Old Man - His youth as a Stolen Generation Member
Written from stories told by Geoff Guest
Written 1994. Last update April 2014.
Geoff Guest A.O.M. has Aboriginal, Irish, and Scot forebears and is now in his seventies. For over 20 years Geoff (Old Man) has been passing on bushcraft and horse riding ways in Far North Queensland, Australia - transforming Aboriginal, Islander and other youth away from self harm and imprisonment.
Aboriginal, Geoff Guest, known respectfully as 'Old Man', is telling the stories to Aboriginal and Islander youth at his Youth Camp - his own story:
Geoff's family knew the authorities were looking for children like him. Being fair skinned, his family had left him dirty and had rubbed him all over with charcoal. Looking for 'half-caste' children, the police arrive unexpectedly and grab Geoff when he is aged four (around 1932). They deliberately pour hot tea on him - burning him and scrubbing him to check skin colour. Discovering his fair skin, he is taken from his family - one of the Stolen Generation.
Geoff is placed in a rural home with around 100 other Aboriginal boys - a harsh cheerless place. Clothes for the younger boys are like dresses. They are made from two layers of blanket with newspaper sewn between them. If visitors are to arrive, the boys are all dressed in pants that are so hard, they chafe the crutch. Shoes hurt. As soon as visitors leave, the children are put back into the blanket dresses. They have to wash themselves after going on the toilet. There is no toilet paper. Geoff has no memory of Christmas celebrations though it is a mission run home. There is whispered talk among the boys of supervisors and staffers doing 'dirty things' with the older boys.
When Geoff is eight (around 1936) the authorities place him with an English overseer and his wife on a large sheep, cattle, grain, and hay property near Toowoomba, Queensland. There are no other children on the station. Geoff has a large number of daily chores. He is treated as an unpaid slave. The only contact the overseer's wife has with Geoff is to yell at him to hurry up.
Aboriginal stockmen, some with Aboriginal wives though no children, live in some station buildings a few kilometres away. After chores on Sunday, Geoff is allowed some interaction with the Aboriginals. Some of the Aboriginal stockmen and the wives show Geoff affection. From these Aboriginals Geoff learns traditional bush and horse skills.
By ten Geoff is very skilled with horses. He regularly rides a very large scarifier, handling the team of sixteen horses which pull it. The horses know what to do. However on one day the team of horses bolt and damage a section of fencing before Geoff, who manages to stay on the scarifier, regains control. After chores are finished that night, and because he had damaged fencing and put the horses and scarifier at risk, Geoff is tied to a fence post and whipped till his shirt is in shreds and the skin is off his back. From that day Geoff can't talk without a severe stutter. To this day he still bears the scars on back and memory.
During the next year Geoff plans to escape from the station and maintain his freedom. A keen observer, Geoff has by now become a very accomplished horseman and bushman. From other aboriginal stockmen he knows the bush tucker ways and knows bush medicine for man and horse. He excels at resourcefulness and self sufficiency. He is told to lead a horse that 'can't be 'broken'' - away from the station and the other horses and to release it. Geoff befriends this wild horse. He builds a stockyard near a small waterhole he knows, where no one will find the horse and keeps it there. Over a few months Geoff secrets two other good stock horses in a paddock kept for pensioner (older) horses.
He slowly snitches flour, sugar and other provisions from a very large store shed. For shelter, he takes a 12 foot square tarp, rope and a stockman's standard swag. He delights in taking a considerable quantity of ammo and three guns - a 22 gauge rifle, a 45 semi automatic pistol and a shotgun. He also takes holsters for the guns, a sheath knife, cooking utensils, and a considerable quantity of matches.
Thinking ahead, Geoff snitches pliers and a wire strainer so he can easily get his horses through fences. He intends to repair fences immediately so as to not draw attention to his presence as he travels. Geoff also snitches a saddle and two saddlebags from the large store shed. Because the shed and contents are so extensive, Geoff's snitching is not noticed. All of these things Geoff stashes near the hidden stockyard.
Geoff and the other aboriginal people are never allowed to speak indoors. One afternoon Geoff spoke when alone with the Overseer who had whipped him a year ago. The overseer yells at Geoff for speaking (stuttering) and grabs a stock whip to give Geoff another beating. Immediately Geoff grabs a small five foot yard-whip used on cattle. These yard whips have a reasonable size ball bearing woven into the tip. Geoff whips out first and scores a direct hit on the overseer's head with the ball bearing. The overseer drops to the floor like a stone, unconscious.
Fearing he had killed the overseer, Geoff flees un-noticed by others and takes the two stock horses from the pensioners paddock. On reaching the third horse, Geoff quickly puts the saddlebags on the two stock horses and packs his resource cache in the bags. He ties the horses together and dismantles the yard so as to leave no trace of its existence. He saddles the horse he is to ride The rifles fit snugly in their holsters on the horses. By sunrise he is miles away from the station - a small 11 year old rider leading two pack horses - all alone in a vast lightly treed outback plain. At last he is alone with his Mother - Earth.
