Monday, September 10, 2012

Virginia in the desert

I've often tried to account for my intense interest in the USA. As a kid in Australia in the 1960s, I grew up with American TV - Combat (with Vic Morrow), Lee Marvin in M-Squad, The Three Stooges, Get Smart...It was that time in Australia's history when Great Britain was losing its cultural dominance.

But Australia was a long way away from the US then - so far away that in the 1956 Stanley Kramer movie, On the Beach, the crew of an US submarine could survive (for the time being) the nuclear cloud that had descended over the northern hemisphere because they were in Melbourne, far far away, at the time. There were no daily flights to LA or San Francisco when I was a kid, much less Qantas's recently-launched direct flights to Dallas. America was almost exotic.

My interest in the US could have gotten a good kick-along I realise though from having lived in Alice Springs in Central Australia, in the early 1980s.

Looking south down the Todd River (Lhere Mparntwe) towards Mt Sadadeen on the left and Mt John, behind. Photo from Wikipedia, uploaded by Shiftchange. It is Mt John that I first noticed glowing at night (see blog Location, Location, 23 August) while crossing the causeway (foreground) at night in 2006
Alice Springs, frozen in time around 1981-2, would make an interesting sociological study. You had your 'foreign legions', the teachers from Queensland and Adelaide doing their couple of years up north to 'repay' a Commonwealth Scholarship, or the clique of Melbourne barristers and QCs who were doing a stint working in the newly brought-in aboriginal Land Rights (some of them later Victorian Supreme Court judges; Land Rights was their rite of passage).

Alice Springs then was a country town that had to be a city. There were no traffic lights, but all the capital city daily newspapers were flown in from the various coastal cities every morning and you could buy The Age or The  Courier-Mail or The West Australian by ten and catch up with the day's news over a coffee in Todd Street at the same time as people in Melbourne and Brisbane and Perth did.

There was the aboriginal 'tapestry' too, of course - women sitting cross-legged under street trees collecting seed; people conversing in sign language across either side of Stuart Highway (the upward rotation of a loosely-held right thumb and forefinger to denote enquiry and so on...); the various reminders of a network of tracks, the paths of legendary creator caterpillars and dogs and 'uninitiated boys' who had passed this way in the Beginning, pre-dating streets and roads and bitumen; the metamorphosed body of the dog creator, the boulder Akngwelye thirrewe, which then stood chained off in the railway yards, but, with the widening of the Stuart Highway, is now outside a fast food outlet...

But the other element that made Alice unique then was the presence of Americans who worked 18 kilometres (11 miles) away at Pine Gap Defence Base and lived in town. Back then, strolling around Alice, you could often feel that you were walking around in the DC suburbs of Virginia or Maryland, in a little bit of Virginia or Maryland flung out into the desert.

I remember having a conversation at a cocktail party at the home of the chief of Pine Gap. There beyond the balcony was Spencer Hill and everything it reminded me of about Spencer and Gillen and their books, their description of the great engwura ceremony staged at the Telegraph Station in 1896; but my conversation this particular afternoon was about environmental pressures on Chesapeake Bay. I also remember Sallie K coming up to me in the street to exclaim, 'The president's been shot'. This was 1981. The president was Ronald Reagan. But citizens of other Australian towns would not have put the news like this. No-one would have said 'the president'; he wasn't ours. And I remember going to the home of another American one afternoon and seeing a video of last weekend's Washington Redskins-Miami Dolphins game, flown in on Monday by Starlifter (which brought in lots of other stuff as well, of course).

But the Americans also meant American music. Alice Springs had homegrown bands like Bloodwood, say, or Ted Egan accompanying himself on his cardboard beer carton. I'm conscious of the fact that there was once another ancient repertoire for the local hills and gaps and soaks and waterholes. But back in the early 80s, Alice Springs had a Big Band, squeal trumpets and all, full of American personnel. I remember playing old favourites from the Great American Songbook - Tuxedo Junction, arrangements by Sammy Nestico or Nelson Riddle, You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To...The band was in great demand. It even played once at a debutantes' ball up the road in the mining town of Tennant Creek, six hours away.

It's funny to think of the disjunctions that existed in Alice Springs in the early 1980s - videos of American Football games brought in by Starlifter, Left Hand Drives, the people who in casual conversation could share my references to Melbourne restaurants, other people living by campfire in the dry creekbed...

It really was a unique time, but convinced me in a sense that I'd already lived in America - and that if it's so nice to come home to someone, there are several places I can come home to.

If you liked this blog, others of mine on Central Australia are:

Carving up the pie, 17 December 20912
Life-changing statements, 16 December 2012
Ah, Nathanael, 29 November 2012
Victory over death and despair in a bygone age (thoughts on John Strehlow's The Tale of Frieda Keysser), 5 Nov 2012
Drowned Man in a Dry Creekbed - Happy New Year 1993, 6 August 2012
Opera in a land of Song, 29 July 2012
Considering the aboriginal land of Altjira, 20 May 2012

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