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Today's quote:

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Of Christmasses past

In Camp 6 at Loloho on the Bougainville Copper Project
left-to-right: Neil "Jacko" Jackson, yours truly sitting on the beer fridge, Bob Green


We didn't use the word 'Christmas' then. Christmas came with too much emotional baggage. It reminded us of families and homes which we were far away from or didn't even have.

Of course, I'm talking of those many years - decades, in fact - spent in boarding houses, construction camps, hotels, and company housing. Come Christmastime, those who had families and homes had gone; those who didn't hadn't.



Ever since I left home in my teens, Christmas was a time to be ignored. In the above photo I was a seventeen-year-old paymaster in a mobile construction office in 1963 somewhere in northern Germany. We were building the 'Autobahn' from Hannover to Bremen and every couple of months our mobile office would follow the work crew up the line. Visible in the background is a double-decker bed and a kerosene heater on which I cooked and washed up because my office was also my home. 'Sleeping on the job' taken to the extremes! Everyone left for home at Christmas time except for me. I simply stayed on, conveniently acting as the unpaid watchman in the snowed-in and desolate construction camp.


Sitting on the frontdoor steps on a Sunday morning after the night before
(the one on the far right is still draining the dregs from a not-quite-empty flagon)
Yours truly at centre in red-checkered shirt (click on image to enlarge)


There was Barton House in Canberra, usually throbbing with life from its 300-odd - and some very odd - inmates, which turned into a morgue by Christmastime. The dining room was roped off except for one table next to the kitchen door. That table was large enough for those left behind.

It's hard not to be reminded of something when you're surrounded by half a dozen gloomy faces. So for my last Christmas in Canberra in 1969, just before I flew to my next job in New Guinea, I hitched and hiked to Angle Crossing where I spent a solitary weekend writing letters which is the only known device that combines solitude with good company.


Canberra's then Youth Hostel at Angle Crossing, over the hill from the Murrumbidgee River


Years later, and just one day before Christmas, I booked myself into hospital on Bougainville Island with acute appendicitis . "You'd better get on the next plane out and into a hospital at home", the doctor told me. He was already deep into his medicinal alcohol and had trouble remembering which side my appendix was on. "This is my home", I said. He made one long incision just to make sure he wouldn't miss it.

What I had missed was that my best friend Noel Butler was coming over from Wewak to spend - ahem! - Christmas with me. He must have got there while I was still under the anaesthetic, because there he was standing at the foot of my bed. He'd gone to my donga and waited and finally asked the hous boi where I was. "Masta bagarap long haus sik".


Yours truly and Noel hunched over a chess board on the beach at Wewak


We tried again the following year by which time I had moved to Lae on the north coast of the New Guinea mainland. By the time Christmas and Noel had come, there was just time for a drink at the Voco Point yacht club and a game of chess before I flew out to my next job in Burma.


Yours truly and Noel hunched over a chess board near the Voco Point Yacht Club


And so it went on, year after year, either coming or going or laid up with something, deftly avoiding Christmas. It's not so easy anymore!