Funny the things you think of around Fathers Day. Kids, socket sets and drills, belts and socks, burnt toast and scrambled eggs, maybe a bottle of whiskey. All of which is terrific and I love the collection of coloured pasta cards and paintings I’ve been stashing away since the kindergarten years.
But, increasingly, I find myself thinking of tiger snakes and circuses, irrigation channels, drenching sheep, birds eggs, scoring at cricket, tennis practice against the garage door, haystacks, comic books, Viscount cigarettes … things I did with my old man when I was a kid. Maybe not the smokes.
The lion tamer we saw under the bigtop, the week before I started school, was immense but the earliest memory is probably on his knee in the back yard with Blackie. Poor mutt died to a bait. Raised above his six-two head, the world seemed a long way below. Watching him wield an axe in the woodheap was an awesome spectator sport for a three-year-old.
Farm life was frogs and caterpillars, cows and sheep, magpies and Joe Blakes, and lots more. Dad let us kids push him over the fence to be chased by bulls. Great joke. When a tiger snake snuck under the laundry’s wooden slats he introduced it to hot water. Under the house, he had his mate come round with a shotgun to clear it out.
He was fast bowler with the weirdest run-up I’ve seen. Kind of like Fred Flintstone’s twinkle-toes tenpin bowling run-up but deadly. Hat tricks, bowling averages, captained premiership teams, hit a century the day my brother was born — all of this after a sterling NSW schoolboy career in tennis, rugby and rowing with pennants and trophies all over the garage.
Drove me to distant farms — across rickety wooden bridges, up steep bush tracks — where he’d help some cockie with pasture irrigation, maybe a leaky dam, some soil advice. We weighed sheep, tagged them, drenched them. Roamed about strange plots called 12A or somesuch, checking pasture samples, digging boreholes, moving sheep from paddock to paddock. “Way back, Lassie! Way back!” we’d both bellow at the generally confused kelpie.
He’d disappear for days at a time for field days, to visit farms. Names like Elmore, Hamilton, Casterton, Warrnambool, Dookie, Numurkah, Rochester, Kyabram were familiar to me long before I ever knew where they were. He’s come home with all sorts of things — one time, chunks of green moss on a mission I requested. When the Melbourne Show was on, he’d work there with the Ag Department and bring home cowboy hats, