Interview: Remembering Michael – MP's Mum One Year On
Big Sky Wire
By Michele Lockwood
As I write this, Dick Hoole is trucking down the coast headed to Bells with the ashes of Michael Peterson packed away in his van. Michael’s mother Joan is set to arrive not long after, just in time to oversee the scattering. “We are going to put his ashes out at Bells at 11o’clock on Good Friday; it is his first anniversary. Only a cupful, he was a big boy you know,” she says with a laugh, “Michael would be very happy to be taking his last trip to Bells in the back of a Kombi van!”
After arranging an interview a few weeks prior, I met Joan for the first time at her unit in South Tweed Heads. It quickly became clear that at the age of 80, Joan, so sharp-witted and cunning, so full of opinion and life, shifted my focus from walls adorned with Michael’s memorabilia to her, the “little old lady” sitting in a chair. I had heard stories of Joan’s transient life growing up in an orphanage, her violent marital past and destitute misfortune of raising four kids on the poverty line. Bearing all this in mind, suddenly, the legacy of her son began to make sense.
Without doubt, Michael’s drive to win came from a force deep inside himself however, without Joan’s tough love, brutal honesty, total self-sacrifice and undying support, MP’s path as one of the greatest surfers in history may have never seen him out of the Gold Coast ghetto.
Joan’s desire to see her son succeed was rooted in the shortcomings she suffered in her own life. And over the years, she battled to help Michael through many tough times. Still, her beaming pride for her golden boy, who endured as much tragedy as he did victory, has yet to relinquish. His life continues to give meaning to hers and that I suppose has been MP’s eternal offering to his dedicated mother.
What follows is more of a monologue than interview- Joan’s words as she spoke them- prompted vignettes of Michael’s life, beginning first with his death.
It was very quick. Every morning I’d walk into his room to see if he had his medicine. He was lying on the bed and he said, “No, I’ll get up and have them now.”
But by the time I got back to the door, he was trying to get his legs out of the bed to sit up and then he fell backwards and then I knew something was wrong.
So I called the ambulance and I got his legs back up on the bed and the girl on the phone said, “What is he doing now?” and I said that he was trying to breath. I could see he was pumping hard, trying to breath. She said tilt his chin up and keep talking to him.
So I said, “Can you hear me darling?” and he said, “Yes I can hear you.” I said take some big deep breaths.
So I climbed on the bed and put his head on my arm and tilted his chin back and I was almost ready to give him mouth to mouth. And I said, “Hang on darling, the ambulance is coming through the gates.” I said, “Can you hear me darling?” and he said, “Yes.” And his head rolled over into my chest and he died.
He was dead within eight minutes, he never suffered and he heard my voice till the end. That was about 8 o’clock in the morning.
To die in my arms, I was happy for that.
Someone put in a magazine about how he died. They said he was sitting up at the breakfast table eating his Wheaties and his face fell into his Wheaties and he died.
What a dreadful thing to say. If they’d asked me I would’ve told them the true story and they may of sold more magazines.
I miss everything about him (tearing up)… he’d be in there making his lunch soon. I still feel him around. I hear him coming down the hall, shaking his towel and I say don’t shake it the hallway! (laughs)
He’s been with me most of his life other than being in hospitals or halfway houses. He’s lived here for the last 13 years with me. It is my place to look after him. I am his mother.
He was not a mama’s boy; he had a mind of his own. If he didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t do it. He’d tell me it doesn’t work that way.
The night before he died he came to the kitchen as he did every night after supper; made himself a cup of something and he came to my room and said, “Mummy, mummy,” he said, “do you want a cup of tea?” I said, “No darling, I don’t drink tea late at night. I don’t sleep.” Why didn’t I get up and have a cup of tea with him? Anyhow, that was the night before he died and that was our real last conversation.
And I was lying in bed thinking why did he call me Mummy? He hasn’t called me Mummy since he was about 11 or 12.
For at least three months before he died he wouldn’t have it that I was old. I had some friends sitting there one day and they said to Michael, you are going to have to start looking after your mother now that she’s getting old. And he said, “She’s not old, you see that picture over there (points to a 8X10 B/W portrait of herself) that’s how my mother looks today.” I am 29 years of age there. He wouldn’t have it that I was old. So I think some kind of dementia or something was there too. I don’t know what was going on in his head.
When he was a little boy, he had to keep washing his hands and changing his clothes, even if they weren’t dirty we had to keep changing his clothes. That’s why we called him the water-baby, because he just took to water; he loved water. Actually he was crawling on Greenmount Beach and learned to walk on Greenmount Beach. Once he found his feet, he’d head straight to the water. I’ve got photos of that.
Once he gave up competitive surfing, he never went back to the water. Well, he went sailboard jumping and went back for that. But for the last 30 years he never put his foot in the ocean. We tried to trick him a few times down there but no, he wouldn’t put his foot in the ocean. We never him asked him why.
He did come to me once for help. Very sick he was. He said, “Mum can you help me?” I said, “What is wrong?” He said, “Give me wheatgrass and orange juice.” That is all he had for two weeks- no food, just wheatgrass and orange juice. He stayed locked up in his room and only left to go to the toilet. One day he came out and he couldn’t hardly stand and asked me for a walking stick and he said, “What’s for dinner?” He started to get stronger and eat a little bit more. I had him for about two months. He was feeling better and said, “I think I might go for a surf.” Got in his car and I never saw him for a couple of months later.
