Tuesday, 27 August 2013

All the Eights Pt 1

I'm hoping to do a series of seven pieces about my life, with a snapshot of the situation every decade.  Here's the first instalment :


In 1953, sixty years ago as I write, I was eight years old. My youngest brother, Alan, was twelve months old.  Lester would turn three during the year, Peter seven, and my older brother John would turn ten.

We lived at 97 Owen Street in Woodville North, a north-western suburb of Adelaide. My Mum and Dad, Connie and Ron, had lived there for ten years since the house (in fact, the whole suburb) was built during World War II.

Our house was on the south-eastern corner of Owen Street and Thirteenth Avenue.  Google Maps and Streetview demonstrate (2013) that the house still exists, as do quite a few of the fibro-clad and tile-roofed clones that were its neighbours. The houses were built for people employed in the munitions factory at nearby Finsbury, where Dad worked as an engineer.

In 1953, the yard of our house had a chook run, fruit trees and a vegetable garden. Obviously, my desire to produce eggs, vegetables and fruit in my backyard stems from this period and I like to think that Dad picked up the motivation from his own childhood in Kalgoorlie, WA.

We had large lemon and fig trees along the side fence, and in the back yard there were apple, peach and apricot that I remember. A large stand of bamboo stood next to a garden shed by the chookyard fence.

Perhaps when I was a year or so older than this, we boys adopted the pastime of climbing onto the shed roof, reaching high to grab a couple of bamboos and then swinging out to the ground using the bending bamboo poles as a "parachute" to come back to earth.  We probably would have argued about who was playing the roles of Biggles, Algy and Ginger, the famous flying police from the kids' radio serial, as we leapt from our burning plane just before it broke up. Dad would not have been impressed by the wanton damage to bamboos which could be used for bean or tomato trellises.

We had jobs to do, of course, and both parents were strict about them, but we could find entertainment in obscure places. In the garden shed, Dad built wooden bins to hold the chook feed, one for wheat and one for bran and pollard, each similar in volume to, but not as tall as, 200 litre drums.  One of my jobs was to mix bran and pollard (look it up!) with water and feed it to the chooks each morning, along with some wheat; in the afternoons, change their water, another dose of wheat, and collect the eggs. It was also fun, during games of "hidey", to dive into the wheat bin as if the grains of wheat were water and hide with just my head exposed above the wheat and the lid closed over me! It was probably also scary, and this the reason I remember it!

I can't remember if we had a rooster but we certainly had chickens at least once. One day I stayed home from school because one of our chickens, a few days old, was sick, and I wanted to look after it. The chick must have been almost dead, looking for a bucket to kick, when Mum, as a last resort, got a teaspoon of brandy and held it so the chicken had no choice but to immerse its beak in the brandy. Upon which, the poor thing flopped over and died—it looked to me as if the brandy had killed it, and Mum must have done some fast, soothing talking to comfort me.

Believe it or not, another job, on the weekend when Dad was home, was to sit on the back lawn and pull out onion weed. Dad had a thing about lawn perfection and ours had a long way to go. The lawn mower pushed the tops of onion weed over rather than slice them off, so we had to sit there and pull out the weeds one by one, being careful not to leave behind the bulbs which would only proliferate. On a sunny day, with the desire to be leaping about and otherwise playing boisterously, sitting on a patch of onion weed for an hour was like being locked in a cell. I'm not complaining, just saying!

Talking about jobs and strict parents, I was drying the dishes once and complaining bitterly and at great length, possibly because it was John's turn and he was doing homework; when Mum had heard enough of my nonsense she wacked me on the head with a handful of sudsy spoons—the injustice as much as the pain made me howl. Dad entered the fray, disturbed from reading his paper in the lounge room, and I expected him to support the aggrieved party, but of course he gave me a verbal lashing and I had to just keep drying.

Our playground extended way beyond the backyard as we got older.  There was really no traffic and we could wander freely. There was a park on Thirteenth Avenue with a playground about a hundred metres from our house.  In the playground was what I would call a plank swing (I haven't seen or heard of one since). It isn't easy to describe so here's a picture of one from the internet (proving that they did exist!)

The one in Thirteenth Avenue was smaller but essentially the same design, the main features being the swinging plank and the safety rails around it.  You can see why they no longer exist.  It was easy for young kids on the ground to lose concentration and be belted in the back, or back of the head, by the plank. Accidents were common.

We played for hours at a time on the plank swing. Often it was a ship with the ground being the sea; we were sailors or pirates, having great fun climbing the rigging, walking the plank and running around the decks (on the safety rails!) to avoid being caught by the enemy. Leaping from the safety rails or dropping from the superstructure onto the wildly swinging plank were especially daring moves and often ended in tears!

There were another ten or so kids living in the immediate surroundings and often many of us would get together. We had several places away from parents' eyes. Across Owen Street, further down, there was a vacant paddock (possibly a buffer zone between the houses and the factories) with the remains of a cellar in it, all that was left of a house from earlier times. The cellar, about the size of a large room with no roof, was too deep to jump into, but we cut steps into the vertical clay sides to gain access and then spent long periods, unseen by any adults passing by on the nearby footpath, digging nooks and cupboards in the walls to hide our treasures, helping ourselves to the stacks of packing cases that were abandoned in the long grass of the urban paddock, and constructing elaborate games about gangs of diamond thieves and other scenarios with plenty of scope for drama.

