If you were in any doubt about what Darwin is all about, a quick drive down Cavenagh Street clears it up. Head towards the Magistrate’s Court, just before you get to the Roma Bar, and you’ll take in a big sign that says “Guns. Fishing. Fishing. Guns”. That’s above the local tackle and outdoor shop. Cast your eyes a little higher and you’ll spy a replica tank, gun cocked, and an Australian flag. Next door, the RSL club squats above Vintage Cellars.
At first glance, Darwin is a fisherman’s Nirvana first, defence town second. But maybe it’s the other way around.
There are still physical memories of the Bombing of Darwin in 1942, if you know where to look. A bomb crater on McMinn Street and the duly named Air Raid Arcade. Bullet holes in the fence at Burnett House on Myilly Point. The oil storage tunnels near the harbour and the gun turrets at East Point. There are still people who remember those days: of slip trenches and explosions and evacuations.
And today, there are thousands more soldiers, navy personnel and US Marines, stationed from Larrakeyah to Robertson Barracks and in subsidised rentals from Bayview to Palmerston.
In Darwin, our military past and present is a reality rather than an abstract.
So it was only a matter of time before I was invited to the Cavenagh Street RSL. I met Lofty Plane through work; Lofty was the Club President, a WW2 vet who loved to have a drink and take the piss. He told me to come down for a lemonade and to meet the boys.
I asked my housemate Dave along for the ride and we walked down Cavenagh Street, as far as the “Guns. Fishing. Fishing. Guns” sign, then up the stairs and past the Roll of Honour for Northern Territory soldiers killed in action.
You sign in and it’s your choice of bistro or bar. The bistro is filled with laminex tables and the daily special, usually some form of veal schnitzel or a ham steak. The bar has pokies and televisions tuned to whichever horses or dogs happen to be running around a Southern Hemisphere racecourse at that given moment.
Beer and men, men and beer; on bar stools, benches and plastic chairs.
Dave had a white boy afro and I had breasts, so it was fair to say we stood out a little. But Lofty waved us over to come and meet the fellas.
Lofty signed up for the army at the age of 17; like so many others of his era itching for an adventure, he lied about his age at the recruitment office. Lofty came from a family of servicemen: his dad had been gassed in France, his uncle lost a leg in the first world war and his Grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel Chaplain at Gallipoli.
His Dad was still in a military hospital when Lofty joined up.
“Keep your bloody head down,” he said.
But Lofty wasn’t put off.
“This is Australia mate, the best country in the world”, he said.
“That’s why I joined up, I didn’t want to be walking around with bloody Nazi flags. But when you got over there, they were firing live bullets at you.”
Lofty found himself on the Aitape-Wewak campaign in Papua New Guinea.
“It had its moments too, I can tell you. The majority of the Japs were in the hills, and that’s where they stayed. At that stage of the game, we had to go in and try to find them. And there it was. There are things that I’d much rather not talk about. When I was going down the Sepik River, there are things that I saw and probably did that leave me a bit cold even now.”
He shook his head. “I’m lucky to be here and enjoying life, at least at the moment.”
Lofty was on the strip at Wewak when General Adachi handed over his sword and surrendered. He volunteered to go to Japan for Reconstruction. He joined the first Australian troops into Hiroshima after the bombing, with miles and miles of nothing standing. Lofty dug in and cleaned up, in just shorts and a pair of boots. No protective clothing in those days.
Eventually, he got out of the army and bought a touring talkie show. Lofty showed movies—a double bill that always featured a murder mystery and a Western—in dozens of country towns in Southern Queensland. He met his wife. And then they boarded a DC-3 and came to Darwin where he was tasked with the Territory’s most important resource: the cold stores. Yep, Lofty was in charge of the ice cream and the beer.
I could have listened to Lofty’s stories for hours, so when he invited me to join him for a drink at the RSL later, I said yes straight away. That Friday lunch time, Lofty introduced us to the rest of the crew: Blue, Jimmy, Dave and Beaches.
Beaches was Lofty’s best mate, a cheerful rotund fellow with grey whiskers and glasses. He’d been in the navy.
Why do they call you Beaches?
Beaches smiled. “Well, I don’t know why. I can’t say for sure. Some of the fellas around here, they’re a rude lot. You’d have to ask them. But they might reckon I look a little bit like a beach ball.”
And then I could see it too, a brightly coloured ball with Beaches’ face in the middle. Bouncing around a swimming pool.
Lofty didn’t get out much any more by the time I met him, but he always made it to the RSL for a “few lemonades” on a Friday. It was his favourite thing to do. Lofty, Beaches and the boys had a busy schedule: beers, lunch, pokies. Sledging each other, a punt or two, more beer. And then Lofty would get a taxi home. It was his weekly outing, one he never missed.
Beaches and Lofty also used to buy a weekly lottery ticket. They had a syndicate of two, with big plans for the winnings.
“We’ve got it all worked out”, said Beaches.
“We’re going to go on a world trip: starting with New York. And we’re going to stay at the Waldorf Astoria.”
“Tell ‘em about the robes”, said Lofty.
“Oh yes,” said Beaches. “We’re going to have those robes – terry towelling robes, you know the ones? And someone’s going to serve us drinks on a silver tray. A crystal glass and a nip of something strong, no ice.”
“And then a nice New York steak, thick and as juicy as you like”, said Lofty.
Beaches licked his lips. “Yep, it’s going to be that good. I’ll tell you. I can’t wait for that trip.”
“Just got to win the jackpot”, said Lofty. “But it’s coming. Oh, it is coming.”
Dave and I dropped into the RSL a couple more Fridays after that, for a veal parma and to talk to Lofty and Beaches. Whenever the conversation hit a lull, Dave would ask Lofty and Beaches for an update on their lottery syndicate.
“Any wins yet fellas?”
“Not yet”, said Lofty. “But I tell you, when we do…The Waldorf Astoria, that’s where we’re headed.”
“Yep,” said Beaches. “Terry towelling robes, crystal glasses and a big fat steak, as thick and juicy as you like.”
Dave and I eventually stopped our Friday visits to the RSL. We started to feel like intruders on the lemonades and the memories. And the laminex tables and ham steak special started to lose some of its charm.
Lofty passed away last year, but I still remember everything he told me.
About his time in Papua New Guinea and Japan, and how he wore long socks with shorts while he minded the Territory’s ice cream and beer.
How he didn’t much get modern music; his favourite songs were Moon River and The Cat Came Back by Tex Morton.
How he liked going fishing at Vestey’s Beach, in the days before it was a gay beat, and when you actually caught fish there. How he liked listening to Julia on the radio in the morning, and her fishing report from places he couldn’t get to any more.
I don’t know that Lofty and Beaches ever made it to New York.
But I do know this: Lofty’s daughter wore his medals on ANZAC Day and marched down the Esplanade, up Knuckey and then down Cavenagh Street. I’m sure she had a lemonade or two at the RSL afterwards. I reckon Lofty would have liked that.