Pigeon man

This story was first published in The Big Issue a few years back now. (It’s relatively long, so put on the kettle.)

Taking flight

He tells me about the pigeons. Racing pigeons.  He tells me about the nuns. Swimming nuns.  He tells me about skin cancer, and marathons.

He tells me about his pacemaker, and watching his daughter’s overseas wedding on Skype. He tells me about years and years of cutting grass and rolling cricket pitches, of a life under the sun.

Ivan and I cross paths a few times a week, at a suburban beach. He’s on his morning walk.  I’m going for my short swim. Or maybe some snorkelling.  Or I’m just back from the water, drying off.

“I only walk for two or three hours,” I think he once said, “before the sun gets too high.”

Sometimes we don’t see each other for a little while.  A week or two. Missing each other by a few minutes,  maybe even by just a few metres.

“The pigeons,” he tells me one day, “they don’t like those mobile-phone towers. Jiggers  them up. They lose their sense of direction.”

He had pointed out a flock in the distance. At first I thought it was a smudge in the sky, a whisp of cloud. “They’d be Charlie’s birds. And mine. They’re not racing this morning, just out for some exercise.”

“How far do they race?”

“Depends.  Mine can do a few hundred mile. Charlie’s can do up to seven hundred mile.”

The imperial measurements confuse me but I know enough to know seven hundred miles is a lot further than, well, seven hundred kilometres. Which seems a fair hike for a small bird.

“How long’s that take? Seven hundred mile?”

“About two and a half days. Depends of course. The weather, the wind. Falcons.  Hawks.  And the phone towers. They jigger them up no end. You know that satellite dish up in Parkes, in New South Wales?  Birds get lost if they have to fly near there. Lose their bearings. Don’t always come back.”

He tells me, as I’m standing there beside my bike in just my wet bathers, still holding my snorkel, that he’s been racing pigeons since he was a boy. Early 1950s.

“My brothers and I had about twenty pigeons. Our mates too. We’d put the birds in boxes, strap the boxes to our handlebars and ride to Altona. Before the refinery was built, before there was any industry there.  Only a few miles away, but far enough. The birds would get home pretty quick. Me and my mates weren’t in any hurry. No telly back then. We’d spend all day outside.”

Modern pigeon racing, I later read on the net,  is said to date back to Belgium in the 1850s, stemming from the success of carrier pigeons, also known as homing pigeons, delivering messages behind enemy lines in times of war. Ancient pigeon racing might even go back as far as 2000BC.  As a form of communication, I figure, carrier pigeons pre-date Morse code, telegrams, telephones, faxes, emails, mobile phones, Skype…

I don’t tell Ivan my elder brothers had pigeons in Mentone, on the other side of the bay, in the late 1960s, probably for less than a year. I don’t tell him about Sunday drives through the suburbs to a block of farming land, the pigeons cooing in boxes in the back of the station wagon. I’d forget about the pigeons the moment they flew off but was always surprised to see the birds back at home a few hours later. I don’t tell Ivan any of this, because I haven’t got much to tell. Some memories are vague, like a smudge in the sky. Next time you look up, the smudge has gone. Or changed shape.

“I guess pigeon-racing’s not as big as it used to be,” I offer.

“Nah, not anymore.  Houses are bigger these days. Backyards are smaller. And some neighbours really kick up a fuss. ” Ivan knows this from bitter experience, having been to court to defend his birds.

“I won, eventually, but lawyers aren’t cheap.” And the neighbours are still next door. In a big house.

Ivan  belongs to a pigeon-racing club, with its clubrooms in an industrial estate near the refinery. “That’s where we load our pigeons onto a big truck for a race, and then they’re driven hundreds of mile to the start of the race.”

“Weren’t their some clubrooms, just up the road?” I ask, recalling seeing a sign, years ago, on a building not far from this beach.

“Yeah, that was built in the 1950s. Knocked down a while back.”

I ride past one day. Big house. Two storeys.  No backyard.

 

*

One morning I mention that part of the convent on the Esplanade is being knocked down. For apartments perhaps.

“The nuns used to swim in the rockpool opposite their place. You know the one?”

I do, I nod.  It’s a bit further along the beach, a few hundred yards  – metres –  away. Good snorkelling spot at high tide.

“I’d see the nuns when I was doing my newspaper round on my bike. Some kids back then thought the nuns were bald because  of – what do you call them? – the habits they wore on their head. But of course they had hair! I’d see the nuns coming out of the water when I was doing the paper round. Don’t know if they ever saw me.”

I don’t tell Ivan I was a paper boy too. Not delivering papers in the morning before school, but selling afternoon papers after school. Near Mentone railway station in the late 1960s. Back when there were afternoon newspapers.

I don’t tell him about my nuns at St Patrick’s Primary:  Serene Sister Felicity in Grade Two. Jolly Sister Jude in Grade Five. Grumpy Sister Aiden in Grade Six. I don’t know if they went swimming or even if their convent was near the water.

I don’t tell him because there’s not much to tell. Some memories are a bird flying away.

*

The closest I come to flying is snorkelling. Floating upon the water, a few metres deep, and looking down upon the world:  the fish, the stingrays, the sea grasses, the rocks, the urchins, the sand and its patterns.