Across the road from our house, the Nesbitts had a large block with a huge shed from which they ran a trucking business. We sometimes played in the grease and oil of the shed and its maintenance pit. But the best feature was a mezzanine floor filled with stacks of tyres, a great place to play hidey—up there under the roof, with towers and cubbies of tyres, it was mysterious and dark, a challenge just to get up there, and I have a vague recollection of rats or mice. The aftermath was usually big trouble for coming home with black clothes, hands and faces, looking like mechanics after a twelve-hour shift.

Another of our pastimes (at least for a brief period) was to play practical jokes. I suspect now that Dad told us about doing these things when he was a kid and we had to try them. We had a rosemary hedge along the low, side fence of the front yard—the hedge was cover enough to hide us from passers-by on the footpath. We'd hide in the hedge with a brick until someone came past. As the unsuspecting victim passed our hiding place, we'd drop a coin on the brick. The perplexed pedestrian then spent time searching for the coin and wondering how it could have been dropped, until our giggles revealed us and we were yelled at, as invariably happened.

Another time we filled one of Dad's used tobacco pouches with grass and left it in the middle of the road while we hid behind the hedge to await developments. We missed the denouement, however, because a car driver passed it, slammed on the brakes, backed up, slammed on the brakes again, picked up the "tobacco" by leaning out without getting out of the car, and then drove off! We were left wondering how the driver would react to the disappointment, after expending all that effort, and decided against repeating the experiment.

*    *    *    *    *

Sixty years ago, we made our own fun—there were no televisions or computers. (Our house had a wood stove, wood heater for warmth, hot water in the laundry and bathroom, and a wringer and copper.) The only electrical goods were a refrigerator and radios.

We had a console radio in the lounge, with a large speaker I could put my ear against, sitting on the floor in front of it. During the week, we listened every afternoon to the ABC children's session, which included the Argonauts' Club (although we were passive participants), and to various serials, including "Biggles", my favourite, with its introduction of the old rotary aero engine starting up, the engine rising to full throttle, and then the voice-over "The air adventures of Biggles…".

But we must have had a mantle radio in the kitchen as well, because I can remember listening to music there. We had no dining room. The dining table was in the kitchen, along the wall separating it from the lounge room and entrance. The sink was on the opposite, outside wall, and the wood stove with its chimney, and fridge, were on the end, front wall. It was a small room and I have no idea how seven of us, one in a high chair, could have enjoyed meals there in 1953, but we did.

I think the table was pushed against the wall between meals. At any rate, I can remember sitting at the table, facing the wall, while shelling peas for the Sunday roast, and listening to that mantle radio. It was the music, I am sure, which is the main character in this memory. There were no frozen peas then and it was a regular Sunday job to sit at the table with a colander of pea pods, a saucepan for the finished product and newspaper sheets to collect the empty pods. I became adept at splitting the pods with my fingernail and then shovelling the peas out of the pod with my thumb into the saucepan.

As an aside, the Sunday roast was often a leg of lamb, which in those days included the lower leg with the wonderfully crisp bits on the bone, and of course the "knucklebone" which I suppose was part of the knee joint and collected by us kids to use in the game of knucklebones, before you could buy plastic "knuckles" in the shops. When we had roast beef we also had Yorkshire pudding, a delicacy which I haven't tasted since those days (it also made the meat go further and becomes redundant in times of plenty), and it was during this time that I learnt to make proper gravy, and this became my job from an early age.

The process of shelling peas was made enjoyable by the accompaniment of mid-day Sunday radio. My recollection is that the ABC had a program of listener requests and the fare was eclectic by ABC standards. The music ranged from light classical (not exceeding four minutes?) to country music. I'm guessing a little bit but I imagine the Blue Danube Waltz or Flight of the Bumblebee interspersed with Mario Lanza, Bing Crosby and Frankie Laine.

An unwavering memory is that I heard Slim Dusty's Rusty It's Goodbye at this time, and Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, presumably sung by Hank Williams. There was also Tex Morton, and another song that we heard over and over (every week?) was Bing Crosby's When the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day). I have a vague feeling that Rusty It's Goodbye ("By a lonely railway station…") gave me my first intimation of the ramifications of death.

I think when I was eight that I was taken in by novelty songs or lyrics with a gimmick, easy to remember and join in. Songs that date from this time, of which I still know every word of the lyrics, include (How much is that) Doggie in the Window, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, Heart of My Heart and so on.

*    *    *    *    *

At school, I was in grade three, my final year in the infant section of the school before moving into the primary school in grade four. School subjects had a simplicity that reflected our uncomplicated life. We did arithmetic, not maths; English was compartmentalised into composition, spelling, dictation and  writing (hand-writing was a subject!); other subjects were nature study, music, art and craft.

