Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

Blue Sky Mine : The Wittenoom Tragedy

Every time I hear Blue Sky Mine by Midnight Oil,  about the Wittenoom mining tragedy, I’m taken back in time.

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Asbestos Warning Sign

To 23 May 1988, to probably the saddest TV interview I have ever seen.

The interview featured on the ABC Four Corners episode called Blue Death.

Blue Death was about the Wittenoom tragedy in Western Australia which was built around a blue asbestos mine (hence the Midnight Oil song title).

Unfortunately, miners were exposed to asbestos and started becoming sick and dying.

Sadly, as this interview illustrated, they weren’t the only ones.

I can see her now. In a hospital bed being interviewed. Her thoughts are on the lingering death of her husband.

And in tears she says, “No-one should die like this.” Sadly that was her fate too.

Out of 20,000 workers and residents, over 2000 have died (See http://www.asbestosdiseases.org.au/the-wittenoom-tragedy.html).

Despite the authorities being aware of the dangers, they didn’t have the power to shut down the mine. Nor did the owners (CSR through its subsidiary Midalco)  itself comply (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSR_Limited#Wittenoom_controversy ).

The Four Corners story was about the fate of miners and residents taking action against the company. The story stated that the company delayed legal action for as long as possible. In the hope that the litigants would not survive.

The most upsetting aspect to me was how the company stayed only focused on shareholder value only.

What worries me  is that this could happen again. And then I read and listened to this…Four degrees should be ok!

 

 

Everyone Failed Social Media : Except Mark Colvin

I knew Mark Colvin (and his kidney!) purely through Twitter! And sad at his loss.

I did read some of his interview transcripts: a gentle questioner able to get a better answer! But in the maelstrom that is Twitter, he came across as funny, intelligent, curious, never ever patronising, clever and subtle, a joy to read.

And his last tweet!!

I think every one failed social media except for Mark Colvin.

Learning Disagreement Skills

Go on, click the angry icon. Share the negative post or tweet.

Slip in and quickly criticise. Tell the other how they got it completely wrong.

They lack intelligence. Common sense. Logic.

Sit back and easily insult the unlike you.

They can’t even think. They’re Inhuman.  We should wipe them out.

Yes it’s so easy to disagree and oppose.  And easiest to offer no solution.

I thinking this as I read each tweet storm. And think even more as I click through each Facebook outbreak outrage.

I realise it is so familiar. For it was exactly the same as my experience.

For at quite close range and for quite a long time, I heard the same words for the same reason.

For to disagree, even silently through to mildly evoked white-hot anger.

Sometimes in despair, I joined in and fully embraced the proferred down spiral.

Until somebody asked, “So how did that work for you Andrew?”

I’d shake my head silent. I said no, it didn’t, it didn’t at all, it made things far worse.

“So what are you going to about it Andrew?”

(How can you make it better?).

There was the beginning of an answer.

I was learning disagreement skills.

Not the “let’s agree to disagree” cliche. That only suspended hostilities for now. And led to a ever widening DMZ!

Be silent Andrew.  Don’t interrupt the the other. Listen to the person behind the words.

Sit stock still Andrew. Don’t move and distract the other. Don’t insult them for not thinking like you.

For no-one thinks like you. Which is a wonderful thing! For everyone and you too.

Ask the question that goes beyond the question. Wait for the answer that reveals another’s truth. Not to you. To them.

Listen and bide your time, then you’ll find that it’s  the time. For the quiet and thoughtful ones to be heard.

Who speak without the intent of crushing free speech. Who speak and listen to encourage freedom of listening.

To enable those who accept truth without question (as you once did) to find their own. And others find theirs.

Otherwise it gets too dark when we all agree not to look for the light.

 

 

Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Exist

Freedom of speech belongs to the loud and aggressive.

Freedom of speech is their cacophony of voices shouting all at once.

Freedom of speech is their smothering words that silences all  other.

Freedom of speech is the preserve of  the crowd that excludes all but them.

