Memories of Connor's Adventures

Orlando the Adventurer pulled a Scimitar from beneath his Robes and smiled...

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Something from the past: my dads unfinished book

Can we blame it on the Mangos?
By Francis Meaney
Chapter 1: The first signs
Chapter 2: Returning Home
Chapter 3: Home at Last
Chapter 4: The mad Games
Chapter 5: Strange Work Practices
Chapter 6: Strange Happenings
Chapter 7: Growing Up
Chapter 1: The first signs
I was born in 1940 in the town of Katherine in the NT, the younger of two sons, to a bush couple. We moved to Darwin in 1941 and had to move out in 1942 when the Japanese were getting to close. I don’t remember much to this time but my mother insisted that the madness had already begun.
The first thing I can actually recall must have been a war propaganda newsreel which showed men charging up to the top of a hill where they were sprayed with poison gas by men sitting around a large tank. This show was at a cinema in Adelaide.
We then moved to Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills where we lived in a small farm house. It was in the district where I recall the first acts of madness.
My brother, older by 14 months, and I were each given a four wheel cart of fairly solid construction which was meant to be pulled along by a T handle that steered the front wheels. The handle could also be folded back and the cart steered by someone sitting in the tray. However, no brakes were fitted and rapid downhill rides were not recommended. This didn’t deter us so we trotted up the hill track which was a bit rough because it was used by the farm’s dairy cows. These cows were a bit curious of two short lads and their little red carts but they never bothered us on our way up. At the top we turned the carts around set the handles back, climbed in and gave a little shove off which started us down the hill at rapidly increasing speeds. This rough and rapid ride was accompanied by loud yells which besides adding to the thrill were necessary to warn the cows still standing on the track and gave them time to shift. It was during these rides that I noticed that some cows were either very slow thinkers or somewhat suicidal.
If we fell off in the rough spots or while dodging cows we simply mounted up again to continue the ride until we reached the dip at the bottom where we turned around and trudged up the hill again for a repeat performance. This continued until we were either called home or our young legs became too tired for the uphill trek.
For some unknown reason the numerous falls didn’t cause any serious damage or great pain.
We had no fear of animals or any of the creatures in the bush around this farm where we lived. We were however a little ignorant of some of the objects we found on our wanderings. One of these was a number of white square boxes sitting around in groups often stacked three or four high. Small creatures flew in and out of racks at the bottom of these boxes and when one bent down to look in the crack these creatures could be seen wandering around inside. My most vivid memory of these creatures was that when a small stick was poked in this crack they became very agitated and I had to flee rapidly down the hill yelling loudly at a large number of stings while my brother, who didn’t get one sting, ran along side me flogging at these creatures with his hat. I suppose it was because we were away from mango country and the madness was paling, but we were not mad enough to try this again.
Chapter 2: Returning home
During this time spent in the Adelaide hills with our mother we had an occasional visit from our father who on rare occasions was given leave to come from the territory where he was employed by the Allied Workers Council, mainly stringing telephone lines around and between army camps of the various defense forces stationed there.
In March of 1945 when the war front had moved well north we were given permission to return as far as Katherine where we were to remain for eight months.
We lived in a Sydney Williams hut on the main street of Katherine which was also the Stuart Highway. A Sydney Williams Hut was a steel frame building clad in corrugated iron. The windows were shutters of similar construction and this hut later became part of the Petersons Café of the Sixties.
It was during these months that the madness started to return as we wandered around the town and some abandoned army areas which included slit trenches some of which were only occupied by centipedes and scorpions. Mother was very upset when we brought them home sitting on short lengths of stick. To avoid contact, which probably saved us from being bitter, we simply changed grip from one end to the other as these acquisitions approached the hand. We were forced to cease this fauna collection when threatened with dire consequences.
Our toilet at this home was a small hut down the back where a wooden seat sat on a frame above a hole some four feet square and ten feet deep. These toilets were known as flaming furies because they were burnt out every Saturday by the process of dropping down some paper, wood and kerosene mixed with petrol.
The ensuing fire killed off any wildlife and created a great stench. All this was done in the name of hygiene and probably worked to some degree.
Down the street a few houses lived a lad a couple years older who we referred to as odd ball. This young lad had a very large cat of which he was rather proud. I don’t know why because this cat was completely devoid of toilet training and used to urinate all over our toilet seat.
