Humans of the Wheatbelt

Humans of the Wheatbelt is a disability project that celebrates inclusion within the community.

There is always someone in each story that has a disability whether it is the human, interviewer, photographer or writer.

I was born on a British ship and therefore I was a British subject by birth. The way it works in these circumstances is that the captain of the ship can sign the birth certificate, just like he can marry you if you want to get married at sea. My mother was returning to England from Australia and I was born right there on board.

My Christian name is Wilfred, but it didn’t worry me because I’ve always been known as Neil. I get annoyed at the government and even the Department of Veterans Affairs if they don’t call me Neil. It says Wilfred Neil on my Medicare card and so letters come addressed to Wilfred. I grew up on a farm which was out the far side of Nungarin. We used to go out to Westonia, which was a ghost town, and fill up all our water tanks.

My brother was eighty-five when he passed away, which wasn’t that long ago. He was a sailor when World War II broke out and he was working in a British naval training unit at the time. He hadn’t been assigned to a ship yet, so he deserted from the Navy and joined a merchant ship so he could be part of the war. Later he jumped ship in Western Australia in 1945 and managed to get away with it, and the irony was he later became a policeman! He was in the traffic accident division for some years and later became a detective.

I joined the military back in around 1953 and it was a good life. I had to report for National Service, which at the time was three months full-time duty. In those days you weren’t sent overseas unless you elected to go. I ended up in the engineers platoon. I remember going home to the farm on a weekend’s leave and telling my parents I might decide to stay in the Army once I’d completed my National Service. After I finished my training I was posted to Karrakatta. There were engineers, armoured corps and transport, along with what they called the reserve units. The Army to me was my home. Over the years I worked my way through the ranks, becoming a sergeant and then a warrant officer.

My own point of view as a sergeant was that I had to discipline soldiers, not just teach them. I only ever charged two soldiers in my career as a sergeant that involved them doing time. One of the blokes I sent to prison was knocking off medical equipment and making money out of it. The other had been stealing rations. I gave a lot of blokes extra duties instead. When you got charged for being AWOL, maybe for staying out a night longer than you were supposed to, or if you did the wrong thing, such as discharging your weapon accidentally, it had to be dealt with somehow. Sometimes we did it the old-fashioned way, taking our shirts off and getting into it with our fists. I think I had more losses than wins, but I earned the respect of the soldiers. I made a lot of mates that way, some that I still have. We’re all the same age now, dropping off the perch like overripe oranges, but that’s not the point!

In the old days, you used to line up for your pay like you were on parade. Every second Thursday was payday, which in the early days might have been something like five pounds a fortnight. What used to happen is they would call the roll, but sometimes there were only about twenty blokes and that included the civvies. We were in charge of a lot of refugees from European countries and they’d had a rough time of it, especially those who had kids. There was one Polish gentleman whose name they could never pronounce properly, so they called him Mr Bottle-of-Whiskey! I made the effort of learning how to pronounce his name properly, so one day he came up to me and kissed me on the cheek and told me I was a good man. Everybody deserves to be called by the name they were given. That experience held me in good stead later on when I was working for a judge. It didn’t matter what people had done in life, they deserved to be called by their proper name.

I think the greatest thing was learning to be a soldier, adapting to it and just going with the flow. It was all about the mateship. The Australian armed forces enjoyed the respect and gratitude from every generation from the Boer War onwards. There were bad moments, but the good times with your mates outweighed them.


Neil – Part 2

I got out of the Army in 1973 and worked on Rottnest for nine years as a plant operator. I was in Bindoon for twenty years after I retired and I’ve lived in Toodyay for about eleven years now.

I have two daughters over in Cairns. I don’t see them a lot but they do ring on the phone fairly regularly. Sandy’s husband is an electrician and they live at Trinity Beach. Sharon’s married too and her husband is unwell and on a dialysis machine. When I go over to Cairns, I stay with both of my daughters and their husbands. Sandy used to do cooking in roadhouses and truckstops when she was younger. She studied as a legal secretary until she decided she wanted to travel around Australia and Sharon did the same thing. They’ve both been to Bali and South-east Asia. They’re gypsies, wandering souls.

