The shape of a mentor: What I learnt from my uncle and Elton


I am a too-tall seven-year-old who has received a pink plastic boomerang for Christmas. I have no idea why. Perhaps I asked for it. Perhaps it’s a stocking filler; it looks cheap. It has to be cheap, it’s a plastic boomerang.

I carry it to the park near my grandparents’ Portland home. My tribe is with me: grandparents, younger brothers and uncle Wayne, his wavy red hair whipping in the sea breeze. Wayne says he’ll be able to throw the boomerang the furthest so he should have first go. He grabs the fabricated version of the ancient yidaka from me and, despite the fabricated version of a leg that resides below his left knee, he swivels adroitly and releases the object into the summer haze.

The boomerang begins its characteristic arc then disappears into a clump of tall pine trees about fifty metres away. We trundle over and search the branches, but we can’t find the plastic yidaka.

In the lounge rooms and kitchens of my childhood, Wayne takes his damaged leg from his prosthesis, removes a cream-coloured sock from his stump, then waggles the remains of his leg around for fun.

I’m six years old and, with my younger brother, climbing the stairs to my grandparents’ above-shop flat in Warrnambool. Uncle Wayne is in front of us and, to get a laugh from my brother, I imitate Wayne’s limping effort to ascend the staircase. Our grandmother’s behind us and, as Wayne enters the flat, she pulls me up and dresses me down for mocking my uncle. It’s the first and only time she says an unkind word to me.

My mother, grandmother, uncle Gary and grandfather all tell the story from 1957 differently, or I mix-master the story from the ingredients of two separate car accidents: their family car crashed on the way to the cinema/Wayne’s car crashed on the way to the races. It was a very dark night in Horsham/it was just on sunset. Everyone escaped from the car except Wayne/they were all in the car with him/Wayne was with a mate/on his own. There was concern the car was going to explode/the car sat for an hour/the car sat for two hours. The jaws of life came/the jaws of life didn’t come/the firetruck beat the police to the scene. My grandmother was trapped in the front/my grandfather was driving/my grandmother was driving/Wayne was driving/was a passenger. My mother was in the backseat/my mother was on my grandmother’s lap. Wayne’s leg hung by a thread for hours/Wayne’s leg came off in the accident itself.

Wayne was a kid/he was eighteen.

Certainty: the amputation changed his life.

Certainty two: his brothers Greg and Gary were brilliant young sportsmen. Wayne had showed more ability than either of them, even though he’d yet to finish primary school/had just turned eighteen.

A few months ago, Mum rings me to see if my mate Mike, a middle-aged orthodontist, could possibly recommend anyone in Melbourne to help with Wayne’s leg. He’s in more pain than ever. He’s in his late sixties, Paul. The legs they give him down here in Geelong, they’re useless.

I’m in my mid-twenties and my mother calls me to pray for her and Wayne. She’s going over again to his flat in Geelong to convince him not to end his life.

It’s 1983 and I’m in my mid-teens with less idea than most how to live or what to do. I don’t have pimples, but my father reckons that’s because I’ve got one for a brain.

That year, Uncle Wayne begins to show up regularly in his 1960s white Mercedes-Benz WII4 250c coupe. No one I know drives a car like that. And he drives it slowly. He can’t drive fast on account of his prosthesis, but it’s not a car anyone should drive fast. It’s a car made to clatter and hum while you stand back and look at it.

He takes me to the movies in it. He takes me driving nowhere in particular. We talk about girls and school and all kinds of forgettable rubbish.

I don’t know whether he’s coming of his own volition or whether my parents have asked him to.

For all those times hanging in the Merc, I forgive him – and my uncle Gary – for introducing me to what was then called ‘she-male’ porn on video cassettes when my parents were away one weekend. Not that the cassettes didn’t fascinate me. Or excite me. Or my friend, the self-described white wog, another Paul.

Paul and I took the wet patches on our pants to separate beds that night after drinking two litres of Cinzano and lemonade. Uncle Wayne left us the cassettes, we watched them again the next morning and Wayne picked them up at lunchtime.

