In 1956 when I was 14 years old I spent my school holidays with my widowed Aunt Ethel (Smith) and my two cousins, Peggy and Peter, at Sarina, a small sugar town just south of Mackay in North Queensland.
It’s on the map these days because its association with rugby league, producing such stars as Martin Bella, the late Dale Shearer, Kevin Campion and Wendell Sailor, and The Big Cane Toad, a giant statue proudly located in the town centre.
On leave from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, the Australian equivalent of Sandhurst, was Barry Petersen, newly graduated as an army lieutenant.
He was staying with his grandfather, Hans Christian “Pop” Petersen, a first generation migrant from Denmark who was a popular local identity and a fisherman of fabled skill.
Barry’s stories about military training and life in the army were spellbinding and so was his future career. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and was awarded a Military Cross during the Vietnam War and 13 other medals for service in Malaysia, Borneo and Vietnam.
He presented Judith and me with a signed copy of his memoir, Tiger Men, about his most daring exploit – establishing a guerrilla fighting force of Montagnard tribesman in Vietnam’s highlands.
A fresh biography of Barry called The Tiger Man of Vietnam was published in 2009 by my Sun-Herald colleague Frank Walker.
A movie script of Barry’s life story, commissioned by actor-director Mel Gibson 30 years ago, is still begging to be made.
Over afternoon tea and dinner in Bangkok we reminisced for hours. One of the searing highlights was our recollection about walking on broken glass without cutting the soles of your feet.
Barry recalled that it was his grandfather, “Pop” Petersen, who taught him the unusual skill and I reminded him how I pleaded to be shown how it was done.
YOUNG AND FOOLISH
Judith was horrified as Barry explained how he shattered two or three dozen beer bottles and scattered the glass shards in a line about two metres long and half a metre across. I remember watching as he clenched his fists, closed his eyes and fell into a concentrated trance before stepping onto the broken glass and walking the length of it.
When he stepped off the glass and onto the grass there wasn’t a scratch on his feet.
Now it was my turn. Under Barry’s instructions I focused all my thoughts on my feet banishing any fear of impending pain or injury. When I felt totally in control and ready for the challenge I stepped forward and walked without hesitation the length of the broken glass.
The glass crunched under my footfall but I felt no pain. Eight steps later I was safe on the grass and my feet were uninjured.
It became my party trick at high school. Its final performance was at a party in London in the 1960s in front of a crowd of drunk Aussies. (Think Earls Court, Barry McKenzie and the Zambezi Club). When I woke up the next morning I decided my glass walking days were over.
This story carries a health warning: don’t let your impressionable children or grandchildren read it.
Not that I would expect any child to try such a dangerous stunt these days. Where I live parents buy crash helmets and knee guards for their children to ride tricycles.
BOOK REVIEW IN UK PEER MAGAZINE
The British Journalism Review, a quarterly academic journal founded in 1989, has published a review of my book, Come The Revolution: A Memoir, NewSouth Books 2011.
The review is by Australian-born journalist and former London Daily Mirror editor Anthony Delano who now lives in London and rural France.
WHAT BROUGHT MURDOCH DOWN
Fed up with reading about Rupert Murdoch? Don’t be, because the story hasn’t concluded yet.
Overland, the Melbourne-based literary magazine, has published my essay on Murdoch before he created the global media empire whose London flagship has now been exposed as a criminal enterprise.
If you want to know how the fatally flawed empire started, go to: http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-208/feature-alex-mitchell/