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.

 

The novice

At the end of the innings I slip off my black flippers and emerge from the water, waist-deep in the shallows of the sanctuary.

At the end of the innings I slide off my snorkel and make my way to the shore.

At the end of the innings I take off my black gloves, head across the sand as the saltwater drains from my wetsuit.

It is in this last act, removing the gloves – with flippers tucked under one arm, snorkel dangling from a wrist – that I come closest to ever acting like a cricketer. Like a batsman, I’m removing protective equipment while walking away from the playing field.

And, as often as not, I may glance eastward toward the little cricket ground a few hundred metres away where, 20 odd years ago, I tried to be a cricketer. At the tender age of 30. A fifth X1, suburban, no-shade-anywhere, melted-Tim-Tams-for-afternoon-tea park cricketer. A getting-baked-under-the-hot-sun-I-should-have-more-sense-at-my-age park cricketer.

I was a no-spin slow bowler whom the skipper would summon from the deep when we needed to buy a wicket. Put all the fielders on the boundary, a few nearly in the water, and let the batsman take the bait. The deed done after all of two nervous overs, I’d be back fielding in the middle of nowhere, chuffed with my wicket but also looking out at that water.

Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, Williamstown

The solitude of cricket leaves you plenty of time to ponder the big questions. Can I actually bowl? Can I actually bat? What, really, am I doing out here, in the heat? What lies beneath the surface of cricket, of life, of that water just over there? What moves and swims and darts and glides in the octopus’ garden?

After two summers of ineptitude I put away the pads, the gloves, the white hat, the unmarked bat, the hopes. Put them in the garage, let the dust settle on the dreams. Contented myself with playing cricket in the backyard and the driveway with my children.

But the cricket ground and the marine sanctuary were only a few minutes on the bike from home, on a bike path that skirts this seaside suburb. One summer after another I would pause my pedalling, watch the bowler running in, and then gaze across to the water, to the rocks and the pelicans, to a handful of people in the water. Snorkelling. Diving. Seeing things I’d never seen before.

Despite not being a strong swimmer, I bought a wetsuit. Flippers. Snorkel and goggle. Gloves. Earplugs.

Then I waited. For a 30 degree day. For clear skies. For calm waters.

I pack my gear into my bike’s panniers, and pedal past the little cricket ground to this suburban marine sanctuary. Three-storey townhouses overlook the small beach from about 400 metres back. Refinery towers breathe fire about two kilometres to the west.

I leave my bike by the fence, walk the narrow gravel path, treading loudly to keep snakes at bay.

Beach sign

You can never be sure how clear the water will be, if clear at all. It’s like trying to read pitch conditions and bowlers from afar. You don’t know what you’re in for until you’re out there in the middle.

Still, there’s enjoyment – even satisfaction – in the anticipation: in tugging on the wetsuit, zipping it up; in popping in the earplugs, putting on the snorkel. You carry your gloves and your flippers out to a waist-deep rock.

You gaze up at the sky. Glance back at the shore. Out to the horizon. You’re still surprised that this is what summer really means to you now. After all, this was never part of your childhood, of school days, of holidays. This was never on the back pages. Or on the telly. This was never, ever, on the radio, day after day after day. You knew you’d never be, say, Jacques Kallis. And yet, here you are at Jawbone Marine Sanctuary in Williamstown being, in your own little way, Jacques Cousteau.

The solitude of snorkelling leaves you plenty of time to ponder the big questions. Am I breathing? Am I floating? Can I see, not just below me, but around me, in front of me? Is the tide of life going out or coming in?

There’s just you and the deep cool sea. (Well, four or five metres deep at the most.) Just you and the sun and the salt. Just you and the zebra fish, the banjo sharks, the starfish, the seagrasses, the rocks, the stingrays…

Just you and your breathing.

Just you and the best innings of summer.

rocks and snorkelling gear

Jellyish video by John Pahlow

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.”

Kevin’s year of verse

Kevin Moran unveiled his annual Willy Dolphin poem at the Willy Dolphins’ annual breakfast on Monday morning, 22 December, at the Rotunda.

Rotunda Cafe, Williamstown

I will share with you the chatter that went on throughout the year; the topics didn’t matter because none of it was clear. Messages by email, floated through cyber space; egos couldn’t be frail, it was about saving face.

