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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter One

The Dimming Light of Heroism



You have gone through an ordeal which unfortunately falls to the lot of those who have chosen the honourable profession to which you belong, and you have acted your part like a true man….Your commander, your brother officers and seamen and the companions of your voyage lost their lives miserably and in a most lamentable manner. Your escape was marvellous. But when you were thrown ashore exhausted, wounded and bleeding, you saw a fellow being struggling in the throes of death, your courage did not fail you, again you dared the surge and rescued her from the great enemy of human life. Such an act ennobles you. I disclaim any desire to flatter you or to abuse the privilege I possess by in any way sapping the principle which you have avowed actuated you on that occasion—that grand principle of duty, the element of true greatness in all in command, in all who aspire to exercise authority….A consciousness that in the gallant act you have performed you were prompted by the sense of obligation will afford you as pure a source of agreeable reflection throughout your life, as the memory of the honour conferred upon you by this Society, in this hall, in the presence of this vast assembly.

Sir Redmond Barry, Supreme Court judge, in 1878, presenting the gold medal of the Victorian Humane Society to Thomas Pearce, a survivor of the wreck of the Loch Ard at Cape Otway (from 7,000 Brave Australians by Colin Bannister)

 

Despite being awarded the Star of Courage, Mr Runham would prefer that the armed robber he risked his life to chase hadn’t escaped justice.

 

He thought he was witnessing a mock training exercise when he saw a man “ridiculous” in a cap and wig point a .45 calibre revolver at a teller in a building society office at Ipswich, near Brisbane, in November 1993.

 

He knew it was serious when he saw the look on the teller’s face and chased the robber into an alleyway, demanding he give the money back.

 

He was answered with a gunshot that narrowly missed and pursued the bandit into a nearby vacant lot where he fired another shot.

 

Mr Runham, who is disabled with a leg injury, dived for cover before security guard Michael Boyd arrived to continue the pursuit. His role is also recognised in the award of a Bravery Medal.

 

Mr Runham was one of four witnesses who identified a man as the robber from photographs but the case was dropped in the Supreme Court.

 

“When growing up, I was taught to believe in the system, and to defend the system at all costs, even risking one’s life in doing so,” he said.

 

“Unfortunately, that system I was prepared to risk my life for is out of touch with reality. I know now why people no longer want to get involved.”

The Australian, 7 August 1996

 

There was a time when the structures of our society supported character development - indeed, when acts of virtue were seen as expressing the very essence of our culture.

 

The date was 24 August 1875. It was a cool late-winter’s evening in Melbourne. Yet the crowd that thronged the Melbourne Town Hall was the largest group of people ever assembled there. So great were the numbers, and so jammed were the hall and the streets outside, that no definitive count could be made of the attendance.

 

Such a huge gathering today would surely be for a sporting meet or a pop concert. But the 1875 event was something different: the first-ever presentation of bravery awards by the Victorian Humane Society.

 

Next morning, reports of the ceremony were by far the biggest news items in both The Age and The Argus newspapers. The latter’s colourful account made the event sound somewhat like a modern-day heavy-metal concert:

 

The proceedings were announced to commence at 8 o’clock, but half an hour before that time the hall was crowded to its utmost capacity, and thousands of people filled up the street and entrance to the building, vainly striving to obtain admittance. At least 2,000 people had to go away disappointed. Admission was by ticket, but owing to a want of agreement on the part of the committee, several sets of tickets were issued, and many more people brought to the hall than there was any prospect of accommodating. Long before the chairman opened the proceedings the platform and the seats intended for the orchestra and the lady and gentlemen performers who had kindly volunteered their assistance in aid of the occasion had been rushed, and it was only by dint of hard pushing that the officers and those who had to take part in the ceremonies gained a footing on the platform. The hall, from the south gallery to the front of the organ, was one vast, seething, surging mass of humanity.

