June 6, 2055
Cairns , Queensland , Australia
The Night of the Cane Toad Queen
By Lois Joy
Last night, drenched from a Queensland downpour, we entered Johno's Blues Bar again, but it just wasn't the same. The Cane Toad Queen was missing. You know, the one from Spring, Texas who gave such a rousing performance only one week ago. They call her ‘Ret.' Mark and the Emcee, at the mike, were asking, “Where did she go?” in front of a new audience of gullible tourists. “Back to Texas ,” we answered. Queensland isn't the same, now that she's gone, we all agreed.
We reminisce about that Monday night past:
The four of us—Ret, John, Gunter and I—had a dinner of Lenard's chicken/pine nut sausages and buns before the night on the town—accompanied by McGuigans Black Label, now our ‘house wine' on board Pacific Bliss . As we sauntered down the esplanade from Marlin's Marina in Cairns and entered Johno's, we were clearly in the party mood. “ Toad Races, Mondays and Wednesdays 7:30 PM ”, the sign said. We were ready for the action! We perched ourselves on bar stools right up front, to the left of the stage and Gunter ordered Dark&Stormies all around. (These are cocktails-in-a-bottle consisting of Bundaberg rum and ginger beer. Visitors to Queensland go into painful Dark&Stormy withdrawal soon after they return to the states. Just ask Jimmy and Ann, who tried to get their local Redondo Beach Trader Joe's to stock it.)
The stage pair sang and strummed a mix of Aussie outback and US country western songs, electric guitars humming. Then Mark, a handsome part-aborigine, gave a stellar performance on the didgeridoo. We're waiting for the place to fill,” the emcee announced, “then we'll begin the races. $74,250 in prizes here to give away,” he pointed to the table covered with impressive trophies. Meanwhile, new arrivals (called ‘participants') were asked their home country and then mercilessly picked on—especially the ‘bloody' or ‘bastard' Americans (terms of endearment) and the ‘poms' or ‘pommies'. “Prisoners of Her Majesty,” the emcee enunciated clearly to them. The Dutch, the Kiwis, the snobby Sydneysiders—all were given his ‘special' welcome. Mark passed the sign-up sheet around. $3 to select and name your own frog for the race. Each of us selected and named our frog. Having signed up two groups, the excitement was building. “$84, 320 in prizes here,” the emcee crowed. There would be play-offs and a final championship game. Each participant in race #1 (that was us) was called to the stage to take more ribbing, to explain the frog's name, and to drop it into the bucket.
Then a ‘starter' was selected—always a long-legged, bare-midriffed blonde—and after much fanfare, was asked to turn the bucket upside down. The frogs all sat there in a clump as if they'd been drugged. Some were on top of the other, but still they sat. The emcee gave them a kick, and they were off as the audience cheered for their toads. The leader brushed one of the four wooden sideboards. “A winner!” the emcee yelled. Tully, my frog, edged up. “ Number 2 Tully!” The cycle repeated itself for the next group of toads, with a few songs and jokes in between to build up the tension. At the end, the play-off resulted in a number of prizes: a ticket to the celebrated DOME (a rainforest exhibit above the casino), a daytrip to Green Island , and so on. I won a Calm Water Cruise to Trinity Inlet to visit a commercial croc farm. A sailor can always use a little calm water. Then I was handed a small trophy; it was made out to a little boy for participating in a soccer game. “We dig these out of the trash,” the emcee told us later. Problem was, a Japanese tourist thought his trophy was the real thing. He looked for his own name, a perplexed look on his face, while the emcee went on in fake Japanese. The poor man had trouble understanding English, let alone Aussie slang and humor.
But the best was yet to come. The contest for the Cane Toad Queen. The emcee selected five women to represent various countries. “And from Texas , from the bloody USA ,” roared the emcee, holding up Ret's arm, while the audience cheered and Ret curtsied. He then introduced the other contestants: young, long-legged, short-shorted types that appeared to be either on the make or on their honeymoon. Mark led the women to a dressing room in the back while the emcee cracked more jokes, hawked the bar's T-shirt: Good Girls Go to Heaven; Bad Girls go to Johno's ( and speculated to the audience about who might win the keys to the Holden (and yes, someone did win— only the keys, of course.)
The contestants were called out to the stage. The emcee had each of them swirl about as their names were called. Not wanting to cover their midriffs and perfectly tanned legs, the others had donned only hats and fake leis. But Ret had gone all out, scrounging through that bin of treasures back there. “I wanted to cover myself,” she told me later. She donned a huge hat, a leopard-print wrap, and two mismatched yellow and pink elbow-length dishwashing gloves. “And from Texas !” Ret swirled and dipped, raised her arms to show off her fashion gloves, and gave the audience a peek inside that humongous wrap. “Where did she learn all that?” I thought. “Certainly not back on the Wisconsin farm.” The audience laughed and cheered. Then each contestant was called again for a ‘cheer' vote. It was USA hands down. And my kid sister, Ret, was named The Cane Toad Queen . She'll never live it down.
Note: To understand the significance of this title and the importance of the cane toad in Queensland , read the accompanying story: Why Gamble on Cane Toads?