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The Bushfire Boys

by Charles Well

Chapter 6


Sam Hunter had been absorbed in the reunion with his son, but not so much that he didn't notice what was happening around him. While his wife Sally was tending to the various cuts and scratches Jarrah had received from the koalas, he kept an eye on Ian Harrison. The Reverend considered himself a man of God, but a man of the world as well. He knew Mr. Harrison had been drinking. He didn't really blame him for that. They had all experienced a seemingly unending hell as they had continuously battled against the bushfires since Christmas Day. Everyone in town was literally at the end of their tether, physically and mentally exhausted from the heat, the smoke, lack of adequate sleep, and frustration because of the inability to make any real progress in controlling the fires. As soon as they put one out, two or three more started up in different locations. The previous night, they had all fought the blazes around East Coast until well after midnight. That had got personal. They were fighting for their home after all.

So as far as the Reverend Sam Hunter was concerned, some drinking on the side, although officially forbidden, was not something to make an issue of, unless it put lives in danger. But he also knew the issues Maggie Harrison had faced and when the man steered Jack out of sight behind Tanker Number 7, he feared the worst. He followed at a distance, but arrived too late to stop the man from bashing Jack's head against the side of the tanker and throwing him to the ground.

Reverend Sam ran to the boy, as CFA Captain Ian Harrison strode off to the weir apparently totally oblivious to the violence he just unleashed.

"Are you alright?" he asked as he ran over and picked Jack up off the ground. He could see the boy had wet himself, but his main concern for now was the possibility of concussion.

"Jack, talk to me. Are you okay?"

The 13-year-old looked around groggily. "What?" he asked. "Where am?"

"Jack, do you know who I am?"

"What? You're Reverend Hunter, Jarrah's dad."

"Good. Do you feel like vomiting, or do you have a bad neck ache?"

"My head hurts. I must have accidentally hit my…"

"Can you walk? Mrs. Hunter and I are taking you back to town. We need to get you to the clinic."

"I guess so," said the boy.

"I'll help you." The man held Jack around the shoulders and helped him over to the MCV.

"We're leaving Sally. Jack's been hurt. I'll explain it all later."

Sally Hunter knew her husband well enough to know something serious had happened. She didn't ask any questions. When Jarrah wanted details, they both cut him off.

"We'll speak of this later. For now I want both of you boys to remain quiet until we get Jack to the clinic in town. Jack you try and rest. You too Jarrah. I'm guessing you didn't get a lot of sleep last night?"

They stopped briefly at the top of the spillway and told the crew from Tanker Number 6 where they were going and then drove straight back to town along the blackened and burnt roads. At one point, CFA Captain Ian Harrison made an abusive call on the RM radio from Tanker 7 asking the Hunters, "where the hell do you think you are going?" but the Reverend didn't answer and just turned off the radio.

Jack was delivered safely to the clinic and ended up in a bed next to Mr. Campbell. He was kept overnight "for observation" and released into his mother's care the following morning. He was told to get plenty of sleep at night, to rest during the day, and no video games, dirt-bike riding, or surfing for at least a week. For the teen, that was perhaps a worse fate than dealing with the bushfires.

A little later that day, Reverend Sam Hunter had words with Senior Sergeant Mike Harrison.

Mr. Ian Harrison was later charged with Aggravated Assault and several other lesser offenses. He was released on bail on his own recognizance and his brother suggested he leave the district until the time of his court date. He was forbidden from contacting his family until then.

In the meantime, when Jack's mother heard what her husband did, she decided to pursue divorce.

"This has been a long time coming," she told her children. "It is something I should have done years ago. I apologize for not taking this step earlier. Your father is basically a good man, but the normal guardrails of civilized behavior disappear from him with alcohol. He's always been this way and I hope you can accept my apology for what I put you through Jack."

