These are some recollections about a young Australian, Paul Large from Coolah in rural New South Wales who departed for the Vietnam War on his 21st birthday. He was killed in action 10 weeks later at the Battle of Long Tan on 18 August 1966. Paul was the only brother of five sisters.
“… The CO of Canungra announced on Friday night that Delta Company was the best company, and 12 Platoon the best platoon, that has been through since World War II. It might not seem like much to you, but, believe me, it is an achievement that any company would be proud to have. We will have a reputation to live up to, but after working with all the blokes out there, we are all sure we can live up to it.”
Private Paul Large, 12 Platoon, Delta Company 6 RAR, writing home to his parents about the training at Canungra, Queensland, on the eve of departing for Vietnam. The letter is dated 3rd April 1966, five months before the Battle of Long Tan.
By Lawrie Lovegrove, ‘Duck’. A mate of Paul Large.
My earliest contact with Largie at Coolah was after my good mate Mick Donohue left the Catholic school to attend the public school, although it was some years after. Largie at that time ran with a different mob of mates, as all young fellows do from time to time — blokes like “Grimmy” Graham and “Bogan” Elliott are two that spring to mind. It wasn’t until Largie’s Dad and Mum, Vic and Dulce, moved to the house in Hospital Street where he was more closer to our territory that we started to knock around together more. Most kids up to the age of 12-13 seemed to stick to their own “territory”, but after that moved further afield and went bush and became “free-range ferals”. Fences were just something you climbed over, to keep stock in, not necessarily someone’s boundary. We never did any harm while on someone’s land, just chased kangaroos and rabbits with Sticks and rocks. Of course, it’s so different today, but looking back it was probably the reason we grew healthy and quickly.
But going back again to the pre-Hospital Street days when Largie lived in Binnia Street opposite old “By Golly” McCann’s, we used to spend time down by the creek, catching yabbies, swimming, pelting flat spinners on the water, and generally having a good time, always accompanied by Largie’s old black mongrel, Monty. We never got bored, unlike kids today. We always found other things to do, new territory to conquer, and made our own fun. During these times, Largie was always an innovator, suggesting we do this or that, and either leading or urging someone else to do something he wasn’t quite game enough to do himself. I can’t say I have any memory of Largie with a serious face.
Every kid in Coolah looked forward to the weekend, Friday afternoon being the beginning, lasting until 9 am Monday. One of the best parts of the weekend was the Saturday arvo matinee at Vic North’s picture theatre. Saturday morning meant doing the “messages”, going up the street and getting the bread and the meat at Tommy Roots’ or Bill Venables Butchery, and hoping to snare a couple of extra pence change along with your two bob pocket money so you could have a bit extra to buy Jaffas to pelt at the other kids in “Peanut Alley” at the matinee. On the way home from the messages it was always the question, “Goin’ the matinee?” when you bumped into Largie, Mick, Grimmy, or Bogan, even though you knew they’d be there. On the way home after the matinee, we used to act out the serials, either The Shadow, Tom Mix, The Cisco Kid, Gene Audrey, etc, whatever was on at the time, making our way to the Park (McMaster Park). We made decisions about who was going to be the “goodies” or “baddies”, it didn’t matter which, and then discussing what was going to happen in next week’s episode.
The usual meeting place prior to the matinee was Peter Ferosi Cafe, where we bought our supply of “ammo” for Peanut Alley. As we grew older we gradually were allowed to double up and go to the Saturday night pictures as well, where mostly we checked out the sheilas and who was sitting with whom.
I well remember one night prior to the pictures when we were walking into Crofty’s newspaper shop and Largie had his new fleck long strides on, and Mick noticed that Largie’s fly was undone. When Mick told him, he quickly tried to whip his zipper up, but it disintegrated into metal pieces all over Crofty’s vinyl tile floor, alerting everyone in the shop it seemed. Anyway, it didn’t worry Largie, he still went to the pictures holding his trousers together, even though he never wore underpants.