Over the next five seasons Geoff has no contact with another person. He continual scans the horizon to see others before they see him. To his knowledge, no one ever does see him. He has no maps. He lives off the land. He knows that if you follow Kangaroos and wallabies for a time and then walk away, they will follow. By approaching and retreating he can get very close to them. He would select the animal he wanted and bring it down with spear. In many respects Geoff reverts to a traditional Aboriginal hunter gatherer way of life. He also eats goanna, grubs, rabbits, snakes, and water fowl, as well as fruits, nuts and tubers - typically he has his fill. He knows how to find water, though at times its scarce. He draws on his station food supplies sparingly. He only uses the guns in remote country as he does not want to attract attention to himself. He mainly uses the 22.
Typically, Geoff walks and rides barefoot to save his boots. When it looks like raining he seeks out horse feed, sets up his shelter and stays put. He gathers lots of wood to be able to keep his fire going. He knows he will run out of matches so he starts carrying a fire stick when he moves. He can light fires without matches. He keeps materials for that. However he knows lighting new fires without matches or a fire stick can be very difficult during prolonged wet spells.
All the while he is heading South by the sun and stars. He keeps to the great plains well in from the Great Divide Mountain ranges. Even so, a number of times he crosses rugged mountainous country. He swims the horses across rivers and creeks and floats his provisions and gear on make-shift rafts wrapped in the waterproof tarp. He keeps his horses well. He skirts farm buildings and often travels at night past the larger towns. In all he travels over 1,500 kilometres on this walkabout and after five seasons ends up in North Central Victoria in cattle and sheep country.
Ever since he fled the station, Geoff has been craving salt. The first person he decides to talk to since he begun his trek is a rabbit catcher. He has been secretly watching this fellow setting traps on a daily basis for about a week. Geoff sees the man add a pinch of salt to his rabbit stew. For Geoff, that is the clincher.
Geoff hides his horses and gear and approaches the man. He says he is 14 (he is twelve and a half) so the man won't be worried about him and asks whether he can help the man set the traps. He says that his mother and father work a farm 'up north' and that his father has sent him in search of work. The fellow is taken with Geoff's verve and 'look ya in the eye' way. Geoff shares some of his meal. 'Ah! Salt at last!' The rabbiter agrees to share tea and salt in exchange for help.
Geoff finds out the man is paid by the landowner to poison, ferret, trap and dig out rabbits. Through the rabbiter, Geoff meets the landowner and gets a six day a week job to keep the rabbits down in another large area of the property.
One Sunday the rabbiter takes Geoff to visit the landowner. When they get to the farm house a person is handling some horses in a very rough way. One of the horses is too wild to handle. The landowner is contemplating shooting it. Geoff says not to shoot the horse as he will be able to ride him. Everyone present laughs.
They leave Geoff with the unrideable horse and go inside for lunch. Geoff climbs into the yard and eyes the horse and is making little head nodding movements. He starts talking softly to the horse and making soft sounds. The horse flares, rears and gallops the perimeter. Geoff turns him with raised hat. The horse stops - chest heaving, nostrils flared, his wide eyes on Geoff. Geoff eyes the horse and continues the whispering and head bobbing. With slow movement forward - with gentle gesture - Geoff is, within minutes, stroking the horse. Had someone seen this unfold it would have seemed surreal. When the men come back from lunch Geoff is confidently and quietly riding the 'unrideable' horse round the yard.
It happens that the landowner has just sacked his horse breaker who had got himself drunk on rum. The landowner offers Geoff the horse breaker job. Geoff jumps at the chance.
Geoff meets up with an Aboriginal man repairing a windmill. Talk reveals that they are distant relatives. Geoff moves on with his relative to another place to do horse breaking. They move on after teeing up work at another sheep and cattle property as horse breakers and yard builders.
On arriving at this property's main house Geoff meets a school teacher in her early 50's from England who teaches the farmer's children. She takes an interest in Geoff and wants to help his stuttering. By now he is thirteen and has been stuttering badly for nearly three years. She tells Geoff that she is a trained speech therapist and has taught soldiers to speak after World War One - those who had been traumatised and gassed. When both their days duties are over, she gives Geoff speech therapy. She has him say over and over, expressions like 'a raggy scraggy dog'. With her healing and nurturing Geoff is able to stop stuttering most of the time.
Geoff saves his earnings. On one occasion Geoff buys clothes from an old Afghan travelling salesman who travels the bush tracks in a horse drawn covered wagon. Along the way Geoff also trades his horses for better ones. Geoff and his relative decide to head back North. Geoff does not like his relative's drinking habits. Finally, on one occasion when the relative comes back very drunk to their camp from a nearby pub, Geoff decides it is better that he leave his only 'family' and once again Geoff travels alone.
