's Silver Jubilee, had a foreboding about fickle glory.


The tumult and the shouting dies;
  The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
  An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!


Far-called our navies melt away;
  On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
  Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!


Amen. I liked our teacher, Mr O'Reilly, who had an Irish lilt and taught us about money by running a betting sweep on his front desk the day of the Melbourne Cup horse race. We understood that the Melbourne Cup was a sort of religious event when all of Australia stopped and prayed for luck. We listened to it on a brown bakelite classroom radio. I was a bit bitter about not having any pocket money to bet with on Mr O'Reilly's front desk. Later, maybe out of pity, he chose me to be the token Aborigine for the annual school play night. Wrapped in a loin cloth, they dusted me down with charcoal and painted white wriggly lines all over my arms and legs with shoe-whitener. My job was to creep up in the shadows while everyone was distracted by some kid in white stockings and a funny hat who raised the Union Jack and claimed Terra Australis for his Majesty, The King of England. As usual, I was playing the loser, even if it was 1788 tonight. Sticking to script, I suddenly lit a bonfire with a taper, and danced around the flames hollering. The mothers and fathers clapped politely. Mine weren't there. The meaning of all this sort of escaped me. Not like betting on the Melbourne Cup at all.


Later I was to learn that the big tests in life came without warning. It wasn't fair. "Your sister is getting bullied", my father shouted one night. "You are supposed to look after her. Fix it." Look after my sister? Fix it? Who did he think I was? What did I know about that girl? But you didn't argue with my father. I hung around a corner of the playground where the girls skipped, trying to look invisible. He was a lout, some grub from the F class, big, shabby, mean, flicking rocks onto the girls' hopscotch squares. "Scram" they screamed. He leered. Jeez, he'd pulp me. "Well, did you fix it?", my father demanded. Jeez. Desperate, hiding behind bushes I tracked him for days and formed a plan. He seemed to catch a bus home alone every day, some spot a bit isolated. At last, the moment of truth. With my heart in my mouth I shot out from behind a bush at the bus stop while he wasn't looking. One smash over the ear for him and I was back into the scrub and running for my life. "Yeah, I fixed it" I remarked casually that night. And hated, hated being me. She didn't even say thanks.




And the years rolled in upon the boy.



Thor & Enid Laurie - Manly beach, Sydney 1965  (apologies to Enid, my sister’s friend, for this unexpected celebrity from long ago)


Australia in 1966 was slowly waking from a long cultural sleep-in. The government wanted to send us to Vietnam to fight for the Americans. They what ...? The communists would be here tomorrow if we didn't. Lyndon Johnston drove through the CBD encased in a black limo' with bullet-proof glass, and a hostile crowd surged outside the Town Hall. 'Run the bastards over' said Premier Robert Askin. We'd just changed from pounds to decimal dollars, but women wore skirts below their knees and cooked dinner at home. Men wore ties to announce their social standing. I didn't wear a tie. At Cockatoo Island shipyard I wore greasy blue overalls with a paperback novel in the back pocket. On the night shift for ship repair work we'd work double shifts when some old cargo boat got propped up in the big, cold dry dock. It was all shadows with pools of light. The gantry cranes would rumble along their rails with huge propellers in slings, or steel engine shafts weighing tons. The dockyard was barely profitable, a rusting pile of gaunt workshops. One night I'd been nearby when a U-bolt on one of the slings crystallized and a shaft crunched into the concrete with a deadly thud.  On the ships we'd step past the nicely painted topside cabins and track down steel ladders deep into their inner shame. Stinking bilge water, corroded brass sea valves, hissing steam pipes. In the aft section where humans hardly ventured we'd play oxy torches for hours on the huge T-bars that had to be sweated onto rudder shafts. Or shoulder to shoulder in the narrow, airless space, we'd try to free up super-sized, rusted on bolts with block hammers and cold chisels and giant wrenches. You could lose a finger or a knee cap with one thoughtless slip.


