american

Familiarity in Changed Places

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Val drove into Tambo, a little anxious, anticipating the changes wrought by bitumen roads, paved streets and modernisation, but really hoping for the familiar to manifest itself.

It was 55 years since Bill had wallowed into town first the first time at the wheel of the Plymouth Belvedere in June, 1957. Bill had come to take up a job as a roughneck at ODE’s Oil Rig, 25 miles out along the Tambo-Alpha Road.

The Land-Rover was an absolute money pit and the trailer proved too lights for the rigours of Heartbreak Corner

The Land-Rover was an absolute money pit and the trailer proved too lights for the rigours of Heartbreak Corner

It was 54 years since Val had trundled out of town at the wheel of a 1940’s Land-Rover towards a Channel Country thirsting in the clutches of drought. That was in April, 1958.

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Welcome to Tambo sign. Tambo is on the banks of the Barcoo and takes its name from the aboriginal word for ‘hidden place’.

We drove past the Welcome to Tambo sign and did a quick reconnoitre seeking places of the past looking for a connection with the present. Feeling welcome, yes, but wondering what it would be like to visit the places of the distant past.

General Store Tambo

This was Miller’s Store in 1957. Obviously Col Millier sold it and moved on. This is a 1986 picture taken by a University of Queensland country towns project

Millers Store – completely gone – business and premises. A classic general store in a country town that supported the rural community – incredible range, personal service. Col Miller obviously not here.  Val had expected that he would never leave.

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THEN Tambo Bakery was a typical small town bakery in 1957. It served the local community and nearby communities like Alpha. 1986 picture from QU.

The Bakery – business – gone, but the building lives on as the home of the Tambo Teddies.  A typical bakery in 1957 it did the basics well, nothing fancy like you see in the little boutique bakeries of today.  The owner was possibly Col Pengilly and used to drive his bread to Alpha in his truck along the Tambo-Alpha Road past the ODE Oil Rig.

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NOW The bakery was taken up as Tambo Teddies workshop. Some 29,000 teddies have made their way around the world.

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The Tambo Post office was built in 1904. This is where Val used to pick up the pay cheque from ODE.

The Post Office – totally intact. Ahh, the times that Bill & Val travelled the 25 miles in from the Oil Rig to Tambo to check the mail and hope that the cheque from ODE’s head office in Sydney was waiting for them.

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THEN Tambo Hospital much as it was in 1957 and 1958. Val was in the maternity ward which was further on. Billy chatted to people on the front verandah when he stayed overnight in 1958 when he hurt himself at the Oil Rig.

NOW. Val outside of the Tambo Primary Health Centre in 2012. The maternity section she used in 1957 no longer exists.

The Hospital – once a regional facility – downsized and downgraded to a Primary Health Centre. Val came to Tambo with 3 little ones and the next child 3 months away.  Val gave birth in the no longer existing maternity section.

Club Hotel

The Club Hotel in Tambo. One of Bill’s watering holes. Pretty much as it was in 1957 when John Steer was the licencee.

The Club Hotel – Bill’s favourite pub – intact and still selling beer and food. We went there for dinner. There are stories to tell about this place.

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The Royal Hotel now but new in 1957 having been rebuilt in 1954. It was one of the original 4 hotels in the town.

The Royal Carrangarra Hotel – Bill’s other favourite pub – intact and still selling the essentials. In 1957, it was the new hotel having just been constructed. And much to the chagrin of the locals, was virtually totally booked out by those damn yanks from the Oil Rig. And to those damn yanks, it was hardly good enough.  To be good enough it would need to have been ‘AA boy… All American’.

The Police Station and Lockup – where Bill was so close to being a guest – totally renewed.  Bill was so close to spending time in the lockup he’d have been happy to know that it is totally gone and there is a new police station and lockup.

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This is where they serve the Great Tucker at the Club Hotel in Tambo. Val and Bill had dinner here, it was good and there was plenty of it.

