The Red Heart
Living with Danny motivated me to think a lot about a man I never met; his father Lou, who died over thirty years ago. Lou has always been a strong presence, kept alive by the stories that came from Danny and his family – his mother Elsa, his uncles, aunts and old friends. Over twenty four years I gradually pieced together a picture of the man, and it became clear to me that he had the same qualities I loved in Danny; in loving the son, I grew to love the father. Our children always had a special feeling about their grandfather and thought of him as a kind of guardian angel who protected them, such was the power of the man long after his death. All the stories about him were part of our family folklore. We each experienced at different times the grief Danny still feels over his untimely death, a grief that we came to share with him as well as for him.
It also became clear from the stories that Lou was a hero. His heroism had nothing to do with macho posturing or worldly achievements. He was an unassuming man who rarely talked about himself; he lived and died in obscurity, known only to family and friends. I have always believed that altruism is one of the few genuine miracles – generosity of spirit, the decency of ordinary people, the least recognised virtue. As Albert Camus wrote, “the only means of fighting the plague is common decency” and it is interesting that he , like Lou was brought up in conditions of such extreme poverty and hardship that he could be justified in considering such sentiments a bourgeois luxury.
The first glimpse I have is in some ways the most vivid to me. He was a young handsome boy of eighteen who had left his poverty-stricken village outside Venice in Italy to travel to Australia. His destination was a mica mine in the desert called the Billy Hughes mine, 500 kilometres north- east of Alice Springs where his father worked. The conditions in these mines were described as among the harshest on earth. His father had sent him the fare, as he was to do for all the members of the family except one sister.
Arriving in the fierce heat after his long five-day journey by camel from Alice Springs, Lou asked to see his father, whom he hadn’t seen for seven years. To find himself in this dusty wasteland must have seemed like being dropped onto another planet after the tiny green farm village of his birth. In a little while, the message came back – his father wasn’t going to come up until he finished work for the day. The young man walked away and, in the privacy of the desert, wept.
Another story, another glimpse into his heart, has been told to us many times by members of the family: the story of how Lou’s father refused to send the fare for one of Lou’s sisters because she was an unmarried mother, and so had brought shame on the family. In those days, during the Depression, such abandonment could have had serious, even fatal consequences for a young girl with a child.
Back in Italy, Lou’s sister and her baby had been sent in disgrace from the convent because she refused to give her baby up for adoption. She arrived at a bus stop, in a bad storm, twenty kilometres from home. Passers- by took pity on her and gave her a shawl for the baby. Hours later Lou arrived, soaked through; his bike had broken and he had walked the rest of the way carrying it. Once he got them home, the baby was put to sleep in a cradle he had made. In a moral climate where the girl’s sister and other brother beat her because she had brought shame on them, Lou at fifteen showed extraordinary strength of mind and compassion. Years later, this sister, at eighty years of age, told Danny how Lou had saved her life and she wept at the memory.
Lou told his father that all the money he had earned for the last three years from working in the mine was to be for his sister’s fare, even though he knew what his father’s reaction would be. Later on, during the war, his sister and her child safely in Australia with the rest of the family, it was payback time. Lou used to tune in to broadcasts from Italy to hear news and listen to Italian opera, and his father, knowing of this habit, travelled to the authorities and denounced him as a fascist. Lou was arrested and sent to Tatura internment camp for several months until a wealthy woman friend, benefactor to the Italian mica miners, interceded on his behalf and proved the charges false. The Italian community was up in arms against Lou’s father, and one miner even attacked him; such was the strong feeling amongst them at such a betrayal.
It is a measure of the man that, years later, he insisted that his family visit his father every Sunday. I have been to this house in Carlton, now a trendy terrace- house office, where his father and mother spent their last years and the family gathered regularly for rituals like preparing the pasta sauce from the home- grown tomatoes and the annual pig-killing for salami. I can imagine the family history always seething under the rituals of respect. Lou’s mother, from all accounts a strong and saintly woman who suffered terribly at the hands of her husband, never forgave him for the betrayal of their son, not even on her deathbed. There is no doubt from all the stories we heard that Lou genuinely did forgive his father and was a good and considerate son to him in his old age. Such moral grandeur seems out of place in modern times.
