You know how NASA, other various space programs and a few astronomy folk have been trying to tackle the Mars frontier for decades? Honestly, they don’t need to go too far. Birdsville, Australia, is surrounded by hundreds of sand dunes, dry landscapes and unbelievably desolate expanses. It’s basically another planet. Birdsville is bumpin’ with a grand total population of 80 people. The Birdsville State School has five students enrolled. The kindergarten has only three. There are no teenagers, and therefore no pesky juveniles to rile up chaos in the few Birdsville streets. But despite the lack of crime, there is a police station.
Senior Constable and Officer-in-Charge Neal McShane is tall, a bit withered looking (in a good way) and has squinty eyes reminiscent of the resident nice old uncle on the couch at family parties, content with his amber ale. Though McShane must regulate with a firmer hand during a few large Birdsville events per year, his days are usually much calmer.
McShane has policed this peaceful desert territory for nearly a decade, a legacy that will end on Nov. 21, the day McShane turns 60. He will retire with the honor of longest-serving police officer at Australia’s most isolated outpost with a jurisdiction that covers roughly 93,000 square miles. Imagine being in charge of a territory as big as the United Kingdom — that is McShane’s duty for at least another week.
As McShane patrols the seven streets of Birdsville, he reflects on all that has made up his home for the last ten years. There’s the tennis court where he won 11 dollars at the first Birdsville Open a few years ago, the same day that Rafael Nadal won $10 million at the French Open. There are local town people who bid their greetings and congratulate McShane on his ten-year Birdsville career. There’s the Birdsville night sky — an unpolluted black mass, flecked with millions of stars, that cloaks the town each night. And then there’s the bakery that sells beer, the remedy to the harshness of the Outback sun. For McShane, this dusty Mars-like landscape is a heaven.
There’s something so melancholy about McShane and his life in the middle of the Australian desert. Going to Birdsville, it’s almost like going back to the 1950s in the countryside. Family, the farm, friends and a nice beer were all that mattered. With the end of McShane’s career, it’s almost like the end of an era. An era when the good folks of some obscure town knew their law enforcement, and the sheriff in town was a person you could really count on. Most kids I know get out of their small towns to see the big city because, as one of my friends put it, “there’s so much more to life than just milking a cow and making out under the bleachers at a Friday night football game.” She’s from Ohio.
But I think kids these days don’t enjoy the little things, or at least overlook them to get to something bigger and better. Going to college away from home and hearing about the retirement of the great Neal McShane puts everything into perspective. So cherish one another folks, and a big congrats to Officer McShane. He will be sorely missed.