When we complained to “odd ball” and his parents they were unimpressed and thought it a great joke.
One day after returning from school I entered the toilet to find the cat squirting all over the seat so I belted him on the ear with my fist which made him very excited and he fell down the hole into the mess below. I didn’t want him to drown so I dropped down a large board which was part of the toilet firewood. The cat dragged himself up onto this board and sat there looking very unhappy. When dad came home I told him what happened so he went out back to investigate. The cat was still floating on the board so dad said he had to be removed from the toilet before someone needed to use it. Dad had some long saplings in the back yard, which he had collected to make a shade house. The saplings still had the bark on so dad decided the cat would be able to climb one. It was a bit difficult to navigate a long pole into the toilet dunny and down the hole but we managed to get one end pointed near the cat. The cat not liking his precarious position raced up the pole and bolted for the home where he headed straight for his usual sleeping spot which was “Odd Balls” bed, leaving a rather messy trail.
Most of the family was obviously happy to see him, because the yells could be heard all the way up the street. I thought they were yells of greeting and joy but dad insisted that a lot of it was profanity. I can’t understand why this should be as the family, up to this time, had regarded the cats strange antics as a great joke.
Chapter 3: Home at last
In November of 1945 we were allowed to return to Darwin where we settled back on our block at Fannie Bay. The house had been damaged by vandals during the war but a couple of sheds had been erected on the block. The previous track from the Stuart Highway had been replaced by a huge airfield complex with camouflaged parking bays and bitumen taxiways which were to become the roads for a future subdivision.
We lived in one of the sheds while we rebuilt the house, moving it to new foundations to line up with the new road alignment and our father, who picked up some plumbing skills during the war years, constructed a septic toilet with its own tank and over flow drain. It was constructed on one end of the shed in which we lived as dad still believed that toilets should be down the back yard.
Much of the building material was scrounged from army camps and tips but it was good material as huge dumps of building supplies were just abandoned as the war had moved on. At first we had to carry water but eventually enough water pipe was scrounged to access water from a pipe line about a mile from the house. A trench was excavated by an obliging grader driver, so we soon had all modern conveniences.
The block was an acre and a half so there was plenty of room for mother to start a large vegetable garden and get in some chooks and ducks so we lived very well.
The schools had reopened in 1946, St Mary’s Convent first and later the public school. The authorities who were mostly public servants from south under the control of the Commonwealth must have had an idea right from the start that we were all mad because the buses were large semi-trailers with a canvas covered arc mesh cage completely covering the trailer. There were four bench seats the full length of the trailer, two in the centre, back to back, facing outwards and two at the outer wall facing inwards. There were no windows or ventilation except the occasional tears in the canvas and only done door at the rear. With about eighty kids of numerous ethnic backgrounds from two opposing schools rides to and from school were often hot and rather hectic affairs while the driver in the cab of his prime mover was completely oblivious of any commotion.
It was during these formative years we also discovered that the gunpowder and cordite extracted from the thousands of .303 caliber and .50 caliber cartridges which littered the area could be stuffed into bottles and cans with a length of fuse through a waxed hole in the cork or can lid and was capable of demolishing some fairly large trees and mud banks in the tidal creek which was about half a mile from the back fence.
When I look back on these experiments I sometimes wonder how we not only survived but failed to incur any injuries. Probably only good luck as I can remember being passed by some large pieces of wood at different times.
I suppose it was because of all the building going on around us that we developed an interest in constructing a tree house so brother John, myself and three friends Pete, Vic and Ron selected a suitable tree, hunted up some tools and gathered together an adequate supply of timber. We nailed some pieces of timber to pass for a ladder up the trunk to the first fork where we started to build a rather substantial platform with an idea of adding a canvas covered frame for a roof. When the platform was complete and four of us were beginning to construct the roof, John decided that instead of the wooden steps, he would cut some steps into the trunk. We were so busy working we didn’t take much notice of the chopping as we knew he would need to cut about 15 steps. John however got a little carried away on the first step. This came to our attention when we all had to leap madly away from our toppling castle to the ground where we ended up a little bruised and battered. John was soundly abused for his lack of structural knowledge and plain stupidity. He was also not invited to the opening of our next tree house.
Chapter 4: The Mad Games
As the years progressed and we ate more mangoes our sources of enjoyment became more hectic and we invented several games which were said by some to be grossly dangerous. The first of these was push bike polo which was played with hockey sticks and a ball while riding a bike. The games were played very vigorously and at great speed so collisions and falls were not unusual. As we played on the bitumen surface of the Fannie Bay airstrip, which is now Ross Smith Avenue, any fall usually created severe gravel rash.
The favorite game in the wet season was wave bombing, where at times of very high tide and rough seas we would jump from the cliff into the tops of the waves. It was usually a grim struggle to regain a climbable portion of the cliff and climb to the top for a return bout. Strangely enough no one was ever drowned, injured or stung by sea wasps.
Our greatest place of entertainment was the observation tower at East Point army area. This was a huge steel structure in excess of two hundred and fifty feet high with a platform about thirty-foot square at the top. An elevator which we couldn’t work and a steel ladder went up to the top where several small huts with old beds were located in the upper middle section.
Several of us lads used to sneak through the bush surrounding this tower, check that the army were absent and climb up the steps to the huts where we would sleep, read and play war games all the time keeping any eye out for the army who seemed to regard it as there private property. We were only ever sprung one time but there was no possible way that five army types wearing large boots could catch young agile barefooted boys swinging around this steel structure and sliding down the angle braces on the way to the bottom. During all of our visits we were careful not to wreck anything so we were never really unwelcome.
The first Darwin show was held at Winnellie on the opposite side of the Stuart highway to the present show ground. However by 1955 it was established in its present locality. We boys rode our bikes to the show, from town, Fannie Bay and Parap. On the way to the 1955 show John and I rode from Fannie Bay to the highway to meet at Vic and Pete’s place and waited for two other boys who rode from in town. The six of us then headed out towards the show grounds battling against a very stiff head wind. At about where the Winnellie Post office is now an old ex army truck passed us carrying a very long tree trunk hanging well out the back. Five of us hung onto the right side of the truck while dear brother John hung on the left. When the truck reached the show ground and turned right into the show ground the end of this tree trunk accelerated rapidly in an arc around the corner. The five of us on the right side simply let go while John, on the left side, had to hand on or get knocked over. When the pole reached the end of the arc he was catapulted at some speed up the road into the bush where he came to rest with a number of bruises and scratches together with a completely demolished front wheel.
During these formative years we also learnt what, is now an unhealthy disregard for crocodiles. Two old codgers, Bert and Alex, who were friends of dads invited John and I out to their fishing camp at Gunn Point during Christmas School Holidays. There weren’t too many fishing laws then so their method was to approach one of the large salt water tidal channels close to the mouth and string a large net completely across the stream. They then proceeded to a point a couple of miles up the stream where they used a second net and proceeded down stream dragging this net constantly through all the deep holes on the way. They had as crew several aboriginals to help them with the nets. These nets were fixed with a long pole at each end which enabled one end to be held near the bank while all hands swam with the other end and in several places along the way tugging and pulling the net in a huge arc to land further down stream at which time the complete net was pulled ashore and the fish were removed.
Numerous crocodiles were also dragged ashore with out any fuss except warnings to be careful of those above six foot long. They were released immediately back into the river and as no one was ever bitten we regarded them as harmless. This is an opinion which is no longer prevalent but at the time Bert and Alex and their aboriginal crew seemed to think it a great game to unroll these crocodiles from the net and hang onto their tails to be pulled down the muddy banks into the water as the crocodiles retreated back into the river.
Chapter 5: Strange Work Practices
When I was about fourteen mothers brother, Max returned to the Territory. He had enlisted in the army until wars end when he returned to Sydney where he had a small quarry business for a few years. I guess it was too cold and to closely settled, down there for him so he returned to Stapleton with his new wife and young daughter. Grandfather Sergeant and Aunt Winn were still on Stapleton but Max wanted a place of his own so he bought a block on Coomalie Creek just north of the present Batchelor road. He proceeded to build a small hut and a set of stock yards there with the intention of setting up a home. It was a fairly low piece of ground so the hut was a fair way from the creek to avoid the wet season flooding. Because water was required Max decided to dig a well on some low ground not far from the hut. This was about eight foot square and was hoped not to be more than about twenty feet deep. It was all crow-bar, pick and shovel work. I spent most of a school holiday period with Max working on this project.
