The Milwaukee County Zoo was my first, and remains one of my most loyal, zoo clients. In 1992, they asked me to paint murals in their Australia building. The hallway called for a “sunset over the Outback” mural about 9 feet tall by 124 feet long. Windows looking into the animal exhibits were located in the opposite wall. Beyond that stretched 124 feet of exhibit wall on which they wanted a mural that transitioned from arid Outback at one end to deep rainforest at the other.
It was a really pleasant job. While I painted, the female kangaroos, called does, would quietly hop in through the sliding door to their yard outside, some of them with babies or joeys in their pouches, to watch me paint. The head keeper supplied me with apple slices to feed the does; only one was bold enough to accept my offer and eventually she let me hand pieces to her joey. They chewed contentedly. Sometimes the doe would knock over a cup of paint on the floor with her tail and go bounding out to the yard.
I was alone in the building most of the time. I would take my lunch breaks outside in the sun with my back against a fence. One day I looked through the fence and saw an adolescent male moose. I later learned his name was — you guessed it — Bullwinkle. From a distance, he never got closer than 50 feet from the fence. He looked like a regular moose, which is to say he had those overly long pipe stems for legs and a face like a mule who fell out of an ugly tree and hit every branch. And of course he had a crown of antlers I probably couldn’t have picked up on my best day.
One lunch break, as I sat on the hood of my car resting against the windshield, a shadow came over me and I felt hot breath on the back of my neck. I spun around and saw that Bullwinkle had come up to the fence. He was much bigger than I thought. His legs were tall enough to enable him to reach over the top of the fence, neck extended, with his huge head and rack suspended over me. He indicated his interest in my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My heart rate slowly returned to normal. Partly intimidated and partly charmed, I gave him half, and he disposed of it in two bites.
After a moment of reflection, he indicated with his tongue that he would appreciate the second half. I turned him down but brought celery and cucumbers each day thereafter and we had lunch together in the sun. It was more about chewing than conversation.
I got permission to work late one night and the keeper assured me that none of the kangaroos would come in to bother me because they would bed down outside. About nine o’clock, as I was spraying some details on rocks, I heard a huff behind me. I turned around, and my work boots froze to the concrete. It was a boomer, a full-grown male kangaroo, about six feet tall, looking me straight in the eye. He didn’t look happy or interested in an apple slice.
I had a flash memory of seeing kangaroos in the wild outside Sydney when I was on R&R from the Vietnam War with a week to entertain myself. I had forgotten that Down Under the seasons are reversed from North America; it was winter and cold enough that I went to a surplus store and bought an inexpensive Australian Army jacket, which I still treasure.
Sydney was a wonderful break from Vietnam. It was chilly, everyone spoke English of a sort, and they were not trying to kill me, sell me something or bum a cigarette or chewing gum. I was surprised to see men in business suits featuring short pants. I was also surprised to conclude that the relationship between the sexes seemed to be much like America in the Fifties, which is to say, a bit estranged. The blokes hung out with their mates quaffing a few brews and slapping each other on the back while the Sheilas huddled and commiserated about what blinkin’ clods the blokes were. But the Sheilas loved Yanks! At a USO dance, which is to say no alcohol, I had the unique opportunity to rock out with an indigenous Australian girl in a shiny purple pants suit. I felt so sophisticated.
At the USO storefront office for American military on R&R, I saw a handwritten note on the bulletin board offering tours of the countryside at a cattle station, which translates from Australian as a ranch. The price was very affordable and it included lunch. The instructions said to buy a ticket for a certain train from Sydney. I think it was actually from the suburb of Wooloomooloo, but if it wasn’t, it’s still a fun word to type. The note said to get off at a town about 30 kilometers away with some incomprehensible Aboriginal name that also ended in ‘oo-oo.’ As promised, the leather-faced station owner, probably Crocodile Dundee’s cousin, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, greeted me and several other GIs I’d met on the same train who had signed onto the same tour.
“G ‘day, mates, how d’ya do?” he said.
