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Cross Country

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It’s instructive, every now and again, to enjoy some sunny elevation. Not so much that you become disconnected from the good earth and its human endeavours, but just enough.

There’s a glorious, painterly aspect and my canvas bursts with sun and sky and sea. I look down the fairway, across the seventh green to the ocean and then to Brighton jetty with its abrupt pier and somewhat sinister telecommunications tower pushing upwards to transmit the city’s texts and calls and photos, and finally off towards the middle distance of the emboldened Glenelg skyline, behind which sits our modest bungalow.

I’m at Marion Golf Course on a bright Wednesday morning strolling the primary school cross-country track that Alex and a host of unknown competitors will soon tackle. Much of the running circuit is out-of-bounds for the golfers, although probably well explored by high-handicapped hackers like me whose Hot Dot is drawn to the fierce wilderness like a goat to the roof of an abandoned car.

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Later, I’m by a green with the loose knot of our boys and a tall, kindly grandfather who offers grandfatherly pre-race wisdom.

“Just do your best.”

“Where you finish is irrelevant.”

“The main thing is to enjoy yourself.”

You can imagine my surprise when he then channelled Walter from The Big Lebowski and barked:

“Dude, this is a league game, this determines who enters the next round robin. Am I wrong? Am I wrong?”

Actually, I just made this bit up, but enjoyed the generosity of his encouragement, and hoped the boys, now squirming with energy and anxiety, did too. We were, for that moment, a little community. It was lovely.

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About three dozen boys from half a dozen schools strained across the line, gawping at the official’s earnest, controlling remarks.

“Don’t sneak over or there’ll be a false start.”

“When you hear the Robin Hood horn, go!”

Alex was mid-line, tall and tense. On his left was a small lad who was sporting that most ridiculous of hair sculptures, the man-bun. Oh, dear.

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A minute or two in and a number had already surrendered to their personal galaxy of defeat and were walking, some distraught and slump-shouldered, while others, without an outward care, were happy to be out of school, and in the perky, breezy, coastal morning.

Running, of course, is the original and most pure of sporting pursuits. There’s no ball, or inferior teammates: just you, your legs and a relentless, unyielding terrain. I reminded myself that this is a gruelling event, especially for a ten year old, and requires uncommon resilience. How many young kids really want to run long distance?

On his final lap Alex emerged from the hilly scrub, exhausted, but still running. And while he’d finish mid-field it was his first cross-country race, and he showed impressive grit. I hoped that this was a metaphor for his inner character and a likely predictor for how he’d face his future. Who could tell? At that point, I was proud.

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In the car on the way back to school I offered him an apple, but he was busy with a bucket of orangey sports drink. He didn’t even mind that the radio was on Triple J.

“Dad,” he noted, “You’ll have to run faster when we go to the beach. If you were out there today, you’d come last.”

“I reckon you’re right.”

“I’m gonna train 355 times before next year’s race. So I can do better.”

Would he be an Olympian? Possibly not. Had we handed him the key to an active, participatory life? I hoped so.

From our elevated spot we drove down to the flat and into the rest of the day.

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2

First Day of School

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Today is the first day of the new school year for our boys.

At about ten to eight Max asked, “Can we go now?” And then about half an hour later his brother urged, “Let’s go so we can see everyone.”

With teeth brushed and hair styled- Alex’s sticking up, not unlike Tin Tin’s, and Max’s smoothed flat onto his head- just as I did for a while in the way which maddened my Mum. And just like me he was impervious to suggestions that it looked a bit, well, gooby.

I took some photos out the back as the boys posed on the lawn. Often siblings have to be welded together to construct an appearance of closeness, have to be moved like pieces of Lego, but I felt a hot tear when, without prompting, Max flopped a loose arm about his brother’s elevated shoulder.

They smiled willingly. Alex with his boyish radiance, all hope and joy and beauty. Max; restrained but with a cheeky knowingness that shares a confidence and a wink with the camera.

In the playground they both scarpered to friends and spent some boisterous minutes before the bell.

I watched, grateful and happy and sad, and all the things a parent feels on the first day. Both boys enjoyed those carefree moments of movement and interpersonal exchange, when time is endless, and unburdened.

