PAPERBACK BOOKS

THE BURONGA BOYS


buronga cover

This work of fiction, partly based on the author’s own life, is an exciting historical read. The story traces the lives and special  friendship between Adam Kelly of Irish background and Barney  Munday, a part Aboriginal.  

As young boys growing up by the Murray River, they spend carefree days fishing and picking grapes until they both enlist in the army and are sent to New Guinea. There Adam, because he is better educated, becomes a platoon sergeant and Barney becomes a great tracker.  

While fighting the Japanese, Adam is badly wounded and Barney saves his life by carrying him out. Later while Barney studies for the priesthood, becomes an activist and gets married, Adam falls in love with a Japanese girl.  

This is a captivating story that has a dramatic climax and a thought-provoking ending. Even though it is a work of fiction the author has developed true-to-life characters that are totally believable.    

In Store Price: $AU23.95 
Online Price:   $AU22.95

 

ISBN: 978-1-921919-16-9 
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 167
Genre: Fiction
 

Cover: Painting by Tony Vincent

 

 


Author: A.M. Harris
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2012
Language: English

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Alfred Martin (Jack) Harris received his MA, First Class Honours from Sydney University and his PhD in Oriental Studies from the University of Hong Kong. He was born in Mildura and enlisted in the Australian Army in 1946. He was sent to Japan with BCOF where he qualified as an interpreter in Japanese. As a platoon sergeant he sailed for Korea in 1950. He was wounded in action a few weeks later and returned to Australia where he studied Chinese for one year. Harris returned to Korea in late 1952 and because of his competence in Japanese and Chinese he was placed in command of a Special Agent Detachment whose task was the infiltration of South Korean intelligence agents into enemy territory.

Harris and his agents made ten successful penetrations deep into enemy territory and it was then planned that his team would take part in the rescue of Colonel Carne, VC, DSO, who had been captured at Kapyong in mid-1952. Harris was wounded on this last mission, the agent with him was killed, the rescue attempt was abandoned.

For his work behind the enemy lines Harris was awarded a Military Medal. After his discharge Harris wrote The Tall Man which won a literary prize and was scripted for a film starring Gary Cooper who died before the film could commence.

Following his discharge from the army Harris joined ASIO and was posted to Hong Kong. Later he became a Director of Myer Overseas, working out of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

Harris now lives in Perth with his Taiwan-born wife, Julie. They have a son, Stephen and a daughter Joanne.

REVIEWS

An epic story of mateship and heroism; and of brutality, betrayal and intolerance, The Buronga Boys spans growing up on the Murray River,  wartime New Guinea, occupied Japan and the war in Korea.

The reader will gain insights into the mind-set of the 50s and 60s and authentic images of the horrors of the Korean War.........Robert Vickery - AM 

The Buronga Boys is an exciting read. The real dread evident in some of the situations highlights what he must have endured. You are left to marvel at Kelly’s cold courage and fierce leadership and be grateful that the nation has such men..........Major General David Butler – AO. DSO

Chapter One

Part sample  

Adam and Barney both grew up on the sandy ridge called Buronga which lies a couple of hundred feet above the Murray River, in Victoria. The name is thought to be Aboriginal, meaning ‘many stars reflecting in the water’. Centuries before, the Aborigines had roamed all along that water-way, hemmed along its banks with huge eucalyptus trees which were ancient long before the white man ever saw them. On some scars can be seen where the natives had cut bark from which they fashioned their canoes, made by removing a long oval of the tough covering and then binding and shaping the ends together to make a bow and a stern. The craft were unstable and crude but they suited the lifestyle of the earliest people, for they were easy to carry and simple to replace. Many canoes were built over the centuries when black men squatted over long strips of  bark, a piece of flint in their hands, while their women worked in the shade watching them, as their piccaninnies splashed and yelled in the shallows. Then, the river and its many billabongs teemed with fish and shrimps, along with platypus and millions of water birds.

