All rights reserved © 2011
A Farmer's Life
Copyright © 2011 by Ernest Bywater
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved by the author, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Product names, brands, and other trademarks referred to within this book are the property of their respective trademark holders. Unless otherwise specified there is no association between the author and any trademark holder, nor are any expressed or implied. Nor does it express any endorsement by them, or of them. Use of a term in this book should not be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark, service mark, or registered trademark.
The background images are Batlow by Leigh Blackall (top) and Looking East over the Murrumbidgee River near Gumly Gumly by Bidgee (bottom). Both are copyrighted by their creators and their use is allowed by the Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike Licence and terms. The cropping, size adjustment, and text are by Ernest Bywater. All rights to the cover images are reserved by the copyright owners.
3 April 2021 version
Published by Ernest Bywater
E-book ISBN: 978-1-312-77270-0
Note: UK English is used in this story, except for dialogue by a US character where US English is used in the dialogue and some nouns.
The title styles in use are a chapter, a sub-chapter, and a section.
At six o'clock on a hot mid February Tuesday morning Thomas John Cowley is listening to the radio weather report while eating breakfast with his wife, Bernadette, and his thirteen year old son, James Thomas. Like all of the rural workers in the area they're paying close attention to the weather due to worries about the heat and possible fires. The weather people are issuing thunderstorm alerts for the region and the big worry is of a lightning strike starting a fire in the dry crop fields.
The winter started with above average rainfall, but it ended up with only half of the average. Spring started with double the average rainfall for September, but finished with half of the season's average. The initial rain caused a wild growth spurt, but the months of dry weather means it's all now a huge fire hazard. Due to political issues very little burning off was done. The environmentalists convinced the state parliament to pass laws limiting the burning off of natural growth, so there's lots of fuel lying around just waiting for a fire to burn. Adding to that are the crop fields. About half of the crops have been harvested but the stalks are still in the fields waiting to be dealt with after all of the grain is harvested. Any fires will be very hard to deal with, but the predicted thunderstorms and winds could have a fire racing across the fields like a rocket.
Like all rural areas there are no dedicated professional fire-fighters, just the Volunteer Rural Fire Service (RFS) made up of local farmers and staff. A call means they have to get in from their fieldwork to the fire equipment shed then out to the fire: the average response time is fifteen minutes in past fires and exercises. That's too long in most big fires.
Getting up from the table Tom gives his son and wife a hug and kiss each before driving over to see what his boss wants done today.
Arriving at the main equipment shed of the property over the road, about three minutes' drive from the farmhouse Tom rents, he parks and gets out. He finds his boss where he expects to find him, in the shed doing a final check of the equipment for use today before taking it out. Tom calls out, “Morning, Bob, what's on the agenda for today?”
The farm owner, Bob Watt, calls back, “I'm taking the header down to the back field. The used Army fire-truck I bought arrived last night. I want you to get it out and check it over. Fill it with fuel and water then make yourself familiar with it. I've got a feeling we'll need it soon.”
“Right. This the one you were talking about that's set up for remote operation of some of the deluge hoses?”
“Yep. Make sure it works and is ready to use.” Tom nods. Like Bob, he's worried about high winds, dry grass, and fires. By the time Tom is in the cab of the fire-truck Bob is driving the header out of the shed.
Five minutes later Tom has the fire-truck beside the water tank while he fills the large on-board storage tanks as most of the vehicle is water storage tanks to supply the two deluge fire hoses mounted just behind the truck's cabin. The tanks take a lot of water, so he has plenty of time to check the tyres, oil, movement of the hoses, and operation of the auxiliary engines. He even turns on the pumps to check the hoses work. By the time the truck has a full load of water he's happy it's in full working order, and then it's over to the diesel tank to refuel.
After refuelling Tom checks the radio gear all works and it's set to the frequencies the locals use. All OK. That didn't take long and there's a lot of time to go before lunch. Now it's time to get familiar with it, so Tom drives off across the paddock to see how she handles the fields and the local roads. While he drives in the open field he practices with the remote controls that operate the electric motors to aim the hoses. Damn, it's hard to drive both the hoses and the truck. He soon learns to set the hoses and to then focus on driving the truck. It really needs two people to work it.
At eight thirty the radio starts sounding off, “General alert. Lightning strike started a fire in the east quadrant of Welsh Downs. We're on it with our farm tanker and it's now under control.” About five minutes later, “General alert. Lightning strike started a fire in the west sector of Old Manning Station. It's under control with farm resources.” This sort of report is common because the farmers often deal with the small fires using their personal gear. But two within ten minutes is not common.
Just after nine o'clock the radio goes again, “General alert. Small fire caused by lightning on the east side of Bennett's Downs. We got it under control.” By nine thirty another six small fires are reported as being started by lightning. Tom reviews the calls in his mind and he realises there's a trend there. The fires are moving across the district in a south to north line. Stopping the truck Tom gets out of the cabin to climb on top of it. In the distance, well to the south, is a long wide line of thunder-heads with a lot of lightning activity in them. He gets down and he goes back to refuel and refill with water because he doesn't like this at all.
