Last Train From Poor Valley
It was a period of confusion but an opportunity for growth at the same time. I had been on my own now for 5 years, in which time I had become quite familiar and happy, in many ways, with having nobody to answer to in life. The house in the city was sold and I had this steel Titan shed built on the 3 hectares of bushland that I had bought several months prior in the mountains to the west. It was an ideal set up for me as I had power connected at the site, telephone, TV and CD/DVD players, my desktop computer – and, most important of all, my Martin 000M guitar. I believed it would be quite comfortable living there but it seems to be always in the nature of man to be forever looking for that which we do not have.
This was my second time living on acreage bushland – the last property was very much larger, in the same area but I needed a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer to keep it in shape. It was much larger than I needed – and I certainly did not want the work that went with a property like that any time in the future. Some time back, I had sold off the two businesses and there was no obligation for me to work at a regular job any more – my plan was to devote all of my time to writing songs and refining a certain style of playing the guitar. Almost all of my life I had played guitar and bass professionally and also for relaxation – but this was a completely new direction.
My Daughter had suggested to me that perhaps I should buy The Lonely Planet Guide for somewhere and take myself off for a holiday to a destination that appealed to me. I guess she didn't expect me to pick Asia as a destination as she is a bit of a xenophobe and would have had conniptions if I had told her my intentions. Asia had always been on my mind so I bought the LP Guides to Vietnam and to Thailand. At first, Vietnam interested me a lot and I imagined how lovely it would be living in a small seaside village – perhaps even staying there and finding a Vietnamese girl for a partner. As a teenager, in the years of the Vietnam conflict, I had always regretted missing out on being called up in The Draft – some of my friends died over there – and I had this idea that it would be good to go see the old war sites and soak up some memories and pay respects.
Winter was closing in and rain was a regular feature of living in the mountains where I had this shed built. After a short time, it became apparent that winter in a steel shed and coping with rain as well would cause major discomfort, even with the relative comforts of a King-size bed, hot water and heaters to take the edge off. We got snow in the winter in some years there – and frost was an everyday occurrence in winter, causing the taps to freeze up until a couple of hours of sunshine thawed them out. On dull days it took longer, so you always kept water on hand in containers inside.
I remember "The Fields Of November – Old And New" – a really great CD by Norman Blake – perhaps the greatest flat-picking exponent of the acoustic steel-string guitar. I had been playing his songs for 30 years – but this was a new CD that was filled with material that I was really keen to get on top of. One particular song grabbed me – "Last Train From Poor Valley" – and it seems strange because it was to play such a large part in my life as it was to unfold.
It was good one time, everything was mighty fine
The coal tipples roared day and night
But things they got slow for no reason that I know
And the ill winds they hove into sight
Now the mines all closed down, everybody lay around
There wasn't very much that you could do
'Cept stand in the line, get your rations strict on time
Woman, I could see it killing you
Now the soft new snows of December
Lightly fall, my cabin 'round
Saw that last train from Poor Valley
Takin' brown-haired Becky, Richmond bound
It's been comin' on, I knew you soon would be gone
The leavin' crossed your mind every day
Then you said to me "Things are bad at home, you see?
I think I better be on my way"
I should blame you now – I never could, somehow
For a miner's wife you weren't cut out to be
Well it wasn't what you thought, just a dream plot you bought
When you left your home and ran away with me
Saw that last train from Poor Valley
Takin' brown-haired Becky, Richmond bound
["Norman Blake wrote this song for June Carter. June, Johnnie Cash and the band were recording the 1971 or '72 Christmas album and June was reminiscing about the trains from Poor Valley, Virginia. Norman went home that evening and wrote this song in about 30-45 minutes sitting in the kitchen on Richland Ave" (notes by Lee Blake).]
Vietnam seemed to be quite restrictive for visitors under the conditions imposed by The Government at that time, so I began looking at Thailand as an alternative. Back in the city, I was friendly with 3 Thai girls that I would see on a regular basis for massage and a bit of "rumpy-pumpy" as well – and sometimes I would take one of them to coffee or lunch. It was so easy talking with them and I felt very much at home in the company of all of them. It was at that time when I decided that Thailand would be the place for me – so I started to plan how to take this on.
