I choose to start this elegy now.
Peter O'Loughlin was born in Broken Hill on 19 February, 1960. He lived there for two years, until his family moved to Belmont and then Charlestown. A quiet boy, he was occasionally locked in the broom cupboard for misdemeanors. No one can recall what they were, and opinion is divided as to whether he was let out too soon or not soon enough.
Pete attended St. Joseph's Primary School in Charlestown where at the age of 6 he helped liberate another boy who wanted to go home to his mother - Pete opened the door and showed him the escape route. He grew up over the back fence from Mick Walmsley, who started his continuing interest in things that go bang.
At Whitebridge High School he developed his lifelong skill of being elsewhere doing what he wanted while satisfying the requirements of school, a job or a position of responsibility. Students at Whitebridge High called him 'Dudley', because that was the answer whenever anybody asked 'Where's Pete?'. Nevertheless he finished year 12 at Whitebridge and went on to Newcastle Uni.
At uni he studied to be an auditor but went surfing constantly. He had a lecturer who was also a surfer and who let Pete sleep in class, because he wished he had been out surfing too. Pete would catch the 5.20 am bus to Dudley and pick up his board from Brad's place. Brad would be woken by his mum shouting, 'Your surfie mates are opening the garage door again!', so Brad would get up and go surfing too.
Pete was a champion kneeboarder but couldn't stand cold water. During a comp at Bell's Beach in Victoria, he surfed three waves and then paddled in to the fire on the beach. The organisers said, 'Hey mate, your heat is still on out there'. Pete told them in no uncertain terms which heat he was staying with, but his three rides had already won that round and the comp.
He liked to pretend that he didn't care, but this fooled no-one.
He expected full commitment from everyone else as well as himself. On one occasion he was surfing with Mick and his brother Tim at Legge's when a giant set came in. Tim made it out beyond the break but Mick and Pete got trashed. Mick was tossed onto the rocks, surfaced bleeding and screaming, 'Pete, help me!' 'No way', said Pete, paddling back out, 'there's another one coming'.
Pete had the knack of balancing disaster with good luck. On the way to Dudley beach one day, Pete rolled his father's Cortina two and a half times off Burwood Rd. He and Tim stepped out and looked for the borrowed kneeboard that had been on the roofracks. It had flown off still attached to the racks and was untouched like Pete and Tim. If Pete wasn't surfing, he could usually be found fishing, despite the fact he was allergic to fish.
Pete graduated from Newcastle Uni and went to work as an auditor for the Tax Office in town, to which he rode on his motorbike. He showed his terrier-like properties of good preparation and tenacity in the cases he brought to court over the years, and the local police would wave to the prosecutor on the motorbike as he rode by. Pete would wave back, almost as though he had a motorbike licence. He would prepare his work on his laptop sitting up at 4 am after everyone else had fallen asleep, watching 'Rage' while writing up his cases, so he had time to surf. At the tax office, he had girlfriend after girlfriend. Pete took pride in the fact that each, including his longtime partner Michelle, would marry their next partner after him.
His sardonic humour was legendary. With Mick he wrote a letter to the Newcastle Herald editor regarding beached whale rescues, extolling in paragraph after paragraph the beauty and grace of these mammals. 'And what I cannot understand', he finished the letter off, 'is why people insist on harpooning these beautiful, graceful, sensitive, intelligent creatures when you can just pick them up off the beaches'. On another occasion, Mick had indulged too well and was noisily regretting it while hanging over the fence. 'I'm dying!' said Mick. 'Well, be off and die somewhere else', was approximately Pete's reply.
Roscoe taught Pete to hang glide in 1991, along with Mick, PK and Billo at a WEA day on the dunes. After one day's instruction they thought they knew how to fly and together they went out and bought an old Sabre 177, otherwise known as a widowmaker. Even with the divesticks neatly taped to the tip battens, PK proved it could fly, so Pete harnessed up and threw himself off the dunes. He disappeared tailwind at 40 mph around the corner of the dune and they found him upside down in the crashed glider laughing his head off. Pete was scared of heights but that wasn't going to stop him.
While soaring at Merewether early on, Pete heard Roscoe tell PK on the radio that he had enough room for a 360. Pete didn't think so, but the instructor said do it, so round Pete went, much to Roscoe's amazement. He ended up nestled in the trees while PK completed his 360 above, but, as Pete said, he'd got it back into the wind, so he regarded that as satisfactory. This is thought to be one of the few times in his life that Pete actually did as he was told. His stutter also meant that Pete gave *the* most accurate wind direction calls for flying. 'Hey Roscoe, it's nor-nor-nor-nor-east!' That stutter was also the source of his nickname, Triple Pete or PPP.
On his first flight at Dudley Bluff, where there is no bottom landing, he was told jokingly 'if you're not going up, just turn around tailwind and smack back into the hill', so he did, writing off a banksia in the process but he and his glider were untouched. When Mick landed his glider in the surf, Pete and their friend Pezza took a dinghy out to rescue him from the rock he was standing on. 'Come closer', said Mick. 'Get in the water', was approximately Triple's reply.
