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 Alan Lucas


 By Alan Lucas, SY Soleares

Before the invasion of 4-wheel drives and southern investors, Cooktown was a town of cheap land and unique characters, some weird, some nuts and others plain funny. The local butcher, for example, was as bald as a badger except for one amazingly fertile patch on his scalp where he grew a ponytail. With his head down wrapping meat, the ponytail would surrender to gravity and uncoil like a lazy spring towards the counter at which time he would deftly flick it aloft to resume its role as a sort of toupee covering much less of his baldness than he wanted to believe.

And when leaving the butchery - or any shop for that matter, there was a fair chance of a Russian women standing on the opposite side of the street shouting heavily accented prophesies of doom regarding the Cuban missile crisis. I never did get her drift, but then, I doubt if she did either.

There was also a small sawmill near Cooktown Railway Station where, if you needed a piece of timber, the owner would escort you through his shed describing all the species available, then, on making your choice, he would refuse to sell it because, to quote him on a couple of occasions; 'I can't let you have that piece, I may need it to fix up me shed one day'.

If you were young and female - as a couple of my friends were, camping in the derelict Buffalo's Hall (now the RSL), you were guaranteed a serenade from a dignified gentleman claiming to be a Duke who would daily waylay you on the street, bow, kiss your hand and sing you a love song. He was a thumping bore, but a delightfully well-mannered one.

Another character, memorable for how his employment marked the wonderful lack of progress in Cooktown in the early sixties, was the harbour lamplighter. It is difficult to believe that less than fifty years ago the harbour's two entrance beacons burned kerosene and needed attention twice a day: once every evening to light them and once every morning to blow them out! The gentleman who performed this unusual task lived alone in the old powder magazine and used his lovely clinker rowboat for the job.

One Cooktown story I cannot confirm - but can easily believe, involved an elderly couple living out in the sticks. According to those who knew them, they were mystified by their changed behaviour every time they stayed in town. After a day or two they became inhibited, up tight and took life much more seriously than back on the farm, and could never understand why. One popular theory was that on the farm they ate mushrooms with every meal, never realising that they were of the mind-changing variety very popular in those days with hippies.

The king of Cooktown characters lived on the opposite side of the river, behind Saunders Point. His name was Jack Legg, a fact you could never forgot because his favourite introductory line was; 'Hello, my name's Jack Legg. It has an egg in it, yoke can see that'. And after telling you that he was in the mounted cavalry during World War One, he would add that his name has two Gs in it - 'Gee Gee, that proves I was in the light horse'.

Like so many who had experienced the true horrors of war, Jack preferred to forget, but he sometimes provided insights with off-the-wall humour. When asked if he was in the famous Beersheba charge he went uncharacteristically silent, then said, 'Well, I was presented to the King and Queen. They inspected our line in Buckingham Palace. The King stopped in front of me, looked down at my shoes and said. "Struth, Jack, they're filthy", so I said, 'Give us a go cobber, I've been out fighting the bloody Turks in the mud and the filth, what else would you expect?' At which the King replied, "I understand Jack, but, you know how it is with the Queen, she's a bit houseproud and has just spent all morning vacuuming the palace".

Jack passionately hated Churchill because of the offhand way he 'fed us to the Turks' to take the pressure of his own forces, and he had a similar opinion of all politicians who create wars then send the cream of our youth to get slaughtered while they stay safely at home. His idea of sweet revenge was to live to twice the pension age just to see the government's response when he claimed a double pension.

If anyone had a chance of living to 130, Jack was definitely in the running. He was tough, resilient and full of fun, and thought nothing of walking briskly for hours through bush, marshes and along the northern beaches in search of wild pig. He was a reminder that it takes a special person to live in isolation because, far from being easy, it is one long battle to keep body and soul together. Yet he was often condemned as being a lazy, indolent waster by those of comfortable circumstance. He especially suffered such criticism on the rare days when tourists, up from Cairns on the weekly ferry, would suddenly appear at his shack, peering in as if he were a zoo exhibit.

One group included a truly insufferable urban female who berated him for being a bludger: a burden on the public purse. Not one to suffer fools easily, Jack responded by politely saying, 'Good heavens lady, I'm not here by choice, I have a fatal, contagious disease. I was quarantined here by the Department of Health'.

The look on the lady's face as she swung around and strutted quickly back along the beach, anxiously herding her flock as she went, was one of Jack's most cherished memories. And his telling of the story was his way of assuring cruising yachties that they were different and always welcome. He hated tourists but enjoyed the company of serious travellers and was always wonderful company.

I'm not sure when Jack disappeared, I only remember the shock of finding his shack empty and vandalised during one of my regular visits in the early 1970s. Obviously he didn't make it to twice the pension age, but if you're listening Jack, things were much better in your day, and if you think it was hard being an individual then, now you'd either be heritage listed or evicted as a security threat - unless, of course, you opened your shack to tourists.