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A tooth for a tooth - the hard-won lessons drilled into Rusty that still apply at 102

Opinion

From fighting for his country in World War II to managing cattle stations and drinking whiskies with John Kerr, Rusty McWilliam has lived a life of adventure. At 102 the master storyteller is still smiling, writes Michael Blucher

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Sitting in the comfort of a $30,000 dentistry chair the other day, soothed to the point of comatosis by all the modern-day accoutrements – the local anaesthetic, the soft music, the vision of the trickling springs on the overhead television monitor – my mind turned involuntarily to Rusty McWilliam.

A snowflake’s hope in hell you’ve ever heard of Rusty, but he’s a cracker. Among plenty of other things, a much-loved father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Rusty’s also a World War II veteran, soldier NX9696, who fought for his country in North Africa and the Mediterranean .

Last year I had the privilege of writing his life story, a remarkable journey that began in Coonamble, in central New South Wales in September, 1918.

Russell Alfred McWilliam was the sixth of 11 children born to Irish immigrants, Bill and Milicent McWilliam. The McWilliams were prominent local residents, the family patriarch owning and editing the local newspaper, The Coonamble Times.

Aged just 19, Rusty put his name down to fight for his country, believing just like most other young men at the time he had a responsibility to do so.

It was Rusty’s recollections of his voyage across to the Suez Canal aboard the Strathnaver, that came flooding back to me while I was sitting in the surgery, waiting to have “the choppers” checked.

He’d told of the 195m ocean liner being pitched hither and tither in giant seas, as the army dentist stood over him, holding a drill powered by a foot pedal.

Rusty remembers writhing in agony as the dentist hacked at his largely rotten teeth, that up until that point, had never been examined or treated.

At one point, he pleaded with the dentist to stop drilling, as the coarse steel nib speared into another exposed nerve.

“No point complaining, son. Nobody’s listening. You’re in the army now. You do as you’re told,” the dentist advised.

It was the first time he embraced the term “grin and bear it”. It wouldn’t be the last. “G & B” became Rusty McWilliam’s life mantra.

In the context of his military service, however, it wasn’t his teeth that caused most problems. It was the bunions on his feet.

With 10 siblings, Rusty never had shoes of his own. He only wore hand-me-downs that rarely, if ever, fitted. Bunions gradually formed on his feet and never disappeared.

Once on military duty, the only way he could wear his army boots was to hack away the sides with a knife, leaving him in essence with a pair of heavy leather thongs. Pretty handy apparel in the gravelly desert sands of North Africa.

After his feet became infected, Rusty spent months convalescing in the makeshift army hospital in Gaza, before finally convincing medicos that he was fit and ready to rejoin the 2nd /4th Battalion.

In January 1941, he was part of the Allied forces that out-manoeuvred the Italian army to capture the township of Tobruk in northern Libya.

There’s a famous photo of Rusty triumphantly hoisting a slouch hat up the flag pole in the town’s main square. The symbolic, typically irreverent Australian gesture appeared in newspapers around the world.

After North Africa, the 2nd/4th battalion was dispatched to the northern extremity of Greece, to help thwart the advance of the Germans who were streaming across the Yugoslavian border, heading south to the Mediterranean Sea.

Amid those brave endeavours, many of his mates lost their lives. Miraculously, Rusty survived, his fate determined, he believes, as much by good luck as by good management.

Like the time he was queueing in Piraeus to board a British navy ship bound for the relative safety of North Africa. Rusty and his mate Charlie were at the very front of the line, awaiting the arrival of the next available tender, when the Scottish harbour master declared in his raspy voice: “That’s all – the ship’s full. Your best chance – grab a blanket and head south. Might find another boat down there.”

A week later, Rusty learnt the vessel had been bombed an hour after it left the harbour. Everybody on board perished. As he says … good luck and management … they should never be confused.

After countless other miracle escapes, Rusty eventually arrived safely back in Australia and resumed normal civilian life.

He and his wife Barbara raised five children, but after she died prematurely of a stroke, he set off on a “late life” adventure.

He would work and live all over Australia, spending a significant amount of time in the Northern Territory, where he earned his stripes as a manager at Burnette Downs, Australia’s second-largest cattle property.

He spoke of the night he traded countless whiskies with Sir John Kerr, who was in the NT on “official duty”. Rusty can’t remember the exact reason, but suffice to say, “the GG was in BD, and revelling in his R & R!”

“He told me of the serious shit going down in Canberra, and that he was going back there to sack the PM he described as a ‘dud’!” Rusty laughed. “Probably can’t even remember telling me!”

Sure enough, a few days later, Whitlam was gone. One of the most significant moments in Australian political history, and one of the first people to find out was a scotch-fuelled station manager on a remote property in the middle of the country.

Rusty McWilliam, a good storyteller, but an even better listener. User-friendly to the very last syllable.

These days Rusty is living quietly in an aged care facility down on Brisbane’s bayside.

I checked in on him last week, the day he celebrated his 102nd birthday. He’s still going strong. Filthy about the Broncos, though. They’ve cost him dearly in the family tipping comp. Like the club he adores, he’s languishing at the bottom on the table. A wooden spoon contender.

Other than that, he remains as upbeat as ever, holding court and giving the nurses daily curry.

There’s a bit a pain, he admits, but what can you do? Other than grin and bear it.

He’s done that his whole life.

Happy 102nd birthday, young fella.

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