Σήμερα,…

19 Απριλίου , 2011

‘Out west in a place which we found and named ‘Hidden Basin’, in 1933, on the border of Western Australia, we named a creek Nicker Creek after Ben. That name is cut into the trunk of a large gum tree. Ben Nicker devoted his life to the bush beyond fences. He has given his life to keep the bush free for you and me. I grieve for his wife, and with the bushmen of Central Australia I mourn the passing of a very fine fellow.’

Michael Terry, 1941

‘Of all the interesting characters occasionally met with by far the most interesting and unusual was Ben Nicker. I have never met anyone quite like Ben before or since. He had a better education than was usual to find in those days… Ben always wanted to be a soldier which is unusual for a man of his type, they can’t take military discipline as a rule. When war broke out in 1939 Ben was one of the first to enlist in the second A.I.F. He was killed in the evacuation of Greece in 1941. He was a marvelous rifle shot and I was told by someone who was with him in Greece that he shot down a German plane with the ordinary .303 rifle by shooting the pilot in the cockpit as he flew over.’

Bryan Bowman, History of Central Australia 1930 – 1980

When Mags received the Order of Australia Medal in 1986 for her services to Central Australia, she said ‘ I accept this for my family and their contribution to the outback.’

Ο Σπύρος ήταν στιβαρός, ο Γιώργος αργοπορημένος, ο Βασίλης αναλυτικός και ο Χρήστος σκεφτικός. Εγώ έφερα το χώμα. Η Χριστίνα έφερε ένα λουλούδι και τράβηξε τη φωτογραφία. Θανάσης, Άγγελος, Ελένη και Λεωνίδας ακύρωσαν τελευταία στιγμή λόγω ανωτέρας βίας. Ηλίας, Δημήτρης, Ξένια και Ιωάννα έστειλαν μηνύματα ότι, δυστυχώς, δεν θα μπορέσουν να παρευρεθούν...

Out in the deserts the name ‘Benninik’ comes up conversationally in Aboriginal dialects more than fifty years after his death. Travelling in four-wheel drives equipped with two-way radios, modern adventurers frequently come across his carved initials.

When next the question is asked, ‘Who was Ben Nicker?’ I hope some of the answers will be found in these pages…



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Τώρα πια δεν θυμάμαι τις λεπτομέρειες. Θυμάμαι μόνο ότι μπήκα να πληρώσω τη βενζίνη που μόλις είχα βάλει. Και θυμάμαι ότι τα βενζινάδικα εκεί, στη μέση του πουθενά, έχουν τα πάντα. Αναψυκτικά. Τσιγάρα. Τρόφιμα. Είδη δώρων και σουβενίρ. Και βιβλία.

Βιβλία…

KING’S CANYON, ΚΕΝΤΡΙΚΗ ΑΥΣΤΡΑΛΙΑ – ΔΕΚΕΜΒΡΙΟΣ 2007

Έτσι έγινε. Τόσο απλά. Συμπτωματικά. Αν και, όποιος με ξέρει, ξέρει ότι για να παρεκκλίνω, για να χασομερήσω, να χρονοτριβήσω ή να καθυστερήσω, το μόνο που χρειάζεται να κάνει είναι να κανονίσει να διασταυρωθώ με ένα ράφι βιβλία.

Όπως παντού, έτσι και εδώ…

King`s Canyon, Northern Territory, Australia - December 2007

(ibid.)

Όπως είπα, δεν θυμάμαι τις λεπτομέρειες. Υποθέτω όμως ότι πρέπει να ήταν η χρονολογία θανάτου στο εξώφυλλο που, ανάμεσα σε τόσα άλλα, με έσπρωξε να πάρω εκείνο το βιβλίο στα χέρια μου.

Bushman of the Red Heart – Ben Nicker, 1908-1941

Ποιος διάολο ήταν αυτός ο τύπος, και γιατί τον έκαναν βιβλίο;

Άρχισα να διαβάζω. Εκεί. ‘Ορθιος…

. . .

