Born in the mid 1950s, Jack enjoyed his early childhood in a small Aboriginal community in Queensland. He may have gone on to enjoy his teenage years too, if he hadn’t accepted a ride home from a family friend one morning when he was 10.
‘He rolled the car, killed my cousin, killed himself. I had my leg pinned under it. From nine o’clock in the morning till nine o’clock the next morning I laid between two dead people. All night. Wild pigs come down, tried to eat them. I banged a bit of the car with a stick all night to keep them away. The next morning they found me.’
By then Jack’s leg was so badly damaged it had to be amputated. He returned home with an artificial leg and a head full of anger. ‘I wouldn’t go to school, and they said that my mother couldn’t control me. So they sent me to the home to correct me there, like a dog.’
He was made a ward of the state and put into care. Jack spent the next seven years moving from one boys’ home to the next. He saw four in total, some run by the government and others by the Salvation Army. At all the homes he was physically abused. At the Salvation Army homes he was sexually abused too.
The perpetrator was a man named Captain Andrews. He was sly as well as brutal. Often he’d get the boys to stand naked in the freezing cold, then hit them with a leather strap. ‘You’d end up with bruise marks all over your legs, around your arse’, Jack said.
At other times Andrews would pretend to be friends with the boys. He took Jack aside one day and said ‘“Oh, Jack, I want you to be the nightwatchman. We haven’t got a nightwatchman here and you’re ready to go out to work for a job”. So he put me down as a nightwatchman. Gave me my own room. And he used to be in the room day and night, grabbing you … want to feel your privates and all that stuff. That’s why I run away’.
At 13, Jack snuck out of the home and swam across the Brisbane River, holding his artificial leg above his head. ‘I could have drowned going across there, sharks could have got me, anything … And when I got to the other side they was all singing out, the Salvation Army, “Get back here Jack”. I said “I’ll never come back”.’
From there he trekked overland for almost a thousand kilometres before the police finally picked him up. ‘I knew the country’, he said. ‘It’s all my country. I know it.’ He was sent back to the Salvation Army home and then to a state-run reformatory.
Life at the reformatory was brutal. Staff organised boxing matches and forced the boys to fight each other. ‘You’ve got to get up and fight. Beat the bloke or you’re beaten. They used to do all that to us. I think the screws used to have bets on us, who can beat who and who can do this. It was a game to them.’
When Jack was 17 the manager of the home called him into the office and said ‘“a bit of bad luck for you”. I said “What is it?” They said “Your mother passed away”’. For reasons that Jack has never understood, the manager waited until just after Jack’s mother’s funeral and then released him. Jack went home to a family he hadn’t seen in seven years.
‘I didn’t know no one. None of my family anymore. I got off the train and just stood there like a dork, looking up the road.’ A woman called out his childhood nickname and explained that she was his sister. Jack didn’t recognise her at all.
In time, however, Jack reconnected with his siblings and his father. He spent a few years doing farm work and mustering with his dad and brother. After that he got work as a semi-professional boxer, capitalising on some of the skills he’d learned in the boys’ reformatory. Even with his artificial leg he was better than most opponents and managed to earn a decent living.
He travelled widely, but always took his bad memories with him. The only escape he could find as a young man was at the bottom of a bottle. ‘I was a drinker to get the memories – what I had from them homes – out of my head, and the only way that I could do it was by drinking.’
Later in life Jack realised the harm the drink was doing to him and gave it up for good. He found other ways to cope with the bad memories. Getting out bush in his own country makes him feel better, especially now that his people have gained native title. ‘We got all our land given back to us … Doing something on your own land makes you feel good. You’re doing something for everybody.’
Jack’s partner, Karen, has also been a constant source of support. She and Jack have been together now for more than 30 years. She was the first person he talked to about the abuse. She’s ‘lived with me and cared for me and done things for me’, Jack said.
When he came out of the boys’ homes he had very few basic social skills. Karen taught him everything. ‘Didn’t know what jocks was, wouldn’t wear jocks, and all this stuff. Wasn’t taught anything … Didn’t know how to spell my name. “Jack George Clarke”, didn’t know how to spell that. My wife taught me.’