Off Season Odyssey Pt.38.
The tree-lopping boss is one of the best people I’ve ever met. An ex-Geelong man. There are a lot of them up here. Ex-Victoiran surf coast, ex-W.A., ex-Gold Coasters. Even Ex-Mossman, from just down the road. Nobody actually comes from Port Douglas.
The fact none of them are trying to leave is all that stops the place from being Casablanca.
In some ways it reminds me of Australia as a whole. We’ve changed. Or, the nature of work and the modern world has changed us. Telly and movies fill kids’ heads with dreams of youth parties, telecommunications mean people can almost take their home with them. Someone who lives in the suburb they grew up in is often belittled now. The surest sign you came from a small town is that you got out of it. We’re a lot more transient as a nation.
“Use Brendon, my mechanic in town,” the boss says. “He’s a straight up fella.”
“I couldn’t afford someone in town,” I tell him.
“Don’t be fooled by the resorts. Everybody here is broke. He’ll be used to you.”
I drive down and, sure enough, the bloke is straight up. Fourth generation mechanic. He loves it, carrying the flame, tapping into the grainy black-and-white garage photos on the wall. Living them. Breathing oil and knotted knuckles, the sound of ratchets and tinny radios. It’s like history has left him with nothing to prove, so all that’s left is friendly.
Brendon puts my vehicle up on the hoist while we talk. Looks it over.
“Sorry,” he says, with the warmest grin. “You can’t afford me.”
“Just do the steering rod, or the ball joints,” I tell him.
“Mate,” he smiles, “if I open up your front end, it will spew out like dominos. You’d be up for $1,500, easy. Your ute’s been brilliant to you, but it’s hurting.”
“Yeah, well, if it had no dints, it would carry no stories,” I tell him.
The wet comes down at footy training. Lightening everywhere, bats. It feels like a living thing, superb.
The coach calls us in half way through a drill. The bloke has played all over the country, is to be feared, but not a tyrant, and, best, has rock-solid conviction in his vision. There’s pre-warm-ups, warm ups, training, which is four quarters long. Two of them running, two structure drills. Everything’s game plans, nice and early. Get a team to know it like habits by Round One. Where to set up as forwards, how to kick it in there. How to run it out of defence. Where to stand at ball-ups.
Insist on teammates thinking in the plural.
Cairns is an industry-driven, football-mad, shitfight for players. Other teams in this comp cough up big dollars. Hundreds of thousands. Port has a budget of about $30,000. All they have to offer, after the wet goes, somewhere between Round Two and Four, is jobs and winter paradise. A lifestyle of perfect weather, hot tourists, the reef and a mighty nightlife. It gets them players from the N.T., Victoria, South Oz, everywhere. Enough to flesh out the locals. But the jobs are mostly just jobs, not trades. Players come, have their adventure, and go again. Two years and you’re a veteran.
Even the resident tradies have the, I dunno, casualness, of a tourist town, nothing like the logging community I’m from. There isn’t that grit of 20-year friendships and enemies.
I’ve never seen a club quite like it.
It’s raining so hard I’m struggling to see the other side of the huddle. The coach is yelling at us.
“One! In this wet, don’t drill ‘em. Pop it up!” he snaps. “Two! You’re dropping everything! Why does it take a bloke from Tassie, who’s used to this sort of weather, to show you how? Flat hands!”
That felt good, like a bluff that coughed up beer money. I’d be Twos at this level.
We break out into one more drill as the rain eases. His kick-out plan is a beauty. The best I’ve seen yet, and I’ve seen plenty.
All it will take is one or two peanuts to bring it, and other structures, down, but the coach is determined. I don’t know if the team is skilled or disciplined enough to achieve what he wants, but so what? He’s aspiring. Not treating them like monkeys. Not spouting game plans he never has any real intention of following through on before sending them off to do circle work. Not yelling
“Do it for the team!”
“Just go in harder!”
“Everyone has a man!”
and other tired old clichés every time things aren’t working. Not blaming others.
I pull up a bit sore after training. There’s 54 years of senior footy between the me and the coach.
I show him where I dislocated my elbow and pulled it back in, then took a $120 cab ride to the nearest hospital. He shows me some of his. I don’t mention the nine concussions. We have too many, so focus on the ones that still hinder our football.
“God knows what the body’s going to be like when we stop playing,” he says.
“Yeah, well, if we had no dints…” I tell him.
Another old cliché I’m sick of is: “Go in hard and you won’t get hurt.”
I’ve coached a lot of teenagers.
“Bullshit!” I tell them.
“Of course you will. It’s a contact sport. But when you go in hard, the pain isn’t a thing of shame, it becomes easy to push through. a thing of pride, worn like a medal!”
As much as I hate them, injuries, I’ve come to enjoy them, their sharp pain or dull ache. Enjoy defying them.
It’s the niggly ones that drag down on you.
Only Seb, from the Pilbera, and Tiny, from down South, join me for a drink at the pub after training. For a ‘Ben Hudson’ I tell them. They’re both new here and from small towns full of 20-year friendships and animosities, and know, for us, what matters.
“Less than three weeks to Round One,” I say.
“How are you going to get home in time?” they ask.
“No idea,” I tell them.
Next day at work, I’m throwing my shirt through the rain, onto the ground, swearing and cursing because too many green ants are in it, when the boss saddles up, all easy.
“We’ve got a few weeks worth of jobs up at Cape York, in the indigenous communities. The roads are all flooded out. Got to go on a cargo barge with the gear. Should take three days to get there, via the islands. Pay’s good. Want an adventure?” he asks me.
To make it back to Tassie I might just have to go through the Northern-most tip of Australia.