THE ROAD SCHOLAR
© Max Merckenschlager
Winner, 2009 'Snowy River Festival', Dalgety NSW.
Out the back of Bourke and yonder, where the station cattle wander,
chewing mindlessly on withered stems between sporadic rains,
lived a whipstick elder-brother with his siblings and his mother,
who’d an ‘intellectual problem’ that was not from lack of brains.
Now his dad, a roving worker – the essential back o' Bourker –
was a rare and welcome visitor who handled all their bills;
poking branding irons in fires, stringing fences up with pliers,
cut ‘n’ drafting, crutch ‘n’ mulesing, in a saddlebag of skills.
It befell his mum to teach them – sometimes threaten or beseech them –
for their lessons drew out painfully as children dreamt of play.
But with opened book for learning, vacant thoughts would keep returning,
so the lad fell into wandering for most of every day.
Cinching tight his favoured hacker, he'd become a lonely tracker,
follow signs of stock to water, then regrease the windmill's gland.
And destructive ferals rooting often blessed his sights for shooting;
there was bacon on their table, hung and butchered by his hand.
All the bushland birds, he knew ‘em – songs and habits, he'd accrue 'em –
filed in matter laying latent under wavy locks and hat.
He could read the changing weather, fashion whips from rawhide leather,
muster breakaways unaided lost in gully, scrub or flat.
Then disturbing information reached the Board of Education,
that a child deprived of schooling had been heard of in the bush.
There was need for intervention – a psychologist's attention –
for a pedagogic expert knew which buttons one should push.
Sadly, nothing done could change him; they decided to ‘de-range’ him,
so the family was shifted to a fibro hut in Bourke.
But his schooling lessons faltered as his legal status altered,
and he left to make a living where you're measured by your work:
sometimes classing wool or shearing – he'd a spell at mallee clearing,
and a year of trucking road trains from the Centre to the South,
felling Mountain Ash as logger, checking Dingo Fence as dogger,
setting lines to capture Mulloway that run the Murray's mouth.
Not a one for tie or collar, this redoubtable road scholar,
though his thirst for understanding matched the brightest of his peers;
there was never task that floored him, idle chitter-chatter bored him,
and he earned a reputation as a man beyond his years.
Now he manages a station, where his self-made education
doesn't hinder those decisions which are part of daily life.
He's a listener, a guider and a consummate provider,
for his outback bush community, his kids and loving wife.