Tin Badgery

I was first exposed to the mysterious and silent language of  “Tin Badgery” at the tender age of not much, and well before I had any wits about me. Maybe 7 or 8 years old. When my parents were away for a long weekend or if they were completely sick of me asking too many questions or getting my hands caught in the Sunbeam mix master (both hands, so I couldn’t reach the off switch), or dismantling my bedside lamp whilst it was still plugged in (that idea sent me across the room, flying without a permit), they would simply ship me off to the Dales, to stay with my aunt Maire, uncle Kevin, and 8 cousins of descending ages, of whom most were a lot older than myself. I was a big fish in our own pond of 5 kids, but at the Dales, I was, along with youngest cousin Johanna (“Boe”), by far the smallest fish in their very large pond. Some of my elder cousins held me up and out by the legs and l remember trying, upside down, to take a swing at their knees. Whilst some of my cousins were studying for their secondary school final year exams, I was not long out of finger-painting. The kids in our family (there were only 4 of us then) were generally separated and sent to various cousin households, to spread the burden, and I don’t say that lightly, as sending all of us to one location was like sanctioning Vikings to invade a small country. As a collective we were marauders and looters. Pilferers and pillagers. Just a little bit excited and out of control. And not to be dismissed just because we were short. I remember pulling rows of books out of bookcases as we ransacked rooms at will. On the other hand, as individual assailants, we were just tolerable and tactically in the minority, and that is why I stayed at the Dales on my own on this occasion. I was looking forward to climbing up into the tree-house my cousins had built high up in a tree in the front yard (from which my brother had once fallen out of and broken his arm) and perhaps a barefoot billy-cart derby down the street. The Dales had a very sophisticated series of homemade carts that traveled only inches off the pavement and were linked by rope, and when the carts took a steep footpath corner at speed, the rear carriage invariably “whipped” and spilled out onto the grass nature strip, and sometimes into the gutter, which was great fun but requiring antiseptic cream and the odd bandage. Hands, elbows, knees, toes – if you hadn’t lost skin on all of these then you were missing out on all the fun.

As it turned out on this occasion, being in this enormous house with lots of enormous people, I transformed from a noisy little warmonger into a young boy possessing very little visibility. The Dale household was an ever-morphing organism with an open front door and people constantly appearing and vanishing, and there seemed to be an extra few people living there that I had never met (and perhaps no-one else had either). There must have been times when the question was asked if anyone actually knew the person sitting opposite them, as they looked familiar and but it was unclear what their connection to the family was. I remember my cousin Peter bumping into me in the hallway outside the TV room and saying “I keep spotting you, it looks like you might be actually staying here!” But it was only after you turned up for 2-3 consecutive meals in a row that anyone could really be certain.

And this brings us to the dining room, where the “Tin Badgery” code was implemented whenever necessary.

The dining room was the nucleus of the household. It was a large space separated from the lounge by double glass-pane doors, and a perpetually swinging door to the kitchen, from which large pots of stews and endless bubbling soups continually appeared out of. Everything seemed to have diced carrots in it. And you could count on cakes and pastries – you never had to check on what was on the stove or in the oven, you just knew lots of food was coming. It was food for the masses, and prepared by a cook who spoke mostly in a foreign tongue – French from memory –  which was too much for me as I was still grappling with English. The dining room table was the biggest I have ever seen, could easy seat 12 people, and was a tapestry of spread out newspapers and tomes of knowledge. There was always a full pot of hot fresh coffee in the middle of the table and its relaxing aroma greeted you warmly and invited you open up your mind. The table casually populated itself, as there were no set times to eat or congregate. People filtered in and out, reading whatever newspaper article that happened to be open in front of them, and more importantly, discussing at length all important world issues of the day. Issues were raised, dissected, debated with humor, only ever partially solved, and then parked for later analysis. Every story espoused seemed to have little additional side stories attached to them, and in a roomful of story hijackers, the conversation meandered like the Mississippi. I didn’t understand any of it, being a very young person and unconditionally illiterate, but I was skilled enough to listen intently, laugh with them all at the right moments, and repeat punchlines in delight to feign some level of understanding.

But as the invisible boy, and only recently verified as a “stayer”, I felt a need to make an impression and when I finally had a chance to speak at the table, I just rambled on with whatever came into my head. I do not remember what the topic was and but I do remember vividly what happened next.

What I had said probably made no sense at all and had very little factual standing. Those listening around the table held their composure, but began lightly touching and twisting the lapels on their shirts and jackets. I had no idea what was going on. Everyone at the table joined in. Just a gentle tug at the lapel, not too obvious on its own, but very obvious when in unison with everyone else. No winking, or smirking, no chortling or coughing, just some very tidy lapel handiwork. I felt the dynamic of the room alter, but I had no idea what had just happened.

It was quite some time later that I found out that I had been “Tin Badgered”.

Now way back in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, Flinders street station, located in the very centre of Melbourne, was possibly the busiest place in town. The train platforms were jammed with folk in overcoats and hats, and there were plenty of vendors selling tobacco, food, newspapers and sweets. There were even vending machines back then, that dispensed cigarettes, chewing gum, and novelty items, and this is where “Tin Badgery” came to life.

My uncle Kevin and his mate Dan Cullen, both city lawyers, found themselves on one of the station platforms with a bit of spare time on their hands one night after work, having missed their train, which train travelers often do. They took to examining the contents of the vending machines. As I understand it, there was a machine that dispensed tin badges, and you could impress your own wordage on it by rotating a dial to each desired letter and then pulling a lever, which would punch and indent each letter onto a thin metal strip, which presumably you could then adhere to the tin badge.

Kevin and Dan thought this was a terrific technological advancement, and one with countless applications. After considering some of these applications, they settled on minting a tin badge suitably inscribed with the word “Bullshit” on it. Their plan was to place the badge neatly behind the lapel of their overcoats, hidden from view, but cocked and loaded, just waiting for an unsuspecting bullshit artist.

Just a twist of the lapel, message sent. No need for a verbal reply, simply flash the badge.

And so the vending machine was put to work. Dials and levers were dialed and levered, with letters painstakingly punched into thin metal, formulating their chosen word. All was going well until the machine suddenly stopped indenting. The metal strip had reached the end of its roll and only the word “Bull” dropped out into the dispensing tray. This half completed offering was quite correctly interpreted by Kevin and Dan as an irrefutable act of state censorship, the likes of which they had never seen before! They were not aware of any other censored mechanical machines on the planet. And they weren’t sure if they liked the idea of having the “Bull” without the “shit”. The “shit” was the main part. Without the “shit”, the tin badge was a missile without the pointy bit, a pop-gun without any pop, and it just wasn’t going to be the same.

As a result, I don’t know if the censored and greatly subdued “Bull” tin badge was ever actually pinned behind a lapel and successful deployed, but the story became family folklore, and was often retold at the dining room table, but of course never embellished, as this would, in itself, have drawn a lot of silent lapel twisting from those listening.

I cannot remember the content of my story told at the Dales dining room table in between the soup and stews and amongst the spread out newspapers, but if you have read any of my other blog posts, you will know that whatever I was talking about was inflated, extruded, Edward Scissor-handed, plastic surgeon-ed, and re-fashioned beyond recognition, so the tin badgering I received on that day was totally fair.

The old tin badge machine is now long gone, its dials, levers and rolls of aluminum strip dutifully consigned to station platform vending machine history. Kevin and Maire have both passed away as well, they were unforgettable and highly entertaining characters, and the memories of staying at Carson Street with cousins (in order) Dominie, Mike, Christopher, Rebecca, Peter, Greg, Leo, and Johanna are still vivid and treasured. They have a lot of family stories (with little side stories attached to them) and it is great to re-live these whenever we catch up at family gatherings. And sorry about the emptied bookcases and trashed rooms, I could say that it was my other siblings that did all the ransacking, but it was exactly that kind of talk that exposed me to Tin Badgery in the first place.

The Dale family at the dining room table, back in the early 70’s when big red ties were very much on trend.

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The Port

A few weeks ago my father turned a very sharp, fit and healthy 84. His grand-kids insist that he is, in fact, Colonel Sanders, and every time I see him now I feel like racing out and buying a bucket of chicken.

