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U3A Writing: Butler's Swamp

...Then we were there! Over the road and running through thick bush sloping down to Butler's Swamp. For a nine year old, back in 1942, it was a glorious freedom which very few kids today can experience. We were free and wild, and with Dad away in the army, we had little discipline, and lots of time to explore, to wander, and to be just kids....

Fred Frank tells a profoundly shocking story.

We went there often. So much bush to play in, and down in the swampland there always seemed to be so many birds among the paperbark trees. Wild ducks in their thousands mingled with ibis and other water birds from all over the world. We caught tadpoles and an occasional bloated perch in the muddy, smelly edges of the water. It was a natural wonderland to play in and we kids ran wild.

My brother Johnny was always the leader, and I ran behind him imagining ourselves as pioneer bushmen discovering new and exciting lands. We'd cut across the railway line at the foot of our street, sneak through the back of upmarket Scotch College, and because we were 'micks' we would chase the cowherd, just to upset the Scotties. Then we were there! Over the road and running through thick bush sloping down to Butler's Swamp. For a nine year old, back in 1942, it was a glorious freedom which very few kids today can experience. We were free and wild, and with Dad away in the army, we had little discipline, and lots of time to explore, to wander, and to be just kids.

It was quite by chance that we stumbled upon the aboriginal camp. Johnny and I were mooching along by ourselves when we heard the sound of kids yelling. Johnny pushed his way through thick brush for up to a hundred metres, and of course, I followed him.

There in a large clearing was an aboriginal humpy and several kids were kicking an old football to each other. The camp was quite large, and was made up of rusted corrugated iron and flattened drums. There were sad looking tarpaulins with rips in them flung over the roof and partly down the walls. Sugar bags were hanging down for doors. Everything seemed to lean sideways, and rocks on the sagging roof were meant to keep the iron and canvas in place. A slanting tin chimney allowed a thin coil of smoke to escape. Outside there were iron bedsteads, their wire mattresses hanging almost to the ground. Rocks in a rough semicircle held the ashes of a hundred fires in place.

"Give us a kick!" yelled Johnny, always much braver than I, and he jumped to his feet, running towards the aborigines. Well you've never seen kids take off like these did! They grabbed their football, and off they went, their long skinny legs hardly touching the thick, black sandy soil.

"Aw come on" said Johnny, "Kick it here."

The kids peeked out from behind trees, then slowly with great caution, the whites of their eyes showing, they straggled back into the clearing. There were four of them, two boys about our age and two girls a couple of years older. They were dressed in grubby shorts and old army jumpers, many sizes too big for them. All, like ourselves, were barefooted.

"Come on you kids, they're not going to hurt ya!" A loud adult voice came from the humpy, and a large black woman appeared, carrying a baby on her hip. Her long black hair hung down over a cardigan just like one that my Dad used to wear, with buttons up the front.

There was a hesitant kick of the ball, and then we were all in it together, marking and kicking and jostling and rolling in the sand, fighting to get possession of the ball. Backwards and forwards across the clearing we ran, kicking and punching the old ball, secretly marveling at the elusive skills of the aboriginal kids, who seemed to dance on top of the soft black sand. If either Johnny or I dropped the ball, one of the kids would scoop it up with one hand, and no running in the world would catch him.

They could twist and turn, and seemed to fly across the ground. But our stronger bodies were no match for them when it came to marking the ball, and to wrestling it from their hands.

"Gawd, you stink!" I said to one of the boys, as I wrestled him in a headlock.

"Yeah? Well so do you!" he replied. His skinny little arms were no match for my heftier tugs at the football.

"What's your name, mate?" I asked, as I punted the ball to brother John.

"Clarrie. What's yours?"

"Clarrie! I've never heard the name Clarrie before, where did you get that from?"

"Kids! Who wants a drink of water?" the large lady called from the door of the humpy before he could answer. But oh! my God! Her cardigan was undone, and both her huge breasts were bare, and she was feeding the baby. I had never seen breasts before - black or white. Our home was very prim and proper, with few kisses or cuddles, and certainly no bare breasts. I stood transfixed, a tin mug of cloudy water in my hand. I stared and stared at the glistening black, beautifully smooth breasts, the little baby tugging happily at a nipple.