Freedom of speech is not our freedom extended to the foreign other.

Freedom of speech is not  our freedom to accommodate a new point of view.

Freedom of speech belongs to  the true listening of the quiet and thoughtful, the ones crushed underfoot.

Suffering Is a Superpower

Bleed out drop by drop,
Breathe out gasp by gasp,
Lose time tick for tock,
And love beat by beat.

Each day darkens upon dark,
Each touch lessens its loss,
I watched my heart disappear,
Shrivelled and dried by fear.

Push me away, slap my face,
Shove me to the wall, that’s my place,
Punch my chest, kick my head,
I fend off the blow. And now I’m dead.

For you’ve found the impetus enough for you,
Though I’ve stopped you, you take your revenge,
I see it double inside you as i double up too,
For many are the offences I could avenge.

I could easily kindle that evil in me,
Take hold of your rage and reciprocate,
Your anger as mine, now pure and clear,
But surrendered to the void of fear.

I know and see that you’ve suffered,
I’ve been racked by your loss unsalved,
If I could, I would offer you comfort,
But I found the healer was killed by the cure.

And now with my heart spent,
I am poured out and empty,
All I have left are questions
To ask of you, one or two, if I may?

Will you let this dissolve you?
As you enjoy the hurt cast on others too,
Now, my question is better said:
Would total revenge be a comfort to you?

Or would it, a second one, if I may ask,
Be a false cure to a pain eternal,
An acid that melts a dying heart,
And bile that burns your mouth?

Perhaps I may suggest an answer,
Diffcult though it may yet be.
A hope perhaps still shrouded
But it may be happening to me.

Out beyond the passing pain,
Lies a desert now watered by rain,
And in it an oasis of comfort and healing,
Where you’ll rest and regain your healing.

And there you will rest and be restored,
There you’ll receive a power conferred,
There you’ll learn to love your suffering,
And that will be the superpower.

An Everlasting Light

The worst doubt drives my fear
Do I really have any light to hold?
When all I have will disappear
Once all I am and was grows cold.


When that light I carry dies out
Another question I'll ask with more doubt
Will I leave the world dark once I go
Or bathe it briefly in an afterglow?


It's unknown. I may be mistaken.
I may be given a gift more bright 
That shines through the dark taken
And live as an everlasting light.

The Last Selfie

The last moments are the scariest, he thought. As he had been told. Apparently you first bob like a cork. Then you are swamped. Then you stretch your arms out to push yourself out of the water. And giving up, your arms and legs climb upward. Then downward. Thus overloaded you sink to the bottom faster than an anchor. So much time to contemplate, he thought.

The wave had already broken and the spray filled the sky. So much power, so much grace, how fortunate to witness. He reached for his phone. But there was no coverage. There’s no one to tell it to now. No photo, no text, could he break into the internet using his thoughts? But there, there was so much bile, cat videos, fake news that would overwhelm his story. Although it might go viral he thought, the last selfie of a drowning man. The channel between him and the point was now frothing green and white. Apparently once you sink to the bottom, it’s like falling asleep and drifting off. He really was annoyed now. He was never going to get his few seconds of fame on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram now. He looked and now the trough was full and flowing towards him. And then the water started building up again. He looked up and saw the spray over arch him again.
A second wave. He assembled the new facts of his predicament with studied detachment resolving to record and relate it for another time. The wave fell and crushed him silent.

Baby Crush

A bald head crowned by a few curls peeks out. Two eyes large and watchful wait and see what I might do.

I’m not moving. I stand silent. I’m a daddy statue.

Tiny hands cover her eyes. She tries to catch my gaze.

No way. I’m having no part of it. Not yet.

She opens them. She peeks carefully at me. Then covers herself with the blanket.

“Peep bo!” The blanket speaks.

That’s my moment. My eyes close. Although I keep the good one only an eighth open. Enough to cheat. Enough not to get caught.

Each time she closes her eyes, I open mine. Each time I see her open her eyes, I close mine!

Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. “Peep Bo!”

“Peep bo!” I say again. Before the blanket went on.

I chuckle as the blanket giggles and rolls on the floor. Then smile at her laughter while she wriggles her way out. Usually she beats me to it. Then as she unwravels…

“Peep Bo!” She got me that time.

The blanket again wraps itself up. It giggles and rolls on the floor. Then she crawls out. And stands a little taller than this morning. Now her jumpsuit is too small for her. But that’s no matter now.

Two arms stretch to the sky. She starts to waggle her fingers. Twinkle twinkle? Yes i’m happy to sing that with her. But no peeking. Otherwise she’ll catch me lip syncing.

Then she stops stock still.

No. I was lucky there. Then not so lucky.

“Jump game.”

Oh no! Daddy workout time.

Arms stretch high. “As high as the sky.”

I squat down. I waddle towards her. I put my shoulders under her arms. Then my hands around her waist.

I lift her up. Until her head is level with mine. Her eyes are already laughing. Daddy’s doing the heavy lifting now.

I stand up and throw her high into the air.

Giggles, then laughter.

I stop just before I let her go. I’m not a dad, I’m an astronaut trainer. Besides she’ll never get vertigo from me!

“Again. High as the sky.”

More deep squats. More overhead presses. My knees ache. My shoulders sing. I sneak a glance at my burden.

She’s frozen in time!! One arm up, one arm out, frozen in a ballet pose.

Carefully I shift her to my stronger arm. I lean forward, most weight pushed backward and draw back the coverlet, sheet and blanket. Then i place her in her bed as if one false move would be the last. She slumps flaccid in her bed. I cover her up. I start to lightly leave…

Her hand finds my finger. And crushes it. I hold my breath. I listen to her breath slow and deep measuring eternity one second at a time.

Yes parenthood is a vocation, it’s not a job. But if someone can tell me how to remove a child’s hand from my finger without waking her, I’d be really grateful!

The Great Blow

I couldn’t feel the heat through my uniform. I couldn’t smell the smoke that made me cough. I couldn’t even hear the roar of the wildfire.

The hell and brimstone I heard preached so often is happening to me.

And I pray. I place myself in front of God, in faith. It’s like the book of Revelations, I’m amongst the elders, all of us importuning him, surrounded by this fire.

I pray some more. But things just get worse. I cannot pray, its no use, he can’t hear me over the praise of the elders and the firestorm’s roar.

Perhaps it would be easier to join those already lost. A fate too hurtful to behold, let alone poorly describe. Men, women, children, even horses and livestock touched then aflame, then blackened to nothing.

But for me it would be a double damnation. It won’t avoid the certain punishment to be levied upon me for sending people to their death.

My charges and I were in windowed wooden coffins. In better times, you would call them train carriages. But with flames underneath and cyclonic gusts around, we were going to be crushed and cremated. All of us in this life and me in the next.

I remember looking at Edward Barry’s locomotive, the box cars filled with the last refugees and the caboose up front. And I thought, if salvation came to them, it would be more painful than to us. But it would be quicker.

And as for mine, I’m in a carriage where no-one can move. Women, children, some men and their belongings piled like sacks of wheat. I know they’re crying, praying, perhaps even screaming. But I can’t hear them over the roar.

And outside! It’s as dark as night from the firestorm’s clouds. Yet I see the dance and weave of Elijah’s fire as it leaps and jumps every which way. White, red, yellow, orange even blue lightning falls from the sky. Sheet, forked, even ball, lightning that is pure flame.

Next to the line, away from the rails, I see burning telegraph poles, no use wiring anyone now, its too late. And stumps, leaves, branches and sawdust too turned to ashes as if struck by lightning. Let alone the torches that are the trees. A fire that never ends. Even Elijah stopped calling down fire from heaven when so entreated.

And I entreat God again. For now I have fallen forward in front of him. I cannot stand in his presence. I ask that if I could stand that it would be in their stead. Lord, my life for their lives. This is all I ask Lord.