By ten o'clock another twenty-six small fires are reported as being dealt with by farm resources. Then the trouble starts. At ten fifteen the alert is, “General call. Major fire at Isaac's Plains. RFS needed.”
Tom is reaching for the radio when it comes alive again, “Tom, Bob. I'm near the RFS shed. I'll get this organised. You stay there. I don't like this. Way too many fires and that's at the far end of our area. I don't want to leave us too open.”
Tom grabs the microphone, “Bob, Tom, roger that. Will hold.” He's not happy about not attending the fire as he's the second in charge of the local Rural Fire Service Team, second to Bob. But he understands what Bob's worries are, so he'll stay to cover the needs here.
Five minutes later the radio announces the RFS is on its way. Ten minutes later the radio announces their arrival on site. After a few more minutes Bob is calling for more help from the next district south of them.
Tom is very worried. If Bob is calling for more help then the fire must be big. He waits, listens, and soon learns the fire front is over a kilometre wide when Bob calls in both the neighbouring RFS units at that end of their zone. He's also reconfirms for Tom to hold where he is.
While he sits in the idling truck Tom thinks about the situation, then he starts to swear when the truck rocks in the heavy wind that just reached him. He thinks, Damn, with this wind pushing it if they don't get the fire under control the whole district will be burnt out by dinner time.
Tom drives to the fuel depot to refuel the tanker. He doesn't need to yet, but he's making sure he's got full tanks just in case he needs it. When he gets back on the truck he looks over to the south east and he sees a huge wall of smoke with the red flickers of flame in it. It's too far for him to make out the red lights of the fire-fighter's vehicles while they fight it.
Climbing into the cabin his hearts stops when the radio goes off, “General emergency. Multiple fires at Masterson Downs. Need RFS.”
Another voice comes over the radio, “Major emergency. Wildfire, wildfire at Masterson Downs. Half a click wide and racing. Evacuate all north of the station. Get out while you can. Repeat, get out now!”
Tom jumps out and gets on top of the truck's cabin. He looks to the south and can see a large wall of flame racing toward him. The nearest help is a good thirty minutes away. He looks at the farms and he can see people scrambling as they dive into vehicles to get out while they can.
Turning to his right Tom sees a sight to make his blood freeze. The kids and mothers at the local school are in the yard having lunch. It's obvious they've not heard the alert. Jumping into the truck he puts it into gear and he races off to the small local primary school.
While racing to the school Tom flicks on the state wide fire service radio and announces, “All units, general emergency. Bennett's Road RFS has an uncontrollable wildfire and is declaring a general evacuation for all areas north of the Bennett's Road control area. Get them out of there.”
While racing across the kilometre to the school he hears the radio confirmations from the other districts and central command. He hopes they can organise a response to stop this before the whole region goes up in flames. But now he's got a bigger worry: a school full of kids to save.
He thinks about the fire while driving, there's no way he can save the school, he'll be flat chat keeping this truck and the bus safe with this single unit. Then he realises there's one way, and only one way, he can get them out. The fire is already going so fast they won't be safe going north and no time to get clear to the east or west, so the only way out is to go south, through the fire wall and to get behind it as fast as they can.
Everyone in the yard looks up when the olive Army fire-truck roars in the gate and comes to a tyre screeching halt on the edge of the yard. Tom turns on the truck's public address system, “Everyone, we've a major fire. Forget everything and get on the bus. I can only get the one vehicle out, so all of you cram aboard the bus.”
It's a good thing they all know Tom and know not to argue when it's about a fire. The kids drop their toys and food to race for the bus. A few mothers head toward their cars, so he adds, “I said forget the rest. Get on the bus, screw the cars. You won't have a chance in them.” One very stubborn teacher hops into her sports car and she speeds down the drive. The others turnabout and race aboard the bus.
Within two minutes of arriving Tom is leading the bus down the drive while he talks to the driver on the radio. The bus hasn't had long enough for the diesel engine to warm up properly, so it's a bit sluggish, but it will be much better in a few minutes. Tom says, “Janice, the fire is big and flying along. We can't hope to outrun it to the north, east, or west. Our only hope is to go south to bust through the firewall. Stay on my tail. As we get closer to the fire get as close as you can. I'll set the hoses to spray water out in a fan to cool the air around us to keep us as safe as I can. The worst part will be the firewall, as that's the hottest part. The danger is I don't know how deep the area of fire behind the firewall is. This is our only chance, so stick close and pray. Shut all of your windows.”
“OK, Tom, good luck, and let's go,” is her reply.
They don't have long to worry because the road here runs north south and when they turn right onto the road from the school access driveway they're heading at the fire at almost the same speed it's heading to them. The very speed of their approach will help them pass the firewall, but the fire zone behind it is a big worry.
Tom activates the radio again, “Jacko, are you and your people still at Masterson Downs?”
“Yes, Tom. We're following behind it, putting out what we can.”
