Waltzing Matilda

Harry Welty

Everything about Down Under appealed to me. Aussies were like a second version of Americans, open, unpretentious and they loved America. We snookered them in to fighting with us in Vietnam. Their tennis players were our fiercest competitors and they had the best English accent in the world. Aussies loved vacationing in the States. When superimposed on a map of our lower 48 states Australia’s fat boomerang was our equal coming in just shy of our three million square miles. Their animals were out of this world. The platypus and echidna were mammals that laid eggs. And Australia’s Quantas Airlines made a star out of a grouchy Koala that complained that their Boeings were bringing too many tourists to Australia. Every time I heard that Koala say, “I hate Quantus,” I loved Australia just a little bit more.

But it was a movie that sealed the deal, On the Beach. Its premise was of a future I dismissed sneeringly because people weren’t so stupid as to put an end to mankind. Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch himself, sailed his US submarine into Sydney Harbor after the outbreak of the final world war. All was silent beyond the Antipodes. Radio signals had ceased. Australia was alone or was it? One insistent signal was being broadcast from San Francisco, but it was gibberish. Peck would take his crew on one last voyage to check out a mystery and hope to survive the poisons that surely awaited him. While he departed Australian families made plans for suicide to avoid the cruelties of radiation poisoning. A quartet singing in forced jollity belted out Australia’s “unofficial national anthem” Waltzing Matilda. As Australia became a land of empty streets the cheerful tune grew haunting and funereal.

So, when in my senior year, a cute Australian lass became our classmate I teasingly asked her if she could sing Matilda. She demurred so I cheerfully sang it to her as I would years later to my children at bedtime. At the end of the year I took her on a date in my Dad’s old Chrysler New Yorker which we managed to steam up on a cool spring night. I was besotted. Too late. Just before she departed on her fourteen-hour flight I sent her a god-awful gooshy letter that I began regretting before the Koala jetted her back home for fifty years of veiled mystery.

It was a flight I wouldn’t be able to afford for forty years and when I did go I couldn’t look the lass up. That was OK. I had a new love to squire around the land of digeridoos.

It wasn’t just America that was being afflicted with calamitous weather in 2011. The two weeks of winter that we escaped for Australia’s notoriously parched landscape had been preceded by a rare typhoon, Category 5 Yasi. By the time we reached the great bull’s eye, Ayer’s Rock, now rechristened Uluru, the dry red land was wet and green. A great rain fell the night before we circled the aborigine’s hallowed rock. Before we arrived a handful of people saw waterfalls cascading down the dome making them part of an elite few to ever witness such a rare event. While I was there I spied a perplexed lizard floating in a pool at the great red rock’s foot.

Yesterday our local paper devoted 125 words to a story headlined “Mega Fire.” The paper’s real ink was spent covering President Trump’s latest twitter fest. In Down Under a fire season like no other has just started. Rupert Murdoch, whose press empire has championed Trump, Brexit and Climate Denial was busily excusing its hero, Australia’s climate-change denying Prime minister Scott Morrison, for vacationing in Hawaii as forests burned through the outback to the coasts. Murdoch’s press bloviated that arsonists were to blame and cooed that the cataclysm was greatly exaggerated. Satellite photos told another story.

While the MIT Technology Review can be discounted as the work of scientists, they reported the story differently, “The wildfires raging along Australia’s eastern coast have already pumped around 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further fueling the climate change that’s already intensifying the nation’s fires…That’s more than the total combined annual emissions of the 116 lowest-emitting countries, and nine times the amount produced during California’s record-setting 2018 fire season.”

Satellite photos of smoke and essence of Koala drifting 12,000 miles across the Pacific are arresting but for my money nothing can top the firefighter who said he couldn’t get the of screams Koala’s being consumed by fire out of his head.

Fifty years ago, I considered On the Beach a poignant tall tale about an event people were too smart to stumble into. I wish I was as sanguine today with the future of koalas, giant anteaters, orangutans, elephants, tigers, corals, birds, bees, kelp forests, frogs, bats, pangolins on the line. In our future it will not be the cities that are empty of humans. It will be the landscape that is empty of God’s creation.

I hate Quantas.

Harry Welty spreads cheer and shares his optimism at: www.lincolndemocrat.com