The reconnoitre done, it was time to get the lowdown on where to start looking for the Oil Rig site. So as my custom is, I went to the bar of the Club Hotel and looked for a local who might know. In 5 minutes flat we hit paydirt  with Teddy Peacock who had been around since 1965.  We stayed for dinner.

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Our caravan at the Tambo Caravan park. Daphne managed to put us her original van. It was clean and the price was certainly right. Would not have done for some of our more discerning kin but OK for us.

Then off to the budget option in accommodation at the Tambo Caravan Park where our host Daphne Cartwright was friendly and shared plenty of good information to help us in our quest.  Daphne wears many hats and is a veritable local encyclopaedia.  She’s only been in town since 1988 but she knows her way around.

Madelyn’s Special Bond with the Anzacs Fastest Hog

Bert Wight’s time in the RAAF in WW2 was absolutely energised by his association with Americans.  In his first week at Bachelor Airbase, Leading Aircraftsman Wight struck up a great relationship with his Yankee boss by rendering him a great service.

Bert Wight with his Yankee Boss after getting his car going for him.

The Adjutant was certainly impressed by Bert taming the killer Hog, but Bert made him a real friend by rendering a service by being the brilliant mechanic that he was.  Bert discovered from a discussion that a number of jeeps had been delivered to the base and they just wouldn’t start.

“Let me have a look.  I worked as a mechanic before the war.” he enthused.  Bert was an A grade mechanic.  It was with good reason that he never lacked confidence and relished solving tough problems.

“If you can get this one going,’ his boss stated, ‘it’s mine.’

It didn’t take long for Bert to diagnose that the problem was electrical, as there was no spark at the business end of the spark plug leads.

‘Strange’, Bert thought, ‘these are new vehicles with new batteries.’  ‘And the batteries have plenty of charge,’ he reasoned, ‘it must be further back.’    Bert worked out that the problem was as simple as grease in the ignition points.  Grease put there by design to prevent corrosion on the sea voyage from the US to Australia.

Madelyn in front of the American left hand drive WW2 Jeep like the one Bert got going for his Yankee Boss.

Bert now really had a friend in his boss.  And well…. life just got better between Bert and the Americans.

Bert had a killer bike, he had the run of the place and could’t be stopped because of the black armbands.   And he had friends in high places.

Madelyn standing on the running board of an American WW2 truck.

Bert admired Americans throughout his life and even took on aspects of their accent in his speech, which he retained for the rest of his life.  He always pronounced the word ‘new’ as ‘noo’ rather than the Strine pronunciation of ‘nee-u’, much to the amusement of the ‘Children of the Road.’

This all happened in 1943 at Bachelor Air Base in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Far away, in time and place, a baby girl came into the world exactly half a century later and half a world away.  Madelyn became Bert’s Yankee great great granddaughter.  She was born in Chico, California and so Bert had a Yankee Granddaughter.  He would have loved it.

When Madelyn discovered that not only had her great great grandpa done something for the Anzacs but in so doing, had worked for Americans, rode an American Hog and loved Americans, she was mightily impressed.  As an Australian, she loves to identify as an American.

What a bonus that at the Madelyn’s first Anzac dawn service, there were 2 American WW2 vehicles on display.  One of them happened  to be a Jeep just like Bert had managed to get running for his Yankee boss almost 60 years before.

It was absolutely necessary for Madelyn to have a good look at the Jeep with the steering on the left hand side.

By contrast to Bert supercharged Hog, there was a WW2 BSA motorcycle on display.  This was what the Australian Intel riders rode to carry out their duties.  Not as fast by half as Bert’s Hog, but definitely worth a look and a picture.

Madelyn beside a WW2 BSA motorcycle NOT like Bert used to ride.

So, half a world and half a century apart, Bert and his Yankee granddaughter share a special American bond.