“Go to Bennett's Road and see how far along it you can get putting the fire out. I've got a fire-truck and a bus load of kids, and our only hope is to bust through the fire to the south. If you can shorten the area on fire right beside the road you'll help us a lot.”
“OK, we'll get over there. It should only take a couple of minutes to get there because we're in the big wheat paddock beside the road at the moment.”
Two minutes after leaving the school Tom sets the hoses onto wide spray at an upward angle of forty-five degrees and he starts the pumps. The water goes out in an area twice as wide as the truck and about a third higher too. The spray is falling just in front of the truck and it's being blown back over the truck toward the bus, creating an oval shaped envelope of cooler air without flames. Just seconds before he enters the firewall Tom can feel the cooling effect as soon as the water starts to fall. Then the air gets a bit warmer. Both the truck and the bus are going as fast as they can. Janice keeps calling to tell Tom she can go faster, so he's been speeding up and they're now over eighty kilometres per hour when they enter the fire which is racing north at about the same speed.
In a flash they're through the front of the firewall, the hottest part of the fire and into the burning fire zone it's leaving behind it. The smoke and flames from both sides flow across the road and make it almost impossible to see. Their only real saving grace is the road here is dead straight for several kilometres and Tom hopes to be through the fire before the next set of bends because that can get real nasty real quick
The fire seems to be thinning out when Tom crashes into a burnt out wreck on the road. The sheer strength of the truck and its speed gives him a moment to deal with the situation when he turns to push the wreck off the road while speaking on the radio, “Janice, go round on my right. I've hit a wrecked vehicle, don't hit me.” He listens to her acknowledge the order while he also listens to his truck protest the damage to it. It's not steering well and he can feel it dropping to the left while it slows down, despite him pushing down on the accelerator. So he thinks the tyre or wheel on that side is done in.
Making a snap decision Tom activates the radio, “Janice, floor it. I'll spray you from behind while I can.” He reaches for the hose controls and sets them for a concentrated spray while he aims them to fall just in front of and on the bus.
Janice has a hard time getting the words, “Roger that,” out past the choking in her throat as she understands what's happening in the truck.
A small hand takes the radio off her and James Cowley activates it as he starts to sing while crying. He, too, understands the meaning of his father's last transmission, “God be with you 'till we meet again, ...”
All those on the frequency understand what's happening and they all keep quiet while the boy's clear soprano sings the hymn. After a few words Tom's baritone joins in with, “... 'till we meet, 'till we meet, 'till we meet at Jesus feet, ...”
The bus moves forward with the spray of water moving over it in an erratic manner while Tom adjusts the angle, distance, and strength of spray along the road to stay with where he thinks the bus is. The falling water hits the bus often enough to keep it safe and cool enough for the passengers. Just as James finishes the first verse the bus bursts out of the fire zone and into the pocket of doused fire created by Jacko and his workers. Jacko waves them on down the road so they can concentrate on trying to get to the truck in time to save Tom.
Hearing this Tom puts the hoses back onto spray and aimed above the truck. This cools much of the area around the truck, but it's already sustained a lot of fire damage and the heat is very severe.
The bus pulls up down the road, well behind the fire, while James finishes the hymn. He releases the button on the radio. A moment's silence, and then they hear Tom, “The Lord is my shepherd, I ...” and it goes on until “... my cup runneth o'er ...” as the radio goes silent when the truck's radio antennae melts from the radiated heat of the fire.
After a minute's silence James picks up the radio again and he starts to sing again, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the ...” When he finishes the final verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, his father's favourite hymn, he drops the microphone while his body heaves with his sobs. Janice turns in her seat and hugs him to her.
While Janice holds James she says a short prayer of thanks for Tom's help, and she hopes James' mother, Bernadette, is safe and sound in town or somewhere else.
About half an hour after the breakout Janice takes the bus and all of the passengers to her home as it's just down the road from Masterson Downs. They get out and go inside. Many of the women have cell phones so they call other family members to let them know they're safe and to learn how they are. The others use Janice's phone to call family. Janice is worried when she can't get a response from Bernadette's cell phone.
All of the children are tired from the events, James more than the rest and he's almost asleep on his feet. Janice makes him have a shower and get dressed in some clothes belonging to her son who's about the same size. Within half an hour of arriving at the farmhouse an exhausted James is asleep in her spare bedroom.
By mid-afternoon the local Country Women's Association has a call centre set up in one of the Bowen's Creek Council meeting rooms with a dozen phone lines manned by volunteers. Different whiteboards list missing people, known to be alive but away from home and the known dead. No answer from Bernadette's phone two hours after Janice gets home, so she has Bernadette Cowley listed as missing.
Nightfall sees all of the state and national emergency support services on site in the area because the Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force provide transport to get them to the affected area. Tents and food arrive by the truck load to house and feed those without homes now.
The next morning Janice calls Bob Watt to see what she can find out about Tom's family so she can contact them. All of the employment information Bob has lists only James and Bernadette as next of kin and they can't think of any more. She wants to pass James on to his relatives since she has no room for him to stay with her for more than a few days.
