THE EARLY 1960S WAS ANOTHER ERA, Papua New Guinea (‘the Territory’) another place and the Highlands still a frontier.
In the Chimbu (as we called it then) there were two single white women, both nurses, and 80 single white men. There existed a rough, drunken, brawling culture.
I was just 18 and, before I'd been in Kundiawa three months as a callow novice schoolteacher, I'd had three fights, lost each and decided there was no headway in this behaviour. Except in the sense that my head kept getting in the way.
I also discovered the therapeutic benefits of sharing a bottle of Old Kedge before breakfast. Briefly, here’s how I made the discovery.
My Hauspig (single men’s quarters) co-tenant, offended that I declined a generous offer to join him in a small social drink at half past six of a Sunday morning, threw me off the back verandah clad only in my underpants.
The local church-going public, wandering up the hill to lotu, were bemused by this vision unsplendid of a bawling, half naked white man.
I’ve never been known to knock back a drink since.
Kundiawa, 1964. I began publishing a stencilled newspaper (circulation 50), the Kundiawa News, which, in a roundabout way, was to later lead me to Port Moresby, Yokomo, the ABC and journalism.
The KN was what you'd call scurrilous. It published gossip, opinion and fact in a pretty undifferentiated way.
Each fortnight's issue was dumped on the respective bars of the Chimbu Club and Kundiawa Hotel and avidly fallen upon by the punters.
As they absorbed the scuttlebutt and malice, a little niggling would start, then a bit of verbal blueing and occasionally a fully-fledged brawl.
Attempting a hard-hitting style of prose, I inadvertently called the expat Public Works grader driver a “dissolute reprobate”.
Later, he caught up with me in the front (white only) bar of the pub and asked what ‘reprobate’ meant.
By the look on his face I could tell that he didn't imagine it was a compliment.
I volunteered its definition as a ‘mild term of reproach’, whereupon he grabbed my shoulders and began to shake me.
Given that there was a fair bit of him and not much of me in those days, it was like a Rottweiler wrestling a wet handkerchief.
At this point, my mate Bladwell entered the fray, accosting the man and saying mildly, “Hey, leave him alone”.
My assailant, wanting real sport, king hit Bladders, knocking him to the floor.
Now Bladders was a pretty popular guy around Chimbu back then, so a bunch of other fellas joined in.
Before you could say, “I'm outta here and off up the Club”, all 20 guys in the bar had decided this was the night to settle old and new scores and were hoeing into each other.
The barmaids screamed, the lights went out, tables rolled over, glasses broke.
Afterwards, the publican, Dick Kelaart, threatened to ban everyone for life except he would have gone broke.
I took Bladders to the haus sik and we watched the late Tim Murrell finish a Caesarean section in the pitpit operating room before he stitched up my hero.
It was a terrific brawl.
Those implicated boasted of their involvement for months afterwards and those who missed out were disappointed and felt cheated.
I was quietly pleased that something I'd written could have such a spectacular impact on the local community.
A kiap named Max Orken and I started the Central Highlands Cricket Competition, which brought together teams from Kundiawa, Kerowagi, Chuave and Minj.
Our home ground was Kundiawa airstrip that projected from the surrounding valleys like a table top.
We’d rip out stumps, leave the coir matting to its own devices and hare off the pitch whenever planes landed.
We grew tired of MAF Pastor Doug McGraw’s habit of arriving like a bat out of hell and landing across the runway.
Having bested the all-PNG Minj 2 team one Sunday, I invited the players to the Chimbu Club for a beer.
Their captain was taken aback and - looking hard at this deeply tanned youngster with curly Mekeo-like hair - protested, "Nogat, Kit, dispela haus itambu long ol kanaka" (‘No, Keith, we natives aren’t allowed in such places’).
In the sixties the Chimbu Club was one of very few in the then Territory to have a multiracial charter and I was able to reassure him all was OK.
The Minj team was delighted and the captain bought me a rum. I would've preferred beer but a drink’s a drink.
When I went to return the shout he jumped up and bought again.
When it happened the third time, the one-sidedness began to embarrass me.
Eventually I stirred myself to ask, “Olsem wonem yu baim buka meri long mi na no laikim mi baiim yu?” (‘Why won’t you let me return the shout?’)
“Aaah,” he said slowly, staring at my hair, “Mi gat sori tru long ol yupela hapkas” (‘Oh, I feel really sorry for you mixed race people’).