His year of birth is etched indelibly in our minds because of several bottles of 1933 very special Para Port that he never got to drink.

There bottles were stored in perfect conditions at the far reaches of the household cellar, where the bearers and joints hung low to the bare earth, a space generally consigned only to pointy nosed rodents and smallish, long tailed marsupials.

It was Dad’s expressed intent that these special bottles of port be shared on his 50th birthday with family and friends. There is nothing more exhilarating than wriggling out and blowing the dust off a bottle that has been loyally mellowing in its own deep dark musty stillness for half a century.

Dad checked on his commemorative stash back in the mid 70’s, when he was still in his 40’s, and it was at that time that he made a grim discovery. There was only a mouthful left in one of the bottles. The treasured contents had been all but looted.

The cellar immediately became a crime scene. Being a lawyer, our father was forensically inclined, and appropriately skilled at cross examination. I don’t recall seeing the cellar taped off, or white chalk outlines drawn around the strewn bottles, but we all felt at the time that a “line up” might be imminent.

A list of suspects was quickly drawn up, and no-one was above suspicion.

The list included anyone who had access to the cellar or who might have had occasion to be in the garden, and certainly anyone with a known interest in fine port. Children under the age of 10 (there were 3 of them, aged 9,6 an 1) were initially ruled out, although they might later be required to help Dad with his inquiries. I was 11 at the time, and my elder brother 13, so we would be required to give a statement, separately of course, so that our testimony would not be co-authored.

The fortnightly gardener, Marcelo, unwittingly became the prime suspect, as he could be placed at or near the scene of the crime, and may have had motive, as Dad openly held the view that Marcelo had totally annihilated the Agapanthus bushes at the back of the garden. In truth, the plants all thanked Marcelo for being cut back to within an inch of their lives, but their resulting nudity was open to conjecture. Perhaps, in an act of unbridled retribution, Marcelo had found himself in the cellar (there was an unlocked garden entrance) guzzling away, with a middle fingered salute, singing opera style, with his handkerchief still tied (at the corners) around his head, and traces of freshly slashed Agapanthus clinging to his sweaty forearms.

Common sense later prevailed on the gardener theory, however, because Marcelo was a kind, honest, gentle man who did not have a nasty bone in his body, despite the ease at which he took to plants with razor sharp shears. So it was going to difficult to finger Marcelo for the crime, and the investigation therefore continued without a solid lead.

The subject was subsequently raised at the dinner table one night and it yielded fruit. Young eyes quickly exchanged glances across the table, and the clatter of knives and forks was suddenly drowned out by the sound of children nearly choking on their lamb chop tails. Eventually a full confession was made. As it turned out, the deed was carried out by a devious couple of little trouble-making pirates. One of my siblings and a cousin of ours often played in the garden area near the cellar, and over many occasions, spanning possibly years, they would venture into the cellar and help themselves to a ritualistic swig from one of the port bottles. No big deal, they figured, it was only just a taste, and surely no-one would notice. It tasted good, a bit like that cough medicine, and it warmed their stomachs. Just a swig though, better put the bottle back, and leave some for next time. It was a little bit of mischief that got out of hand only by the duration with which it continued undetected.

I don’t remember Dad being particularly happy about the loss of liquor but I do remember him being far more moved by the forth righteousness and honesty displayed by the child in question, and a sermon may have followed from the end of the table, espousing the virtues of always openly owning your mistakes, and doing the right thing when it counts, and how good is that Yorkshire pudding, is there any more left in the kitchen?

My sibling cheekily said to me last week that if it had been public knowledge that Marcelo was the prime suspect, moves could have been swiftly made to properly fit him up for the crime. A pitchfork could have been left leaning suspiciously up against an open cellar door, and perhaps a sweaty “smoking handkerchief” left at the site of grim discovery, there beneath the joists and bearers, at the far “marsupial” reaches of the household cellar.

Now, quite correctly, all these years later, a bottle of fine Para port was presented to Dad on his 84th birthday by the same sibling, with “1933” handwritten on it (and dad’s age of “84” on it as well, just in case subtraction is no longer attractive or available). I don’t know if it was suggested to Dad at the time, but it only makes sense that he put the bottle down until his 100th birthday so he can finally fulfill his wish and crack it open with family and friends. Maybe he can pull the cork it when he receives, in his words, his “Telegram from Camilla”.

This time the bottle and its contents should be safe. Our parents no longer have a cellar, their kids are in their 40/50’s, and Mum and Dad do all the gardening. He would do well, however, to keep it out of reach of the younger grandchildren.

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Remembering not to forget

Photo of original sign - courtesy of Matt Collopy.

Photo courtesy of Matt Collopy.

“Collopy for Toys” didn’t just sell toys.

Not so long ago, in the jaws of Melbourne’s historic Camberwell Junction, where 3 main roads intersect and distribute masses of people and cars in 6 different directions, there stood, nestled in amongst the hustle and bustle of it all, an iconic retail institution – a “jewel in the crown” – a toy shop.

And it was an institution. Everybody knew where it was, everybody bought toys there. Hopeful children instinctively lured parents and grandparents in through the doorway. Sometimes they even dragged them in.

But what awaited them inside the store is what separates the “now” from “yesterday”.

I can still see the enormous, genuine, delighted smiles on John and Barbara Collopy’s faces as they greeted you. You felt like you were the only person in the room. And it didn’t matter if you had been shopping there forever, or if you were wandering in aimlessly for the very first time. But one thing was guaranteed, you never left empty-handed, and you never left without a smile on your face. And you knew you’d be back, because you found the exact toy or gift that your were looking for, but more than that, you left with a bit of extra self-esteem. Barbara and John had taken the time to chat with you not only about the child for whom the gift was for – their age, likes and interests – but along the way they had also found out about you, and what you were all about. The issues facing the world, the state of the economy, and the prospects of Hawthorn winning the next AFL football flag usually got a good run as well. Any children accompanying their parents were greeted with a warm smile, asked their names, what their favorite sporting activities were, and, with a jovial wink of an eye, advised that it wasn’t too late to “get on the band-wagon” and inform their parents that they going to switch their allegiance to the Hawthorn Football Club. I bet a lot of people visited the store without even looking for a gift. They might have just been going past, and decided to stop in and say hello. Other shopkeepers were often to be found in there chatting away at the counter. Barbara and John were able to connect with people.

I can’t think of too many stores I could walk into and engage with in that way now. It seems, to me at least, that the rise of large retail franchised toys stores and globalization (with online shopping) has shifted the customer’s concept of “service” more toward accessibility and price; and away from a personalized shopping experience. Maybe that’s just me.

Dean's Garage, corner of Balwyn & Belmore Roads, North Balwyn, Melbourne. Circa 1976. Photograph courtesy of Rick Dempster.

Dean’s Garage, corner of Balwyn & Belmore Roads, North Balwyn, Melbourne. Circa 1976. Photograph courtesy of Rick Dempster.

I can also remember stopping at our local petrol station before we became a self-serve society. A grubby, grease covered man in weathered overalls would release a broad smile and wave at us kids in the back seat of our family car as we pulled up next to a bowser at Dean’s Garage, on the corner of Balwyn and Belmore Roads, North Balwyn, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. We all sat there, frying in the scorching summer heat, windows all down (no Air-conditioning in those days), bare skin stuck to the burning vinyl seats and our midriffs getting seared, medium to well done, by the chrome metal seat belt buckles (for those of us in the back seat that actually had a seat belt), and we panted like dogs that have chased a ball for an hour.

“Fill ‘er up with super?” the attendant would cheekily ask my mother as she handed him the keys out the window so he could unlock the fuel cap.

“Yes please, and would you mind just checking the oil?”

Of course that was no problem, and the oily rag that dangled out of his back pocket and that swished like a tail as he strode past, was swiftly removed and readied for dipstick inspection. And all the while, his cheeky smile remained intact, only disappearing from view momentarily as he ducked under the car bonnet. If it was 35 celcius (100 degrees) in the shade, it must have been 45 celcius under that hood; but as he re-emerged, and wiped away the sweat off his brow, the smile on his face was just as wide, and would only widen further as he spotted and greeted another motorist pulling up behind us. By now the petrol bowser would be agitating slightly and the hose tightening and shuddering, indicating that car fuel tank was full of super, and that the bowser was getting anxious to serve the next vehicle.

