by JOHN MIKKELSEN – AS FAR North Queensland mops up after the flooding and mayhem largely resulting from unpreparedness in the wake of Cyclone Jasper, anyone who has lived there would know it has nothing to do with “catastrophic climate change” despite the usual alarmist headlines.
Cyclones are not a new phenomenon, and Jasper couldn’t hold a candle to Cyclone Althea which caused three deaths when it devastated Townsville and some other northern centres on Christmas Eve, 1971.
As a kid growing up in Stuart, a bush village near Townsville, they were just another chapter in life’s adventures – unless one actually hit your house.
Let’s take a trip in the mind’s Tardis back to February 1954, when that almost happened.
My Dad, Garnie, was the headmaster at Stuart State School, and after the day dawned wet but not too windy, he gave us the news: ABC radio had broadcast a warning that a cyclone was approaching down the coast, and all schools in the region would be closed.
Well, any day with no school was as good as a holiday in my book.
“Beauty!” I yelled. I’m not sure my enthusiasm was shared by my older siblings, who would normally be preparing to travel into Townsville State High School on the Railmotor.
During the day, the wind steadily increased and the rain became almost horizontal. That afternoon, we stood on the front enclosed verandah of the schoolhouse which was protected from the howling northerly, and watched as big trees toppled, branches whipped off and competed with sheets of roofing iron flying by.
Wow! It reminded me of the opening scenes to The Wizard of Oz and we had a front row seat without having to buy movie tickets…
Telephone lines were knocked down but we didn’t have to worry about power. There wasn’t any, and night time settled with the norm of carbide lights and kerosene lamps, which attracted the usual swarms of mozzies and other flying insects.
The radio crackling in the corner on battery power delivered news the cyclone was still on its way but, in those days, they didn’t give them pet names and there was no army of reporters recounting every wind gust tousling their hair if they stepped outside.
We eventually went to bed, knowing there was probably worse to come.
The next day dawned and I awoke early with the house still standing. I can only blame cabin fever, boredom and a warped sense of humour for what came next.
I sneaked under my sister Janette’s bed and kicked as hard as I could on the wire frame beneath the mattress.
A piercing shriek rang out as poor Janette thought the house was collapsing around her!
She ran out of the room without checking under the bed, but our Dad stormed in and caught me crawling out, laughing.
He didn’t see the joke and delivered a stern tongue lashing.
“How could you do that to your sister? You know cyclones are no joking matter, John, half the town has probably suffered damage. People can get killed!”
Janette heard none of that, and in her mind, she had been a victim of my older brother, Alan. She schemed her revenge and was not in any rush to get even.
The schoolhouse had a dinkum dunny way down the back yard, with the wooden structure attached to a wrap-around corrugated iron screen for added privacy.
Janette waited until her older brother was answering a call of nature, then put her own wicked plan into action. She rapped on the iron sheeting with a big piece of wood and laughed as Alan came running out, hitching up his shorts, convinced the dunny was about to take off.
Naturally he didn’t see the joke, but I thought it was hilarious. Two birds with the one stone…
Ironically, ours was about the only dunny in town to survive – some went walkabout, somersaulting into neighbouring properties, which would have been pretty scary for any occupant.
It was probably the iron privacy screen that kept it in place on the low wooden stumps and really stopped the brown stuff hitting the fan!
Later that day the wind started to ease from cyclonic to gale force, and I ventured off on my bike with my best mate, Rover the kelpie-cross, to survey the damage.
Trees down everywhere, and the old brickworks down the road had lost most of its roofing iron. Thankfully, its tall red brick chimney was unscathed.
I met up with a few fellow-adventurer schoolmates also making the most of another holiday, and we invented a new mode of travel. No need to pedal our bikes, just let the wind balloon our plastic raincoats from behind and it was something akin to wind surfing on wheels through the shallow water covering the road.
We also made an unusual discovery – miles away from Stewart Creek, which split the village in two, there were perch and herrings swimming in the water above the bitumen road.
It hadn’t rained cats and dogs, but somehow these fish appeared seemingly from nowhere, maybe lifted by the cyclonic winds just like Dorothy and her pet dog Toto in that Kansas tornado?
Anyway, it’s an ill wind that blows no good, but obviously Alan and Janette weren’t on speaking terms that day, and my secret prank remained unspoken right up until a recent email exchange.
Janette told a group of contacts how she had gotten even with her older brother for the cyclone trick perpetrated so many years ago while she was sleeping.
“Not me, I didn’t do that!” he finally protested.
I could have copied TV’s Sergeant Schultz of Nazi POW camp fame, and declared, “I know nothing, nothing!”
But time to come clean, just like George Washington and the axed cherry tree. It was me.PC