Second Prize: 50 Years
By Gordon Byers
My story begins in 1970. I was a young 22-year-old living in Melbourne, just about finished my plumbing apprenticeship. My father had promised me he would buy me a brand new Holden Kingswood on the condition that I got my plumbing license. Well that was an opportunity I couldn’t miss, so it’s exactly what I did and little did I know it would change my life for the better.
After I finished my plumbing apprenticeship and got my new Kingswood, I was always taking off on small weekend trips away, sometimes as far as New South Wales. We were usually off on shooting trips but this particular time we were in Canberra, where I met some young blokes who told me they were driving to Western Australia. Now Western Australia had always seemed so far away to me at that time but after a bit of procrastination it was planned and we were on the road. The trip was not without its adventures, that’s for sure. Somewhere on the road in South Australia we stopped off to enjoy a few beers and take a break from the long trip. We were caught by a couple of police officers while we were shooting our bottles off the fence. Although they approached us with guns in their hands, we quickly discovered they were only coming for a chat as they had also been out shooting crows not far from where we were camped.
After a few good weeks of travelling, we reached the Kimberley town of Broome. Broome might as well have been a ghost town when we arrived. There was not a single person in sight until we drove past the Roebuck Hotel, known commonly as the Roey. This is where I spotted a young, slim, tanned-skinned Italian woman named Marie, who was standing on the veranda with one foot on the railing… she was smoking a Rollie. I rolled down my window and shouted out to her, “Where are all the people?” She replied, “All the action stats at 4.30.” “Okay, so what’s all the action?” “Well, the pub opens,” she replied. I later discovered this was the time of day known as ‘Broome Time’ when everyone went home to lie under the fan for a few hours during the heat of the day.
Well, I thought to myself, with a few hours to spare I might as well go and explore this little town. I drove around for a bit and stumbled upon this red dirt track. I had never really seen red dirt like this, a deep, powerful red, so I followed it and it took me to the most beautiful beach I had ever laid my eyes on: Cable Beach. I spent a few hours exploring the crystal clear water before I went back to the Roey. It felt like I was in a different world, a lifetime away. The streets were full of people, all with beers in their hands, mostly drunk, some even fighting. There was the odd roo-dog that would come out from under the pub begging for scraps.
As I pushed my way through the winged doors, just like in those wild western movies, I approached the bar and noticed that it was about six-foot deep surrounded by people. I stood out like a sore thumb: all around me were people coloured in the most glorious ways… there were Manillamen, Malays, Aboriginal Australians, Japanese, Chinese, Koepangers, and the odd whitefella. We were definitely a minority. In the distance I could see a bloke ferociously waving a card in his hand, trying to get the attention of the bar maid. I approached him, wondering what he was waving — we didn’t have credit cards back then.
He explained to me that it was his ‘right to drink’ card… I couldn’t believe it, he’d actually had to sit an exam to prove he was educated and could hold a drink. This was only ever a process for coloured people, as white people were automatically assumed to have an education and were able to hold a drink. This was all part of the White Australia policy. Another bloke came over to me with a Champion Ruby tobacco tin filled with half-smoked cigarettes. He asked me if I wanted a smoke… I wasn’t overly enticed by the idea of smoking his butts. I pointed to a smoke on the floor that still had 3-4 puffs left in it, which he quickly scurried off to grab.
The next morning, I woke with a heavy head and a strong urge to pee. I found myself in a rundown motel room furnished with only a creaky old metal-framed bed. I stumbled outside to search for a toilet and discovered the motel guest toilet block which was in less than great shape. It had been destroyed by termites and was on its last legs. What was left of the toilet block was only being held together by the plumbing. There was a young carpenter nearby, doing his best to repair it. We got chatting and I casually mentioned to him that I was a licensed plumber. Little did I know that those simple words would be responsible for keeping me in Broome for the next 44 years.
The next morning, still in my $3.50 per night motel room, the door was pushed open and standing in the frame was this nuggetty looking man in a checked shirt, the sleeves violently ripped off, fraying at the edges. He was wearing stubby little denim shorts showing off his muscly legs, which were jammed into a pair of tattered old work boots. He looked down at me as I lay in bed and said, “Are you the plumber?” When I muttered “Yes”, he said, “Good, get out of bed. I’ve got work for you.” Well… Les Ross was his name and I quickly discovered that he was a local builder. He doubled as a tour guide as he pointed out all the highlights while we drove around Broome… not that there were many back then. We drove out to what was then the edge of Broome, Dora Street. There were at least six state houses, all in different stages of being built. My job was relatively simple: plumb each house. There were two carpenters, Terry Tracy, a big round Scotsman with a huge red beard, who always spoke to you like you were 100 metres away, and his offsider, Alex, who was a muscly but quiet man. They would start the houses by putting down the stumps, the frame and then the roof sheeting. After that, they could work in the shade of the roof and would start nailing down the floor. This is where I came in handy. Over the next week or so, I would live in the house and work on the plumbing. I would be given a small metal bed frame to lay my swag on and forget the dingy $3.50 motel room.
At one stage I even ended up with a labourer, George. A real Kimberley man at 60 years old, he was thin as wire and just as tough. George was one of those people who carried a little leather Gladstone bag with him everywhere. Inside the bag he concealed two bottles of beer, which of course we had for breakfast. My cup of tea went out the door. George was a hardworking man with the hairiest ears and nose I had ever seen… every morning I used to ask George, “When are you going to shave those ears of yours?” He never did. George lived in the Malay camp, not far from where we were working. The Malay camp had a Malay chef, as you would assume, and every night they ate the same thing… fried up sausages. One day George came to me and said, “Gordo, last night we had something different for dinner!” “What, no sausages?” “Oh no, we still had sausages but this time they were boiled.”
Well, I give George his due… every morning he had his beers for breakfast and then we would march out to where the septic tank needed to be and he would dig all day in 45-degree heat. Terry and Alex often vanished for a few days at a time, and when I asked Les where they were, he simply told me that he had paid them and they would be off on a four-day bender, not to return to work until the money ran dry.
The next year was 1971. I met up with some people who had just sailed a pearling lugger from Thursday Island to Broome. They had plans to dive for pearlshell, they told me. At that particular time in the pearling industry, it was dominated by Japanese and Malaysian divers. This system did not please the Australian Government and they wanted to re-introduce white divers into the industry. There had been an attempt with English hard-hat divers 100 years earlier, but that had failed miserably. This experiment would be complete success and I would find myself in the heart of it as a pearl diver, deckhand, cook and skipper over the next 30 years. I suppose that’s a story for another time. Now at the age of 72, it’s been 50 years since I moved to Broome. And if a picture painted 1000 words, what a picture my life would be.