The nightshift crew were a tight-knit bunch who looked out for each other in a rough way. Off the island, the world didn't have much time for them. They'd come from every corner of Europe (we rarely saw an Asian face), with one or two Australians mixed in. Most had done time for violent crime, some had killed men. On the job you got respect for what you could do, not what you had done, and for keeping your mouth shut. Con, the chubby Greek, was a wizard at honing turbine blades so they balanced just right. 'Bloodybeautybest' he would snort in creative English. Gentle Big Bill had a knack with lathes, and quietly settled arguments. Jan was a methodical Polish boilermaker with a tangle of white hair. He kept to himself. Then there was Frazer. He was a ragged hulk of a man, a bastard at the best of times, one of the few Australians. We all tried to keep a distance from him. I was a curiosity they didn't quite know what to do with. Just 21, too obviously educated with those bloody books, hopelessly innocent, pretty useless with a sledge hammer. A boilermaker's assistant, the payslip said. Big Bill, or Earnie Onions, the foreman, must have said something. Somehow, older and wiser, they decided to protect me for the time being as 'the kid'. After a double night shift we'd head back to the mainland in a launch and make a beeline for one of the early morning pubs. Schooners of beer have a special taste at 7am in the morning when you are totally buggered.


This way of life couldn't last, not for me. When would a turning point come? Then, like a sign from some hidden power, there it was, another of those big unfair tests which arrive without warning. It was 3am, the second leg of our double shift. The dank air was tense with fatigue. She was an old ship, built cheaply too long ago in some nameless shipyard. In the cramped tailshaft compartment we edged past each other crankily. The engine tailshaft was almost too big to wrap your arm around. It was black and cold and greasy, held above its housing with two heavy chain blocks. Somehow we had to let it down in synch, ratchet by ratchet and perfectly level so that it slid into position without a cigarette paper between the end flanges. Frazer had come onto the shift late, and drunk. Things could have worked out if he wasn't there.


Suddenly there was a rattle of chain running past a ratchet and the shaft plunged dangerously. Some dopey fool had tripped a chainblock release. Fucking hell, how did that happen? "Fucking Polack", bellowed Frazer, making a grab for a heavy wrench. "Fucking dickhead," snarled the Pole, pulling a knife from inside his sock. They'd seen this movie before. The rest of the crew flattened back against the sides of the ship, dead silent. Someone had to lose here in a real bad way. I hadn't seen this movie before. Later on, I had no idea of why I had opened my mouth, or why I was that dumb.  Stepping over the shaft between them I muttered, "I did it. Sorry". What the fuck? Every man there knew I'd been nowhere near the chain block. Frazer looked at me dully, then turned his back in disgust. Jan the Pole shook his head and put the knife away. The moment had passed. Somehow we got back to work to rescue the tail shaft. Adrenalin had belted us wide awake, and I seem to have earned a different kind of respect.


Later, as the sun came up, I sat on the back of the launch as it chugged away from the island. I had been shaking for an hour, overcome by wild imaginings of what might have happened if ... Earnie Onions, the old foreman, was a decent bloke. He'd retire shortly, and had seen it all. He came and sat beside me on the transom. “Thanks”, he said quietly. "Well", I drawled, trying to be nonchalant, "they're like kids, aren't they". Earnie looked down, then he looked out over the harbour. He stood up and walked away. What had I done?


On the next shift, subtly but unmistakeably the mood had shifted again. It wasn't in a good way. The half glances signalled contempt. They seemed to say, “this fucking arrogant know-all kid doesn't know his head from his arse. What's he doing here anyway?”. In the furnace room, Con the Greek sidled up and ran his finger seductively down my spine. I jumped away in shock. "Bloodybeautybest" sneered Con. On the pontoon, waiting for the launch home, some bloke made a grab for my balls. Then it hit me. I'd challenged their manhood. Everyone to their own, but I'm not gay. Lots of half memories from past night shifts clicked together. I was fresh meat. Some word from Big Bill or Earnie Onions had held them back, some shred of respect. That was gone. Back on that island for another night and I'd be as good as gang raped in the shadows of the furnace room.


I bought the last free birth on the Angelina Lauro, sailing the next day for Wellington, New Zealand, and dragged my books in an old tin trunk down to the wharf. Three days at sea, then for miles out from land we could smell fragrance in the salty air. We came into Wellington harbour on a beautiful spring morning, wooden houses in tiers perched like seagulls, and the hills covered in wild heather. A new country, a new life. In a pub some boozy musicians offered me a spare room for $7 a week and maybe a gig with the band. Soon, embarrassed by my musical incompetence, they put me up on pub stages behind the drums with a metal triangle to ping with the beat. I got a job in a commercial laundry washing shirts. It paid the rent. Wellington had my kind of class. There was a cafe called Chez Nous, and not far from Oriental Bay, a matronly bronze statue, high on a plinth, of her Majesty, Queen Victoria wearing a tiara and holding a sceptre. She was covered in green verdigris and pigeon droppings, a safely distant reminder of times past .



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

The Ambiguity of Courage ©Thor May 2018