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Friday, December 23, 2022

Of Christmasses past

Christmas 1970 inside my donga in Camp 6 on the Bougainville Copper Project


It's that time of year again! This photo is from 1970 when photography was still black and white but not so our lives. It's Christmas in Camp 6 on the island of Bougainville in New Guinea. I'm sitting on the most important piece of furniture in my donga, a beer fridge, flanked by Neil "Jacko" Jackson on my right, and Bob Green to my left.

Neil Jackson was Bechtel's head-timekeeper, a titular job description at best as the only time he could be relied on to keep correctly was opening time at the local "boozer". For him it was always 5 o'clock somewhere. He's shown in the photograph when he's already well into his drink but still some time away from turning ugly and disagreeable.

Bob Green was also a timekeeper who got married just before he came up to the island. He liked his drink but also his wife back in Australia who wrote him long, passionate, and multi-paged letters every day which he received by the fistful on mail-day. He replied to them after the nightly drinking was over but the mental torture became too much and he returned to Melbourne after just a few months.

"Jacko" also moved back to Melbourne, although not of his own volition. He'd gone on yet another drunken binge which lasted for days and only came to an end when he told his boss, who'd asked why he hadn't come to work, to f#@k himself. He was on the next plane to Melbourne where he inherited his auntie's mansion in blue-ribbon Toorak and finished his days fighting off the neighbours who tried to have him and his dozens of cats and a pile of empties evicted from their genteel neighbourhood. It's rumoured that he was knighted for his services to the Australian brewing industry and lived out his days as Sir Osis of the Liver.

Bob Green and "Jacko" were just two of several unlikely characters who back then I called by that shifty English monosyllable that covers such a vast array of meanings that you can never be quite sure what anyone means when they use the word "friend". We were friends not because we had sought out each other's company but because we were thrown into each other's company through work and circumstances.

I still wonder how in this company of alcoholics and misfits I didn't permanently impair my young body and tender soul. I'd just turned 25. My short life until then had been a series of lucky breaks, and the word 'regret' had not yet entered my vocabulary. An endless succession of more lucky breaks and golden tomorrows seemed to lie ahead of me. How wrong and how right I was!

Looking at this old photo brings back lots of memories which make me feel young again and help me forget that these days when I try to leap tall buildings in a single bounds, I always hit the wall halfway up.

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