Saturday, November 24, 2007

An old bloke

I was handing out how-to-vote leaflets for the Green Party this morning, at a polling booth in Coffs Harbour. An old bloke sat next to me on a bench at around noon. We sat in the shade of a gumtree and only stood up when voters approached down Harbour Drive.

"I've been doing this since Earle Page," he said to me and a Labor bloke (actually a non-affiliated British backpacker employed by the Australian Labor Party to hand out pamphlets, with only the promise of a Labor Party party and free food tonight) and an earnest elderly woman from the Christian Democrats. I'd been having interesting chats with both of them, about various things.

Earle Page was Prime Minister for only 19 days, in 1939, but he was the second-longest serving federal parliamentarian in Australian history. Forty-two years.

"I know," I smiled. "You told me last time." I remembered the old fella from the last federal election, when he was pamphleteering for the Nationals, and I for the Greens, at the same booth. The Nationals and the Greens are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and the two parties don't like each other, not one little bit.

"Oh, yes," he said, quite friendly like. "I remember your face."


We shook hands, and got talking about the warm and humid weather.

"I got this hat 20 years ago at the Grand Canyon," the old man said. "I've never worn it till today."

"It looks good," I said, and it did. "I should have a hat. I'm starting to get burnt. So ... you've travelled a bit?"

"A fair bit. I've travelled on the Mississippi, the Nile, the Amazon, and the Yangtze. The world's four longest rivers."

"That's incredible. What about the Darling? That's one of the longest, too -- and not as far away."

"I've been to it, but never sailed along it."

"I heard last week," I said, "they found a baleen whale 1,500 miles up the Amazon. Amazing. You know Lavender's Bridge in Bellingen? A bloke told me they found a 13-foot tiger shark there a few years ago. There must be a layer of salt water under the fresh." I was half wrong. It was a minke whale in the Amazon, it was only 1,000 miles -- and it's now dead.

The old man told me about the piranhas of the Amazon. They taste like bream. He said that native kids swim among them. The fish only bite when they taste blood. He brought four varnished specimens back to Australia.

"In Sydney, they kept me at customs from 8pm to 11pm trying to work out what to do with them. I offered one to the customs officer and he let me go home with the other three, which I gave to Hec, who owns the Coffs dolphinarium."

He mentioned some stuff about Egypt and Italy, too. He's also been to Christmas Island. We chatted about how there are two islands by that name, thousands of miles apart. The one he went to was the Pacific one, discovered by Captain Cook. And we chatted about Easter Island and its statues.

"The tourist brochure said the statues face towards the ocean. It's not true. They face inland, towards the cemetery. And the brochure had palm trees. There are no palm trees there. It's all false advertising."

We discussed how the island met its fate. How the islanders chopped down all the trees. I would have said something about environmentalism, but you never talk politics with fellow pamphleteers on election day. That's infra dig.

He said something about a man in his sixties. I joked: "You're doing pretty well for a bloke pushing sixty yourself."

He smiled.

"I'll be 94 next month. I've been very fortunate."

"I'm pushing sixty," I said. "I guess you could say. I'm 54. Five grandchildren." Just so he didn't think he was talking to a baby. But he probably thought I still was, compared to him.

In WWII he was a flyer. Fought the Japs. Of 45 men in his section, 15 died in training at the beginning of the war. At the end of the war, there were only four men that they could muster.

"I've had a fortunate life."

He said he still works a bit, and pointed out one of the largest real estate agencies in town.

"You work there?"

"I own it. I don't really work there any more. But I go in quite a bit."

"You did have good fortune in the war, and you've continued to have it. But there's more, surely. You must also have lived well ... and have good genetics."

"Yes. There was no junk food when I grew up ... and, yes, I have good genetics. But you have to eat well."

"Do you still travel?" I doubted it.

"Yes. We're off again next year."

We chatted for a while longer. Then another Greens pamphleteer showed up to relieve me of my duties, so the old man and I shook again, very friendly like, but while we were in mid-handshake, the 93-year-old man spotted some people about to vote and stepped forward to give them pamphlets for the National Party, which is the most redneck party in Australia. His party doesn't like my party. My party doesn't like his party. Not one little bit.

Then I went home. A Green Party party party and free food tonight -- it should compensate for the sunburn.

Two Bob's worth (Bob Brown)


Blogger Jim Belshaw said...

Pip, this is a wonderful story because it captures something that is truly Australian.

Many years ago I was active in Country party politics in Eden Monaro. There was an old labor bloke, a stalwart of the party.

After three election campaigns we knew each other pretty well. Ins ome ways, we had more in common than we did with the emerging professionalism in both parties. He would never vote CP, but we respected each other as people.

A litlle later, I was handing out how to vote cards at a tiny country booth. The Labor, Liberal and, from memory, independent workers handed their how to vote cards to me. For the next three hours I handed out the lot.That is country politics.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Pip said...

Jim, I think your stories are even more wonderful. Thank you.

8:48 PM  

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