The rise and fall and resurrection of an Aboriginal boy
(letters quoted are from the Aboriginal boy)
'I don’ want you to do none of this boxin’ Bobby,' my Mum said when I told her I wanted to be a boxer. She made a circle in the sand with her big toe and went round and round to the centre so that it looked like a turtle shell. I remember she was wearing a dress with coloured squares and flowers on it and she was holding my baby sister on her hip.
'You smart boy. Good at sums and reading. One day you could be mebbe a big lawyer man or teacher. Make lotta money. Help your people. We’d be proud of you.'
'But Mum, Mr Phillips says I can be a champion one day. I could make a lot of money and you could still be proud of me. Think how pleased they’d be to have one of their own tribe a world champion.'
'Worl’ champion!. What are you thinking? You never gonna be world champion. You just get your head bashed and lose all those brains you got.'
Mums are like that. They never want to see their kids getting in fights. But boxing is different. It’s the noble art. You’re a trained athlete and there are rules to keep it fair.
We lived on the mission at Woorabinda and Mr Phillips came over from Biloela on Fridays to give boxing lessons after school. He said I was one of the best kid boxers he’s seen, that I had really quick reflexes and moved like a champ. I liked that 'moved like a champ'. And soon I was beating all the other kids and Mr Phillips said I could come and see how I went at the big fights in Biloela on Saturdays.
We used to live in a humpy. That’s an Aborigine hut thing where we would dig a big hollow in the sand and put up a framework of limbs cut from trees and then lay some roofing iron over the top. Before our people had roofing iron, they used to put bark and branches and leaves on top. It was fun living in the humpy, but I liked our new house better and so did Mum and Dad.
When the mission took over our tribe, they built the new houses and the school and teachers came and we had lessons. At first we didn’t like having to go to school because we used to play all the time before they came. But after a while we got to like school and learning so many things. My teacher said I was a good writer and that one day I might become a writer of books. She said we were all good at drawing and, after writing compositions and stories, I liked drawing best.
After school the boys used to go for long walks and catch goannas and jump the creek ... sometimes we’d dig out some witchetty grubs and eat them and if we were thirsty we’d dig a hole for water. The white men thought we were clever to dig holes and find water, but our people have done that for thousands of years because there’s such a lot of desert in our land.
My Dad helped Mr Musgrove on the big farm near our place. He rode a horse with four other men of our tribe and rounded up the cattle. Sometimes he would put me on the saddle with him and give me a ride to the farm and Mrs Musgrove would give me cakes and fizzy drinks and I’d play with her children. I would stay all day and ride home with Dad after he worked.
My brother Davie and I and the other kids would sit down with the older men who told stories about our tribe and how it was before the white man came. The stories come from thousands of years of our tribe and tell how the moon and the sun got in the sky and things like that. The old men told us that we must live the way Aborigines have always lived, looking after each other, sharing everything in the community. But white man’s way is not like that and you could see that the white ways were already changing our people. When they saw water coming out of a tap they didn’t want to dig holes for it any more. And when there was a shop where you could buy all sorts of different things to eat, they stopped hunting for food. So we were all caught in the new way of needing money to get food. That’s why it was important to learn at school so that we could survive.
And I knew my best way was with my fists in the boxing ring.
Mr Phillips lent me all the magazines about boxing from all over the world and the one I liked most of all was the one published in Australia called 'Fighter Magazine' ... because it had all there was to know about Australian boxing. It cost 50 cents for each issue and I saved my pocket money and posted a dollar every two months for my copies. You can imagine how great it was to see my own name in print in Fighter after I had won 26 of my 30 bouts and I was only 14 years old.
You might like to read what it said about me:
'Bobby Pawilla, of Woorabinda in Queensland, is one of our keenest readers. Every few months he sends a dollar note for ‘the next two issues of Fighter please’ . It comes crumpled and covered in red dust. He saves his pocket money for Fighter and sometimes ‘picks up a few cents after a tournament’.'