Other stories, other fragments. Lou taught himself to read and write English by hurricane lamp at night after the day’s work. There is an article about his commitment to learning in the Melbourne Sun. Around the same time, he took a dying man by camel on a five- day horror trip to Alice Springs in a vain effort to save his life. Rumour had it that the man had contracted syphilis from a donkey and Lou was too embarrassed to tell the hospital authorities. Again, when an Aranda friend of his had the bone pointed at him, he got him drunk and talked to him for hours, saving his life. It is a lovely thing to imagine him with his irrepressible joie de vivre communicating his own urgent love of life to the dying man, jolting him back to life. At the Italian camp, with its camaraderie, the solidarity brought about by the unbelievable working conditions and hardships, he proved himself a man of courage even at that young age. He made lifelong friends from that time, men who would later talk to Danny about him -their abiding love and respect evident in everything they said.
Another glimpse of this young uneducated Italian in the 1930s: his development of a relationship of mutual respect and intimacy with the local Aranda people. Much later he was to tell Danny that Aboriginal society was the only genuinely communist one that he knew of, as they shared everything with one another. He was one of the first white men to be invited to a local initiation ceremony, and he talked about it later to Danny as an important experience for him. In those days, when massacres were still in living memory, and racism was as accepted as the air people breathed, he had his own luminescent view of the world.
I have from Danny a second-hand picture of Lou as a family man; of his tenderness and attention as a father, of how his sons never doubted his love for them even though he was always very strict, of the serious way he set about teaching them to be men. He had the imagination and intelligence to know that he had to do things with them, show them by example. One of his main pieces of advice to Danny was to use his initiative. I saw Danny do the same with his own daughters and heard his father’s voice come down through the years as he patiently answered their questions and played endlessly with them, with that kind of absolute tenderness I have only seen in Italian men. I have first- hand knowledge of Lou’s success as a father because I know of his son. As a major influence on Danny’s life, Lou taught him to be a man in the full sense of the word with all the dimensions of courage and passion, compassion and sensitivity that he thought necessary. In the finest Italian tradition, a man was not afraid to show emotion, to think of others, to be kind and honourable as well as brave.
The glimpses of Lou’s life now become a continuum of stories told to me by Danny, his mother and his brothers: how for instance he wooed and won a beautiful young girl called Elsa who was also Venetian. According to Elsa, years later when she talked to me about him, he was a dashing virile man who could sing all night at parties, a romantic and passionate lover, a faithful husband and, though very strict, loving to her and their sons. He obviously took his duties as husband and father, in his old-fashioned way, very seriously. Like Danny he was hot-tempered and stubborn.
Looking at this life from an outsider’s point of view, his uniqueness lies in this fact. That although he was in many ways a traditional man of his time and social class, his habit of independent thought, developed from an early age, allowed him to apply logic to all the situations he found himself in. In thinking things through so clearly, he was also able to stay true to the conclusions he reached. There was another dimension to this intelligence, a quality I can only call grace. This logic wasn’t the cold, mean-spirited, kind that makes selfishness or greed into a virtue or becomes just another dogmatism in its narrowness. In evaluating a person or an event in his life, the Aranda people he met, or his father’s brutality, his sister’s plight or his fatherhood, his reactions, it seems to me were not only supremely logical but also tempered with this grace, born of the compassion and imagination so central to his natural humanity. This seriousness and consistency of purpose runs through his life like a line of fire, and others recognised it in him. I have talked to a large number of people through the years, both family and friends, and it is clear they still considered him a hero, the man they went to for advice, a man who in some way or another had had an important influence in the direction of their lives.
Lou and Elsa married and had two sons in Melbourne, Leo and Roy, before they made the decision to move back up to the Harts Range to a mine called the Last Chance. Elsa was to remember it as the best time of her life, the companionship and fun of the Italian mining community far outweighing the hardships of heat, snakes and isolation. This view was echoed by everyone who worked there in those three or four years. Their third son, Danny, was born in 48- degree heat at the Alice Springs hospital ,and they travelled back to the camp with their new baby to be greeted by a grand celebration of music, a feast and dancing to welcome them home.
When Danny was three they moved, finally, back to Melbourne.