One of my best friends became one of the senior medical surgeons in the Army. When I first met him, he was a student learning how to be a doctor. When we knocked off for the day after doing training and field exercises, we had one canteen to sit down in and we all had a beer together. At the time, he was a part-time soldier but I talked him into getting a short term commission. He did his time, part of which saw him working in a hospital in Vietnam during the war. Later he became an obstetrician and he was always the guy you rang if you had a problem with a baby that needed to be born.

When I got out of the military, I worked for the Department of Justice as an offsider-cum-security guard. There were only eight of us ex-army people working there. They wouldn’t use public servants because the bosses at the time thought it was more beneficial to have ex-servicepeople. We were security guards for the judges, driving them around and doing whatever was required. You got to know the judges quite well; it wasn’t much different from working for a senior person in the Army. It could be boring at times, just fetching people or making cups of coffee. Usually we’d fly, but occasionally the judge would say he felt like driving, so off we went to Kalgoorie or Albany for a case.

One day, I was sitting outside a courthouse in Perth when the judge decided to call an adjournment. He was going out for a coffee and a cigarette. The gentleman I was attached to was in charge of the Aboriginal Legal Service at the time. We got talking and he asked me how long I’d been in the Army and I told him twenty years. He asked me how many Aboriginal soldiers I’d seen in the Army and I said I hadn’t seen any Aboriginal soldiers, just Australian diggers. He knew what I meant—we’re all Australians.

The saddest moment of my life was when Anne, my first wife, died. She was a very devout Anglican. As for me, I’ve broken all the rules and I don’t know whether I’ll go up or down when I go, but I’ll die a Catholic. It wasn’t until I met Anne and we’d been together for a couple of years that I realised how important she was to me. When she died of cancer it was devastating.

I feel like in our society we are losing our Australianism. Even a sergeant of the police isn’t allowed to make a decision anymore when they pull someone over, it all has to go through the paperwork and through the computer. I’d like to see the Australianism come back. I’d like to see the parents take notice of the fact that we’re not American, we’re Australian. It’s important for people who come here to remember the way they were brought up, but also to take the time to learn about Australian culture.

The friendliness is still there in any country town, but the sad thing is that the ill manners of the present political regime and the one before that has rubbed off on the kids. Recently, I went down the street to post some mail and get a pie from the bakery. As I was coming home, I was driving past a school when a car pulled out straight in front of me, nearly causing a crash. The number of people that don’t drive with their lights on amazes me.

Human – Neil Fancourt
Interviewer & photographer – Paula Whittington
Writer – Guy Salvidge

Humans of the Wheatbelt is a Wheatbelt Health Network project supported by Department of Communities.

#community #celebrate #inclusion

Shire of Toodyay Department of Justice WA Australian Army


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NORTHAM

Wheatbelt Health Centre
25 Holtfreter Avenue, Northam
Phone: 08 9621 4444
Open: 8am-6pm Mon – Fri

Aboriginal Health - Northam
65 Wellington Street, Northam
Phone: 08 9690 2824

TOODYAY

Alma Beard Medical Centre
81 Stirling Tce, Toodyay
Phone: 08 9578 2500
Open: 8.30am – 5pm Mon – Fri

WUNDOWIE

Wundowie Health Centre
GP Services
283 Boronia Ave, Wundowie
Phone: 08 9621 4444
Open: 8.30am – 4pm Wednesdays

NARROGIN

Aboriginal Health - Narrogin
Williams Road, Narrogin
Phone: 08 9881 0385
Open: 8.30am – 4.30pm Mon – Tues

After hours medical assistance: In an emergency call 000 or present to your nearest Regional Hospital emergency department. If you have a non- emergency and would like to consult with a GP then call Telstra Health on 1800 225 523. The service is free to access for Australian residents who reside in the wheatbelt or who are temporarily residing in the Wheatbelt. This service can be accessed before 8am and after 6pm Monday-Friday, before 8am and after 12pm Saturday and all day Sunday and any Public Holidays. Thank you to Western Australia Primary Health Alliance (WAPHA) for funding this service.

  • 25 Holtfreter Avenue, Northam

  • 81 Stirling Tce, Toodyay

  • 65 Wellington Street, Northam

  • Williams Road, Narrogin

  • 283 Boronia Ave, Wundowie

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