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Bushfire Moon: A Genesis chapter

29 May 2018

Bushfire Moon: A Genesis chapter Image

By Meg Hill

Gary Groenewald spent three years building a boat in Docklands’ Wooden Boat Centre. He finished it a month ago.

There’s speculation that Noah had over a century to build his ark in preparation for an apocalypse, but Gary built his in the aftermath of one.

The chapter starts with the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 that killed 173 people and destroyed Gary’s family home in Glenburn.

It was only by chance that Gary and his family stayed in Melbourne the night before, where he worked and his children studied.

“The kids were at university and school and they said it was too hot to go back out to the farm,” said Gary.

His huge country house burnt down in seven minutes the next day.

Sitting in the cafe at the Library at the Dock, he showed how big his house was.

“It was a massive house. It was half the size of this bottom floor of the library. It was on a concrete slab and was paved all around it.”

Gary said he felt the adrenaline for six or seven months afterwards, but eventually crashed.

“I was helping people around Kinglake and that area and I was a semi-professional soccer coach. But I just stopped coaching one day because I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Then, nine months after Black Saturday, Gary was diagnosed with cancer.

“Would you believe that? Out of the blue, I get cancer.”

And Gary’s third calamity was just around the corner. Noah only had to deal with one meagre, pre-warned flood.

“I ended up nearly dying on the operating table, on a Saturday night at Epworth Hospital in Box Hill.”

Gary was in a coma for three weeks. A surgery that was meant to save his good kidney poisoned it by killing all his gluteal muscles. His wife stopped the doctors from amputating his leg.

“That’s the reason I walk with a walking stick now,” he explained.

As one would perhaps expect, things got worse from there.

“I couldn’t go to work. I was on these massive doses of painkillers. I started not being able to remember things.”

Gary had been in the building industry for decades, when he could remember his customer’s phone numbers by heart.

“If you said to me ‘remember these numbers: 421’, after 30 second I would be lost.”

“I was moody and bad at home. I tried to get off those drugs probably 10 times by myself, then I went to hospital, went to a drug clinic with a rehabilitation program. That one didn’t work. Went to another one – didn’t work.”

Finally, Gary started at the Barbara Walter Centre for Pain Management at the same time as finding a good psychologist.

The combination eventually got him off his medication and the question was posed: what have you always wanted to do?

“Build a boat,” Gary said.

“All I’ve known all my life is to work with my hands.”

After three years in Docklands’ Wooden Boat Centre, Gary got his ark.

But how did he end up at the boat centre? A Google search? A recommendation from a construction colleague? No, that’d be far too run-of-the-mill.

Like most parts of Gary’s life, there’s an interesting story behind this too.

Gary was riding his bike down Victoria Harbour – as part of his leg rehabilitation and as a way for him to take his dog for a run – when he got a phone call.

A friend was ringing with the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. Gary was born in apartheid South Africa and moved here when the White Australia Policy was still active.

“You know when you’re on the phone and you walk around in circles randomly? I was doing that and I walked into the boat centre,” he said.

“You rent a space at the Wooden Boat Centre and use it when and how you like.”

The concept sounds useful, but isolationist – as if you’re alienated from the other space-renters. But this is not the case. Gary said he made friends at the centre that energised him and pushed his rehabilitation along.

“They keep everything low-key. They don’t want to publicise themselves a lot, but I have to thank them along with a lot of people, including my family,” Gary said.

For now Gary’s boat, aptly named Bushfire Moon, sits in Victoria Harbour.

He plans to go on an open-ended sailing trip with his wife when the weather gets a bit warmer.

He’s not waiting for a flood.

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