A “Publican” Brings Refreshment to the Never-Never
As told by Charles Bernhardt
NO, YOU will not find a country or an island called the Never-Never. It is an old term used by Australian natives to describe the bleak, desolate, treeless and lonely inland areas of that country. A “publican,” rather than being a tax collector, is a saloonkeeper. My saloon in the Never-Never eventually brought refreshment to my customers in two totally different ways.
Being a saloonkeeper was the last thing I ever wanted to do in life. My relatives were seafaring and, like them, I had a hankering for the sea. In 1908, at 15 years of age, I signed on the first windjammer and spent 14 years at sea. One trip from Brazil to Australia lasted 72 days. The menu every day was tinned bully beef, tinned potatoes and some lime juice. I got rather tired of that, so I left the ship in October 1913, at Port Pirie, South Australia.
With the outbreak of World War I, work on ships or elsewhere in Australia was very difficult to find, especially for me. I was a German national, born in Hamburg, March 26, 1893. For quite a while I lived on my savings but, later, on one cheap meal a day at the ‘pie cart’ down the street and, finally, on a daily plate of peas and a pie called a floater. When funds ran out, there was only one thing to do: ask the military authorities to arrest me. “Goodness me, whatever for?” asked the officer. “I cannot get any employment and I have spent my last penny.” Well, they cooperated. After spending four months behind barbed wire in an internment camp on Torrens Island, I began to feel sorry for all the birds that are caged up. What a contrast to the freedom of the sea!
After four months I escaped by swimming the Port River. But now my situation was worse. Not only could I not get employment but the authorities were after me. I finally gave myself up and asked to be put on parole. Again they cooperated.
Three days before the armistice of World War I, I got married and was anxious to establish a home with my hardworking wife. But as the depression set in, I had to go back to sea. Then one day a man who was going blind befriended me with an offer to buy his wine saloon at William Creek, 588 miles (946 km) north of Adelaide into the Never-Never. I accepted in 1922 and ended up being saloonkeeper there for the next 30 years. The saloon, simply called a hotel in Australia, was situated on the only train line going through the middle of Australia. Business was brisk, especially after 1926 when the line was extended to Alice Springs. But life in the Never-Never had its difficulties. One drought lasted six years. Dust storms three and four times a week were regular, utterly wrecking the country. Temperatures rose to between 107 and 118 degrees Fahrenheit in summertime (42 and 48° C.). When we first took over the saloon, my nearest neighbouring cattle station (ranch) had 28,000 head of cattle. By the end of the drought he had only 800!
They Started Talking About Armageddon!
One day in 1933, two chaps pulled up in a little Austin car. To get that far into the Never-Never with only dirt tracks and heavy sandhills in that car was quite a feat in itself. They started talking about Armageddon! “We had enough of that last one during 1914-18,” I said. Well, they said I was wrong and offered me some Bible study aids to read. I had become turned off to religion, knowing the part it played in the Inquisition, and I had seen what it had done in many countries around the world.
One of those chaps had a wooden leg and spent much of his time visiting homesteads riding on a camel. The same two chaps came back three months later to see if I and others along the railway line had read the literature. Well you can be sure I started reading it after that, and I have not stopped reading it from that day until this. It opened my mind and heart to look forward to the realization of many promises in God’s Word, the Bible, of living in a righteous paradise earth.
A few months later, I obtained a tea chest full of gramophone records, a gramophone, books, magazines and a Bible, something I had never owned before, to check if these promises were really so. I realized that Jehovah is the only One who, by means of Armageddon, will make an end of this tragic system and all the problems we have today. And in 1935 I got busy telling others about it, though living in the Never-Never.
I put eye-catching literature displays right at the Bar! One placard, depicting a train rushing to destruction over a bridge, read:
“GOVERNMENTS, COMMERCIALISM AND RELIGION ARE IN A WORSE EMERGENCY THAN THIS! BEFORE THE PLUNGE, WHERE CAN YOU GET OFF? READ ‘SALVATION’!”
Underneath there was a supply of literature. Many people took what they wanted, putting their contribution down like taking a newspaper off a newsstand. Railway crews would come in asking for the latest copies of the magazines The Watchtower and Consolation (as Awake! was then called).
I had four of these displayed in the Bar, and as you entered, that was the first thing you noticed. If you looked to the right, there was one on the wall. If you looked to the left, there was another. As you went out, there was one right next to the door.
