21 November 2005

Woolly Mammoth

What can one say about Woolly Mammoth? The Ratbag christened him thus because of his great amount of body hair. His real name is Jon, the son of a Greek father and a “Skip” (Australian) mother, as he used to explain. He looks Greek; in fact, he looks great. Jon is a very handsome man, tall, soft-spoken, if a bit obsessed about shiny boots. I often wondered how he managed his police duties, since he was so unassuming and mild-mannered.

It wasn’t just
Eucla folk (when he lived there) who taunted Woolly. Friends from Perth also rang up, often just to torment him. No one did it with such glee and dedication as Woolly’s friend, who would ring up and announce himself as a representative of Industrial Body Wax, or ask for Woolly as “the bloke with a koala nailed to his chest”. During a radio interview after a horrendous truck accident on the Eyre Highway near Madura when the weather had been rainy and bitterly cold, Woolly told the interviewer that he reckoned the temperature had been “minus zero”. He also once told a newspaper reporter that the Nullarbor “wasn’t the Mitchell Freeway” when asked about the chances of finding this bloke from Sydney who had gone bush and had been reported missing by his family.

One winter day, a group of police administrators had flown to Eucla to evaluate the proposed expansion plans for the nearly 25-year old police station. Of course, whenever one of the bosses visited, it was a good chance to have a burn — to destroy any drugs and fireworks that had been confiscated and no longer needed to be stored. These visits were always enjoyable (at least for me) because the roadhouse would put on a nice feed for the visitors, and often it meant that Nobby, the police pilot, would bring the visitors to Eucla, and it was always good to catch up with him. That night, however, Eucla had its once-a-year torrential rain. It came down in walls of water on the inside of the roadhouse dining room windows, caused mud slides on the escarpment and washed out parts of the dirt landing strip at the ‘Eucla International Airport’. On assessing the condition of the strip the next morning, Nobby determined that he could not possibly use the strip to take off. An alternative was to have the plane towed onto the beach road, a dirt track, up to a nearly level spot about a kilometre from the airstrip, where he could take off – but only if the plane had no passengers or baggage aboard. So the cops arranged to tow the plane with their Mazda truck and then block the
Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS)landing strip on the highway, so Nobby could land there and pick up his passengers and their baggage.

Woolly was driving the Mazda that morning. I went along to take photos and movies. The plane was hooked to the Mazda’s tow bar, pulled onto the beach road, and with Nobby in the cockpit, it was slowly towed up the track toward the escarpment. I followed on foot a few metres behind with the video camera, filming what ended up being a boring length of video (which later was accidentally erased). We were about three-quarters of the way from the spot at which Nobby wanted to start his take off when everything stopped; so I stopped filming. The Mazda’s engine revved a bit and it slid sideways as the tow rope went slack. Woolly had bogged the Mazda, and the plane was going nowhere.

Nobby hopped down from the plane and everyone slogged through the mud to free the Mazda. The tow rope was
straightened out; Nobby resumed his place in the cockpit, and shortly after, he was ready to take off. I got into the Mazda with Woolly and one of the Kalgoorlie cops as we sat on the side track to the highway waiting for Nobby’s take-off. We joked about how much the plane was worth and if Nobby’s life insurance would cover what might happen. But the plane rose slowly from the muddy track, quickly gaining altitude, until Nobby banked south toward the sea so he could come around and make his approach to the highway.

Woolly put the Mazda in gear, and we headed up the track, then west onto the highway to prepare the landing strip. Marty was in a patrol car behind us, blocking traffic from the east. Woolly would stop eastbound traffic at the other end of the highway strip. The RFDS strips are identified for the traveller by large yellow signs and white stripes on the highway. For the two or three kilometres that comprise the landing strip, the white posts that define the end of the shoulder are sitting in metal cups to ease their removal (and replacement). In the back seat of the dual cab truck, I was fiddling with my video camera and 35mm still camera when an appropriately sized sign appeared at the edge of my peripheral vision and Woolly and Alan got out to remove the posts on either side of the highway. They hopped back in a moment later, brushing the dust from their hands, and we headed to the next pair of posts. Again, they hopped out, struggled a bit with their respective posts and re-entered the car.

“I thought those posts were supposed to be in metal boxes or something,” Alan ventured. Woolly agreed that his post had been rather difficult to remove, as well. But when we approached the next set, they hopped out and wiggled the posts from what appeared to be firm anchor. Before returning to the car, Woolly looked up briefly, scanning the highway. I did not pay him much attention. He opened the car door and partly shut it again, before opening it quickly and sliding quietly into the driver’s seat.

He chuckled softly and told Alan, “This isn’t the RFDS strip.” He pointed another few hundred metres down the highway where we saw the sign announcing the RFDS strip. “There it is.” We had stopped at a sign of similar size and colour, warning motorists of the presence of kangaroos, wombats and camels for the next few kilometres. We laughed — a lot. “Good one, Woolly!” I gasped between fits of laughter. He turned to me in the back seat and tried to threaten, “Don’t you tell the Sarge!” I assured him I would not...and I meant it, too.

We arrived at the appropriate place, Woolly and Alan pulled up the appropriate posts. Jon parked the Mazda at the west end of the strip, stopped traffic, and we waited for Nobby who made a perfect landing, picked up his passengers and cargo in the turn-around. He taxied back onto the highway and the plane lifted slowly into the air, dipping its wing to us before it headed toward Kalgoorlie. When we got back to the station, I reported that all went well and went back to the house to view the video. All day, I kept chuckling to myself about Woolly and his errant posts.

