When we heard his friend wearing khaki overalls over a plaid shirt say, “Careful with him. He’s quick with the ladies. By the way- he’s 95” we didn’t pay much attention. It seems to be a common joke with elderly mates that one of them is quite the lady killer.
Bluey, a 95-year old Australian World War II veteran, is a tour guide on the H.M.A.S. Castlemaine, a ship that’s a retired Australian minesweeper that toured on the eastern coast and seas of northern Australia, New Guinea, the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the China Sea. After the war, the vessel was used for training purposes and later donated to the Maritime Trust to be converted into a museum.
“Is your name Bluey because you got in a lot of fights?” I asked, just having learned that a blue is an Australian term for a fight.
“No, it’s because I used to have red curly hair,” he explained, touching the top of his head as if he was running his fingers through a thick mane.
When Erin, my German roommate and I approached the ship at Williamstown, Melbourne’s first sea port, we walked up the ramp from the pier to the ship. There were four men sitting out on the deck on plastic chairs. They were laughing and talking. “Are we allowed to come in?” I asked them. They hesitated, but then asked where we were from. After they found out we were from the United States and Germany, Bluey yelled “Sprechen deutsch!” which would be the first of many times he said this. His friend in the khaki overalls waved us aboard and then John, a man who looked around 70 years old with glasses and an eastern European accent began to take us around.
I later read on the website that entrance is supposed to be $6. Way to make a two girls and a guy feel special, lads.
John began to move us through the ship past knots and figurines and canisters, not lingering long enough for us to read the small print of the explanation cards underneath the memorabilia, as if I had the patience or interest to anyway. From the inside of the ship I saw the rest of the tour guides- all men with graying hair, pudgy bellies and boisterous laughs. As I looked at them goofing around together on the deck with the sun in their eyes, I imagined they came of age during the war with a sense of mateship– deep male friendships bonded by supporting each other through difficult conditions.
I saw Erin lingering around a poster of a “pinup girl” who in the picture was wearing a turtleneck, but still positioned in a flirty 1940s posture. “Pinup girl!” I said to John. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I think she’s been there a long time.” Assuming he meant she used to come on the ship as a prostitute, I asked some clarifying questions only to find out that by “her” he was referencing her picture not her presence.
The ship smelled eerily similar to the church I went to as a child. The musty, perfumed and poorly-ventilated took me back to playing in the outdated children’s room or sitting in the Sunday school. The men on the ship even reminded me of many of the elderly men who attended church – friendly, proud and frequently telling stories and memories of their youth.
After briefly exploring the upper rooms used for communication, the captains quarters and the bridge of the ship, we returned to the main room where Bluey waited for us.”Sprechen deutsch!” he said again. John went to go have lunch and Bluey continued the tour. Bluey spoke roughly, quickly, and highly mumbled with a thick accent. I don’t think my German roommate understood any of it. It took me some intense listening to figure it out. Despite his age we moved briskly from one display to another as he spoke enthusiastically with sparkling eyes.As soon as we had a look at a map of where the Castlemaine had served as a minesweeper we were off to to the next thing.
Suddenly, in the middle of his whirlwind explanations, he stopped the tour and turned around before we were about to exit the main room of memorabilia. “Guess how old I am,” he challenged us.
“Um.. well…” I started to pretend like I was guessing, “95…” I said with a slight intonation suggesting I was guessing. Then I blurted, “Your friend kind of already told us.”
Not looking surprised at all but content that we acknowledged his impressive mobility for such a mature age, he moved on to show us the toilets. “All the men went in those toilets. Over 50 men!” he reported.
When we passed by the lieutenant’s quarters, we saw a picture of Robert Menzies, Australia’s Prime Minister during part of the war, and his wife. When I asked how he felt about Menzies, Bluey replied something regarding him being a “pig face” – surely a play on words of his nickname “pig iron Bob” given after he was tough on workers on strike.
He knew the ship like an obsessed, neon clad Zumba instructor knows her routines. During the war he spent over 72 months on a ship much like this one, and its clear he feels at home on it. He flew down the stairs to the lower level, squatted and turned old gauges, steered the giant wheel and opened up secret tables turned into sinks. He pointed out a display case with almost 100 types of knots – all that he could make. “I do knots,” he told us.
As the three of us went down into the engine on the bottom of the ship, Bluey stayed up top. At first we thought it was because of the stairs, but when we got back up, he had stayed behind to make Erin and I key chain knots. Presenting them to us one by one, we thanked him as Maik, my German roommate stood behind. He didn’t get one. Bluey did, however, give all of us certificates verifying we had stepped foot on board.
We thanked Bluey for his time and detail in explaining the ins and outs of the ship to us. We even took a selfie with him in a space he believed was best for picture taking “right here on the opposite side of the city!” When he saw himself on the screen in the middle of the three of us he asked rhetorically, “Who’s that short guy?!” We later looked at the selfie and saw that his mouth was open, mid-speech.
Waving goodbye and walking away, we saw him return to his mates and join them as they ate lunch. It was as if Bluey, like I imagine the older men that became constant fixtures in my childhood, was both deeply affected by his wartime years but still remembers them nostalgically. As if those memories were times of stress but also leisurely, simpler times. As if the mates he made on the ship were brought together by conditions that beyond the face of imminent death are hard to maintain. They spend their free time on the ship, explaining what they know best and reliving their past in a safer, less hectic way. This could be true, or it could simply be a projection I’m placing on him.
Whatever his reasons for staying around the vessel are, it was clear its his territory- his space to relive his past and teach others about something he knows so much of. I walked away from the ship with a certificate and a bonus knot key chain, hoping that one day when I grow older, I’ll never loose my spunk, my sass, or my flirtatiousness. And hopefully be as able-bodied as Bluey.
Featured photo: View of Williamstown harbour from the bridge of the vessel.
This post is part of weekly series titled Character Tuesday, where every Tuesday I bring you a story about (a) unique individual(s) I’ve encountered. Like I always say, life can be good or bad, but as long as it’s entertaining, that’s all you need. This series is meant to celebrate our quirks and idiosyncrasies