She sat on a stool near the only entrance to the humpy, and was quite unconcerned at the gawking kids in front of her, who were pretending not to look, but were fascinated by the natural beauty of mother and baby.

When we eventually broke off our football game, and headed up the hill towards home Johnny said "I'm going to tell Mum on you, I saw you staring at her breasts."

"You looked too." I whined.

"No I didn't. I looked away. But you stared at them."

"I only stared a little bit. I was really looking at the baby. Gawd, weren't they just the biggest tits in the whole world! I wonder if they are full of milk all the time?"

We went back several times that year to kick the football with the aboriginal kids. On occasions we just sat around the campfire, keeping warm by the coals, and just talking. Those kids were so timid! They seemed to forever be on alert, as though they expected trouble to come out of the surrounding bush.

Sometimes they were there when we turned up, sometimes the place was empty, and quite deserted.

We never saw any men there. Maybe they were off selling wooden clothes props around the streets. Or they might have been in the country working. Maybe they were in the army, as the war was on in earnest back in those days. They may have been in prison. But we were always welcome at the humpy, and we respected those kids, who lived in such dismal circumstances.

But I will never forget the day the Yanks came, because that's what changed things forever.

It was hot, end of summer weather, and the two sailors climbed stiffly out of an ancient taxi that sported a fiery, smoking, farting 'gas producer' fitted onto the back bumper.

I recall being so impressed by the whiteness of their sailor uniform, from their gob hat to the base of their horizontally pressed pants. The pure whiteness was contrasted by their black shiny shoes, and their jet black Negroid skin.

"Hey sonny" said one. "Can you direct us to the native camp around here?"

"Too right" we said, "but it'll cost you."

Johnny and I had made money doing chores for Yanks in the past. They were always so generous, but this was the first time we had even seen a black American.

They passed Johnny a handful of coins as we led off down the incline. We followed a winding cow track with the sailors close behind us, their shoes quickly smothered in dust. Along the track, through the scrub and thick bush, eventually we came to the clearing where the humpy was located.

The sailors were sweating, their uniforms not looking quite so smart now. They pushed past us to the front of the humpy.

What happened next was to become a horrifying fixture in my mind for the rest of my life.

The tall Negroes bent over and slipped through the sugar bag door, and without a word being said, as though it was preordained, they grabbed the two young girls, and wrestled them to the ground.

We followed into the semi-darkness of the humpy as they bent over the girls, our minds filled with horror, our ears not really believing as the girls screamed and yelled and cried and moaned and twisted and fought and scratched. The sailors ripped the clothes off their skinny little bodies as dust from the earthen floor filled the kitchen.

We could see the big woman, saucepan in hand, attack one of the sailors down on the dirt floor.

Beating him, hitting him, dragging at him, yelling at him.

We saw the sailor stand up, towering over the woman, and with one clenched, jabbing punch, knock her senseless. She fell to the ground like a sack of rags in front of the fireplace, and did not move, as the baby screamed from its cot. One girl had scurried into a comer of the humpy, scrambling under loose tarpaulins, and the sailor followed her, his tunic covered with dirt and dust, his gob hat lying on the ground.

Her pleading voice I still hear "No, no, 'please no, please, please no, oh please no," then the absolute silence as he rolled under the canvas, his large body on top of her.

In front of our horrified eyes he raped that little girl.

I can still see the other sailor now lying on a low bed, the naked girl with tears pouring down her face clasped on top of him, her face turned to us in despair, as the sailor bit into her neck.

"Help me!" she repeated over and over "Help me! Help me!" as her blood splattered down onto his white tunic. But we were too afraid to help her.

Our aboriginal mate Clarrie and his brother whimpered in a corner, whilst the dogs barked and ran around in circles, stirring up more dust, and the baby continued to scream.

The whole stampede of sounds and fearsome sights were permanently welded into my mind. Never to be forgotten, never to be forgotten.

"Come on Freddie, come on" said my brother. "Let's get out of here!"

We ran and ran until we were safe and exhausted at the foot of Scotch College oval.

Hidden among the cows we stopped, trembling and just looked at each other.

"We better not let Mum know" I said after a while. "She'll tell Dad when he comes home and then we'll get a belting just for being there."

We slowly walked home, innocence of our childhood gone forever.

We never went back to Butler's Swamp.


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