That is all gone now, but the river is all green and tranquil, with the sky an imperial blue. The river in many parts is a turbulent stream fed from the far off Snowy Mountains, but with lock gates at Mildura, the river slows and widens, providing the entire region and the irrigated fields with nutrition. The land is so lush that it goes a long way to redeem the harsh, shanty outline of the shacks on the ridge at Buronga, lying above the river like the rippled spine of a sleeping lizard. The ridge is at the far edge of a desert, and its only street is a wavering ribbon of dirt drawn between glistening boles of tall trees. But it is a good place if your needs are simple. Fish from the river; land and water to grow your vegetables; plenty of shade to keep your fowls and ducks at peace and productive. There are lots of rabbits near and about, while the large town of Mildura is just across the Murray River Bridge for shopping, and an abundance of good cheap wine can be had from many of the surrounding vineyards.

The Kelly family of Martin, his wife Mary, and their grandson Adam was the first to set up on the ridge. That was in 1930 when Adam was five years old. They were soon joined by others from the wheat fields near and far who, like Martin, had been bankrupted by the Great Depression. On emigrating from Ireland in 1925, he had settled first at Menindee in the wheat belt where he had started up as a blacksmith. Driven out because of lack of work, he set up at Buronga, re-built his forge, and soon had enough work to keep his family going. There were plenty of draught horses used on the many vineyards all about and he was a skilled tradesman, gentle with animals, and as his reputation grew his family knew a better time than their hard years at Menindee.

The others who followed the Kellys to Buronga slapped up their shanties following the standard method of building. Bush posts for uprights, hessian sides, scrounged or stolen corrugated sheets for the roofing. And if it could be had, metal guttering that led to water tanks beside the shacks where most women kept small gardens of hardy shrubs like oleander or fuchsia. Many also trailed climbing geraniums to blossom like hard-won red trophies against their faded white calcimined bag walls.

Adam began working with Martin at the forge as soon as he was strong enough to wield a hammer properly. He was a good-looking youngster with black hair and clear blue eyes. Man and boy loved each other and sometimes, when the day’s work was done, Martin would hug Adam close to his heart, wrestle with him, and hold him near to his whiskered chin. Before he grew too big to be carried, Martin would take Adam on his shoulders and carry him all the way back to their shack, the thick flannel stuff of his shirt smelling wonderfully to the boy of sweat and smoke, and the heavy dung of the horses.

Adam came to know some of his family history. It did not come to him all at once, but sometimes through talking with his grandfather at the forge, at other times chatting with his grandmother after their evening prayers, and often while listening to grown-up talk when Grandfather held his court at the long board table in the kitchen. So it was that Adam understood his father, Shaun, had died in 1925, along with his mother, Eileen, in one of the ambushes that were patterns of the anti-Irish groupings of the period. At that time, Adam was six months old and an embittered Martin, along with Mary, decided to leave County Cork and settle in Australia.

Martin was later heard to say that he should have left years before, following the hopeless Easter Uprising of 1916, when a provisional Republican government was proclaimed. Only about one thousand of the small force available were actually engaged in a fight against British rule in Ireland, but Martin was one of the ill-equipped Irishmen who fought against thousands of British soldiers. The Irish troops occupied the General Post Office and other parts of Dublin, and savage street fighting went on for several days until the Republicans were forced to surrender.

Martin also yielded, but he had been shot in the shoulder, taken a bayonet thrust through his thigh, and been belted across the face with a rifle butt which had broken his nose and some teeth. The defeated Irishmen had tried to huddle together, seeking warmth, but British soldiers sometimes jabbed at them with their bayonets. If a man fell he was brutally kicked and sometimes run through with steel, but after a few hours and before too many of the captured men died where they were being held, the British troops were relieved by Australian soldiers who had served on the Western Front. Many were of Irish ancestry, and almost immediately overcoats materialised to cover the wounded, along with mugs of hot tea and cigarettes. The kindness of the Australians, so at variance with the brutality exhibited by the British soldiers, caused many of the Irishmen who had borne the British maltreatment in black silence, to break down and weep. Martin was to relate that he was taken away and cared for by an Australian doctor and an Irish nurse named Mary O’Rourke. She was a fair-haired woman of average height with a slim figure who carried herself with an upright carriage, and was fiercely spirited. She cared well for Martin and other soldiers, but he was the only soldier she sketched with the crayon sticks she always had with her. When Martin saw her work, he asked her to marry him. She agreed, and she agreed too, when some years later, following the death of Shaun and Eileen, Martin told her he had decided they should immigrate to Australia. He said he had never forgotten the kindness of the soldiers who had saved his life that day so many years ago, and he believed their country would be a good place to settle, away from the troubles in Ireland which by now had split into two self-governing areas, Northern and Southern Ireland. He also believed that resettlement would be good for their grandson, Adam. So it proved to be.

