(Auckland, New Zealand, 1970)
Buck and I got stuck-in and cleaned up the offices.
Me working, him supervising.
With the Auckland Northern Motorway extensions, our depot was growing and we were soon to have our own survey staff. The surveyors were due to start next week, so before that the offices would have to be cleaned up and painted.
They’d lain unused for years, Buck said.
I hauled out the junk while Buck rolled and smoked cigarette after cigarette, telling me which junk to put where and what to throw on the bonfire that was always burning in the yard out back by the mounds of gravel and road chip.
I had just been promoted from a laborer digging ditches with the work gangs to a ‘Chainman, Second Class,’ which is a sort of an assistant to the surveyors.
It was still manual labor, only now, I was promised, with arithmetic.
That ought to make it fun, I thought.
I was sixteen-years-old when I’d started at the depot, where men were men and the work was rough. Buck had taken me under his wing and shown me the ropes. Now, almost a year later, he had become like a profane, kooky old uncle to me.
An uncle always ready with a tall tale.
We stopped for a smoke and I asked him about a tattoo he had on his forearm. It was a sailor’s tattoo of a hula girl complete with grass skirt and suggestively out-thrust hip, coyly strumming a ukulele which barely hid her magnificent chest. I thought her charming, and a little sexy. The tattoo was faded now, and spotted by little scars and crusts as a man’s arm might accrue over time, but somehow it had not lost its allure.
“Meet Aolani,” Buck said, glancing down at her. He clenched and unclenched his fist, making her shake and dance.
I settled myself down in anticipation of the coming story.
“I got that tattoo in Honolulu, lad. Before the war. Ever been to Hawaii, Rusty boy?”
Before I could say yes I had (for the ship that had brought my family to New Zealand from California had docked there) he continued, “Too bad, mate, it’s a beautiful place and the girls are willing!”
Buck removed his glasses and while absentmindedly cleaning them squinted up into the bright summer sky. “I was a sailor on a tramp steamer out of Hong Kong, bound for Suva. Back in thirty-eight.
“That’s nineteen thirty eight. Blast it all! I’m not that old!”
I laughed with Buck. He was teased a lot at the depot about his age. Nobody knew how old he really was, but he was older than anyone else at the depot. He’d had an accident many years before that had left him somewhat crippled, so he didn’t go out with the work gangs, but remained behind at the depot making tea for smoko breaks and cleaning up around the place. ‘The tea boy,’ he called himself.
“Anyway,” he continued. “Six days out of Hong Kong, we was shipwrecked. A freak wave from nowhere caught us and over we went! She must’ve been ninety feet tall, that wave!
Buck described the shipwreck, with plenty of exciting details.
“Ever heard the saying about a captain going down with his ship, lad?”
“Sure.” I answered.
“Well, the bloody captain went down with his ship that day, but blast him, he bobbed right back up again!” Buck changed his tone, becoming more reflective. “He was a right bloody bastard, he was. Drunk all the time… We were the most overworked and underfed crew in the East!”
Buck grimaced in disgust at the memory of the detested captain.
I hope to god that no one ever grimaces about me like that.
That captain sounded like a real so-and-so, I said.
“Blast it all, lad, watch your blasted language!” replied Buck with a laugh. Buck was secretly delighted with my profanity. Between him and my father-in-law Mick, I was learning a new imprecation or blaspheming insult almost every day.
As the morning wore on, Buck regaled me with Hawaiian tales of love on the beaches and brawls in the bars, complete with grass skirts and the women of loose morals who wore them, a cast of crazy shipwrecked sailors and an older brother out to avenge his sister’s deflowering.
Buck insisted that the girl in question was vastly experienced and certainly no virgin when he met her, “If she ever bleedin was one!” and painted the brother in extremely comical terms.
“Finally, him and his whole blasted family tracked me down and cornered me! They were going to throw me into a blasted volcano, lad, after first cutting off little Bucky, but I was too quick for ‘em and escaped to tell the tale!”
I didn’t mind that Buck’s tales were mostly untrue, it was the telling of them I enjoyed.
“Yes mate!” affirmed Buck. “Those island girls had me going like a one-armed paperhanger in a hurricane!”
After a moment he added, as if to himself;
“Ah, those beautiful brown-skinned island girls.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. My wife Ethne was part Maori, so I understood the allure of a beautiful brown-skinned island girl.
Ending his story, as all fairy tales must, with a moral, Buck finished by saying, “Cut us in half and what do you find, Rusty lad?”
He paused for effect, then added;
“We’re all pink inside, mate!”
With that, Buck hobbled off downstairs to start the tea brewing.