A Lesson in Life

Winner - 2014 Ipswich International Written Poetry Competition and Babies of Walloon Trophy

It has well been said that a book should not be judged by its cover. This wise advice is made evident by the following story. The character and events of this poem are fiction, and pay tribute to that breed of itinerant men who frequented many Australian towns in the past, and whose hidden life stories were often the subject of wonder and debate.

A Lesson in Life
(c) Shelley Hansen 2014

He was just an old bloke who was probably broke
and he camped in the bush by the creek.
He would carry his swag and an old duffle bag
when he walked into town once a week.

Other boys would poke fun, shout their taunts and then run
as he stopped by our small corner store
for his meagre supplies. They'd kick dust in his eyes
and would call him "Old Ashes" – and more!

But I never joined in, for it seemed like a sin
when I thought of the hurt he must feel.
I'd seen hobos before, but to me he seemed more -
with a dignity hard to conceal.

So I followed him back as he walked down the track
till we came to his camp, where I knew
that he couldn't see me as I hid near a tree
while he boiled up a billy of brew.

Then he suddenly said without turning his head,
"Are you coming to join me, or not?
There's no point lurking there, and we might as well share
while there's plenty of tea in the pot."

We just sat for a bit by the campfire he'd lit,
drinking tea without talking at all,
and I saw in his gaze a whole lifetime of days –
sweet as honey, yet bitter as gall.

Then he said with a sigh, "Lad, I'm not quite sure why
you stood back while the others poked fun.
But I know that took nerve, so I think you deserve
to find out who I am, what I've done."

He said, "Lad, I'm no fool. I once taught kids in school,
and those times were my happiest years,
for my future was bright, and my work a delight
till the day it all ended in tears.

I had put my roots down in a little bush town,
wed a girl who was sweet as could be.
Then our hearts filled with joy at the birth of a boy –
there was no one more lucky than we!

And I taught from the heart, as I tried to impart
all the learning that I loved so well.
Through tough times we survived, and our tiny school thrived
as together we strove to excel.

But, my lad, it went wrong one hot day when a strong
summer wind parched our throats and our eyes,
and we saw with dismay bushfires heading our way
as a pall of smoke darkened the skies.

As the gusts fanned the flame, it swept onward to claim
crops and houses, consuming them fast.
But we stood to defend our school right to the end -
and we saved it! The wind changed at last.

But my wife was away. She had gone for the day
to a neighbouring town with our son,
and there wasn't a phone, so she wouldn't have known
that the blaze in the hills had begun.

And I knew her return would collide with the burn
where she'd probably meet its full force.
So I hoped she'd delay – find a safe place to stay
and wait there till the fire ran its course.

But in vain she'd begun to drive through, to outrun
the inferno that raced down the ridge.
But she slid off the edge of the river bank ledge –
in the thick smoke, her wheels missed the bridge "

As he faltered I saw what I hadn't before –
weathered tracks from the tears he had shed.
There seemed nothing to say as he thought of that day
when his hopes for the future had fled.

Then his story went on, "With my family gone
I lost heart as I withered inside.
Overcome by my grief, I could find no relief –
and my passion for teaching just died.

So I took to the road, and I've carried the load
of my swag and my sorrow alone.
Now the earth is the bed where I lay down my head,
and my story – to most – is unknown.

People don't have a clue! They take one look at you
then decide what they think you might be.
But there's one thing I've found as I've travelled around –
never judge just on what you can see!

People come and they go, and you often don't know
just what cards they've been dealt in their life.
You can make up your mind to be harsh or be kind –
and thus lessen or add to their strife."

I went back the next day, but he'd gone on his way
and the dregs of his campfire were cold,
and he never returned – though I waited and yearned
to hear more of the story he'd told.

Now the decades have flown. I have sons of my own
and I watch their advancement with pride.
I have tried hard to show them what counts is to know
what a person is on the inside.

And I sometimes go back to that place down the track
where I sit and remember the past.
Then I think of my friend as his days reached their end –
and I hope that he found peace at last.

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