Monday, August 27, 2012

My Years of Freedom

Some I entered a short story contest for Adult Literacy - using the usual arts bureaucracy sort of language the contest was '...for the creation of exciting, inspiring and challenging stories to support and encourage adult learning, and to highlight the fact that "It's never too late ... to learn to read".' I did not expect, but would have welcomed the cash, to win. And here you can find out just why my story lost.

By all accounts Charlie had led a hard life. He was born in 1965 in a
small nothing of a rust coloured falling down town in outback
Queensland. His Father worked as a truck driver at the local coal
mine. He worked long shifts doing dangerous work. Over the years the
stress and the drink took hold of him. One day the thunderbolt
struck. He was promptly fired after causing an accident on the work
site. Having made a bit of cash, betting on a horse race, he was well
and truly drunk at the time of the accident.

Charlie's family was forced onto relief, onto the dole. The family's
average everyday rural poverty was transformed into a desperate
struggle for survival. As the amount of money coming into the house
lessened so the threats and the bullying and the violence
increased. Charlie hated living in his own home, he hated living in
fear, but mostly he hated the fact that he was too young and little
and so could not protect his mother.

One small mercy was that Charlie's father would spend as much time
away from the family home as possible. He would try to scrounge up a
demoralising days work here and there, often getting paid in rum or
beer. Maybe helping a local cocky shore up a lazily leaning
fence. Sometimes going off to help muster cattle, or digging a trench
for an irrigation scheme. To make ends meet his mother grew
vegetables, and looked after some of the local kids. His father would
shoot feral animals, cashing the pelts in for the bounty the state
government offered. The children gorged themselves with thin rabbit
stew on such days.

There was never enough money. There was never enough food to feed the
growing children. There was never enough of anything. Whenever
Charlie's dad had more than a couple of bob he would shoot off down
the pub to drown his sorrows; in the selfish manner of the weak men
with families who drunkenly wallow in self-pity and self loathing. One
long humid steaming summer days eight hour long drinking session ended
with a fist fight. Inflated, ranting male drunken froth pride wounded
over some trivial slight. Charlie's father was arrested for the king
hit. A punch caused by nothing which in turn caused the victim to fall
with a sickening thud. The back of his skull shattering when landing
on the stone guttering of the footpath in front of the local hotel.

Before the sun set on that day two more isolated rural families were
plunged deeper into merciless poverty due to that one single,
mindless, drunken punch.

Before the father left the family home, before he started his stretch
in a cold hard cell, he had got Charlie's mother pregnant. The
pregnancy went well in the first trimester, nothing beyond the normal
nausea and aches and pains and cravings. With the terror of the house
being locked away, it was like a dark storm cloud had dissipated. For
Charlie it felt like the first rains that break a desiccating
drought. The heart lifting sensation of the cooling wind carrying the
smell of the coming rain. The far off rumble and flashes of
lighting. Charlie's mother seemed as happy as he ever remembered her
being. She had more time, now that the demands of her husband had
disappeared, to spend on her children. She would often be found
working in the small vegetable garden round the back. She could be
found feeding and fussing about the dozen or so chooks that a
neighbour kindly donated to the family. The kindness extended to the
effort of building a chook yard from old bits and bobs found around
the property to protect the precious birds from the senseless blood
lust of the dingoes and foxes and wild dogs.

And then one day, a month or so before the due date of her child
everything went wrong. The drought breaking rain become a raging
tempest. Charlie, being the eldest of the three children in that small
rusty dusty house, tried his childish best to save her life. With no
telephone, he yelled at his younger brother to run the mile and a half
to the nearest property to get help. By the time assistance came
Charlie was already hugging his dead mother, soundlessly sobbing
without end, unable to even articulate his grief. His little boy tears
mixing with the dark deoxygenated blood that poured without stopping
from out of his mother. His little boy innocence poured out of him,
tears and snot and sweat mixed with the blood that searched out and
found the many tiny cracks and joins in the hand made floor and
dripped onto and mixed with the rusty dry dirt so full of the
heartache and betrayal of the history of this land. His breathless
brother sweaty and covered with dust, his infant sister sitting in the
blood, slapping her hand and crying for reasons she was too young to

It would be decades before he saw his sister again. He never spoke
with his brother again after that day, the younger brother had been
killed in a car accident.