It's near lunchtime when the local police tell Bob they've identified Bernadette's burnt out wreck of a car with what they think is her body. With this information Bob calls on Janice to collect James and he takes him home to his house. He's got plenty of room because the large house has been all but empty since his wife died a few years ago and many years ago his five children left home to start their own families.
The house James' parents rented from Bob is destroyed in the fire. However, Bob's house, two kilometres further east, is untouched by the fire due to a wind shift pushing it a little to the side before it reached there. This leaves James with only the clothes on his back and the change of clothes Janice gave him.
James has nowhere else to stay and no living relatives he knows of. He just stays on with Bob while things are sorted out by others. The situation is still unchanged several weeks later. For some reason neither seems interested in making any changes to the situation.
Despite James being an orphan no one informs the Child Welfare people about his situation. James calls Bob 'Pop' because he's near the same age as many of Bob's grandchildren who live interstate. When they have to complete paperwork for the government Bob takes James into the city of Rivers to the Centrelink office and helps him with it. Due to how they interact the staff assume Bob is his maternal grandfather and they note the 'fact' James is with his grandfather on their file. This error helps with processing the paperwork and it also helps to keep the Child Welfare people out of their lives because the government computer records show James is living with a close family member. None of the bureaucrats think to do a detailed records check on the family or their relationship.
Note: The paperwork they lodge is to change the Commonwealth Government Student Support payment for James to go direct into his own bank account which he already has, and James also lodges claims for Commonwealth Government Special Support payments to those who lost their residence and clothes in the fire.
The fire races across the state all afternoon and it takes another four days to be put out. Seventy-three people lose their lives in the fire, most in the first few hours while it moves faster than they can get out of its way. The Coroner's Enquiry determines the main cause of the fire getting out of control is the amount of natural growth fuel along the several watercourses on the property Masterson Downs. The owner is found to be blameless due to the laws in place as the evidence includes his fines for removing more of the natural growth than he was allowed by the current laws. Estimated property damage is over one hundred million dollars.
The political fallout of the event results in a change of government at the state election later that year, and a change of the laws involved.
The body of the teacher who ignored Tom is found in the burnt out wreck of her car only a few kilometres from the school.
Local fund raising activities are held to assist those who lost their houses or loved ones in the fire. Insurance companies are quick to pay out claims for death or property damage, due to government pressure.
The students of the Bennett's Road School attend the Bowen's Creek School for the rest of the year. The replacement primary school will take until Christmas to be built and made ready.
Although it costs more than buying another used one does, the locals clean up and rebuild the fire-truck Tom drove and name it Tom's Tanker. A new Rural Fire Service facility is built at Bennett's Road and it's named the Cowley Centre with a plaque about Tom mounted in the entrance way. The previous facility was burnt down in the fire.
The next year, on Australia Day, Bob takes James to Canberra so he can be presented with the Valour Cross the government awards Tom for his actions in saving the bus load of children that day. It's a very solemn trip for both of them, both going there and returning to the farm.
For the first few days after the fire James does very little, apart from eating and sleeping. Bob is in and out while he works at sorting out what's left of his farm as almost half of it is ash covered ground now. Saturday morning Bob takes James into Rivers and they buy him several changes of clothes as well as the groceries for the next few weeks. They've a long talk on the fifty-five kilometre drive in, and another talk on the way back. They've a working arrangement sorted out by the time they're back to the farmhouse of Watt's Here, Bob's farm named by one of his ancestors who was one of the early settlers in the area west of Rivers.
While putting the groceries away Bob restates the essentials, “OK, Jim, it's agreed. You'll board here and pay for your board by keeping house and cooking dinner each night, we'll each do our own breakfast.”
James replies, “Yes. I think I can manage that. Mum taught me basic cooking and I sometimes cooked dinner for us all. I'll just do it more often.” James wasn't happy the first few times Bob called him Jim, but he's now beginning to like it because it sounds more grown up, plus it makes a clean break from what his parents called him.
“Good. When I ask you to help with farm work I'll pay you for that so you'll get some pocket money.” James nods yes. “You do know the job of keeping house includes the attached garden and lawn?”
“Yes. I sometimes came over and did the lawn for Mum.”
At the time of their deaths both Tom and Bernadette were working for Bob on the farm, Tom as a full-time farm worker and Bernadette as a part-time housekeeper. She cleaned the main house twice a week and bought Bob's groceries each week. She was on her way home from the grocery run when the fire caught her. Using the pays for Bernadette's and Tom's last week of work for him Bob opens an account at the local branch of the bank for James. This is the account they use for Centrelink.
There's only one good insurance agent in the area and Bob knows Tom had his insurance through him, the same as he does. A week after the fire Bob speaks to Peter Marks about the Cowleys' insurances and he has Peter lodge claims on their behalf: life insurances, Bernadette's car insurance, and the house contents insurance. Bob has Peter make claims against his worker's compensation insurance for death at work for both of his employees too. All of the claims are soon paid and Bob puts it all into a trust account Peter manages since he's a local accountant who's also a registered public trustee. By law the payments can't go to a minor like James. Bob gets paid out for his property damage too. They also sell Tom's car and bank the money into the account James has for him to use.
