Sunday, May 15, 2011
The White Russians of Yarwun (pt 4)
My third and final story relates to vodka. I said previously that the Russian community was very law abiding, and that was true. But that didn’t mean they were angels. On the contrary, my sister Lyn had an encounter I had no idea about until the subject of the Yarwun Russians came up just yesterday. I'll let her tell the story as it's very much hers.
It was on one of our Sunday trips to the Calliope River to fish on the downside of the bridge, and watch the water skiing above the bridge. The family, Dad, Mum, Kay, you and I were there, Jan being in Brisbane at the time, I think. We were parked in our usual spot below the bridge, in the shade of a big old gum tree.
My efforts at catching anything had been totally unsuccessful, and I wasn't all that interested in the skiing, either, so had returned to the car to await everyone's return.
I had noticed a group of Russian people just over from where we were parked, and there was a fair bit of loud talking and carry on. I was leaning against our car when I saw a solidly built young Russian man, definitely under the influence of strong drink, eyeing me off. He moved unsteadily towards our car and my heart started to beat a bit faster, as I thought, 'Oh no! Don't tell me he is coming over here.'
I looked round, but no-one was in sight, and the unsteady Russian with a big lop-sided grin walked crabwise over to our car. All I could think of to do was to slide along the side of the car. Perhaps I would be out of his bleary vision and he would lurch off somewhere else. He didn't! He just kept slowly maneuvering around the car as I desperately inched my way round, and though, recalling it, it must have been highly amusing to any onlooker, I was not one bit amused.
I'm not sure how many circuits we completed before I heard the welcome sounds of the returning fishing party. They all broke into large smiles at my obvious plight, but Dad's voice had the effect of sending the young man back to his own party - to my immense relief! I did get a bit of ribbing for a time afterwards, particularly from Kay, who had quite a sparkle in those eyes whenever she spoke of it.
So there was one strong tradition which had no doubt traversed the seas from some northern Chinese port to a disembarkation on the great Island Continent - perhaps even the safe harbour of Gladstone itself. But a last word about the Yarwun Russians and vodka. As a teacher, I went to a party one evening at exactly the same spot on the Calliope River as Lyn was talking about, and I drove back to Gladstone from it fairly late in the evening. A few kilometres out from Gladstone, I saw a small truck off the road and down an embankment.
I stopped and peered inside. A bearded middle-aged man was slumped over the steering wheel. The side window was down, which was a good thing as the vodka fumes would have gassed him if the cabin had been closed, as they almost did to me as I checked him out.
I knew he was a Russian from Yarwun, as they all had that sort of truck – solid jeep-looking two-ton vehicles that could probably withstand a land-mine, if you could find one on the Gladstone to Rocky road.
He was sleeping like a baby, with no sign of injury that I could discern, but how could I be sure of that? I faced a dilemma. Of course, this was thirty years before mobile phones, so I had no choice but to leave him as he was and drive home. I could have left him to sleep it off and winch the truck out when he was sober. But what if he had an injury I didn’t know about? For all I knew, his neck or back could have been broken. He could have been dead by morning.
In the end, I called an ambulance from home and told them where to find him.
That was the last I heard of the matter, until I read in the Gladstone Observer a few weeks later that on the night of whenever it was, Dmitry Fyodor Dostoyevsky (no no no, that wasn’t his name, for Pete’s sake - I don’t have a clue what his mother called him!!) was discovered by the police in a vehicle which had left the road exactly where I had seen the truck, and that he was taken into custody, convicted and heavily fined for driving under the influence of liquor.
I guess I did my civic duty but felt a bit guilty about it. It could have been Alec’s uncle for all I knew, but then he shouldn’t have been driving in that state. If he’d got back on the road in that truck, he might have killed somebody. Neither he nor I would have wanted that, even if the fine was a bit stiff. Jail's a lot worse.
POSTSCRIPT: So what happened to Alec? Would you believe, I got a clue from (surprise surprise) Google. Like the dramatic story of my childhood friend Verdon Harrison and the shark attack, Google is the oracle. There was one item I uncovered. The author said this:
A couple of years ago I was in Gladstone installing an exhibition titled Symmetry. A stroll through the cemetery revealed a collection of Russian graves. The name Guerassimoff stood out. Puzzled at its presence in a quintesentially Aussie town, I inquired about the Russians and was told that a community of Russians lived in a town close by, called Yarwun. Imagining a Amish-style community, I made a brief visit and tracked down a Guerassimoff, Alex, who was working at the local store. He told me quite casually the story of his family, how they had escaped the Russian revolution by fleeing to Manchuria and then to Australia, where they established a pawpaw plantation.
So there you have it. Alex (my friend Alec) has moved barely an inch from his home. I imagine the community is pretty well dispersed now, the Yarwun pawpaw farms all bought up by developers to create dormitory suburbs for the burgeoning city of Gladstone. The White Russian diaspora would have done what every other community over a couple of generations in Australia has – made its contribution and adapted fairly seamlessly into the multicultural life we share in this fortunate country.