It is an incontrovertible fact that a fool and his money are soon parted. The story I am about to recite really did happen but was Dale Harris, or Shagger to his friends, a fool?
At six thousand feet, Papua New Guinea’s Highland town of Mendi, is corralled by verdant mountains. As the afternoon advances, its blue canopy is being invaded by inky rain clouds.
‘Shagger, we are bringing six cartons. Is that enough?’ Shagger laughs, in his inimitable falsetto fashion.
‘That’s half a carton each – could be a long afternoon.’
It is 1977’s and PNG’s independence is already two years old. Mendi was still home to an abundance of public servants, an Australian Army Engineering Regiment, and more ‘god botherers’ than you could poke a stick at. Today, there is a big ‘sing-sing’ happening in the centre of town, so golf has been abandoned. We golfers, plus Shaggers’ mates, are heading to the backyard of his government bungalow to follow the footy and get drunk.
At this point it is important to tell you that Shagger was victim of the punt. The Koran, the Upanishads and the Bible had all been rolled into one form guide for Shagger. It was called the Punter’s Pal and arrived on Saturday morning’s sparrow-fart’ flight. Shagger injected its wisdom into his consciousness like a smacko who had been on the nod.
His preferred modus operandi was to choose favourites in all eight races and to enjoy the roller coaster ride of accumulators. This meant that if his selection won the first race, the winnings rolled onto the next race and so on. It was a ploy that was rarely successful, but Shagger argued that the adrenalin rush was like sky diving on steroids.
Retiring to Shagger’s back yard, an industrial sized Esky now took central stage. Brimming with ice and South Pacific stubbies, it held our nourishment for the arvo’s entertainment. Adjacent, to the Esky were two radios; one was following Radio Australia’s coverage of the Manly v Souths game and the other, the race card from Eagle Farm in Brissy.
By the time we were peeling our ‘third scab’, the card had advanced to Race Five. Shagger, whose personality invariably hovered over the hysteria button, had crossed over and become maniacal. Four straight winners had seen his original stake morph into a Sisyphean rock.
Suddenly, a roar ricocheted around the garden. Shagger was dancing on his chair. ‘Good boy got up – that’s five down, three to go.’ We footy followers ignored him, keen to see Manly flogged, for a loathing of the Sea Eagles was de rigeur back in the 70’s.
By the time his pick, Gay Pride, had won Race Seven, however, we didn’t care if the Rabbits won or lost. We were involved; no longer sitting but all clustered around the tranny, wishing we were at the rails at Eagle Farm.
‘Shagger, how much is riding on this one?’
Shagger chortled, ‘More than you earn Skid.’ Skid was Mark Thomas the Council adviser.
Excitement was now etched deeply into Shagger’s face like the lines on a relief map of the Himalayas. Shagger’s horse in the eighth race was called ironically, Celebration, a 2-1 on favourite. It was a one-kilometre race and silence reigned as Johnny Tapp commenced the call. Around the bend, and Celebration had his nose in front. We were all riding him home. Finally it was over. Celebration had won. Shagger was whooping around the garden like a rodeo rider. ‘I’ve just won $18,000,’ he screamed.
Galloping into the house, he called back, ‘I’m out of here. Get me a plane Garry.’ Garry was Talair’s resident pilot. The next hour was organised chaos.
While Garry obtained permission to fly to Moresby, Shagger was on the phone to Air Nuigini organising a flight south. Not an hour later, Shagger, port safely stowed, was the sole passenger on the yellow Piper Aztec as it zoomed along the strip, barrelling out of our mountain home bound for party time.
Ten days later I met the morning flight arriving from Moresby. Shagger disembarked with a smile as wide as the Harbour Bridge.
‘Good time Shagger?’
‘Mate, it was the best week of my life,’
Waiting for his bags, I asked? ‘Money well spent then?’
‘Blood oath. What a week. Come to the Club tonight and I’ll tell all.’
Shagger had, he told us that night, booked himself into Lennon’s hotel in Brissy for the week. Moët champagne and a cornucopia of high-class ‘ladies of the night’ were his chosen companions for the week.
‘My biggest problem’, he laughed, ‘was making the eighteen grand last the week. It was hard, but I managed.’
So, do you think Shagger was a fool?