The fire is a major event in the district, but few of the families living in Bowen's Creek are affected by it. Many of the families who lost loved ones move away from the area so they can get on with their lives in an atmosphere that doesn't remind them, every day, of those they lost.
Life Goes On
James and Bob enter into an easy daily relationship that's a lot like the one the government agencies think it is. James goes to school then he comes home to clean house and cook dinner before spending the evening doing his homework. He gets good grades at school because he works hard at it, unlike many of the other students who don't get good marks because they don't try. The others know they'll go to work on a family farm or business they'll eventually inherit, while James knows this farm will go to Bob's children and grandchildren; thus he has to make his own way in life when he finishes his schooling so he works hard at his studies.
James is of a stout build and looks to be carrying a bit of fat, but he isn't because it's all muscle built from the hard work he does around the farm. Much of the work requires muscle to do, which he develops over the years of hard work after the fire. He also does a lot of walking about the farm. James is small for his age group, both his parents were short as well, and he started school a year late. Also, his birthday is in early December, so he's older than his classmates while of the same height.
When he starts in high school at Bowen's Creek he's over a year older than his classmates as most turn of them thirteen during the year and he turns fifteen at the end of it. There are only three other students from the bus that day attending the school: one is in his year and two in the year above his. Of the other children who were on the bus and remember the ride only seven others still live in the area and they're all still in primary. Although everyone at the school knows his father's story from two years ago only a few students or staff realise it's his father the story is about.
Bullying is not as prevalent in small rural schools as it is in the city schools, but most schools still have one or two bullies in them. The one in the Bowen's Creek High School is in Year 10 when James starts Year 7 and James first comes across him at the buses to go home on the first day.
Mick Green is holding one of the smaller Year 8 boys against the school fence while talking to him in a low voice. All of the other kids are scared of Mick and ignoring them, while the teacher is at the other end of the long line of students waiting to board the lined up school buses.
James can't hear what's being said and he isn't sure of what's going on, so he doesn't do anything until Mick waves a fist in the other boy's face while saying, “After this punch you won't forget again!”
When Mick pulls his arm back to punch the boy in the stomach he runs into a problem because James steps across to grab Mick's hand near the wrist while saying, “Leave off and let him go!”
Realising he has to deal with this threat to his authority Mick does let the boy go when he turns to James. He grins when his mate, Mark Mills, steps up behind James and grabs him by reaching around James' body to pin his arms to his side. Mick grins while he steps forward and pulls his arm back to punch James.
As soon as a pair of arms grab him James knows what he has to deal with. When Mick moves toward him James bends his knees and lifts his legs off the ground while leaning his upper body forward. The shift in weight causes the boy holding him to fall forward and he staggers a bit while trying to regain balance. The movement forward due to the bend, weight shift, and the half step isn't much, but the space between Mick and James isn't much, either. The result is Mark's forehead strikes Mick's forehead hard enough to stun them both and they all fall to the ground. As soon as he feels the arms go slack James wrenches free and he moves away from the scene of the trouble.
A moment later a teacher arrives to find the bully and his cohort on the ground slowly shaking their heads to clear them. The teacher has a good idea of what was happening and she's glad the bullies got the short end of it this time, but she isn't surprised when none of the small horde of students nearby saw anything. It seems everyone was looking toward the street or the houses opposite, nor did they hear a thing to cause them to turn around. She walks away while shaking her head at the situation.
At lunch the next day Mick Green goes looking for the boy who hurt him at the buses the previous day. He looks funny with a big bright red bump in the middle of his forehead, so does his mate Mark. Normally Mick has his neighbour and friend Mark follow him everywhere, but today Mark's mother keeps him at home to monitor his injury.
When Mick finds James he walks over and he goes through his usual process of reaching out to grab the kid by the middle of his shirt to pull them to him while swinging a big punch to his stomach. This time the grab and pull works, but he's only partway through his punch when he suffers a severe pain in his stomach. This is because as soon as his shirt is grabbed James swings a punch into Mick's stomach as hard as he can. James' punch is a bit shorter and a lot faster, but it has more power.
After he releases James' shirt Mick collapses to the ground and throws up while covering his stomach with both hands. James turns and walks away while all the nearby students stare at the scene of the school bully suffering from a hard stomach punch - most have huge smiles about it.
Mick is still on the ground when lunch ends and a teacher finds him there. The school nurse, really an advanced first aid person, checks him over and they send him to the hospital. The doctor decides to keep him in the hospital for 24 hours observation, so Mick is not at school the next day. After this event James has no trouble with Mick.
Mark is no issue because he's not a bully at heart as he's just easily led and very used to doing what Mick tells him to do. Thus he's no problem, except when with Mick.
