Sorting the mail at Olsobip (Western District): Philip Fitzpatrick

(Published Una Voce, September 2002, page 38)

Fitzpatrick, Philip
1997- 2002 – Barracuda Seismic Surveys, Fogoma’iu and Kaiam, Oilsearch, surveys for oil and gas drilling in Western Province PNG. Social mapping Omati, Aure PNG for Oilsearch and Interoil exploration projects.
1974-96 – In Australia
1972-73 – Publications Officer, Lands Dept, Port Moresby.
1971-73 – PO, Nomad, Western District. ADO, Balimo Sub-District, Western District.
1970 – OIC, Olsobip Patrol Post, Western District.
1969 – PO, Kiunga, Western District.
1968 – CPO, Mount Hagen, Western Highlands.
1967 – ASOPA, Mosman, NSW.

One of the most enjoyable things about returning from patrol was the accumulated mail that would be waiting to be read. In 1970 Olsobip was a one-man patrol post and the patrol areas generally took about a month to cover on foot. Consequently there was usually quite a lot of accumulated mail when we got back. And it wasn’t just the personal mail I enjoyed. While I was away Simik, the station clerk, opened the dark blue nylon mailbags as they arrived and did a rough sort. Any personal mail for station staff he handed out. The rest he sorted into my personal mail and the office stuff. The former he took up to my house and left on the kitchen table, no doubt checking the refrigerator at the same time. The latter he placed in a pile in the middle of my desk.

Anything that looked like a circular, a gazette, or other official junk mail he opened and read. This he placed in a separate heap on the desk. Sometimes he made mistakes and corrected them by putting the letters back in their envelopes and pasting the flaps shut again. I never knew if a letter had been tampered with before it reached the patrol post or after unless I asked Simik outright. His answers were often cagey, depending upon the content of the letter; if he thought there was no harm in reading it he readily owned up, otherwise he denied opening it. Sometimes he made mistakes with my personal mail. For a while I subscribed to a couple of photographic magazines that usually boasted the odd nude. These were often re-pasted back into their envelopes. They came in plain brown envelopes and I guess he could have mistakenly opened the first one but the recurring ‘mistakes’ amused me.

I had a ritual with both my personal mail and the official stuff. With the personal mail I did a rough sort by date and type, as far as the latter was discernible from the outside of the envelope. Packages I broke open straight away, these were usually things I had ordered, like books and records, and I knew what they were anyway. The other mail I opened in sequence, usually a couple a day until the novelty wore off, then I’d open the rest in one hit and read them in one sitting. Once read the letters were re-sorted and I would tackle the pleasurable task of replying to each one. For this purpose I used a small Olivetti ‘Dora’, a handy little portable typewriter that I’d had tropic-proofed so the keys wouldn’t stick. After a long patrol this process could fill up my evenings for a week or more.

With the official mail I would clear the top of my desk, which consisted of a big sheet of stained and varnished plywood on a frame of bush timber, and sort the letters into their different categories. At the side of the desk I strategically positioned three grey, Government issue, metal bins. These provided a receptacle for the usual government fluff, out of date correspondence, letters on subjects beyond redemption and the out-and-out silly stuff. The letters sorted by category and kept on my desk were then further divided into two groups labelled ‘must be done if you want to keep the station running’, and ‘file this stuff, it could be useful later’.

Invariably the three grey bins received the greatest share of the official mail. This material was not wasted however. I took great pains to resist screwing up even the silliest letter – there’s nothing worse than trying to roll a cigarette with kinky paper. Simik dutifully carried the bins away when I had finished, stacked the sheets of paper in neat piles and took them over to the Government store for issue, half a page at a time, with the labourers’ tobacco ration.

When I had finished sorting the official mail I restored my various ‘in’, ‘out’ and ‘pending’ trays to the top of my desk, along with my jam jar of pens, stapler, rulers and other bits and pieces. The various piles were then assigned to the ‘in’ tray in order of priority. Once that was done I quietly left the room and went looking for something practical to do elsewhere on the station. For the next few days I would circle the doorway in the mornings and then hastily head off to the airstrip or somewhere else to supervise the gravelling, pit sawing or house building.

After a week or so the telegrams would begin to arrive – ‘require staff situation report asap’, etc. This would make me circle the office door maybe twice a day instead of the usual quick squiz in the morning. By the end of the week the ADC from Kiunga would be on the radio demanding responses. I knew by then that the DDC in Daru was on his back and time had run out. At that stage I took a deep breath and headed into my office.

The funny thing about all this equivocating was that once I’d gotten into it I enjoyed dealing with the bureaucratic side of running the patrol post. I liked to order things, supply statistics, fill in forms and write reports. I particularly liked writing patrol reports and answering letters. For the patrol reports I had developed a special style teetering just on the edge of colourful, I liked to turn a phrase here and there and slip in a touch of irreverence. When I started reading Hemingway I wrote short, neat and succinct reports, when I stumbled upon Faulkner I wrote long rambling things that I hoped some one would understand.

The letters were different again. Here I preferred bureaucratese. Some people love this stuff. Toss in a half dozen acronyms, spice it up with the current public service buzz words (and be sure to throw in one no one would be likely to have heard of and watch it turn up in the letters coming back to you), tack it all together in fractured public service grammar and make sure the ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘subject’,’ date’ at the top is out of synch with the accepted norm. Lovely stuff!

Sometimes I misjudged the humour and reactions of my superiors. Occasionally people took my patently obvious tongue-in-cheek responses seriously. The hundreds of extra rounds of .303 bullets and the specially chartered aircraft to carry in the double bed are incidents I would rather forget. Sometimes I didn’t realise the importance of a seemingly routine letter. On one occasion the brief note from the ADC attached to a circular advising that the Mining Warden would be visiting the sub-district drifted straight from the ‘in’ tray to the filing cabinet via a note scribbled on my calendar ‘arrange bodies for meeting with mining warden for following week’. Little did I realise what that meeting would portend for the whole population of the Star Mountains, particularly the people of the Ok Tedi area.


Leave a Reply