His father, Sam Nicker, was vital, optimistic and adventurous. Buried in his family past was a colourful story of castles and counts, princes and bankers, generals and politicians, all woven into the fabric of the history of Germany and France. The name derived from a mythical river beast, half-horse and half-man, who was said to drag maidens down into the depths at night. Perhaps it was a story to warn unsuspecting young ladies that river banks were dangerous places to be after dark. Sam sang a Scottish air, though the words were sometimes lost in the medley of grumbling iron wheels, slap of leather harness, an intermittent stumbling of horses hooves and an interjection now and then from the groaning timber parts of their overloaded wagon.

His mother, Liz, was never a good shot with the rifle but she was confident that all she should ever need to do was aim it in the general direction of any human threat. Because there were few white women in the Australian inland at that time, Liz’s good common sense and self-taught nursing skills were frequently called upon. She was often away from home delivering babies or tending the sick. Sometimes the message would arrive by ‘yabber stick’, a letter carried in a cleft stick by Aboriginal courier. She would pack her bags and go alone by buggy sometimes distances of a hundred miles or so. Sometimes her absences were brief but there were occasions when she was required for weeks at a time.

She never lost a patient but was once called too late to save a prematurely presented infant and could only concentrate all her efforts on the mother. A message had been sent by an unreliable source and should it have arrived even twelve hours earlier she had no doubt that she would have also saved the baby’s life. When the message did reach her, just on sundown, she recognised the urgency and harnessing two horses, travelled the sixty miles without pause.

Today, a stone carved by renowned sculptor, William Ricketts, commemorates Liz’s nursing skills. Titled ‘The Helping Hands’, it can be seen at Pitchi Ritchi just south of Heavitree Gap in Alice Springs.

In his book, The Man from Oodnadatta, R. B. Plowman writes,

In the annals of our race there have been recorded from time to time the names and noble doings of great women. In the lonely places of the vast Australian continent there are women whose names and deeds are worthy of record in these annals. One is Mrs Sam Nicker.

Οι Nickers ήρθαν από το Queensland στη Νότια Αυστραλία, – but this wasn’t their destination. The Centre was. Στράφηκαν βόρεια, προς την περιοχή που σήμερα είναι γνωστή ως Northern Territory. Ανακαλύπτω ότι ένα μεγάλο μέρος της διαδρομής τους συμπίπτει με τη δική μου, καθώς ταξιδεύω τη μισή ήπειρο, από την Αδελαΐδα στο Alice Springs.

Πέρασαν από το Quorn, στα Flinders Ranges. Πέρασαν από το Marree.

Quorn railway station

Entering Marree, South Australia - Dec 07

Εγκαταστάθηκαν σε ένα μέρος 130 χιλιόμετρα βόρεια του Alice Springs, που αργότερα θα το αγόραζαν και θα το ονόμαζαν Glen Maggie.

Ben put in his appearance at dawn one grey, stormy morning and was as welcome as the rain in this semi-desert country. It was 1908.

Συγκρατήστε το “stormy”. Θα μας χρειαστεί αργότερα…

. . .

Σχολεία, φυσικά, δεν υπήρχαν στη μέση του πουθενά. Αλλά

With every infrequent mail, arriving by camel team and now and again by travellers thoughtful enough to deliver mail from the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, came books and children’s magazines. Determined that living as and where they did should be no deterrent to their education, Sam monitored the quality of their learning, always insisting that time was too precious to waste. Because the older boys were also his major work force, it was Mags and Ben who ‘learned to learn’. They did their sums and studied history, English and geography. They recited lengthy stanzas of poetry, were taught Greek mythology and very basic astronomy. When a passer-by could be prevailed upon to stay awhile and teach, it was a welcome bonus adding a different flavour to their studies. The men who wandered the outback were well-read. The books they carried in their saddle-bags were the classics. There wasn’t any room for anything which couldn’t be read and re-read a dozen times and then swapped. Dog-eared, margins often scribbled on with the acid comments of previous owners, they were kept like icons, carefully wrapped in a square of saddle cloth or calico and sometimes smelling of the smoke of the many campfires which had lit their reading.

When they met, these travellers would sit hunched for many hours, arguing and discussing a passage or a book, while tit-bits of national and local news barely registered. Able to recite whole chapters of classical literature, they were in some instances unable to name Australia’s current Prime Minister. In this distant outback they were too far removed to keep up with current affairs.

