There are some people you are forever grateful for knowing and, as time goes on you realise the profound impact they have had on your life and how that has impacted on so many people.
In my life I have been lucky to meet many Aboriginal leaders from Charlie Perkins to Garry Foley, Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine to name a few.
I remember, in the 1970’s going to a meeting with Charlie Perkins and as I was driving away afterwards seeing him being spreadeagled across the bonnet of a police car as the police frisked him. A victim of the then Police harassment of ‘troublemakers’.
I remember speaking at rallies with Garry Foley who I love to this day. That was when the black power movement was in full flight here. “You white #@#***s”! Garry would shout as the sheer charismatic animal magnetism would literally pour out of him, splattering all over the listening crowds. I learned to rabble rouse from Garry and still get a buzz whenever I think of those times!
The speeches of Noel Pearson blow me away! The first time I heard him speak I thought “There goes our first Aboriginal Australian Prime Minister”.
I suppose all that involvement over such a long time beginning at The Wayside Chapel would lead one to believe that I picked up the Aboriginal cause out of meeting those leaders and being motivated by them.
That’s undoubtedly partially true, but my commitment to ‘The Aboriginal Cause’ if you label it like that goes far, far deeper.
It’s driven by my gratitude to one man. I owe him a debt I can never repay.
His name is (or rather was, as he’s dead now) Cliff Lee. He was Aboriginal, hailing from country NSW. He was undoubtedly Alcoholic; Homeless most of the time. He was a street person of Kings Cross. Cliff was short and stocky in stature with a sing song voice that would resonate in the alleyways and byways of The Cross.
I first met Cliff in the early days of my running The Wayside Chapel Crisis Centre there. Cliff would regularly drop by, invariably drunk. He was a member of the stolen generation and had picked up from (I think) the mission schools he would have gone to, how to charm people, particularly the ladies. Cliff would serenade them with speeches and songs of undying love. He’d breeze in and then breeze out, leaving our offices all the bit sadder for his departure.
As I said, Cliffy and I would often talk and share a bit of our lives. Cliff had been taught to write in that beautiful copperplate so beloved of mission schools and one day left me a beautifully written piece on love on the back of a piece of paper that I cherish to this very day. I had it laminated and always stick it above my current desk.
Cliff taught me to drink aftershave. No, I must confess I have never drunk aftershave but he was living proof one could drink it and live! He, more than once turned up smelling of various types of hair oil and I could see he hadn’t used it to part his hair!
I would regularly come across Cliff in a dishevelled state after a night of binge drinking and it was on one of those occasions he, as he came lurching towards me out of the alleyway “Hey Bill. Can I borrow your shoes? “ he slurred, “I wanna go for a walk!”
Cliff had a mate, Garry. Garry was white, Cliffy was black and together they would stumble, argue and drink the days away.
They would come and see me when they needed something. One day Garry was in trouble and needed help to get out of it. Cliff was in a bit of trouble, too; but not as bad and so I put all my efforts into helping Garry.
“You’re helping him and not me because he’s white and I’m black!” came the manipulating statement out of Cliff’s mouth.
Garry exploded at this: “BLACK!…. BLACK!” He retorted “You’re as pink as the Queen’s arsehole!”
There was nothing left to say!
In 1974 my first marriage ended and I was left devastated. I literally did not know what to do. I sat numbly inside the doorway to the block of flats doorway I live in. I did not know what to do. I literally did not know which end was up.
Through the open doorway walked Cliff. Sober as they come. “Oh Bill” he said “I just heard and I’ve come to sit with you”.
And sit with me he did. For ages and ages he sat with me. He’d still be sitting with me if I needed it.
Those sorts of things you never forget and can never repay.
Eventually, I got my life together. Did lots of things in Kings Cross and then went to Theological College and the rest, as they say, is history.
But, while I was away studying, Cliff died. I never expected that as I felt he’d live forever. I didn’t find out for a year or two and someone told me he was buried out Penrith way.
I’m hoping, in some small way with the work I’m doing with Aboriginal people in Redfern and Darwin I can pay Cliff back for the enormous gift of love he gave to me.
I know, in my heart it will never be enough. But I struggle on.
My son was recently in Darwin with me to help in one of the schools i’m involved with. The living conditions of some of the kids there really took him aback. He’s been very silent about it except to tell me how sad it made him feel.
We’ve got SUCH a long way to go, eh?