We were both fairly tough in those days so the hole progressed steadily downward until about twelve feet where we hit some rock which was too hard to be removed with bar and shovel. Max decided we would need some dynamite so we took a day off to go to town where he purchased a case of jelly, some detonators and about half enough fuse, as there was a shortage in town.
Back in the well the next day we drilled holes for the charges by the time honored method of hammer and hand held drill. The charges were prepared, placed in the holes and tamped with sand. When Max told me to wait at the top while he lit the fuses. He lit all five fuses and had started up the make shift ladder when it collapsed into the bottom of the hole. I hurriedly dived over to a nearby tree where a long handle shovel was leaning, trotted back to the hole and passed one end of the handle down to Max and dragged him out of the hole. It was a bit close but his four hired aborigines thought it great fun and a relief from horse breaking to see two crazy whites yelling and laughing in rapid retreat up country while being bombarded by rocks and pieces of clay until we reached a huge shade tree where we collapsed in a laughing heap.
Max then decided it was time for a change from well digging and we should get back to some more traditional stock work. As he was short of money he decided that the best way to build up the horse herd was to muster some brumbies from the surrounding bush and break them in.
We set out at daylight. Max, his four regular aboriginals, two extras hired for the occasion and my job was driving about a dozen quiet horses as coachers. The spear grass was fairly high but not headed out so despite being very hot the ride wasn’t really uncomfortable. I had never ridden before so I plodded along with the coachers while Max and his four regulars rode away for periods to return, usually at a great pace driving mobs of wild brumbies. When we had about fifty head of extras it was becoming difficult to handle them so we headed for home in a somewhat erratic manner.
About a mile from the gate Max sent one of his new hands down with instructions to open the gate and hide from the incoming horses but not to let any of the half broken horses in the paddock come out. I don’t know whether he went to sleep or forgot which was in or out but as the horses approached he leapt out shouting and waving his arms. This action caused a large explosion and fifty wild horses left in fifty different directions. With much effort and some wild riding we gathered the quiet horses and about twenty extras into the paddock where Max proceeded to jump on his hat while discussing the new recruits lack of use and improper parentage. That night the new recruit received a flogging from the regulars for telling them lies about his vast experience and being the cause of extra hard work together with losing some nice looking horses.
Next morning we looked in the well to discover that we had broken through the rock and the well was making water. All hands were recruited to dig out another few feet and the well began to make good water so some things turned out reasonably well. Max now had a water supply closer to the hut and the beginnings of a horse plant.
Chapter 6: Strange Happenings
During these years of growing up in and around Darwin there were some occasions when interesting variations to regular life gave us a taste of war and what was probably gun running.
On one occasion we were coming home from school in one of the old monkey cage buses, driving down Fannie Bay airstrip (Ross Smith Avenue) when the bus was pulled over to the side by the police to enable a flight of five mosquito bombers to land. They taxied up to the old DCA Hanger (Ross Smith Hostel Area) to refuel and were gone the next day.
Another strange happening was the time when John, myself, and two friends Vic. And Pete were playing in the triangle of jungle bordered by East Point Road, Bay view Street and Georges Crescent when we came across a pile of about 20 boxes of canvas belted .303 ammunition, carton .303 ammo and metal belted .50 caliber ammo.
When we came back the next day to show our dad, it was all gone including some odd bullets we had removed from the crates and hidden some distance away. We never thought of it at the time but it was probably stolen and being transshipped to someone else’s war.
On the edge of the mangroves bordering Race Course Creek a great quantity of army supplies had been half buried. We scrounged around with shovels and dug up copious quantities of tinned food still in the crates and mostly undamaged. We took much of this food home to eat but we also gave a great deal to a camp of Aborigines who were camped in the bush about where the Council has proposed to put East Point Lake. They were very happy with the tinned meat, fruit, stew and army biscuits and over the years gave us crabs and fish in exchange.
We also found two flare pistols in greased wrapping together with about one hundred usable flares of different colors. The first “Guy Falk’s” night I can remember consisted of the family and some friends standing around a large bonfire while the men fired all the different colored flares up into the sky.
On a trip to Shoal Bay when I was about fourteen with one of my mates who was seventeen and driving his dads Ute, we found a Bren gun still in its “tropic Pack” greased wrapping, along side in a separate wrapper was one lone magazine. We kept this gun a secret for about two years while we scrounged ammunition of which there were vast quantities laying around. We took it out bush for weekends where we played havoc shooting hillsides, Ant hills, trees, and the occasional wallabies which we cooked and ate. We even tried it on the geese without a great deal of success. We probably fired about five thousand rounds before it packed up at which time we consigned it to a deep hole in the saltwater Howard River.