Needless to say that with such a shocking start to life Charlie had
very few chances as he grew into adulthood. He was separated from his
brother and sister. They were all sent to different foster
families. Not knowing where his siblings were, Charlie was shuttled
from agency to agency, sent to a series of unsatisfactory foster homes
and brutal or indifferent schools. He spent most of his time angry,
fighting with teachers, fighting with the other students, fighting the
bullies, preying on the weak. He banged his head against the brick
wall education system. So the young Charlie, alone in the world, was
overlooked and misplaced and eventually given up on by the
system. Soon he was not bothering to show up for school. He had
dropped out of school more or less completely by the time he was
fourteen. He could read a bit, but only with difficulty and he was not
able to write more than his name.

At a young age he, like his father before him, found himself locked
away in the a cold in the winter and stinking hot in the summer
Victorian era prison. He had tried to rob a bottle shop. He was
arrested when an off duty police officer unluckily entered the bottle
shop at the time Charlie was demanding of the publican's nephew all
the money in the till. Charlie was twenty five years old, and he was
stuck away in prison. He had lost all contact with his sister and
brother. He had refused to even speak to his father when he was
paroled, and Charlie's father was only too happy to ignore and reject
his troubled son. Charlie no longer even knew how to get in contact
with any uncles or aunts. By any sort of reckoning, unless something
was to seriously change in his life and quickly, he was destined to
a life of poverty, drug abuse and petty crime, and most likely an
early death.

His luck, however, was about to change. Who could imagine that a stint
in prison could be a life changing and life affirming event? As luck
would have it he was housed in the same block with a tall, strong,
handsome and charismatic aboriginal elder. Not many of the prisoners
knew his real name they all called him 'Goanna'. He laughed his rusty
rough as the outback eroding dust laugh when questioned about his
name. 'Everyone calls me Goanna, cause I used to like to fuck every
woman I met. See the goanna has two dicks, and all the ones in my mob
they would say I fuck like a goanna. Name sorta stuck. One day I met
up with this nice white girl, she was sweet, and we had a good time
together. Until her racist dad found out about us. The bastard was a
local cop. I was eighteen, and she was only seventeen, so the bastard
did me on statutory rape charge. That was years ago, but if you are a
black man and you catch the eye of the police, well let's just say I
have been in and out of gaol ever since.' He slapped the green
custodial painted walls and laughed. 'This place is my country now,
and this mob is my mob. Eh?'

One day Goanna, who was also a member of the Communist Party took
Charlie aside. Standing over the younger man, he said, "Mate. Blokes
like us, we're shit, our lives are shit. We're shit. We got nothing,
we got nothing in our past, and our future is more of the same,
eh. Past, future, present it is all fucked. We just got shit, eh? Our
life is a constant struggle everyday. You just wanna drink and drug it
all away eh? You only get one chance. How do you think you can make a
better life for yourself, eh?'

Charlie thought, and after a little while he replied, 'We gotta get
ourselves a whole heap of money, I reckon.'

'How you going to do that boy? Eh, how you gonna do that?' Charlie
mouthed words, but no sound came out. 'You gonna rob a bottle shop, or
a bank? That will just bring you back here.' The silence of Charlie
was answer enough for Goanna. 'Books eh. Books are the weapons you
need boy, books are the tools which will allow you to build a better
life. You want me to teach you to read?"

Charlie thought for a moment, He remembered how mother would sometimes
read from an old tattered fairy book to him at bedtime. She had wanted
him to go to school, to stay in school. Who knows how things would
have been for me if she had lived. I owe it her, to her memory. 'What
the fuck have I got to lose, I've got five years in this shit mound,
what else am I to do with my time? What the fuck else...'

With Goanna working with him and urging him on, and picking him up
when he fell Charlie quickly built up his confidence and
abilities. And soon he made his teacher smile. When the screws found
out what was happening they saw to it that Goanna was moved to a
different wing of the prison. Charlie tried to write him letters, but
his spelling and his handwriting was atrocious, and his grasp of
grammar was not much better. So he redoubled his efforts, it was not
enough to be able to hunt and peck at the words and struggle to make
sense of sentences, he had to gain fluency. He had to work
harder. After a few months Charlie was able, with pride, to send and
receive letters to his friend and mentor, Goanna.

I first heard this amazing, inspiring story in an interview with the
local ABC radio station on the National Day of Literacy. Charlie spoke
with passion about the story of his life. I felt the need to track him
down and hear his story and to write it down. He was joy to be
with. We had many long conversations. Charlie, not his real name,
would not let me use a tape recorder, or even to take shorthand
notes. I would franticly scribble in my notebook after our
meetings. So there may be mistakes, and misquotes in the story, but
even it is not exactly the story of Charlie, there are plenty of
stories of men and women who have overcome the odds and turned their
lives around. Almost all of these positive results were the result of
education. Charlie is but one of many. Granted more people fall by the
wayside, but we can feel a certain reverse schadenfreude when we are
able to hear about the victory of the true battler.

I will leave the final summing up to Charlie. I have done my best to
accurately capture his words.

It seems absurd to say, but those years in prison were my years of
freedom, the time when I was most free. I devoured everything I got my
hands on. I attacked learning with all the hunger of a sailor in a
knock shop after a long stint at sea. I read the Bible, a book which
was easy to get in prison. I read tattered, battered dog eared and
smudged old westerns, I read the letters to Penthouse which circulated
around the prison uni like currency. The Salvation Army officer who
came to visit us got me copies of classics like Plato and
Shakespeare. I stayed off the drugs and the harsh gaol house grog. I
got my hands on a dictionary, and using Malcolm X as my guide I copied
out every damn word of that book. How much I learned from that effort,
I can never say, but it was my infinite university in a small
room. All the knowledge of the world can be found in a good

With my new found skills I became a hero among the prisoners. I was
able to make a few dollars and pouches of tobacco, to earn some prison
respect by writing out letters for criminals to their family. I wrote
heart felt love letters to wives, girlfriends or boyfriends. I
modified angry replies for Dear John letters. I also wrote letters to
lawyers and social workers. Too many times I found that the prisoners
often drew the short straw, as they were not able to read, and so were
not able to fully understand the intricacies of the cases against
them. I am proud to say that I was able to help quite a few of these
sad broken men, many of whom were suffering from mental illness and
should not have been in prison. This lasted until the authorities
understood what I was doing and how I was helping the inmates. For
many of the cases against them were weak, and being ignorant the
accused ones were able to be intimidated into accepting gaol terms
that they did not deserve. The prison staff used the fact that I was
able to get my year twelve diploma as a weapon against me and my
fellow inmates. The governor organised for me to be paroled early. It
seems funny now, but I was sad to leave the prison, I felt I was doing
good work, that I had found my calling.

I was thrown back into the world, with a new set of clothes, and
$75.40 in an account that my 'wages' for prison work had been
deposited. After a few months of confusion and despair, caused by
adjusting to being free and at not seeing my prison friends, I roused
myself. My life of freedom began by my going to the local library and
pouring over records. Soon I was able to happily track down my sister,
and sadly I learned about the death of my brother.

I enrolled in and graduated from the local university. Now I fly
around the world and I work talking about the problems caused by
illiteracy, and advocating for prisoners rights. I have a family and a
future. I will try to instil a love of books in my children. Goanna
was right, books are the tools we need, the tools that can allow us to
lead the life we want to lead. Books are weapons that allow working
people to fight back, not just for ourselves, not just for our
immediate families, but rather for all of the poor and vulnerable and
oppressed the world over.

I am in the fortunate group of people who are able to read and write. I learned to read in school, as a child, so I have no real understanding of the depth of problems for those who are not as lucky as I have been .

I do know that for years adult literacy was a very important goal and organising tool for a revolutionary proletariat. Too important, I think, to leave to the arts administrators and the beauacrats and time wasters at DEEWR, but that is apparently our fate in the current age.

Not, as I said, being unable to read, on hearing of this contest my mind at once jumped back to the half remebered fragment of a reading of the biography of Malcolm X. He spoke of reading the dictionary in his time in jail, and transcribing all the entries. This was the revolutionary edge of adult literacy I had in my mind when writing this piece.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader as to how well, or how poorly I hit my target. The winners can all be seen here.

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