Sunday, January 13, 2013
THE STORY OF A YOUNG MAN
The story I relate below is about one of the most happiest, uplifting and inspiring episodes that occurred during my time spent on Hinchinbrook Island.
Air Whitsundays’ Grumman Mallard, (pictured above…except ours was dark red and white) flew guests to (and from) the island. The seaplane departed Townsville airport and landed in the waters off to the left of the resort's jetty; about 500metres or so away, depending on daily wind and sea conditions in Missionary Bay. Island living is largely dependent on the weather conditions and tidal movements and levels.
Almost without fail, wide-eyed guests alighted from the door at the rear of the aircraft while a couple of my staff members and I protected the punt from hitting the Mallard’s fuselage. Depending on the seas on any one day, this could, sometimes, be quite an effort.
The Grumman Mallard was an amphibian aircraft that could land and take off on either land or water. It was a cumbersome old aircraft, but so very beautiful. I loved flying in the old girl. The Grumman Mallard was first produced in 1946. Only 59 were built. It was rumoured this particular aircraft was once owned by the Aga Khan. Upon landing on the ocean, water would leak through the top of the plane into the cabin. This, of course, caused a certain amount of consternation to the passengers; hence a lot of the "wide eyes", I guess. It was a kind of christening in away; of those who’d never flown in a seaplane before!
It was a Thursday; a new group of eager, albeit stressed, guests arrived. Amongst them was a reserved, shy, bearded young man. At the “Greet & Meet” I conducted with all new arrivals to the island, the bearded, reticent young bloke introduced himself to me as “Richard Martin”.
Every evening the resort guests mingled around the bar for pre-dinner drinks and pleasantries. The first night of Richard's arrival he placed himself at the outer rim of the guests circling the bar preferring to watch and listen than to partake in the merriment. And that became his habit when in the presence of his fellow holidaymakers.
Early on the second evening of his stay, before most of the other guests arrived, I joined him at the end of the bar; gently I coaxed Richard into conversing with me. His speech was slightly impaired. Quietly, we spoke at length, discussing general matters. No one else bothered or interrupted us. John, my ever-knowing and alert barman understood and respected the privacy of our conversation. Without fanfare he refilled our empty glasses when needed, never drawing attention to himself or his actions.
After a while, I sensed Richard had begun to relax a little. Hesitantly, he started telling me the story of the past 18 months of his life.
Richard had suffered a stroke the previous year; he was only 36 years old. His black, trimmed, yet still quite bushy beard was grown as a result of the stroke. The beard was grown to disguise the disfigurement caused by the stroke to the left side of his face. The left cheek and corner of his mouth drooped somewhat. Of course, Richard was more conscious of the changes in his appearance than others were. It's only natural.
Richard was a lawyer in a Sydney firm. He told me of the shock he felt by suffering a stroke at such a young age. He told me the hardest part of all after his stroke was looking in the mirror and not recognising the person staring back at him. He explained how having to learn to speak and eat again were frustratingly difficult to achieve. For some time after the stroke he was forced to use a straw because he couldn’t chew his food; he lived on liquid or purees for quite a while.
His holiday to the island was his own personal form of therapy to try to get his life back on track. His reticence in joining the other guests was from his lack of confidence in himself and his appearance.
I wasn’t throwing around insincere platitudes when I assured Richard there was little wrong with his speech; and that he was easily understood. I also assured him what he called his ‘disfigurement’, was barelt discernible; and people could care less, anyway. I pointed out if anyone did react negatively towards him, then they were not worthy of the generosity of his company and time.
That night I was to dine with four of my guests; two couples; I insisted that he join us. (I didn’t always dine with guests; mostly, I didn’t, but if I found the company of some people particularly interesting, fun or inspiring, I did the “captain’s table” thing!). I told Richard I would make it worth his while; I tempted him with a bottle or two of Henschke's “Hill of Grace”; one of the best Shiraz wines this country has produced.
Certain Hill of Grace vintages have beaten Penfolds' Grange Hermitage to proudly and deservedly take first place (and they are not only my words and assessment, but those of wine expert and critic, James Halliday’s, as well). These days the cost of a bottle of Hill of Grace can range from $350.00 a bottle to over $1000.00!
Needless to say, the wine didn't cost those prices back in the mid-Eighties. I should've bought a boat load of it! In the early Seventies, I used to buy Henschke's Hill of Grace for $5.00 a bottle!!! I should've bought four boat loads of it at that price! Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Sorry...I have digressed!
In those days on the island, I always kept a case of “Hill of Grace” in a back room for special guests and moments. I believed this was one of those times, and that Richard was a special guest; he was a special fellow.
As things happened often on the island, unplanned and spontaneous, on the Sunday night of his stay, everyone, my staff and me included, was in a very happy, partying mood. Without notice, a party broke out amongst the guests and the staff. I raced over to my little abode and grabbed some cassettes to add to those in the restaurant's collection. Everyone was laughing, talking and dancing together. Again, Richard, true to nature, hovered around the outer perimeters of the group.
Taking a couple of my staff aside, I asked that they go to the laundry room taking the guests with them to commandeer them into dressing in togas made from some of the older, floral bed sheets we seldom used. The guests needed no encouragement. Without hesitation, full of exuberance they followed the staff. Laughter filled the air. Soon thereafter, in their toga transformations, everyone reappeared.
In no time at all, a boisterous ‘Toga Party’ was under way. I grabbed a spare sheet, and threw it at Richard. He had no other choice than to wrap it around himself over the clothes he was wearing. I didn’t heed his protests as I clutched his arm and dragged him out onto the deck surrounding the pool to join the rest of the dancing party. His protests were quickly drowned out by the singing, dancing, laughing group of people. Before too long, he forgot his reserve, his shyness and any affliction he ‘thought’ he had. The other guests took him under their wings; and he ended up high-kicking higher than all of them!
Someone - I forget who - led the merry group of revellers in a congo line around the pool; and, of course, soon thereafter everyone was in the pool; Richard included.
It was a wonderful, happy, unexpected, innocent, harmless evening; one that re-affirmed how wonderful most people can be; and one that showed their compassion for their fellow being. It was an evening that restored the joy of life to one young man.
The day arrived for Richard’s departure. He'd spent seven days and nights on the island. It was an emotional time for all concerned. My staff, other guests and I were sad to see him leave; but happy in the knowledge we had made a difference. Tears filled my eyes as I bade him farewell at the end of the jetty; I noticed glistening in Richard’s, as well. He asked if he could take a photograph of me.
I said, “Sure...as long as I can take one of you!” We took one of each other, taking one of each other, simultaneously! I still have the photograph amongst my Hinchinbrook Island memorabilia.
About two weeks after Richard’s departure from the island, I received a letter from him.
He wrote that he felt renewed and rejuvenated in a way that no amount of professional therapy could have done. Richard told me he was now ready to face life, and his future, with confidence. He thanked me and my wonderful island staff for helping him. Without us, he said, he would still be battling his demons.
Tears fell as I read his letter, but I felt very proud; not only for what he believed we had done, but for my having the opportunity to meet and get to know him.
Richard, himself, did all the hard work, shaking off his insecurities, frustrations and self-consciousness. We just handed him the keys. He was a fine young man who, for a short while, had lost sight of his true worth.
I've often wondered how his life progressed after his holiday on our magnificent island. I wished him well then; and I still do now, wherever he may be.