Billy and Clara, an Arunda Aboriginal couple who for cultural reasons were irrevocably severed from their country and their tribe, shared their Arunda language and the dialects of surrounding tribal areas with the young Nickers. They gathered bush tucker, told their Dreamtime stories and passed on their tracking skills. In exchange they found a permanent home in the affections of the family and the children grew up balanced between two cultures.

To understand the bush, one had to have first absorbed the basic knowledge of all its creatures. To track an animal was more simply done if one knew its habits, its habitat, its appetites and generally the blueprint of its everyday living. This was an area which had been taken care of by Billy and Clara while the Nicker children were too young to realise they were being taught. It was also an absorbing method of whiling away child-minding hours in the only way they knew. Together they gathered everything edible, bush fruits, nuts and berries, yams and yulkas, avoiding those things which were poisonous. They learned ‘finger talk’ and to watch the behaviour of wildlife and to know when rain was coming or dry times threatened.

At the same time Sam explained cloud formations and scientific reasons for the subtle variations in the colour of the sky. Perhaps their earliest lessons taught them that there were two answers to everything and when they thought about it, each solution in its way helped explain the other. Growing up, both backgrounds made perfect sense to them and they were able to switch effortlessly from one to the other. When they spoke in any Aboriginal dialect, they thought Aboriginal. When they spoke their mother-tongue their thinking became automatically European.

As his reading extended, Ben developed an abiding interest in warfare and battles fought down through the ages. In his spare time he would fashion armies of clay warriors and position them. As steeped as he had become in Aboriginal mythology, equally the ancient histories of distant places glued him to his reading.

Γεννημένος στην καταιγίδα. Μορφωμένος από τυχοδιώκτες περιπλανώμενους στο αφιλόξενο outback. Δίγλωσσος, εκπαιδευμένος από ιθαγενείς και από Αφγανούς καμηλιέρηδες…

Ανέφερα ότι το μέρος ήταν κάπως αφιλόξενο;

Moon Plain, South Australia...

... και, αν εξαιρέσουμε το χρώμα του ουρανού, η φωτογραφία θα μπορούσε κάλλιστα να είναι από τον Άρη...

Meanwhile Ben prowled the perimeters of Glen Maggie with his camel and came to know everything there was to know about that part of the world…

Ο πρώτος άθλος

Όταν ο Joe Brown, εξερευνητής και χρυσοθήρας, πέρασε από το Glen Maggie στην πορεία του να διασχίσει την έρημο Tanami, o Ben πήγε μαζί του.  Αλλά ο Brown, σημαδεμένος προφανώς από χρόνια μοναχικής δουλειάς, αποδείχτηκε εξαιρετικά δύσκολη παρέα. Στο Hall’s Creek, οι δυο τους χώρισαν, και ο Ben ξεκίνησε με τα δυο του άλογα να γυρίσει πίσω στο Glen Maggie.

Moving across a spinifex desert can be difficult. It isn’t possible to walk or even ride in a clear-cut direction because one must weave a path between needle-point clumps which can spread to almost twenty meters across. When they pierce the skin, blood poisoning can set in quickly.

Leather leggings are a help but there are ringed spinifex hummocks sometimes hip-high and hostile. Unless one fixes the eye on a definite point ahead, and that’s not a simple matter in the sameness of a desert, the constant weaving can easily disorientate a man.

Anne-Jane, arguably the first woman driver in the Centre, arrived at Glen Maggie by car looking for Ben. She had dreamed of him coming out of the scrub from west of the well. Worried that something serious might have happened to him she drove north from Undoolya Station to share her anxiety. While she spoke with her mother and step-father, Ben did indeed ride in.

Ήταν 1923. Ο Ben Nicker ήταν δεκαπέντε χρονών…

At fifteen and without a compass, he had crossed the desert alone. Where many men had perished he had triumphed. He had covered perhaps a zig-zagging distance of seven hundred miles from Hall’s Creek to Glen Maggie. All Billy and Clara had taught him had been well ingrained.

Michael Terry, in his book The Last Explorer, wrote of Ben’s remarkable trek:

‘At fifteen, he had come back alive and well. He had safely completed the finest, riskiest solo venture in Inland history, so I claim. I found Ben to be the steadiest chap, deeply knowledgeable in bush lore of every sort. To him, to be a bushman was not just a question of instinct so much as observation and remembering. No two trees, no two ant-beds, no two hills were to him exactly the same; all was recorded in a mental picture.’

