Public Trustee, Plane Crash and meeting Jenny
Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart. – Marcus Aurelius
The Public Trustee
After school I had worked for periods for the National Australia Bank and at Queerah meatworks, but by late 1985 I managed to find my niche in the workplace when I was offered a position at the Public Trust Office.
The old Public Trustee building was in the heart of the city at the corner of Abbott and Spence Streets, bordering on a green oasis known as Anzac Park. The building has long been demolished along with the park to make way for the Cairns Casino. The casual pace of life inside the Public Trustee building contrasted amazingly with the busy pace of the city, although Cairns in those days were much more relaxed that the Cairns of today. Life was certainly casual at the Public Trustee but it was never boring the characters that worked there saw to that.
When I started work at the Public Trustee in 1985 there were certainly some interesting Cairns characters working there.
Allan ‘Dick’ Whittington from Edmonton was a regular at the Hambledon Hotel. Dick was a great mate over many years. We enjoyed more than a couple of beers together at the Cairns Masonic Club.. which was located in Abbott Street.
Robert Lazarus was the Wills Officer and he was quite a character. A former rugby league player for Kangaroos and Cairns. He was still quick on his feet, unless it was after a two-hour lunch across the road.
Terry Curtin was another real local. He was a Vietnam veteran and a long-termer at the Public Trust. The thing I remember about him most was his love for his two boys. He would always be meeting them in the office to take them to swimming or to play sport of some kind. Another memory I had of Terry was he maintained a list of every person employed by the Public Trustee of Queensland. Whenever someone would pass away or retire Terry would put a line through their name and say something like, “Right I am now number 42 in charge of this show.”
Keith McElhinney was another good bloke. Keith was the son of a bookie and when I knew him he was running a book like his dad. Greg Brooker was in charge of the conveyancing section and my supervisor. Greg had saltwater in his veins and eventually resigned to take backpackers out to the reef on his boat.
Other staff included Terry Casey, Murray Saint, Graham Cann who trained greyhounds, Beavan Philips, James O’Brien, Karen Jensen, Sharon Anderson, Tasia Hodgkinson, Leanne Leary, Katrina Clarke and Karen Winkworth. I believe Winkworth Street was named after Karen’s family, a prominent local business family. They say 1 in 5 relationships start in the workplace and Janet and Beavan were the glamour couple of the time, marrying in the late 80s.
In those days the two-hour lunch across the road at one of the Barbary Coast pubs were not unheard of. Back then everyone drank, especially every second Wednesday which pay day was, or as Dick called it, the day the golden eagle would shit. The back bar at the Cairns RSL was another regular watering hole for the crew each Friday.
I remember one day in the 80s walking past Bill Lee Long’s Sports Store in Lake Street during my lunch break and dropping in for a look around. There was a beautiful pump action shot gun for sale and I purchased it, thinking nothing of walking the gun back to the office and putting on the desk. Although the stress it caused one member of staff later became a cause of some mirth. It is interesting to contrast those days to today. These days it would be a major concern and laws that have been passed would probably have the SWAT team called on you.
Eventually the old Public Trustee building in Abbott Street was knocked down to make way for our new casino, marking another step in the transition from rural community to tourist economy. The office was then moved to its current location in Sheridan Street and there we saw a whole lot of new characters employed, including Barbara Farrari, Jodie Farrell and Lauri Bryce, my good mate Liam Nicholas and through it all the Deputy District Trustee, remained our local stayer with safe hands, Bill Butler.
The bloke in charge was a former priest by the name of Peter Mc Eniery. He was in interesting character. A catholic priest who had committed the Cardinal sin (or perhaps we should call it the carnal sin) of meeting a woman who he later married.
