Looking for lunch on the South Coast of NSW, we see a sign for a bistro. It appears to be housed at the Coledale RSL, so we pull over. Many cars. Many people. What’s an RSL? We have no idea, but we vote unanimously to give it a look-see.
People are sitting at outside tables eating and drinking beer. Inside, they’re doing the same, but the walls are covered with many video screens, each one of which shows a race track in operation or Lotto numbers being picked.
Is this a casino? There are no windows at which to place bets. And no one appears to be holding betting slips or wads of cash…or even paying attention to the screens. There is something here, but its secrets escape us.
RSL, we soon learn from the young man pulling the draft beer handles, is the Returned & Services League of Australia. A smartphone glance at the RSL website informs us it is “one of Australia’s oldest and most respected national organisations. The League was founded in 1916 and supports serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their families and promotes a secure, stable and progressive Australia.”
Sounds like a right proper place for lunch, so we grab a table and review the menu. I consider flathead tails (a writer cannot overlook an opposing juxtaposition…both sides of the coin…perhaps a sure bet).
The hard-working, uniformed woman at the register says one word, “Those,” and points to a plate being picked up by an old duffer with my haircut and a white beard.
“What d’you think?” I ask him.
Nearly drooling with gustatory anticipation and the joy of Samaritan assistance, he smiles broadly and gives me a thumbs up. To do anything but order them now would be an insult to the Australian Defence Force, so flathead tails it is!
Beer is next. There are six tap handles from which to choose. Once again I am confronted with an opposing juxtaposition: Toohey’s Old vs. Toohey’s New. I look around the room for a clue. Nothing obvious appears to me. I don’t think of beer as being something (like wine) that one drinks old, so I ask for a taste, wondering if, in Oz, such a request is gauche. The tap puller’s reaction assures me it is not, and the Old turns out to be a “Black Ale” of delightfully round flavors, a perfect pairing, I assume in advance, with flathead tails.
The puck buzzes…the plates are tendered, and once I figure out how to open the packet of tartar sauce, the food exceeds our expectation. Both meals are perfectly done.
The completed repast and another round of Toohey’s Old encourages me to seek conversation, so I wander around until I spot a couple of codgers I can cut out of the herd. Rollie, who appears to be my age, is spherical, with a tuft of white whiskers sprouting from his nose. He’s a retired golf course superintendent. Bryce is younger, thinner, and not yet retired, but proud to state he never works more than four hours a day as a bus driver. He’s here for beer, cameraderie, and to collect some winnings from wagers previously made. Neither, I am surprised to learn, ever served in the Australian Defence Force.
Bryce: “I’m a pup. Too young.”
When I point out there have been plenty of other wars since Vietnam, Bryce nods, ignores my implied question, and returns to his beer.
Neither chap is remotely interested in why a random American might be interested in chatting with them, so my Coledale conversation fizzles seconds after I stop talking.
“G’day,” I say and tip my hat.
“No worries,” they both reply simultaneously.
I walk away, thinking about my children, stepchildren, and grandkids…
I realize both men are alone on Father’s Day.