This is the part I like:
'Bobby Pawilla outpointed Carl Edwards of Rockhampton. Pawilla is one of the most improved boxers in Central Queensland and will soon be ready for main bouts. He will be 15 years old in September and is in his third year of amateur boxing. Of his 30 bouts, Pawilla has won 26 ... one of his losses was a points decision to the National Golden Gloves senior champ, which was not bad for a 14- year-old.'
Despite my great performance I still wasn’t listed in the ratings, so I wrote to Bonnie Franklin, who edited Fighter Magazine’s Office Corner, where she published letters and interesting bits about boxers. I asked her if she could find out why I wasn’t rated and I sent a picture I said was me, because it looked just like me and I reckoned it would be me one day.
Bonnie picked me up on that in the next issue and wrote this:
'Included in the letter from Bobby was a picture which he said was taken of him in Central Queensland late last year. It was actually a picture of Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) snipped from an American magazine. Well, a young boy can have his dreams, can’t he?'
After that I wrote every month to Bonnie Franklin to tell her how I was going in my bouts and she used to write back to me. It was good to have someone, especially a lady, writing to me and asking how I was. She even wrote to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and asked them if Fighter Magazine could bring me for a trip to Melbourne to 'taste the city life' . One of the readers who read about me in the magazine wanted me to stay with him and his wife, who had made me a shiny boxing gown.
But right at that time I was due to come up for an apprenticeship and the Department didn't agree to let me go then.
Mr Phillips, who said he had `adopted' me as a boxer in his stable in Biloela, taught me such a lot about boxing. He was a boxing nut and I'd make him tell me all about the Australian and overseas boxing and give me all the tips he could. He would tell me which matches to take and which not to take. I asked him to work in my corner and he gradually worked me up the ladder until I'd beaten everyone in the area and then Mr Phillips had to bring fighters in from other places to fight me.
He took me to other places for fights, driving 100 miles to pick me up at Woorabinda and then driving to places like Bundaberg and Maryborough. He'd pick me up on Friday nights and drive me home on Sunday.
Mr Phillips wanted me to come to live in Biloela where they had a good home for me and a job. He wrote to me once to say 'Our local crowd would adopt you, Bobby and you would be our main drawcard in our local main events .. it would pave the way for other clubs to do the same for other Aboriginal boys.'
But as fate had it, a trainer from one of the big gyms in Brisbane saw me fight in Biloela and asked me to turn pro. 'Come to our gym Bobby and we'll turn you in to a world champion.'
I wasn't sure about it, but the idea of being a professional and being world champion really made me want to do it. I wrote to Bonnie at Fighter and she said I should stay amateur for now. 'You would be better to develop more in the amateur field,' she wrote. 'You might even make it to the Olympic Games.'
I'm sorry I didn't take her advice, which was the same as Mr Phillips'. But this fella had stars in his eyes and lost his sense of balance.
Mr Tony Cassidy from the Brisbane gym came to see me a few times at Woorabinda and painted such a bright picture I couldn't resist. He organised with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to get me apprenticed in Brisbane so that I could join his gym and start training.
I was only 15 when I had my first pro fight and soon showed what a great fighter I would be. I won 14 fights, 13 of them KO. The papers started to say I had the same quick eye and fist that our world champion Lionel Rose had. And while I admired Lionel Rose, it was Muhammad Ali I wanted to be like.
Then Mr Cassidy sold his gym to another trainer, Dan Dillon, and it was then that life changed for me. Dillon matched me with a New South Wales champion who was far too experienced for me. Mr Phillips tried to stop it and Bonnie wrote against it in Fighter. But the fight went ahead and for the first time I took a trouncing. It was such a bad defeat and I was so knocked about I decided to go walkabout. Leave it all behind for now, come back when I felt better about it.
I wrote to Bonnie and asked if she would send all the pictures of me that had been published in Fighter - there were quite a lot by then. I wanted to make up my scrap book. I told her I was heading north to work my way around. Do some travelling in my own country, at least for a year.
Perhaps I’d been holding my head too high and that’s why it got knocked off. That reminded me of my Mum, who said that would happen. I felt sad because she died before I really started to get famous, but I’m glad she wasn’t there to see me at my downfall.
There was worse to come for me.
I met up with some Aborigines from around my parts and they were having such a good time. They seemed so happy and said I ought to have a drink of beer with them. Ever since I could remember I’d trained hard and never touched alcohol, but now I felt like relaxing, so I tried it. I was sick the first time I drank, but after that I got used to it and we all got drunk most of the time. I ran out of money and sold the shiny gown, and my boxing gloves and boots and thought, well, why do I need these now, just more things to carry around.
We got in to fights and the police were always watching us. They’d break up the fights and put us in gaol for the night. We were still hanging around Brisbane and planning to move inland to our own sort of country, but just before we moved something terrible happened.
The boys were sitting on a fence near a toilet, drinking as usual, and I’d just gone in to the toilets. I was standing having a pee when a man came over and started to pull my pants down from behind. I knew he was going to buggerise me and that’s bad in Aboriginal law. I saw a stick on the floor, picked it up and hit him over the head. He yelled and fell over but just then the police were passing and stopped to see what was wrong. This fellow was bleeding from the head and he told them I had attacked him and tried to steal his wallet. A lie, a lie, I said. Trouble was, I was holding his wallet in my hand. Took it without thinking. A stupid thing to do.
I didn’t have a hope of proving that I had hit the man because of what he was going to do to me. There was some justice in that, but none in hitting him to steal his wallet. The police put me in handcuffs and locked me in gaol. I wrote to Mr Phillips and Fighter Magazine and they tried to get bail, but they were told it was out of the question. I was defended, if I could call it that, by a solicitor appointed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. And got seven years!
Seven years inside prison. It was the gloomiest day of my life. My life, which was going to be so brilliant. My star, fallen. I was so depressed I wanted to die and the only link I had to hope was through a few old friends like Mr Phillips and Bonnie and Fighter Magazine. I was only allowed a few letters a month and started writing a lot to Bonnie. I used to start the letters 'To Mother' as I didn’t have one and I needed one so much. Bonnie wrote back and helped me out of the darkness, always encouraging, always believing in my natural goodness.
For a while I was rebellious in prison, then gradually I came out of myself and decided to make the best of it. I started reading. There was a library in the Townsville prison and I soon got along with the warders because I was keen to take on jobs, like helping with cooking, cleaning in the kitchen, even helping in the library. The chaplain helped me a lot. I learned to pray and became a Christian, which is really just a name because we are all the same under one God. And I believe in God.
Best of all, I suppose, was that I could do lots of writing. Reading, thinking and writing. Mike Carrack, the Editor of Fighter Magazine, sent me a lot of interesting books and of course I looked forward to my copy of Fighter each month. My fellow-inmates loved to read it too.
Once a month we had a movie in prison. I remember enjoying 'Blazing Saddles' because there was so much action - when you're restricted in prison, looking at action like that is exhilarating. You feel as though it's you in the saddle.
The years passed. I applied for release on parole just about every year. Bonnie said I could come to Melbourne if they'd let me, but they said inter-state parole isn't a good idea. At the same time, they didn't think it was a good idea for me to be paroled up here where my former drinking mates lived. Joe Zabo, he was a trainer up in Mt Isa, said he would look after me there if I could get out. But every time it was knocked back. And I said to myself, 'never mind, Joe, we lose some, and we win some, always smile when you lose.' I know they're just words, but don't they say the word is mightier than the sword - that should be gun these days.