The unintended consequences of the New Year's Eve video making trip was a cause of stress for Jack Harrison on many levels. He had never been that close to his father, but the boy was used to having him around. Most of the time there was an uneasy truce between them with only the occasional flare-up of concern. Jack's overwhelming sense was one of guilt. He knew he was responsible for the breakup of his family, even though his mother, uncle and aunt, and Jarrah's parents said he wasn't. And how would the family survive without the main breadwinner? His mother had once worked as a primary (elementary) school teacher and she claimed she could return to that occupation. But she would need to take several classes to update her teaching credentials. There was some money remaining, child-support and alimony eventually, and various government programs to help single mothers, but things would get tight. And even after that, were there jobs for grade school teachers in town? East Coast was a small place and vacancies were probably not all that common. Would they be forced to move house? That was a real possibility, but not something Jack wished to contemplate. His friends and his life, footy, surfing, and dirt bike riding, were here. He knew there were no dirt bike tracks or surf beaches in Melbourne, if they were forced to move there.

And then there was the issue of what would happen to his dad. Uncle Mike was pretty sure his brother wouldn't end up in prison and explained.

"He has some good solicitors and will hire the best barrister when the time comes. They'll argue that their client wasn't involved in an extended episode of violence, that he had no criminal record, he had strenuous parenting responsibilities, there were many sleepless nights because of the bushfires, and that he is remorseful. I suspect that after some discussion, the prosecution will agreed to withdraw the original charges and your dad will plead to a charge of recklessly causing injury. In that case he would get a fine and might not even have a conviction recorded."

"Well, let his solicitors know I will speak on his behalf," responded Jack. "And tell them I know a good barrister who owes me a favor – Mr. Peter Campbell, SC.

Although his future and that of his family remained unclear, Jack did get the success he sought for his YouTube channel. Karen sent him a copy of the story that appeared on the 6:00 News. Cameraman Gary, also sent him videos and pictures they didn't use in the report and he added some of these. His site went viral and got millions of hits over the next few days. It didn't hurt that the story was picked up by CNN in America, the BBC in England, and then a dozen other news outlets around the world. A few weeks later, Karen Tur spoke to him once about a follow up 'half-hour special.'

"How could it not go viral?" She said. "A good news story in the midst of a disaster with a happy ending. And an added bonus of photogenic kids, iconic Aussie dogs, and six of the cutest koalas you ever saw."

Unfortunately, Jack could hardly enjoy the success and celebrity. In the end the whole thing became a hollow win given the Harrison family's changed circumstances.

It was only after the bushfire experience of 2019 that the parents of James and Oliver Campbell realized how close they came to losing their sons. They were not bad people, but had allowed their work and social lives to become a priority to the exclusion of their children.

That night after they had returned to their Toorak mansion and the boys were safely tucked up in bed, they discussed the future.

"I know we've had a stressful couple of days, but I'm only now beginning to understand how much of the lives of the boys we are missing. It was mostly all I thought about as we sat in the helicopter today," said Michelle Campbell. Her husband Peter agreed.

"You know I grew up at the farm. I loved it there back then. Pops did all the things fathers are supposed to do with their sons. We went fishing, we went to footy games, he taught me how to ride a bike and do a drop kick. We even went shooting rabbits together many times. I've done none of those things with James and Oliver. They'll be teenagers in a few years and will be wanting to make their own lives. We've missed so many of the years when we should have been helping and guiding them."

"What would you think if in January they returned to Central Grammar as day boys, rather than borders?" asked Mrs. Campbell. "It's the start of a new school year and they could travel on the train. I know most of their classmates do. Boarders are generally kids whose family lives in the country. And we can make time for them. Your legal practice is already well established and we still have my family's money. Perhaps we don't need to push as hard as we've been doing? What are we doing that for anyway? We always said it's for the boys, but I feel I don't even know my own sons."

So when the new school year started at the end of January 2020, James and Oliver were registered as day boys and travelled home each afternoon. Even more surprising, their parents blocked the weekends as family time and they started doing things together they'd never done before.