I don’t miss cars without air-conditioning, but I do miss the greased, grinning man who went out of his way in the blistering heat to offer some good old-fashioned service. He wasn’t just dispensing petroleum, he was a friendly face that everybody knew. He, too, was able to connect with people.

“Collopy for Toys”, in the very heart of the Camberwell Junction, has been closed for quite a few years now, but I stroll past occasionally and can still mentally picture parents being towed into the store by their little people. “Dean’s Garage” is also long gone. It was converted into a good Chinese restaurant called the “Lion’s Den” and was popular for its delicious Yum Cha lunches, before the site was eventually redeveloped into an office building.

Whilst these businesses have closed down, and life moves on, it is important that we remember not to forget the old-fashioned standards that we have been lucky enough to experience. We cannot go back, but we can remember.

I remember that “Collopy for Toys” didn’t just sell toys.

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Top 5 list – The most stupid things I have ever done.

image

This list is not exhaustive. Numerous other worthy acts of stupidity could have arguably been selected. The publishing of this list, is, in itself, just another example of how someone with a room temperature IQ can be astonishingly stupid.

I recently posted “The 4th most stupid thing I have ever done” and I was asked what the other 3 more stupid things were, if that was possible. I thought I’d sensibly round it up to 5.

Well here they are, click the links to the relevant stories, or simply scroll down the page.

  1. Looking for Huntsville – giving new meaning to the term “Mystery Flight”.
  2. My car drove off without me! – driver-less car technology before its time.
  3. My brush with “no mess” Charlie – a nuclear reaction in a bottle.
  4. The 4th most stupid thing I have ever done – flying without a permit, rough landing.
  5. The blowfly mountain – lost…plain and simple, with emphasis on simple.

With an honourable mention to “When you say the word ‘country’ you should always try and finish it” – not because I was stupid; it was just the awkwardness of it all. It was also my first ever post and a personal favourite.

1. Looking for Huntsville.

Igloo with wings

Information desks provide information. They had it, and I needed it.

“Well hello sir,” came the greeting from the spritely young female behind the counter, “Now, how can I assist you today?” The question came with a searching look, as I must have appeared to be a little disoriented.

“Where am I?” I asked. I was hoping that she might know. They had it, and I needed it.

The young lady took a step backward, as if, for a moment, she didn’t quite know where she was either. She eyed me carefully; puzzled, and slightly amused. Everyone that she had ever met in her life had known where they were. She looked upwards and to her left, as if the answer might be hanging from the ceiling on a long piece of string.

“Excuse me, but you don’t know where you are?” She laughed a little, checked herself, and then tried to be serious.

“No, I don’t… I don’t know where I am. Can you please tell me?”

This was too good to be true. She was going to smash this one out of the stadium.

“Why, you’re at the AIRPORT!”

Yes, Okay, I had pitched that one up, but I didn’t have time for games. “I know I’m at an airport. Can you now kindly tell me WHICH CITY?!”

Priceless. The attendant shot a sideways glance at her male co-worker, to see if he had picked up on the conversation. They had themselves a real one here. Might be needing security on this one. It was just like the training video. The red button was probably just below the desk. She took her hands off the counter and put them by her sides. So, this guy with the funny accent doesn’t even know which city he is in? With a grin that was broader than it should have been, she put me out of my misery.

“Why, you’re in HUNTSVILLE!”

“That’s great,” I spat back immediately, “but I’m supposed to be in LOS ANGELES!”

Her fingers may have been circling the unseen panic button. The attendants were too afraid to look at each other, in case they completely lost it. Then, after a moment of re-composure, they swung swiftly into crazy passenger management mode, and asked me to take a deep breath and start from the beginning, pointing out in lowered calming tones that they were, indeed, there to help me.

So I hastily explained what I think had happened. In a nutshell, I must have caught the wrong plane, then fallen asleep, snoring through any PA announcements, and then come to when the plane was losing altitude (after only about 30-60 minutes) above snow-covered fields, landing on a smallish landing strip, and spilling out into this airport terminal. No signs, no discussions; I simply walked off the plane with absolutely no idea where I was. Ridiculous but true.

The male co-worker now had his eyes closed, his frame tilting a little, and slightly trembling. He looked like he was moments from lift off. The girl focussed on her rapid keyboard tapping whilst taking long steady breaths, so that she didn’t fall over behind the counter and spasm with laughter.

Now, I’m happy to be labelled as a complete numskull, and yes, I did mindlessly board the wrong plane; but at a stretch, I deserve a few credit points because they (the airline) let me do it. I had been working for nearly three weeks in Atlanta Georgia (this was back in February 1995), and I was tired and just wanted to go home to my young family in Melbourne Australia. Atlanta was unusually cold at that time and totally covered in snow, and, of course, I didn’t even have a coat. Really clever. Anyway, sitting at Atlanta’s departure gate lounge, I do remember not feeling all that sharp. When I thought back on it, there were two gates being serviced from the one lounge, and there were two planes boarding at the same time. I had a feeling that the “gate-keeper” checked my ticket but did not scan it, and then ushered me cheerfully aboard what would become the plane of shame.

My Melbourne bound connecting flight departed LA in seven hours time, but if I didn’t check in within five hours, my forwarded luggage would be offloaded and I would miss the long haul flight home. So I needed a lifeline flight to LA. They had it, and I needed it. The keyboard tapping stopped suddenly as a flight had been found … to Memphis. I paused and stared for a long time at the dynamic duo behind the counter, trying to detect any escaping merriment. They were serious. “I’m sorry,” I started, “but I don’t really want to go to Memphis right now. I really need…”

“…It’s the only way. You’ll have to try to get another flight from Memphis to LA, but there is no guarantee, sorry. Here’s your ticket, good luck, we hope you make it!” I took the chance, because that is what people with no other options do.

When I saw the plane sitting out in the field on its own in the semi darkness, I felt confident that my grinning counter buddies were peering out a window at me somewhere, doubled over, wetting their pants.

I was about to board an igloo with wings.

It was totally frozen. Great, I thought. I’m to be propelled off the ground in a popsicle. It was a twin prop plane, a 20 seater I think. I climbed the frozen steps and clambered aboard. By the time I sat down my teeth were chattering. It was freezing in there (no coat, remember), and I couldn’t see out the windows. I wasn’t even sure if there were any windows. A loud engine noise outside was followed by a continuous thudding noise on the roof above me. The captain crackled over the PA, “Welcome aboard. We’ll be on our way just as soon as the tanker can DE-ICE the plane!” So now I was very nervous, and cold. There were only two other people on the flight and they both had massive overcoats and scarves on. So I was nervous, cold, and envious. I started seeing headlines. “Lost idiot falls out of sky, trapped in refrigerator.” The ice started melting on the windows as my deadline time clock ticked down. It took 15 minutes of solid soaking to thaw out the vehicle. Eventually the props agitated themselves to life and we taxied out and left the mystery town or city of Huntsville behind.

Thankfully the aviating igloo arrived in Memphis, and after repeating my story again at another information desk (this time I knew where I was), A connecting flight to LA was found. The timing was tight, but it was my only option. Once again, I took the chance. The airline that I had booked with was keen to take care of this issue because they sensed some liability for allowing me to board the wrong flight.

But it was all to no avail. Arriving in LA, I had missed the baggage cutoff time by 20 minutes. I was gutted.

Now I had to conference call my bosses in Melbourne and tell them that I was a complete idiot, and that I was going to be staying an extra night in a hotel in LA and returning to work a day later than expected. I answered everything truthfully, however they did not ask all the right questions. They asked what had happened, and I explained that I missed my connecting flight by 20 minutes. There was silence at the other end of the line for a while, and I was waiting for the question “why?” But it never came. It was not uncommon for one of them to ask, “Is there anything you haven’t told me?”, but this time neither of them pressed me on it. They moved on to the details of where I was going to stay, and then onto work related issues. My bosses both had a good sense of humor and they would have handled it well. I always thought I’d tell them the story at some stage, but I never have. I might have been too embarrassed. One of these guys (the company CEO and my ultimate boss) will probably read this and finally find out the whole truth. Hope you enjoy the tale Hoops!

