That is the reason we were there, but the most memorable story for me was the tight community of sheep dog handlers and lovers, and mostly the man that brought them together this day, country raconteur of all time, Brian Maher.
We arrived at the community center and footie oval Saturday afternoon in threatening weather and watched a group of volunteers finish preparations for the next day. After the work was done, the most dedicated gathered around a huge drum stove to down stubbies (bottled beer) and listen to lead volunteer and boss of the event Brian bring laugh after laugh with stories and quick come-backs, most of which passed right over our heads given his strong country Australian accent.
But he went on to tell, from memory, some of the classic poems of Australia’s best poets of the outback and country folk. His mates had heard them all before, but begged for more of their favorites long after the stars rose and night chill overcame the stove.
He invited us to camp on the grounds than night and even offered us showers and cooking facilities, or if we liked, to lay out our swag beside the kitchen fire for the night. But by the time we begged off to leave the fire circle for bed, we were too tired to do more than heat a tin of beans and crawl under the duvet. He would have held sway all night if we’d had the stamina, but we were glad our wimp-out sent him home for a scant few hours until a 6 am start of the trials.
Sunday saw him going flat out all day herding people, dogs and sheep, through a 43 dog trial in gale force winds (worst storm in five years in Victoria) and a bit of rain. There was never a harsh word from his mouth, and nearly as many hearty laughs as chain smoked cigarettes. He was a whirlwind of efficiency and good cheer in conditions that would have turned most men sour, or led them to cancel the competition.
By dark we were too knackered to drive on, and he insisted we stay and use the facilities another night. No hot shower ever felt so good, and the kitchen made having our tea a pleasure while the storm raged on outside. In the kitchen he again regaled us and a group of younger friends, with poems. They were punctuated with a sweep of cig or stubby clutching hand, and furrowed in memory brow. At the end of each poetic performance, his mates, and we, applauded and suggested more. He always had one more.
We had trouble saying goodbye that night. He lingered until all his mates were gone and told us how much he appreciated our participation and attention to his event. We of course owed him! But, that is the kind of man he is, so often deferring credit and showing appreciation for the smallest aid. That is how he took a derelict building and turned it into a vital active place where community thrives again.
He was back before we left the next morning, on some small pretense, just long enough to get a heartfelt thank you from me and a hug and kiss on the cheek from Claire. We both gave up a few tears as he and his battered ute rolled off the oval.
We worry for his health: probably too many stubbies and for sure too many cigarettes. But we know, whatever comes his way, he will greet it with grace. We know he has lived his life to the fullest, and none of us can ask more than that. We hope there will be many years, and Old Sniff Classics in his future.
Brian is an inspiration to many in the community. More, he’s the driving force keeping it together, and that is no small job in rural agricultural Australia. Good on ya mate! We miss you already.