‘Fishin’ and Craydabbin’
The creek was a source of fun for us all, not the least Largie who lived closeby and we spent a lot of our weekend and holiday time there catching craydabs. Largie’s Dad, Vic, used to catch the occasional catfish there, and he used to take us eeling out over the Range towards Cassilis. The big floods in ‘55 and ‘56 changed the creek a lot with a lot of willows and the bridge washing away, but it cleaned the creek out for a while.
When we were old enough to carry a rifle, and, of course after we were well instructed about how to use guns safely and responsibly, we used to go shooting rabbits and roos in the hills behind Coolah, walking for miles on a weekend, never tiring of the sport, especially Largie, who prided himself in how good a shot he was. If either Mick or myself, or whoever else was with us, got three or four roos for the day, Largie didn’t want to give up until he got more, even if it was getting too dark to see. “You were just lucky!” would be the eventual remark, but he was a good shot I will admit. I remember Largie came home from his Basic Training in the Army and the first thing he told us was “the bastards can’t shoot!” After their first rifle range drill, he said he couldn’t wait for his turn with the rifle to “show ‘em how”. I suppose it was inevitable from then on that he would end up with the forward scout’s job in the jungle.
After a while, Largie bought an old car, and we used to go spotlighting in it. Prior to that, we sometimes went with “Rocco” McBeth in “Squeaker’s” old Austin A40.
Largie bought a car, an old Blue and White Dulux-finished Standard 8, a vehicle if driven on the road in this day and age would result in a jail sentence for the driver. However, it was in working order most of the time, and it opened up a broader world for us even if the brakes were “metal on metal” a lot of the time, and the lights went on the blink at will, and often the wiring shorted out and filled the cab with choking fumes and smoke. When this happened, you just wound the windows down and let the “air-conditioning” do the rest, for there were ample drafts coming up the floor and the firewall (somewhat chilly of a frosty night out spotlighting though). It was a good “first car” to learn in, and learn is what Largie (and the rest of us) did. One day, Largie, Mick and myself decided after a few beers at the Top Pub to go to the Dunedoo Show, so off we went. Just south of Leadville township we got a flat tyre. “It’s okay,” Largie declared, “I’ve got a spare.” and opened the boot. Well, there was a spare all right, but no jack or wheel brace. After a bit of rummaging, Largie found an old multi-size bike spanner down in a cavity and miraculously it fitted the wheel nuts, even though it was only three and a half inches long. We all had a turn trying to undo the nuts, and each took all the skin off our knuckles until we eventually loosened them. Now, we had to try and lift the car to pack some rocks underneath. No good! Too heavy! But then I spotted an old fence-stay laying beside a fence near the road. We got that, jammed it under the car, put a rock under that, and levered the car up and I sat on it while Largie and Mick did the rest. During this, a car at last came along and pulled up, the driver got out and came to the front of his car and asked if we needed help, but Largie declined and the driver shook his head and declared “Now I’ve seen everything” and left. Largie reckoned I was a genius for that, and when we got to Dunedoo he shouted me a beer.
Another time we were coming home from Binnaway after a dance, Largie was flaked out on the back seat, Mick driving most of the way home, a chocking gravel road not making the trip very easy. We’d just hit the tar north of home and Mick bad ‘er flat to the boards. We were really cruisin’ now, the noise and vibrations giving a feeling we were flying (we were really only doing top speed, downhill, at 60-70 kmph, when suddenly there was a bang followed by total blackness momentarily, then another bang, and visibility again. It was then that Largie woke up and asked what the fuck happened. It took three football field lengths to pull up and we found the bonnet had come up against the windscreen then snapped its hinges and went over the top of the car, so we reversed back to pick it up. We couldn’t fit the bonnet back onto the car, so Largie opened up the boot to put it in there. Now the old Standard had a boot only big enough for a suitcase and a Sun Herald and it just wouldn’t fit, so Largie folded the bonnet over and then tried to stuff it in, but it still wouldn’t stay in so he hurled it over Colin Gill’s fence and said “Come on, let’s get home. I’ll come and pick it up tomorrow” and off we went again. The next time I saw the Standard, she had a big crease and cracked line of paint down the centre of the bonnet, and No. 8 wire through the hinges. But it still worked. I can’t remember what eventually happened to her, but she gave us some good times and wonderful memories. Talk about value for money!
