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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Bastards I've met

 

Many years ago, one night when I couldn't sleep, I idly listened to RADIO NATIONAL and a segment called VERBATIM, in which the interviewer talked with a then 92-year-old chap called Bill who has had an obsession with wheels all his long life. Listen to the interview here.

The power of the engine didn't matter; whether it was trucks, bicycles or battered old 2CV Citroens, Bill had travelled Australia from end to end on all of them. Most of his travelling had been done in pursuit of work (and girlfriends) and his was the story of a labouring man with a taste for adventure and no desire to settle down.

For Bill, there had always been another river to ford or a python to wrestle or a murderer to evade ... and suddenly I realised that I knew that chap: he was Bill Skinner whom I had befriended back in 1977 when I lived on Thursday Island. Bill had driven an old truck up to Cape York and, daunted by the prospect of driving down that same rough road again, had come across to Thursday Island to book himself, his three dogs, and his truck onto the barge returning to Cairns in a few days' time. He had missed the boat going back to Bamaga and wandered the main street of TI aimlessly when we ran into each other. I invited him to stay at my house for the night and we talked and talked (and drank and drank!) well into the night.

We met again in 1979 when I overnighted at the Great Northern Hotel in Cairns on my way to a job interview on Mornington Island. Bill lived in Cairns at the time and I went to his house in Severin Street. His backyard was a junkyard! It was full of old things which Bill had kept or collected under some "it-may-come-in-handy-one-day" compulsion. To make even more room for all the junk, Bill had moved the clothes hoist to the top of the roof! Laundry-day at Bill's must've been quite a thing to behold!

It was almost dark when I got there. He said he was about to get some soil for his garden and told me to jump into his old, unregistered jeep. I was wondering where he would get soil at such late hour when he pulled in at a nearby cemetery and ask me to keep a sharp look-out while he was shovelling soil from a freshly-dug grave into the back of his jeep. He'd forgotten to tell me that we were going to be a couple of grave-robbers just as he hadn't told me that he'd "tarred" his old, unregistered jeep in black paint only a couple of days before. Those black paint spots stayed on my trousers for a long time!

In another twist of fate, while on assignment with FLUOR Engineering in Melbourne in 1981 I bumped into his daughter Roslyn and her husband, whom he'd described in the radio interview as "that useless man who just sits around the house and won't get a job", and again in 1985 on Magnetic Island after I had just come back from overseas.

After hearing him on the radio, I wrote a short note to his then current address in Longwarry in Victoria. He replied that his memory was no longer what it used to be but that he did remember his trip to TI and our meeting and, as he put it, "if I can find Nelligen on the map, I'll drop in some day" and "I could easily drive up there, but thieves are everywhere here now and very cunny [sic]" and "I camp in a caravan every night hoping to catch the thieves - with a 3-inch piece of pipe!!!" It sounded just like the old Bill Skinner!

He either couldn't find Nelligen on the map or was too busy hoping to catch up with those thieves because he never made it to Nelligen, and, unless he lived well past the hundred-mark (which he celebrated in 2012 - see here), he's now finally settled on his own 6-foot plot.

It's been good knowing you, Bill, you old bastard!


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