One of Danny’s most vivid memories of his childhood in Melbourne was the shooting expeditions he went on with his father and a group of his Italian friends. He was the only son who could get up at dawn, so it was usually only Danny who came and he enjoyed the chance of having his father to himself. The strict rules about guns, the tacit expectation of absolutely impeccable behaviour, the pleasure of being with a group of men and especially his father, the bush in the early morning, the excitement of the pointer dogs: all this was always associated with his father and the pleasure Danny took in his company. Lou was a man who delighted in the physical world; he designed and made all kinds of devices and tools, preparing his own gunshot, making furniture and teaching his sons as he went. He was always conscious of the importance of family and was happy in their company. There were regular family picnics in Melbourne parks: huge, typically Italian affairs with sixty or seventy people attending. They sat under the trees at tables covered with white tablecloths, and feasted, drank wine and sang until dark. These were picnics that Danny remembers nostalgically as breaks from a quiet suburban working- class life, picnics he recognised much later in movies like Amarcord.
At forty-six, out of the blue, Lou was made redundant, an event that was still unusual and a matter of shame in those far-off days before redundancies became a way of life. This was very hard for him, a traditional working man who had always made his own way and supported his family. He went to Adelaide to try to find some work and died there of a heart attack, away from his family, at the home of one of his closest friends. Danny had made a guitar on his father’s work-bench after seeing an Elvis film, and was looking forward to showing it to his father when he returned that night. I feel that in some ways he has never stopped grieving his father: that afternoon at sixteen years, his life changed permanently. At the funeral, the church overflowed with mourners who spilled out into the street. They came from all over Australia to show their respect.
Years later at a family gathering I saw a lurching, grainy home movie that showed several minutes of Lou walking up a garden path. It was strange to see him in the flesh, as it were. It was as if I already knew the stocky, serious, handsome man up there on the screen. In that brief time I saw with a shock of recognition the way he bent to examine something – a stone, a flower – with all the tender concentration I knew in his son. In that instant I saw him as a man vividly in the present, and recognised Danny’s ability to focus absolutely on whatever has stirred his curiosity, irrespective of what is going on around him.
Thus it is, my strange relationship with the father-in-law I never knew, who is nevertheless part of my life. The beautiful boy weeping on the desert hillside, the courageous young man defying his father to protect his sister, the mature man stopping to examine something with alert and tender curiosity, the hardworking miner, the father filled with love for his sons. The young man alone in the tent at night learning English, the boy walking through the rain to bring his disgraced sister home, the lifelong Labour voter interested in social justice for the Aboriginal people, the romantic lover. The uneducated, irreligious Italian migrant, whose grasp of ethics, of how to live an honourable life, was as rigorous as that of anyone I know, the man who could sing the songs of his homeland all night with his friends, the man who did what he knew was right at considerable cost to himself, without ostentation or righteousness.
These are all glimpses, images fleeting as smoke. There is no way I can guess at the man’s inner life, or who he really was: whether, for instance, he would have approved of me as a daughter-in-law, or how we would have got on. But I feel close to him through his son, however presumptuous that might be, and believe that he has also helped to teach me, his daughter-in-law, and our children as well. His life was like a flame that warmed all our lives.
After I wrote the foregoing piece, Danny was awarded an Australian Film Commission Writer-Director Fellowship to make a film about
his father. He decided to return to the place of his birth in search of the facts of his father’s life there, and, as luck would have it, he needed a personal assistant.
In Alice Springs we met and interviewed some of the old Italian mica miners who had retired there. One woman told us that Lou had lent her the fare to Melbourne, though she had never met him before. We talked to an elder of the local Attijere community, Tony Petrick, who remembered walking up to the Billy Hughes mine as a small boy and eating the ‘fabulous tucker’ made by the Italian women. The ‘mad Italians’ were remembered by everyone we spoke to with affection and respect.
Our intention in going to the Northern Territory was to visit the Billy Hughes mine, where Lou had arrived at 18, and then to travel around the rest of the Harts Range, where he had spent the next 20 years. Above all, though, we wanted to find the Last Chance mine, which he had loved so much, and where Danny had lived until he was three.
Danny had researched for months beforehand and we knew that the Billy Hughes was remote and inaccessible, on the side of a mountain somewhere in the desert, but that there was a track of sorts leading to it. The Last Chance was another proposition altogether, as it no longer appeared on current maps and no one knew exactly where it was – not even the farmer who owned the vast station it was lost in. Everyone said that if by some million-to-one chance we found it there would be nothing there, except perhaps the mica tailings and maybe the concrete base for the tent Lou had poured 48 years ago.
