Saturday, 26 November 2016

Still working for Red Cross 45 years later

It took me a while to find a picture of Bob that exemplifies this larger-than-life man as I know him. He's a polar explorer, writer, manager, humanitarian, bon-vivant... but most of all he loves life with an infectious enthusiasm. (Joe Lowry)

Some time ago Joe Lowry asked me to write an article for his blog, 'what it is like to be a man.'
I find being a man is a mixture of roles: protector, provider, clown, outdoor educator, trainer to my children and wife (I have seven children), sensitive to all the females in my life, and a good friend to my mates.
The biggest influence on me was my Mum. She was the one that really shaped me and led me to humanitarian work. Eileen, was born deaf, as was her younger brother Ray, and in those days, anyone born deaf was considered deaf and dumb. But my Mother was a bright woman, she enjoyed Shakespeare, read poetry and she taught me to sew and knit, and to write well.
I loved my Mother dearly and was horrified by children’s cruelty towards her. I remember older kids throwing clods at her and then as a five year old, running down the road chasing after them and trying to knock the shit out of them, but often they would knock the shit out of me. I learned that being a boy (man) was defending yourself and other less fortunate. Bloody knees, black eyes and continuous cuts and bruises were my medals of honour.
When you have a disabled member of your family, someone you love dearly, and people discriminate against them, you grow up with a huge awareness of discrimination and where it occurs.
For me, being a man, is knowing where you come from and drawing strength from that. Explorers, surveyors,  blacksmiths, ploughmakers, shoemakers, labourers, clerks, sailors, miners, bushmen, and strong sensitive woman linked me through the past 150 years across the water to the highlands of Scotland, to the rivers of Prussia, the theatres of England.  My Auntie spoke of having Maori blood  through the village of Colac Bay in Southland and my family tree shows I am related to Buffalo Bill Cody and Charles Laughton, the Shakespearian actor. Perhaps, the most famous connection is to King James V, from whom the McKerrow historian says we have descended, albeit from the wrong side of the blanket.
Thinking of my heritage make me feel strong in the many difficult situations I have had to face. These have included Taleban soldiers threatening me with rifles, thieves in Colon Panama trying to knife me for my money and the cold barrel of an AK 47 pushed against my temple at night in Vietnam. I find my background gives me the cool-headedness to look them in the eye and ‘be a man.’  I find antagonists back down when you stand up to them. I suppose I have never been afraid of men particularly when comparing them to my tough Father. He was a strict disciplinarian and used to bring out a WWII German belt and beat us very hard if we misbehaved. But he was also an excellent handyman and I recall many happy days helping him do repairs around the house,  grow vegetables, cut hedges, lawns and resole shoes. He had two books on how to repair motor cars but being a labourer with five children, a car was beyond our family finances. 
 I go to my diaries from my early 20s and this is what I rediscover.
“For nearly two years I had been a part of all male mountaineering expeditions to Peru, Antarctica, and between times, on all male trips to Mount Cook and Fiordland.
“After nine months in Antarctica I looked in the mirror, and I realised a man without a women around him, is a man without vanity. Winsome, how I loved her. I wrote hundreds of letters to her during that dark, long winter’s night. She was at the airport with her new boyfriend to greet me when I returned from Antarctica.
Mountains and women – they were, and are, a huge part of my life. Brasch, our great New Zealand poet said “Man must lie with mountains like a lover, earning their intimacy in a calm sigh” . In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman’s says “ A woman contains everything, nothing lack, body, soul.”
The a close relationship I had with my Mum, with two older sisters and my Nana (and the distant one I had with my Dad) convinces me that women were the one who encouraged me, gave me my reference points in life.
Why was I spending so much time with men ? Was I having to prove myself? Well I had proved I was physically capable of climbing some of the highest mountains in the world, running marathons, and surviving a year in Antarctica with only three other people.
Yet I felt at a cross road. There was something compelling about leading a life of an itinerant mountaineer, explorer or traveller. I cast back my mind Peru to 1968 and the poverty that moved me so much . My first adult poem was prompted by the injustices I saw throughout Peru in 1968. I flirted with Marxism, read Nietzsche, Che Guevara.  Thoughts from Bolivian diary by Che  Guevara swirled in my head. In New Zealand Norm Kirk was emerging as a national leader, an engine driver who was about to railroad our country away from the clutches of racist conservatism. Being a man was being aware of the wider world around me.
These were heady times.  The music -  Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Chen The Beatles, Joplin, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. The Vietnam war was becoming ugly - why the hell did New Zealand have troops there? Protests were strong.
During these weeks of running and frequent bouts of drinking at the Captain Cook pub, I came across an advert in  December 1971 in  the Otago Daily Times  wanting personnel to work in South Vietnam for a “ New Zealand Red Cross Refugee Welfare Team”. They wanted nurses, an agriculturalist, water-sanitation special, rehabilitation guidance officer, and a mechanic. Shit, this was for me. I could travel and do something structured for the people like those I saw in Peru.
Chris Knott and I had just got back from our miserable trip to Fiordland and we were together licking our wounds. We had miserably failed to climb Mt Tutoko and after a week of torrential rain we almost died of exposure and later were swept away when a swollen river picked up our tent as we slept.
The doorbell rang, and there at the front door was the telegram man with a message for each of us, inviting us to go to Wellington, for interviews for the New Zealand Red Cross Refugee team to South Vietnam.
A few weeks later I was elated on receiving news I had been selected to go to South Vietnam.
Chris missed out. He was to go back to England and spend the next three years working for the British Antarctic survey. I was the lucky one to have broken out of the mould being set for me to continue the lonely life of an adventurer
Defending my Mum on a number of occasions made me realise at a young age that discrimination is to be found everywhere, and that committed and motivated people were needed to stand up against it. That led me to the Red Cross, at the age of 22.
I wanted to be the protector, rescuer and change agent for all these people brutalised by uncaring soldiers in war, and to change the minds of the uncaring bureaucrats who were designated to care and help them.
Forty five later I am still  working for Red Cross in Bangladesh and feel I have the drive, committment and energy to go on another ten or more.

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