If there is just sand below me I imagine an aerial view of a desert: its ridges and dunes and undulations, its trails. Its tracks and indentations, its peaks and troughs, it hills and valleys.  And how it changes with the wind, with the waves.  And then I remember to look up from the desert, to get my bearings, to make sure I haven’t drifted into deeper water.

*

Ivan was a runner. Marathons.  Twenty six miles.  All over the world. He crossed the finishing lines in good times. He and his pigeons know a thing or two about long distances.

Marathons, I read, are named after the plain of Marathon in Greece, where the Athenians defeated the Persians in 490 BC, and from which a runner took the news to Athens, just over 40 kilometres away. I imagine the runner setting a fair pace, given the importance of the news. But where, I wonder, were the carrier pigeons that day?

Running, and a lifetime of working outside, have taken their toll on Ivan.

He’s got a pacemaker under his skin, skin scarred by the sun and by surgeons’ scalpels.

He couldn’t go to his daughter’s wedding in London a few years back. “The pacemaker and the long plane flights. Too risky. I was disappointed – gees, I was – but they had a camera and a laptop in the church over there and I was able to watch the wedding at home on Skype. Imagine that!”

I imagine a satellite sending the wedding ceremony from a church on one side of the world to a loungeroom on the other side of the world.  A modern day carrier pigeon, conveying messages across hemispheres, over mountains and cities, over backyards and beaches, over refineries and phone towers, convents and sporting fields,  over deserts and oceans.

 

 

First published in The Big Issue: edition 474 (26 December 2014 to 8 January 2015).

Ivan passed away in early 2019.

 

1000 Sunday Swims

Triumph for Fr Greg Trythall. Photo by Carl Tracey.

Blue skies and clear water greeted Father Greg Trythall on Sunday morning 28 December when he notched up 1000 consecutive Sunday swims in Australian waters with a 200 metre swim at Williamstown.

Nine-hundred and nintey-nine down, one to go.

Nine-hundred and nintey-nine down, one to go.

Father Greg entered the water just before 7am and swam freestyle out to the western buoy and back.

Millenium approaching.

Millenium of Sunday swims approaching, with Rick Powell accompanying.

The odyssey began in November 1994. “I tried to form a habit by swimming 10 Sundays in a row. Then after trying for 20 somehow along the way I tried for 50, then 100. And the rest is history.”

More than 700 of the swims were at Torquay, where Greg was the parish priest for many years. (“I swam at the front beach, not the surf beach.”)

Over 50 of the swims have been in the warm waters of Byron Bay, where Greg spends his annual holidays.

And just over 200 of the swims have been at Williamstown, where Greg has been St Mary’s parish priest since April 2010.

Williamstown.

“There were also two Sunday swims in Perth, in 1998 and 2008, during the National Council of Priests bi-annual Conference. And one Sunday I swam at the beautiful Yamba beach in Northern New South Wales.

“ In May 2003 I left Australia for six months sabbatical leave and had already notched up 443 swims not out since November 1994.  When I was about to return to Australia, I realized that I had not missed any Sunday swims in Australia since 1994. Rightfully I could continue where I left off as I had not missed one while in Australia.”

Greg’s pattern of swimming is almost every Wednesday and Friday during year, but never miss a 7am Sunday swim before church services.

“While overseas on sabbatical in 2003 and again in 2010 and following the footsteps of Jesus, the footsteps of St Paul and the footsteps of the Australian soldier (as a former National Service man 1968-1970) I swam at: Gallipoli (37 degree day), Sharm El Sheik(45 degree day) El Alamein (perfect blue waters), and Alexandra (with about 2,000,000 Egyptians).”

Greg has also swum at Xlendi in Gozo, Malta, the Dead Sea, the Black Sea, the Red Sea. France, Honolulu, and Maui.

A worldly swimmer.

A worldly swimmer.

“At one stage I had worked out I had swum from A- Z, with Z being Zeally Bay, on the Geelong side of the Torquay front beach.”

Amongst Father Greg’s well wishers (his acquatic apostles?) on Sunday was his Torquay mate Carl Tracey, who left his home at 5am to witness the achievement. Carl, a keen surfer, brought not only his good wishes and friendship, but congratulatory signs.

Photo by Carl Tracey

Photo by Carl Tracey

Photo by Carl Tracey

Photo by Carl Tracey

Photo by Carl Tracey

Photo by Carl Tracey

“I first realized the value of the sea as a teenager from Footscray,” recalled Father Greg, “when my parents and I would come down to Williamstown beach.”

When the family move to Parkdale, in Melbourne’s southern beach suburbs, Greg found swimming good for counteracting hayfever and eczema.

“Although I love the effects of the beach and the great feeling of wellbeing on the days that you swim, my main love affair has been with sport. I’ve been a former runner, boxer, footballer, cricketer and squash player. At 67, my sporting passion is now golf.

“It is a pity I was never taught technique in swimming. Accordingly, I have always been a relatively poor swimmer. I only swim about 100 to 200 metres each time I have a dip. The last time I swam the Lorne Pier to Pub, in 1990, I took pride in the fact that I came third in my category of over 40s: that is, I was third last!”

