I first met Billy Hayes on Saturday, March 21, 1998.
Well, to be honest, it was probably the early hours of the next day, sitting around a fire enjoying a few drinks with Billy and his son-in-law, “Sal” Hearn.
Less than 24 hours earlier I was reciting my poem “Colours” at daybreak in The Valley of the Winds – a very haunting, spiritual part of The Olgas.
It was all part of an insurance brokers trip to Central Australia. I’d been invited by Cameron and Ian Douglas to provide a bit of entertainment on the five-day trek.
After the morning at The Olgas, we returned to Ayers Rock Resort, flew to Alice Springs, I recited a few poems at an Alice Springs pub and that night we had a black-tie open-air dinner at Ooraminna Bush Camp, part of Deep Well Station which was owned by Billy.
Ooraminna was set up by Billy’s wife Jan as a tourist and conference venue.
After a short stint on stage, which included the Archie Campbell classic Rindecella, we had a great dinner under the stars and later on I got talking to “Sal”.
He then brought Billy into the conversation.
It may sound daggy but in so many ways that moment changed my life. It would certainly end up cementing my career as a poet.
After a very late finish, I crawled out of my swag the next morning, Billy and Sal served up a big breaky and before I knew it Bill had me sitting backwards on a horse reciting Rindecella to a group of tourists.
I returned to Ooraminna/Deep Well on April 14, 1998.
The plan was to stay for a couple of weeks to do some writing – find some inspiration for some poems.
The first couple of days were spent fixing windmills with Billy, his son Billy, Kenny Napier and Sonya, a German backpacker who worked harder than all of us. I basically did a lot of watching.
I was up early on Friday morning (April 17) and decided it was time to do some writing.
For a long time I’d had the idea of a cowboy riding his swag through a plane.
Now I may not look like the rodeo type but my career was, well, far less than spectacular.
Three rides as a 13yo in 1976. My mate Robert Dixon used to compete in the barrel races and other horse events so I thought I’d have a crack at the poddy calf riding.
My preparation was a bit strange. Dad would put me on Myrtle, the pet calf, and then sool Bonza the cattle dog on to her to make her buck. That sounds a bit cruel now.
I got a third at Pallamallawa, a no place at Coolatai and then slid under one at Delungra, got kicked in the head and retired. The kick in the head explains a lot.
I was in an airplane some time down the track when we hit a bit of turbulence. That’s when I first thought “Outside!” as the plane bucked around a bit.
Many years later on the morning of April 17, 1998 it all came together.
I’d found the character in Billy, the words just flowed and I wrote the poem in under three hours.
About an hour later I read the poem live on my then semi-regular spot on The John Laws Morning Program.
From the outset it was a great poem to recite.
Lots of energy, a big splatter of bulldust and this Territorian legend with a fantastic accent as the centrepiece.
I returned to Ooraminna many times after that.
Jan would sell me into functions as an entertainer for conference dinners for clients such as Toyota, IGA, Rotary and a host of others.
I climbed the Harbour Bridge with Billy, watched an Interdominion with him at Moonee Valley and with he and Jan and the whole Hayes clan had a whole lot of fun.
Billy was always happy to remind me of the one time he and Jan came to the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2007.
I was reciting Turbulence at the opening concert in Bicentennial Park in front of 12,000 people, got halfway through it and forgot it.
“Geez Muz, I come all this way and you stuffed it up” – or words to that effect.
I did somehow manage to salvage the performance.
I don’t know what happened but it’s never happened since.
In saying that there have been some other poems I’ve sometimes had trouble with on stage.
I have a lot of happy stories about Billy and Jan.
The last time I saw Billy was at his nephew’s 40th birthday celebrations at Karumba in The Gulf in September 2010.
Pete Willaton had organised a crew of about 30 for the trip where we went Barramundi fishing and spent a reasonable amount of time at the pub where we watched the AFL Grand Final.
I was out the back of the pub one day talking to a couple of young blokes from Mt Isa.
When they asked me what I did for a living Turbulence came up and, both knowing the poem, they pretty excited to meet the bloke who wrote it.
I said “Boys it gets a lot better than that, Billy Hayes is inside”.
They were over the moon when they met him.
And that’s the thing about Turbulence, a lot of people know the poem but don’t know me.
But they all know Billy Hayes – even if they didn’t think he was real.
Billy was a small bloke who was larger than life.
He was a magnet – people loved him.
A great horseman, rodeo rider, jockey, campdrafter.
He loved his wife Jan, he loved his family and he loved the cattle game.
It was an honour to be his mate.
On April 30, 2011 Billy was thrown off a quad bike while working cattle and was killed.
Six days later more than 1200 people packed the Alice Springs Convention Centre to say goodbye.
Days before the funeral Turbulence was read out in Northern Territory Parliament.
Macca played it on Australia All Over on May 8.
The funny thing is that while I wrote the poem it always belonged to Billy.
I could never have written the poem if I hadn’t met Billy Hayes.
The man who taught me my name was one word with no “H” – Murryartin.
The man who reignited my childhood love of condensed milk.
The man who, via a chance meeting, changed the course of my life.
Like everyone who met him, I’ll never forget him.