Tied up in Controversy
Understanding the casual relaxed atmosphere that existed at the Cairns Branch of the Public Trustee, you can imagine the great outrage it caused when we received a memorandum from the Department Head in Brisbane that we were all to wear neckties when at work! I certainly was not happy when I heard the news, but it was probably not a clever move to agree to an interview when I was contacted by local journo Robert Reid who freelanced for that old Aussie icon ‘The Australasian Post’.
Robert was much more used to doing interviews than I was to being interviewed and like the old hand that he was, he proceeded to buy me a beer at Rusty’s pub to make sure I was relaxed enough to mention the “bureaucrats in Brisbane that have nothing better to do than come up with ridiculous rules like this.”
On the first day of 1990 at around 8 AM I received a phone call from the former Premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett. He had been replaced as Victorian Premier and was doing an early morning radio gig. As I waited on hold on this 1st day of January 1990, I heard him say to listeners, “We are now going to interview a man from North Queensland about the biggest social political and economic issue of this decade!” (which was less than 8 hours old). Apart from his smart arse intro the interview went well.
This issue received massive media coverage, much of it light-hearted, but I really felt Cairns needed an image that offered a point of difference, not just like everyone else – besides, it gets hot up here!
A Far Northern Tragedy
Still living with my parents, I returned home from work one afternoon and found my mother sitting beside the phone with a concerned look on her face. She had been watching television and a message had flashed across the screen that a plane carrying Far North Queensland local government officials was missing on route from Airlie Beach to Cairns.
Dad had been invited to do a presentation on local government management with Cairns Mayor Keith Goodwin, at a conference at Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays, so naturally we were concerned. In those days many of the councils in North Qld used to hire private charter planes to take councillors to meetings in areas where there were no regular air services.
No sooner had mum informed me of the news than the phone rang. It was media, asking mum if she had heard from Tom. We both decided to stay by the phone with the television on to find out whatever news we could, good or bad. We both feared the worst.
It emerged that earlier that day Keith Goodwin and dad had made their presentations. Dad tried to get on the Cessna home, but all the seats were taken. He stood envious of Keith and his other colleagues, as he waved them goodbye and made his way to get on a bus thinking, “I’d rather be with them than endure the drive back to Cairns.” He could not have known that the while bus would safely make it to its destination, the Cessna never would.
On that day in 1990 the Cessna crashed into Mt Emerald and all aboard lost their lives. They were Keith Goodwin, Rose Blank, Ivan Wilkinson, Harry Rankine, Elwyn Phillips, Bruno Riedweg, Hector Wallace, Sister Nadia Giovanna del Popolo, Joesph Frederick Newman, Graham Gilbert Luxton and pilot Stan Lingren. This tragedy shook the community and robbed the Far North of some of our much loved and most respected leaders.
One Bourbon One Scotch and One Beer
The famous American blues singer George Thorogood had a hit song in my youth called ‘One Bourbon One Scotch and One Beer’. I was sitting at the bar at the Grafton Hotel one Friday night, reciting this song and sang the verse to the barmaid. She replied, “Do you want anything with the Bourbon and Scotch”, no I replied, and she promptly served me the three drinks I had ordered. I disappeared them into my mouth quicker than you could say George Thorogood. I returned to singing and the same thing happened about 4 or 5 times. I do not know if we had responsible service of alcohol laws back then.
On the way heading north on the highway, I saw a couple of parked cars on the side of the road, out of curiosity I turned my vehicle in that direction to shine my lights on whoever it was. It is an understatement to say I was surprised when a police constable jumped out on to the road and tried to wave me down. It was a stupid thing to do, as I was travelling at around 100km/hr. I managed to swerve back into my lane and miss our brave custodian of justice.
As I passed the scene I turned my head to see our friend in blue quickly making haste to the driver’s seat of his police Commodore. I decided that it might be a bit harder for the constabulary to chase me if they couldn’t see me and took the ridiculous option of turning off my lights as I saw a road to my right and quickly got off the highway. I managed to slide off the bitumen on to the gravel road near the old Queerah meat-works. I just got control of the car when I realised the road had turned a corner, unfortunately I realised too late, it’s hard to notice these things with your lights turned off (duh!). Anyhow I skidded on wet grass for about twenty meters before hitting into a dirt embankment with one hell of a thud.
