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Today's quote:

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The only death we experience is other people's

It's exactly twenty-six years to the day when my best friend from my New Guinea days, Noel Butler, sent me this funny "Childers by Night" card and wrote, "Dear Pete, Hope your outlook on the future is not as black as this. Mine is but that's inevitable."

I had no idea how prescient and indeed deadly serious his message was until a couple of months later I received a phone call from a woman. She introduced herself as Noel's sister and told me that Noel had just passed away!

It may seem that Noel had never achieved much in his life except get through it. And after his life had come to an end, he left no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But the way of life that he had chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and self-reliance of his character left a great influence on me so that, long after his death, I still remember him as a very remarkable man.

Noel and I first met aboard the liner PATRIS in 1967 when he was going on a European holiday and I was returning to Germany. The PATRIS had been scheduled to call at Port Moresby in New Guinea but, following the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel, the Suez Canal closed and the ship was re-routed around the Cape of Good Hope.

However, the many New Guinea expats who had already booked, Noel amongst them, still joined the ship in Sydney. As did Graeme Bell's All Stars Band. And so for the next four weeks I would sit in the ship's Midnight Club and listen to the many yarns of high adventure told by those larger-than-life New Guinea expats while Graeme Bell's All Stars played their ragtime music.

During the day, Noel and I would sit on deck for hours, hunched over a chessboard. Our mutual love of chess and my interest in New Guinea started a friendship which lasted until his death almost thirty years later!

We kept up a regular correspondence during all those years which Noel spent in Wewak in the Sepik District, before PNG's Independence in 1975 and old age forced him to return to his homestate Queensland.

I had come up to PNG in late 1969 and worked there for several years. During this time I visited Noel on his small country estate outside Wewak and Noel came to spent Christmas 1973 and Christmas 1974 with me. Or at least he tried because by the time he arrived on Bougainville in 1973, I was in Arawa Hospital being prepared for an urgent appendectomy; and when he came to see me in Lae in 1974 I was already packed up and ready to fly out to my next assignment in Burma.

Our paths crossed more frequently after I had temporarily come back to Australia in 1979. I visited him several times and observed with some concern his struggle to make himself at home again in Australia, first at Caboolture, then at Mt Perry, and finally at Childers. He never quite succeeded since, as he put it, after a lifetime spent in PNG, "my spiritual home will always be New Guinea".

Perhaps this struggle is something else that we shared. I, too, still think almost every day about those many faraway places in which I lived and worked. The years spent there have left me unsuited in many respects for life in the deep south. I feel suspended between my past life in the islands and my present life in mainstream Australia, and I still seek a place where I can feel truly content.

"Über den Himmel Wolken ziehen, über die Felder geht der Wind, ... irgendwo über den Bergen muss meine ferne Heimat sein."   
                                                                         Hermann Hesse

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