By Kevin S. Giles
We shared a desk maybe four feet wide, sitting side by side. He responded to my questions with grunts and wave-of-the-hand dismissals. He was older and knew the drill. I felt intimidated.
We worked the evening shift at the Courier-Mail, the large morning daily newspaper in Brisbane, Australia. We were “sub-editors,” meaning we edited stories and wrote headlines before the presses started late at night. Our combined desk sat at the end of a long room full of other desks, all empty by that time. We sat alone in this room, known as Trade and Finance, staffed in daylight hours with reporters and editors who wrote the business section of the paper. Frosted glass separated us from several other night editors who cussed and coughed beneath a cloud of blue cigarette smoke.
Geoff was an Aussie. I was a Yank, seemingly a fatal distinction to him.
I tried talking with him a few times. He responded long enough to point out my errors and then lapsed again into silence. I wasn’t yet 21. What did I know about coping with someone in a foreign country who didn’t like me?
Geoff wasn’t the only one. That’s where this story really begins.
Becky was an immigrant teacher, hired to work at Kingston School at the south end of the city. It was full of Brits, many of them new to Australia just like us. Before we left the United States, the Australian Consul in Chicago informed me that I should settle for working as a “garbo,” meaning garbage collector. He evidently didn’t see a future for me as a journalist (a “journo”) in his home country.
And so, in Brisbane, 7,700 miles from my journalism school at the University of Montana, I decided to prove him wrong. I walked to the street corner to inspect a dozen news racks. Some of the tabloids looked too sensational. That wouldn’t do. Some newspapers were national in scope with probably just a couple reporters employed in Brisbane. That wouldn’t work. Then my eyes settled on the Courier-Mail.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
The next morning, I took a taxi to Bowen Hills. It was in that suburb where I found the newspaper building, a red brick affair surrounded by delivery trucks. I paid the fare and hurried inside where I asked the man at the front desk to see the editor.
He placed a phone call. A proper secretary in a white dress came to get me, ushering me down a long corridor between those rooms of frosted glass. We went through one door, and then another, and finally through a third to see the man who ran the show. Jon Atherton, loud and blustery, smoked a long cigar. Leaning back in a creaking chair, brushing ring-studded fingers through graying red hair, he offered profane condemnations about Yanks in general, bragged about his time as a “foreign” correspondent in New York City, told me I would fail as a journo in Australia, told me to go home to America, lit up another cigar, cursed about both Yanks and the Yankees, and belched five or six times. Then he shouted at his secretary to show me the way out. I’d hardly managed a word during his 20-minute diatribe.
Defeated, I summoned a taxi to take me back downtown. I began to wonder whether I should apply for a garbo’s job. Could I learn to run like the other garbos, carrying a bin of trash on my shoulder from house to house, flat to flat, street to street? When I walked into my hotel, dejected, the desk clerk called my name. (We had become acquainted during some previous annoying conversations about why Yanks couldn’t bring beer into a “temperance” hotel.) He handed me a note from a “Mr. Blaikie” at the Courier-Mail. I should call right away.
Chief of Staff Blaikie, his voice suggesting a withering manner about him, advised that I would start work Monday. I would show up at 10 a.m. wearing a coat and tie. He welcomed me to the paper and hung up.
Just how I got that job remains a mystery all these years later.
Back to Geoff.
Tired of the way he was ignoring me, I said to him one night: “A Yank can outdrink an Aussie any old time.” I had come to understand those were fighting words in Australia. Geoff turned to me with, finally, genuine interest. “As soon we get the state run out (meaning when the first papers for outstate Queensland readers go to press), we’re going to bloody well find out.”
I was confident in my beer-guzzling ability. At the University of Montana, I had attended four Aber Day keggers in a row, and at least three Forester Balls where beer flowed like water. I figured I would teach Geoff a thing or two.
When we finished the last stories, Geoff hurriedly drove me to the Jubilee Pub down the road. We had a 15-minute break between editions. I wondered what he had in mind.
“Twelve,” he told the bartender. Then to me: “Six for me, six for you.” When they were lined up before us, Geoff lifted the first one. “This is how a real bloke drinks beer, mate,” he advised, before sucking it down in a blink. He reached for the second one. It disappeared almost as fast.
Catching on to what this was all about, I poured down my first glass of beer. Gasping for breath, I reached for my second. My guzzling near drowned me, leaving beer splashed down my shirt. Geoff, hardly impressed, swallowed his third without breaking eye contact. I noted with some satisfaction that he drank it slower than the first two.
I downed my third. We both drank our fourth. I glanced at the clock. Barely five minutes had passed since we walked in the door.
The bartender, missing a few teeth, smiled broadly. “You blokes had better watch out,” he counseled us, but he clearly enjoyed the show.
After both of us washed down our fifth beers, I charged for the restroom. “Oser there,” Geoff managed. I stood in there for what seemed like a year or so. The pause from the madness at the bar suddenly gripped me with a passion to inhale that sixth beer before Geoff took a sip.
I misjudged him. When I arrived back at the bar he raised his glass, slammed it into mine, and yelled to anyone who wanted to listen, “Aussie can outdrink Yank any old …!” and then he drank and gulped. I remembered the immortal words of my college roommate Jimmy Doolittle – “chug that unit” – and, mustering my best chugging skills, I opened my throat and let the beer flow.
The rest of that night passed in an insane drunken blur. Geoff advised with no little urgency that we needed to hurry back to the Courier-Mail to finish editing stories for the metro edition, which went to city subscribers and news racks. I remember him helping me to the car, and me helping him out of it. We stumbled down the hallway to our desk, doing our best to disguise our clumsy attempts at headline writing from our sober colleagues in the next room, but we both knew what had happened at the Jubilee Pub:
We drank to a draw.
To Geoff, that was good enough. “Not bad for a Yank,” he managed.
“Not bad for an Aussie,” I slurred back.
And so it was that I sloshed my way into the Courier-Mail newsroom beer culture, or at least to better relations with my fellow night editor. I don’t recommend drinking six large beers in 10 minutes. I’ll spare you details of the ugly aftermath.
And the paper’s editor, Jon Atherton? One of the last times I saw him, he was sprawled on the floor outside his office about midnight, shoulder to shoulder with a young reporter and singing loudly. Both were raving drunk. Let it be remembered that I never drank and sang with the editor, a confirmed critic of everything American.
After all, we Yanks have our pride.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)