The Day the Croc got out.
Conky was a giant of a man and worked on the Council with my Dad. He lived over the other side of the cricket field from our house and my brother and I spent most days after school roaming the country side with Cecil who was Conky’s son. Conky drove the fuel truck that delivered the diesel out to the graders which worked on the roads right through the dry and then spent the wet parked in the Council yard at the other end of town. To impress us kids Conky used to invite us to try and move a drum of diesel but even with the three of us pushing we couldn’t even rock those 44’s. I realise now that a 44 gallon drum of diesel must have weighed over 200 kilograms. Then Conky would laugh, a great rumble that shook his belly and turned his face into a white flash of teeth, put his great arms around the drum and lift it up onto the back of the truck. We knew this was pretty impressive because we had seen the looks on other people’s faces when he did it.
Conky lived in town in a Council house and Cecil went to school with us which was a bit odd because the black’s camp was about half a mile out of town and none of the other black kids went to school. Mum said it was because Conky came from Thursday Island and TI’s were different from the blacks which we knew was true because the blacks were not much bigger than us kids and no where near as black as Conky. And anyway Conky was bigger than anyone else in town so he couldn’t have been a black. Not that we cared because Cecil’s mum, who was almost as big as Conky, cooked the best bread in town and some how we always managed to be around when the bread came out. The hot crust with butter melted through it was heaven.
Normanton seemed to go to sleep in summer. The wide dusty streets scarcely stirred during the day and even the dogs retreated under the houses. An occasional willy-willy eddied the dust and moved scraps of paper around and, just before the wet, black clouds would heap up in the Gulf to the north each evening. Sometimes at night fall we would be treated to a devastating display of sheet and chain lightning, an astral fireworks that preceded by many weeks any real rain.
That summer seemed much the same as the last. We explored further away from home and further out of town so we had new country to add to our territory. I guess we were a bit older and Mum did not worry so much about where we were. Summer was always quiet around town. Some families went down to the coast for Christmas so of the thirty or so kids at school, there were only a few around. Sometimes we went down to the creek to swim and row around in the tin canoe, other times we went down to the river to fish but mostly we just roamed the country. From time to time when we were feeling daring we went down to the black’s camp.
This was always a big adventure and one that we never told Mum or Dad about for the very good reason that going near that camp was very much forbidden. Usually just the three of us went, Cecil, my brother and me. The black’s camp was a mile out of town on the edge of the salt flats that were occasionally flooded when a big tide came up the river. There was a dozen or so humpies made out of old corrugated iron, bags and flattened four gallon kerosene tins. Smoke always seemed to be coming out of some fire or other and there never seemed to be any one there but old men, gins and kids.
Rather than follow the track we would circle around and sneak up close through the rubber vines. The black kids always seemed to know we were there but they never did anything or told their parents. We would then start to throw small stones onto the tin roofs of the humpies until, in exasperation, one of the gins would come out, pick up a stick and chase us. Of course in our minds the stick was always a spear and fear would lend speed to our feet. The black kids followed this chase through the rubber vines yelling and screaming with laughter. Long after the gin had given up the chase the kids would follow us right back to the edge of town which was as far as they would go. We did not like to talk to them because if we did we knew some one would tell our parents and then we would be in trouble. But some how it seemed companionable as we walked back to town followed about twenty yards behind by this chattering and giggling group, and I guess we both knew some how that the edge of town was the boundary between their world and ours until we next dared to sneak through the rubber vines.
Some days we went up to play with the Kelly kids. There were eight Kelly kids and six of them had webbed hands and feet which seemed to us to give them an unfair advantage when it came to cricket or swimming. Mum said it was because they had married a bit close in the family but we were not really sure what this meant. Nor were Mum or Dad too keen on us going down to the Kelly’s, they did not actually say anything but we knew that they did not really want us going down there. It was probably because old man Kelly got drunk quite often but that never worried us. If we were around when he came home, the Kelly kids would tip us off ; Dad’s plastered, watch yourself, and this would mean that if he was in a good mood we might get sixpence to go down to the shop for licorice for us all. If he was in a bad mood we would make ourselves scarce fast.
That day we were home early, Mr. Kelly had come home drunk and in a bad mood so we had taken off. Mr. Kelly only got drunk on Fridays and Saturdays and Dad was still at work so it must have been a Friday. When Dad drove in he blew the horn which was unusual enough for us to come running. He and Conky climbed out of the big International ute with smiles all over their faces and told us to have a look in the back.
And there it was, a crocodile, all seven or eight feet of it lying in the back of the Inter.
It seemed very dead and cautiously we climbed up for a closer look and to poke and prod at it. Dad said he had shot it while they were coming across the river and that Conky had jumped in and dragged it up onto the punt. The punt was the only way to cross the river if you were driving down to or coming back from Karumba. That part of the river was also one of our favourite fishing areas so it was pretty exciting for us to realise that the crocs were coming in that close to town.
Conky had gone off home and Dad had gone inside for his after work cup of tea, leaving the three of us gazing admiringly at the dead crocodile and, when we got up the nerve, reaching down and touching it. Cecil reckoned he saw it move which made my brother hurriedly climb down. I just laughed and with some bravado climbed into the back of the Inter and gave that old croc a push with my foot. The trouble was when I did that it really did move. It seemed to take an instant before we were down off that truck and in the kitchen all yelling at Dad that it was still alive. By the time we got back out to the truck there was no doubt at all, it was very much alive and very unhappy, which I suppose was quite reasonable since it had a bullet in its head somewhere. Every time anyone went near the back of the truck it would lash and lunge at the side of the steel tray with such violence that it seemed like it would go straight through the side.
Mum was busy trying to keep the three of us kids away from the truck and with all the yelling Conky had arrived to see what was going on. He had a look over the side of the tray so the croc promptly took a lunge at him. He jumped back so sharply that he fell over the garden bed and the look on his face started Dad laughing. Mum did not think it was very funny at all and suggested that they shoot the thing before it got out and ran amuck down the main street. Not that I thought that this would be a problem since the only thing in danger in the main street would be snoozing dogs and cats, but perhaps if it got up the steps and into the pub there would be some consternation.
While this was a good suggestion from Mum and greeted with enthusiasm by the three of us, it soon turned out to be an unsuitable solution to our crocodile problem. Dad said that the petrol tank of the ute was right below the tray and that, while he did not mind shooting a hole in the back of the council ute, he was not too keen on the whole lot blowing up. The next suggestion was for Conky to drag it out by the tail so Dad could shoot it but Conky would not be talked into that idea. I then suggested that we just leave it there until it died of hunger with the thought in the back of my mind that I could feed it in secret and have it around as long as I liked. This idea appealed to me and I was filled with visions of a tame eight foot crocodile that I could lead around on a leash striking terror into the hearts of my enemies.
Mum and Dad just ignored my solution.
The answer when it came was simple. We would drive the ute back down to the river, reverse up to the edge and open the tail gate. The croc would surely make a bee line for the water. By now it was dusk so it would just have to spend the night in the truck and at first light we would be off to the river which seemed to us to be a pretty exhilarating way to start a weekend.
There was a hitch in our plans, when we got up in the morning it was gone. We spent all day furtively looking under houses until we had gone through the town at least twice but we never saw the croc again. Mum and Dad would not let us tell anyone about the croc that got away. All we could do was wonder when ever someone was looking for their lost dog. And Conky told us a week later that old man Kelly was off the grog; when he got home on Friday night after the evening session, he was white and shaking and stone cold sober and swore he was never going to touch another drop - in his words he had seen “somethin’ orfull” on his way home from the pub.