No Road Home
On the trail of Russian Jack
An autumn day in Greytown, a place where you really do get autumn – there were gold and russet red trees in view, a crisp coldness to the air. I propped my bicycle against a tree and a hare came dashing out, off across the grass. Otherwise there was silence, just me, at least just me above ground - this was the town cemetery.
I found his name in the list screwed to the wall of the cemetery’s concrete shelter. It called him Krumer Barrett, while his gravestone said Barrett Crumen. The one thing both agreed on was that he was Russian Jack, the last of New Zealand’s swagmen.
Russian Jack was actually a Latvian, a sailor shipwrecked on the Gisborne coast in 1912. He set off for Wellington to find work, walking to save money but never quite made it. For next 53 years he wandered, living on the road and picking up odd jobs from farmers. He carried his belongings in sugar bags, walked with a tin billy, and stuffed paper into his clothes for warmth. He also wadded up paper and stuck it in his ears ‘to keep the bugs out.’
Tramp is another name for swagman, but New Zealanders have borrowed tramping to mean walking for fun, and the swagman has a romantic tinge here that I don’t think ‘tramp’ has in other countries. They were outsiders, the swagmen, but it seems that we learned to admire them in some way. As John Dunmore says in Wild Cards, his book on New Zealand’s eccentrics, these days Russian Jack would probably be labelled an over stayer. Yet with time, he managed to earn folk hero status. Wairarapa, Manawatu and Rangitikei were his chief areas of wandering, and a statue of him, complete with stick and billy, stands slightly stooped beside the Masterton library. His patched up boots now belong to the Whanganui museum. And the grave I stood in front of, sits among the rest, alongside the town’s old families. That ‘Russian Jack’ on the marker, was the only hint that he had lived a completely different life.
It’s easy to list the things that would have been missing from that life – he’s said to have only ridden in a car once, he had no family that anyone knew of, probably he never saw a movie. But he would have known those roads, those trees, the slightest differences that come as the seasons change. He’d know the best places to sleep, where to find shelter, how to get a fire going with a few twigs, where each creek and stream could be found. And maybe this is why Russian Jack remains a hero of sorts. It might not be a life you’d envy, but you know that there’s something to it that the rest of us miss, that he was on to something there.
Biking back, along first a stretch of highway, and then past Greytown’s welcome sign, I think how much he would have seen in that autumn day, how much more you’d notice when you’re not following the road home.