Former boxing trainer and now-retiring promoter Graeme Melbourne talks about how he has been shaped by life
He couldn’t just rip all those old wounds bare, bleed them dry, the chaos of a wayward teen’s bad company, bad choices.
His kids know their dad, this man happily bouncing about as he fishes-out one yarn after another, back and forth across his 66 years, through the heart of his Thurgoona home brimming with the bits and pieces telling tales of love and life and family.
But their version is only that, not Dad’s.
Graeme Melbourne’s strong, soft hands feather the scattered pile for a hazy, washed-out colour pic that fits, then he springs off his kitchen stool to find an early ’80s country music tour poster, some other keepsake, not wanting to lose rhythm as he tries to untangle the tentacles of life.
Yet for his brood, he opens with a surprising candor, there’s only certain things I’ve wanted them to know. The thought pivots, barely given breath, a sense of the infinite nature of his angels on a pin.
Of those multitude of experiences known only to him. No need to get mired in mistakes made large by over-thinking.
They, there’s four of them, don’t know what I’ve done. Because everyone’s got things they’re ashamed of in their life and I know I’m included in that.
He dives in. This husband, father, brother, boxing trainer and promoter, son of Keith (the late country music guru), 1970s itinerant fruit picker; lover of life, wife and wandering their world, he especially imbued with an almost-manic urge to see it all.
He’s a boy from Melbourne’s west who from early on heard stories, told by Dad, of their links to Yackandandah.
Keith was a postman when they lived at St Albans. By the time Graeme was 14 he too was at work because the family – there were six boys and one girl, he the second eldest and his sister the last born – was doing it hard.
Not much good at school and soon it was clear not so great at work, his first job as a telegram boy.
The other remarkable thing about that year, he says, was the arrival of decimal currency. It was 1966
I could never hold a job down. I think I counted them up at the age of 19, just before I turned 20. I had something like 23 jobs in them early days. I never had a trade and I don’t know, I was too fidgety. I guess I didn’t respect the idea of having your own money, of earning your own money.
It wasn’t one job after another, as the numbers would reckon. Sometimes he took a break, putting the time not to good use but a whole lot of mischief.
When he got in with the wrong crowd it was because he’d thrown in yet another job, lasting only a few weeks. Petty crime was his antidote to boredom.
I got into trouble a few times but never got sent to Pentridge or anything like that. But I did get a couple of nights’ free board from time-to-time.
He says it with an easy smile doing the work of a wink.
Sometimes he’d get away with the lark, sometimes not. The stand-out came at 17. He and a questionable mate thought they’d check out a South Melbourne boarding house-type hotel. They happened to wander upstairs, grabbed some souvenirs from residents’ rooms and like a fool I ended up in the city trying to sell a few items.
As he had a go at fencing a camera at a pawnbroker, an off-duty copper appeared, collared the lad and took him back to the Russell Street police headquarters, opposite the old magistrate’s court.
He was being interviewed – not denying anything of course, but not telling the whole truth – when he remembered that bloomin’ alarm clock.
I had it in the lining of my duffle coat. And sure enough, when I was in the police station what would you expect to happen? The bloody alarm went off.
MUM and Dad were his only fear. Not the cops, not a sullied reputation or getting caught. He didn’t worry about that, it happened often enough, but if the desk sergeant said he was going to phone his parents, that you have to come and bail this boy out, the dread would hit.
Being at the northern end of his teenage years wouldn’t stop a hiding from Dad.
He is unsure on why he began to steer away from trouble, aside from the occasional fight at a dance or party. Even then, if you got into a bit of biffo you did it toe-to-toe, armed only with your fists.
It’s not like nowadays when they’re bringing out knives and what-not, totally different, totally different.
Out of that time came a hankering to box. He admits, laughing at himself, that he doesn’t speak much about his career in the ring because it wasn’t very good.
But I have got the claim to fame that I fought at Festival Hall in Melbourne. I think it was 1970 so I would have been 18.
Two bouts, under the eye of trainer Max Pescud in a gym under the Maribyrnong Football Club change rooms, was all he managed.
Looking for excuses, I think I was trained the wrong way. I was trained as what they call a southpaw boxer. For some reason I only discovered later in life it’s not the way I feel comfortable. I was trained the wrong way around.