 

Even allowing for the fact that entertainment offerings were limited in those days it was a huge turn-out. The Age reported that this “immense concourse of people” was attracted by the prospect of seeing “a brave woman and some courageous men and boys, who had each saved persons from drowning”. The nine recipients of the medals included 14-year-old Michael Boyle, who saved an infant from a well, and 13-year-old John Williams Brown, who rescued a drowning boy.

 

 

Times have changed. Certainly the media devote plenty of coverage to dramatic and courageous rescue stories. But now when the Governor-General presents bravery awards this is reported in the newspapers, as often as not, simply under “Vice-Regal Notes”.

 

Today, our heroes and role models tend to be movie stars, pop singers and sporting personalities. Those who risk their lives to rescue others are applauded, but they are not always admired. Some people think them reckless. Some heroes themselves wonder at their actions, as the second quote at the head of this chapter suggests.

 

In Australia’s pioneering days, bravery was a necessary virtue, to establish a new nation. It was almost expected of people. As a result, society was ready to pay solid tribute to those whose courage led them to the abyss.

 

It is interesting to note that in those days few people could swim. And shipwrecks were not uncommon. So, some 80% of bravery awards went to people who had saved others from drowning. Later, as the country developed, new dangers arose. Runaway horses and mining tragedies became big contributors to early bravery awards. (By comparison, rescues from fires now account for a third of all awards, compared to just 2% before 1900. Most recently, there has been a sad increase in awards to the heroes of mass shooting episodes.)

 

 

Historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey has probably done more than anyone to draw public attention to the decline in recognition in Australia for acts of heroism. For example, he has noted that the bravery displayed by Aussie diggers at Gallipoli did not emerge from a vacuum, but had its roots in the recognition accorded courage in Australian society, especially visible in emergencies in hundreds of mining towns.

 

In 1996, the Royal Humane Society of Australasia, the successor to the Victorian Humane Society, published its history, 7,000 Brave Australians, written by Colin Bannister, with accounts of many of the acts of heroism that had led to awards for courage. There are stirring examples there of the bravery that has shaped Australia. Here are the original citations for some awards, reproduced from the book:

 

·         Isabel Marion Cottrill, a stationmaster’s wife, who on 16 September 1887 saw a man attempt suicide by lying on the railway lines before an incoming train. She, weak from illness, ran in front of the train to drag the man clear as the train brushed her clothes.

 

·         Francis Herbert Hughes, miner, aged 45, of Kalgoorlie, WA, descended a flooded mine on 21 March 1907, and the next seven days to rescue an entombed miner. When the mine was suddenly flooded, Mr Hughes volunteered to go down in a diving suit and in total darkness and up to his knees in mullock and silt, felt his way down shafts and along drives, firstly alone and after three dives, with another diver, following the air-pipe supplying the rock drill where the trapped miner was working. As he moved 250 feet along the drive, he would shake the air-pipe until he received an answering shake from the miner. He retraced his steps and though exhausted, made his fifth descent that first day with a lamp and food. For the next seven days he repeated his perilous passage, bringing food despite the ever-increasing danger of a fall of country until, on the eighth day, the mine had been pumped out sufficiently to enable him to bring the trapped miner to safety.

 

·         Joseph Davies, miner, aged 44 of Bendigo, Vic, was working with another miner 784 feet below the surface on 16 July 1909 as they charged two holes with 40 sticks of gelignite. Mr Davies ascended the ladder as the younger man lit the fuses and also climbed. Fifty feet up, however, the other miner over-balanced and fell to the bottom and broke his ankle, lying on top of the burning fuses. Mr Davies heard his cry and quickly climbed down, picked up his workmate and carried him to the most sheltered part of the shaft. Shielding his injured mate’s body with his own, he awaited the inevitable detonations when they were showered with stones and earth. Fortunately, neither was seriously injured.

