It’s raining in Sydney as I start today’s chapter but nothing like Mudgee in early 1955.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen rain like it, that February, torrential rain that just kept falling. We went to work as usual but slowly, little by little, the water got closer and closer until one day it soaked into the transmitting tower’s ground mat, undermining our transmission.
I remember leaving work one evening with the water lapping the building and everyone saying, "No, it can’t flood the station. It’s not possible."
I was staying, I think, at the Court House Hotel where guests paid around 2 pounds a week for the shared lodging and three meals a day seven days a week. And the meals were full-on. Anyway, it was pouring when I went to bed at around ten o’clock that night and I remember thinking, "Will it ever stop?" At two A.M there was a lot of banging on my bedroom window. I opened it up and there was the Manager Bill Marsden with another staff member, standing outside in the middle of another deluge. Bill screamed out that the water had entered the back door and that we had to lift the transmitter before it got any further. I quickly dressed and joined the others in a rescue operation.
The plan was to get a boat and to row out to the station, but when we went to get the boat there was bad news. It was out of action. All that we could find was one of those spare fuel belly tanks that aircraft carried in World War Two. It was quite large and buoyant, able to support the three of us in the water (well Mr Marsden said it was okay and he was the manager).
We got down to the station but couldn’t really see much. Brian(?) was on duty--well, he couldn’t escape so he had to be on duty--and all we could see was the one light shining from the building. What we did see, however, was that there was no way we were going to row our belly tank across to the front door. The river was in full flood. We would have lost 30 yards downstream for every 10 yards we rowed towards the building. Bill Marsden then had one of those episodes of lateral thinking that have changed the course of history from time to time.
Now, when I tell this story to people it’s obvious that quite a few simply don’t believe it. All I can say is that I’m going to recount this tale exactly as I remember it. If anything, the actual event that early morning was probably much worse than you’re about to read.
Bill’s decision was to make use of the fast flowing river and the buoyancy of the belly tank by going upstream, where there was a dividing fence, making our way along the fence and letting the tank go when we were roughly in line. We were being soaked by the rain, driven almost sideways at us, as we slowly edged our way along the fence.
Now, what I have to tell you about fences is that they have posts every few yards and when it’s flooding guess where all the animals and insects gather for safety?.That’s right, on top of the fence posts. So we pulled ourselves along the fence touching God knows what as we made our way to the launch point. There were snakes, spiders and other creatures which still cause me to break out in a cold sweat at three o’clock in the morning.
The noise of the wind and rain was like being in the middle of a tornado. It was my job to let go of the fencing when Mr Marsden gave me the order. The trouble was the noise was so deafening that all I could hear was, "#####*****++++++".
I cocked my ear and said, ”Did you say let go Mr Marsden?”
"######******," came the reply. "Was that let go Mr Marsden?" I said.
"######******," came the reply, the voice going higher as it screamed.
"Should I let go Mr..." I started.
"Will you bloody let go," came the hysterical scream alongside me.
And I let go. And the tank went downstream like a rocket. We couldn’t see anything, not even the light from the studio. It was pitch black and cyclonic winds were blowing monsoonal rain straight into our faces. Suddenly, on our left I saw something. "Mr Marsden," I said. "What’s that there?"
"It’s the transmitting tower wires," he screamed. "Grab them or we’re gone."
I didn’t like the sound of that, especially the "gone" part. Did it mean we would go too far or did it mean we’d never come back. So we threw our arms out and hung on to the wires. Then we saw Brian at the back door, with a flashlight. "Brian," we screamed out. "We’re hanging on to the tower wires. Throw us a rope and we’ll pull our way over." Brian made several attempts but couldn’t get the rope anywhere near us. "Brian," yelled Mr Marsden. "You’ll have to put something heavy on the end of the rope to get it here."
The last thing I remember was this rope coming straight at me with a large hammer on the end. I thought drowning was a better option than being wiped out by a hostile hammer and leapt from the belly tank to swim across to the studio. As I recall the two others did the same. We arrived in the studio soaked. Actually, I discovered during those days that there is a point of wetness where we get so wet that it really doesn’t matter. You just give up and assume that this is how life is going to be. Wet. Well, the four of us lifted the transmitter, putting bricks underneath as we lifted it up inch by inch.
This was one of the most wonderful periods of my life. 2MG stayed on air, although we’d lost 40 percent of our signal strength and I stayed in the studio forever. I loved the drama. We were relaying urgent police messages, telling people that there loved ones were okay, sending messages from mothers to daughters. This was real radio. This is what it’s for.
I remember one day I spent 18 hours straight on air because the surrounds were still flooded and it was so difficult to get relief into the studio. When I emerged, that is when Bill and Ron rowed over to the studio to physically force me to go back to the hotel for a sleep, the storm had broken. The sun was out, shining on the real Mudgee the beautiful sunny, summery Mudgee I knew from the past 4 months.
I got in the boat and looked up and there on the dry land where dozens of people just standing there. Some had brought in refreshments and they were sharing tea and scones/cakes with the others. It was like an early Woody Allen movie.
As we rowed closer they started to applaud. The locals had gathered outside the station to pay tribute to the staff of 2MG who had refused to retreat. I don’t know how the others responded to this but I’ve got to be honest... I felt like a God.
I got back to my bed and I went into a 12 hour sleep feeling like I could conquer the world. It wasn’t long after that that Bill Marsden took me into his office and said that my period at 2MG would have to end because I had apparently only replaced someone who’d been away for a year. Then he told me he’d also be moving on, replacing Mr Marchant as Manager of 2LF Young. "Would I like to transfer with him?" Well, I mean I’d followed this bloke into a raging river. Would I follow him to 2LF? Of course I would.
And so on to 2LF, Lambing Flats, and an incident in my life in the country which remains the most mysterious and inexplicable thing that has ever happened to me. You probably won’t believe this story either when I recount this strange tale in the next episode of my radio career.