The next night, just as we were about to drop off to sleep, I told the Ratbag about Woolly and the highway posts. It was just too funny to keep to myself. The Ratbag laughed so hard, I thought he would fall out of bed. I confessed that I told Woolly that I would not tell, but I just had to share the joke on Woolly.

During our stay there, the Eucla cops had an incident book, apart from the official incident log, for stuff-ups and related matters — like the time one of the guys came to work with his uniform jumper on backwards, or Woolly’s “minus zero” comment — all for which they were fined. The fines went into the Eucla Police Social Club fund and helped subsidise dinners at the roadhouse for visitors, the Christmas party, and the like. When I visited the police station the next morning, Woolly greeted me sheepishly and the Ratbag came out of his office to inform me that Woolly had gone into ‘the book’ for his highway post incident. Not only that, but he’d admitted that when he realised what he’d been doing, at post #3, that he’d slammed his hand in the car door. “And you’re in the book, too, Brat”, the Ratbag revealed. “What for?” I asked indignantly. “For conspiring to conceal!” he replied. So I paid my two dollars. It was still worth the laugh.

We brought this incident up whenever we were regaling people with Woolly stuff-ups. And there are a lot more. While someone told the story for the umpteenth time, Woolly would just shake his head in resignation and mutter, “And the hits just keep on comin’”. The ‘hits’ included someone painting “Greek god’s car” on the rear window of his Suzuki, jokes about how very slowly he drove, and the fun we had convincing him that his turn as acting officer-in-charge of the police station coinciding with the anticipated re-entry of the Russian space station,
Mir, meant that it would probably land on the roadhouse.

Yet there were few people, if any, who were kinder, gentler or more well-liked than Woolly. Once, he and Gnat revealed to me that if the Ratbag extended his posting in Eucla, they had considered staying beyond their two-year posting. But it became clear that the Sarge was not staying much past the six-month extension he had agreed to, so they began looking for postings back in Perth. People came and went in Eucla regularly. And, after leaving my sons and family in the US when I moved to Australia, I could not imagine feeling too badly about anyone’s departure. But the day that Woolly and his partner, “Gnat the Rat” left Eucla was a sad day. They got in their car — kept spotlessly clean by Woolly — with their new dog, christened Bella Stupido (for “pretty stupid”) by the Ratbag, and I wondered what I’d do without the two of them in town.

Once, when Gnat was visiting relatives in South Australia, he accidentally ran over this hyperactive red heeler they had named Lokita. (The Ratbag christened her Bucket-Head after she returned from being spayed in Ceduna wearing a contraption to keep her from worrying her stitches.) Jon had taken Bucket-Head down to the beach for a run (for both of them), and upon departure, she refused to get back into the Eucla-famous Suzuki they used for their beach jaunts. Being a heeler, Lokita would herd anything, so off she took — after the car. It was then that she got too close to a wheel, probably trying to bite the “heels” of the Suzi, and was run over.

Woolly raced her to town, knowing she was mortally injured, and after a couple opinions that affirmed his worst suspicions, asked Cooper to put her down. He admitted that he wept on the telephone while giving Gnat the news. You could tell the next morning that he had cried a good deal throughout the night. The dog was insane; there was nothing Jon could have done to avoid the accident. But he mourned that silly dog — because not only was he was distressed from being the cause of her death but also because he knew Gnat cared for Lokita a great deal.

Woolly was the perfect butt of any and every joke and jibe you could imagine. Few people in town did not enjoy teasing and badgering Woolly. And he knew that. Even the worst jokes he took meekly and quietly. After Gnat returned to town and the two of them had had a couple days to mourn their pet, Eucla residents began raking Woolly over the coals for having run over his dog. Not only that — Woolly came to Eucla from Tactical Weapons and was a firearms expert. Yet, he had to get the town’s crack shot to put Bucket-head down. So he was teased for that.

All of these stories are indications of who Woolly was...how organised he was, how efficient, how prepared. But the slightest departure from routine sometimes seemed to mean the worst of circumstances for him. Tourists often brought injured and orphaned wildlife to Eucla when they ran over kangaroos on the highway. Or they would find an echidna wandering about the caravan park. I even found a Little Corella one morning when hanging up the washing at the roadhouse. One of the orphaned joeys was named Rupert. His carer had to make a trip west at one point in little Rupert’s upbringing, so she asked Gnat, another animal lover, if she would look after Rupert the few days she would be away. Gnat was happy to do it, but Woolly had to substitute once while Gnat was on highway patrol, Rupert had finished his bottle, and while he was happily scampering around the lounge room, Woolly thought he would let him go nappy-less for a bit. Rupert hopped and sniffed and explored until he found a power strip and decided to squat over it and have a pee.

Woolly reported that sparks went everywhere, so he leaped up to rescue the little kangaroo, only to have the naughty joey squirt a bit more. More sparks flew. Woolly confessed he was worried that the animal would electrocute himself, but he was afraid to grab it, for fear he’d choose that moment to pee some more and shock the two of them. So the stand-off began — Rupert, peeing and sparking — Woolly grabbing and retreating, until he finally got a hold of the leaking kangaroo and took him outside. Gnat was happy to reveal this tale to any- and everyone upon her return. So I christened the kangaroo ‘Sparky’, and this had to be explained to his carer when she came back to town. Whenever we told this story about Woolly and Sparky, Woolly would curse quietly under his breath and shake his head.

And the hits just keep on comin’.