Memories from my childhood are generously sprinkled with larger than life characters, heroes who touched and shaped my life in quite enduring ways.
My first hero was a quietly spoken farmhand and horseman who spent his short life in back country New Zealand and I was just a young kid. Alistair took a shine to me and taught me things about horses and how to survive in the hills and how to read animal signs and how to place a bullet from his rifle into a tin can 200 metres away every time you pulled the trigger.
When the first lambs were born every spring, Alistair took me hunting the wild boars that came out of the dark wet forest at night in search of easy prey, and we would ride quietly through the pre-dawn darkness out to his favourite spots. I would hold the reins of the nervous horses and when Alistair's big calibre rifle boomed out you could smell the cordite in the air and I remember being frightened because I had seen the rows of tusks nailed to the shearing shed wall and knew Alistair's stories about every one of these and his numerous brushes with death.
Some times Alistair would yell get up a tree, boy! and I would turn the horses loose and shinny ten feet up a manuka tree while Alistair waded through chest-high fern towards a wounded boar and you could hear the animal snarling and charging the dogs, defiant even in the wretchedness, bloodiness and brutality of it's death. And then the boom from the rifle and I would go down and he would tell me I was a brave kid.
One day Alistair went out without me and that was the last time I saw him alive – when he didn't return a team of silent riders went out looking for him and found him dead under his horse. His mare had slipped and rolled down a steep hillside and he had died during the night. Now, a lifetime later, I can't remember his face but I remember his rough kindness and the tears I shed that day and the smell of his grey wool coat when I sometimes rode behind him, before he trusted me with my own horse.
Later Colin came into my life, a big bear of a man who had recklessly married my sister. Colin was an incurable romantic who loved the wild ways and for a couple of years I followed him around while he looked for precious gemstones in remote mountain places and trapped opossums for their furs and hunted deer for restaurant venison. Colin’s blue eyes held a faraway look – he was always peering into the future and dreaming new dreams, cajoling my sister and I to share his many adventures.
Colin loved the outdoors – we were the first long ago to float down the Rangitikei River from it's earliest navigable waters to the nearest road, six days of white water travel down a series of beautiful valleys filled with deer and beech forest, the river tumbling down into vertical walled canyons where great columns of eroded stone – eerie as gargoyles poised to explode from their frozen sleep – towered over dangerous chutes and steep falls where you thought you were going to die.
One winter we climbed onto the tops of the Kaimanawa Mountains, years before an alpine track was pushed through, and the hike from the valley up to the bushline was sixteen hours of hard ascent through dense forest filled with snow. I can still see Colin, draped in heavy pack and rifle, pushing on through the dark trees as night fell, huge bombs of dislodged snow pelting down from the overhead canopy of trees and him shouting encouragement as the cold bit into our bones, his blue eyes blazing with the light of battle and the intensity of his will.
It was on one such expedition, this time in summer, with our outfit camped on the edge of a wilderness an eight hour hike from the nearest road-end, that Wild Bill Cornelius rode into our lives. Bill was 6ft 4 with unkempt hair down to his waist and a nut-brown face tanned from a lifetime living outdoors. He was almost permanently on board a tall, rangy bay horse and he swept into camp that day with fourteen wild cattle dogs streaming out behind him, the stuff of legends written all over him.
Bill hunted the wild cattle that roamed in the vast, densely forest catchment of the Whanganui River and would drive his quarry down river valleys and ridges to holding pens on the edge of this wilderness. His dogs lived exciting and often short lives hounding these angry and very dangerous beasts and most bore scars of battle – his horse too was covered from chest to tail with old silver-grey welts and red new wounds, many from charging through dense vegetation to escape a charging bull.
How Bill rode a horse through those steep and slippery and trackless wastes I could never figure out, but at work at our own grim trade we would sometimes hear Bill's dogs furiously barking miles off in the hazy blue mountains and we would stop to listen to the unfolding saga of the hunt as the sounds of pursuit moved down the valley, and we would marvel at his courage and the hardship of his chosen life.
On the rare occasions Bill shared our lonely camp, we would sit around the fire and I would be silent with wonder at the colourful escapades shared by my older companions.
When I was eleven or twelve, another childhood hero we called Uncle Archie played a big part in our youthful lives. Archie lived in a small village called Turangi, under the shadow of volcanic mountains and alongside the beautiful green Tongariro River and we often were sent there, a long winding day trip by bus from our saner family home to the south. Archie was outrageously colourful and eccentric, a World War II veteran whose views on life were filled with extraordinary assertions and prejudices.
Archie revelled in adversity and loved to find issues and aggravations to rebel against – like the traffic roundabout that one day was unwisely installed on his, Archie's, street! With us shouting encouragement from the back seat Archie would sometimes drive at the roundabout, foot pressed hard to the pedal, and we would fly directly over this latest affront to Archie's sensibilities, almost airborn, shredding the cosmetic shrubbery placed in the middle and landing on the other side with a bone jarring crunch, every rivet and bolt in the old car groaning as we returned to earth. And us triumphantly whooping and Archie shouting his war-cry expletives.