Some time after making it home, my wife Susie, my Aunt Jacqui and Uncle Geoff, and I, were sitting around chatting, and the story resurfaced. We decided to hunt down that mystery city/town to find out where it was.

Looking for Huntsville.

We looked it up on the on the Internet, and to our surprise, discovered that there are in fact three Huntsvilles in the US; one in Alabama (180,000 pop.); one in Texas (38,000 pop.); and one in Tennessee (1200 pop.); and all were within the flight time window from Atlanta that I had snored through.

So, to this day, I still have no idea where I landed on that freezing late afternoon somewhere in the southern states, welcomed by a couple of grinning, out-of-stadium ball slogging comedians. I’d say the smart money is on Huntsville Alabama, but you would do better than getting your “smarts” from me.

[Footnote: “Hoops” did read the story and we had a good laugh about it later.]

2. My car drove off without me!

my car tool off without me

Stupidity has me on speed dial.

And mornings are not my strong suit. Deprive me of caffeine, and what may start out as a barely functional morning can then trail off very badly.

Routinely parking opposite the post office one morning on the way into work, I emptied our post office box and filtered out the junk mail. There were quite a few unsolicited mail items on this particular morning so I lingered there for a few extra moments. I then re-posted the unwanted items (is this wrong?) so the post office sorters could re-offer these items to other irritated PO box customers.

Having meandered absently down the ramp from the post office, thinking only of ridiculously strong coffee, I then started to cross the road to where my car wasn’t parked anymore.

Stupidity requires that you absorb critical data slowly.

I stopped dead in my tracks, did a double take, retraced my movements, and still came up with the same result. But something had been tugging at me whilst I was walking down the ramp; where something familiar but somehow out of place had moved through my field of vision. I now knew what it was.

I ran faster and more frantically than I have ever run in my whole life.

My car was about 50 metres (150 feet) down the road, drifting silently backwards into a very busy “T” intersection, tracking a perfect path toward a power pole on the other side. It wan’t travelling fast, a bit less than walking speed, but it was an odyssey promising disaster.

The total traffic anarchy was profound. Cars screeched, swerved, pulled over or rapidly or reversed out of the way; whilst stunned and bewildered pedestrians, open mouthed, watched as a complete idiot wildly chased after his car. It was sheer madness.

I covered the distance to my car in Olympic time. With the car now well beyond the centre of the intersection and only metres from the power pole, I wrestled with the driver’s side door but it was locked. Of course it was locked! I had forgotten to put the car in “park” and engage the handbrake, but I had remembered to lock it! Doing the maths, I figured there were only 3-4 seconds left before impact. Scrambling around in my pocket, while dancing sideways so I remained in line with the driver’s door, I frantically dug out my keys.

Now in the final stages of adrenalin driven hysteria, and still dancing like I was putting out a bush-fire, I stabbed madly at the key fob … and successfully unlocked the rear hatch!

There were maybe 2 seconds left, one last chance. I squeezed the other end of the key fob, and finally the doors unlocked. I lurched into the car in the most unflattering jerking motion imaginable, all arms and legs, and stamped on the brakes. My whole being had transformed into one big single raging pulse. My ears were pounding.

I started the car and rapidly cleared the scene, stopping at the next set of traffic lights 150 metres (400 feet) up the road. Exhaling and trying to calm myself, I prepared for the immediate onset of denial. Relieved that I hadn’t caused a major traffic accident, I could now move on and instantly forget just how stupid I had been.

But there was now a complication behind me, expanding in my rear view mirror.

A car was moving up from behind that I quickly recognised as being the first on the scene at the intersection and one that had swerved severely out of the way. I was hoping this driver would stop behind me so I could avoid confrontation, but to my horror it moved alongside me and the passenger-side window started lowering.

I was now preparing myself for one almighty verbal spray.

I lowered my window down as well, to take my punishment.

The driver, a male in his forties, was shaking uncontrollably in his seat, and screaming with laughter. He tried to speak but all he could do was shake his head. He ran out of breath and starts choking. He may have even soiled himself. We didn’t speak at all, just laughed.

This guy was now going to own the water cooler conversation at the office, but only after he quickly ducked back home and changed his pants.

I now drive a car that won’t turn off unless the car is in “park”, but frankly, I’d prefer one that makes strong coffee.

3. My brush with “no mess” Charlie.

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I cannot believe that I am actually posting this story.

Caveat: If you secretly yearn for the zesty lemon fragrance of freshly Fabulon-ed sheets and towels, please do not read any further. However, if you have ever camped for a week in a desolate location without proper showering facilities, then continue with caution, but please accept my apology in advance for what is to come.

I was Backpacking around Europe at the age of 20 in 1983, and a friend in Germany kindly offered me the use of his vacant apartment in Paris for a week during the French tennis open. I took him up on his gesture, and life in the Parisian sunshine, for the first 4 days, was like something lifted directly out of a travel brochure. My luck ran out very early on the 5th day when some guy and his wife burst into the apartment, full of attitude and aggression, claiming to have made previous arrangements to stay in the same apartment for the next 7 days. There were a lot of rapid hand gestures, French exclamations through clenched teeth, personal space invasion, and severe doubt cast over my birth status, sexual preferences, and ancestral lineage; before I was suddenly cast out onto the street, reasonably insulted, with the mercury rising, and without the benefit of a shower. There may have even been a final shrill (but then muffled) insult directed at me as the door slammed shut.

Oddly enough, hotels aren’t exactly chasing you for business when the French Open is on.

After many hours of lobby shopping, the only place in Paris that would have me for the next two nights was a shabby little back street establishment that had been built before they discovered water. Seriously, my room was like a broom closet. In short, I went without a proper shower for three long hot summer sightseeing days. I tried sneaking into other hotels that had running water but they saw me a mile off; I was that unwashed guy that they are highly trained to look out for. I had to settle for limited splash washing in cafe powder-rooms, but of course you never get the same coverage. It was a record-breaking heat wave; I was chalking up the kilometers, and I was hygienically unhappy. Stray animals began following, at a safe distance, behind me. Large birds gathered, with an air of expectancy, in nearby trees. A Renault mowing down a nearby fire hydrant would have truly been a godsend.

I’m still learning to deal with the shame.

At the end of the week, I returned to the place where I was staying in Germany a little heavier. I walked differently; a bit like John Wayne after riding a horse for a month. My hair was oily and plastered to my skull, and my body odor had a pulse of its own. When I walked in the door, no-one seemed very interested in talking to me, so I headed straight for what was possibly the best, hottest, and longest shower I have ever had. I let the water cleanse away the indignity of the previous days, but I noticed when toweling off that some unwanted sweat rashes remained. My hosts had left an elaborate array of deodorants and body talc’s on the ledge above the wash basin, and a frenzy followed. I covered my body in talcum powder. I smelt great, looked clean, but still walked funny. The only option available to me now was to slide off to bed and pretend that the previous three days hadn’t happened.

Something woke me up in the middle of the night. I felt rigid, like I’d been immersed in a mud bath and had been laid out to dry. Mind racing, I “zomby walked” into the bathroom to take stock of the situation, and then hurriedly hunted down the bottle of talcum powder that stood, now mocking me, on the shelf above the basin.

I don’t know what they call it in Germany, but here we call it “Ajax”. I looked in the mirror, and my jaw had dropped so much I could see where my tonsils had been removed when I was six. I immediately swung into damage control, and moved to wash off the household cleaning agent. It wasn’t until I had the water running that I remembered the ad with “No Mess” Charlie; that jolly, oval-faced plumber that cleaned up his mess in a jiffy with the wonderful new formula Ajax. You may remember how the “Deep Action Cleanser” really worked hard (like Charlie) to get in and get the job done.

If water had met powder that night, my fathering future would have been napalmed before my eyes. Nevertheless, I had to act quickly, because I noticed that the sweaty areas had started turning blue. Again, I had memories of Charlie swishing out the vanity grime with Ajax’s magical blue rinse. I don’t know how long it took me to rub off the caked on powder, but I took my time. It was very abrasive stuff. When I had given myself the all clear, I retired again for the night.