The rest of James' time in high school is very straightforward with him working hard to get good grades and participating in the usual run of the school events. For the two socially compulsory dances, Year 10 and Year 12, James escorts a different girl to each of the school dances. In each case he asks a shy girl from one of the neighbouring farms, and the dance is the only date they have. James sees no point in getting too closely involved with the local girls because he knows he'll have to leave the area to make his own way in life.
James gets good results in the end of year exams for Year 12, but not good enough for a full scholarship to university. The government pays the tuition fees for university students so now there are few scholarships to pay the other expenses. Which makes going to university harder to do as the student's family have to cover all of the living and transport costs of attending the university.
Life for James is school and farm work, with one exception. In late December of his first year of high school James buys a car. It's just two years old and cost him eighty dollars to get, but making it roadworthy costs a lot more. By the time he registers it he's paid out a little over five thousand dollars for a car with a book value of thirty thousand dollars.
The car he buys is a long wheel base crew-cab utility with double rear wheels. It's so cheap because the previous owner rolled it while driving home one night. The driver had a bit too much to drink and he didn't make the curve on the gravel driveway to his farmhouse. The vehicle ended up on its side after rolling several times and damaging all of the exterior panels except those inside the carrying tray. The tyres were torn to shreds in the accident, which makes James wonder how fast he was going. All of the glass is gone, so are the headlights and the side mirrors. All of the interior needs a major clean and the cloth needs replacing due to the amount of blood on them. The driver lost his right arm in the crash and he bled a lot before the people in a car behind him could apply a tourniquet. Because the car is an imported US GMC model with some custom work none of the local yards are interested in it and the local wrecker doesn't think he can sell it as spares, so he doesn't want it.
Monday morning of the first day of the end of year school holidays James is working for Dave Knowles. A few months earlier Dave lost his arm when he wrecked his car. Due to the injury he can't work his farm so he sold it to his neighbour who wants it for his just married son. Thus Dave is moving his personal effects into town. He can't carry much, so he's hired James and a few other local lads to do the work for him.
The last of the gear is in the van being used to move it and Dave is giving the house a final check over. Most of the furniture is sold with the house as his flat in Bowen's Creek is small. Leaving the house he stands beside the new owner of the farm, Peter Banks, for the last time he looks over the property he grew up on and lived on all his life. He can't drive now and he won't ever be back, due it being too emotional a time for Dave to do so. Leaving is hard enough to do, let alone visiting here.
Peter points over toward the gate and asks, “When are you getting that wreck out of here?”
Dave sighs, “I was hoping to get clear and leave it with you. No one wants it and the tow truck guys all want a few hundred to come and take it away. It's got to be worth something to someone. I'd sell it as is, if I could. Due to the circumstances the insurance company isn't paying.”
James is standing on the ground near them while waiting to go, and he hears this. He turns to look over at the wrecked vehicle. Like the others helping today he gave it a good look over when they first arrived at the farm. Half joking he says, “I'll give you ten bucks for it.”
Dave thinks for a moment then says, “Sold! Now it's your problem to get it out of here.” Later in the afternoon Peter uses the hay-forks on his 'new' used tractor to lift the wreck and put it on the flat-bed truck James hires to get the car over to Watt's Here. Hire and fuel costs of the truck and tractor brings the car purchase up to eighty dollars.
Fixing the Truck
After returning the flat-bed truck Bob and James look over his new vehicle properly, and they decide it looks a lot worse than it is. After a little work they lift the wreck up about a metre to sit it on the wooden frame they just built to give them room to work on it while standing.
Over the following weeks James spends every spare moment out in the equipment shed dismantling his truck. They drain what's left of the fuel and oil, remove the bonnet, use Bob's engine lift to get the engine out to place it on a board on a bench, the interior is gutted, and all of the body panels are removed. Every part is photographed before and after removal so James can work out where they belong when he rebuilds it.
The normal thing, today, is to toss body panels and buy new ones, but these panels have to be specially imported from the US, so it makes a lot of sense to fix them. Thus, after everything is taken apart a truck is borrowed to take the panels and frame etc. into Rivers to have them sandblasted clean at a reduced price by people learning how to properly use a sand blaster to clean things like the panels.
When James approaches the father of a schoolmate who runs a car repair service in Rivers about cleaning and painting the panels and parts they reach an agreement where James pays less because they'll use the work as a training exercise for people learning those work tasks. They'll clean the parts then James takes them home to do the panel beating and body filler work as well as painting the parts with the anti-rust primer.
The hardest part of the repair work is straightening the cabin which got a little crushed in the accident. It's a lot of hard work, but before he starts school the next year James has the frame, all of the body panels, the cabin, and every exterior part repaired and primed for painting. That includes the wheels, tow-bar, bull-bar, and grill.
On the Saturday Bob borrows the neighbour's truck again and the parts are taken into the repair shop. The painting is also a special deal because they'll be painted with a new type of spray on paint then sealed with a clear polymer instead of the usual baked enamel coating. Of the available colours James selects a matt black and he wants the full exterior painted. Two weeks later they pick up the painted parts. It took a long time because they did the work between other jobs. Everything except the inside of the tray is painted in the matt black. The tray will be done later with a special black rubberised coating after the vehicle is rebuilt.