I felt another tear of thankfulness when I reflected upon that other parental nightmare: to happen across your child, sitting alone in a busy playground.
*

Later I remember another first day of school. I walked from home, and soon caught up with a mum and her kids, making the same journey, in the dust and descending West Coast heat. I said hello and the mum, the wife of a bank manager replied, “First day?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Are you looking forward to it?”

I nodded. “I am, although I’m a bit nervous.”

“You’ll be right,” she reassured me. “The kids here are pretty friendly. So, what year are you in?”

“Err,” I looked down at my Roman sandals (yes, I’m still a style icon) and said, “I’m actually teaching.”

*

I arranged with Alex and Max to meet me by a tree so I could walk them to their new classes. On the bell, I farewelled one of the other dads and made my way there. After a minute or two with the playground emptying I smiled to myself, strolled inside and joined the bustling corridor, all new bags and shiny uniforms and shepherding parents.

Alex was in his class and at a table, with old friends. As the adults swarmed about all keen to invest a minute or so with the new teacher I gave Alex a pat on the shoulder, ruffled his product-ed hair and said, “Have a good day mate.” But my voice broke a little at the end, and he glanced up, not concerned for himself, but me.

Next door Max and his class were already on the mat with Mr Smith gently giving instructions. I caught Max’s eye and gave a wave. He looked happy and comfortable, and the world was bright and sunny and spinning silently on its axis.

The first day had begun, and would soon be over, and replaced by another. I hoped they would continue like this, and flow all year like rain.

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Port Adelaide v Collingwood: a Messerschmitt up your arse or free bird seed

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During the second quarter, on the fifty-metre arc, at the Punt Road end was, to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, when the stories and the beer began to take hold.

Six of us are in Row S, connected by the time we spent together at Kapunda High School, and variously on the Barossa’s cricket and footy ovals.

Much of our conversation is our old cars and coaches and mates and publicans and parents and maverick teachers who shaped us.

It’d been a ripping trip so far: early flights, the North Fitzroy Arms for the Footy Almanac lunch which concluded with the final siren at the SCG, the obligatory Young and Jackson nightcaps, and a Saturday laneway breakfast.

With the Uber app showing cars descending like black Pacmen three of us ride in a Caprice, and I’m reminded of the great Dave Graney and his song “Feelin’ Kinda Sporty” which opens with the magnificent

A black Statesman “73

Caprice.

Leaded.

At high noon, and accompanied with ample yarns, we entered the All Nations Hotel to confer with the ghost of Bill Hunter, and then white pub-vanned to the MCG as the match commenced. Each of us is merrily apathetic about the result.

I love footy, but occasionally its lone function is to provide a panoramic context across which we can splash our stories. Rocket would love to be watching his beloved Sturt while Nick, the Hayward boys (not Kapunda’s Gatlin boys) and Lukey are Norwood men, but as neither is scheduled at the MCG today we get along to Collingwood and Port.

With the match chugging along Nick and I discuss contemporary AFL footballers and old players from home, in particular one Mail Medallist and local publican who loved scrapping at the bottom of a pack, like a nuggetty 1970’s Selwood.

“You know what he used to do in the sheds before a game?”
“No. Tell me.”
“He’d smear heaps of Vaseline on his eyebrows so the elbows would slide off.”
I giggle.

Needing to refresh their refreshments the Haywards return with their shouts: Bundy for them, and mid-strength beers for us. For a moment, I fear we’ll need petroleum jelly too, but happily there’s no fight in the forward pocket.

We move onto that most vital of topics: Which Test Cricketer would you most like to have a beer with? (until very recently in pre-production at Network Ten)

“Warney?”
“There’s nothing to discover. Nothing.”
“Yeah, and I can’t have a beer with someone who calls their book, ‘My Autobiography.’”
“That’d have been a funny meeting at the publishers.”
I take a difficult sip of my mid-strength. “Waugh twins?”
“No. Steve’d bore you to death.”
“The worst kind of mental disintegration.”

Ultimately our choice is clear. One of the most stylish middle-order bats we’ve seen, and still a bloke about whom little is really known. An anti-Warney. The one who quit the night of the famous 2006 Ashes victory in Adelaide. Damien Martyn.

On the ground, Port is doing well with Robbie Gray slotting a few while Unley Jets alumnus Brodie Grundy is holding his own for the Magpies.

We wonder if the Chappell brothers still own the Leg Trap Hotel, and if David Warner is less likeable than a curved television and if it’s possible to make Boonie more Australian. It isn’t.

