They grow cotton in western Queensland, on the flat, arid plains they call the Western downs. Huge, irrigated paddocks are filled with rows of bushes that will be covered in fluffy little white buds at the right time. It’s a lucrative business; our farmers are efficient. One thing they have to work at, though, is keeping down the pests and to do that they spray the crops from the air. Stocky little aeroplanes fly slowly, at very low altitude, up and down the rows, the insecticide drifting out behind them from nozzles in the wings. The pilots have to be good. There isn’t much room for error at that height. It’s dangerous work but it pays well.
My brother Fred and I were very close as we grew up in Perth. One abiding consideration was that our older siblings were much older than us so we were thrust together. We were roughly three years apart in age, but that translated to two years at school. He was born in January, and I in November so he was one of the older kids in his class and I was one of the younger ones in mine.
I adored him. As a little kid I followed him around like a burr on a dog. I can imagine there were times when he just wanted to get rid of me. Once, he and his friends paid their sixpence to go inside and watch an entertainment in a local hall. I wanted to go, too. But I didn’t have sixpence. He left me standing at the door and went in with his mates. Six-year-old me burst into tears and the nice man at the door let me in, anyway.
And so it went. Where he led, I would follow. Into a swamp risking the wrath of a male swan guarding his nest; off to Subiaco risking my father’s wrath; climbing trees, building billy carts, snorkelling, adventuring in the forest while our dad collected wood for fuel.
At school Fred was popular with the kids and the teachers. Learning came easily and he could turn his hand to anything. He’d bend over the engine of the family car with my dad, learning how to fix things and check things. He helped dad put in our home-made reticulation system, set up his own dark room in the bathroom so he could develop his own black and white pictures. But while he was smart and good with his hands, he didn’t like the academic discipline much. He would only do what he had to do to get through exams and with his natural ability, that wasn’t hard.
One thing we shared with our father was a love of the sea. Every Sunday in the summer we’d be pestering the poor man to take us to the coast to snorkel. A favourite spot was the groins at Fremantle harbour where rock lobsters set up house amongst the nooks and crannies. But you had to get to the ocean before the sea breeze came in, while the water was calm and visibility was good. We snorkelled in lots of other places, too, up and down the coast. That affinity to the ocean was something neither of us ever lost.
Fred was always going to be a pilot. He fell in love with flying at a very early age and our parents indulged the fancy. I, of course, played, too. We built plastic models of Spitfires and Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfes, Lancasters, Mustangs, B-52’s. We played dog fights. I always got to be the Germans. Not sure why… Later, he built balsa models with little spirit engines turning the propellers so they’d fly. He joined the Air Cadets as soon as he could and we tested each other on aircraft recognition. He breezed through the Air Force selection procedures and went off to RAAF Point Cook near Melbourne for basic flying training in 1966. He was just eighteen.
The following year, while Fred was at RAAF Pearce near Perth for advanced flying training, our father suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died. Fred, recalled from Pearce, was given the job of fetching me from high school to tell me the news. I can see him now, in his blue RAAF uniform, waiting for me at the school’s admin. He looked so handsome. I had no idea why he was there.
Both of us were shattered by dad’s death but the blow to Fred was made so much worse when he was suspended from flying training. Young and impetuous, he resigned from the RAAF, his dream of flying crashed and burning at his feet. It took him a while to get his act together, shifting from one job to another, trying this, having a go at that. We were close over that period. But life goes on, he got married and settled down, earning qualifications with Telstra. The dream of flying was always there, though. And eventually, with the support of his long-suffering wife, he applied himself in a way he wouldn’t in his teens and obtained a pilot’s licence. Thus began a gypsy existence, going to where the work was, crop-spraying mainly. He fathered a son, survived more than one crash. We’d grown apart, as families do, but I saw him in Brisbane shortly after his son was born, and then in Albury and once more in Devonport.
Years went by. About twelve, I think, when one day my phone rang. It was Fred. I’d left Perth and Pete and I were living in Greendale, West of Melbourne and not far from Ballarat. He had to pick up an aircraft from Ballarat, and was flying in to Melbourne from Queensland on a commercial jet. Could I pick him up from the airport and take him to Ballarat? Of course I could. Lots of things go through your mind. I wondered if I’d recognise him, or he, me. I saw him before he saw me. He’d lost most of his hair, taking after our dad, but he was still Fred, with the same nose, chin, expression. He told somebody later he thought I’d aged. Ummm yes.
Fred stayed the night, I drove him to Ballarat and then went back to work in Melbourne. I’d thought he’d ring me again for the return trip going back home but he didn’t. Life was busy for Peter and me at that time. I changed jobs, we went to Sydney for the Olympic Games, my fiftieth birthday came and went, and a week and a day later, Peter and I got married.
Then a little more than two weeks later, at 2am on the 12th December, the telephone rang. It’s not a good time, the witching hour, when the darkness of the night is at its deepest and you’re catapulted out of sleep. It was my sister, ringing me from Perth to tell me Fred had had his final accident above the cotton fields at St George.
Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of his death. His wife, his son and I and a couple of his closest friends took his ashes out to a favourite spot off the coast and sent them to the bottom. Vale.