A Saturday morning that cleaved history in two
It was a Saturday morning. Time to take out the pushbike and wheel around the traps. Rabbit carcasses and their skins were pocket money.
Trapped rabbits had paid just a few weeks before for my first Beatles record, She Loves You, and every kid, even in that remote corner of Victoria, knew there'd be another soon.
Something was happening and we didn't quite know what it was, but we suspected a new soundtrack was being introduced to our lives. That Saturday morning everything seemed to change, and I can't remember whether my mate and I even went around the traps.
The wireless in the kitchen announced it. US president Kennedy had been shot. Fifty years is a long time, yet it is no stretch to recall the chill it cast in our farmhouse, a very long way from Dallas, Texas.
In the nearby town, Heywood, we would learn a bit later that a woman, a migrant from Europe and therefore considered excitable, had run down the street screaming. She thought World War III was about to begin. She wasn't alone in that fear, but no one else screamed it into the streets. Not in that stoic little town.
The dread of nuclear war had been around for a while, and the waiting for it, knowing ordinary people couldn't do anything about it, had dulled the nerves. It was only a year since John F. Kennedy had faced down the USSR's Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missiles crisis, when the world's obliteration had seemed only hours away and the wireless in the kitchen was never off.
John F. Kennedy had saved the world, maybe, and only a few months before he was shot, the British had finally stopped testing nuclear bombs in Australia's outback at Maralinga. My mother and her friends clipped pictures of Jackie Kennedy from magazines, trying to copy the elegance of her outfits in a sort of vicarious celebration of this rescued new age, which would turn out to be so brief.
President Kennedy was assassinated in another country, but for all of us everywhere who can remember it, 1963 was another country, too. It was, really, the start of what we call the '60s, though it was a slow start in Australia.
John Kennedy and his brother Bobby might have taken on the US rednecks on behalf of the American civil rights movement and helped young blacks gain admission to universities, but in our district indigenous people still lived out of town in bush humpies by a creek. Eight days after Kennedy was killed, indigenous Australians in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory were allowed to vote for the first time in an Australian federal election.
Bob Menzies was about to enter his 14th year as prime minister in November 1963, and in a few days he'd win the last election he would contest. Earlier that year, he'd given Australian politics a phrase that bedevils Labor still. When a photographer clicked a picture of ALP leader Arthur Calwell and his deputy Gough Whitlam standing in the cold outside a Canberra hotel while the party's policy decisions were being made within by the ALP national executive, Menzies dubbed the executive "the 36 faceless men".
In November 1963, Henry Bolte had been Victoria's premier for eight years, contentedly overseeing Whelan the Wrecker laying waste to Melbourne's heritage in the name of progress. A British aristocrat, Lord De L'Isle, was Australia's governor-general, the last foreigner to be granted the job.
We needed a new soundtrack to our lives, even if, way out in the Victorian countryside, we had no idea what the word ennui would come to mean.
We might have known, though I can't remember it, that a war known as the "Confrontation" between Indonesia and the new nation of Malaysia was brewing, and that within two years Australians would fight with the British against Indonesia, placing in context today's spat about electronic eavesdropping.
We might have known, though I can't remember it, that a contingent known as the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam had been sent just the year before to a place hardly anyone knew about called South Vietnam, and that the longest war in Australia's history lay ahead.
Before it would be over, my mates and I would be nameless birthdays in a lottery barrel for conscription, angry at the idea because we would still be too young, at 20, to vote. It wouldn't be until 1972 that the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, and conscription was canned at the same time. By then, some of us had begun cursing Kennedy for having got America - and thus, Australia - into that useless, meaningless conflict.
Back in the early '60s, though, my mates and I still laid our trap lines for a while, and our enthusiasm for the Beatles grew and we argued about the attributes of another new British band called the Rolling Stones. By 1965 Bob Dylan had told us what we already suspected in his Ballad of a Thin Man: "Something is happening and you don't know what it is".
It takes time to figure out the meaning of the big days in our lives.
There would be the assassination of Martin Luther King jnr in April 1968 and the assassination two months later of Bobby Kennedy; the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the end of the Soviet Union over the following two years and for a newer generation, the destruction by hijacked jets of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. All of these were events that seemed to change everything.
But the news on the Australian wireless on a country Saturday morning in November 1963 - half a century ago - remains, for those of us who can remember it, a cleaver in history. The end of innocence, some have called it.
For a boy setting out to trap rabbits to raise money for the next Beatles record, and who had been born after World War II, it was the other way around: the beginning of a newly complicated soundtrack to life, one that goes on, despite discord and occasionally, calamity.
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