Largie and Mick were both a year older than me and when they started training for under 18s I went too, not just because they were going to play, but mainly because I just couldn’t wait to play footy for Coolah, although my father told me I wasn’t allowed to. I said I was just going to training. Although we had some coaches with serious intent, blokes like “Goody”, “Mutt” Glew and “Ringy” Rindfleish, I suppose we were a coach’s nightmare most of the time. None of us were to set the football world aflame, although Largie always had his eyes firmly fixed on the Coolah 1st’s No 12 guernsey, which he claimed was going to be his own one day not far off. The No 12 at the time was none other than Largie’s brother-in-law, Jimmy Manning, whom Largie idolised, as Jimmy not only played well for Coolah, but represented Group 14 and Western Division as well. We plodded along year after year and learnt what it was like to come all the way home from places like Coonamble with a missing tooth, a thumping headache and a thumping on the scoreboard, but it was so good just to play for your mates and Coolah. We never won many games that I can remember, that is until 1965 when we were in Reserve Grade with a captain-coach Gary Lowe. Suddenly things were different, a more serious approach, playing with the big fellows and a best and fairest points every week had us winning games week after week, a totally new feeling! But just when things were going well, the draft came up and Largie drew the marble, and so it was off to Basic Training. We won the competition that year and I well remember Largie being presented with his blazer at the presentation-cum-farewell in “Headlock” Jenkin’s old cafe. Even though he only played a few early games, he was so proud of that blazer and who knows, if things had turned out differently, I for one do not doubt that he would have occupied the Coolah 1st’s No 12 jumper one day.
We often gathered at Largie’s, either after the pictures or even after shooting all day, and played cards well into the early hours of the morning, making the usual noises that a card game washed down with tinned water mostly brings out. Although I didn’t care too much for cards, I played along and mostly had a lot of fun. Vic and Dulce had to be the most easygoing people on God’s earth to put up with us, for I can’t ever remember either of them complaining about noise or even suggesting “Shouldn’t we be going home soon?”. The games were never going to break anyone’s budget, for none of us had much to start with, and were limited to either matches at first and then later on small change, which gave you more incentive.
When Largie turned 18 we headed up to the Top Pub with Mick, who had already had his 18th about a month earlier. Out the front door, I started to get cold feet and hesitated, but Largie and Mick said “You’re not stayin’ out here. Come on, you’ll be right”, and so in I went. I must have been a dead give-away looking up at the publican, Ron Toobey, who had a huge knowing grin on his face. Then Mick announced he was “buying a beer for Largie who had just turned 18, and one for Duck too.” Possy Patter, the barman, asked out loud whether I was 18? Ron Toobey said, “Of course he is.” and plonked a beer down in front of me. Suddenly I was at ease, but I kept looking towards the front door, expecting the cops to walk in. From then on, we made the Top Pub a meeting place where Mick and Largie would have a bet on Saturdays. I couldn’t afford to bet as I only earned 4/6/4 per week as an apprentice carpenter, so I only selected horses without putting any thing on.
On reflection, I have nothing but good memories of growing up with two such good mates as Largie and Mick — and their families too, for that matter. We were often referred to as the Three Musketeers because whenever you saw two the other wasn’t far away. The same can be said about most of the “baby boomers” of that era as most of the kids were all good friends, fights were very uncommon. I suppose it says a lot about Coolah and its people.