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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Coincidences, a friend and a tragedy

   The Harrisons arrived in Calliope from Sheffield, England, oh, about 1954 I would say. I think they were Ten Pound Poms and I have no idea how they came to choose our little backwater of civilisation. Mr and Mrs Harrison spoke with that unmistakeable working class accent of that part of the north of England. They didn’t laugh, they ‘laffed’. Funny, that. How come they didn’t talk proper English like us?

   They did their best to fit in, but we must have been as much aliens to them as they were to us. None of us kids would have had the faintest idea what the streets and houses of Sheffield would have looked like, or what it would have been like to play and live in them. No TV there in Calliope, no Coronation Street to give us a clue. Just Calliope and novels set in English boarding schools, not that either would have helped!

   There were six children in the family: June, Glynn, Christine (Tina), Verdon, Lenny and John. Verdon was a couple of years older than I, but in my class at school. The others were short of stature and all had a fiery temperament, but not Verdon, who was gentle by nature and taller than the rest.

   Now I think of it, Verdon’s pint-sized dad was also called Verdon. He was gregarious and cheerful, and at concerts would get a real Music Hall atmosphere going if he got the chance. Maybe, with vivid memories of WWII only a decade old, he was fighting his own sort of war here in nowheresville in the backblocks of colonial Australia.

   Lenny was the toughest of the kids, and one day when the headmaster roared at him, Lenny, aged about 8, put up his fists and wanted to settle the matter man to man. He stood about up to Mr Curtis’s thigh and Old Jim was half amused and half pained by the sight of an enraged Lenny, fists up, ready to do battle regardless of the odds.

   No wonder Hitler didn’t make it in his quest to subdue all those Lennies and Lenores across the Channel just a decade before. They bred endurance into them in Sheffield. We kids were shocked. But Lenny thought better of the fight and ran home.

   The matter was resolved only when peppery Mrs Harrison, closely resembling a bantam hen defending her brood, came marching up to the school and started giving Old Jim a piece of her mind. It was Mrs Curtis who simmered things down by making Mrs Harrison come over to the School house and have tea and a talk, and they left on good terms. Full marks to Mrs Curtis for diplomacy. Lenny was fine after that.

   Verdon and I became best friends and were so for a couple of years. His oldest brother Glynn got an apprenticeship in Brisbane as a jockey, and then towards the end of 1958, the family moved on and into the rather seamy world of the Brisbane racing fraternity.

   I was very sorry to see Verdon go. We had spent many a weekend making go-karts and building canoes out of parts Verdon filched from the sheds on our property. In fact, it almost caused a rift when we took a brand-new piece of roofing iron worth a couple of quid, together with Dad’s best tin-snips, to build a canoe that would, we intended, rival the Bismarck. I had no clue about how to do this, and the plan was all in Verdon’s head.

   Sadly the design was a failure and Verdon scuttled the all-too-well-named Bismarck in the deepest part of the creek, only to be noticed almost immediately by Dad at the bottom of the clear pool, the tin-snips still sitting on the bank.

   Verdon was nearly banned from our place by that incident, but it became irrelevant when they moved. There’s a few lovely stories I could tell of how the Harrisons did and didn’t fit into a place like Calliope, but I’ll leave them for now at least, as there are more sobering things to come to.

   I never saw Verdon again, face to face, after the day they left Calliope. As is usual with kids, the gap closed over, and we simply disappeared from each other’s lives.

   However, I did see him again. I was just a year or so employed at the University of New England here in Armidale, and had gone back to Brisbane in March of 1977 for some brief academic gathering. I was staying with Helen and Michael Nugent, and the 7 o’clock news came on ABC TV.

   It led with a story that chilled me to the bone. The name of the man on the screen, sitting in a hospital bed and looking as if he had seen the Angel of Death, was Verdon Harrison. Now that’s not a common name. I looked at the face. His age was given as 32. Yes, there was no mistaking it. Though I had seen him last when he was about 13, the features were the same. And he surely had stared Death in the face.

   So what was the story? As I heard it on the TV news, Verdon, his father-in-law, Vic Beaver, and his brother-in-law John Hayes went out fishing in Beaver’s nine metre launch on the night of 11 March, out towards the northern tip of Moreton Island in Moreton Bay, off the Queensland coast near Brisbane. 

   In a fishing trip like this one, you would go out early in the evening of a Friday, fish all night, and return the next morning. I’d done similar trips to the bottom end of the Barrier Reef from Gladstone in the 60s when I was teaching there.