The walk to the Billy Hughes mine turned out to be one of the most extraordinary I have ever been on. We took our trusty four-wheel-drive up the foothills of Mt Palmer but the steep track was like a creekbed, scattered with boulders, and we had to abandon the vehicle after a few nerve-racking hours. We camped for a freezing night on a bleak slope with the wind howling until dawn. The next morning we set out on foot. The track wound further and further upwards, and every time we reached a crest, another range of those wild red hills stretched to the horizon. We thought it would never end as we stumbled up in the heat, tripping over the rocks, the slopes plummeting away to wild gullies wherever we looked.
We were also in a state of utter disbelief. How had the miners brought the mica down in their clapped-out, 1930s truck, how had they eaten, how had they lived? They themselves had built the track, which they called the Burma Road, an engineering miracle in itself. It was hard enough climbing it with light packs on our backs but we knew they had brought up huge old heavy compressors and all the other gear, and that they had carried down 37,000 kilograms of mica from the mine. Those Italian peasant farmers had sweated and toiled in unendurable heat, in a wilderness without human habitation, water or greenery, and they had done it for years. There was only heat, brown rocks and scrubby trees – nothing moved except the wind. And yet the landscape was utterly radiant. The smell of warm rock and sweet air, the miles of endless nothingness wherever you looked, became more and more hypnotic.
When we finally reached the Billy Hughes mineshaft, which descended into impenetrable darkness, we recognised it by the great spill of glittering mica spewed down its side. It was like being on the roof of the world. Range upon range of blue fairyland stretched for thousands of kilometres: 360 degrees of unbroken horizon in a magically beautiful vista. We made out two tiny glinting specks in that vast distance – the Harts Range police station and the leafy Attijere Aboriginal community – in a landscape otherwise bare of any sign of human life. Danny’s father and his father before him had worked this mine for years; we were both overcome by the sheer impossibility of the life they must have led there.
Soon we became frighteningly lost – it took just one wrong turn and suddenly all the steep slopes looked the same. Our water was low and we were very hot. Luckily our trusty compass and the sighting of another mica mine which we assumed was the Caruso gave us our bearings again. As we climbed up the gully trying not to panic, I fully understood why outback Australians we met had such a laconic respect for the place: theirs is a visceral understanding of how quickly you can die if you lose your nerve. (Tony Petrick told us later that he was on his way up to find us, because he’d forgotten to mention how dangerous the old mine- shafts were!) Danny twisted his ankle; and we beat an undignified and painful retreat; he leaning on my shoulder as we limped the seven kilometres back to the van, trying to get there before dark.
A few days later we set out on the centrepiece of the whole expedition: to find the Last Chance mine, abandoned since 1950. We knew from old maps and Danny’s uncle that it was somewhere in the middle of the badlands by the Simpson Desert. Everyone had warned us not to go anywhere on foot without compass, hat and water, and to leave our names at the police station. It was a region that stretched for hundreds of kilometres without signposts or roads, only sandy, barely discernible tracks which branched off mysteriously into the hills. The only way we could work out directions was by the bores, by the occasional cattle run and by compass bearings, as all the maps were different. We went down the Eaglebeak Mountain track, through strange low ranges, sand and mulga; patches of red earth and the glitter of quartz the only colours. It was the most unutterably remote, ancient place and made even the Billy Hughes seem tame. It was so easy to imagine simply disappearing there without anyone knowing or caring. It was like being on the mountains of the moon and as impersonal and primal. You were entering another time- zone where humans were as temporary, insignificant and meaningless as the stones or the mulga.
We knew from old maps that there were other mica mines around with names like Desperate and Last Hope. It gave new meaning to looking for a needle in a haystack as the monotonous ranges unfolded endlessly. We could only travel through the sand at 20ks an hour and made several wrong turns, at one stage driving for an hour straight towards the Simpson Desert before we realised our mistake. The only break in the visual monotony was the glitter of quartz in the heat. Some of the turnings we had to take were like animal tracks, so light, overgrown and impermanent they seemed. We finally reached the bore we were looking for and camped for the night. The next morning we travelled back and forth along the track trying to work out where to go. We took the four-wheel-drive off the track at what we thought was the right spot, parked and began our walk into the wilderness, dragging a stick behind us like Hansel and Gretel as an added precaution. We saw the glint of what looked like mica on a low hill ahead and kept trudging on through the sand for a couple of kilometres, always mindful of a wrong turning.
