From the desk of Roland Rocchiccioli – 23 February
I was born at 9.05pm on Thursday, 20 February, 1947 in Agnew, Western Australia, a shanty goldmining town which no longer exists. My arrival made the social pages! When the gold ran-out at the end of that year, the town closed down.
I was born at home in a typical goldfields miner’s camp – galvanised iron lined with hessian, and sitting close to the ground on Mulga stumps with tin caps to stop the advancing white ants which ate everything – even the grapevines and the fig trees. The two-room camp had a latticed back verandah with a bathroom at one end, and a bedroom at the other for my siblings, Lewie and Nita. The kitchen had a wood stove and there was running cold water in the bathroom; the washhouse and pan lavatory were a short distance from the back door. Wherever she lived, Beria always had chooks.
I was due on 27 February, and arrived a week early on the hottest day of a month long heatwave. It was 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Beria intended to take the Dove aircraft to Leonora the following Saturday and had already sent our suitcase ahead on the mail truck. Serendipitously, she kept a couple of nappies behind. That evening Beria noticed the sun was a spectacular red ball as it dipped towards the horizon, turning the sky a brilliant magenta. It was about six o’clock when she went into labour. She was 36. Beria sent 14-year-old, Lewie, racing across the flat, howling his eyes out, to call Mrs Hooker, the unqualified midwife and self-appointed bush nurse. My father, Ginger, was working underground on the Emu goldmine, and by the time he arrived home at midnight I was sleeping soundly – a long, thin baby, weighing eight-pounds.
The heatwave in Agnew continued, and by ten o’clock the following morning the temperature was already well into the nineties. Our house was on the edge of the town, out on the flat, and a fifteen-minute walk from the shops. I was thirteen hours old when my mother’s German friend, Mrs Saunders, insisted on taking me to the butcher’s shop to be weighed. She wrapped me in a bunny-rug and carried me outside into the blazing desert sun. I sweated like a pig. The back of my neck was burnt and I got heat stroke. By the time we arrived back home I was screaming and could not be pacified. After a couple of hours they sent for Mrs Hooker. She spent the day and most of the night walking the floor, nursing and trying to soothe me. When my condition didn’t improve it was decided early on Saturday morning that Beria and Mrs Hooker should take me to the Leonora District Hospital, ninety miles down the rough unsealed dirt track. One of the Lambert boys, whose father owned the general store, drove us there in the family’s canvas-canopied car. As we came around the hill at Doyle’s Well the heavens opened and the flash-flooding turned the road and creeks into a raging torrent, with the water lapping at the running boards. Beria didn’t think we’d get through.
I was still screaming when we arrived at the hospital. Doctor Kristian Wilson took one look at me before turning his attention to Beria, “You’re a bloody fool, Rocky, letting that stupid woman take your baby out in the heat at that time of day.”
“It’s not my fault,” Beria protested. “She’s old. What could I do?”
“Of course it’s your fault. You should have stopped her. He’s your baby, Rocky, and now there’s a bloody good chance he might die!”
We spent eleven days in the Leonora hospital. It was a week before Doctor Wilson could confidently tell Beria I was in the clear. Beria could not stop crying and the doctor had tears in his eyes, “Just don’t do it again, Rocky,” he said, “because next time we might not be so bloody lucky.”
And a lucky life it’s been. Thursday’s child has far to go. From those very humble beginnings – of which I am most proud – I’ve made my way and had a remarkable time, and it’s not over by a long-shot. I cannot believe I’m 73, and so much is still happening. I was one of the few Gwalia kids sent away to boarding school. My father knew it was the only way. He died at 63. I owe him an unpayable debt of gratitude.
Roland can be heard with Brett Macdonald on 3BA, every Monday morning at 10.45 and contacted via [email protected].