 

As time passed, the easy-going friendship between Martin and Adam strengthened, but the relationship he knew with his grandmother Mary, was even more complex, for it was a thing of the soul that Mary often talked about. She was a willowy woman who carried a quiet but unquestioned authority in her bearing and manner. Like Martin, she was a Catholic but broad minded and clear thinking, and not a follower of that part of the Church which remained under Roman obedience after the Reformation. She believed in heaven and hell, angels and devils, but she was practical about life and how it should be lived. Life and the happiness that sometimes went with it, as she explained it to Adam, could be likened to something in a cup. The problem however, was that there was not enough happiness to satisfy everyone, and to keep all cups full. As this was the case, Adam must understand that if his cup was full, it was only because the cup of someone else held less than his. He must also understand that the time would come when his cup would not hold much happiness either, so he must fight, and hold on, knowing that if he persevered then his God and hers, who had the power over nature and human fortunes, would fill his cup again. Of an evening she knelt beside Adam on the dirt floor of their shack and they said their prayers together, where over his bed hung a crayon drawing of Mary’s which showed Christ exhibiting his heart in red and gold and blue, the colouring she often told him, of love and pride and suffering.

 

With the years many other families had come to be scattered all about the saffron hump of land above the river and all close to the Kelly place which became the hub of everyone’s tattered wheel. Mary, known as Grandmother to everyone, was a woman who had accumulated that sort of wisdom which books and learning do not impart and she became, almost naturally, spokeswoman and arbiter for the ridge dwellers. Her authority was undisputed, and she was able to fend off the authorities when they came looking for drunks, vagrants, or criminals. She was able also to manipulate and pacify local council officials when they turned up demanding payment for the crown rent on land where so many bag shanties huddled together. Adam was often by her side at such times, a patient listener to her well-constructed pleas for mercy, an observer to her diplomacy. Given her experience as a nurse, Mary was also medic to the ridge dwellers, administering to the sick, most of whom could not afford medicine let alone the luxury of a doctor or a trained nurse, and calling on a lifetime of experience she gave succour and hope to many so lost in spirit. With Mary on the ridge it became home for a community, not simply a resting place for derelicts.

As the Depression lingered on and Adam passed his twelfth birthday, more and more shacks had come to sprawl along the sandy ridge, over the spaces beyond, and into the wind-patterned hollows about and beyond the Kelly place. The new-comers were from the city as well as the bush. Accountants, factory hands, general handymen and labourers along with drovers, sheep men and farmers. Many elderly swagmen passed by, corks to ward off the flies swinging from the brims of their broad bush hats, all their possessions wrapped in the swag slung across their shoulders. A blackened billycan dangled from the swag, and many were accompanied by an old cattle dog normally a kelpie, often simply called Bluey. Swaggies, as they also were simply named, were men fixed in a low status, somewhere between the indigenous Aborigine and the immigrant Irish. Derided by many as thieves and vagabonds, most somehow understood that if they called at the Mary Kelly place requesting hot water to make tea in their billycan, and some hot tucker for which they offered to cut wood or clean up about the place, Mary would supply whatever was needed. They invariably fed their dog from a spare bowl carried for that purpose, and would later head for the river bank to set up their humble camps, but Sergeant Murphy of the Mildura police would appear almost on cue and move them on.

Murphy never came near the ridge though, and he never permitted any of his constables to go near the place, unless he accompanied them. He knew well enough that whenever the ridge dwellers got enough cash for any work they might find in the vineyards or labouring on the roads, they would drink and brawl, even run crazy. He knew that on Saturday nights in particular, the ridge would often be littered with male and female debris of fearsome fights and monumental drinking bouts. But having so much respect for Mary Kelly’s ability to sort things out with wisdom and tact, and being Irish himself, he never interfered with what might happen on the ridge. Knowing anyhow, that when the Sunday morning sun aroused them, the fighters in particular, would generally shake hands and make up. They would probably have another beer, most having forgotten what it was they had fought about, anyhow.

