Living in Traralgon makes a believer of you. It really is God’s country here. And even though he left over fifty years ago, it’s Bernie Quinlan’s country too. In my life, I’ve found it best to believe in both.
Traralgon is changing but is not yet changed. A bloke walking down Franklin Street is still almost as likely to work at Loy Yang and drink Melbourne Bitter than be a hipster barista. But these days, it’s an even-money bet.
My boss ensures that every ad for a teaching vacancy reminds potential candidates that ‘We are a comfortable two-hour drive from the city’. Traralgon is too big and utilitarian to be a proper tree change option, yet too small to lose its chip-on-our-shoulder defensiveness. Those of us who live here have a belief that our town is more defined by what we are than by what we aren’t. But underneath the inexplicable surf clothing shops (even though we are a comfortable hour from the beach) the franchises and the mobile phone shops, Bernie’s Traralgon still exists. You just have to look. It has to be believed to be seen.
There are some stories about Bernie so apt that they can only be true. Where I teach, the boys are still chasing many of his athletic records and he remains unequivocally the Traralgon footy club’s most celebrated son. But some of the memories sound like fables surely augmented by time. For instance, even when allowing for a southerly wind from Mt. Tassie at his back, it’s unlikely that Bernie kicked a torpedo punt from the Showgrounds Oval, over the woodchopping area, past the Men’s Shed, over Howitt Street and the railway lines before bouncing into Victory Park. But there are those who swear it happened.
My dad went to school with Bernie at St. Paul’s in the 60s. Somehow, when I was a kid, he used this tenuous link to get us into the rooms after a game at Moorabbin. Bernie Quinlan. Standing before me, corporeal. He’s colossal. Some St Kilda prick has raked his back with his boots, and there are scratch marks and welts on his back. In years to come, footballers will pose in fashion catalogues and wear man buns. Not on this day. This is one of my most cherished memories. It happened, but it exists in that hazy realm of yesterday where the Fitzroy Football Club still exists, and champions from Traralgon launch impossible kicks that, whether they happened or not, people remember.
When I jog, I deliberately leave the urban sprawl and rendered brick behind. Low maintenance stone gardens with yucca plants and automated double garage doors, ensuring next door neighbours rarely meet, are spreading around the town edges the way ragwort and blackberries used to. Housing estates, old and new, give way to farmlets, and some of the road signs have bullet holes in them. People driving by still give you a wave as they hurtle past, and for every McMansion there are still handfuls of cows and horses. There is also the added illusion of privacy, which for a pasty secondary school teacher is not a bad thing. This route has a boyish nostalgia for me as well. I have it on reasonably good authority that the Traralgon footy club did this same run as part of their training in the 60s. This means that I’m jogging the same gravel shoulder that Bernie once did. More often than not, I finish my jog with a lap around the Showgrounds Oval; a pilgrimage that does my middle-aged heart good.
In the same way that every erudite quote from days of yore has been attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Mark Twain, in our town every tale of laudable athletic accomplishment has been linked to the teenage Bernie Quinlan. Memories create myths and he is part of the tapestry of our town’s folklore. Mythology needs a singular figure at its centre to become fable. Was it really Bernie, the Valley’s greatest export since the briquette, who kicked a football from the showgrounds to Victory Park? Is it even possible? Does it even matter?
There are people who say you should never meet your heroes, they’ll only disappoint. I reckon these people come from towns with the wrong heroes. Dad and I went to a dinner that the Fitzroy Historical Society put on. After the obligatory selfie, which Bernie kindly agreed to, I decide to ask him about the kick. We’re both sons of Traralgon; I don’t need to orient him with his showgrounds, the railway line, Howitt Street. He gently scoffs, “You know you can’t believe everything you hear in that town…”. My heart sinks and my face must show it. Middle-aged men have no room in their lives to believe in farcical miracle kicks. I thank him for the photo; I don’t want to outstay my welcome. As I’m walking off, I think I hear him call out after me, “It only happened once…”
An extended version of this piece first appeared on www.thefootyalmanac.com.au, which is where you can read more of Shane Reid’s sterling stories.