Carl and Greg, and congratulatory message from the Willy Dolphins.

Carl and Greg, and congratulatory message from the Willy Dolphins.

“ When you know the health benefits of the swimming and one has got into the habit then even winter cannot stop one if there is sufficient motivation and self discipline. Even saying that, there are those once or twice occasions during the year, and it is one of the coldest, wettest, windiest days and the seawater looks dirty for  some reason, then though you are changing on the foreshore, it would be very easy just to spit the dummy!

“ On those days I might start singing some song just to get my mind off the sheer cold of the conditions, like ‘ Zippety do da zippety day, my o my what a wonderful day!’ Or other old songs like ‘ If you knew Susie like I know Susie, oh what a wonderful girl.’ Usually no one else is around!

“My toughest swims have probably been the nights after the Saturday night wedding receptions when I have had a few drinks, or the night after the annual debutante balls that the Parish of Grovedale/ Torquay use to have year in and year out. Even on those days I always felt better for the swim and I believed I always treated people better because of it.

“Spiritually the only main reason I have kept on swimming every Sunday is that I have always valued the work I am able to do for people as a priest. I value my job so much that I believe being happy and enthusiastic in it is my number one priority. Running and swimming have always been a means to and end and that is being at the top of my game in being healthy and enthusiastic for a job I have felt a calling to do for people.”

“If one is unhappy or lacking enthusiasm then I am not much benefit to people who are grieving and want me to perform a good job for their loved one at a funeral.

“Likewise, we have had 67 weddings at St Mary’s Williamstown in 2014. I am no good to young couples if I am a boring, tired or sick old man!”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“I am not a strong enough swimmer to join more capable swimmers. I sometimes envy their abilities or great technique but I am basically more than happy with my own lot in life. One would like to be a great singer or musician or dancer. I applaud others with those abilities and thank a higher power for my own good gifts, without wishing to be the most liked or the best looking or the most intelligent!

“I am a poor swimmer but consistent!”

Next Sunday Father Greg will be back in the water again. “I’ll see if I can do 10 Sundays in a row. Don’t want to get ahead of myself.”

Howling by Kevin Moran

WINTER’S HOWLING WINDS

Howling winds as banshees cry

rolling clouds fill the sky

rumbling bubbling trouble unfolding

dark and threatening drama beholding

expectancy of danger near

anxiety builds to fuel the fear

rain lashing penetrates

spraying soaking isolates

waves pounding shoreline foaming

not a soul out there roaming

chill embraces senses numb

ominous signs Winter’s come

 

Kevin Moran, Willy Dolphin

 

 

Roll, wind, roll by Tom Cannon

This week the wind’s been from the north, and the west. Here’s a reflection about wind from the south.

 

Watching the wind roll from the South catching sails and hurtling craft forward.

 Where is my wind that will fling me forward to dance across the waves of expectation

 Taking me to a safe harbour tied to someone’s heart not being torn apart

 The wind blows catching the salt bush causing the whistle through the trees

 My sails still furled

Tom Cannon

Porcelain Pieces by Michael Harwood

Photo and poem by Michael Harwood

Photo and poem by Michael Harwood

 

Porcelain Pieces

back to the beach

what for?

to hide or reflect

drink from the cup of neglect

swim out, so far from the shore

porcelain pieces

lie on the floor

glitter in a moon bold and full

crushed by the rampaging bull

what for?

your taste on my tongue

what for?

is it a hunger or thirst?

why can’t passion come first?

hot and raw

back to the beach

once more

am I just one grain of sand?

to be held in your hand

what for?

Dolphins on sand

Beach photo

Friday 30 May. Photo by Ray. Poem by Tom.

Standing captured for ever under grey skys

Clearly this swimming caper not a youngster’s game

The Dolpins on sand bringing together a disparate group

Commonality in the clear salt water and the daily stories unfurled

Whether it be the sea in all its mystery or personal tale

Dolphins rarely leave the beach without a smile and a friendly word

An ongoing daily dance as we plunge or wade into the bay

We would have it no other way. The sunrise paints the start of another day

 

Tom Cannon

Day 365 – not drowning, waving goodbye

Day 365   Saturday 1 June 2013

Exit sign at Williamstown beach

No marching bands. No media mayhem. No merchandise. Not surprising, really.

365 Swims completed its less-than-epic year of dips at 7.30 last Saturday morning, the first day of winter.

Walter and I huffed and puffed through the water and the rain as far as the Forster Street rocks, and then back again, followed by breakfast at the Rotunda, overlooking the water and the rain. (And, appropriately, there was a swimmer out near the buoys.)

Karen (the swimmer of darkness) and her son Jack arrived just as we were leaving, Karen mentioning she is counting the days to the winter solstice, after which  the mornings will, incrementally, begin to lighten.

I’ll keep going for a daily  dip but the 365 Swims blog has run its course. Time  to concentrate on music, sport and life in general.

Thanks to everyone for your company, comments, and  contributions.  They have been very much appreciated.

It’s been fun. I wish you all the best.

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