I came across this letter just the other day ... it's a copy I kept of one I wrote one September to Bonnie and part of it read:
'I'm writing this letter in the yard; and way up here at Townsville the weather is starting to get a little hot and as usual, around this time of the year, we are due for the rainy season. Just now the sky is clear and during the night I love looking out from my cell, up at the sky. For almost a week now I have been observing those twinkling little stars, which remind me of little smiling eyes. I have written down a few words on an old piece of paper and am trying to make it into a poem. When it's completed I will send it to you.
'As you know, I love writing and sometimes when I over work myself I get very drowsy, but at least I am improving and learning.
'Here are a couple of my own poems, one is especially for you Bonnie Mother:
Much of what I have been given in life,
Has been given to me from you
And for you I have done very little
Much less than I would like to do
If I could return just a portion
It would take years of dedicated giving
And if I were to go on without you
I wouldn't have much purpose for living
And if I could have chosen my parents
I'd have chosen a mother like you
For a father .. it really wouldn't matter
As long as he loves you too.
I like that one. And here is one more, it isn't a poem, just one of my sayings:
Harvest the crops of your soul with happiness,
Be harmonious with each other
But beware of the storms
Such as jealousy and hatred and embitterment
That will try to eradicate
The yields of good deeds.
'I've still got the letter Mike wrote in which he said 'Remember Columbus and don't let your will go soft, or your heart hard.' These words, from Mike and Bonnie were as precious almost as freedom and I remember writing back to them 'Your little fella will remember what you've said and won't let you down.
'I tried again and again for parole, but they seemed determined to make me serve my time. I didn't want to get mixed up with my old mates on the outside because they had no respect for the law and I didn't want to side with their code of silence, I sided with justice.
'I became interested in mysterious books and those that told of strange coincidences, like the two assassins who killed Presidents Abe Lincoln and John F. Kennedy - John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald - both have fifteen letters in their names and when Oswald shot Kennedy he ran to a theatre, while Booth ran from a theatre. Lincoln's secretary's name was Kennedy, and Kennedy's secretary's surname was Lincoln. Life is sure full of mysteries and coincidents.
'I once wrote this warning to Bonnie: 'Be wary of those piper cherokee twin engine planes around Essendon.' I didn't go in to the sinister things I'd read about them. I read deep things too as I was very interested in human nature, the motivations of man. Once when I was in a bit of strife, I answered the prosecutor's questions at length, expressing myself freely. The judge was so impressed with my explanations and jusitifications that he asked if I had ever done a course in psychology. He was surprised when I told him I had read Roman and Greek mythologies, Oscar Wilde, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, books on philosophy, U.F.O.s. It satisfied my inner self, I told him, although doing so much reading and writing tended to isolate me from the other prisoners, who thought I was a bit odd. The judge asked the court psychologist if he considered me 'A tribal black or an urbane black' and the psychologist said 'An urbane black.' That convinced the judge of my sanity.
'Impunity, I decided, is merely a dream and we can be deceived by the fruits of impunity, for freedom exists, like all things, only in the mind. But when you are incarcerated you feel great hunger pangs for the fruits of impunity. And when I had paid my debt, I was only free from prison. I know I am expected to blend in society, but in my mind I will not become part of it because this world is dead and colorless. That was the way I was thinking when I was in prison.
'I was released after serving my time in to a slightly different world from the one I had left. I found that Aborigines were at last being heard and they were beginning to establish their own official administrative bodies and the Australian Government was spending large sums of money to help them establish their own businesses and develop their art.
'All around Australia, Aboriginal communities were getting together, buildings were made available to them, large tracts of land were turned over to them, as original owners, and there were important jobs available for Aborigines.
'If I couldn't box for my people, I could use my learning to do something for them. I was appointed to work with Aboriginal people in a large community, arranging sporting events and helping with writing groups. I felt great pride at last.
'The doctor says I'm dying, just thirty-five, incurable. I'll be gone by spring, just when the rainy season is starting up north.
'If you see a little star up there, sparkling brighter than the others, that'll be my smiling eye.'