Archie had smuggled a handy relic from his war years back home in his duffel bag, a huge .45 calibre military handgun, and this treasured piece of antediluvian artillery lay concealed under his bed, appearing only on occasions of drunkenness, provocation or maudlin bouts of World War II reminiscences. On these latter occasions, Archie would lovingly caress the grey barrel of the old colt before a riveted, wide-eyed audience of neighbourhood kids and recount harrowing tales of endless near brushes with death. More was yet to come. The climax of these wondrous occasions was a glimpse of Archie's right leg – two rounds from a German machine gun had left a couple of neat indentations in one side of his calf and larger, jagged exit wounds on the other side. We would crowd around him, gazing at the long ago wounds while Archie for the hundredth time relived those chilling days in a voice dramatic with tension.
As a child I remember him snatching his beloved .45 from it's place of concealment beneath his mattress and discharging five thunderous and randomly placed rounds into the night when a prowler was heard, his voice roaring in the darkness long after the reverberations had died down – "prowl around my house you heathen savages and I'll blast every one of you to Hell!" In my memory I can still hear the boom boom boom cannonade of the heavy colt and Archie's voice, laced with profanity, echoing in the night. And we kids, giggling nervously in the sanctuary of the house while dogs yelped and raced for home, tails between their legs, and lights came on all over the village as Uncle Archie purged the darkness of heathens and savages.
Archie often tested our child's composure with fearful and fictitious challenges, like the time he invited us to join him in paddling over the nearby Huka Falls in his small fishing dingy. This raging, high velocity cataract of green water tumbled down through a steep and terrifying gorge before plunging over a vertical drop into the mesmerisingly beautiful and deadly falls, powerful enough to turn Archie’s dingy into kindling and crush the air out of our lungs like a burst balloon. "By God," he cried, "we'll ride that wild river at dawn tomorrow and we’ll conquer it together. Who'll join me?" and he glared at us in challenge. I would stare at him, eyes wide and shocked in silent disbelief – my sister who adored Archie would gulp and stare at him then blurt out "I'll come with you Uncle Archie." Archie would gaze at her with pride and pleasure, his delight shining in his eyes, "You'll do," he would say, "You'll do."
This was Archie's highest accolade. How I longed to hear him say these words to me. A year would pass before I earned this cherished affirmation of my own courage from Archie's lips. One evening, out fishing on Lake Taupo, a sudden squall blew across the great expanse of water. Archie decided to call it quits and pulled lustily on the old Seagull motor to begin the mile ride home across the rising waters. It wouldn't start. Archie gave a mighty heave on the rope, enough to hoist the small motor from its mountings, and unsecured by a safety chain it dropped into the lake and sank 200 feet to the bottom. "Start rowing son," he roared, "or we'll drown tonight or freeze solid in the wind."
For two hours, through frigid winds and rising waves I battled towards the shore, a boy against the storm, my hands blistered and running with blood and shoulders aching from the strain. Watchful and silent, Archie was a dim shape in the rear of the boat as waves smashed over the bow and spray soaked us to our skin. At last in the darkness the keel grated through the surf and onto the shore. Archie stepped triumphantly ashore and tussled my hair and grinned at me. And then he uttered those wonderful words: "You'll do," he said, "You'll do." My face flushed with pride. I had won Archie's approval and in that moment knew I had crossed some mysterious threshold into manhood.
Archie deeply loved his wife and she him, enough to overlook his many bizarre mannerisms. Sometimes when we were away they would sit on the couch together and Archie's head would lie on her shoulder and would sleep. If we returned, Archie's wife would go "sssshhhh" silently, her finger to her lips, for Archie would not want us to see him this way, the fiction he presented of himself to us betrayed in this most vulnerable and trusting and childlike abandonment. When his wife suddenly and mysteriously died, Archie was never the same and often fell into long bouts of inconsolable melancholy, shuffling through their old snaps and albums of their life together and weeping. When Archie cried like that, if my sister was there she would sit on his lap and cry too, and pull all the fingers on his scarred hands, one by one, as though exorcising his sad demons.
These times of sweet affection were the most treasured and happiest of his entire life and the dying and death of his wife the most excruciating, more awful than all of his years on the battlefields of Europe and the pathos and remorse of everything he had seen, been, done. "Never love," he said to us, "never love, the bitterness of loss is too much for the heart to bear."
Where have they gone now, these larger than life characters who populated my childhood? Eventually our lives took a different road, and we would never see them again. But I still remember and often smile. Sometimes even now, caught out in the night forest very late on a wayward run at Muriwai far from anyone, I can feel their spirit with me and Colin saying to me, "You cannot have courage without first having fear. Courage without fear has no meaning." And I can push on through the dark forest on the way back to my car, smiling in my fear.