Where’s Donnie?

Our parents had just begun to unpack the mound of gear we always brought to the beach—when suddenly Dad realised my brother was missing. I will never forget his reaction. I didn’t know what was happening, but something was to blame for the flurry of activity around me. Something wasn’t right. The frustration in my father’s face was as animated as the disbelief in his voice as he questioned me: “Do you know where your brother is?” I didn’t understand. “Have you seen your brother?” he tried desperately to get through to me, his four-foot, five-year-old son, with missing teeth, White Zink and the classic crew cut worn by men and boys of all ages. “Yes!” I declared, pointing all around. My parents took off in opposite directions, shouting as loud as they could: “Donnie!”, “Donnie!”, “Donnie!”

Crowrd on Bondi Beach, 1968. Photo: Jack Hickson. State Library of NSW – APA-46143.

Crowrd on Bondi Beach, 1968. Photo: Jack Hickson. State Library of NSW – APA-46143.

Suddenly, I had been left in the care of strange people. I felt bewildered. We come to the beach all the time. What was happening?! How confusing it seemed, as I stood there wondering where the others had gone. But, Bondi’s verbal telegraph had already spread the word, north and south along the beach, up into the park and on into the surrounding neighbourhood. In no time, people knew that a snowy-haired, freckle-faced, six-year-old boy had gone missing. It was a community of close-knit, working class people—a community of battlers, who were inclined to look after each other, or at least know who lived ‘round about; a common place where the local storeowners went street to street selling their produce. But, thousands of people would flock to the beach on weekends, pouring in from other suburbs to swim and cool off in the sea. So, the odds of finding Donnie were enormous. The beach was bulging with people. The unbearable heat had people coming and going from the water in droves. Mum and Dad’s calls were drowned out by the lifesavers using their cone-shaped bull horns to spread the word, as other parents joined in because it could just as easily be their kids. Back then, people wanted to help each other, especially if they were locals. There was a genuine sense of community, no matter who you were.

It was confusing how he had just disappeared! I remember Mum clutching me tight and how Dad and Uncle Tony had to push back through the crowd of concerned onlookers. It seemed hopeless. But, then word arrived that a couple with a young blonde boy had been stopped up behind the Pavilion, on the walk bridge leading to the Bondi Hotel. Dad sprinted up the beach with a posse of strangers following close behind. A group of local youths had surrounded the couple, who had given Donnie an ice block and disguised him under a broad brimmed hat. As soon as he saw Dad, Donnie pulled away from the woman and they embraced momentarily before he was ushered back to Mum who took us straight home. A normal day at the beach had almost turned into a family tragedy. Whatever happened to the couple who grabbed Donnie, not a word was spoken.

Adam Tolmie

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