© Glenny Palmer

Winner, 2012 ‘Rathdowney Heritage Festival’, Rathdowney, Queensland.

The emergence of ‘swagmen’ in Australia, many of them
servicemen returning from war, was largely attributable
to the then government’s shameful mandate that each
man must present at a different town, for each welfare
support instalment.

There was only one more case to go, the last of my Dad’s things,
the sad, once treasured fragments of a life.
I’d sorted all the others in amongst my grief last night;
browning photos, and a broken Pocket knife.

There were pennies and a sixpence in an old tobacco tin,
and a union card stamped “1949”;
the Rising Sun from off his digger’s hat, brass buttons too,
and a lock of baby’s hair, (had it been mine?)

Then a worn newspaper clipping fluttered faintly to the floor
with a photo of a swagman... it was Dad!
The headline called him ‘hobo’, but I knew that label wrong,
for he’d worked like hell since he had been a lad.

This story of my father and so many other men
imprisoned by the mandates of their time,
was laid out there before me, and I share it now with you,
for this legacy is yours as much as mine.

It was just a fleeting snapshot then, this photo of my dad,
‘though down and out, his eyes still flashed with pride.
His threadbare trousers served him still, with rope tied for a belt,
and a loyal but hungry heeler matched his stride.

From his shoulder, stooped from slogging an existence on the land,
swung his tattered swag — the wages of his toil.
His weary feet through ragged soles cursed bitumen beneath,
and yearned the talcum touch of red plain soil.

For his liberty was taxed by shameful mandates, drought and fire;
his blistered hands and heart the grim reward.
And there, against his grit and grain, in foreign town he sought
salvation, in the place that he deplored.

His weeping wife with baby at her breast, and on her knees
implored her god in prayer the days throughout.
She struggled in the small slab hut — he struggled in the town,
both pining for a future bound in doubt.

And I wouldn’t take a wager on which one was more bemused,
the faithful hound or master, at their plight,
for a man surrenders freedom to the city’s callous crush,
as sure as day surrenders to the night.

For the boss man shook his head, “No work, try further down the track...”
(each time he asked the answer was the same).
“’s tea and flour to see you out, the best that I can do,
and some scraps for that old dog that’s going lame.”

And the hundred times he asked a hundred miles or more he tramped;
a hundred lonely hours from home and hearth,
‘til the western track gave way to concrete, bitumen and steel,
where he’d not before trod such a painful path.

He was one amongst the thousands, just one pebble on the sand,
that the tides of time and history washed away,
but his footsteps echo loudly in our proud and promised land,
for his courage he bequeathed to us today.

It’s that courage in our countrymen from swaggie through to boss,
that nourishes the spirit of our land.
It’s woven in the fabric of a history steeped in toil;
from the hardship we learned how to take a stand.

“And stand we must, together,” he had told me, “Now today,
for times are changing, sadly for the worse.
The rise of evil threatens creeping closer to our door,
and we need to shield each other from this curse.”

“Yet how does one defend the whole?” my trembling heart implored;
“What consequence from one man standing tall?”
He’d pressed on how our fathers stood, in war, one at a time,
“The strength of one, my son, forged strength for all.”

I dried my eyes and gathered up these fragments of his life;
these fragments that are sacred now, to me.
I closed the timber shutters and secured the rough hewn door
he’d fashioned with his axe, when I was three.

I lingered at the gateway, humbled by the courage shown
by men who’d fought the burden of their age,
and mused that each is father to a son who lives today;
a son who’ll make his mark on valour’s page.

And in my reverie it struck that I’m that father’s son,
that son who’ll fight to keep Australia game;
that son who guards the legacy our forebears gifted us
for my father’s name.

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