On horseback with two pack horses Geoff makes his way North. He passes Toowoomba, and traversing around 4,000 kilometres arrives at Brookland Station - a big place twenty miles North of Mareeba on the Cooktown road. It is owned by Carter and Hawkings.
Geoff got the job as a stockman at Brookland Station on a referral from a stock and station agent who had seen Geoff do some horse work in town at the cattle sales yards. One of the Brookland Station owners, Ted Carter takes Geoff under his wing. Ted's son Arlo joins the Australian army. Geoff wants to as well, though he is unable - being only 14 and having no ID papers.
Drovers would come down slowly with mobs of cattle from the remote North. Geoff gets a job to help them return up North with all their horse plant.
Up at Millearna station owned by Fred Kepple on the Cape near Coen, Geoff meets army blokes working on an airstrip at Iron Range. They are on patrol in an old army blitz truck. They tell Geoff that some young fellow has gone AWOL and they can't find him. Geoff offers to take his place, name and pay. Geoff goes with them. Geoff is soon found out and gets into big trouble with army command. Someone says he can get out of going to jail by joining the American Merchant Navy. Geoff, now nearly fifteen, does join (around 1942/3). He is involved in taking gear and equipment around the PNG Islands. Carting fuel makes Geoff violently sea sick.
Geoff hears that the Americans are looking for pack horses to replace mules lost in the Chinese-Japanese war context. The task is to walk in fifty horses from Bombay, India and up through the Punjab and across the North West Mountain passes into China. These horses would be carrying howitzers and ammunition.
On demonstrating his horsemanship, Geoff by now just sixteen, is seconded to the American Army from the Merchant Navy. He helps select the Australian bush horses and get them to the awaiting ship. From Bombay, they walk the horses, weapons and ammunition. There are two officers, a third medical officer and sixteen soldiers. Three of the soldiers are young. The others served in WWI.
Because of Geoff's obvious horsemanship skills, he is given the task of caring for the Officers' spare horses. Through this, Geoff is able to ride most of the time while the other soldiers all have to walk beside the horses.
In crossing India, a couple of times they are able to use trains. They hire a few flat topped rail trucks and build makeshift open air surrounds. The soldiers travel in with the horses and see the rich tapestry of the Indian countryside roll by. Most of the way they walk. At times they have trouble getting enough suitable feed for the horses.
They ascend the towering mountains through the passes. When into the Chinese side of the mountains they rendezvous, as arranged, with the a small contingent of Chinese soldiers. The Chinese soldiers have their parents, grandparents, wives, sisters and children, as well as mules and plenty of noisy chooks with them. Without the soldiers support, all these 'extras' would have starved back in their home territory. The Chinese, Americans and Geoff, as well as the horses and the Chinese mules and chooks make a strange and often noisy mix.
While still together with the Chinese, they come under fire from Japanese soldiers. A Chinese mule is hit in the stomach by shrapnel. Because the mule is mortally wounded, Geoff is going to put it out of its misery. Their mules are very precious to the Chinese. One of the Chinese uses acupuncture needles in the injured mule's chest, ear and nose. The mule immediately becomes calm. Because of this, and the Chinese people’s consternation about losing the mule, Geoff shaves the wound, removes the shrapnel - without any fuss by the mule - and washes the wound and intestines with saline solution. Geoff stiches up the intestines and shoves them back in and stitches up the wound. The Chinese watch Geoff's skill with eager admiration. With regular, acupuncture the mule survives.
Some of the Chinese are hit by shrapnel during subsequent Japanese raids. The American Medical Officer refuses to touch or treat the Chinese. The Chinese have seen the quality of Geoff's natural 'healing work' on their mule. They ask Geoff to clean and stitch them up with the aid of one of their comrade's accupuncture. Geoff becomes their surgeon.
Geoff comes back down to Bombay suffering from carbuncles. He is repatriated back to Australia and while in a lot of pain, given the atrocious injuries of other soldiers being repatriated, finds his reason for being repatriated - carbuncles - a bit embarrassing. He has seen active service in the American Army. He is still around sixteen.
Old Man continues his storytelling - cutting to Geoff's lifework from aged 50 to over age 70:
Now aged fifty, Geoff draws on his life experience in taking on the heart-calling of helping wayward youth. Typically Geoff has 20-25 youth at his youth camp. Days start with healing and transformative storytelling. He stays with the boys on horseback during the day demonstrating the stockman's life-ways. He funds his Youth Camp by mining tin between 10PM and 3AM each night - tough pick and shovel work. Now in his mid 80s, he has helped over 15,000 youth become skilled horsemen. He is still doing this lifework.
Energy is unfolding to make a feature film of Geoff's early life. Uncompromising support for Geoff's work is welcome.