It was the day of my First Holy Communion; the day I was to receive the Holy Sacrament and become a “Soldier of Christ.” Quite a day for any seven year-old and as the photo attests it deserved my very best clothes and hair combed.
Now I can’t recall much about the days and weeks of preparation that led up to this auspicious moment other than my school, Mt. Carmel – a Catholic Primary complete with a nunnery and giant A-frame church on the school grounds – did its very best to take us all through the ins-and-outs of the ceremony, provide what explanations needed to be provided, and let us all know without a shadow of doubt that we were signing on to God. More importantly, God was signing on to us, and although there were 40 or 50 of us this thing was about me and God. That was how it was sold. That was the pitch drilled into us all, repeated over and over, that this was about “you” becoming a “Soldier of Christ.” And that’s not all. God, apparently, was going to be our – my – wingman! The coming ceremony was simply me introducing myself to God and visa-versa: a blood bond, so to speak, which any seven year old can easily understand. After that we had each other’s backs. After all was said and done it was going to be God and me going on adventures, ‘soldiering’ together.
Like I said, a big day, and when it arrived it was predictably gorgeous; the kind of sun-kissed morning worthy of a date with the creator of the universe.
The moment came and passed. God’s Body was surprisingly bland and tasteless but I let that minor detail pass. God was after all now my wingman and that’s all of what really counted. There were applause, congratulatory remarks, smiles, the mandatory photos, and then the obligatory Zande family reward for special occasions: “Where would you like to go to celebrate?”
I didn’t have to think twice. “Lone Pine!” I yipped.
Half an hour later admission for six, of which I was the youngest and the one wearing the broadest smile, was paid. Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary wasn’t so much a zoo back then as it was a large semi cleared area of bush where docile native Australian wildlife went about their daily business under the curious stares of families who by day shared their living space. There were no fenced off zones and certainly no cages other than those housing the parks contingent of foul smelling Tasmania Devils leaving people to mill about between BBQ spots and feed the less offensively perfumed animals with pre-purchased pellets of dried food. A perfect day out, and as an animal lover I was in seventh heaven. Literally I was. I was now walking with God.
“Word of warning,” said a voice from behind us. It was one of the park attendants; a young man wearing all brown to match the dirt. “That old grey kangaroo, the one over there by himself,” he continued, pointing off to our right. “He’s feeling a little off-colour and grumpy today. Feel free to wonder around, feed the other animals, enjoy yourselves, but do try and give him his space.”
My face curled up in knots of confusion. “What’s the matter with him?” I asked with genuine concern. The thought of an upset animal was simply abhorrent to me.
“He’s just a little old and a little grumpy,” explained the attendant with a warming smile. “Do you like wombats?” he asked and got an enthusiastic nod in response. “Me, too! There’s plenty of wombats over there. Now, you all have a great day!”
How could I not, I didn’t say. I had God sitting off my shoulder! Without exaggeration, this was the way I was thinking. My chest was so far out and my chin riding so high in the air I must have resembled an Oscar winner, or at least a person who had one colossally great secret!
My parents took the young man’s advice and the next moment we were in amongst a mob of kangaroo’s, wallabies, emus, wombats, possums: the usual Australia fair. Twenty minutes and then thirty elapsed without incident. Everyone was having fun, all except that lone male grey kangaroo. Every so often I would look over and watch him, wondering what his problem was. Why was he sad today? What was going on inside that head of his? Perhaps he simply didn’t like all the people being around. I couldn’t blame him for that. Kids, especially dumb kids could be assholes with animals and maybe he’d just had a string of bad run-ins. Whatever the reason he was definitely nettled about something, and in that moment I decided to do something about it. I would introduce myself to this kangaroo. I would introduce myself and brighten up his otherwise wretched day. And then it hit me. It hit me like diamond-tipped bullet straight through the forehead. I had God looking over me! What could possibly go wrong? I was his soldier, he was my wingman, and by Christ I was going to do some soldiering! Yes, the attendant had warned us but what the fuck did that heathen know? I was walking with God!