There was not much holding me here – so I decided to offload the car and leave the property as it was and made arrangements to get to Thailand as quickly as possible. I already had my first Non-Immigrant Type '0' Visa and Sukanda was returning to Thailand in two weeks, so we agreed to meet in Bangkok on the same day. I saw her the day before we were leaving to confirm arrangements and we met the following evening in Don Meuang Airport – I arrived on Qantas and she arrived on Thai Airways, already holding the return leg from a recent booking. Of course the Martin went with me – I never go anywhere without it.
Leaving was an exciting prospect for me – but it was sad in many respects because I had a solid base of music acquaintances here and I knew I would miss them quite a lot. We had all known each other for a long time and socialised regularly, apart from playing music. Then there was Jo – she was so special. She worked as a waitress at one of the venues where I played regularly and she would often slip me drinks "on the house" and would sit chatting with me before work. I remember her saying to me once that she thought it was wonderful that I could just make up my mind and be able to go where I wanted to be. She said "I wish I could do that".
Jo was doing a degree in Environmental Science – and I regarded her as if she were my Daughter. I gave her a contact of mine at Australian National University – a high-profile Professor, holding a Doctorate in Environmental Science, who was much in demand by Universities in US and Canada. She always had her expenses paid to go there to lecture several times each year. Jo was very pleased about the prospect of meeting with her.
The last week arrived before I was to leave for BKK and a large part of that time was occupied with sharing meals and drinks with friends and playing a few last engagements at the regular venues. I was to leave on the Saturday and I played the last time on the Wednesday at the venue where Jo worked. She looked after me very well throughout the evening, plying me with Cointreau shots, with the warning that "I am going to get you drunk tonight, you know?" She just about did that too – in the end I hate to think what the sound was like, coming out of that "axe" I was playing.
The next day I went and made arrangements with Sukanda and took her to The Coffee Club, then went to Duty-Free and got a couple of bottles of Johnny Walker Black to take over with me. The reason I wasn't flying over with Sukanda was that my Daughter works for Qantas and she got me a 12-month ticket at staff rates (surprise, no conniption fits) – but I had to fly out via Tullamarine in Melbourne because the 747 on that routing was very lightly loaded to BKK and she knew there was no chance that I would be "bumped" off the Manifest. Staff concessions are always regarded as "standby".
It was a very good flight over – hardly anyone in economy, so I got a plum seat allocation with plenty of room to spread out and a lot of attention from the cabin crew who knew my Daughter. I was given regular whiskey refills but aware enough not to overdo it as I certainly needed to be on my toes when I got to BKK.
As life often does – it threw me a curve-ball and the stay in BKK with Sukanda was not what I expected. In a pissed-off fit of pique, I decided to come back to Farangland and regroup for another attack on my mission. Yeah, I know, a potential waste of two air fares but it wasn't really – because I bought a new return leg to Oz at Don Meuang with BA and claimed a refund on the existing ticket with Qantas.
Back home, it took me 3 weeks to get my head straight, slumming around the city and up on the property in the mountains. During this period I hired a motor vehicle as mine was already sold. There was really no other option – I didn't wish to be here, so the property had to go and I was fortunate in offloading it to a local buyer who also paid me cash for the contents of the shed as well. The idea of spending my life in Spartan, cold conditions and isolation was not something that turned me on. My motivation for buying it in the first place must have been during a state of temporary insanity. It really was great to clear out all of the stuff I had kept for so long – taking old clothes (and memories associated) to the Industrial bins in town, was like being set free. The fire was back in the belly and I paid a visit to my friend Brian Goodwin (the Manager at my preferred branch of Flight Centre) and tied up a ticket with Thai Airways and accommodation in BKK.
This was the best thing I had done – and I have never looked back since that day I returned to Thailand. Whenever I hear "Last Train From Poor Valley" I immediately think of Jo, who encouraged me to do the thing I wanted – and of Natalise, for whom I played that song in the first week we were together. Even if that song was a prophetic omen of what was to come, I still have fond memories of our time together when we were married.
"Keep on the sunny side" – as Mother Maybelle Carter always said.