‘Little Bit Long Way Benninick’

When time permitted, Ben’s curiosity led him along the paths of earlier explorers, like Wharburton and Ernest Giles. He prowled the Simpson Desert and poked about by camel examining the unmarked areas on his maps. For Ben, the possibilities were an endlessly absorbing provocation. He went further and further, widening his inland horizons and filling his notebooks. He carried a sketch-pad and drew wildflowers or shrubs and trees he had never seen before, birds, insects, strange rock formations and extraordinary carvings. The more he found the more he needed to know.

He was so often away somewhere, that when questioned about his whereabouts, almost any Aboriginal informant would thrust out his lips to their furthest extent. Lifting his chin and pointing with it, he would explain, ‘Benninick, him bin go little bit long that way’. Consequently his brothers began to refer to him as ‘Little-Bit-Long-Way-Ben’.

Born and brought up in the bush, there were an openness in Ben and his contemporaries. A man was a mate and a man could be himself. Ben was probably more than most, his own man. The seeking, thoughtful, studious Ben of the bush was another man entirely when he got to town. The customary couple of beers would loosen him up and turn his visit into a celebration. And when sacramental wine was replaced with whisky in the newly erected church, every finger pointed to Ben. Bushfolk knew one aspect of him; the township, another.

Γιατρός και ακοντιστής, ιχνηλάτης και αναγνώστης

The pioneers, the adults of this outback world, were all remarkable men and women. Wider skies attracted them. Isolation wasn’t any barrier to their aspirations.

Ben, however, heeded to extend his own boundaries where no real boundaries existed. It was said that he could out-track the Aborigines and Billy would agree: ‘Well, didden I bin learn im?’

At Bob Buck’s property, Titra Well Station, Ben was preparing for the Foy expedition into the western desert, led by Kurt Johannsen. Bob had, like most settlers, free-range fowls including a large number of chickens and was currently doing battle with marauding hawks. Some of the party had been indulging in farewelling themselves when a hawk injudiciously appeared, hovering above them. Bob ran for his rifle while Ben grabbed a spear which happened to be handy. Apparently defying gravity, the spearman poised and flung his weapon with deadly aim. Onlookers were afterwards to report it as one of the most impressive pieces of spearmanship they had ever witnessed.

On that same trip, a skilled Aboriginal tracker was travelling with Ben when they crossed the tracks of an Afghan camel team. Having studied the footprints, Ben remarked, ‘The third camel from the rear has a sore left hind foot.’ The Aboriginal begged to differ. ‘No. It’s the second camel from the lead.’ Another traveller with them noted the exchange and was surprised to discover when they caught up with the team that it was Ben who was correct.

Prepared for every emergency, Ben carried with him a medicine box made up of a collection of those bits and pieces he found most useful, and he was frequently called upon to succour either an animal or a person. He was naturally aware of many bush remedies and was convinced of the healing power of, among other treatments, witchetty grubs.

There was an Aborigine called Stumpy who came off second best in a fight at Mt Doreen Station near the Western Australian border. His belly had been ripped open with a knife and a large proportion of his intestines dislodged. When Ben was called, he cleaned it and pushed everything back inside arranged as he thought it should be before stitching up the external wound. Nobody expected the patient to live but he survived to a ripe old age.

Mythology and ancient history continued to intrigue him and he carried books in his saddle-bags to study whenever and wherever the opportunity arose. If he had any regrets it was that he had been a child and had missed the chance of serving in the Great War. So many of the men he met had been a part of it. In fact the Northern Territory had seen 40% of its male population off to fight overseas. It hadn’t been easy for any of them to even reach a recruitment centre. They had travelled by foot overland to Brisbane, or by camel and horseback, even bicycle to Adelaide.

Everybody has an Achilles heel,…

…although not all of us will admit it. In Ben’s case, it was thunderstorms which could bring him undone. Only those close to him knew about it, and wondered how he coped when out in the bush alone. It was the noise; the crash and grumble and explosion of violent night storms roaring above and around him he found difficult to handle. Inspired by some incident in his forgotten past, perhaps the storm on the morning he was born, or an unknowing premonition. Who could know.