Speaking of ammunition brings to mind in 1955 while Max was building at Meneling Station we were in his old Bedford truck picking up old sheets of iron and some stray fence pickets at some abandoned army camps north of the Batchelor road turnoff when one of the crew who was riding on the back spotted a 44 gallon drum bin in a clump of grass. This was a 44 gallon drum which had a completely removable top held in with a clamp and were often used for storage.
When we tried to load it on the truck we discovered it to be completely full of loose .303 cartridges. This supply kept Max and some others going for several years. These abandoned military camps were a much needed source of cheap building materials for many needy people who were battling to make a go of it in the Territory.
CHAPTER 7: Growing Up
By the mid 1950’s Darwin was extending to the suburb of Fannie Bay where the old airstrip became Ross Smith Avenue while some of the taxiways became roads such as Georges Crescent and Phillip Street. More families moved in, the schools enlarged and wonder of wonders, we even got proper buses for travel to and from school.
A number of us lads from Fannie Bay had acquired bikes by this time so during the dry season we often cycled the five kilometers to school. Coming home was a race to get to the Wood and Daly Street corner where we would hurry to get in behind the bus where the “vacuum” caused by the bus was a great help in a fast trip home. It also meant traveling very close behind the bus to stay in this “vacuum” which may have been dangerous in the event of emergency stops by the bus. However, once again, we all managed to survive undamaged.
By this time some of the older lads had acquired motor bikes and cars so we began to travel further field while entertainment expanded to such activities as motor bike racing which became well organized and included a number of prominent Darwin businessmen, car racing which remained somewhat private and sand sledding which remained the private activity of about six of us boys and our girl friends.
Many of the middle aged people would remember the two motor bike tracks, one at Rapid Creek and one at Tiwi which of course were only bush areas in those days as Nightcliff consisted of an old ex army camp where people had moved in and one private residence on the banks of Rapid Creek owned by a Truck fleet owner.
One of these race tracks was called the drums course as it wound its way through a number of empty tar drums left behind by the road markers who also used both areas as gravel pits. Anyone who is living in parts of Rapid Creek and Tiwi who is trying to grow his lawn without soil my rest easy in the thought that, his entire block, down to bed rock probably ended up in the streets of Darwin.
While motor bike racing had its dangers the sand sledding was a very different game. We began the game when an FX Holden was burnt near where Casuarina Lions Park is now. We removed the engine bonnet from the wreck and one lad, driving his dad’s jeep, towed it, upside down along the beach while others rode in it. The friction of the sand made it very hot so we then used Hessian bags as seating to prevent burns to the posterior or knees depending on how the passenger was riding at the time.
Traveling along the sand behind a zigzagging jeep, up and down dips and washes was great fun but the ultimate thrill was when the tide coming in sometimes formed on the sand a concave arc of shallow water. With the jeep traveling at about 40 mph on the sand around the inside of the arc the sled would skim around on the film of water on the outside and actually, while still attached with about sixty feet of rope, ride out in front of the jeep until the end of the water arc was reached where the bonnet hit the sand and slowed rather abruptly, sometimes with loss of passengers. I enjoyed many a ride on this and many other bonnets with a mad girlfriend of Scottish origin, I had at the time.
I might add that one of these mad driver come bonnet riders is now in charge of one of a local government buses. I suppose he got the job with ease due to this early high quality, prevocational training.
I should add a word of warning that anyone wishing to indulge in this sport should have second thoughts, give it a miss, use only the best quality Morris Oxford bonnets, plenty of bags and leave a short length of rope inside the bonnet to hang on to. I would also recommend you replace the bonnet immediately holes begin to appear in the floor as this can lead to a dangerous peeling effect, not only of the floor but also clothing and skin.
Of course a couple called Tom and Peggy had a very close call as they were kneeling one behind the other on the bonnet when it passed over the remains of a steel picket (remains of wartime barbed wire entanglements) which split the car bonnet almost in two and probably would have done the same to the passengers if they had been sitting. After this incident we became very watchful of these rusted off pickets. I reckon Tom spoke soprano for a week just thinking about it.

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