Manly Beach, 1913. Olympic silver medalist swimmer, Cecil Healy, meets a local ratbag beach bum for a beer and a chin wag. Hmmm. Maybe this chat never actually happened. But it could have.
Tommy skips down the two sandstone steps from the front door of the Seagulls club house, traverses the tarmac footpath, crosses the South Steyne, then wanders past the timber surf club to slowly stroll north on the promenade. His shaggy mop of sun-bleached hair is still dripping salt water onto the jacket of his weathered dark grey suit. All the while the young man’s eyes scan the surf break from the rocky point by the surf club at the southern end of the beach, right up to where the sand runs into Queenscliff Headland a mile to the north. It’s a disappointing day. Blustery North-Easterly winds have flattened what little surf there already was and ruffled the surface in a way that reminds him of the watery gruel that he had not enjoyed at breakfast.
As he walks he tips his hat to the occasional passing local on their morning constitutional to Cabbage Tree Bay.
“So I’m meeting Cec at the Steyne,” Tom thinks to himself. “He hardly ever even bothers to say g’day to me. We’ve both been members at the Seagulls for years and we wouldn’t have exchanged twenty words. It’s not that I don’t like the bloke or nuthin’. It’s just that we ain’t cut from the same piece of cloth. He’s all upright… and smart as paint. And me? I’m more of a cross-grained scoundrel of a fella. He probably reckons that I am a lowly ruffian. He’s right. I’m not a fine, upstanding citizen like him. Not a national hero. Gotta give him credit, though. The man can swim. For a toff. I’m not bad… but he can beat me over 110 yards by half the length of the pool. On a race from the surf club to Cabbage Tree Bay and back, he’s back at the club and in the showers before I’ve made the turn at Shelly Beach. I wonder what he wants. I’ll bet it’s got something to do with our mate, Duke.”
Don’t wanna turn up smellin’ like a garbo
Tom leaves the promenade and skips around a single horse buggy entering the North Steyne from the Corso. As he crosses the tarmac be uses his finest rugby sidestep to avoid a steaming pile of grassy-yellow excrement deposited by the harnessed and sweating bay that has just trotted by.
“Shit… that was close. Don’t wanna turn up at the pub for a meeting with the illustrious Cecil Healy smellin’ like a garbo.”
“G’day Loony, booms the bar tender from behind the wide mahogany bar,” as Tommy comes through the swinging glass doors into the front public bar of the Steyne Hotel. “What brings you to the Steyne at 11.00 a.m.? And wearing a bloomin’ suit? This is normally the hour of the bottle-ohs, milkos and ragmen? Wouldn’t normally see you until well after dark. What? No surf?”
Tom’s gaze drifts around the nearly empty bar and spies a single red-faced and boozy looking character in shirt-sleeves and dirty old boots clutching a schooner of beer and staring, through misty eyes, at the wind-blasted surf beyond the Norfolk pines.
“I see Bill has settled in for his first of the day, Hercules,” comments Tom softly as he leans his elbows on the bar that has just been wiped dry by the giant of a man standing behind the beer taps. “Yeah. It’s early for me. I’d normally be looking to shoot breakers at this time of day when there’s no work on… but Cecil Healy has asked me to meet him for a chat. Besides. The waves, today, are about as much fun as boozing on kerosene. So here I am. Suit and all. Dressed to kill.”
“Rough out there, eh? Williams and the rest of your mates from the Seagulls might be in a bit earlier than usual today then. What do you think Healy is up to, Loon?” asked Hercules. “Oh… and do you wanna’ brew… apologies for me not asking earlier and doing my bloody job.”
Nah… thanks, mate… I’ll have one later… but I’ll wait for Cec. I dunno what he wants me for. I’m thinking it might have something to do with our mate, the American, who’s in town.”
The bloke swims like a fish
“American? The swimmer? Hawaiian isn’t he? Duke. What’s ‘is name?” asks Hercules.
“Duke Kahanamoku. Yep. Hawaiian. Swimmer. Hawaii is part of America. He’s the American swimming champion. The bloke’s like a fish. Makes Healy look slow… and I’m tellin’ ya, Healy is one of the fastest in the bloody world. That’s how good Duke is!”
“Do you know him, too?” enquired Hercules.