Adam had many young friends on the ridge but his best mate was Barney, a boy who was the same age as Adam but who, according to Martin, had been ‘tarred with a brush’. Adam did not understand the term until he came to learn that Barney was part Aboriginal and later still, to hear him referred to as a black half-caste bastard who should have been removed from his mother and passed on to a white family for a proper upbringing. His mother Minnie, a full-blood, lived near the Kelly place with a drunken man known only as Goshawk. Minnie had lustrous black eyes and beautiful teeth which she once laughingly told Adam came from a starch-free diet and from raiding bees’ nests for honey. Her teeth in any case, were much nicer than many of the white people living about and Barney, as far as Adam was concerned, was a keener hunter and tracker of animals, than anyone. He could read the displacement of any leaf, or any imprint, no matter how faint, in the sand. Adam had watched how Barney could freeze in mid-step and wait for a goanna or a snake to come all the way out of a log or a hole in the ground. Then he would pounce, pick up the snake or the goanna and whip it over his head to kill it. He could climb the tallest tree to raid a bees’ nest, he could knock any roosting bird with a stone, and whenever he set his nets over a warren, he always had enough rabbits to feed his family, and the Kelly’s, too. Both boys were lanky youngsters with large hands and feet which showed they would be big men. They were inseparable mates and confidantes and while they often waited for Saturday nights and to observe some of the brawls, the best times they spent together was when they played marbles out back of the Kelly shack in a circle drawn in the dust. They were often watched by a somnolent old frilled-necked goanna which they had christened Horatio, from a poem read at school. The goanna was stout, old and slow in his movements, but he always seemed interested as the marbles clicked and clacked with a melody of sound and each boy tried desperately to win a game, shouting in victory or despair. Sometimes over a point lost or won, the two youngsters would tug and wrestle in the dust and weeds, shouting and swearing at each other in an ecstasy of happiness brought about by the strength of their friendship, by the warm setting sunshine, and the sharp gum scent from the eucalyptus trees shading the yard. Often they would later share a cigarette with Adam breaking the one he carried in half, lighting his portion, and passing the burning match and Barney’s half over to him. Together and in complete harmony they inhaled with what they took to be a natural talent. And the jewelled eyes of Horatio always observed them.

 

Both boys started working when in their early teens as Mary and Minnie needed every penny they could earn. Their first employer was Rocky Daniels who went about the Buronga Ridge in a horse-drawn cart delivering milk, and the boys were paid to help him. Rocky loved to sing as he drove about the place, warbling ditties which for people living about the place were as much a part of his character as his appearance. They were the kind not usually heard outside the Returned Soldiers get-togethers or rugby after-match beer-ups, but nobody on the ridge ever took offence to them. “Oh, there was rooting in the haystacks and rooting in the ricks” Rocky would yodel in his fine tenor voice, “You couldn’t hear the music for the swishing of the ... sweet violets, sweeter than all the roses...”

Rocky had been a champion fighter in his younger days and he ran a small gymnasium in Mildura. Despite his battered appearance from so many years as a professional fighter, he showed no trace of the so-called punch drunkenness which affected so many old fighters of that period. At least, he had none of the slurred speech or the impaired sense of balance of some of the ancient battlers who hung about his place and it was Minnie who approached Rocky to ask if he would teach Barney to fight. He understood why because, over the years, Minnie had lived with a number of men about the place and some in a drunken rage had beaten her and Barney as well. She was to him, a sad little black woman, one whose age and a thickening body made it certain that she could only live with rough men like Goshawk who now shared her bed. Rocky also accepted that Barney had at first welcomed the men his mother had lived with, but soon he had come to resent them, and finally to hate them for none had ever given him the paternal love he yearned for. Goshawk was no exception, and Rocky knew it would soon be time for Barney to confront him physically.

Once Barney started being coached in the manly art, Adam asked his grandmother if he could join him, and in the months following, both boys fought in the tents of the local boxing circuit, earning a pound a round, which was big money to them. Barney was regarded by most as a potential champion, with destructive hands and an iron chin. He never lost a fight while Adam, despite being a class middle weight, lost a couple of his bouts.