Then I could go down to the depths, sure and certain of that one truth. That I have been damned to all eternity for my irresponsibility. And my small comfort, a drop of water on my hell parched tongue, that I saved the lives of my charges.

He sends me from his presence. Perhaps he couldn’t hear me over the fire. Perhaps the elders were praising him and their voices drowned out mine. Perhaps the saviour’s last but one words were true and he really had forsaken me.

I knew how King David felt. He had to choose Absalom’s life or the plagues on his people. I have chosen a plague of fire.

I had always hoped that I’d lose my faith ere the few breaths before I expired. Hopelessly now I list the many ways we could die. For the cyclone could blow us off the track, telegraph poles could hit the train or fallen trees block the track, the locomotive could derail. Or the windows smash and flames fill the carriage. Or we get cremated. Or…

The train quickened up then. We had left Sandstone. Or what would be left of it. The wildfire too started to be left behind. Next is the trestle at Kettle Creek. I hoped that was the sanctuary where those poor unfortunate souls tried to flee. The ones that didn’t board the train at Sandstone and thought they could out run the fire to safety.

Yes I saw along the way that some of them didn’t make it. How they died, words cannot describe. One moment they were running, the next the fire like a rattlesnake took them in its coils.

If we get over that bridge, then there’s a quarter mile or so between us and this wildfire. And then I can start believing again.

But the train stopped. I push myself up, squat, stretch and stand now hoping no one has seen me fall.

My door opens and the dark moves. A charred black brakeman from the freight train. I don’t recognise him. Even though he’s short, squat, much like all of his ilk.

He speaks. I’m relieved. He is a man, alive. He’s no dark phantom sent to haunt me before my demise. I can’t hear him over the roar. Doesn’t he know that? His lips move like a wooden floor groove. He might as well be silent.

I don’t need to hear him. For I know what he will say. He’s about to tell me that we can’t go on. That the caboose, box cars or locomotive in front of us cannot move. The fire has won the race to the Kettle Creek trestle.

I haven’t answered him. In his rising panic, I can only see his gloves as he starts pushing and shoving me backwards and forwards. He’s being insubordinate and I mean to deal with him accordingly. There’s no time for his anger.

I got angry then. Real angry. I mean I should be angry at God but that did Job no good at all. Nope, I’m angry at me.

I grab his overalls and draw him close. He shouts in my ear, “Powers, the Kettle River trestle is alight.”

He’s asking me if we should go on. I’m the conductor and these are my charges. But it’s already too late. Because of me.

This steel and wood trestle is the only way back to Superior. But now the fire has won and it will take all of us.

This was the wildfire that had turned buildings to flames before my eyes. And then melted fireman’s hoses. And had stopped the train from being watered. And had fused the tracks as they left. And now had finally chased us down.

These last two dry and crackling months had sullied the beautiful Minnesota landscape. Hills once peopled with pencil pines, olive and green meadows all competing with each other to catch the passer’s eye were now an ochre treeless desert.

Today, September 1st was so hot I felt I was living in a pan with the lid on. And on the journey to Hinckley, the smoke which looked like a mist at first became thicker and darker until it was as night. And I noticed something queer : sometimes the leaves, and sawdust and branches left by the sawyers were smouldering.

But that didn’t prepare me for what happened when we arrived late afternoon. We weren’t even a quarter of hour by my watch’s reckoning before fire fell from the sky onto Hinckley. Now so many times, on this very railroad line, I’ve seen fire creep through grass and sweep through trees but I never saw anything like that. Or hope to again.

Then the wildfire engulfed the town. People appeared from everywhere, a crushing crowd rushing the train. Men pushing women and children and their baggage just piling on the train in no order at all. Too soon the carriages were full. And there were more people pushing and shoving.

Somewhere in that tumult the freight train arrived. As it soon as it did we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. The heat had melted the turntable.

I don’t know who got it into their heads first, but William Best and Edward Barry and myself took it on ourselves to hook the caboose, three box cars and the loco to my train.