Michael Terry, the Last Explorer

Το 1928, ο δρόμος του Ben Nicker διασταυρώθηκε στο Glen Maggie με αυτόν του Michael Terry, του επονομαζόμενου και τελευταίου εξερευνητή της Αυστραλίας, έναν άνθρωπο με το δικό του, ιδιότυπο βιογραφικό:

Michael, an Englishman, had served with the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Unit in the First World War. Taken prisoner in Russia he had been involved in a successful mass escape from Bolshevik forces and struggled across Russia by subterfuge and cattle-train. Eventually arriving in far northern Murmansk, the escapees managed to make contact with a British naval ship and were returned to England and medical facilities. Many of the men were suffering from gas inhalation in addition to general debilitation and as a result, were invalidated out of the army. On medical recommendation, a dryer climate seemed a good idea and Australia attracted Michael’s adventurous inclinations.

With his military-trained mechanical background, he found work in outback garages but it was Australian distances which attracted him and he set about fund-raising through British contacts. With fellow countryman Richard Yockney, he crossed from Winton in Queensland to Broome by car. No one had previously attempted such a trip. They had nearly perished in the attempt but undaunted had then taken on a second venture against good advice, from Darwin to Broome. With British acclaim still ringing in his ears, Michael was delighted to accept the loan of two worthy vehicles from Sir William Morris himself for his third crossing of the Australian inland. It was this trip which brought them to Glen Maggie.

The party had not long arrived when Ben rode in with camels and the stage was set for a mutual admiration which was set to last a lifetime.

Thirty seven years later Michael Terry wrote:

‘Self-educated Ben was yet the best educated man I ever met. He was a voracious reader and always an interesting talker… when I first met him I knew at a glance here was a man who would quietly tell you to go to hell if you tried to order him about… His deep-set eyes looked straight into you, not aggressively but with keen perception. Actually he was a fun-loving man with an easy-going temperament, calm in danger, anything but calm at play.’

Michael Terry, Sept. 8th 1965, People Magazine, ‘Portrait of a real bushman’

O Ben Nicker θα συνόδευε αρκετούς γεωγράφους και εξερευνητές, ανάμεσά τους και τον Michael Terry σε δύο εξερευνήσεις της κεντρικής Αυστραλίας, το 1932 και 1933. Θα τα κατάφερναν, μέσα από κακουχίες και εξαιρετικά αντίξοες συνθήκες, μέσα από ζέστη και πλημμύρες, δαγκώματα φιδιών και επιδρομές μαύρων μυρμηγκιών, στα μέρη όπου είχαν χαθεί ο Lasseter και ο Gibson, και περνώντας από σημεία όπου οι ιθαγενείς δεν είχαν έρθει ακόμα σε επαφή με λευκούς…

‘Ben was tough. He was a top-notch bushman. He was young but he had more bushcraft than most old timers. He was Centralian born and bred. Resourceful, work-hardened, weather-beaten, astute and careful when need be, boisterous and downright reckless on a spree, he was the epitome of the pioneering Australian Inlander.’

Michael Terry, ibid.

Ben Nicker, σκληρός και αδίστακτος:

Visiting Kalgoorlie, strolling one morning along Hannon Street, Ben came upon a small lad crying his heart out. Ben hunched down and sat in the gutter with the boy. ‘What’s up, mate?’ he queried. It seemed that the boy’s unregistered puppy had been arrested by the town dog-catcher. Seeing a man he knew riding a motor-bike towards them, and having filled him in on the sad story, the two located the van and hauled out the catcher. While Ben kept him in a neck-hold, his friend opened the back door and released the day’s dog-haul.

Later in court, the magistrate, laughing, dismissed the charges.

. . .

Ήταν ήδη θρύλος. Ήταν βασιλιάς, ιχνηλάτης και θεραπευτής. Είχε καρδιά μικρού παιδιού, δε γούσταρε διαταγές και φοβόταν τις βροντές.

Τότε, τι διάολο… τι

Εθελοντής και σύζυγος

Όταν ξέσπασε ο Β’ Παγκόσμιος Πόλεμος, ο Ben Nicker τσακίστηκε να διανύσει 800 μίλια για να κατέβει στην Αδελαΐδα και να καταταγεί. Τοποθετήθηκε στο 2ο/3ο Σύνταγμα του Βασιλικού Αυστραλιανού Πυροβολικού, το οποίο, μετά από σύντομη εκπαίδευση, ξεκίνησε με το Queen Mary για την Αγγλία. Λίγο πριν φτάσουν, η Γαλλία έπεσε.

