We were on our way to the National Gliding Championships at Narromine in NSW. It was my first experience of a Returned Services League club. Poker machines were allowed in NSW, but not, in those days, in South Australia.
This side of Bourke
It was late in 1968, about six months since we had arrived in Australia. Our gliding team, guided by Bob, had driven overnight from Waikerie and checked in to the hotel in a small town in New South Wales. We were too tired to worry much about the place. There were beds, clean enough, and showers, all we needed. We slept most of the afternoon away.
Waking, hungry and thristy in the early evening, we were frustrated and baffled by the hotel. The back and front doors stood open. Sheep trotted happily through, leaving traces on the floor. Were they kept as pets? There was nobody about, no sign of any staff, service or meals. Where were they? Where were the other guests? We checked over our cars and trailers, wandered into the town, found some instant coffee served by a drab looking young woman in an otherwise empty cafe.
Bob left us for a while. When he re-appeared he was beaming.
“We can go to the RSL for dinner. Everyone is invited. The menu looks good.”
When we got to the club, towards dusk, it was impressive. The car park was nearly full. The whole town, it seemed, was here, and scores of visitors from the surrounding country. There were many cars like ours with South Australian registrations. Surrounded by fine gardens, lawns and flowerbeds, it was a wide modern building. There were large windows on three sides looking down slope over the town and the Murray beyond. The Australian flag flew bravely from a white pole. I thought of the British Legion; dingy offices, gloomy meeting halls in the side streets of scruffy English towns. There was nothing comparable with this fine place. The Returned Services League, I thought, have put a great deal into this. We entered through wide swing doors and signed the visitor’s book in the entry hall. There was a springy carpet under our feet, panelling on the walls, framed photographs and paintings, gold lettered plaques. The bar and restaurant were a few yards further on, through another swing door.
As we passed through, I was astonished to see and hear, through a wide archway on the right, a very large room full of poker machines or, as I called them then, one-armed bandits. Those things were noisy. There were no electronic buttons. To play one had to put a coin in with a click, hear your money go down inside with a clonk, pull the handle with a bang, and watch the wheels spin until they stopped, tick tick tick. There might sometimes be an out rush of cash with more noise, tinkle, tinkle or even rattle, rattle, rattle, but more often, far more often, there was merely another click, clonk, bang, spin, tick tick tick. I had never seen, or heard, anything like this before and stood for a moment, amazed. Every machine I could see had someone feeding it. I supposed this was like Las Vegas, on a smaller scale.
I had read some behaviourist psychology. Pigeons put into boxes with buttons to peck at, learned quickly to peck the button that gave them a little wheat to nibble. They would peck until full, then rest till hungry again. Change the setting so that the button would only feed them once in a while, randomly: two pecks, feed, seven pecks, nothing, eight pecks, feed, five pecks, nothing, six, feed, seventy five, nothing, one more, feed, two pecks, feed, three hundred pecks nothing, one more, feed……and so on and on. This, the psychologists said, was a random reinforcement schedule. On such a program the wretched animals would peck and peck and peck without pause till they were exhausted.
“Now you know where the Club gets its money!” said Bob, encouraging me to go with him to the bar. Our group had their drinks and I glanced round to see the restaurant. There were tables neatly laid with white cloths, waiters hovering or lounging, a few people eating, a family party, a young couple by the window, romantic music playing softly. It was dark outside now. I still had to remind myself, in summer here the sun sets early and quickly. There were none of those long-drawn-out eventides I had been accustomed to.
I was about to speak to Bob but he raised a hand in warning. The lights seemed less bright. A power failure? No, power is either on or off. This was a deliberate, slow dimming. The music stopped. The poker machine noise was entirely stilled. No one spoke. The lights were now altogether extinguished. Total silence, not a clink or clonk.
They shall not grow old
As we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them
Now I understood. The last post was played. I have always found this profoundly moving.
The lights came on, the music re-started, Click, clonk, bang, spin, tick tick tick, click, clonk, bang, spin, tinkle, tinkle, click, clonk, bang, spin, tick tick tick…..
The pigeons were pecking again.