Thoughts of Aussie home make columnist shiver
by Reg Henry
January 24, 2013 11:55 PM | 1159 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This is the time of year when the cold weather has me thinking about my warm roots. Call it a severe case of summer envy, nostalgia aching for a suntan. Being so bundled up with multiple layers of clothing, I fear that if I fall down I won’t be able to get up without the help of a passing crane. That leads me inevitably to think about the trajectory of my life from happy warm person to uncomfortable frozen person. What a long, strange trip it has been, as the Grateful Dead said to the ungrateful living. That my early life was sunny was due to parental happenstance. My dad was a colonial Englishman and a journalist, too. We lived in different places when I was young — Singapore (where I was born), Hong Kong and England, where admittedly it rained a lot, and finally to Australia, land of opportunity and sun. It was a natural move. My mother was an Australian and I ended up spending my formative years there, from the age of 6 to 26. I still have the accent, much to the despair of speech therapists, although it is not as broad as it once was. My voice used to be such a clatter of harsh vowels and twisted consonants that when I opened my mouth people would check to see if their plates had fallen out of the cupboard. During this period, I also spent 10 months in South Vietnam, attempting to hold back the communist hordes by writing witty press releases for the Australian army and reading the Australian news over the American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon. Heroic service it wasn’t, but the Viet Cong later confessed that my carefree attitude, helped by a ready supply of Aussie beer at 10 cents a can, affected their morale. They were used to imperialist running dogs, but beer-slurping imperialist sleeping dogs were something else. By the way, unlike some, I never once smoked pot in Vietnam — and you wouldn’t, either, with beer such a bargain. In order to protect future sales of my autobiography (“A Man Could Die of Thirst in This Place”), I will cut the story short about how I went back to England as a young adult for a few years and was severely rained upon, met my future American wife on a Greek island when she was wearing a bikini that had apparently shrunk in the wash and came to live permanently in the United States — first in Pittsburgh, then Monterey, Calif., and then back in Pittsburgh, and always a scourge to some and a yawn to others. So here I am in the winter of my discontent, knowing that Jan. 26 is Australia Day — the Down Under equivalent of July the Fourth — while receiving Facebook pictures of my granddaughter Tillie digging sandcastles with her dad on a Sydney beach, because when it’s winter in America, it’s summer in Australia, a thought that sometimes drives me crazy. Meanwhile, huge bush fires and record-breaking temperatures are elsewhere burning the continent to a crisp. But no worries, as they say in Oz. It’s nice at the beach. By the way, Australia Day celebrates the arrival of the first convict fleet at Sydney in 1788, which turned out to be terrible news for the indigenous population. “No worries” did not translate into their languages. According to Thomas Keneally in “A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia,” the first thing that happened when the 700 convicts disembarked after eight months at sea from England was a huge orgy. This was no landing by the Pilgrim fathers at Plymouth Rock. Indeed, I often think that America and Australia are un-identical twins, polar opposites born of the same family of democracy: One with its heroic traditions prompting reverence, the other with its quirky milestones suitable for mirth. The very reason that convicts were sent to Australia in the first place was that the American Revolution meant that the British could no longer send their criminals to the newly united states. Further, the reason that the convict era ended in Australia was because a man named Edward Hargraves left to become a forty-niner mining for gold in California and was struck with the similarity to the land back home. He returned to Australia, and in 1851 set off a gold rush by confirming that a fortune was there for the taking. So it’s not that I feel culturally isolated here in this mirror-image land, especially in Pittsburgh, where the people are also friendly, loyal, make good friends and formidable enemies, enjoy a joke with their beer, love sports and rejoice in their own accent. It’s just that I feel cold. No worries, though.

Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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