But the sport was a catalyst for something he had never imagined, after meeting a couple of Aboriginal boys also on the card at Festival Hall. One worked with him for a while at a woolen mill in West Footscray.
This lad, a gifted boxer, kept talking to Graeme about his home up near Mareeba in Far North Queensland, on a mission called Koah on the track to Karanda. Graeme’s itchy feet syndrome, which was to corner him for quite a few years yet, led to the let’s go there suggestion to his new mate.
It was one that opened-up his world yet nearly took him out of it before the year was out.
HE sucks in a lungful, juggles the fight between fright and bravado and plunges into the torrent.
It was an easy, instinctive thing for the others, especially his mate, the one smaller so surely no stronger. But he got across OK and for the return swim sussed it out and trudged upstream. A long way, because if he was going to make it he’d also get dragged back a fair whack.
The lure had been the crispy sweet and slightly sour flesh of the guava fruit, in a mob of trees on the other side of this fast-flowing river forging a way through the tropical haze. The others would simply get in and swim across, nonchalantly picking and feasting til they had their fill. At other times there’d be a bit of fishing or a hunt for bush fruits.
This was their life on the mission, where Graeme had decided to bunk-in for six or so months.
He’d tried to bluff to throw them off the idea this working class city boy would sink like a stone in a bucket of water, but he reckoned they saw right through the charade.
Such foolishness almost killed him.
It was time to get back across, to the mission where he’d already formed some great friendships with a couple of his mate’s uncles. Living a slow life where those on the mission would play cards all day in their houses on stilts, smoking away and pushing the butts through the cracks in the floorboards. If they were broke and needed a smoke, they’d return and gather up the butts in the dirt under the house and put it back in the Drum packet.
On the way back I was gasping. It was the closest I've come to drowning. I went under a few times, I started yelling for help and then as luck would have it there were some rocks coming out off the bank and I managed to stop, thank God, and hang on to them and catch my breath. It's true about your life flashing before you, there's no doubt that. I was in a panic.
Eventually he got the feeling he was sponging-off them all as he didn’t have an income, so he hitchhiked his way back to Yackandandah – helped by a bit of money sent by Dad.
That was where in 1973 I met my wife, June, in the bottom pub in town. We got married in ’74 at the Wangaratta courthouse.
BY about 1986, the family was back in Albury, renting a house around the corner from the Police Citizens Youth Club.
The boys wanted to box, so box they did from about 10. The PCYC trainer left so Graeme stepped into the breach, helping untold numbers of kids develop the skill and love for the sport and leading to his family travelling the country attending national titles.
I never planned on anything like that. But I guess my belief was the sport of boxing is great for confidence building, if handled the right way.
His sons, Caine (an Australian amateur title winner at Alice Springs in 1992), Adam and Joel, have stacked the front of the family home with their trophies, while daughter Lana is joint organiser with her dad of a boxing tournament at Wodonga racecourse on Saturday, May 26.
Before then were years from the late ’70s doing itinerant fruit picking work from Mildura all the way up to Queensland, the time he and his brothers’ band went on their “Wild Whisky Tour” through Central Australia and beyond in ‘81 and their arrival in Bendigo in 1982, where he got the prospecting bug.
A six ounce nugget he unearthed with a cheap metal detector allowed them to upgrade their caravan – their home until they began renting a house a little while before – and a bigger car, the much-derided Leyland P76. Though the car, he says, was a bloody beauty. The previous caravan replaced one that in turn replaced another that was wrecked by corrugated Outback roads.
We left it on the side of the road 25 miles from Oodnadatta because it was bloomin’ battered.
They left the tour early – on which Graeme was renamed Col T. Younger by his brothers, as there were too many blokes named Melbourne on the tour poster – because June wasn’t far off having Joel, who was born in Southport hospital.
Keith had organised a lot of the gigs, some on Aboriginal missions, as he had the contacts from managing country music stars Buddy Williams and his close friend Slim Dusty.
Boxing though is the constant, from the enjoyment of watching kids get trophies after so much hard work to training local footy players with not much skill but plenty of power in their punch. Their hammering of the training pads left Graeme unable to pick up his knife and fork at the dinner table.
The old saying was you could pick the boxer out in the crowd because he’s the most-self-restrained and quietest person, because that’s what it does to them. It teaches them that they know there can always be one person better.