 

·         Leonard Cullen, miner, aged 40, of Bullfinch, WA, was working with two other miners at the bottom of a shaft on 4 January 1912 and had been firing holes. Due to unforeseen delays, it was not thought safe to remain after some of the holes had been fired and the three got into the bucket to be hoisted. After they had travelled only five to six feet, one charge exploded and the other two fell out of the bucket. Mr Cullen gave the signal to go down, knowing that there were eight more charges to go off. At the bottom he began his search for the two men in the dark and fumes. As he was doing this, one man got back into the bucket and Mr Cullen, thinking both were aboard, gave the signal to hoist. He soon discovered his error and leaving the miner at a higher level, descended again as charges were exploding. The shaft was dense with choking fumes but Mr Cullen found the other miner under debris, got him into the bucket and they were hoisted to the surface.

 

Of course, stirring examples of heroism still exist. For example, in 1995, Clinton Michael, aged 22, was landing his light aircraft at the Victorian country town of Stawell when it hit trees and exploded into a roaring inferno of fireballs and thick black smoke. He was making his escape when he realised that a passenger was trapped.

 

“On instinct”, he later said, he ran into the holocaust to rescue that person, in the process suffering horrific burns that would require years of treatment. Awarded the Humane Society’s Clarke Medal - the country’s top award for bravery - he told a reporter: “I’m just the average Joe Blow country boy. It was just one of those things. I didn’t even think twice about it.”

 

There are still many average Joe and Joannie Blow country folk out there, and plenty more in the city as well, who will not think twice about rescuing human lives. They do it on instinct. But for how much longer?

 

As Professor Blainey has pointed out, the Clarke Medal ranks on a par with the Victoria Cross. Yet today there is no magic aura about it when compared to, say, football’s Brownlow Medal or an Olympic Gold. He wrote in The Australian: “Maybe in each month a few rescues, which otherwise might be made, are not even attempted because the courage to act quickly is absent or dimmed.”

 

In other words, when bravery lags well behind sporting prowess in the esteem of our population, and cannot hold a candle to a series of Top Ten hits, we must accept that many people will act in accord with the expectations of society.

 

 

Perhaps there is common sense behind all this. If I am completely honest with myself, I feel that I don’t really want my kids rushing into burning buildings or into the raging surf to try to save strangers. I have never told them that, but nor have I talked to them in reverential tones of acts of heroism. I simply do not know what they would do if tested. Come to that, I wonder what I would do.

 

We have an impressive infrastructure now to help those in distress, from surf patrols to fire brigades to emergency rescue services. Is not our society better served by admiring those who work for causes like environmental protection or the rights of Aborigines, rather than those who put their own lives in danger (and sometimes the lives of others) in what may be futile rescue attempts?

 

Anyway, bank robbers and many other lawbreakers often display plenty of courage. Shouldn’t we admire them too?

 

The answer is that we admire those who fight for what is right and just in our society. We admire them for their courage, their wisdom, their sense of duty and their love for their nation. Bank robbers may sometimes display courage, but are deficient in wisdom, love or most other virtues, and do not deserve our respect.

 

As I pointed out in the Introduction to this book, it is character that matters. It is even more important than concern for the pressing social issues of the day, for without character how can people even discern injustice, let alone summon the moral resolve to do something about it?

 

But there are many borderline cases. Those who charge into an inferno to drag out a helpless child are to be admired for their courage, love and selflessness. But they do not always display great wisdom, which is why the rescue services often try to restrain those attempting dramatic rescues.

 

As Aristotle noted, all the virtues stand in the middle of two extremes. Courage is to be admired and encouraged. But the extremes of foolhardiness on the one hand, and cowardice on the other, are not character traits that, generally, serve our society well.

 

In any case, the fact remains that our culture’s respect for people of character has undoubtedly diminished, and, as Professor Blainey has noted, perhaps a few rescues are not made each month as a result.

 

I would go further, and suggest that each day a few people are being discouraged from standing up for what is right and just in our society (rather than for what is the fashionable concern of the hour). And if that trend continues then we are on our way towards becoming a nation of sheep, to be herded at will by those with power.

 

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