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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Australian Outback Memory

When I was in first thru third grades, we were living in Melbourne. We also traveled extensively FROM this new location, reinforcing my awareness that the world was a big place. Our home in Melbourne was—I determined—the best in the city. It was on a busy street corner. It felt like the world was coming to us so I didn't need to go anywhere else to keep track of things. A tram stop was literally outside our gate. A brick wall surrounded our front yard, protecting us, and in the middle of the yard grew the largest tree I had ever seen. A short walk up the street let to a "milk bar" where I would buy packets of Australian Football cards (go Hawthorn Hawks!) and a news stand I scoured every day—mostly in vain—for a new issue of Mad Magazine.

It was nice having everything at your disposal. School was easy, and my brother and I spent a lot of time dreaming up things, drawing pictures and sitting in beanbags reading from my oldest brother's (now at boarding school) stack of comic books—Conan, Archie, Donald Duck, Richie Rich, Superman, Spiderman and Mad. There were more bedrooms in the house than we needed, so one of the rooms upstairs became a makeshift office for my father, one was the beanbag / comic room, and one was a room I thought of simply as our "dreaming" room, where a large, flat table was set up (always cleaned, always empty, never cluttered) where my brother and I could do projects or draw. My mother was insistent on having big, open work spaces for us as young children so we could think openly and draw on big pieces of paper, our minds free of constraints or boundaries.

Our minds felt free, but we were also protected inside our house most of the time. When my father proposed taking just my brother and me on a car trip deep into the Australian outback to look for opals in the hot desert, we knew our free-thinking minds would be put to the test. We would now see if we had stamina to back up our big ideas. I had read about how horrible things were once you were trapped in the outback, away from the cities near the coast—crocodiles (this was before the "Dundee" movies), bugs, hot sand, limited water, killer kangaroos.

Even though I already felt by then like an adult pretending to be a child, I sensed this was going to be the part where I would pretend that I went into a strange land a boy and came out a man for the sake of everyone else. I made a mental note to "say" something meaningful when we got back, to confirm to my parents that they had succeeded at this.

"It's rough in the outback," I might say, then look with guilt at the nice things in our house—the books, the artifacts, the soft furniture. I wasn't sure about tears, because that might be too much, but I would probably choke up just enough and say, "It's just nice to be home," before running up to the safety of my beanbag room to read more comics.

So I had the outback plan down: act excited before leaving, act a little shaken coming back. An easy one to pull off, because I knew the variables. There was nothing to derail me in the middle, the substance where I went to the actual outback. Just me, me, me and more me. Against nothing. Easy.

My memory, however, of this week-long car trip is surprisingly limited, considering how well I remember so many other things in Australia. In a nutshell, these are the few things I do recall:

The towns we visited were named Andamooka and Arkaroola.

We bought a new tool for the trip, an opal digger, which looked like a hammer (except one end was a sharp point and the other end was more blunt).

My brother and I climbed a gravel hill with this new tool, digging at the gravel, thinking we might find an opal. (We did not.)

The motel turned all electricity off—lights, outlets, everything—at a certain time each night.

Our car broke down or had a flat tire, leaving us wandering in the hot desert for several hours while we waited for another car to pass by.

In fact, the only vivid memory I have of the entire week is one long stretch driving in the car. The road was straight, and there was nothing to look at out the window but desert. It was hot, but we had air conditioning. We listened to tapes, mostly ABBA, Neil Diamond, and "oldies" my father liked. In particular, he loved two songs: "Leader of the Pack," where he would look at us when the motorcycle growled between verses ("Did you hear the motorcycle roar right there?"), and especially "Secret Agent Man."

Whenever "Secret Agent Man" would play in the car my father would get this kid-like smile, and we all loved it. We knew about the James Bond movies, but I'm not sure if we had actually seen any until a year or two later in Venezuela. Nonetheless, we all liked the song and we would put on sunglasses (if we had them) and pretend to be secret agents as the song played out of the car speakers.

My father turned to us and said (he couldn't sing), "They give-a you a number, and take away your name! What do you think of that?"

"I like it!" I said.

Still grinning, he said, "You'd like to be a secret agent when you grow up?"


"Why is that?"

"Because you could kill anybody you wanted and no one would know it was you who did it."

My father switched off the radio. I remember a lot of driving in silence after I said that.

After a while, my father said to my brother and me, completely out of the blue, "What do you think you will do with my body once I die?"

We didn't know what to say, so we said nothing. In fact, it was the first time it ever occurred to me that my father would die someday.

He continued, "Some people get buried. Some people get 'cremated' where you get burned up so you are just ashes."

I said, "Why would you want to be burned up AFTER you die? Sounds excessive."

"Well, if they bury your body as is, some worry about worms getting into the coffin. Some people don't like the worms, so they want to be cremated. If you become ashes, you can be 'scattered' so you're not just in one spot in the dirt with the worms. You can be thrown out of an airplane so you're flying with the wind forever after that."

I remember I was in the front seat, and my brother—in the back—was not saying a word. I don't know how much more we spoke on this subject, but that is the one thing I remember clearly about our whole trip to the Australian outback.

At the point when our car broke down (I don't know if it was before or after that conversation) my brother and I wandered in the desert (not far from the car) and found a ram's skeleton. Earlier, in Mexico, my mother had unearthed an entire human skeleton, saving the skull. I never liked that skull in our house, and it always spooked me. But the ram's skull, with its curled horns, comforted me somehow. It was an animal, and I liked how the bones were a soft white color as opposed to the dark shellac on our human artifact.

My brother and I asked our father if we could take the ram's skull home as a memento of the trip. I don't know if this was wise (if the ram had died of a disease, for example) but something released inside me when he let us keep it.

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