I quickly opened the door and took my seat-belt off, unsure how much time I had before our hero had picked up my trail. I could see some scrub about thirty meters away, however I realised that in my state, I would probably have to cover fifty meters to get there, and would not do that very quickly. Then I had a brain wave. “These guys are going to think I’ve done a runner anyway so why not just stay put?” I made sure the door was completely open then I rolled onto the ground and slid under the chasse of my twisted old car. The Celica was now a couple of feet shorter, but it was still good for something. It was no trojan horse, but I figured most Queensland police are not that clever anyway.
Our hero arrived without delay screeching his new beaut late model Holden Commodore police car to a halt about two meters from where I lay. He shouted to his partner “Quick he’s gone into the bush call for back up”. Within minutes another police car had arrived and two more of Queensland’s finest had made the thirty-yard dash that I had thought better of. I must confess to feeling extremely clever and thinking that even if they do work it out by the time these clowns find me I will be sober anyway. Then our hero returned to some of his compatriots and I heard him say “I’ve had enough of this, let’s call for the tracker dogs”. I lay there for another twenty minutes, feeling like an uninvited guest at the annual police man’s ball.
Before long a police van pulled up and I heard several dogs being let out. I thought the game was up, but to my astonishment the police man in charge of the tracker dogs bought the lead dog over to the car and escorted him into the driver’s seat and commented, “Pick up the scent boy, and we’ll track this clown”. With that our brilliant blood hound jumped into the driver’s seat took a sniff jumped out of the car then ran off to the bush. If that wasn’t remarkable enough the other three dogs did the same thing. Must have been a good half hour that I lay there. I would have made a run for it except two police man had stayed at the car. So, I lay there for what seemed an eternity when I heard Queensland’s finest returning with their four-legged friends. One of them commented “it’s got me buggered where he’s got to, he just vanished”. I was feeling optimistic at this stage when I heard a female voice say, “Hey who’s that under the car”. A journalist from the Cairns Post who was with the police to do a story on the dogs had spotted me under the car.
With that I was violently dragged from underneath my trojan horse by two burly boys in blue. As I got to my feet I recognised my friend from our previous encounter near the road. As he pushed my face into the car and tied a pair of handcuffs behind my back I was feeling pretty pissed off, and said “Anyhow, did you enjoy your bush walk?” before I burst out laughing. With that I was pushed to the ground and felt a very heavy knee in the middle of my back. While it was the female journo who found me, I was lucky she was there, as if she had not been, I would have copped one hell of a flogging! Needless to say I spent the night in the watch-house.
There is no way to defend being a dickhead that night and I would not even try. That said, what happened the following week was concerning. At work I received a call from the Cairns Police and they asked me to come down to the station for an interview. I said okay but something was nagging at me. I called family friend and Cairns Solicitor Mal Cleland and he said to me, “You’re not going anywhere!” The matter then disappeared and never went any further. Apparently, the intention was to make out I had driven at the policeman (which was not true). The reason this matter stays with me is because it makes me wonder to this day “How many people were charged and even gone to prison back then because they just did what the police told them?”
Decades later in politics I saw many politicians who look down on others and condemn young people in trouble. I have never acted in this pompous, holier-than-though manner. Instead I have been quick to think, “There but for the grace of God went I.”
In 1991, I was invited to a 21st birthday party. At the party I saw a young girl with brown hair. Little did I know she would be my future life partner. Jenny loved music and was helping the guy running the sound machine. When I was attempting to crack onto her some of my work colleagues were pretending to be married to me to try and put her off but anyhow she told me she never thought I would call back but the next week I had flowers delivered to her workplace at Australia Post and we have been together ever since.