Sitting in the backseat of our family station wagon, my sister Beth, then six, and I were giggling like mad.
‘Stop picking on your sister,’ my dad, Alf, then 47, called out from the driver’s seat.
To keep ourselves entertained, we’d been getting Charlie, then two, to flash her toothy grin at the cars behind us.
But, with her scaly skin and yellow eyes, she wasn’t like most little sisters – she was a saltwater crocodile!
She’d first come into our lives when Dad’s friend, also named Charlie, discovered three croc eggs in a nest after the mum had been shot by a hunter.
Convinced he could tame a wild animal, Dad brought the eggs home, but sadly only one survived.
Naming his new companion after his mate, Dad was besotted with Charlene – Charlie for short.
His new scaly companion won the hearts of most of our family, but my mum Rae, then 40, had her reservations.
‘You can’t trust a croc,’ she warned us.
Still, everywhere Dad went, he carried Charlie around in his arms like a baby.
Charlie became a bit of a local celebrity.
By the time she was two, and measuring around a metre long, she’d learned how to shake hands on command, just like a dog.
‘What a good girl,’ locals beamed, delighted at how clever she was.
She also learned how to roll over. ‘Turns out you can teach an old croc new tricks,’ Dad laughed.
When we went on family holidays, Charlie would join us on the road. Climbing over the seats, her favourite spot was on Dad’s lap, resting her front feet up on the window.
‘Charlie likes to feel the wind through her hair,’ he joked.
Before long, Charlie had been in just about every pub from Rockhampton to Cairns. Strolling into a hotel in Merinda one day, Dad sat Charlie down on the bar and ordered a drink.
The bartender was so startled she jumped over the counter and ran out.
And when Queen Elizabeth came to visit in the ’70s, Charlie was first in line to meet her.
While Queen Liz thought Charlie was a stuffed animal, Prince Philip spotted the croc and waved in our direction with his jaw wide open.
As we lived on a cattle and sugar cane farm in Mackay, Charlie stayed in an enclosure a few metres from the house.
A couple of times, Dad left the hose running in there and she floated out.
Though Mum would worry about her snapping at the cows, we always found Charlie waiting at the back door and would take her upstairs to watch telly.
When I was 18, Dad’s work friend bought his daughter Maria, then 16, around to meet Charlie. She was beautiful. But, too shy to talk to her, I had Beth ask her out for me.
Falling head over heels for Maria, three years later, she and I tied the knot!
Who knew a croc would find me a wife? I laughed to myself.
In 1982, we welcomed our first child, Queta, followed by Kyrenia in 1985.
Then one day in November 1986, after a fishing trip, Dad couldn’t wait to share his catch with Charlie, as he often did.
Dad would stand at the pen door, give her a pat, then she’d jump up for the food. Only this time, when Charlie came out of the water, Dad mistakenly went for another pat and she grabbed his hand, thinking it was her feed.
Dad tried to pull out his hand, but Charlie tore it clean off.
Docs tried to reattach his hand, but it was so damaged there was nothing they could do. Dad never blamed Charlie.
‘It was my mistake,’ he told everyone.
And with the arrival of my son Brendan, 11 days later, Dad wasn’t going to let his accident keep him from cuddling his grandson.
Coincidently, Dad had also lost two digits on his right hand in a work accident in his 40s.
‘You’re a bit short on fingers, Pa,’ our kids often teased.
Sadly, at 82, Dad was diagnosed with dementia.
Worried what might happen to his salty, he left Charlie to me in his will.
So when Dad heartbreakingly passed in 2009, aged 92, Maria and I took on the role of looking after Charlie.
‘Forty-one years since moving in with a croc and I wouldn’t have life any other way,’ Maria says.
Crocs in captivity are said to live to more than 100, which means Charlene will be here long after I’m gone.
Next in line to receive the family heirloom is my wife, then the kids.
Now 59, three metres long, and weighing 250 kilos, gone are the days of Charlie cuddles and road trips.
‘You got all the good years with her,’ Brendan, now 36, jokes, but I know he’ll take great care of her.
Not everyone can say they grew up with a croc, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
Without Charlie, I would never have snapped up my beautiful wife and had my amazing kids. And for that I’m forever grateful!