James gets busy replacing the interior coverings while waiting for the parts to be painted. A friend of Bob's is an upholsterer who does a bit of the work while teaching his grandson and James how to do the work they have to do. They use vinyl for the dash and part of the interior with cloth for most of the rest of it and wool for the seat covers. Even the seat padding has to be replaced. The steering wheel also gets a wool cover. Staying with his colour scheme all of the materials are matt black.
While the cabin is at the painters the local windscreen people go to it and measure the windows so they can make new windows for it because the window sizes aren't on their standard list. They use glass that's as dark as the law allows and then apply a protective coating that makes it darker again. Only the front windscreen escapes this treatment and it's clear. They'll install the fixed windows once the vehicle body is rebuilt, James will install the door windows during their reassembly.
The first weekend of February is when James can start putting the truck back together. Again, he photographs every stage of the work while often referring to his earlier photos to make sure it all goes back the right way. The body and tray are soon back on the frame, along with the wheels, tyres, and most of the mechanicals while the rest takes a lot more time to install. In March the windscreen people have a few jobs for their outside work van to do near to Watt's Here, so they load up the fixed windows for James' car to fit them while in the area. It takes the rest of the year for the truck to be rebuilt because James can only work on the truck for short periods during the evenings, weekends, and holidays due to him having to do his farm and school work. However, each week sees it look more and more like a viable vehicle as another part of the work is completed. Soon it's starting to look like a big black utility style truck.
In mid December James hires a car trailer and they load the vehicle on it. Bob drives them into Bowen's Creek where Bob's mechanic gives the vehicle a full service, tune up, and examination. The three and half litre engine purrs like a large cat when they start it up after he's finished.
Back on the car trailer and over to the repairer in Rivers to have the rubberised tray liner installed. James never does work out if the liner is a mat or a spray job, since it looks like a mat glued in place, but it's a one piece covering the inside of the tray. Only the bit on the tailgate isn't part of the main tray lining. The black mat merges perfectly with the paint.
A visit to the motor registry office gets them a temporary plate to allow Bob to drive the vehicle to the registry. It has to be checked by them for registration because of it being repaired after a major accident and the previous registration expiring over a year ago.
James decides to go the whole hog and he organises for a special plate to be stamped for him using the regular numbering sequence. The plate is black with a mid-silver trim for the letters and numbers. He asks for the three letters to be JIM and he pays the extra it costs. A few of the letter series are available, so it should be OK. The paperwork is easily processed once he convinces the staff the price of ten dollars and the quality of the repairs are valid. He can do this because he brought in the photo album of all the work done. Once they see the first photo showing the wreck they understand about the ten dollar purchase price.
The truck now looks very good with the black coloured windows, matt black exterior and the black interior trim, even the black sheepskin seats and wool steering wheel cover blend in well. The vehicle is all black, except for the headlights, the tail lights, turn indicators, and the mirrors. The registry staff are surprised the wheels and bumpers are painted the same as the body, but they like the overall effect.
They drive back to the car repair yard and load the truck on the car trailer. The new registration plates will have to be exchanged for the special ones when they reach the local registry office in a few weeks. However, Bob can now legally drive the truck on the road. James has a bit of time to go before he gets a licence, but he'll get in plenty of time driving the truck around the farm when working away from the house.
Over the holidays James spends some time building a canopy for the tray of the truck. The truck has a higher ground clearance than most Australian made vehicles of this type and it also has a higher head room in the cabin. The finished canopy is the same height as the truck cabin to continue the lines, so it has a lot more room inside than most of the local canopies. James uses an alloy frame for strength with a fibreglass shell for the main body while the outer coating is a black composite he learns has less drag and is stronger. The windows are as black as those of the main truck. He fits lights in the top interior corners and two cameras in the back: one to look down for when reversing and a wide angle one straight back to see what is about to pass the truck plus what's behind it. Two small screens are added to the dashboard to display both cameras all the time the truck motor is turned on. James includes black straps in the canopy inside roof to hold a thick foam mattress out of the way when it's not needed, naturally it has a black cover too. This ensures he always has it handy and it's not in the way when using the truck for general use activities. On Bob's advice an extensive tool kit and an emergency kit are added to the truck's gear and are stored behind the truck's rear seats.
During the course of James' Year 9 at high school he gets a learner's permit and he takes formal driving lessons. He eventually passes his test to get his licence to drive. However, he continues to catch the bus to and from school to save fuel, and he only uses the truck at other times when he has to go into town or the city.
James finishes high school in October, several weeks before he turns twenty. Despite having lived in the area since he was seven he has few friends, other than those who live on the neighbouring farms. So his twentieth birthday is a very small gathering at Watt's Here on the Sunday afternoon nearest his birthday.