Some jibes were insulting, others a slur; some sounded funny, adding a stir. Feathers were ruffled with “chooks on the block”; suggesting that others might be a coft sock. Names were called and challenges invited; it was clear, they were getting excited.

We discovered new poets and writers of prose; all very clever, as far as that goes. Tom was deep, which surprises, quoting wild wind and beautiful sunrises. The Willy Lit Fest sparked even more verse, the situation was getting worse. Lester penned enlightened prose, of the swimmers, whom he knows. He sent “home remedies” and health tips and updated news of his overseas trips.

The Big Bay swim was on the agenda; Tom would swim well if he was not on a bender. Lester was timid, didn’t think he’d survive; out in the sewer, where the jellyfish thrive.

After the swim on Australia Day; having a barbie is our special way, of celebrating a great occasion; to be reminded by the owners, it was an invasion.

Away from the beach we socialize; exchanging rumours that tantalise. One of note is of a flirt; labeled as “grandpa chasing a skirt”. He played Cupid, which may seem nice, but then he had to pay a price. Of the evils, which is lesser – upset a friend; or, lose your hairdresser.

Beach photo

We all lined up for the photo snap, when someone asked, “Who’s that chap?” – The line up on the shore that day, featured more than one odd stray. Mark came up with a scheme, to have T shirts with a theme. Willy Dolphins was selected; they just cost more than expected

Many events occurred in May; one was that the buoy got away. It hadn’t floated out of reach, recovery found it on the beach. Dan took shots when he came down, Vin declaring, “The buoy is back in town”.

Winter came with a blow and it saw absences grow. Kimba was the first we missed, and then Tom went on the list. By July the morning chill, was a test of the will. Pam persevered, so we are told and wore rubber gloves, to beat the cold. Then Search and Rescue one foggy day, stopped Chop heading down the bay. Pam saw a duck, or so she thought; wearing a snorkel, Vin was caught.

The lure of the islands took its toll; as Dolphins were struck from the roll. Dolphins travelled far and near; with regularity they’d disappear. Moonlit lagoons and places exotic saw Lester dress up in something erotic. Dancing around, “what an old tart” romance of the Solomons stole his heart.

His absence was long, and duly noted; his risqué emails often quoted. He added Hawaii to his travel plan, to see daughter Rosie win an ironman. Bali attracted Paul and Pam, while Kevin coffeed in Viet-nam. Chop played in Phuket a while; all returned with a smile. But John’s warm wishes from hot places left us with sad, long faces.

Rice fields in Sapa

Rice fields in Sapa, Vietnam

A pair of comedians in dressing gowns pranced around like a pair of clowns. They weren’t in for long as they felt the pain, you can be sure we won’t see them again.

Pat tipped an ice bucket on his head, accepting the challenge is what he said. He put it to Kev, who did the same, out of fun to play the game. Vin posted a blog to spread about town, saying “one warming up and one cooling down”.

PaddyIceBucket2

The early dawns are always topical, now palm trees make it look tropical.

With the year now at an end, we wish happiness to you my friend.

Quoting Tom of what he might say, “The sunrise paints the start of another day.”

 

Williamstown beach

 

– Kevin Moran, 22 December 2014

The buoy is back in town

Headline by Andy

Photos by Dan

Buoy resurrection by Holdfast Marine

Buoy resurrection

After about a week stranded near the end of the groyne and then about another week up on the sand, the Williamstown buoy is back in town. Holdfast Marine set to work at low tide on Saturday 23 August. Danny Buoy Wade caught some of the action with his trusty camera.

Buoy oh buoy.

Buoy oh buoy.

Close to the sea

Man at beach

Photo by Karen van Wyngaarden

He wakes up at dawn. Puts on his togs. Pulls on his Willy Dolphins windcheater. Slips on his thongs. Drapes a towel around his neck. Collects swimming cap and goggles.

Walks out the door. Down the laneway, across the Esplanade. Less than a minute.

He pulls off his windcheater. Slips off his thongs. Takes off his towel. Places them by the steps where Roundy used to leave his shorts and t-shirt and runners.

Into the water. Not out to the buoys. Not in the shallows. In-between. Dee enough. Strong swimmer. Knows this water. Knows this beach. The sand, the rocks, the fish. The past. The present. The temperature.

A man close to the sea.