Feb 27, 2007:
John Duckett was hoovering as the bell rang, His fourth child was sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the arrival of guests at the family home in Maroubra. Having completed his garbo round, John was attending to his duties. He likes working as a garbo because it keeps him fit and he finishes early. His partner had taken the couple’s three other mites out for a walk. It was a normal domestic scene. It was also a minor miracle. Duckett spent the years between 13 and 28 behind bars, or in them. Now he opens the batting for his State’s Aboriginal team, earns an honest living and raises a family. It is the tale of the fall and rise of a resilient man.
Sitting in his armchair, serious face perched above a slightly protruding belly propped up by two skinny legs, Duckett speaks openly and without self-pity about a past as chequered as any finishing flag. He grew up around violence and trouble and booze and failure. Although his grandfather had owned a banana plantation, the family had slowly fallen foul of the demon drink. By the time John was growing up the family’s fortunes were in apparently irreversible decline. Till the grog took hold his folks had been hard working merchant seamen and cane cutters from Cabbage Tree Island and Nabukka Heads.
Considering his background it was probably inevitable that the boy would become an alcoholic, an addict and hence a thief. Certainly the odds were stacked against him. In his youth he thought “it was normal” to drink hard every day. Growing up, he never knew any other way, was surrounded by things “no child ought to see”. His family was a tight-knit group – “you couldn’t get close unless you were family, it was like a gold pass.” But it was a hard and sometimes brutal upbringing that denied hope the fresh air it yearns.
Duckett’s early years were marked by a succession of robberies to get money for grog and drugs, followed by sentences to Boy’s Homes and prisons, including Long Bay, Grafton and Cessnock. Between 13 and 28, he was mostly locked up. Most of his friends were following the same path. He committed plenty of robberies and other stuff he prefers not to dwell upon. His addictions were numerous, alcohol, marijuana and, later, heroin, a drug he liked because it took him away instantaneously. When he came across heroin he thought he’d “hit the jackpot”. Always he was seeking the high, the escape. Prison gave him everything he needed. The drugs were readily available. Why bother to get out? He’d only come back.
Duckett took a long time to realise he was not so much bad as bound to alcohol. “I suppose I knew I was an alcoholic at 15 but I just couldn’t accept it till I was 28.” Breaking and entering became both a means to an end and another source of excitement. The end seemed inevitable. Drugs, violence, another early, unmourned death. Ah, but it did not happen that way. Last week Duckett helped his team to win the Imparja Cup, taking 3/27 in the final. For the third time on four years he was named in the Honours team chosen at the end of the tournament.
Somewhere along the way the boy had come across cricket. It was before the first time he was sent away. It was not altogether a fluke because the game was in the blood. Dad, brother and relations were fanatics. To John, cricket offered another escape. He was dismissed first ball in his first match but soon realised that he had been blessed with talent. He found he could do “the stuff we saw on TV.” Before long he was chosen for State youth squads. Later, in various jails, he’d follow the fortunes of his youthful team-mates. Duckett is not a sorrowful man but the faintest hint of a tear enters his eyes as he remembers those lost years.
Built it was not cricket that rescued him. In Cessnock, “a lifer”, a murderer, told him that he was not a real criminal but an alcoholic and could turn himself around. On her deathbed his grandmother said the same, asking him why he was throwing his life away. He was 28 and no longer cared “whether I lived or died. I’d given up. I was dead” Besides these remarks, he also heard that his father and brother had stopped drinking. Previously he’d told his parole officer that he wanted to remain behind bars. Now he went back to his cell, took a look at his life, decided he wanted something better, and told the same officer that he was ready to go out. He went into rehab in Nowra for 6 months and has not drunk since. His father, recently departed mother, brother and partner are all dry.
Free of encumbrance, Duckett rebuilt his life, finding a partner and returning to cricket. Lani has her own story to tell. Part Aborigine, part Maori, an alcoholic at 11, she was raped for a year by her first husband. Eventually the case came to court and the culprit was put away for 32 years. Now she helps others in distress and has produced four healthy girls – another child is expected in May. Children’s toys lie around the house and the bedrooms convey security and affection.
Cricket came back into John’s life through Crusaders Club, a team attached to the Alcoholics Anonymous, whose praises he sings. His ability had survived and chasing a garbo lorry kept him fit. Soon he was chosen to represent NSW in the annual Aboriginal tournament in Alice Springs. It meant a lot to him. Now he enjoys trying to beat “other Koori teams”, likes knocking around with his brothers in the evenings, relishes the ceremonial march that takes place towards the end. He had not realised that so many of his fellows played the game. He talks enthusiastically about emerging players like Preston White and Chris Swain from Queensland, Joshua Lalor and Farren Lamb from NSW. Duckett knows where they came from, the dislocations, disturbances and disfunctions.
Duckett does not talk about black or white, thinks instead about the economic and educational needs of his community. He has known the rise and the fall, and has much to tell those unable to find their pathway. Now he wants to show others the way back. What one man has accomplished, others may dare to imagine.