Uncle Wayne has loved to paint since he was a kid. I think he’s got better and better, but some in the family don’t think much of Wayne’s work, his homages to the family farm in Laharum, a property they eventually gave up for a weatherboard in Dollar Avenue, Horsham.

Some family members call Wayne ‘Namatjira’. Wayne has greying red hair and a face whiter than the front of an old Kelvinator fridge. Despite the fact I like Wayne’s paintings, I can’t help laughing at my dad’s moniker for the artist as an old man.

Wayne has never sold a painting. No one has bothered to tell him that van Gogh didn’t sell one in his lifetime, either. Why would they?

I’m twenty-seven and I’m with my first wife, holidaying one weekend in Lorne. We get out of our car and who should pull into the parking spot in front of us but Uncle Wayne, driving a white Telecom van. I haven’t seen him for a couple of years. He hobbles over in his grey Telecom uniform, his wild red hair accompanied by a then unfashionable handlebar moustache. He smiles exuberantly and says, as always, “Paulie!”, imitating Rocky talking to his girlfriend’s brother. I shake the hand he offers and say, as I always did, “Way-nus!” He laughs at the mouldy oldie joke and my wife and I talk about what we’ve been up to in Melbourne, what he’s been up to in Geelong, what the job with Telecom’s like (better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick) and whether the Blues will win the premiership again next year. Our conversation’s cut short, however, when an old woman walking past shouts at Wayne that he’s typical Telecom, look at him, doing nothing, and parking his bloody van, to boot, in a disabled parking spot. Wayne tells her to keep her shirt on, he’s only been there a couple of minutes, and he’s only talking to his nephew and niece-in-law. The woman says she doesn’t care, she’ll report him to the police. He tells her to piss off, smiles at us, says goodbye, hobbles into his van and shunts away.

Later, my wife points out that Wayne could have stayed in the disabled spot all day if he’d wanted.

“He should have told that old bag: you wanna see disabled, and pulled his plastic leg off and waved it at her. That disabled enough for ya?!”

It’s Christmas, I’m twelve, and I walk past the window outside my family’s dining room. Uncle Wayne has been left alone at the table with his new girlfriend. They kiss like they’re trying to extract molars from each other’s mouths. I want to have a girlfriend and, as they continue to kiss, I wonder for a second if Wayne will let me practice kissing her. When she smokes a cigarette later, blowing fat folds of smoke from her bright red lips, I decide the world is too big for me to do anything in it, and I go to my bedroom to play my portable video game.

I’m at my grandparents’ place in Portarlington. School holidays. I’m twelve, high school is coming up, and I’m petrified. I’ve only lived in Geelong for three months and now I have to go to secondary school with a bunch of people I don’t know. Everyone else at least has their friends from primary school. I don’t have any and I can’t even begin to relax.

My younger brothers have a room of their own to sleep in, but, because Uncle Wayne has come to visit his parents, I have to share a room with him.

I don’t bother to question why a man in his thirties is visiting his parents alone. I don’t add up two divorces. I don’t question why I never see his children, my cousins. I just startle awake when he shouts in the night, turns on his lamp, flings off his covers, looks fervently around the room and accidentally flails his good leg at the bedside table, knocking onto the floor the book he’s been reading: How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The same school holidays, Wayne’s in the lounge with uncle Greg, Dad and me when my grandfather’s talking up how he “sniffed the cunts of Zulu women in the war”, because they were so tall. Dad says he’s not putting up with that talk, especially while the women can hear from the kitchen, and he’s up off the couch and out of there. I’m still on the floor and Uncle Wayne says, “What’s up Bobby boy’s arse?” My grandfather hasn’t a clue and neither have I, but I do know, though I’m a bit confused, what a cunt is.

It’s a bad person. And something else I’ve never seen in real life. My grandfather’s pornos under his cupboard don’t count, I suppose.