   Whether they were fishing or were changing fishing spots I don’t know, but out of the darkness round midnight, a 25 thousand ton Japanese freighter loomed up and smashed the launch to smithereens. A vessel the size of the freighter isn’t all that big compared with the coal and bauxite ships that used to come into Gladstone Harbour, but it’s big enough that the crew of the freighter wouldn’t have had any idea they had run down and sunk a nine metre launch in the dead of night. It simply continued on its way.

   All three men survived the sinking and found themselves clinging to the one floating object in the water nearby – an icechest. Their chances of survival were fair as there was a lot of recreational fishing done in those waters – if they could hang on through the night, that is. They would have to be seen to be rescued.

   But they weren’t in luck. For the remainder of the night and the whole of the next day, and most of the next night, they clung to the icechest, taking it in turns to get into the chest itself, which was partly submerged by its own weight but obviously had reasonable buoyancy. No other boats were around. No-one saw them and they had no means to signal anyone anyway.

   Then at about 4.30 am on the Sunday morning, some 28 hours after their boat was crushed by the freighter, their real terror began. A huge shark that Verdon later described as the largest he had ever seen in real life started nudging the icechest and brushing against their feet. They kicked at it and punched it as hard as they could, but their only weapons were their limbs. The shark was oblivious to their blows. Sensing an easy meal, it lunged at the man reported to be his father-in-law and dragged him clear of the icechest. Verdon tried to hold on to him but had no chance. Nor did Mr Beaver, who was reported as crying out: “It’s got me again. Goodbye mates, this is it.” He then disappeared.

   That would have been bad enough for the survivors, but the shark returned shortly afterwards and started circling round underneath them. Verdon strapped himself by his belt to the icechest and got as far inside it as possible. I can only imagine that Mr Hayes tried his best also to get some protection from it. But the shark took him by the foot and dragged him away. He was also gone.

   The shark did not return and nor did any other come. Not much after an hour later, a fishing vessel came by and picked Verdon up, and when he was taken to hospital he was treated for lacerations to his arm and leg.

   In a way he suffered comparatively little physical injury, but I have spent a lot of time since thinking about the permanent trauma the nightmare incident would have caused him. What would actually have happened in those last few minutes when the shark took the second of the three of them? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Verdon Harrison, with [I presume] his wife.
This would have been at least 24 hrs after the attack.
The TV picture was not so serene. Source acknowledged below 

   I thought of contacting Verdon – of course, not while he was recovering immediately from this tragedy, as it seemed ridiculous after some 20 years out of the blue and in those circumstances. Later, I even got his address and phone number, but could not bring myself to contact him. He must have relived those two days thousands of times in his nightmares or to reporters, and heaven knows how many times he would have had to retell the tale by now – not that I wanted him to. I would really have only wanted to talk about the Calliope days. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Jaws just keeps getting in the way.

   The odd thing is that a while ago, I wanted to tell this story and expected to find plenty of information about it online, as it was incredibly dramatic. But I could find nothing. Then yesterday, I thought that maybe my earlier search was faulty, so I tried again, and found to my surprise that Verdon’s story had featured just a month ago in the Australian’s Magazine. There were other references as well, mainly in databases, now online, of shark attacks. The later stories do not mention any relationship by family and marriage between the three men, so whether that was an error in the original TV report or whether it was untrue or there was a reason not to include it later I can’t say.

   So, are there coincidences? Fate? Kismet? Let’s not start that discussion again…. But it’s strange, isn’t it? How the Harrisons began their new life in a place like Calliope, how Verdon became my friend, how the jockeying career of his brother Glynn took them to Brisbane, how they decided that night to go fishing, how they and the freighter chose a collision course, how after a very long 28 hours the shark found them, and yet just 70 minutes later he was rescued, and how just one of the three survived to tell the tale. And how I happened to be in Brisbane that same night his face appeared on Brisbane TV, and the new references to it surfaced online just a month ago.

   Karma. Cause and effect. It’s nothing more – or less – than the way things are. Intriguing, but no mystery.

   I will never contact my old friend. Some things need to remain as safely stowed as they can be.*

What I didn't know when I wrote this story was that he would contact me.
Some sources


  1. Denis,
    Love your story - keep them coming - will read periodically now I have found your blog - hope you are going to publish what you are writing in a collected form.
    Best wishes.


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