Thursday, August 16, 2012

STRADDIE – OUR ISLAND’S DARKEST DAY

 THE DAY OUR POST OFFICE BURNT DOWN

North Stradbroke Island is that largish chunk of land hanging off Brisbane’s southern suburbs.  Once upon a time,  long before Europeans discovered Australia the island mass was connected to the mainland.  Connected most probably as well to that second largest island in the bay to the north, Moreton.

Both islands are under populated and hope it stays that way.

Straddie is a good hour long barge trip to the mainland, but unlike Cinderella our transport pumpkins shut down by 7.30 at night and the island is blissfully disconnected to the rest of the world until breaking dawn next day.
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If you’ve been following the Straddie stories you’ve probably realised by now that this Island I live on is an extremely tight knit community.  Not that we all live constantly in each other’s pockets, but when the chips are down we do all pull together.

So far that’s meant surviving threatening bushfires, government attempts to close the sand mines, coming to grips with tragic accidental deaths, and the occasional house fire leaving occupants destitute without a roof over their heads and in desperate need of a helping hand.

There are three separate and very small townships on the island, each with its own style and population make-up.   Amity is the smallest, best described as a sleepy little fishing village with just a few streets of neat houses, a shop and a small post office.
 
Point Lookout is much larger, its the show pony of the island.  Upmarket houses, surfing beaches, big flashy hotel, clubs, restaurants and boutique shops and a small post office.

Dunwich is the working man’s town.  This is where the Police Department and the Ambulance Service has their base, and Sibelco, the mining company has its office and workshops.  Dunwich also provides the school, the medical centre, respite services and the cemetery. Steeped in history, this bay side town is also the arrival and departure point for barges and water taxi’s bringing visitors across from the mainland. 
 
 Dunwich also has a clutch of clubs and shops and a small post office.


Like any community we have a mixed population made up of those who obey the law, some who play around with the law, and a few who quite honestly flout the law to such a nuisance extent the rest of us wish we could run them out of town.

But never have the law breakers entered into what I could even loosely describe as the big league.  Until just a few short days ago when our small, very small Dunwich post office with attached residence was broken into, the post master’s wife badly beaten and both buildings burned to the ground. 

I won’t go into the legal side of this event.  That is a matter for the police and the courts.  I will however write about community reaction to this brutal and cowardly crime.

I’m a light sleeper, a siren or a medivac helicopter landing in front of the Marie Rose medical centre immediately rouses me.  But on the night we lost our post office and almost our Post Mistress, I heard nothing.

My first inkling that all was not well in our sleepy little hamlet came early next morning when I drove down town to pick up the Saturday newspapers.  I drove past my friends butcher shop and on past the grocery shop with the intention to circle round to the newsagency.  But as I drove onto the town’s only roundabout before circling round to the shops in the next street, I slammed on the brakes.

Across from my car,  where the post office once stood was a smouldering ruin surrounded by fire trucks and police cars.  Yellow security tape cut off the roadway in front. The surrounding silence was ominous. A heavy smell of smoke hung in the air.

At six o’clock in the morning I’m not the sharpest cab off the rank...(that is a purely Australian expression)  and as I stared at the firemen and the police officers, all locals who  I knew so well, they are after all neighbours and friends, I couldn’t quite work out what had happened.

There had been no noise, no uproar through the dark hours before the dawn.  A destructive fire of this magnitude had to have been otherwise.  But I had heard nothing.  As the town awoke, we all were drawn to this absolute horror that had taken place in our midst.  And one by one we were all reduced to tears.

A dark, very dark curtain had fallen across our normally cheery community.
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Mainland newspapers reported the incident;  what transpired is a matter now of public knowledge.  Without going into identities of either victims and perpetrators,   nor their age,  I can tell you  how the crime evolved.

Our Postmaster is also a member of our Volunteer Fire Brigade and in the early hours of that Saturday morning he was called out to a fire in the local high school.  While he and the rest of the crew were dealing with that minor outbreak a gang broke into the Post Office residence and shop, assaulted the postmaster’s wife, stole money, and then set both buildings alight leaving her to survive as best she could.  It is an absolute miracle that she managed to crawl to safety.

The community was incensed.  This very public spirited couple had lost not only their every possession, they had also lost their livelihood and their trust in fellow human beings. 

Within minutes the help mechanism of a small community slipped into gear.  Cash was quietly pressed into our postmaster’s hands.  His wife was being emergency medivac-ed to the mainland,  He would need money for immediate use.  Clothing appeared, his wife is a small, petite lady, a teenage daughter’s wardrobe was ransacked.  Her husband had only his fire fighting gear, his heavy duty boots to wear. 
 
New clothing was found. 

The terrible news spread to the other Straddie towns.  By the end of that weekend donations of cash and goods had started flooding in. Various sporting clubs and the hotel at The Point swiftly organised fund raising collections.

In Dunwich, where the fire actually occurred, we were, all of us, in a state of shock.  Nothing of this magnitude had ever occurred before.  The Post Master’s wife had been taken off the island to hospital,  The Post Master had a town car on the mainland side but no keys to start it with.  They had been destroyed in the blaze.

So too had all the unclaimed mail and parcels.  We have no home delivery service on Straddie.  Everyone collects their mail from the Post Office, and up to then pensioners had cashed their cheques there, or in many cases had left their bank books at the Post Office for safety and convenience.

They too had disappeared in the flames, along with the computers and eftpos machines, fax machines, records of bills paid, financial transactions.

In fact Dunwich now had no banking facilities whatsoever, and no postal service. 

But what was even worse, we now had a community in free fall.  The suspicion and the shame that locals had taken part in such an horrendous act was now pervading our everyday life.

For days afterwards the streets were quiet.  Too quiet.   Anger and doubt and pointing fingers had taken hold.  Rumours were rife. A team of federal police descended on the island.  Arrests were made.

Sympathies now lay not only with the victims but also with the perpetrators innocent families.  Anxious days ticked by. We were walking on egg shells.
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It took a little while, but then very slowly a healing process began.


And it started from within the local primary school.  The children were encouraged to create posters and get well cards to send to the post mistress still in hospital on the mainland.  Colourful sketches of new houses surrounded by flowers with picket fences and chimneys.  Youngster’s floor plans evolved for the Post Mistress’s new home, kitchen, bedroom,  lounge room complete with TV and carpets on the floor.  Some even included a resident cat or dog.  Their imagination ran riot.

At the same time throughout the island and on the mainland a steady flow of donations started flooding in.   The crime was so horrific, the victims so well liked, everybody wanted to be part of their recovery.

What nobody admitted or perhaps realised at the time was that none needed that recovery process more so than the Dunwich community itself.
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Fundraising is no stranger to Straddie.   The Island has a long history of self help. Years and years ago when Dunwich was emerging from the government protection mantle imposed on similar settlements throughout Queensland, wives and young mothers lobbied for a kindergarten.  They cooked and baked cakes by the hundreds to reach the amount needed to fit out a building and employ a qualified teacher.  Today Dunwich boasts two Kindies.

Later when an Ambulance Station was badly needed,  Saturday raffles quickly achieved the necessary quota and today the Island’s modern Marie Rose Centre houses not only Ambulance and staff but also the local State Medical Service and helicopter pad for emergency flights back to the mainland.

So it was only natural that in the present crisis a group of locals would meet in the Sports Club overlooking the football oval and put together a team to begin planning a giant Fundraising Day.

During the early planning a monetary goal was discussed,   $10,000 was suggested.  Then someone doubled that figure and we looked cautiously to each other.   Gosh!   $20,000 was an awful lot of money to raise in one single day.

In the lull that ambitious figure created we all looked at each other.   Then a voice popped up,  $30,000...let’s aim for $30,000.  You could have heard a pin drop. 

