Happy New Year, Yank!

“Are you from Yankeeland?” asked a tall, young bloke at the bar as I tried to get a beer before closing.

It was New Year’s Eve 1971 around 10.30pm, and I just hitched a ride from near Adelaide to Wudinna, South Australia on the Eyre Highway. It seemed like the middle of nowhere and I could use a drink to celebrate the New Year.

My ride said I might be able to get one at the Wudinna Hotel (pictured in 1998), and sure enough, the young bloke ordered me one, then introduced me to the local constable. “He’s from Yankeeland,” he told the policeman, who said: “It’s almost closing, but you can have a few. It’s New Year’s Eve!”

It was my first Christmas holiday away from home in the US, and I had hitched from Kangaroo Valley the day after Boxing Day, aiming to get to Perth and have a dip in the Indian Ocean. I had been teaching in the western suburbs of Sydney, and hitchhiking was one of my favourite modes of transport in those days.

Fortunately, I had not seen Wake in Fright, an Australian film depicting the dangers of the outback and the male pub culture, based on the novel by Kenneth Cook.  The movie features a bonded teacher, John Grant, who makes a stopover in a steamy mining town on the way to Sydney on his school holidays, and, like me, goes to the pub. The first person he meets is the local constable, Jock Crawford, played by the legendary Chips Rafferty, who tells him he couldn’t have come to a better place than Bundayabba, aka the Yabba. “What  about another beer?” asks the constable, which leads to more beers, two-up, Grant losing all his money, missing his plane and disaster after disaster for the teacher, including being sexually assaulted by a disbarred doctor, malevolently played by Donald Pleasance!

I am happy to relate that none of the above happened to me in Wudinna. Closing did take place a little later than normal that night, and I was taken by the young bloke to the New Year’s dance at the local school hall, where I met just about everybody in Wudinna. There was no beer at the party, but I was escorted across the road to the teacher’s hostel, where I was included in a circle as the young folk passed around a bottle of beer. I had just spent five years in New York City, where entirely different substances were passed around in late-night circles. But I never enjoyed smoking anything and I do love beer. This was fun!

Back to the hall, and a lot of dancing until the party was over around 2am or so. But the festivities did not end there. I was taken to the home of the young bloke (I wish I could remember his name, but it was 40 years ago!) to meet his parents, who were having a party of their own with the town’s movers and shakers. His father was the bank manager, and just about everybody there was a community leader. When they found out I had taught in Harlem for three years, I had to tell every story I could remember.

I’ll tell just one of those stories here, to give you a flavour of that New Year’s morning in Wudinna. It’s all about Herman H., a chubby little sixth-grader, with a high-pitched voice, and a wonderful sense of humour. Herman knew I needed a drink after a tough day of classes, and while I never hit the sauce in the morning, he could recognise a hangover when he saw one. About 8.30am as I was getting ready to take the attendance, he and a friend came up to my desk. And with a smile on his face, Herman said: “You know I told my mother that sometimes in the morning we can smell alcohol on your breath.” And I immediately thought: “Well, there goes my job, I guess I’ll have to go to Vietnam after all.” So I asked, expecting the worst: “Herman, what did she say?” He said loud enough for the rest of the class to hear: “She said, you gotta have something with you bad-ass kids.” I fell in love with Mrs H. from that moment on (I already loved Herman!). The parents in Wudinna also loved the story.

It was about 4.30am when everyone was starting to doze off, including me, after many stories and a lot of Old People’s Music (Guy Lombardo, as I recall). At this stage, the teen-aged sons and daughters of Wudinna came in to take me to the beach. I said goodbye to the old folks, and was driven along a rough road about 80km south to the ocean, with the youngsters singing their music: Eagle Rock, I think, was one of the songs!

We got there as the sun came up, and jumped into the water to wake ourselves up. That lasted about half an hour, before we all fell asleep on blankets. It was New Year’s Day, with barbecues and water sports: A perfect day at the beach. I felt as if the whole town of Wudinna had adopted me – a bloke from Yankeeland. “Wake in fright?” No, it was “Wake out of sight,” to use the vernacular of the early seventies.

Around 5pm or so, the teenagers drove me back to the Eyre Highway and on to the next town going west, saying I had a better chance of getting a ride there. As we waved goodbye to each other, I must admit I had to wipe away a few tears.

I never made it back to Wudinna, but since then I have only had happy experiences in the Australian bush. Like most small towns around the world, Australia’s villages and hamlets are filled with friendly people.

Wudinna, forty years on, I salute you. Happy 2012.

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