Tell me about growing up.
I was born by the [Wimmera] river in a mud hut, in 1919. [Today you can still see the remains of this hut.] See, well, my Uncle [Walter], he used to get me and teach me things about culture. There was one time when I was four years old … my uncle and the other elders took me out into the Little Desert. They told me ‘wait here and we’ll be back to pick you up’… I waited for a while and then started to cry … then all of a sudden I thought, ‘they’re trying to tell me something.’ So up I got and followed their tracks out … and here they are all waiting for me. They patted me on the head and said, ‘good boy’.
At school I had to speak English … I got a bloody good hiding if I spoke in [Wergaia] language … but a lot of it’s lost now …
Well, then, my father, he got rheumatic fever shearing wet sheep and his heart went on him. So I left school [at the age of 13] and worked. I worked on a farm at Woorak near Nhill. Two and six a week I started work for, until it got to ten shillings—that’s where it stopped. I was driving horses and I loved horses. When crops grew, I drove teams to strip the wheat off … I didn’t like shearing. They just told me, they said, ‘you’re not fast enough to shear a sheep’. Well, the quicker you can get down and shear your sheep and straighten up again, well it wouldn’t affect your back … but I was too slow shearing.
What about the war? Tell me about those years.
See … then the Second World War started—that started in 1939. Well, England and Germany was where the war broke out. Well you see, us Australians, we were naturally straight into it. In 1939 I couldn’t join the army, because of my father. You see I wasn’t 21 and my father wouldn’t sign the papers for me to join. He didn’t want me to go … he reckons it had nothing to do with us. Well no sooner I turned 21—that was in 1940 on the 23rd of March—as soon as I turned 21 I joined up.
It was all right then—as soon as I turned 21 I was my own boss, I could do what I wanted. Except my brother was two years younger than me and he let him join. As soon as I joined up he wanted to join, well he joined … Father signed the papers for him, but he didn’t sign for me because he didn’t want me to go … I don’t know why. He just didn’t want me to go.
It was the Depression years and there was nothing to do and I was battling for everything. Well in the army I got my clothes free, got my tucker free—everything!
I was five years and about ten months in the army. I went over to Syria, I fought in the Sixth Division. And in the Syrian campaign we fought the Vichy French and a lot from out of Africa—they were real black! But we beat them.
What did you do in the army?
I was a gun layer—I used to lay the gun and pull the trigger … A 25- pounder—that was the weight of the shells see—that we used to put in and fire. They used to give me the range, elevation, everything like that. I had four bubbles on it to level. I used to do it in four seconds … course no sooner I’d get the word ‘fire’ I’d shoot. I got caught one day, yeah. I shut my mouth and pulled the trigger, instead of keeping it open … felt like the top of my head blew off. Never really affected me though—I’m 83 now and I don’t wear hearing aids.
Pop shows me photos from war. I study his face as his mind revisits these places.
We were just out of Damascus—that was the end of the Syrian campaign … it snowed for a week. Well, I got the photos here, where just the top of the tent is showing. We used to have a rope running from our tent to the toilet so we knew where to go. You couldn’t see anything. It was Christmas, 1941. That’s my first white Christmas and I said that I don’t want to see another one! I’d put all my clothes on to go to bed, and we had to stop in the tent for a week! We did nothing.
When did you leave the army and what did you do?
The 24th of the tenth, 1945 was when I was discharged—an honorary discharge on account of long service. But about mid-1946 … you see I wanted to join the Occupation Forces, where I’d go to Japan and that. I was walking down the street and I read on the front page of the newspaper that Bob Menzies didn’t want any Aborigines, or people with Aboriginal blood to enlist in the Occupation Forces, ‘because they were too illiterate’ … so I didn’t join.
I was out at Antwerp. There was rabbits everywhere—millions of them! We killed them for skin. They went up to a pound a pound for skin. You’d get about two to three hundred rabbits. I then worked on the salt lake, then I went from there and settled down a bit. My twins were born in 1951.
We [Pop, Nan, Mum and Uncle] lived in Antwerp, then came to Dimboola. We lived over the other side of the river, in the Common. Then they built us houses in Dimboola. We got our first house and moved in. At that time I was working on the railways. First of all I was stacking barley bags, then I was doing maintenance work just to keep the train on the line. Looking after the tracks as a repairer. Then I was super-repairer after a couple of years … Just close on 30 years I worked on the railways.
Pop retired in 1979, the year I was born. He now lives in Dimboola, still a father to his twins and grandfather of three. He is the proud elder of the Wotjobaluk. The lands of the Wotjobaluk, which he has fought long and hard for, cover both the Little and Big Deserts in north-western Victoria and extend as far east as Mt Arapiles and the Black Ranges. Recently we were given a native title determination from the State government over a portion of our land claim, which our community is very excited about. For the first time in south-eastern Australian history, native title exists, and it exists on our land. Without his knowledge and wisdom, I doubt that we would have been given this determination. A humble man, Pop is precious—just like the land.
Tracey Rigney is a writer, playwright, and one of Eureka Street’s FEST Fellowship recipients. Her play, Belonging, premiered at The Playbox in Melbourne in February 2002.