In October Ben’s division was moved into the comparative luxury of Colchester Barracks accompanied by rumour of impending departure to the Middle East. Their equipment was shipped out but the troops were kept engaged in the defence of Colchester and the defence of their own attitude to authority. Their British compatriots found them impossibly lacking in respect for military tradition and that was unforgivable.

But Ben had no problems with the place or the people. He had met a lovely local army girl and quickly fallen in love. They courted for a month against a background of rubble and burning cities. A special licence, an expensive manoeuvre, enabled them to marry in ten days instead of waiting for the ususl three weeks, but time for them was short. They were deeply in love and hanging over them was the knowledge that the regiment would be posted overseas at a moment’s notice.

He and Jane had enjoyed six weeks together before she saw him off on the troop train on a cold, wet, wretched morning. Jane wrote about their farewell:

‘… our parting was almost unbearable. Early morning, cold wet and thoroughly Hell Let Loose. Everyone crying seeing them off… he did not want to leave me. It broke my heart, I felt the bottom had dropped out of my world…’

Στις 18 Δεκεμβρίου 1940, η μονάδα του επιβιβάστηκε σε ένα πλοίο για τη Μέση Ανατολή. Έπιασαν Αλεξάνδρεια. Από κει…

… από κει…

The Campaign in Greece

Re-united by the end of March, the entire unit embarked for Greece, where German invasion was imminent. The Greeks had repulsed Mussolini’s troops in the previous year but now Hitler’s forces had ploughed the Balkans, to Yugoslavia and were hovering over Greece.

Landed at the Port of Piraeus on April 2nd 1941, the division enjoyed a brief respite until Hitler made his move. They were immediately ordered to Servia through extraordinary mountains by way of Athens, Atalanti, Thermopylae, Lamia, Volos, Larissa and Elassona. For these Australians the route was staggering. They had never seen, let alone driven through such heights. Their goal was Servia Pass and it was here that the 2nd/3rd fired the first shots of the Allied Forces in Greece. Conditions were fierce. They were 3,000 feet above sea level and it was snowing. Ben wrote more letters, daily, if possible:

‘… you know, things are never so bad that they couldn’t be worse…’

The meagre, snow-thralled road they followed through Greece, he knew to be the battle-path of history. The same route had been well-worn and blood-soaked by many nations’ warriors, an ongoing four thousand-year saga of which he was himself now part. They had reached the slopes of Mount Olympus, the highest point in Greece.

It was once believed the earth was round and flat and that Mount Olympus was the central point, the home of the gods, hidden from mortal view by a permanent wreath of cloud. Goddesses known as the Seasons governed the gateway to the heights from where Jupiter ruled the earth and his dynasty of gods with that devilish weapon, thunder. Jupiter with his thunder bolts had never been a favourite character of Ben’s.

The German attack came on April 11th.

Τα υπόλοιπα λόγια, ανήκουν σε δύο συμπολεμιστές του, τους Alan Low και L.W. Sunman:

‘Ben often told us stories of his youth; days spent wandering around the Dead Heart of Australia, and crossing the notorious Simpson Desert. He knew a lot.

It was always ‘Ask Ben’. He could pull any gun to pieces and put it back again. I can hear him now, ‘Wish I could get a few letters from my wife… they take so damned long to come from England’. We all had a great time the night he married a pretty girl from Colchester. It must have been a hard break to leave England. Later the guns opened up in the Battle of the Bog. All night they spat flame and death at the Hun. We wondered about their Air Force. So did Ben, for he was our ack-ack machine gunner and was ready for action. When our Major told us the rain and snow were keeping his planes grounded, Ben cursed. But they came, squadrons of them through Servia Pass. You could not buy a pick or shovel for love nor money.

Ben had his pit between the command post and the ack-ack troop out in the open on a slight rise. Whiskey, his offsider, had his ammo stacked everywhere. First came a Henschel spotting for German artillery and Stukas. The big guns held their fire; so did Ben. Yet the spotter must have seen the guns for a score of Stukas circled their positions and peeled off one by one.

