St. Bernie of Traralgon

 

 

Footy has thrown up knights, scholars, politicians, writers, thinkers and musicians. Sir Doug Nicholls ticks off at least two of these categories; James Manson most of them – the important ones anyway. But there hasn’t yet been a footy saint. Now I can’t be categorical about this, not being completely versed about Mary MacKillop’s skills with the Sherrin, but it seems safe to assume that an Aussie Rules footballer has never troubled those manning the tally boards at the Vatican. Readers, consider this the opening salvo in a campaign to recognise our very own Bernie ‘Superboot’ Quinlan as the patron saint of Traralgon.

 

When I’m not having picaresque fantasies about fictional panoramas where Fitzroy still exists, I’m a high school teacher. Like Sisyphus, my colleagues and I roll our own boulders up a hill each and every year only to… We’ve just lost a deputy principal, I don’t mean she died; she’s retiring soon, which is past tense enough in a workplace that will reassign your pigeonhole if you forget to scan your new ID card when you sign in for work.

 

Her voice, gait and overall mien were the perfect antidote to the petulant issues that can define a day in our workplace. Even a veteran teacher, moaning about many replacement classes they’d been already assigned this week while such and such from the 40s block (it’s not a prison, but doesn’t the nomenclature of ‘blocks’ speak volumes for how we in education define our workplace) has had none all year, will find a way to cede ground eventually. We all end up leaving Lee’s office with a dignity and grace that we never really possessed in the first place, and a calm that will hold us through at least the next class.

 

She’s just a great, great, lady. Mention the name Bernie Quinlan to her and she trembles and gapes. She is a teenager again; she giggles, she preens, she is stilled. She hates the footy though.

 

Not in that poseur, intellectual way, where wankers with affected sighs will roll their eyes about the “cultural stranglehold” footy has on Victoria. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to see as much about global warming in the paper as we do about Chris Judd’s knee…’ they will sneer to anyone who is listening. ‘Oh I know’ someone shrill with confected outrage: ‘It’s just a shame that there’s not a not a nightly news segment on art and sculpture, the way there is about sport, isn’t it?’ Rhetorical question, for them at least. It’s the ‘isn’t it?’ at the end that really pi—-s me off. As if what they are saying is completely self-evident to anyone within their imagined intellectual fiefdom. When I went to uni I met many people like that; those who believed that to be ‘scholarly’ and ‘academic’ meant sneering at their working class origins and the pastimes that used to define them.

 

It’s not a default hatred of anything popular that drives Lee’s disdain for footy – she just doesn’t like it; she thinks it’s boring. Like many baby-boomers she’ll use phrases like “it’s about as interesting as watching grass grow.” She’ll confuse our students by saying things like “It’s six of one and a half dozen of the other….” When she is giving someone a compliment, she’ll say “he’s like salt’n’pepper, that one.” Quite deliberately she’ll reference tropes that no one but her could possibly remember. When something funny falls a little flat (or we are just wondering if it is really ok to laugh, because she is management after all) she’ll drolly say “it’s a joke, Joyce,” even though no-one on the staff is called Joyce.

 

So when the talk in the staff room turns to the footy, as it often does and as it really should, Lee will chime in with withering comments like “I’d love to watch, but I’m getting my hair done.” Which makes no sense, her hair hasn’t been ‘done’ since Denise Drysdale was on the telly. Or she’ll make comments like “Hmmmm…. Was that the game the other night where the team wearing the matching jumpers all tried to kick it to each other? Yes, I can see why that would be fascinating…” She would then raise an eyebrow and make you feel a bit stupid, and, for a second or two, wonder if the footy was in fact a bit lowbrow and that maybe there was more to life. But then you quickly look up a Charlie Cameron goal on YouTube and feel bad for her.

 

But for all that, Lee too has her own Bernie Quinlan story – and it’s a ripper. Everyone in Traralgon knows the Kay Street hill; everyone in Traralgon knows Bernie Quinlan. But before Bernie Quinlan became Bernie Quinlan, I mean before Bernie Quinlan became the Bernie Quinlan, he was just Bernie Quinlan. I know that makes sense, there is a basic axiom of good writing that one shouldn’t repeat the same words in quick succession. But there is also a belief that one shouldn’t line up for goal from seventy metres out; unless one is Bernie Quinlan. So my sentence is fine. And so is this one – Bernie Quinlan, Bernie Quinlan, Bernie Quinlan, and Bernie Quinlan.