While he thinks about what to do for a living James continues to work for Bob after finishing school. He can't afford to go to university due to the living costs and having no way to pay them, and there's no point in staying on at the farm. Two of Bob's grandchildren are interested in the farm as a way of life; their parents aren't, but they are. Over the years Bob's children and grandchildren often came to visit or stay at the farm for holidays. Bob enjoyed their visits and he now really enjoys teaching two of them how to be real farmers. There's no need for James to stay and Bob doesn't really need the extra help, but neither wants to be first to say so. There's a strong bond between them from all their years together.
After a few months of talking to people and researching jobs James does a lot of thinking, then he decides to join the Army. It gives him a chance to do something for the country while learning more about the world and picking up some other skills. In October he visits the Army base near Rivers and he learns how to join. One oddity is he has to drive to Canberra to sign up and then he'll be sent papers to attend the base at Rivers for basic training, because that's where they do it.
James meets the rigours of Army recruit training without complaint because he sees it as an essential part of the job. While other recruits are busy complaining he's busy studying what he has to learn to be a good soldier. His quiet assurance and willingness to just get on with what he has to do is noticed by those supervising the training and put in his file.
Like all things the training comes to an end and the recruits are sent to various units where they get more training relevant to their duties there. For some reason unknown to James his platoon Sergeant takes a personal liking to him and that, along with his good performance as a soldier, is enough to see James promoted to corporal when they have an open position for one within the platoon.
Just over two years into James' service his unit is sent to Afghanistan. Soon after arriving there Sergeant Parson has James go with him on a visit to another base in the city they're in. James is sent in to get the Supply Officer to come out to talk to the Sergeant waiting in the vehicle. James is a bit worried about this, until he sees who is being led to the counter to see him by the private James spoke to at the counter. The Warrant Officer stops and asks, “You want to see me, Corporal?”
James smiles as he says, “No, Sir.” The WO is turning to look at the stunned private when James adds, “My Sergeant does, Sir. He told me to come in here and, I quote 'get that lazy supply officer to come out and speak to me here,' end quote. He's outside while keeping an eye on our truck.” The WO is getting real angry about this until Jim adds, “However, Sir, I think your brother is trying to set us both up.”
The Warrant Officer stops, looks at him and says, “My brother!”
“Yes, Sir, Sergeant David Parson. I don't know why your names are different, but you look so much like him the relationship is clear.”
Warrant Office Richard Bourne laughs, “Dave isn't my brother, we're close first cousins. Our mothers are twins.” With a large smile he adds, “Let's go see him,” and he walks around the end of the counter.
The two cousins meet and Richard tells Dave about the way James greeted him. They spend the next half an hour in the nearby Sergeants' Mess catching up on news etc. After that Warrant Officer Bourne takes Parson and James over to a nearby US Army base to see a friend of his in their supply unit. James and Sergeant Parson leave the building with a new US Army issue 9 mm automatic, webbing with shoulder holster, two spare magazines, and a few boxes of ammunition each.
For the next six months James' unit provides escorts for convoys on supply routes around the countryside without any troubles. The small convoys have two squads as guards while bigger ones have the whole platoon or a couple of platoons to guard them, it varies with the size and contents. But, like all things going well, when trouble starts it's big.
Corporal Cowley is in charge of a squad of soldiers in the last truck in the convoy while Sergeant Parson commands the detachment from the lead vehicle with another other squad in it. Like all of their runs where the Sergeant is the one in charge he spends time checking the vehicles while unobtrusively securing a package of explosive to its underside and he hands James a radio transmitter to detonate it. Parson calls it a parting gift, if they get taken out in an attack to get the supplies this gift will see they don't get the trucks or most of the supplies. The trip today is a regular run to villages along a safe route, so no trouble is expected by anyone. Like their company commander often says, “We're going with the convoys because the orders have all of the convoys go with guards.”
The convoy leaves before dawn and, an hour after their lunch break, it's almost to its first destination when the lead supply truck suddenly stops. Naturally the rest of the convoy stops behind it and the Sergeant has his vehicle turn around to come back. The driver of the stopped vehicle is out and has the bonnet up like there's an issue with the motor.
There's something about the way the driver keeps looking around the area that worries James so he exits his truck while saying, “Right, everyone out and set up about the vehicle. I don't like this.” In seconds his men are out and spread out on the road around their transport. He's on the radio informing the Sergeant about his actions and concerns when four rocket propelled grenades fly out of the rocks to the right of the road to slam into the guarding troop carriers, two per truck.
Because Sergeant Parson also has his men out and deployed most of the troops are out of the vehicles when the rockets hit, but the drivers are still in them. Three men are killed and two are wounded in the attack.
Parson is walking back toward the stopped truck to see what's up with it when the rockets are fired. The blast behind him causes him to stagger forward. The driver of the stopped vehicle turns to run into the field beside the convoy, heading toward where the rockets came from. Parsons brings his rifle up, aims, and fires at the driver. The running man screams when the rounds rip through his lower body while tearing apart his groin and inner thighs. Parson smiles at hitting where he aimed while thinking, No paradise for that treacherous bastard!