 

When the grape picking season commenced, Adam and Barney quit Rocky’s milk run to work on the property owned by Enzio Clemenza. He was an Italian who had emigrated from France, not Italy, after the first war, a fact which now kept him from being interned as an enemy alien as war had by now erupted in Europe. On his arrival at Buronga, Clemenza had taken up land along the river and there he had grubbed out a place for his vines, grafting onto the small stems the centuries old love of vineyards, all inherited from his native Italy.

The land Clemenza first worked was so poor that some of the locals said he would never make it as a grower. But he did, partly because he was sustained in his work by his wife, Rosa. Even now, after so many years in Australia, and even while being the wife of one of the richest men in the district, she still wore her hair in the plain, severe style of her homeland. She still wore un-ornamented black clothing and drab shoes and stockings, of the best and durable quality no doubt, but they were still hostages of her days of struggle when she and her husband never stopped working and planting. The way Rosa had often stood so close to her husband with a black shawl over her head, and black peasant stockings to match her ankle-length boots, was ridiculed by some. Only her husband understood that Rosa’s stern Catholic God had burned into her very soul a fear of what He, in this good land had given, He might, in less generous mood, so easily take away.

The pickers came in their droves, and by their nature as well as their numbers, disrupted the peaceful, easy-going rhythm of Mildura and the many small country towns about. They were not all bad people, of course. Many were hard working decent folk who followed seasonal work from North Queensland to Tasmania, from cane cutting to apple picking and most reared their youngsters properly, trying to get some schooling wherever they went. One lunch time, in their very first week of picking, Adam fell into conversation with a picker called Esperence. She said she was a secretary, taking a working holiday. She was from Adelaide, and while she smiled too readily, and laughed a little too much, Adam was flattered by her attention. She told Adam that she had a girl friend named Kay and wondered if Barney would like to meet her and go dancing with them the following week. Barney was indifferent, almost uninterested, but when he saw Esperence returning with a slim girl he could see was part Aboriginal he leapt to his feet, a big grin of welcome on his face.

 

The following Saturday evening Adam, with Esperence on his arm and with Barney and Kay following, entered the dance hall. They all paused just inside the door, absorbing the colourful scene and it was obvious that nobody, stranger or otherwise, could possibly have lost their way to the Town Hall that evening for the place glowed with lights, was surrounded by horse-drawn vehicles, and throbbing to the sound a large crowd makes. Sharp at eight o’clock Elsie Dunning, small, sober-faced and very determined had struck the first chords on the piano set on the high stage and the proceedings were under way. She and her group would keep up a monumental beat that should have brought down the lilies and cherubs of the heavy white moulding, while clouds of bright streamers and great baubles of balloons would shake and sway above the dancers, the latter to be released among general pandemonium, as if the balloons were precious, during the last dance.

Adam and Barney with their partners had wedged their way into the mass of dancers. As they could not dance, they did not concern themselves with the intricate steps of any arrangement, and were content to hold their partners close and try to waltz, while letting the crowd push them in wide circles on the floor. Finally, when human endurance of both dancers and orchestra came to a halt, some of the men accompanied their partners back to chairs set along the walls, but most immediately left them to go outside and have a smoke or a drink, or like Adam and Barney, use the break to get to know their partners better on the lawn or under one of the many huge old trees about the place. However, when the dance music beckoned again, the girls would excitedly drag their partners back inside again until finally, when the musicians had played their last encore, they left the place and strolled down Deakin Avenue, heading for the river. They found the air had become warm and musty, with just a hint of ripe grape aroma from the vineyards all about. Generally though, the place was sleeping, but somewhere a car honked or a motor-bike blatted, while behind them they could hear the tinny sound of a piano as some die-hard reveller tried to manufacture yet another tune on the high stage.

On the cut grass by the river Adam sat down and removed his shoes while trying to remember exactly what Rocky Daniels had explained about the moves he and Barney should next attempt on such an occasion as this. He had even warbled a couple of his ribald ditties as examples of sexual practice. But it was Esperence standing beside him, who resolved everything by first stripping herself naked, then tearing Adam’s pants clear away. She next took firm hold of his erection, said it was magnificent, and that there was no way he would be sent off to war as a virgin. She then ran into the river. Ripping his shirt away, Adam chased after her with Barney and Kay in close pursuit.   

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