Uncle Wayne:

•  one of only two people I’ve met with a prosthetic limb

•  only person I know who has played exhibition snooker against Eddie Charlton

•  was a policeman

•  was a Telecom driver

•  paints weird landscapes of Laharum with black trees, purplish skies and reddish-brown earth

•  got divorced from Glenda and someone else, I think, but is married to Caroline who has worked steadily at Myer for two decades

•  was an alcoholic

•  stopped drinking for years and drank only Claytons

•  started drinking again and gambling. Went off the rails, Mum said.

•  nearly died of grief when his mother died

•  haven’t seen him for years

It’s 1973 and I’m in Uncle Wayne’s lounge in Warrnambool. He has a wife, Glenda, with hair as straight as Marcia Brady’s, and they have a Great Dane three times my size. The thing falls all over me and everyone laughs and I want to hide in the car. Forever. The Great Dane is put outside, we have chops and snags, then Dad and Wayne enjoy some beers on the couch. Policeman Wayne, still in his uniform, pulls out a record. He lets the sleeve fall open and there are cartoon-style paintings accompanying the titles of the album’s songs, all in different fonts, all with the lyrics below them.

Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Just bought it today, Wayne says. It’s incredible, he adds. My dad’s not a music man. He has some Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond records.

Elton John is a bloke who wears frills and furs.

Wayne talks up the album. He’s excited. He’s talking and talking. The album’s playing. Wailing singing, piano, synths and rocking guitars. I’ve heard music like this but never seen a man who isn’t watching football so excited. The way Wayne describes it, the album could be a religious artefact. But I don’t understand any of the words he’s using to describe it, nor the lyrics:

All the young girls love Alice, tender young Alice they say …

Decades on, I understand. This is art. This is writing lyrics, words for imaginings; paintings on an album cover to dream to, this is music. It makes your spine tingle sometimes just to describe art, let alone to listen to it, watch it or look at it.

My spine still tingles remembering Wayne describing Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I play ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ on the car hi-fi for my eight-year-old music nut, Ryland. Wailing Elton finishes up, along with the wild guitars and keys and the synth extravaganza. Ryland points to the floor, at his discarded footwear. “It blew my thongs off!” he says.

I’m nearly fifty. The number seems impossible. Because I’m such a child and because I did so many things so much worse than Wayne did when I was young and I should have lost more than limbs.

Somewhere, sometime, in 2017, I hear someone talking about the importance of teenage boys having a male role model, apart from their father, who spends time with them. I’m too embarrassed to call Wayne. I haven’t spoken to him for so long. And I don’t want Mum knowing my business, so I don’t ask where Wayne’s living these days. I look him up in the digital phone book and I find him and write him a letter:

Dear Uncle Wayne,

How’s things? Hope you’re doing well.

I was just thinking the other day what a great uncle you were for me when I was growing up, especially when I was a young teenager.

I remember you used to show up in the white Merc just to hang out. I appreciated it then and I really appreciate it now. It was great to have another bloke role model as well as Bob growing up.

Just wanted to let you know your work as an uncle was gratefully received. We often don’t get much credit for the little things we do in life and I thought I’d change that in this instance.

Cheers Paul

Mum tells me by phone that Wayne came around to her place the other day and he was beaming and he had a spring in his step. I can’t imagine the spring, but I can see the smile and hear the “Paulie wrote me a letter” and I think, good old Way-nus, I’m glad you didn’t top yourself and Elton John’s a brilliant kind of a gender-bending role model artist, and I’m an artist, mate, like you. Barely sold anything, either, but, hey, now we’re coming full circle, thought I should let you know that a group of Aborigines taught me how to throw a boomerang. So, yeah, no need for you to be Namatjira, just be good old Way-nus. I’ve got one of your works hanging in my office. Kind of a brownish-reddish track that leads into a sunset.

———

If you like what you just read, check out our latest podcast, where Homer‘s founding editor Ashley Thomson interviews Paul Mitchell, the author of this piece. They discuss Australian masculinity, Paul’s personal history and his thoughts on where lasting change to damaging masculinities needs to be made. Follow these links to it on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Header image by Philipp Kämmerer

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