The hosts called it ‘the Olympic kiss’ – the moment when two torches arch high above the torchbearers’ heads to join in a moment of fiery matrimony. ‘The crowds love it when the contact is made high,’ they instructed at the briefing. ‘The torches resemble a sail of the Opera House.’
Right now, my father was 700 metres out of Sassafras on the Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Olympic kissing a physiotherapist from Werribee called Mark Tomlinson,. It was a textbook contact, a flaming sail to make Charles Perkins proud, and the crowd responded on cue. All nine of us. One for each bracing degree of Mount Dandenong Celsius.
I watched Dad’s chest puff out a the first step and knew that for a second he imagined he was Ron Clarke. Not a fifty-something Ron Clarke dressed in suit and but an eighteen year old Ron Clarke. Arm aloft. The fire of Olympus in his hand. His heart thumping to a roar that challenged a city’s very foundations.
‘Oh, no, the battery in my camera’s gone,’ groaned a woman at the side of the road.
Dad looked over and in an instant, he was no longer Ron Clarke. He might have been workshopping this fantasy for 44 years, but clearly it was not capable of withstanding idle talk of camera batteries. His pace slowed, but his form was still excellent and he wore the smile of a man enjoying one of the big days of his life. He was Ray Wilson. He ran socially with a group of blokes who drink Guinness after each of their Saturday morning excursions. And today, to the applause of a crowd that had rallied to number about 15, he was running for the glory of the superannuation industry he had represented proudly for 21 years.
‘Do it for superannuation, Dad!’ my sister Pippa screamed as he ambled around another ferny corner.
‘Do it for managed funds!’ responded my brother Ned.
He raised the torch even higher, and continued to push up the hill. Dad knew as well as anybody that the motor home rolling along in front carried Australia’s media, and that while the public accepted the concept of superannuation, it had not yet captured its imagination. If he wanted to make the daily edition of Channel Seven’s ‘Follow the Torch’, he had to rely on exemplary running technique, or alternatively, histrionics.
The motor home pushed another 100 metres up the road and frankly, you couldn’t blame it. As histrionics go, a 4-second, shoulder high wave to your wife and kids just doesn’t cut it. If it had have been me out there, I might have tried to draw them back with a limp, or a stagger – anything to make it appear as though I was courageously battling on against the odds – but not Dad. My grinning father ran tall, a pillar of strength. He moved with the dignified purpose of a man who ran through Carl Ditteritch in the 1971 Grand Final, and lived to tell the tale. Again and again.
Yes, Dad played in a premiership for Hawthorn, and from the look of the video, accidentally ran through St Kilda strongman Carl Ditteritch. I say accidentally because Swan Hill is not so far away, and my father is small and bald and wants no trouble. Nevertheless, Dad did bulldoze Big Carl, and I’ve no doubt it helped when he was filling out the community service column in his torch relay application: ‘Chairman of school council, president of junior football league, and fix-it man for St Kilda strongmen’
This was beautiful. Against a backdrop of birds and gum trees and chase motorcycles, Dad pushed past half way. And how the people of Sassafras responded! Well not the ones in the town actually, they were busy embracing round–the-world yachtsman and favorite son, Jesse Martin, but the people who lived just out of Sassafras. Thirty or so residents left their homes and joined our friends and family as Dad made his ascent to the changeover point. Had they been arranged carefully and across a narrow area, you could have said they were five deep.
‘Nearly there!’ a female voice shouted, and given Dad was only running 500 metres, she could only have been right. Moments later he was there, touching torches with a Narre Warren community radio DJ called Margriet Midgley. When her flame exploded to life the crowd exploded with it.
For the next half-hour or so, Dad posed for photos and signed autographs for the children of Sassafras. I’ve tried to make that sound offhand and casual, but if you want to really appreciate the magic of this torch relay, read that again. DAD SIGNED AUTOGRAPHS FOR THE CHILDREN OF SASSAFRAS. That bus shelter may never again witness scenes so festive. I suggested to Dad that he win the kids over by making the signatures out ‘Lindsay Gaze’ (they’re both thin and bald) but he recorded his real name and relay position. ‘Ray Wilson – Day 64 Runner 69’. And so he should have. It was his day.