Wiradjuri elder Aunty Nancy Rooke is grateful for her tough lessons in life
IT’D belt over hills, down gullies, piercing the shame, the rough-hewn beauty and sand-soaked ugliness of it all.
Someone’s hollering. Kids grab babies. Run, run!
Lithe, light-footed; bare soles scattering the mob into the bush, just away from this secret place.
They’d stay out here all day, watching in whispers as the men in the big black car descended.
Waiting for them to search, snatch, disappear.
Such brutal authority left nothing to reason. Two small boys, no older than 2 or 3. Chosen, bundled in, crying through the back window at their mother. She chases, wails; a mortal jumble of hopelessness and fear.
They were strangers to these other rejected folk, but no matter; they had an equally unjust entitlement to a cruelty unleashed because of the colour of their skin.
It seared forever into Nancy Rooke’s mind, that day decades ago when they heard the racket. And when they saw the car, at the bottom of the hill, they knew what it meant.
The world was at war but this was a far more intimate experience of loss, one they had been consigned to long before, this white man’s curse of control.
“Just keeping their little hand on us.”
A couple of old men and all these women and children. Most of the men were at work, or had already gone off to war.
Don’t ever go into town. Look down, know your place. Except when you’re ready to die for your nation.
Nothing else existed except work, work, work.
These kids, nine-year-old Nancy (she might have been 8), didn’t go to school. Because “they didn’t think we were worth it. We’d all end up, you know, as cooks and bottle washers. As they used to say in the old days.”
In the callousness and indifference Wiradjuri elder Aunty Nancy found reason, saw the value in being kind, the strength and reassurance of her own elders’ strict yet all-encompassing embrace of sharing, compassion and rules by which to live.
“I don’t resent it, because that was how it was in those days,” she says.
“It was just a way of life.”
How she can laugh at what those faceless men unleashed might be puzzling in the absence of a wider story, of a childhood peculiar to her world.
Around the time of the theft of those boys, police entered the mission-style camp, on the outskirts of town, when the Murrumbidgee River still had a mighty flow as it snaked past Narrandera.
Nancy had a dog, someone else had a couple.
About half a dozen were rounded up. And then they were shot. She remembers the animals “screaming and blood coming out of them”.
The coppers turned to this little girl as she began to scream and cry, one warning: “If you don’t be quiet we’ll do the same with you.”
So, she says – chuckling in amazement, eyes flickering, as it crystallises, so gobsmackingly clear and unsettling – “we ran for our lives”.
What surprises is they all survived such tough times; her grandmother Martha, her mother, Annie, “and poor old Dad, of course”.
Bert Scott couldn’t settle after the war.
He would spend the rest of his days wandering, in the reassuringly isolated world of a drover.
But the river delivered, the old men snared kangaroos, rabbits were a great delicacy.
A community garden defied the dust and gave the kids a distraction.
They’d pick ripe carrots, “pull ‘em out, eat them” and push the tops back into the ground.
It was good of them rabbits, “the old girls used to say”, to clean up after themselves.
OH, for Martha, God could save her soul, listen to her prayers, give her hope of deliverance for the terrible mistreatment of her people.
She was a proper Christian woman, not just a “go to church on Sundays-type”, granddaughter Nancy says, her left fist drawn to her heart.
But Martha Glyde’s faith couldn’t save her from discrimination.
The death of her mother left Martha with a father who couldn’t cope. She came under the wing of a Reverend Watson, who took her to Wellington, near Dubbo, and gave her an education.
And yet she and her beau had to flee across the Tasman – “one of those big ships”, she’d say – to exchange their vows. Marriage was fine in the land of the long white cloud, but not back in Narrandera where she was born on a station outside town.
It was a stark reality for an Aboriginal woman.
When Bert went to war it forced Nancy’s mum, Annie Scott, to leave home too, scraping by for years as a shearers’ cook.
And so grandmother became mother and father to the girl, who was just four when hostilities opened in World War II.
Before he took off, Bert managed to build a one-bedroom hut, a fancy, up-market place compared with others’ tents tentatively anchored in the sand hills. No door, just a hessian bag, and a dirt floor. A couple of fuel drums for furniture and old tins cut-up then fastened for the walls.
“One of the old fellas then built a house so everybody started to think ‘yeah, this is good’,” Nancy says.
“And so it was a scramble over at the tip to get the tin. Us kids had to flatten it out.”
No electricity, no comforts. Drink from the river, bathe in the river, but don’t swim in the treacherous drink by yourself. Candles and kerosene lanterns. Yet Nancy Rooke feels nothing but gratitude for those times, especially for the cultural guidance of the elders, who had to be obeyed, always.
“The old ladies and the old men, they were kind people. You could go into any place and they’d give whatever they had to eat and drink. Everybody used to share, everybody.”
At times, the elders had their fun with the kids. Once it was a ruse where if they behaved they might get some lollies “when the ship comes home in the middle of the week”. Nancy and her mates sat on the river bank each day waiting for that ship. And then a “daggy old tinnie” bobbed around the bend.
They splashed in and got on board, but the boat kept drifting with the strong current. Four or five kids, saved only when an old river man called Jimmy Stanley dived in and dragged them to shore.
“Well, didn’t we cop it off the oldies then.”
Sometimes talk about bunyips and “the reed women” was enough to leave them shaking.
Bert wouldn’t cop the discrimination. Years later, on returning home from the war, he went into a pub back home with an Army pal.
This “old villain, that fella”, had the form. His war records were found and showed how once he was put into jail, what they called “the boob” - for riding a donkey through the sergeant’s mess, having drunk himself into a merry state.
But when he and an Aboriginal digger went into that bar, the message was simple – you can be served, but your mate can’t.
“So Dad said ‘be damned, he spent time in Egypt with me’. He jumped over the bar, served him and said ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Mum used to say ‘oh Bert, behave yourself’.”
THE Salvos blew in every Sunday to blindly give redemption, days later to mend clothes.
An organ was perched on the back of the old Ford truck so Nancy and her friends would “sing our little hearts out”. That was when they weren’t being baptised in the river, again, then again and again.
Five times wasn’t unusual, for when they replied “nup” they’d get another dunking and then reap the reward “of a big feed after. We just had a lovely time.”
On the next visit the organ would be gone so the sight was of “the old girls up there going hard on that sewing machine”.
It was a difficult but immensely rich life that “made me a better person, I tell you”.
“It’s enabled me to bring up healthy, happy, well-educated kids and grandchildren. (She has six children, 25 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren, with two more due in 2018).
“And along the way I’ve tried to do my best by helping people out.”
These were times of austerity but also the joy of catching glimpses of her grandmother up late at night in that raggedy hut, reading people’s letters for them by candlelight.
The kindness and sense of doing right was carried in the elders’ oral tradition.
“We were always told stories about the stars of the campfires of heaven. We had to do good down here before we 'd go up there, because our spirit guide would not take us.
“If we went up there and did the wrong thing down here, we would just roam forever. We would never find our campfires. It kept us on the straight and narrow.”
She hangs on to a saying, from her relative the late Eddie Kneebone, on how to live with the horrors of past injustices.
“I find that if you keep looking back you’re going to fall over, aren’t you?”