Maybe. But it seems coincidence and small-world-syndrome is often waiting to surface at the next sundowner with fellow travellers at a roadside stop.
I posted my last blog about Red Dog, the famous wandering kelpie of the WA North West who was featured in the movie of the same name, while we were parked on the banks of the Yule River. Laptop snapped shut, we armed ourselves with cold beer and wandered down a couple of camp sites to take up an invitation to have sundowners with Clarke and Deborah (above).
We were a bit late. I told them about the blog. “Red Dog!” snorted Clarke. “I can tell you about Red Dog.”
And, it turned out, he knew also a fair bit about the only person Red Dog became seriously attached to: John Stazzonelli. Clarke had carted Stazzonelli’s body, rolled in a rug, into the morgue on the back of his tow truck.
Only he wasn’t John. He was Frank – which explained why he was a bit shadowy when it came to finding out his background as the Red Dog legend grew in the Pilbara and beyond.
“Well, it’s like this,” said Clarke. “A lot of blokes were getting away from something around Dampier in those days. Families. Paternity. Tax. A hell of a lot was done under the barter system.”
Clarke lobbed into Dampier in 1969 and talks nostalgically about the good old fun days when bars and dance floors were awash in blood and beer. He’s known only by his surname (first name William has been discarded) and by his nickname, “The Wrecker”, acquired through his wrecking yard business.
Like most of the Pilbara miners, contractors and business owners, Clarke worked long and hard, first laying concrete slabs for the town of Karratha, built as Dampier outgrew itself, with later business ventures in wrecking, tyres, wheel alignments, panel beating and windscreens.
In the early days Dampier was closed with the Hamersley Iron boom gate. “We had to go to Cape Lambert to get fuel and Roebourne to get supplies.”
His tow truck was called in by the police to help transport bodies when someone died outside the ambit of the ambulance. When he was called to that fatal motorbike accident scene in November 1975 and immediately knew the dead man was Stazzonelli.
Unlike the movie story, no roo was involved and Red Dog was at the scene, not waiting at home. Stazzonelli had rounded the bend at the T intersection (a bit over 100m from where the kelpie’s statue is today) and slid into a big rock, crushing his leg and whacking his head. He was killed instantly.
“We used to roll the bodies up in rugs. We didn’t have body bags in those days,” said Clarke. “Red Dog hopped into the cab and came to the morgue with me. He saw where body went and I took him home with me.
“He had had a bit of a set-to with my boxer dog Jason but they were good mates by then. He stayed a few days and then off he went. He seemed to stay around with people he could trust, then he would disappear. You’d have no idea where he was and then one morning you’d get up and bugger me dead he would be there.”
Red Dog was a very smart dog, said Clarke. He was a bit wary, a bit standoffish. If anyone started arguing he would walk off. “He had obviously had a few rough times.”
He rode to Perth several times, often with Neil Deanspread, sometimes with his brother Gary. Truckie Dicko used to often take him on runs out to Millstream. “Dicko had a dog called Buck, a bastard of a dog. He and Red Dog had a couple of dust ups but they sorted it out and became good friends.’
Something similar happened with Dicko and Clarke and they had “four good fights” before settling down to become good friends.
When the Red Dog movie was being made, Clarke was asked if he would lend his restored EK Holden for some of the scenes. He did with some reservations but was reasonably pleased with the movie result, even though some parts were fictionalised.
“They probably have to do that to make a good story but Red Dog’s story was good enough I reckon.” The EK, with a blue bottom and white top, is due to appear on postcards being sold in the area.
Clarke is more or less retired after his mercurial life. His son now runs the business.
“I’ve been broke five times,” he said cheerily. “Wasn’t my fault. People would go broke owing me money. I lost a house at the marina in Maroochydore (Queensland) once when I went broke. And a five-bedroomed house in Karratha.”
Long hours making a quid, breaking and rebuilding meant Clarke didn’t see much of his four kids. His wife would line them up at the table on Sunday morning and make him repeat their names.
He’s bought each of the kids a house. He gave his wife a house and more than a million when they split. “I offered to buy her a new car too. I thought that was pretty good but she still calls me a bastard.”
With 20 grand left in the bank (“plus a bit more coming in”), a house and a “shack” on Louis Island, about 12k off the Karratha Coast, he and new partner Deb are planning caravan trips around Australia.
Clarke reckons he’s tired more than retired but his zest for life crackles in the air. You get the feeling with some of these North-West blokes that the iron ore seeps into their blood.