“Fair dinkum, mate!” I said. He didn’t seem impressed by my Australian.
He led us to a dusty Land Rover, and we drove through the countryside for several hours as he narrated what we were seeing. The scenery was arresting: wooded, steep slopes, waterfalls, mist hanging in deep valleys, broad expanses of grass punctuated by stands of eucalyptus trees. Cattle and mobs of kangaroos were everywhere. There was an ancient quality to it, as if we were driving through a prehistoric landscape from which a herd of sauropods might emerge. When I commented on the beauty, he said, “We call ’em the Blue Mountains ’cause of that bluish haze.” I was to see this landscape again decades later in a film, The Man from Snowy River.
At midday he pulled up to a daub-and-wattle cabin he had built himself located in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, New South Wales. It had a packed dirt floor, kerosene lamps, window shutters but no screens, a corrugated tin roof, and a cement block fireplace with an old fashioned radiator at the back. A large kettle of mutton stew was hung over the coals, bubbling.
The water came from spring in the hillside behind the cabin where it flowed into a screened funnel, through several hundred feet of garden hose , across a 2 x 4 aqueduct and into a large steel tank on stilts on one side of the cabin. One line of copper tubing then brought cold water to a spigot inside while another brought water to the radiator and hence to a hot water spigot for tea.
As our host sat each bowl of stew on the rustic table, he released the cord of a pyramidal tent of mosquito netting suspended overhead, dropping it over onto each of the eight places.
“It’s not blowie [fly] season, mind ‘ya,” he explained, “but ya can’t be too careful, can ya?”
He called us in and ceremonially raised all of the fly tents at once. We sat down on benches to a meal of stew, bread, butter, kiwis and cold stream water.
After lunch we drove back. Our host stopped at several billabongs (watering holes) to talk in what sounded like Pidgin English to his cowboys, all of whom were indigenous Australians on horseback. Some had a cattle dog riding precariously behind the saddle.
The station owner bragged about how smart his dogs were. “But a big boomer, he’s uncanny smart, he is, smarter than my dogs.”
He then told us a story about finding a boomer inside a fence he’d put around a watering trough to keep the roos from scaring his cattle away. He sent a dog in to chase the boomer out of the enclosure. The boomer cowered in a corner until the dog got close enough, then grabbed the dog in a head-lock, as kangaroos do with each other in fighting. He then hopped over to the water trough and stuck the dog’s head underwater! The station owner had to rush in with a whip to save his dog from drowning.
When we passed through a field of kangaroos, he told us to notice the many black scars on the faces and chests of the big males.
“Mating season,” he said. “They’ll fight and actually kill each other. Those front paws have got claws, bit like a dog’s. They can take your face off or open your throat, they can. And if they bring those big feet up by rocking back on their tails, why, they can hit ya in the chest with both of ’em like a cricket bat, break every rib ya got an’ bloody well burst your heart.”
I was never able to see kangaroos the same way again. I should point out here that all of this did not actually flash through my mind in the Milwaukee Zoo, but it seemed like a good opportunity to tell a bloody interestin’ tale, eh mate?
So now, a six-foot, 200-pound boomer — actually more like 170 lbs, but he was really ripped — was poised five feet away with what looked to be murder in his eyes. Should I spray him in the face with olive-green latex paint? Would that do any good? Should I do a Kung Fu shout, wave or kick him first?
Before I could decide, the electric motor on my compressor, whose pressure had dropped below operational level, kicked on with a very rude, deafening “Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” In an instant, the kangaroo was gone. I decided to call it a night because I couldn’t have sprayed a straight line if I’d tried.
In the morning I told the head keeper about it, describing the scars on the face and chest of my adversary.
“Oh, that would be Brucie, he’s a cream puff, probably just wanted some apple slices.”
“Okay,” I said, unconvinced, “but how about tonight, can I bring a sort of chaperone/bodyguard?”
“A bodyguard?” he said, “Like, who’re you thinking?”
“Well, maybe I could borrow Bullwinkle next door,” I said.