The morning heralded a remarkable discovery. That German Ajax powder had “Nuked” the fungal bacteria, arrested the “Long March”, and restored peace and unity to the neighborhood. I felt like I’d been rid of a poltergeist. That is one wicked formula, our old Ajax. Charlie’s work was done, and I could almost see him grinning and flirting in the bathroom with that charmed 1960’s lady of the household, holding up the Ajax bottle so the camera could get the “money shot”.

Naturally I didn’t let on to my hosts about what had transpired. Something again to do with the shame.

Of course every little story has a moral, but this one has many.

Firstly, be sure to only stay in Hotels that have water!

Secondly, always travel with a bicycle lock so you can chain yourself to something large and heavy in the event of a pending eviction.

Thirdly, be careful using anything in foreign language bottles, especially in bathrooms where your host has recently sanitized it for your use. If you have foreigners staying at your house, clear away the cleaners and solvents.

And of course, lastly … if your overseas guests start itching and walking funny, just leave a bottle of Ajax on the vanity top next to the deodorant.

4. The 4th most stupid thing I have ever done.

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Last month I had a “Wile e coyote” moment. I was replacing a down-light globe in our kitchen, and as I stretched upward toward the ceiling on an aged aluminium ladder, the side extrusion broke a rivet. The ladder buckled on one side, the cross support arms flipped upward, freeing the ladder from its “A” configuration, and I was left, suspended in mid-air, holding up a little “Help” sign, with sagging ears and haunted bulging eyes, as the ladder flattened out from under me and crashed to the floor. The Road Runner did his little “beep-beep” routine, pecked at a little pyramid of seed, and sped off down the hallway. Luckily I was able to land upright with feet either side of the ladder in a perfect dismount. A solid 9.7 from the judges. No damage, no injury. No startled soot covered face or piano accordion style walk off. I dismissed the incident, retrieved another (newer and more robust) ladder from the shed and continued on with changing the light bulb, knowing that what had just happened would not even rate in the top 50 list of the most stupid things I have ever done.

But as I fiddled with the light connection again (with wife Susie white-knuckling the sides of the replacement ladder to keep it steady this time), I remembered another not so clever ladder performance back in 2002, one that currently sits mockingly at #4 on the stupidity charts.

In a hurry to drive my young kids to school (our daughter Emily was 8 and our son James was 5), I accidentally pulled the front door shut with my car keys still inside the house. That in itself was pretty stupid, as I am in the business of importing/wholesaling door locks for a living and I should know better. I decided to hurriedly climb an extension ladder up onto the roof of our home and climb through a second storey window. Easy. Should only take a jiffy, grab the keys, and get the kids to school on time.

A year or so earlier my Dad had given me a very long and old wooden extension ladder that he no longer had a use for, cheerfully informing me at the time that falling off a ladder was the second most common way for males over 55 to die. I grabbed that old ladder and hastily set it up on our rear patio, leaning it up against the roof guttering. It extended so far beyond the roof line that I was going to be able to step directly off the ladder and onto the roof. No problems at all.

I wish I had checked to see if the ladder had rubber stoppers at its base, and I wish I knew more about physics and opposing forces. I reached the top of the ladder and moved to the side and leaned against the rungs while I stepped onto the roof, and in doing so, I shifted a lot of the weight onto the top end of the ladder, allowing the bottom of the ladder to lift and take off. The roof line is over 3 metres off the ground, and standing upright, my pea-sized brain was elevated roughly 5 metres above ground level, and I suddenly felt very much in the same kind of deep shit our coyote is accustomed to.

The ladder disappeared. I had one foot standing on the guttering and the other was now supported by very thin air. The “Help” sign came out again, along with the whole coyote “eyes of doom” routine. There would now be a whistling descent sound ending with a final impact “poof” and an expanding debris cloud at the bottom of the canyon.

Having spent a lot of my youth perfecting splash-bombs off diving platforms and off piers behind ferries, I was able to become horizontal, roll in the air to one side, cradle my head with my hands, and absorb the full force of the brick paving below on my right shoulder. If I had been off-balance when the ladder vanished or had rolled any other way, it may have ended very differently. It was a clean descent, although my inside leg collected a timber bench seat on the way down, which was not ideal.

I wish that my son James hadn’t seen it all unfold, and the cry that he gave out as he rushed to get his sister for help is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

I lay there where I landed, happy to be alive, but unhappy about pretty much everything else. The kids ran next door to get Helen, our neighbor, to help me.

10 minutes later we were all standing in Helen’s kitchen next door, and she asked what the hell I was doing on the roof. When I explained that We were locked out of the house without a key, she outstretched her left hand and retrieved our spare key from a hook on the kitchen wall, saying “Why didn’t you just come and grab this one?”

Because I am an idiot. That’s why.

But of course I still had to get the kids to school. My right ankle was a mess, my brain had been pin-balled around inside my skull, and my entire inside leg (down to my ankle) was soon going to feature a hematoma of biblical proportions, but there was still time to get the kids to class before the end of their first lesson.

I knocked apologetically on the open door of James’ prep year classroom and was about to explain his late arrival, but stopped when I saw the sheer horror and disbelief on the teacher’s face and on all the young children’s faces in the room. The teacher jumped to her feet and rushed toward me, motioning me back out into the corridor and closing the door behind her, shielding the sight from young impressionable eyes.

Apparently the only thing missing from the scene was an axe handle hanging out of the side of my head. My head, face, and clothing was splattered with dried blood that had leaked out of the gash on the side of my head, which I, in my state of shock, was totally unaware of. In my haste to get the kids to school I had exited Helen’s kitchen before she had a chance to explain how I looked. I had covered the side of my head with my hands on impact so I assumed that my head was ok.

I groggily took the advice of the teacher and sought medical help from a clinic situated a short drive up the road. The two reception staff started running when they spotted me in the waiting room, one to grab me and the other to rustle up a doctor, whose immediate questions were “What happened to you?” and “How did you get here?”

“I drove from home…after dropping the kids at school.”

I wasn’t sure why the Doctor’s jaw dropped. What? had I done something wrong?

Top 4, no doubt about it. Profoundly stupid. At times, since 2002, I have thought that other acts of stupidity might have given the “roof incident” a run for its money – there is still plenty of time and it’s not like I’m getting any smarter – but for now it’s good thing seated at number 4.

If there is ever a silver lining to these things, my son James learnt to kick on his non-preferred foot playing Australian Rules Football. He was originally left-footed, but when we played together at the park with my sprained ankle, I had to kick on my opposite foot and so he did the same, and he finished up preferring his right foot rather than his left. A very handy skill, having equal kicking ability on both feet at such a young age.

It’s just a pity that I had to throw myself off the roof to facilitate improvement in my son’s football skills.
5. Blowfly mountain.

"Aberfeldy" By Mark Nolan 1980

My father drove my younger brother Barney and I to Aberfeldy, an old gold mining town in Victoria’s Gippsland ranges, 2.5 hours east Melbourne, back in 1980. Dad had a part share in an inactive mining lease up in the hills there, which, at the time that gold was discovered back in the 1860’s, had a population numbering in the 1,000’s, and was thick with of gritty prospectors, living in tents and lean-to’s, frequenting dozens of pubs, and pinning their hopes and dreams on the unearthing of precious metal trapped in quartz deep beneath their feet. High up in the hills, this area was now riddled with old abandoned mine shafts and tunnels, cut deep into rock, following seams in search of the mother lode, and finally left as dark, silent reminders of a bygone era. Whilst the tunnels had been long boarded up, many of the deep vertical shafts had been left unsealed, covered now by dense scrub and bracken. Fumbling around up there in the hills after dark on your own was not a such good idea.

I was under pressure to produce an oil painting that weekend, to complete my year 12 art folio. We were staying in an old mining hut, perched at the end of a long and winding gravel road. It was a warm November day (30 celcius, 90 degrees) and whilst my father and brother went for a long walk, I set up my easel and canvas on that road and went to work on my folio piece. It was so quiet there, I was completely alone. Except for the blowflies. These agitated airborne missiles had mutated to the size of small birds, and were totally ambivalent to insect repellant. In fact, repellant just made them angry. I sat there in the brilliant sunshine, in a T-shirt, shorts, and thongs (flip-flops), painting and swatting. Three brush strokes, one swat. Incoming assailants, outgoing mortar fire. My air defence campaign became intrinsically woven into my brush stroke technique. Get some paint on the brush, dab it on the canvas a few times, then slap my face and arms to ward off the incoming attacks. It was like a war dance.