We helped the crowds onto the box cars. It was all women and children as far as I could tell. Any men that made it were infirm. I remember the children crying as if they were my own.

And then it was time to go. Edward Barry sounded the whistle. The train didn’t move. William Best had put on the emergency brake.  I went to see. And he leant out and pointed.

For there was a new crowd of people, scared, wild eyed and pushing forward. Perhaps some of these were from the gravel pit or other parts of town I couldn’t tell in the dark and the noise.

I delayed the train some more. I went forward and helped pile them in the box car. I was lifting children up and over each other. One of the boys, a tall strapping fine fellow, started helping from inside. A couple of the little ones around him joined in. We managed to get all the women and children aboard.

But by then, paint was peeling off the box cars. I ran back to my carriage. I turned and saw grown men falling down as if dead. Only a hundred or so yards away.

“Can you wait?” A woman small, standing there. “My daughter…”

But a clap of thunder silences the roar of the fire. I turn. Buildings are exploding as if dynamited. I didn’t think. I just acted. I grabbed her arm and pulled her aboard. We got out of Hinckley fast enough before the ties and rails melted. It was too late for the rest of them by then.

Now I’m still angry. Not at God. Now there’s a waste of time arguing. For I know he will outlast me. I’m not even angry anymore for letting the train go late. For I’m not doing enough now. And that makes up my mind for me.

The brakeman asks again. He runs back to the locomotive. The train moves forward. I must have nodded.  I was struck silent.

I turn back to my charges. I don’t know what to do. I bowed my head and pray hopelessly. It was the only way I knew how. In the midst of my desperate reverie, I felt a gaze alight on me, like a match struck in the dark. I almost laughed at that ironic thought.

I opened my eyes. The first thing I see is a moving heap of coats and dresses. I squint a little. The two eyes that are its inhabitant stare right through me. She looks the size of a six or seven year old. I’m not much figuring ages that’s my wife’s purview I’m afraid.

A ragamuffin girl, perhaps it’s all the clothes she has ever had. They’re falling off her, a street urchin, skinny, bony, looks like nobody’s orphan to me. She must have sneaked aboard when I was looking the other way.

She speaks. At first I hear nothing over the roar.

She doesn’t have to say it again. For my years of being a train conductor have given me one unsung skill.

“My soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me,” I lip read.

I hear another voice, one that fills the train, a voice that only I can hear now. The one I had been waiting for.

I start to go backward through the train. It seems almost cooler now. Perhaps providence has sent us a breath of air. I straighten my cap, sip the new air and check my watch chain.

I tip toe through the pile of bodies. I’m fearful of waking them up. But more fearful of them drowning or burning in their sleep.

I wake the men, infirm though they are, roughly with a push or shove. Or a squeeze of their shoulder. But I apply no such ministrations to the women or children, though, a touch of the hand is enough.

I look for God’s ragamuffin but she has disappeared. Perhaps she hid herself under a seat. There’s no time now to go a looking for her.

I don’t shout. That moment’s past. I might as well be Job arguing with God when he spoke from the storm.

Then the shudder that we knew would come runs through all of us. The carriages are starting to cross the bridge. I shiver and shudder myself and will the train across each beam of the bridge.

I only found out later that the trestle fell when we were two thousand yards ahead of it. But by then we had made it back. Over more burning trestles that wouldn’t fall.

I had given up on my fear by then.

Call This Love

You call this the essence of love
It's banal and colourless to me
I can't keep the quickened heart
Or hold the lovers silvered eye

You rest in this so complete love
Always too soon it passes me by
And that languid lingering caress
Becomes the swift kiss goodbye

You tag this an endless love
For at the end of that day
When the springs run dry
All but me will walk away

You call it a lost fairy tale love
A fable with a no happy after
And chastened you pack and leave
To seek another temporary shower 

You then call that a desolate love
No rains will stop your thirst
I stay and divine the water lost
For I knew that love from the first.
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