Jarrah and Jack remained best mates. They still did everything together, but Jack often found it more difficult to get his friend to go along with his schemes at times. He guessed that was a good thing, but sometimes he would have preferred the old friend. Jarrah came out to his parents shortly after the worst of the bushfire danger had diminished. Both parents were actually quite cool about his revelations. His father did pray for him, but not out of concern for his sexuality. Rather he prayed that his son would find happiness and fulfillment in whatever decisions he made about his life.

The catastrophic Australian bushfires in 2019-2020 burned an estimated 15.6 million acres, destroyed over 1,400 homes, and killed 29 people and an estimated 1 billion animals. However, the country is slowly recovering. Heavy rains in early February 2020 turned black paddocks and bushland green. Unfortunately, in large parts of New South Wales, gale force winds, life-threatening flooding, and landslides have created new dangers. Dorothea Mackellar clearly got it right in her 1908 poem, "My Country."

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!

The good news however, was that much of East Gippsland escaped the worst of the flooding. The rolling hills around East Coast were soon blanketed in newly developing growth. The air was crisp and new buds started growing on the blackened eucalyptus trees. The animals that survived busied themselves with the essential task of recovery. It appears the worst is over for now, at least in this part of the continent. But the long term danger is hard to deny. Anyone who doubts the hazard of Climate Change need only look to what happened in Australia in the summer of 2019-2020. Unlike the old black & white film, "On The Beach" (1959) climate change is no longer science fiction. It has become a reality of life for Jack Harrison, his friends, and the children of that generation. They are the ones who will need to make a life for themselves in the new reality. Unlike the old film, this won't be the end of mankind. But life will, increasingly, become less tolerable and intermixed with moments of extreme terror. Those horrors will be largely determined by where you live and will no doubt include the possibility of extreme floods, super tides and rising sea levels, freezing winter storms, ice, snow, hail, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, swarming locusts, or bushfires. Let's wish future generations the best of luck! It appears they might need it.

The End

Notes for Readers

Australian Kelpies are so much more than mere pets. They are fierce, intelligent, and loyal dogs known for their muscular body and excellent stamina and can be red, black, cream, black, or fawn color. Originally used for herding sheep and cattle, they are born leaders, famous for their independence, and needing little direction from people. They are always on the look out for activities and jobs to keep their clever minds occupied. They do not make good city pets and need the wide-open spaces of the countryside. Since the 2011 film, "Red Dog," and the 2016 sequel "Red Dog: True Blue," many Australian kelpies have been given these names).

Dingoes are not a breed of dog, but more wolf in character and have a deeply ingrained pack mentality, although they do hunt alone also. They are the largest carnivorous predator in Australia and enjoy a wide variety of prey. Aside from an impressive sense of smell, they also have amazing vision and can swivel their heads about 180 degrees. (Humans are limited to 70 degrees at best). Most dingoes are reddish, golden yellow, or sand colored and have a compact body size. Dingo attacks on people are rare, but do happened. Their favorite food is sheep or other small native or domesticated animals. Australian farmers desperate to keep their flocks safe resorted to building a fence in southeastern Australia to keep the dingoes out. The impressive structure is generally considered the longest fence in the world. (Mr. Trump eat your heart out!) It once stretched 8614 kilometers (5352.5 miles), but has since been shortened to 5614 kilometers (3488.4 miles). It costs 10 million Australian dollars a year to maintain, (no, Mexico doesn't pay for it) but is mostly a success at keeping the predators out. The dingo population in the state of Victoria is not high, but they exist and tend to be mixed breed with both dingo and canine DNA

Kangaroo Mob. The description of the kangaroo mob detailed in Chapter 1 is based on a true event that the author witnessed many years ago in the bush when he was Jack's age.

Boong. The word 'boong' is a defamatory word used against Australian Aboriginals, the local equivalent of "Nigger" in the USA. During the 1950's & 1960's it was claimed that people would actually chase Aboriginals off their property with 4-wheel-drives and 'boong' was apparently the sound made when they hit the bull bar of your car.

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