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Backstories 2021

Ron Bradfield

As a man who has spent his life in camouflage, hiding from others who he really is, Ron was surprised to learn that sometimes things do change.

Backstories is a multi-sited storytelling festival located in backyards across Perth and regional Western Australia. In 2021, Backstories featured locations in Margaret River, South Fremantle, Midland, Quinns Rocks and more.

Backstories 2021 was made possible with funding from Lotterywest, Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries and the Centre for Stories Founders Circle.

This story was collected at our South Fremantle backyard. It features Ron Bradfield. As a man who has spent his life in camouflage, hiding from others who he really is, Ron was surprised to learn that sometimes things do change.

Copyright © 2021 Ron Bradfield.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

This story was published on 11 June 2021.

View Story Transcript

RB: So about two weeks into June, I’m sitting up on Beeliar drive and I’ve just pulled over. And my hands are locked on the steering wheel at about ten and two. And in my rear vision mirror, the blue and red lights are flashing behind me. And I have an understanding of why it is that I’m gripping that steering wheel so tightly. 

Maybe the best thing to do is to wind back to what happened in late May. What happened to George Floyd. And how Minneapolis boiled over. And how people tipped into an ocean of what it was that was wrong about those kinds of things. And that seemed like a whole other world away.  

But in that place, in that time when it boiled over, people were far more outraged about the notion of what it was that was wrong in all of that—over and over and over again—that they actually found something to distract themselves, I guess, in the most horrible of ways, from the pandemic.  

And that was this great big outward show. It just rolled over the world as others joined in. And Black Lives Matter; bits and pieces flashed about and then others argued about, well, you know, all lives matter. And then it turned into a whole other debate.  

At that time, I was pulling apart one of the few things that I’m especially well-known for, especially in Fremantle and probably closer to Perth, and that was my shirts. Anyone here who does know me knows me and my shirts. And I happen to have a rather large collection of dashiki shirts of all colours and kinds.   

And about May I started to pull them apart and tear them into strips, and I made the silly mistake of posting it up on the social media, on Facebook, and suddenly I was bombarded with these calls and messages going, ‘Ron are you okay!? Oh my God what’s happening!? What are you doing!? You right? You need me to come ‘round?’  

And I had to go back and quickly edit my post and say I’m decommissioning old shirts, folks, it’s okay. I’m fine! The thing about those shirts: they’re bright. They’re colourful. And they’re what people see first. And I’ve spent my entire life wearing something that hides me from others.  

I spent ten years in the military. I played soldier games for four years, and sailor games for six years after that. And I discovered the immense power in being able to hide inside of something that you put on, that’s issued to you and makes you look like something else. I learned how to disappear in plain sight at a very, very young age.    

I learned in the racist town that I grew up in that if I could just stand out in the open, and look like anything else, then I just wouldn’t be seen. And that skill followed me all the way through until I left the military in 1997. And suddenly I stepped out, while I was with civilians, and I was just an Aboriginal man all over again. 

 I tipped into this world of youth work to try and help young fellas who were working on the streets and struggling with their lives. And at the time the education department insisted that I should wear a button-up shirt and a tie and drive around in a government car.   

I don’t know if you’ve ever done this job, and turned up to houses where people don’t generally welcome those kinds of visitors, but doors don’t open. Curtains don’t move. And people don’t say hello in nice friendly voices. I knew that wasn’t going to work. I’m a blackfella kid. I grew up in those places. I know what it looks like when someone turns up on your door like that.  

 And that week I went back home and I pulled out my old collection of dashiki shirts that I’d collected over my years in the navy. And I put them on, whacked on a pair of shorts, stomped around in my blunnies and I turned up in my ute at these houses in Kwinana, Medina, Willagee. And I banged on doors, and more often than not, people opened the door and went, ‘who are you mate?’  

 And I realised that the skill to hide who I am hadn’t really gone away.  

And those shirts followed me for years. And they would become a skin that I would wear as I hid who I was from others. [Cat sneezes] Bless you again! Nothing like a cat that cleans up after itself. So when the business with George Floyd kicked off, I was pulling those shirts apart.  