In grade three spelling we learnt homophones like there and their; then in dictation the teacher would dictate a sentence containing a homophone and we had to write it correctly using the context to correctly spell the homophone.  I was reasonably good at exercises that relied mostly on memory such as dictation and times tables.

In nature study, I remember keeping silkworms in a box in the classroom. They were fed exclusively on mulberry leaves, and after hatching from black eggs the size of pinheads, they grew into black-headed light-grey caterpillars the size of a grade three kid's little finger; they then spun yellow cocoons of silk around themselves. We later had our own silkworms at home and we unravelled the cocoons after soaking them in water and produced little skeins of yellow silk. I can remember some of these pressed between the pages of the dictionary for some time after.

We learnt, in art/craft, how to do "tomboy" stitch, or french knitting, using a wooden cotton reel with four nails fixed in one end around the hole. This produced four stitches in a circle, creating a long tube of knitting which could be glued in a spiral onto a cardboard circle to make a table mat!

In those days, children were supplied with milk at morning recess, and it was a coup to be chosen as milk monitor—to be trusted, to assume importance, and to get out of the last stages of the lesson—to collect the crate of milk bottles and distribute them in the porch. The bottles were miniature milk bottles, one third of a pint, with an aluminium foil cap. We had a game of removing the cap without damaging it (not easy) and then making it fly by holding the cap by the edge against the palm with the other forefinger—with a flick of the forefinger, the bottle cap could be made to spin and glide away like a flying saucer. Contests for longevity and distance of flight were held—one of the few physical activities where I didn't feel inferior.

Music in grade three was provided by the ABC schools' broadcasts and the loudspeaker above the blackboard. Let's Join In started about this time and I can still remember how we were taught to sing songs by imitation and repetition. One of the earliest songs I have a memory of learning is O Susannah ("I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee…"). In the next few years, I went on to sing in the school choir—we practised at lunch time and then sang in a massed schools' choir of maybe a thousand voices at the Woodville Town Hall—and play in the fife band. I learnt to play Men of Harlech on the fife, a tune that means nothing otherwise, but every note is still in the brain.

Every Monday morning we had a school assembly at which we saluted the flag and promised to obey our queen, and then marched inside to the sounds of the fifes and drums of the school band. As an aside, it turns out that our current national flag only became official in 1953, not a long tradition! And speaking of our queen, she was crowned (coronated?) in 1953 and we students were presented at a school assembly with a medallion about the size of a twenty cent piece and a ribbon, to mark the occasion. Special Australian stamps were printed, which I remember, but I had to look it up to find that the common red one was worth 3½d (pronounced "thruppence haypenny"), about two cents.

The "television" of 1953 was provided at school by "strip films". Sometimes we would be ushered into a darkened classroom to watch what was basically a slide show. It might be a geography lesson about the Egyptian pyramids, shown as black and white stills on a portable screen. However, the photos were on a continuous roll of 35mm film which could be rolled through a projector. The rolls of film, about the size of cotton reels, were kept in little metal canisters and the school had scores of them.

*    *    *    *    *

1953 was a big year for us because Mum and Dad bought a car, the first car they'd owned. It was a brand-new pale-green Ford Consul, made in England. Dad had been working for APAC at Finsbury, which evolved from the munitions factory, but in 1953 he became production engineer, and later production manager, of the white-goods manufacturer Kelvinator in Keswick. The car came with the new status.

 Family photo, me on the left, taken in 1955 at Belair National Park
We all loved the fact that the whole family could get out and do things.  I'm sure Mum loved to get out of the house. In those days, the car was liberating. We went for many "Sunday drives" and picnics to places like Golden Grove, Ti Tree Gully and Chain of Ponds. (Many of these places are now wall-to-wall suburbs). Often we would just pull off a deserted back road under a couple of gum trees and have a picnic—Mum and Dad on the rug, while five boys went silly playing hidey, chasey, end-to-end footy or cricket on the road and round the trees. Sometimes we would climb a fence and collect mushrooms.

Once I tore a strip of bark off a tree at Golden Grove and was bitten on the finger by a spider. Of course we kids knew enough to know that I was about to die, but Dad came to the rescue by nicking my finger with his pocket knife and sucking out the "poison".

We started going to the drive-in movies, the five boys all in our pyjamas. There was a drive-in on Grand Junction Road, on the south side just east of Hanson Road. We saw Alan Ladd in Shane, and another western hero was Rory Calhoun with his black, curly hair.

We also went to the Kilkenny and Croydon cinemas, also in pyjamas, but it may have been a couple of years later—I can distinctly remember the sleeping Lester and Alan being bundled back into the car with dew on the windows and lots of shivering. I have no idea if the movies were worth it!

For a time, we went to the Central Market (or East End?), where Mum and Dad would do a week's shopping on a Friday evening, while five boys in pyjamas played "I Spy" in the car, on our best behaviour, waiting for an ice-cream or chocolates (or did we already have sweets to last us an hour, like contented lambs with tails swinging?).

*    *    *    *    *

I went to Ridley Grove school until the end of 1957. I think in the final exams I finished in the top three in the school, and then went on to spend two years at Woodville High School. At the end of the decade we moved to Glenelg.

*    *    *    *    *

Coming next... 1963. 

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