The Shire’s Mayor from her office on the mainland sent a representative to give the Council’s help with planning the day.   They would print the advertising flyers, as many as we needed.  Three or four thousand was hesitantly suggested.  No problem.

We would need sideshow attractions for the big day.  Leave it to us said the local mining company, Sibelco.  And they did us proud with loud, colourful, breath taking rides for the kids.   The barge company waived charges to bring the heavy equipment from the mainland.

Small businesses on the Island donated goods and services as prizes.   These were matched by a deluge of gifts and vouchers from everyday citizens on the island and the mainland.   Vintage and rare wines, works of art, electrical goods, sporting ‘greats’ paraphernalia.  A women’s group on the mainland, part of the Lions Club, started crocheting rugs and socks and beanies to sell or raffle on the day.

The school ran a cake stall,  the footie club cooked burgers.  Shops donated bread and meat and all the intrinsic bits and pieces needed to feed a crowd of thousands.

We prayed for a fine day, but didn’t bargain for high winds.  A village of tents had been erected on the football oval the day before the scheduled Carnival.  That night the westerly winds blew fierce and we worried how the tents could survive.

Only one was toppled, the others stood up to the blast including a giant big top brought over from the mainland.

All we needed now was a free spending crowd.

Anyone looking down on the oval early that Saturday morning might have shaken their heads at the apparent disorder.  Chaos it may have appeared, but everyone had a job and they all did it extremely well.



 
By 11 am we were ready for business.  The rides were up and running, loud scary rides for the big kids, gentle jumping castles for the littlies and lots in between.   For $15 a bracelet ticket the youngsters could enjoy unlimited rides, and they did, the queues waiting their turn were enormous but patient.

Four local bands belted out non stop music.  The Hip Hop kids went through their routines; tiny hula girls from the 2nd and 3rd grades of the local school performed like veterans. 



Other clubs on the island, the RSL, returned soldiers and sailors league, and the Little Ship Club loaned their chocolate wheel and sound equipment.  The big glitzy Hotel at the Point loaned their big delivery truck transformed for the day into a stage.

A burnt out post box was resurrected to handle donations and messages of good will on the day.  Thousands of dollars were counted out at day's end.

The Volunteer Fire Brigade, their numbers swelled by mainland firemen ran fire fighting displays throughout the afternoon. State Emergency Service volunteers in their bright orange gear manned the Prize Wheel. Politicians became raffle ticket sellers, ran broom throwing competitions.   And our Redland’s Mayor, Karen Williams offered to perform on the stage if enough money were thrown into the kitty.   It was, very quickly, and Karen an accomplished performer roped in other VIP’s to match her yodelling skills.   They brought the house down.

The fund raising barometer on the centre stage, updated throughout the day began slowly to rise...  $12,000 jumped to $16,000 until finally the end figure was posted.  A figure finally realised some two hours after the last spin of the wheel, the last live auction of donated goods, the last squealing youngster  had been forcibly removed from the giant Dominator ride, and the football oval was bathed in darkness, the tents deserted. 

Inside the brightly lit club house a happy and tired crowd of workers and supporters relived the days events with welcome ales in hand.  Two television screens tuned into the nights news.  Helicopters had dropped journalists and photographers onto the oval to report the days events.

The Carnival had made the state news and a big cheer went up just as the final figure was posted on the Barometer ...$31,600.00.  Not bad for five hours work and the support of an island community that numbered barely two and a half thousand permanent residents. (That total rose quickly to $32,000 and is still rising.)

The day had been a resounding success, and not just for the money raised for our Post Office couple. 

Dunwich, the Straddie town that suffered the most from the senseless and cowardly attack on two of it’s most civic minded residents, had recovered their pride, their community solidarity and their reputation.  Smiling faces replaced tears and guilt.


A new post office will be built.  The crime and its consequence will not be forgotten, but the people of Straddie will never again allow a small, very small clutch of bullying thugs to destroy a trust built on years and years of community solidarity and friendship.

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Robyn Mortimer August 2012