“Yeah, I know him. Splendid chap. A gentleman of great dignity. I jumped off the steamer I was working on at Waikiki Harbour a few years back. I stayed for a few months… and spent most of my time on the beach, of course. Duke works at the beach. With tourists. Around there he’s the bloody king. Best swimmer. Best surf-shooter. Best looking. Biggest. Probably the best brawler too… but who’d know. No one would be game to try. He makes all of his own surf boards and teaches people how to make boards. He helped me to make my first board. That’s the one I keep in Yamba. The one I use down here I shaped out of sugar-pine… but its pretty much the same as the one that Duke helped me build on the beach at Waikiki.”
“Well, I’ll be buggered. I did not know. Tommy Walker! Gentleman of leisure… and friend of the rich and famous!”
“Gentleman be hanged! I’m just Loony, born-an-bred in beautiful Marrickville. An ill-bred chap who is lucky enough to be able to participate in the world’s finest sport… the sport of kings… courtesy of the assistance of the King of the sport of kings! The great Duke Kahanamoku.”
Some of these blokes might not come back
“The Telegraph says Duke is going to give a surfing exhibition at Freshie in a few weeks. For sure your mate Cec has his finger in that steak and kidney pie. Are you going to attend?” asks Hercules.
“I don’t think so, Herc. You know… Sunday morning… rugby club touch footy at Manly Oval. Most of the blokes will be shipping off to war over the next few months and I’m thinking that our games might not go on for much longer. I don’t wanna miss these last gatherings. Just think. Some of those blokes might not come back. I’ve seen Duke shooting breakers plenty of times, so I think I’ll let this pass. It’s his show and he doesn’t need me… his local student… hanging around.”
“But the newspapers have been serving up all this… thin as Irish stew balderdash… about Australians not having the knack for surf-shooting. They think we are poltroons. You’ve been surf-shooting on your board around here for years. I saw you at the Freshie Carnival last year in front of… what… maybe then thousand people… stand on your bloody head, you did! Stand on your bloody head! Doesn’t it make you want to rage and row reading all that stuff and nonsense?”
“Not just me, Hercules. There are half a dozen blokes… oh, and Billie Amor too, of course… who have been shooting on boards around here for years. Some of us are grand. Others not so grand. But, yes, the press, are bewitched by Duke and are pretending that us Manly and Yamba shooters don’t exist. It’s as annoying as walking on tacks in bare feet, but me complaining is not going to stop it. But Duke is a great man. And the world loves great men.”
A neatly dressed gentleman swings open the saloon door with great deliberateness then looks around the room. Spying Tommy at the bar, he removes his hat (revealing tidily trimmed and carefully combed short blond hair) then marches briskly to Tommy’s side.
“What-oh, Loony! Saw you off the Steyne this morning with your board. Not a great day for shooting?” asks Cecil Healy placing his hat on the bar. “What-oh, to you too Hercules.”
“Top of the morning to you, Cecil,” responds the giant barman.
“Good morning, Cecil. No. Bloody North-Easterly. Satan’s wind. Hardly anything worth shooting this morning. Did you take the Cabbage Tree Bay swim this morning yourself? Nice bit of protection from the chop once you get around the point I’d presume,” answered Tommy.
It’s his kick!
“Indeed. It was delightful. I believe I did a cracking good time too. If I am ever fortunate enough to see another Olympics, I reckon that my race might be the mile rather than the 100. I’ll leave the sprints to our mate from the Islands!”
“Not at all, Cecil. My spies tell me you very nearly beat the big American at Stockholm!” chipped in Hercules.
“Believe me, my friend. Duke was not trying. Mark my words. Duke Kahanamoku will break his own world record for 110 yards two or three times on his current tour of our fair land… if he chooses to! No-one… in the world… can come anywhere near him under 440 yards!”
“Wacko, Cec! Mates at the Seagulls tell me it’s in his kick. It seems to me his arms, in the crawl, are no better than ours… but his enormous feet seem to kick at double the rate of ours and that propels him along like a steamer,” suggests Tommy.
“That could be right,” replies Cecil. “Can I shout you a beer, Loony? What will you have?”
“Thanks, Cec. A schooner of resch’s for me, please.”
“A schooner of resch’s for Loony and a midi of the same for me please Hercules,” asks Cecil, pushing several shillings across the bar.
“Thanks for meeting me today, Loony. I’ve been wanting to put a proposal to you,” states Cecil.
“Truly, Cec? A fine chap like you has a proposal for lowly scoundrel like me? Haven’t you heard, mate, that I am the kind of fella you wouldn’t leave unsupervised in a fowl-yard?”