We watched Ben from our slit trenches, he gave them all he had. It gave us strength to see Whiskey dash across open ground for more ammo. All that afternoon they attacked and Ben kept at it, blazing away, he was black with dirt and smoke, his hands were scorched through changing the red-hot barrel, but he didn’t leave his guns. Not far from him a water-cart received a direct hit with a 100 pounder and half filled his pit, only dusk brought peace and a spell for Ben. Dawn came and with it Goering’s famous yellow-nosed fighters. Bullets spattered like raindrops around Ben for what seemed like hours. He helped to drive the fighters off… then came the Hun through the pass… we were the rear guards so the guns had to go out fast. Long range guns were shelling our positions and the road was out. Ben was in the truck ahead of me when shrapnel struck him.

Con Dolan and ‘Lubra’ Murray who were particular friends of Ben were with me. Ben was trying to make light of his wound and said that when they got the shrapnel out and stitched him up he would get back to the Regiment as quickly as possible. I left Ben with two bottles of Cognac as we had to leave, for the tail of our regiment’s convoy was passing on the road.

Nine days later we learned that he had lain for seven days in the same field dressing in the military hospital in Daphne and died from gangrene’

‘A fragmented country lay behind them’

The unit were forced to again withdraw this time to Elassona where their guns ran so hot that paint peeled from their barrels. Under heavy shelling the regiment were pushed back to Port Raffina and there shipped out under cover of night, by barge and warship to Crete. In Crete they were re-armed and positioned to defend the island’s aerodromes and deployed to the defence of Souda Bay. The 2nd/3rd lost two-thirds of its men and twelve of its fifteen officers. The survivors who managed to escape over the mountains were taken off by the navy or managed to struggle through somehow to Alexandria.

A fragmented country lay behind them. 300,000 people died in Greece in that winter’s cold and famine. 60,000 Jews were rounded up by the Germans and dispatched to extermination in Poland from which horror a mere 6,000 escaped.

Australian troops in Crete before the German attack were estimated to number 6,486. A large number were made prisoners of war. Commenting in June 1941 on Australian losses in Crete and Greece, Dr C.E.W. Bean, Australian Official War Historian, said that the battles of Greece and Crete together might have cost Australia almost 2,000 human casualties.

Few of Jane’s letters ever reached Ben and for months after his death his letters to her kept arriving, despite heavy censoring, full of love and promises he was unable to keep.

Recorded at Phaleron War Cemetery, Athens:

Nicker, Bdr., Benjamin Esmond, S.X. 403, AIF 2nd/3rd Field Regt., Royal Australian Artillery. 19 April, 1941. Aged 33. Son of Samuel Foreman Nicker and Elizabeth Nicker of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. Plot 3. Row B. Number 5.

. . .

Έκλεισα το βιβλίο. Στάθηκα εκεί.

Δεν θυμάμαι τι ακριβώς ένιωσα. Αλλά δεν χρειάζεται…

Γιατί κάθε φορά που διαβάζω τις παραπάνω γραμμές, αισθάνομαι ακριβώς το ίδιο…

. . .

Συνέχισα το δρόμο μου για το Alice Springs.

Ακόμα και σήμερα είναι δύσκολος…

Πριν φύγω, πήρα μαζί μου λίγο κόκκινο χώμα από τα περίχωρα της πόλης, για να περάσω να το αφήσω στον τάφο του Ben Nicker, στο Φάληρο…

Προσγειώθηκα στην Αθήνα 31 Δεκεμβρίου 2007.

Και μετά το ξέχασα…

Ευτυχώς, μου το θύμισε ο basileios

. . .

Στις 19 Απριλίου 2011, 70 χρόνια από την ημέρα του θανάτου του Ben Nicker, θα μαζευτούμε στον τάφο του για ένα σύντομο, ιδιωτικό μνημόσυνο, στις 19:00. Είστε όλοι καλοδεχούμενοι.

Μετά θα σερβιριστεί καφές απέναντι, στο Kitchen Bar, από τους οικείους του.

Δηλαδή εμάς…

Ben E. Nicker, "Loved By All", at Phaleron War Cemetery

(Info: Phaleron War Cemetery, Παραλιακή Λεωφόρος, στάση τραμ ‘Πικροδάφνη’)