Madelyn Honours the ANZAC’s fastest HOG

The day before Anzac Day, 8 year old Madelyn asked a really good question. “What did our family do for the Anzacs?”
My answer, “Your great great grandfather, Bert Wight, rode the Anzac’s fastest Indian.”
“You mean like Cowboys and Indians?” she asked.
“No, like a really big Indian motorcycle ridden really fast.” I replied. As it turns out it was actually Harley Davidson 10/12 rather than an Indian. Luckily Jim Wight picked us up on when he checked the blog before we published it. Madelyn was delighted that our family had done something for the Anzacs and decided that she would like to attend the dawn service this Anzac Day. We were up at 4.45am and made our way to Cleveland RSL. Big attendance!

Madelyn at her first Anzac Dawn Service

There were 1000’s of people and cars were lined up from 1 kilometre away. We made our way through the crowd, couldn’t see much, but we heard the messages, heard the prayers and heard the bugler at dawn. Our decision to stand on the roundabout turned out to be a good one, because we had a great view of the marchers at the end of the service.  Madelyn took the flowers she had bought to honour the great great grandfather she never knew about until the day before Anzac day. She placed it at the memorial in his honour.

Bert Wight in his RAAF uniform at Bachelor NT in 1943

How did Bert become the Anzac’s fastest HOG? First thing was that he joined Australia’s military thereby becoming part of the Anzac tradition and secondly he rode the fastest Harley Davidson.
Bert became an Anzac when he joined the RAAF in 1943. He had spent the earlier part of the war in essential services. He was posted to Bachelor in the Northern Territory. Bachelor was one of the airfields that supported the defence of Northern Australia which was of vital strategic importance to stop the Japanese offensive. It was defended by Australian, British, Dutch and American forces. That turned out to be a real bonus for Bert.

Bert Wight on his killer HOG from side-on in Bachelor NT in 1943

On arrival in Bachelor, Bert reported to the Adjutant and was informed that he was to be an Intell Despatch Rider. “Can you ride a ‘real’ motorcycle?” the Adjutant asked.
“Yes Sir,” Bert said confidently. “I raced a Douglas 500cc Sports motorcycle in speedway before the war.”
“We have a Harley here that nobody will ride because it has killed its last 3 riders.” It was a Harley Davidson 10/12 and was supercharged.

Bert astride his killer HOG after he had gotten the better of it in 1943

The Harley sat very low to the ground which is why it was so deadly, especially when ridden on unsealed roads.   Unsealed roads was all there was in the Outback.  You had to ride it correctly or it would get you.

Never the shrinking violet Bert stated boldly that he was up for it. The Douglas 500cc he rode in speedway ran on motor spirit, so Bert had plenty of experience with powerful motorcycles and dirt surfaces.

Douglas 500cc sports racing bike like that Bert Wight learned to ride on dirt with before the war.

He couldn’t see why the Harley couldn’t be tamed and looked forward to the challenge.

Bert had the killer machine and now was given a licence to speed and a licence to kill. As an Intell Dispatch rider he was not to be stopped or impeded in any way and was instructed to shoot to kill if anyone tried to stop him.

He wore 2 black armbands to indicate his role. The armbands would signal to those who manned checkpoints that he was not to be stopped.

Bert Wight posing with his Yankee boss on the HOG

Bert regularly carried Intell from Bachelor to Darwin, a distance of some 60 miles. He tamed the Harley and travelled at high speed. He could really make that HOG fly.
Bert in his inimitable way had managed to work his way right into the thick of things. He was assigned to American Command but mainly worked with the Dutch Squadrons which were under the direction of the Americans. He was his own man, he had a licence to ride anywhere unchallenged, a Colt 45 on his hip and a superbike to ride as fast as he liked.

Bert astride his HOG in Bachelor in 1943

And that’s how Madelyn’s great great grandpa came to be the Anzac’s fastest HOG.

Madelyn laying flowers of the Cenataph for Bert Wight

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