 You see, the year before I’d actually had my first solo exhibition, and I had actually spent a lot of time talking about the uniform and the skins that I hid in, and how I could hide in plain sight. Until one of my art friends and colleagues turned around and said to me, ‘so tell me Ron, who are you without your skins on?’ And I realised that I actually had no idea.  

 I’d spent probably 50 years of my life hiding myself from others, so that I kept them happy, and me safe. And here I was, hearing about George Floyd, as I was putting together an artwork that I was making that was out of those strips of shirts. Now I don’t know if anyone else has put on a military uniform here, especially an army one.  

But if you have, you may have seen what was called a ghillie suit, or a camouflage suit. They’re a suit that you wear over the top of whatever you’re wearing, and it’s got threads hanging off it in all kinds of directions, and the idea is that it’s meant to break up your silhouette, your shape, so that you can blend into the environment you might be laying in.  

And I had this idea that, given that I’d been doing this with these shirts, you know, for over twenty years of my life, I would take those shirts, strip them into strips, and tie them onto a mesh netting, and make a ghillie suit. A camouflage suit out of all the different shirts that I’d worn throughout the course of my life up until that point, that had been my camouflage.  

And then I would hang it out and put it over there, so I could be me over here.  

That meant that I tipped right into myself. Without taking any of my clothes off, I’d made myself rather naked. It’s a scary thought, that. I don’t know whether 2020 and COVID gave you the opportunity to really stop and look inside yourselves, but it certainly did that for me. And I wasn’t quite sure that I liked what I saw. And I decided to do something about it.  

It woke up memories in me. You see, the problem is, at nineteen years of age in Geraldton, six plain-clothes policemen surrounded the car that I was in with my fourteen-year-old brother and my seventeen-year-old brother at the time. And they dragged us out of that car and forced us on the ground. And we had to lay there while they decided what they were going to do about us.  

Now if this was something that happened in the general course of actual police business, you’d probably be okay with that. If that was going on, be it the case. But actually, we’d just pulled up outside of a bottle shop and so had they. And instead of going in to get what they were going in to get, they surrounded our car and dragged us out.  

When I moved to see the identification of one of those policemen, the six policemen moved, and their nightsticks came out from behind their back—where they’d been hiding them—as they got ready to flog us on the ground. In this country there are a group of people who know what that feels like. To be targeted and looked at in that particular way.  

And I’m sitting behind the steering wheel of my car as a young bloke taps on the windscreen. And I’m starting to wind it down. And I’m sweating buckets. And I’m scared shitless. And I look at him, scared stupid that what I’m going to do is turn and look into the face of an older white man only to see a young Vietnamese face looking back. 

And just that alone was enough to break the tension, as I sort of relaxed a little bit, and he said, ‘Yeah, g’day sir. Do you realise that your car is out of rego?’ And I didn’t. It was my father’s car. He’d gifted it to me when he passed away. And I said as much. And he went, ‘all right look. I’ll be right back. Just sit straight. Sit well and we’ll sort this out for you.’   

And he went back to the paddy wagon behind me and I was trying to relax. I was. And then he came back again and asked me to get out of the car, and I struggled to open the door. I struggled so much that the young bloke had to ask me, ‘Are you all right sir? You okay?’ I said, ‘I’m getting out. I’m just a bit surprised; a bit in shock. I’m sorry.’ 

And with that he turned around and called out to the person who was sitting in the car. And a senior constable stepped out. And she tucked her long blonde hair into her hat and she came out, and she took one look at me, and she read the situation perfectly. 

And she just said, ‘don’t worry about it. You sit there. Your car’s out of rego. You need to take it home. Next week you need to go and see rego mob and sort that out. But can anyone pick up your car for you?’ And I said, ‘no.’ And she just didn’t even bat an eyelid.  

She stopped, opened up her notebook, literally wrote out a card that said “I, sergeant—or senior constable so-and-so—give you permission to drive your car to your house. And if anyone gives you any trouble, tell them to give me a call on this number.” And she wrote her mobile number down on the card. And she handed it to me. And in a moment, she made my fears go away. I still have that card in my wallet.  

You get caught, sometimes, thinking that everything stays the same and nothing will change. And sometimes, just sometimes, those things do.  

Thank you.          

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