This brings us to the best quotation ever, the one which places sport and our little, self-tortured world into perfect context. Nick remembers his Dad giving him Australian allrounder and WWII pilot Keith Miller’s book. “Pressure,” Keith said. “I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not.”

Still laughing at the magnificence of this, Rocket heads off to a cavern and emerges with some appropriate beers. Normal transmission is resumed. Pendlebury is smooth and constructive, as usual. We note that Ollie Wines has thighs like Californian redwood.

The conversation then tends, as it must, towards other nostalgia and juvenalia. We’re now at Stalag 13. The verdant field of the MCG recedes and we’re all in front of a black and white TV, sliding our paws into packets of Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs.

“Burkhalter and Hochstetter.”
Much giggling, given to misty eyes.
“Captain Hoganhoffer?”
“No prisoner has ever escaped from Stalag 13.”
More giggling.

“I’d like to hear this on the BBC World Service: Munich Messerschmitts 2, Stalag 13, 3.”
Someone slides next to me with a pie. A message comes through that another Kapunda High contemporary is on the second deck behind the Port cheer squad. We wave at Maria, who waves towards our bay.

Looking back now it makes sense, and indeed there’s a happy inevitability in the childhood image that would become our weekend’s talisman. The footy is now on mute as we moved towards the creature that Mark Twain described as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton.” The coyote, but of course for us, Wily E Coyote.

I don’t know how we came to this, and I don’t want to know, but as the shadows lengthened across Melbourne, Lukey, with his talent for the comic and the absurd mentioned it and we were off.

“Easily the greatest cartoons ever.”
The coyote hanging in mid-air until he realizes that he is about to plummet into a chasm!”
“Yeah, and he’d hold up a sign like ‘Goodbye cruel world.’”
“Or ‘Help me.’”
“‘Mother.’”

By now the laughter and the memories and the beer and our good fortune at being in this fun space meant, for some of us, there were tears of childish abandonment.
“What of the Giant Kite Kit?”
“The roller skates and the fan blowing the coyote along?”
“From the Acme company.”
Bombs, detonators, nitroglycerin. Not so funny in 2017, but when you’re seventeen and watching Looney Tunes…

We talk of the Road Runner’s ability to enter the painted image of a cave, while the coyote cannot, which showed us that the existentialists are correct: it is an unknowable and absurd universe. Cartoons teach us this.

And then as the Paah (sic) delivered their knockout blow to Collingwood, Lukey delivered his knockout blow to us. A childhood picture that captures the fun, the innocence of the endless battle between the Roadrunner and the Coyote.

“Free bird seed.”

And there it was. Only three words. But a beautiful mantra of the past, a pulsing refrain, and the best televisual picture of a little bird nibbling at food in the desert, likely just outside Albuquerque.

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2

On this otherwise routine Tuesday my boys walked to school together

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Out the gate, backpacks jumping, and into the heart of a suburban morning. The simplest of connectives, from home to school is a pair of comfortable 8-irons. One to the corner, and then one to the playground.

By the gate, I guard after them. Alex and Max dissolve around the turn, with a sudden jolt to the right.

It’s their first time. It’s both ordinary and extraordinary.

In my car, I edge around the block to meet them. Our bond’s broken by a tangle of local geography and ribboned tarmac. The one-way street demands I steer away from them, counterintuitively, cruelly, past the park, and then down a hopefully untroubled avenue.

Of course, their little world grows. Out they go, in beautiful binary.

It’s one hundred seconds of quarantined blackness. It’s one hundred seconds of paused parental terror, but it’s also one hundred seconds they need.

Alex and Max have jettisoned from my troposphere, but I launch to them like a satellite, eager to discover a warm orbit.

At the intersection by their school, my car crouches as the outdoor squeals spurt through the open window like snatches of pop songs.

And there they are, bouncing along the path, side-by-side, as brothers should, their flapping shorts of shamrock-green, quince-peels of hair. The roadside trees fold forwards.

Spotting me is simple permission for them to accelerate to school, exploding scraps of rainbow. They scamper through the gate, and to their mates.

I yell after them, but my voice vaporises behind their giraffe legs and the innocent rush of a new day. “Good job, boys. See you tonight!”

Misty-eyed, I drive off. A bright, early morning, already it seems late.

Soon, it will be.

 

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