At Tommy’s comment Hercules thumps the bar with his clenched fist and howls with laughter while Healy snorts his beer back into his glass!
“Well, I’m not exactly an angel myself, Loony, but I do think that there is something we could work on together.”
“I’m all ears, Cec. I’m always ready to hear about a new opportunity to bell the cat… especially if there is a couple of bob in it for me,” Tommy replies.
The nuisance inspectors will turn as pale as tripe
“You know how Duke is staying at the Boomerang Camp at Freshwater while he is in Sydney?”
“Yeah… I’ve been meaning to wander up there to say g’day… but I know he’s been busy with swimming shows and dinners with toffs and the like.”
“When he finishes his last swimming exhibition, in a couple of weeks’ time, he has agreed to give several surf-shooting demonstrations… starting off at Freshie, then South Steyne, perhaps Dee Why… then maybe a few spots on the South side. He’s going to show how to make a board, on the beach, then put on a show in the surf. Shoot a few runners… do a few tricks… maybe take out a girl to do a tandem. Duke and I both think it would be grand if you would join him and show what two champion surf-shooters can do together.”
“Ha! I’m looking forward to his exhibition,” comments Hercules. “Especially since it will turn the blinkin’ nuisance inspectors as pale as tripe! They hate board shooters!”
Tommy took a long draught of his schooner then paused for a few moments. Cecil and Hercules looked on expectantly.
“But this is Duke’s show,” replied Tom. “I’m very flattered but Duke is the star! Why would be want a showman, tinker, and scoundrel from Manly cutting in on his parade?”
“Tinker, showman and scoundrel you may be, Loony, but Duke and I know that you are good. One day when this war is over, surf-shooting, swimming, beaches, and bathing will be all the business. Waikiki, Manly, Miami, Santa Monica! These places are the future! People like you and Duke, if we play our cards right, will be sporting gods. It’s going to be a great show at Freshie… but with you and Duke together it will be an even better show. Brother surf-shooters from opposite sides of the world show how it is done! What a story. I will, of course, be heavily promoting the events in the local newspapers and magazines. We can make your sport… and you… famous!”
Fourteen foot tiger shark!
“I dunno, Cec. It doesn’t seem right. Duke is a battleship! I am a rusty tugboat. He is stronger, bigger, more handsome and a better shooter and swimmer than I ever will be. You know me. I love to put on a show. But I’m a side-show ruffian… not an Olympic Champion. I will look like a runt of a fella if I shoot next to him at Freshie.”
“Loony? You didn’t get the name Loony because you are no good. We’ve seen what you can do on your board in the surf. We’ve also heard all about the fourteen-foot Tiger shark at Shelley Beach… and how you dived in and shoved a salmon and a hook in its mouth to catch the beast.”
“Fourteen foot? More likely nine foot. Or eight. And I didn’t exactly dive overboard and wrestle the thing. It’s funny how stories kind of get away. The peevish nuisance inspector who tried to arrest me for charging people to see the monster and hear my story reckoned it was no tiger either. What would he know.”
“It’s a good story, Loony. You are our local hero. You should be there with the champ. Mark my words. If you decide to not shoot with Duke, the newspapers and history books, now and into the future, will write about him and how he introduced the sport of kings to our land,” stated Cecil. “But, if we work together, we can write a completely different history about heroes of the surf. And there should be a few bob in that. What do you say?”
“I’ll think about it Cecil. I really am grateful to you for thinking about me, but I don’t know. I have promised the blokes from Yamba surf club that I will be giving several shooting demonstrations in a few weeks’ time, and I was planning on leaving for the north coast next week. I don’t think I can fit both in, and I’m not sure it would be right if I did. I reckon this should be the champ’s show.”
“Loony. You are our first surf-shooter and that is the way history should remember you. If you change your mind, chase me up at the Seagulls. I’m usually there in the mornings, as you know. Just think of the headlines. ‘Tommy Walker… Hero of The Surf’”, argues Healy.
“Who knows who the first was? That cockeyed poltroon Patterson bought that board (that he stores at the Seagulls) back from Hawaii years ago and lots of blokes around here have been playing with that one. There are plenty of other boards around, too. It doesn’t matter who the first was. What matters is that the word gets out. Think about it, Cec. When the historians… and the bunfoogling press… and even the average punter… are looking for a hero, who are they more likely to choose? A king of a man from the islands of kings… or a bloke called Loony from Marrickville?”