Then suddenly and unexpectedly, below the hill where we had first seen the mica, we stumbled on the camp. It was like finding a miniature lost city deep in a jungle. It was such a miracle that we began running around ecstatically, shouting out each discovery, laughing and crying, filming it, thrilled as children. Scattered everywhere were the remains of the miners’ life:, wine bottles, the stone forge still standing, corrugated iron, tins, tools like jacks and braces, even the mining bucket Lou had made himself on the forge. All the paraphernalia of the mine and the camp were there preserved for forty years in the pure desert air. It was as though everyone had only just left, their presence was still so vivid.
Danny kept seeing his father’s handiwork everywhere, and we couldn’t stop marvelling at their ingenuity in the middle of such isolation and hardship. I felt tenderness and respect for my mother-in-law who had always loved the place so much Apparently she used to sing opera so loudly that the men could hear it in the mine when they were working. She raised her boys here for three years, and as the only woman, was always treated with much appreciation and respect. We found the concrete pad Lou had poured for their tent, we saw the remains of the little structures they had lived in, the signs of domesticity-tobacco tins which Danny recognised as Lou’s brand, saucepans, a tin made into a flour- shaker.
It was like an oasis. Birds were calling, the air was fresh and sweet, and in the complete stillness of the desert, red ranges stretched peacefully as far as the eye could see. Sitting there in the sun beside the mine that Lou and his mates had worked so long ago, gazing down onto the little camp, we both understood for the first time why the years he spent there were the happiest of his life. It had always been easy to imagine the terrible conditions they lived and worked in, but it wasn’t until we were there that we could actually feel in everything around us the spiritual satisfaction of such a life.
It became clear that the landscape had shaped them just as it had the Aranda people, not only by its extreme harshness, but also by the primal peacefulness and spirituality. Here in a wilderness unscarred by civilisation they learnt to survive by themselves and evolve their own rules, surrounded and refreshed by the beauty and clarity of the desert. Lou as leader of the camp had proved that it was possible to do this with style and harmony, in contrast to the brutal reign of his father at the Billy Hughes. He had achieved the universal human dream – a little kingdom of his own in the middle of a desert, an improbable utopia. At the Last Chance they succeeded, if only for a few years, in banishing the ghosts of the past-extreme poverty, oppressive fathers and society, the suffering they had each undergone-and to live in peace.
I could almost hear the notes of opera drifting up to where we were sitting, the sounds of children playing, the laughter and jokes, the sweetness of the few leisure hours after the day’s work as they sang and told stories around the fire in the desert night.
We made our way back to the van at sunset, following our squiggly line in the sand, and carrying Lou’s mining bucket awkwardly between us. He had made it himself on the camp forge, adding a decorative flourish on the sturdy handle. It had also been mended carefully with wire and looked as if it had served the miners for years before they left it under a tree for us. In the same way, finding the Last Chance had been like breaking open a time capsule miraculously preserved in the desert. The past that flooded out on us was as fresh and strong as if it had happened yesterday, and we both felt very emotional.
In the end , the memory of a person, the final essence that remains, is made up of strangely disconnected images, like an impressionistic painting, glimpses shining out through the fog of the past. These glimpses, a story here, a split-second image there, add to that essence in a way that makes nonsense of worldly evaluations about how much money they made, how ‘well’ they did, for they assume a moral dimension. In a way, the processes of memory are as inexorable and terrible as the religious concept of divine retribution. During a lifetime, a person’s actions, these glimpses, slowly and silently contribute to this final and inalterable measure of a life. There are a few people whose lives have been lived with grace, and whose lives are a reflection of this grace.
In making the trip in search of his father, Danny was able to confirm his own memories: that Lou belonged to that rare category. Every fact he unearthed, every person he spoke to was further evidence that his father was intelligent, courageous and had remained all his life a good and honourable man. As we walked back across the desert, it felt like both a completion and a beginning. I had an almost visceral sense of Lou’s presence beside his son, their suffering and love, a memory as evanescent and enduring as water, the generations of fathers and sons widening out in time like ripples in a pool.
reprinted from: The Red Heart by Rosie Scott. Random House, 1999