And with that I arrived at my next course of action.
Getting away from my parents wasn’t easy. That was, of course, until God intervened and sent in a flock of cantankerous Crimson Rosella’s who drew everyone’s attention with their noisy antics. And so like Moses darting through the parted Red Sea I too seized my god-presented opportunity.
I remember the approach. I had about 60 meters to cover and with every step I kept saying to myself, “You and me God, we’re going to make this kangaroo happy.” I was determined. My intentions were good. My reasoning was sound. What I was doing was selfless and although I would have crossed those 60 meters regardless of it being my confirmation day or not given the events of the morning I now had an added motivation… and something to test.
At ten meters out I paused and studied my subject. That is what he was; the first subject of my Christ Soldiering. My movements were slow and unthreatening. I approached with hands outstretched and palms up, talking in soft tones to calm whatever nerves wracked the creature. At five meters out our eyes locked onto to each other’s. His brow turned down and his giant black eyes pinched into little more than slits through which he surveyed this approaching miniature human figure. Two meters more and I was talking openly, letting the ageing animal know I came in peace.
I paused again and concentrated on my subject. Apart from the now laser-like focus he had on me everything else appeared to going well.
“Here we go God…”
I bent my left knee and leaned forward into the final step, and then all hell broke loose. The earthy space in which this kangaroo and I inhabited in that brief moment in time became a confused fur ball of terrible noise, thrashing muscular limbs, tennis racket-sized paws, and branch-like black nails that sliced through the air like some ferocious horizontal metal rain. Panic gripped the park and the sky darkened as the enormous flock of Rosella’s launched back into the air with a deafening collective screech, their numbers so numerous they blocked the sun. Heads snapped around in shock, eyes leapt from their sockets, jawbones dislodged and horrified screams rung out in every direction. Emus recoiled in shock and bolted. Wallabies took off like spring-loaded jack-in-the-boxes and terror-stricken wombats charged through a forest of now dancing human legs.
Brown shirted park attendants raced in toward the dust bowl and although their sudden appearance inside the melee diverted the enraged animal’s attention it was, sadly, only a temporary distraction. Sensing time was short the elderly kangaroo stepped up his efforts to rip me apart limb by limb.
Now, it should be noted at this moment that this is an immensely ugly and difficult exercise for even the most determined kangaroo having been gifted with just two monstrous hind legs and a colossal trunk like tail as his tools of destruction.
But try he most certainly did.
Fur and dust and blades of grass filled the air until, like a miracle, I was dragged free. Wide-eyed and gasping for oxygen I stared down to see nothing but shredded strips of cloth and blood gushing from canal-like gashes that stretched from my shoulders to my little stumpy legs. I was whisked off to the parks medical centre where between trying to explain to mortified officials that it was entirely my fault and not the kangaroos (I feared for his life now, you see) I started to come to realise the gravity of what had just occurred. It wasn’t that I’d been attacked by a particularly vicious kangaroo, rather where the hell was God while I was being attacked by a particularly vicious kangaroo? In that confused moment my young mind couldn’t possibly grapple with so many things at once. My parents were pressing me regarding my injuries, park officials were pressing my parents with an eye to possible future law suits, the duty nurse was pressing me with antiseptic, my brother and sisters were pressing themselves trying to control their laughter, and I was alone with the pain and the creeping suspicion that I’d been truly let down.
Although years before I would first even hear the word spoken aloud by the time I climbed into my bed later that night I was, I can say, an agnostic. Those costumed fuckers from earlier in the day knew nothing. I was almost certain they hadn’t lied deliberately, why would they, but there was little doubt in my head that they hadn’t been speaking from a position of observed strength. I hadn’t given up on God – at that time I still believed in Santa Claus – but I’d given up on people telling me they knew what God was all about.
Now to be perfectly honest, Agnosticism is the rationalist’s equivalent of alcohol-free beer, but for a 7 year old I was doing just fine.