With his light wing loading, he became a thermal pilot who could soar above all others. He took part in what is thought to be the world's first triple hang glider tow behind one car, but with his wing loading, he shot up far above the other two. He was a slow eater who could finish dinner an hour after everyone else at table. On one such occasion up on the Gulf of Carpentaria, he had to defend his cold chips with a sharp steak knife. Another pilot tried to sneak some, so he whacked him with the knife. Pete was far more upset than the other pilot at the flowing red result.
Pete's boss at the tax office had realised that Pete should not be sent to do audits in coastal towns but did not realise that Pete now flew more than he surfed, or why he was so happy when his boss sent him to do audits in inland towns like Manilla. Pete had drilled the bumpers of several Tax Office Z-cars to take a front support for his glider and aimed to drill them all if necessary. He would complete his prepared cases on the first day and fly for the rest of the week.
Pete's flying accident in 1998 changed his life and everyone else's who knew him. He came very close to dying but survived despite losing both arms and both legs. From the moment he regained consciousness he aimed to get back home, back to work and back in the air. He showed his usual determination and sardonic humour, regaining all the mobility that was possible and more than anyone else expected. On one occasion, after a hard session of physiotherapy with Judy in the rehabilitation hospital we wheeled him down to the local golf club house for a beer. On the way we passed a hack golfer slashing away on the practice tee. "Wheel me over there" said Pete. He began to advise the golfer on his stance and swing.
The golfer bolted. When we went into the clubhouse for a beer, we would all drink from our schooners through straws, just like Pete.
He quickly became skilful with his prosthetic arms and even managed to walk on his prosthetic legs. He developed his control in the electric wheelchair by chasing pigeons around the grounds of Prince Henry Hospital. Despite injuries which would make a less determined man give up and die, he never allowed himself self-pity or depression. When he got his wheelchair thoroughly jammed in a doorway on one occasion, he called to Nancy, 'Will one of you people with peripherals come and do something about this?'. Two months after his accident he was back in the air as a passenger in a trike, wearing the pilot's XXL ski jacket. It was only after landing that the trike pilot realised Pete had had to keep his arm stumps facing forwards to keep the sleeves of the jacket out of the prop. Heavy Kevvy and Tasch in their trike formated on their wing tip as the sun set behind the Barringtons and Pete said it was great to be back in the air. Pete was always going to fly again.
Pete never thought of just living on a disabled pension, but was back at work less than 6 months after his accident with the support of the Hunter Area Health Service. He had moved from the tax office to working at the Hunter Area Health Service at Rankin Park Hospital, which ironically was a rehabilitation hospital and therefore fully equipped with ramps for wheelchair access. With a modified mouse and a standard keyboard he was able to do his usual work, using aids custom built by PK. At first he lived with his father, Perce, but it couldn't last. Perce listened to 2NC and Peter to JJJ, so Pete moved into his own house where he lived independently with the help of Homecare. One night after a good dinner at Anna and Al's, PPP drove himself home in the electric wheelchair. He was supposed to ring and say that he had got home safely, but he fell asleep. Anna went skulking along in the shadows over the few hundred yards between her place and Perce's, looking for him but knowing if Pete spotted her he would be furious.
After a year and a half of Pete's being a passenger Glen Selmes modified a car for him and Pete was driving again. While practising on the drag strip at Kooragang Island Pete was aggravated by Conrad saying "but can you stop quickly?". Pete stamped his stump down on the brake pedal and almost put Conrad through the windscreen. Pete's first solo drive was down the four wheel drive track at Mount Borah. Horse was aghast. Pete had his fortieth birthday at Vic and Tom's in Manilla earlier this year, and characteristically did not reveal until after midnight that his birthday had just finished. In Barraba, Pete got to know Libby well, and he was the father that her daughter Reanna never had. They used to play hand in claw, and chasing each other around Pete's house with him in his chair and Reanna crawling after him.
Being a spectator in life was never enough for Pete, and being a passenger in a glider, hangglider and trike was not enough for him either. What he wanted most of all was to fly solo in his own hangglider again. He and his friends spent 6 months modifying and testing his glider. The risks to Pete would always be great because he would be attached by his prosthetic arms to the glider, unable to let go, but to fly solo was supremely important to him. Last Sunday he flew again solo for the first time in 2½ years. After his first two flights he was ecstatic. He had achieved the goal he had sought ever since he had regained consciousness in 1998. He was killed on his third flight, but he died happier than he had been for 2½ years.
He was a supremely caring man who pretended not to care, a generous man with no expectation that his generosity should be returned and a resiliently humorous man despite the bitter blows that life dealt him. He always had an open house and an open heart. But above all he showed courage beyond any measure in achieving the ends his determination set him. I am deeply proud to have called him my friend. Next time you take a great thermal to cloudbase, ride a magnificent wave to the shore or simply achieve a goal that has taken long and difficult struggle, think of Pete O'Loughlin because he is with you.
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