Despite the annoying blowflies, I still managed to lose myself in the moment and drift away. Painting does that to you. I thought about what it must have been like back when gold was discovered in the area, and how the prospectors must have lived. I thought about the hut and how it had weathered the years, with its rusted roof and awkward timber structure. My mind meandered through dozens of other subjects that seemed important to a 17-year-old.

I woke up from my drift when the painting was finished, feeling completely refreshed, sun-burnt, with sore arms, and with a discovery.

I had completed two paintings instead of one. The second one was a self-portrait.

There was nearly as much paint on me as there was on the canvas. And with the earthy colors I was painting with, I was practically camouflaged. I looked like something out of Rambo. My face was spattered, my shirt and shorts streaked, and my bare arms were crisscrossed with streaks of color.

I felt a bit silly at the time, if the truth be known, with all that paint on me – but what I was about to do next would plumb new depths of personal stupidity.

It was now late afternoon and my father and brother Barney emerged from a trek up the steep hills that rose up next to the hut. Once they saw through my camouflage and realized that I wasn’t a tree, they told me about the abandoned but uncovered mine shafts up there in the hills. I decided that once I’d cleaned the paint off, I would take a walk up the steep hill through the dense scrub and check it out for myself.

Dressed for the beach, late afternoon, on my own, no provisions, totally isolated terrain, and wandering off aimlessly into the hills.

Really clever.

I initially followed a path up the hill that was so steep that it was hard to keep your footing without sliding backwards in the gravel and leaves. My brother Barney was chopping wood next to the hut, and the sound carried up the hill through the bracken and echoed through the trees. I decided to make it to the top of the hill, which was a good 30 minute climb. I didn’t see any abandoned mine tunnels or shafts along the way. At the top of the hill I found what appeared to be a fire track, a winding road that ran long the mountain ridge. I decided to walk along this road for a while, but I was conscious that I needed to re-enter the scrub at the same place that I came out of it. I could still hear Barney chopping wood way down below in the valley. The walk along the windy ridge road was very pleasant but probably took a bit longer than expected. It was very late in the afternoon now, and I figured that it was time to return to the hut. The heat had gone out of the day and there was now a breeze freshening in the air. Retracing my steps along the fire track, I followed the sound of chopping wood. Yes, Barney was still chopping. It was not uncommon for him to cut him to cut wood relentlessly for hours. He was a very fit and strong young human being. I kept following the sound until it was suddenly behind me. I turned around, took several steps backward, and looked up in horror. The sound I was following was not Barney chopping wood, it was a large piece of stringy bark, hanging off a gum tree branch, tapping against the tree’s trunk. This was not good. I had walked along the winding mountain ridge for a few hundred metres using a false guide, and I now no longer recognized my original point of exit from the scrub. There was no other human settlement on this mountain range, and with the road being so windy, I knew that if I commenced my descent at the wrong point, I could be heading back down on the wrong side of the mountain. I walked up and back along the track trying to make sure of my bearings. The light was starting to fade. I figured I had roughly 20 minutes before nightfall, and the descent may take 20-30 minutes given how steep and dense the forest was. That was, of course, if I was on the correct side of the mountain.

I eventually had to make a decision. I settled on a point of re-entry that felt correct but really was only marginally better than a complete guess. The descent was steep and tough going, given the density of the bush vegetation. It was hard to keep my footing and I slipped a few times, falling backwards. After about 10 minutes I found myself on a small clearing with a shallow dug out pit with side walls about 3 feet high. Dusk was maturing to darkness. I was seriously worried by this point because I had not seen this clearing on my way up the hill. I noted that the wall of this pit would provide some degree of shelter should I need it. I decided to press on for another 5 minutes and then, if I was not confident I was heading in the right direction, I would retreat back to this clearing and stay put for the night, and then return back to the top of the hill to the ridge road in the morning and stay there until someone found me.

The final 5 minute descent did not bring any joy. I was now calling out, trying to get some validation that I was going the right way, but my calls went unanswered. The temperature was dropping at a rate commensurate with my self-confidence. With a cloudless sky, the temperature was likely to get as low as 2-3 Celsius (32-33 degrees overnight), and I was dressed for the beach. If I was to spend the night up in the hills, I would survive, but it wasn’t going to be a lot of fun, and it would be worse for my father and brother, left to wonder if I had fallen down a mine shaft.

I had no choice but to retreat back to the pit for shelter. It would offer at least limited protection from the wind. This was not looking good at all. I started the slow ascent back up the steep incline through the bracken to make it back to the clearing before total darkness finally fell. I kept calling out, in hope that someone would respond. There was no moon that night in the hills of Aberfeldy, and it was now cold, and getting colder. I prepared myself for a long and difficult night on my own.

Then I heard my father’s call.

It was very distant, and with it came an overwhelming sense of relief. I was on the correct side of the mountain. I called back and established a connection.

It took another 15 minutes to reunite. I saw a torchlight occasionally bouncing off the tops of tree trunks, but the scrub was so dense the light did not find its way through to me directly. We kept calling so dad could track me. It took a long time for him to navigate his way through the last 20 metres (60 feet) because the undergrowth was so thick, and because dad was physically exhausted. He had grabbed a torch taken off up that steep hill in a mad panic to find me, and, for him, it was the second climb for that day.

We took our time carefully making our way back down to the hut, using the torchlight to guide our footings and to find branches to hang onto.

Poor old Barney was very pleased to see us when we got back to the hut. We ate dinner in front of the best open fire I have even seen. I described to Dad and Barney the pit that I was going back toward, to shelter for the night. They knew about this clearing, because they had seen it during their climb that day. There was an unblocked vertical mine shaft at that site. I hadn’t spotted it as I went past on the way down, but in the near total darkness, on the way back, it may have found me.

I slept that night, fully clothed in a sleeping bag covered in blankets, and I was still cold, but I didn’t care. I have never been so grateful to be a little bit cold.

My painting of the old rusty roofed hut on the winding gravel road sits on a wall at my parent’s place, and whenever I visit them I look at that painting and return vividly to the events of that weekend. I remember the blowflies and waking up with paint all over myself, and I remember what it felt like to be briefly lost in the dark up in the hills of Aberfeldy. I remember how relieved I was to be warm with food, fire, and family, and that dad had exhausted himself, racing up that hill, to find me.

When you say the word “country” you should always try and finish it.

Photo credit to Nolan Film (James Nolan) https://www.facebook.com/NolanFilm

There is no word in the English language that demands completion more than the word “country”.

This is particularly true when you are giving a lecture to about 300 post graduate marketing students, and you are blessed with a stutter. People are, in general, more afraid of public speaking than dying, and I can tell you, vocal suspension provides a brand of terror that has no equal.

I was 27, working for an Australian machine tool manufacturer in Birmingham, and giving a lecture on the topic of “Marketing Australian Technology to the world” at Warwick University in Coventry, England. The opening greeting and first few sentences of the lecture had gone well. Then I intended to lead off the next point with “in my country, marketing technology abroad requires removal of barriers to entry, including the tyranny of distance, and being able to demonstrate your product in-market.” Instead I stopped dead halfway through the third word. I never finished the sentence “in my country”. The first part of the word “country” sailed out beautifully, but sadly, the second part just never came. I was stuck, with nowhere to go, in a vacuum, and unable to take back my unfinished work. Eyes bulging, lungs inert, my life shrank into a single atom of nothingness, for what seemed like an eternity. The world stopped turning for that moment, resting on its axis, awaiting further instructions. It was truly one of the lowest points of my existance. There were no warning signs, nothing to give me a chance to select an alternative word. I just froze.

The silence in the room was beyond description. Someone coughed awkwardly, but that was the only audible sound to be heard. My mind raced, trying to take in what I had just said, and what the room had just heard, and I was then trying to work out what the hell to do next. In the end, I just did what I always do. I stopped, drew a very deep long breath, waited for one or two unending seconds, regrouped, and then tried to say the same sentence again. The risk in getting stuck in exactly the same spot was very real, but If I didn’t restate it and get it right, the audience would not be able to dismiss my first attempt as a mistake, and they would be left with a word that is never spoken in public in polite company, let alone an auditorium. And that wasn’t the worst part. The two and a half words stood on their own merit as a legitimate sentence. I still shudder when I think about it.

