Monday, January 28, 2008


I can count the number of friends from my school days on less than two hands. But they were good friends.

I can still see them all – Paul, Tony ‘Clarkie’ Clarke, Tony Allan, Michael Carr, then later, in high school, John ‘Heppy’ Hepworth, Brian O’Malley and Jim Pettingel.

My earliest memory fragment of friendship has me walking arm-in-arm with Michael, around our asphalt covered primary school playground, discussing all things vital to 7- and 8-year olds.

Michael left our ranks in high school, courtesy of his parents shockingly separating and divorcing (no other parents I knew had done this yet), and his leaving the district. But his place was quickly filled by Jim, an exasperating tear-away with wiry black hair from Unanderra, south of Wollongong, Heppy, who’d moved up onto the coast from a small, dusty country town not far from Yass, and Bob Spiers from Austinmer. Heppy’s dad had been a one-school-room teacher reassigned to work in the much larger Illawarra.

I spent many early high school Saturday afternoons at Clarkie’s place in Bellambi, where we’d explore the rough bushland between the end of Rothery Road and the sand dunes flanking the ocean about half a mile to the east. Or we’d melt lead in his backyard to make crude fishing sinkers. I’m not sure why, as neither of us liked fishing.

Later in high school, with my first push bike, I’d increasingly spend time with Heppy and Paul who lived quite close to one another in Russell Vale, to the north of Bellambi Lane. Brian, my first real friend in early poetry and writing become increasingly influential. Bob and I explored the wilds of the Austinmer escarpment together.

Some of my most treasured memories, are of Paul, his brother Jerry and myself hunkering down in his parents’ tiny sunroom, working our way through one pile or another of amazing vinyl albums. We’d discuss the music, the styles, the amazing lyrics, believing we were rolling headlong into a world without bounds. And we’d make and share pots of steaming tea with Mrs Reilly, who’d delightedly hover in the wings of her nearby kitchen, savouring our enthusiasm for life.

Jim and I also shared another experience; we both had braces fitted to our teeth, and removed, at the same time. Jim said he was determined to stick with me, so together we could deflect any classroom teasing – which never happened.

And all my friends knew and liked Jennifer, and appreciated us together.

My friendships were fine balancing acts, with no two individuals alike. But I found each rewarding and stimulating and easy as we collectively stumbled wonderfully towards adulthood.
All bar my friendship with Paul, however, have succumbed to the life pressures we’ve all individually faced, and the directions, States and countries our lives have eventually taken us in and to.

But those years between 1967 and 1972 were great. Uncomplicated times of vinyl records, transistor radios, leisurely bike rides along near-country roads that still had years to go before becoming busy, and lazy times spent at the beach. And we all thrilled to our collective, rising excitement as small cogs in the seemingly unstoppable Woodstock Generation machine.

As fashion and mores and music and literature radically changed and buffeted us, we were keenly aware of society changing all around us, rubbing us smoother –for a better future.

Some years later, after I’d graduated from university, I bumped into Jim on Wollongong University campus. He was as manic as ever, and drinking fairly heavily. Not too many months later, Mum called to tell me he and his girl friend had died together in a house fire somewhere south of Wollongong. She thought they’d fallen asleep smoking.

The other lives took paths as different as we’d been as individuals. Tony and I went on journalism – he eventually into radio, me always in print. Heppy’s an architect. Clarkie lives with his family in a small town in Northern New South Wales. Brian spent years as an English Bobby before returning to a life as a Federal public servant. Bob took over his dad’s engineering business in Fairy Meadow. And Paul’s now a nursing sister, caring for the elderly in their own homes.

Michael, a lawyer, somehow managed to wangle a slot in the diplomatic corp., spending several heady years in exotic cities like Vienna. He’s now an Eastern Suburbs art dealer.

My wife, Faye, puts it so clearly . . . She says life’s a train journey. People get on and off at each stop along the way. Some stay only a stop or two. Others ride longer with you before getting off, or changing trains. And some souls enrich your life exceedingly by riding with you all the way to the end of the line.

Even if I could, I would not have changed a thing.


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