Each train would stop three quarters of an hour, ample time for good Bible discussions. Of course, some did not like my signs and said so. “Well,” I said, “there is nobody stopping you from either coming in or going out.” There was no place else to go anyway. My saloon was also the only provision store, post office and weather station. My next-door neighbour and train stop was 127 miles (204 km) to the north or 133 miles (214 km) to the south. So I don’t remember anyone leaving, particularly on hot days!
When I heard that two other brothers were coming through in 1936, I travelled 56 miles (90 km) south especially to meet them where there was a beautiful warm waterhole, and I had them baptise me.
There was one occasion when a train came through with the railways’ commissioner aboard, and I noticed that the car of the governor of South Australia was also attached. The commissioner came over and said that Lady Duggan, the governor’s wife, would like to have a few words with me, which she did. I wondered how I could make her trip memorable. So I wrapped up the book Enemies and three booklets and presented them to her on her departure. “What is it?” she asked. “A book called Enemies and three booklets.” “By whom?” she asked. “By Judge Rutherford.” “Oh, yes,” she remarked, “I have heard of him. Thank you very much, and I will without fail read them.” With that the train departed.
Restriction Order Imposed
The second world war had started, and a ban was placed on Jehovah’s Witnesses. A police officer was sent to collect all my literature. He was a fair-minded man who told me that Catholic Action was behind the whole movement to stop our work. He gave me a receipt for every item he took. I protested to the highest authority.
Then I put up another lot of placards, five of them! One read:
“ARMAGEDDON THE BATTLE OF THE GREAT DAY OF GOD ALMIGHTY TO BE FOUGHT SOON. ON WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU? JEHOVAH’S OR SATAN’S? GET THE BIBLE VIEWPOINT.”
Well, this was at the time when troop trains started coming through with an average of 350 to 400 soldiers. I was given orders that I could supply the men with one bottle of beer each, and they had to drink it within 15 minutes before getting back on the train.
One day, however, the train didn’t pull away in the usual 15 minutes. The commanding officer, along with the sergeant, came back to the Bar and said: “Mr. Bernhardt, I understand that all this is prohibited.” “Since when is the Bible prohibited?” I asked. “All that these placards do is invite people to look into the Bible.” I then produced a letter from the attorney general of Australia, Mr. William Morris Hughes, stating that while I could not have my literature returned, “there is no objection whatsoever on the part of the Commonwealth Government to you as an individual worshipping Jehovah and proclaiming the gospel of his kingdom.” The commanding officer folded up the letter, respectfully passed it back to me and said: “Sergeant, I think we will have a drink!”
Soon after this, the postmaster general dismissed me as postmaster and meteorological observer, although I had the highest credentials for 14 years. The ‘tic tac’ of the telegraph instrument was our main link with life on the outside. With its removal, we really felt completely out in the desert, alone and deserted.
A few weeks later a police officer served me with a Restriction Order. I was to report in person within one week to the Security Office, 588 miles (946 km) away in Adelaide. This meant my wife would be on her own, without any help or assistance. When I arrived I was told I would be restricted to living within the limits of a suburb of Adelaide. I appealed to return to my wife but was refused permission.
The Manpower Organization then ordered me to go to work at a wool-scouring plant. I felt distressed, my wife being by herself. Next, I was deprived of my licence to operate my saloon. The reason given was that I wasn’t living there! I really felt they were ‘sinking their boots into me.’ In the end I had to sell the place to my wife, that is, on paper. That restriction lasted one year and ten months, with my hardworking wife managing as best she could all on her own. She was a loyal helper, though she did not accept the truth. Finally the ban was lifted in 1943, and I could return to my wife. The parting blessing I received from the major in the Security Office was, “I do realise that you are an honourable and decent man, so I wish you everything good.”
Immediately I started restoring to the Bar the placards, Bibles and Bible aids, more so than before.
Eight more years passed, and I was also threatened with commercial extinction. Instead, my business about doubled. But I had been trying to sell it for 12 years. My one aim was to do the work others had done who brought the truth to me. That opportunity came in 1952 when I managed to sell my business. For the previous 16 years I was an isolated publisher—my nearest neighbour in the truth was 374 miles (602 km) away at Port Augusta.
“Refreshment” for the Outback
At 60 years of age I set out, not for the sea, but to help people I thought of so much in Australia’s remote outback. It is a virgin wilderness, a land of searing heat and where torrential monsoon rains cause floods that isolate people for weeks at a time. In other parts it is hauntingly beautiful, where time and distance merge. Truly, it is the Never-Never.
The Birdsville Track is a mighty tough track. One motoring magazine said it is “sand, gibber plains and extreme danger.” The temperature there in the summer can reach 145° F. (63° C.). The week I visited the four inhabited homes along that 310-mile (500-km) track the temperature held between 106° F. (41° C.) and 114° F. (46° C.).
One day while driving my Land-Rover, I met a man on horseback. He invited me to follow him to his homestead. He showed good interest. Twenty years later I met him and his wife again, at a convention where both were baptised. At one sheep station where the driveway from the main track to the home was 42 miles (68 km), one owner asked me if by chance I knew a tall, blond-haired man with a wooden leg, Stuart Keltie, who had called on him years before, riding a camel. He took a Bible and quite a lot of literature and together with his wife accepted the truth. I was happy to inform him that I had the opportunity of buying Stuart a new and better leg. Stuart Keltie left a deep and favourable impression with people in the Never-Never, and I deemed it a privilege to follow in his tracks 23 years later. I have witnessed in an area as large as all of Europe and can count at least 22 persons in these remote places who have accepted the truth as a direct result of my efforts.
In 1950 it was my privilege to attend the International Assembly in New York and to meet, for the first time, Stuart’s widow, Thelma Keltie, who had come from New Zealand to attend Gilead School and who spent 14 years as a missionary in Japan. She is still going strong in full-time service in Adelaide, South Australia, at the age of 82!
After that assembly my wife and I visited relatives in Europe. I visited my hometown of Hamburg and the cemetery where my mother, father and only sister are buried. They were killed together in the 1942 blitz on Hamburg, along with over 263,000 others. Along the embankments of this mass grave were little crosses. Each had printed on it the name of the mother and children only. Men’s names were few in number. The majority of the men had been drafted into the German military forces, and it was mostly women and children and old folk who were wiped out in the three-day air raid. The little crosses had on them WARUM? (WHY?) Using Revelation 12:12, I was able to explain “why” to many friends and relatives and was glad to know that my mother had learned the truth during the war and died as a faithful Witness.
Back in Australia I made many more trips through the Never-Never, some over 7,000 miles (11,300 km) and reaching even to the Simpson Desert. The scenery in some of these areas is truly awe inspiring. My station wagon, or Land-Rover, was my home, my kitchen, my bedroom and my literature depot. And there were many breakdowns.
Once the clutch gave out while I was towing an auxiliary trailer. The car jackknifed! Darkness set in. I was in a helpless position. The next day a man happened to come along from a sheep station (ranch) and offered to help me uncouple the trailer. I slipped and fell, and the trailer ran over the top of me. My legs and arms were a lacerated mess, and I was bleeding profusely. He managed to bundle me up and get me to a camp of geologists where there was a first-aid man. They got in touch with the Flying Doctor service, and about two hours later the plane landed. Fortunately, as the trailer went over me it just missed my head. I was 76 years of age when this happened.
After recovering in the hospital, I was able to make a few more trips, bringing spiritual refreshment to those dear folk trying to eke out an existence. One family on a station property had five daughters. I am grateful to say that with my help and much letter writing, the whole family of seven have become dedicated Witnesses.
Once I pulled up late in the evening, cleared a bit of ground and settled down for the night. Then I heard a car coming. The station hands asked if I was going to camp there. “Do you know that this place is absolutely littered [crawling] with snakes?” I had seen quite a few. “Whatever you do, don’t sleep on the ground,” was their advice. We looked around and sure enough, there was a superabundance of snakes!
At another location the ground was simply riddled with rat holes for miles and miles. I was told at one station they could not leave their boots outside, otherwise the rats would eat them. That night I was glad I had my trailer and pulled the canvas over me. All night they were jumping up on the trailer, running over the canvas. I could hear the pitter-patter of their feet.
Now entering my 92nd year I still have a love for the inland areas. Looking back over the years of serving in these outback areas, and from my base now in Adelaide and still pioneering, I can rejoice in the privilege of bringing spiritual refreshment to many in the Never-Never. I will continue to have “plenty to do in the work of the Lord” as Jehovah grants me the health and strength to do so according to my years and physical abilities.—1 Corinthians 15:58; 2 Corinthians 4:16, 18.
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