My second attempt, from the outside, was projected with clarity and purpose. From the inside, my mind continued unpacking suitcases of unshackled terror. Thankfully, the sentence was complete this time. The audience was more relieved than I was. Far more relieved, in fact. They exhaled audiably. They had been holding their collective breath in rapture, not sure what was going to happen next. Their faces peered back at me, motionless. I definitely had their attention. There was a lecturer sitting in the front row directly in front of me, dressed in all his pomp, and he looked up from something that he had been reading and peered over his bi-focals directly at my face; but he fixed his stare unblinkingly on my lips rather than on my eyes, willing out the next sentence. I was thinking along similar lines. Get some words out, try and assemble them in some kind of order, check as you go to make sure the words belong in the dictionary, and keep talking until you are satisfied each sentence can hold its own as a structural string. Then get back to the topic and move onward and updward. It worked. The sentences were flowing well now and the mechanics of thought and language were back in sync, and I knew from that moment that I had turned a monumental corner. Something about taking a lemon and making lemonade.

This will sound strange, but despite the chaos that had only just played out, I started enjoying the new moment, and began moving and gesturing confidently, using tone and expression in my voice, raising and lowering at the right moments, pausing for effect, and introducing lighter moments where appropriate. I was back in the game, in control, and the remaining 40 minutes of the lecture was without incident. At the end of the lecture I threw to the audience for questions, and I was completely unprepared for and overwhelmed by the response. A sea of hands immediately shot up, raised high above heads. To my disbelief, question time went almost as long as the lecture itself, for another 30 odd minutes. The questions were thoughtful, on topic, resulting in healthy robust discussion, and quite a few moments of levity. On reflection, I think they understood what had happened at the beginning at the lecture and wanted to let me know that it was Okay. So what had started out being one of the worst days of my life finished up being one of the most rewarding, and one that I will never forget.

After the lecture, the room emptied into a large dining room with long tables set up for lunch. Guests seated near me said they enjoyed the lecture and some also acknowledged that it had got off to a bit of a shaky start. A guy sitting opposite me said “You obviously have a stutter, right?”, which opened up the conversation on speech impediments. I am always happy to talk about my stutter and it makes people around me more at ease when the topic is out in the open. Inevitably the conversation drifted happily on to cricket, as the Ashes tour of 1989 was in full swing in England at the time, and we Australians were making unexpected progress against the favoured English team, and would later go on to win the series convincingly.

The biggest moment of the day, however, occured in the street after the lunch as I was making my way back to the carpark. As I fumbled for my car keys, a man started waving at me from the other side of the street. He seemed anxious to get my attention. I waited for him to cross the road, and as he approached me, I retraced my steps in my mind, wondering if I’d left something behind or forgotten to do something. The man looked to be aged in his mid to late twenties, roughly the same age as myself, medium height and thin, well dressed with ginger curly hair. What was most noticable about this man was that he was crying. When he was close enough he reached out and grabbed my hand with both of his and started shaking mine madly. The tears streamed down his cheeks. I had no idea what was going on until he started to speak. His words stammered out with great difficulty. I wanted to finish his sentences for him but knew from experience that he really wanted to finish them himself, and eventually he did. Through his tears and stammerings he said something I will never forget.

“All my life, all I have ever wanted to do is what you have just done; to have the courage to stand up in front of a whole lot of people and give a talk … now I know that I can do it.”

Then he thanked me again, released my hand, and walked away. That was over 25 years ago, and I can still see his face, and I can still hear his words. I often wonder if he ever achieved his goal. After seeing his passion, however, I have no doubt that he did.

I felt on that day, that I had made a difference.

 

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The 4th most stupid thing I have ever done.

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Last month I had a “Wile e coyote” moment. I was replacing a down-light globe in our kitchen, and as I stretched upward toward the ceiling on an aged aluminium ladder, the side extrusion broke a rivet. The ladder buckled on one side, the cross support arms flipped upward, freeing the ladder from its “A” configuration, and I was left, suspended in mid-air, holding up a little “Help” sign, with sagging ears and haunted bulging eyes, as the ladder flattened out from under me and crashed to the floor. The Road Runner did his little “beep-beep” routine, pecked at a little pyramid of seed, and sped off down the hallway. Luckily I was able to land upright with feet either side of the ladder in a perfect dismount. A solid 9.7 from the judges. No damage, no injury. No startled soot covered face or piano accordion style walk off. I dismissed the incident, retrieved another (newer and more robust) ladder from the shed and continued on with changing the light bulb, knowing that what had just happened would not even rate in the top 50 list of the most stupid things I have ever done.

But as I fiddled with the light connection again (with wife Susie white-knuckling the sides of the replacement ladder to keep it steady this time), I remembered another not so clever ladder performance back in 2002, one that currently sits mockingly at #4 on the stupidity charts.

In a hurry to drive my young kids to school (our daughter Emily was 8 and our son James was 5), I accidentally pulled the front door shut with my car keys still inside the house. That in itself was pretty stupid, as I am in the business of importing/wholesaling door locks for a living and I should know better. I decided to hurriedly climb an extension ladder up onto the roof of our home and climb through a second storey window. Easy. Should only take a jiffy, grab the keys, and get the kids to school on time.

A year or so earlier my Dad had given me a very long and old wooden extension ladder that he no longer had a use for, cheerfully informing me at the time that falling off a ladder was the second most common way for males over 55 to die. I grabbed that old ladder and hastily set it up on our rear patio, leaning it up against the roof guttering. It extended so far beyond the roof line that I was going to be able to step directly off the ladder and onto the roof. No problems at all.

I wish I had checked to see if the ladder had rubber stoppers at its base, and I wish I knew more about physics and opposing forces. I reached the top of the ladder and moved to the side and leaned against the rungs while I stepped onto the roof, and in doing so, I shifted a lot of the weight onto the top end of the ladder, allowing the bottom of the ladder to lift and take off. The roof line is over 3 metres off the ground, and standing upright, my pea-sized brain was elevated roughly 5 metres above ground level, and I suddenly felt very much in the same kind of deep shit our coyote is accustomed to.

The ladder disappeared. I had one foot standing on the guttering and the other was now supported by very thin air. The “Help” sign came out again, along with the whole coyote “eyes of doom” routine. There would now be a whistling descent sound ending with a final impact “poof” and an expanding debris cloud at the bottom of the canyon.

Having spent a lot of my youth perfecting splash-bombs off diving platforms and off piers behind ferries, I was able to become horizontal, roll in the air to one side, cradle my head with my hands, and absorb the full force of the brick paving below on my right shoulder.  If I had been off-balance when the ladder vanished or had rolled any other way, it may have ended very differently. It was a clean descent, although my inside leg collected a timber bench seat on the way down, which was not ideal.

I wish that my son James hadn’t seen it all unfold, and the cry that he gave out as he rushed to get his sister for help is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

I lay there where I landed, happy to be alive, but unhappy about pretty much everything else. The kids ran next door to get Helen, our neighbor, to help me.

10 minutes later we were all standing in Helen’s kitchen next door, and she asked what the hell I was doing on the roof. When I explained that We were locked out of the house without a key, she outstretched her left hand and retrieved our spare key from a hook on the kitchen wall, saying “Why didn’t you just come and grab this one?”

Because I am an idiot. That’s why.

But of course I still had to get the kids to school. My right ankle was a mess, my brain had been pin-balled around inside my skull, and my entire inside leg (down to my ankle) was soon going to feature a hematoma of biblical proportions, but there was still time to get the kids to class before the end of their first lesson.

I knocked apologetically on the open door of James’ prep year classroom and was about to explain his late arrival, but stopped when I saw the sheer horror and disbelief on the teacher’s face and on all the young children’s faces in the room. The teacher jumped to her feet and rushed toward me, motioning me back out into the corridor and closing the door behind her, shielding the sight from young impressionable eyes.