I got married and a couple of years later I went overseas and we weren’t home for 24 hours and my daughter came to the door and said, “Did you hear about Michael? He’s in jail!” (laughs) I think he got 25 months. That was 1983. I had a battle to get him out.
At this point in the interview, Joan asks me to shut off my recorder.
I worked hard. I worked in fish and chip shops, I peeled prawns, I cleaned houses, I would do their washing, cook their meals for them. I did anything.
I never surfed, because I never learnt to swim. Well I grew up in an orphanage; I had 11 years in an orphanage. I was born in the middle of a depression and I was in the orphanage when the Second World War was on.
They’d take a bit of cardboard down there and jump on it and try to go surfing in the early days, they tried anything to go surfing.
All he wanted to do was learn how to surf like the big boys, like Nat Young. Phyllis O’Donnell and Nat Young were his favourite. There were pictures all around the house of Nat Young.
I was working in a pinball machine parlour next to the police station and he came running in and said, “Mummy I’m going in a surfing contest at Kingscliff!” And I said, “You don’t have a board,” and he said, “Phyllis O’Donnell said I could ride her board.” She came and picked him up, she had a little panel van that opens out the back and he jumps in the back.
And they came back in the afternoon and he comes running in with this trophy and says, “Look Mummy I won!” and I said, “What did you come love?” and he said “Second!” and I said, “Don’t you ever come home and tell me you come second or third! You must win! When you come second no one remembers your name, you must win!”
From then on he won. You’re a nobody if you come second; so that is what he set out to do, win. If he thought they were going to beat him in a contest, he’d push it a bit harder; he didn’t like to be beaten.
Michael joined the little nippers and then Snapper Rocks swimming club as a junior and won everything there. Then went to Greenmount Lifesavers and got his Bronze there. He and Tommy used to patrol there on the weekends and I used to take them their lunch. And one day I got there and no Tommy and no Michael. Billy Rak was hiring boards on the beach then and I said, “Where are the kids?” Pointing to the surf, he said, “Out there.”
I said to Michael, “You mustn’t do that, you’ve got a job to do here” and he said, “I couldn’t bare watching them surfing out there and I’m standing here watching, waiting to save them.”
When he was still going to school at 15 or 16, he’d stand down on Coolangatta Beach and wait for the big fellas to break their mal boards. They’d let him have them. He’d get the bigger bit of it, bring it home, strip it down and turn it into a small board, put a fin on it and that is how he learned to ride the barrels at Kirra- on a tiny little chopped down board.
He joined Kirra Club and he came home one day and said I’m going in a competition. And I said all right but I said, “You gotta win you know. If you come home and tell me you won, I’ll buy you a board.” And so he did. So Hayden Kenny in Brisbane made his first board and he delivered it to the door. I think it cost me $80 or $75 at the time.
He was riding cut-downs up until then; he used to do it under my house. They’d strip it down, sand it down here then up the hill to Peter Townend’s house, then he’d sand it and bring it back and put a fin on it and that’s how they learned to ride those barrels. It’s a wonder they didn’t blow my house up.
After school, he would drag a Malibu board all the way to Greenmount to ride and he’d come all the way back by dark. Yes, he’d have to drag it because it was too heavy for him to carry; he was only a little boy. So I thought we’ll go live in Coolangatta close to the beach, this is just for the kids to surf.
And then they went to the school on the hill and then after that they went to Miami High. They built the school over here and Rabbit went to that school but Michael and PT went to Miami.
Michael’s teacher Mr. Edwards is still alive, he went to the funeral and wrote a lovely letter and said Michael was a good boy. I think he is in his 90s now. He liked to surf too, he had a big old car and put the boards on the car and took the boys surfing. He was a good schoolteacher.
If anyone else was on the wave, Michael would whistle. He had a good whistle; it was sharp. In case anybody was on top of the wave and coming over him or somebody coming out in front of him he’d whistle to say, get out of my way I’m coming through! Cause he would come through to take the next barrel and go through it too, see he didn’t want anyone interfering on his ride. (laughs)
Each contest he ever won in his lifetime, he made that board himself. As Albe might have told you, there was a man in Melbourne who rang Albe and said I’ve got this board here that was an original of Michael’s and it won’t work for me, it just won’t work. Albe rang up and asked Michael about it and Michael said that it was most likely made for Kirra. Albe was impressed that not every board goes to every wave.
He went away with a carload of boards on top but never came home with one. He said, ”Soon as I came out of the water everyone wanted to buy one off me.”
There was no prize money then, only little bits of wooden trophies, I’ve got two boxes full, it wasn’t about that. He just wanted to win. He just loved the ocean.
I sit here and I think, why? Why him? There was something magic about him. Just to sit and watch him surf Kirra was magic. He was surfing Kirra one year, I think it was an Australian Title, I am sitting on the beach watching him, next thing he comes in out of the water, drops his board on the sand, crosses the road into his shop, grabs a board out of the rack, went back and won the contest. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else. That board wasn’t any good for Kirra, so he took one out that worked for him and he won the contest. It was magic just to sit and watch him ride the waves.
Big Sky is the property on which Andrew Kidman and Michele Lockwood live with their two children in Northern New South Wales. Once a week they speak to writers, photographers, surfers, artists and musicians for Coastalwatch's Big Sky Wire. To follow Andrew Kidman's film celebrating 40 years of Morning of The Earth, head to the Spirit of Akasha blog and to check out Michele Lockwood's blog click through here.
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