 

To ride your bike up the Kay Street hill is an effort, to ride down its snaking path with severe corners is a triumph. Lee tells a story of Bernie storming down the hill, on his bike but leaving cars in his wake, hands nowhere near the handlebars, school blazer slicing through the air in a way that make Ben Lexcen weep. We don’t yet have a mythological history to our town. People don’t yet speak of Traralgon anecdotes with the same weight that they do the Trojans and Norse legends; but if you can wait a millennia or two, I think this memory of Lee’s will have all manner of theologians offering their exegetical skill to help a hungry world understand the miracles of ‘St. Bernie of the hill descent.’ Lee was a young girl then, which means Bernie was a young teenager. That means he probably couldn’t yet have grown his distinctive moustache, and even if he could, the Marist brothers wouldn’t have allowed it. But this story works so much better in the mind’s eye if you wack the moustache on his child face, even a Fitzroy guernsey or beanie as well.

 

The last time I spoke to Lee, I told her about my recent trip to Italy. Padova, Italy in fact. Padova is actually “the city of the lions,” but that’s a story for another time. There are two cathedrals in Padova and I shared with Lee that in one there is a small antechamber where the relics of St. Luke (the bloke who knocked out one of the gospels, that St. Luke) are stored (maybe interred is a better choice of word here). Pilgrims were clutching at rosary beads and desperately praying. Scenes I was pretty familiar with from Fitzroy’s final seasons at the Whitten Oval. As a bit of an aspiring writer myself, I didn’t mind the idea that it wasn’t just Jesus who was so feted, but one of the lads who thought to uncap the biro and start scribbling down the stories.

 

Luke’s relics are in the lesser cathedral of Padova, the Basilica of St. Giustina. It’s a bit classier than the main one, St Anthony’s. Not as busy, less gelati and souvenir stores in the immediate vicinity. Padovans (Padovonian’s?? Paduans??) call Anthony “the saint” with the expectation that everyone will know exactly who they are talking about. In the same way I speak of “the goal” and assume that everyone immediately pictures ‘Doc’ Wheildon against the West Coast Eagles in ‘92. In their main cathedral, the Basilica of St. Anthony, you can see his actual tongue and jawbone preserved in quite ornate reliquaries. Turns out Lee, and most of her generation in Traralgon have been nowhere near as reverential with the relics of “St. Bernie of Traralgon.” ‘Did I ever tell you, Shane, that when I was in Form Two, I had Bernie Quinlan’s old Maths text book as well as his novels?’ Now Lee hates the footy, but she for a second or two that seemed like a minute the air was laden and she quivered.  Now Lee hates the footy, but she looked sad as she slowly shook her head and I swear there was a tear in her eye. Not just because she knew what a book containing Bernie Quinlan’s first attempts at algebra, or a copy of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ with HIS scribblings in the margins would mean to me, but what they would have meant to future pilgrims.

 

In the same way that Christianity is about so much more than just Christmas; Bernie Quinlan is about more than just football. “No, we didn’t keep them, Shane” she says. Now Lee hates the footy, but together we reverently watch the short clip on YouTube showing Bernie Quinlan’s hundredth goal against Collingwood. Now Lee hates the footy, but she is human and she gulps. I hand her a hanky as the tears start to flow. Her fingers start tracing the air, as if she is remembering the corporeal tactility of Superboot’s second hand text books. Like Thomas, doubting Lee had to see to believe. The miracle of the Kay Street hill. Bernie Quinlan left Traralgon in 1967 and I wasn’t born until the seventies. Blessed are they who have not seen, yet still believe.

 

 

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About Shane Reid

I’m a dad to two great girls, both of whom love the Lions like their dad. I’m also a secondary school teacher. It has been a lot of fun having a go at writing, I also really enjoy reading the great pieces on The Footy Almanac.

Comments

  1. Nice work again, Shane Reid. I look forward to another edition to the mythology of Bernie Quinlan.
    Thanks also for trying to bring Kay Street into the vernacular. I didn’t know that I was following in saintly bike treads when going down the hill as a teenager.

  2. Shane, I’ve enjoyed your two features on the great Bernie Quinlan.
    I believe Bernie’s father (Frank?) played for Fitzroy in the 1940s, so it was fitting that the great Superboot ended up as a Royboy.
    I still feel angry at how Bernie was treated as Lions coach in 1995.
    That said, it’s wonderful to read the great pride teacher Lee – and Traralgon in general – has for Saint Bernie.

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