Apparently the only thing missing from the scene was an axe handle hanging out of the side of my head. My head, face, and clothing was splattered with dried blood that had leaked out of the gash on the side of my head, which I, in my state of shock, was totally unaware of. In my haste to get the kids to school I had exited Helen’s kitchen before she had a chance to explain how I looked. I had covered the side of my head with my hands on impact so I assumed that my head was ok.

I groggily took the advice of the teacher and sought medical help from a clinic situated a short drive up the road. The two reception staff started running when they spotted me in the waiting room, one to grab me and the other to rustle up a doctor, whose immediate questions were “What happened to you?” and “How did you get here?”

“I drove from home…after dropping the kids at school.”

I wasn’t sure why the Doctor’s jaw dropped. What? had I done something wrong?

Top 4, no doubt about it. Profoundly stupid. At times, since 2002, I have thought that other acts of stupidity might have given the “roof incident” a run for its money – there is still plenty of time and it’s not like I’m getting any smarter – but for now it’s good thing seated at number 4.

If there is ever a silver lining to these things, my son James learnt to kick on his non-preferred foot playing Australian Rules Football. He was originally left-footed, but when we played together at the park with my sprained ankle, I had to kick on my opposite foot and so he did the same, and he finished up preferring his right foot rather than his left. A very handy skill, having equal kicking ability on both feet at such a young age.

It’s just a pity that I had to throw myself off the roof to facilitate improvement in my son’s football skills.

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Take a good long hard look at yourself.

the junk 1

“You need to take a good, long, hard look at yourself”, I advised my father, “and decide if you really should hang on to all this junk”.

We stood and surveyed the contents of Mum and Dad’s garage floor at the rear of their property in picturesque Mansfield, 2.5 hours out of Melbourne in Victoria’s high country region. My parents are on the move again, embarking on their next life adventure. They both retired and moved out of the city 12 years ago to retrace their early years living in country Victorian towns, and to be near some of their children and grandchildren whom had settled in the area. Now their offspring have nearly all moved out of the district, and as the distance to Melbourne has become increasingly difficult to manage, they have decided to spent the next chapter of their lives by the sea, and closer to Melbourne. They made the decision one day over coffee, sold their house a few days later, and purchased another house on the Mornington peninsula a few days after that. They don’t muck about, my parents, but I guess there is no time like today, and whilst they are still in reasonable shape, they want to squeeze what they can out of their tomorrows.

According to Dad, the garage had already been cleared of all unwanted items. Some items had already moved out and found happiness living with my siblings in sparkling new sheds with newer tools and appliances to play with; whilst other less fortunate items were sadly discarded and left exposed to the elements at the local tip. Some may have even met their fate in the jaws of the dreaded rubbish “Crusher”.  All the shadow boards on the walls had been cleared, and what was remaining was sorted and arrayed in piles in the centre of the garage floor. There was still a heap of stuff there, that, to me, looked like old junk.

“What have we got here, Dad? Surely you’re not going to keep all this stuff. You’re 83, and the likelihood of you never using any of it again is 83%. What are you going to do with it all?”

Dad knew exactly what he was going to do with it. “I’m going to put it into temporary storage until I can get a decent sized shed built at the new place, and then I’ll transfer it all in. No problems, then it will all be sorted and in its place.”

I just couldn’t see the sense in it. “So you are going to move a whole lot of old stuff into a storage facility, waiting for a new shed to be built, and then move it all again, and then never use any of it?”

“That’s right.”

“Look at this!” I said, pointing at a box neatly populated with 10 bottles of weed sprayer, “You’ve got more bottles of weed killer there than you can poke a stick at!”

Dad laughed and confessed that every time he ever tried to find the weed sprayer, the garage was too cluttered and it was always somewhere in there “hiding from him”, so he would have to go out and buy another bottle, and he said he had no idea just how many of them he had accumulated until the clean up. “Most of those bottles still have something in them”, he contended, “So I’m not throwing them out. And whilst hand weeding is not really an option any more, I can still nuke those weeds with the bottled stuff.”

“And what about all those old crusty paint tins?” I continued, “Walls haven’t seen those colors since the 70’s!”

“That’s not true. Those colors are just coming back into fashion. I’m not sure what the condition of the paint is like, so I’ll need to open them up and take a look inside at some stage, but I might still find a use for it all, you never know.” Dad smiled broadly and then cheerfully recounted a story about how he had painted one of the houses we grew up in as kids. He had started with the kitchen. Then he gradually worked through each other room in the house as time permitted, and when he was just adding the final coat to the entrance hallway, a visiting friend candidly noted that it all looked great, and that all Dad had to do now was to finish by painting the kitchen. Dad said painting that house was like painting the Sydney Harbor Bridge – once you finish at one end, you had to start all over again at the other!

But I wasn’t letting up. “So what about all these old rusted tools leaning up against the wall, you’re not going to keep all those, are you?”

“As you know,” he insisted calmly, “I distributed a list of all the items to everyone in the family, and these are the leftover tools that no-one really wants. They are still perfectly good tools, I’ve had them forever, and it seems a shame to get rid of them … even if, as you keep telling me, I don’t ever use them again.”

I remembered many of those tools from when I was a child. I remembered all those gardening afternoons we all had as a young family, digging out our vegetable garden, and planting Rhubarb that we could already taste in mum’s famous rhubarb pies. My siblings and I also used a lot of the tools to build cubby houses in the fruit trees in our back yard – Dad always said that if he was looking for the hammer it was quicker to search for it under the apple tree where we had invariably left it.

I left Dad standing in the garage, staring at all the stuff that he would probably never ever use again, and went to help mum clear and clean out some kitchen cupboards. Soon afterwards, I spotted Dad sitting in their sunny indoor courtyard, and as I studied his face from a distance, he looked to be uncomfortable in his thoughts. As I sprayed and wiped the insides of cupboards and periodically backed away from inhaling the cleansing agent’s toxic fumes, I monitored’s Dad’s expression as he stared up through the glass ceiling of their sun-room, just pondering what we had discussed.

I knew that look on his face, I had seen it many times before. As a retired lawyer, he was carefully weighing up the evidence. My words were challenging his previous judgement, so had re-opened the case. I had submitted my closing argument, and he was now considering all the facts in front of him, but there was also an uncomfortable sadness about him.

In between holding my breath and diving into cupboard cavities, I too began to think about what we had discussed in the garage. I’m not one to hang on to things. I work on the “12 month rule” – if it doesn’t get used in 12 months, it should get tossed out, and this applies to everything in my shed except my surfboards (with every rule there has to be at least one exception, right?) I throw things out and then some of them manage to find their back into the shed again after my wife and/or kids rescue them from the bins or hard rubbish collection.

And that was when the penny dropped. Why do I believe so firmly in the 12 month rule but have an exception for my surfboards? When I am older and have a zero probability of ever using them again, will I throw them out? I know that I won’t. And why not?

Because they hold my memories.

Dad’s hands may have lost a lot of their strength and dexterity, and he is now limited in how much he can do around the house, but he still remembers vividly all the things he once did, and those bits and pieces that I called junk has his DNA embedded in it. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look at them, or smell them, or take a look inside the tins to see what condition they are in, and conjur up all those memories of things that he made or rooms he has painted, or cubby houses that we kids invariably hid the hammer under. Nothing wrong with that at all.

I know that you will read this Dad, but rather than say it at the time, I thought it might be nicer to tell the story and finish it by saying this…

“You need to take a good, long, hard look at yourself … and decide what your new shed is going to look like, and make sure it is big enough to neatly house all of those memories”. I’ll help you move them in, and I’m sorry for misreading that moment in the garage.

Footnote: I walked into my own shed to take some suitable photos for this story and the first thing I saw was 7 bottles of weed spray on a shelf. And I  don’t have an excuse for having so many of them – they weren’t hiding from me.

The junk 2

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“Rotten Monster” by James Nolan – A short film.

rotten monster screen grab

https://player.vimeo.com/video/141374613“>James Nolan Film “Rotten Monster” 2015

A short film by my son James Nolan submitted for his final year 12 school assessment (October 2015). Original score by Michael Trappett and original song by Charlotte Gemmill, great acting by Rory Dempsey and Danny Matier, Julie Arnold and others. Well worth a look (10 minutes).

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