Dale Buggins was the first person I ever heard about who killed themselves on purpose.
Australia’s pioneer motorcycle daredevil, he could’ve met his maker 100 different ways as he arced across the sky on a Yamaha dirtbike while crowds watched through their fingers. But Dale always ‘cheated death’ – testament to the talent and nerve necessary to set world records and see him stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his childhood hero, Evel Knievel.
Except that legendary US stuntman died from disease in 2007 just shy of 70. Decades earlier, the quietly spoken boy from the NSW Central Coast ended it all with a shotgun. He was just 20.
I was 12 at the time and my first response upon learning this news was horror at the realisation human beings have the capacity to kill themselves. Who would want to kill themself? My dismay was followed by sorrow because, back then, I considered the Dale Buggins story part of my own family’s unfolding tale.
A few years earlier, Dale had jumped his Yammy into the record books and landed in the middle of the Henderson family photo album in the process.
I was 10 when my dad, a pre s s photographer, took me and my 12-year-old brother Greg to work with him on Sunday, October 29, 1978. Giddy with excitement, we arrived at Sydney’s Castlereagh international dragway to watch a 17-year-old kid named Dale something-or-other attempt to jump a motorbike over a world-record 10 trucks.
Back then Greg was keen to follow in Dad’s footsteps and that day Dad had given him a 35mm Nikon and a roll of film to muck around with.
Young Dale revved his bike as I sat with Dad and Greg, cameras raised, in the perfect spot to capture the feat. He sped down the raceway, rocketed up the ramp, sailed high and long through the spring air and as he was about to land father and son fired their shutters.
Later in the darkroom it turned out Greg’s photo was pin-sharp and perfectly framed. Better than Dad’s! It was so good it was published around the country on page 1 of The Australian.
Dale went on to jump his bike further into the stratosphere as his caravan rolled on and his star rose ever higher. He toured Australia and made it in the US, too. He even performed in the Evel Knievel Travelling Thrill Show.
From the outside it looked like the polite, focussed young man was on top of the world. In reality he wanted to get off it.
In September 1981 Dale was due to appear at the Royal Melbourne Show. But when he checked into a North Melbourne motel he had a Winchester shotgun with him.
In a note he’d tried to explain: ‘I’m so confused with life and the people in it. It’s got to the stage where I can’t think straight. Too many ups and downs…’
Although the tragedy made headlines around Australia it seems suicide was in the too-hard basket and Dale quickly faded from the national consciousness. I soon became distracted by the chaos of puberty and before long I, too, ceased to give him further thought.
Throughout my life I never once had a single conversation about him. No friend has said to me, ‘Hey, remember Dale Buggins?’ He’s never mentioned on TV sports specials, top-10 lists or at trivia nights.
Evel Kneivel? Sure, but not Dale. It’s like he was deleted.
Then about a month ago a mate gave me a CD by the Sydney singer-songwriter Perry Keyes. I’d not heard it before and played it on a long drive. When Track 9 began I suddenly found myself weeping:
Last night Dale Buggins came to me in a dream/Said he’d jumped a lake of fire.
The sad, beautiful song Dale Buggins Dream about a ‘sweet, flying boy’ kick- started long-dormant memories. Unexpected emotions flooded in; melancholy snippets from childhood, wistfulness for the city I left behind, longing for the brother I hardly get to see and, of course, heartbreak for the doomed kid in the song.
Last week I phoned my mum, the family archivist, to see if she had the copy of The Australian with Greg’s picture. Of course she did. Dale had been in our photo album for nearly four decades, pressed up against snaps of our family holidays, Christmases and of and me and my bro riding our first bikes back in the ’70s.
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Dale’s passing. I don’t imagine the media will note the occasion so I’ve taken the liberty of pre-emptively doing so here.
In the ’70s and ’80s it was unthinkable for men to talk about their feelings or put a hand up if they were struggling to cope with life. I can’t help think that if he were starting out now Dale might’ve been okay. Australia’s first motorcycle daredevil is gone a long time now but, for me, no longer forgotten.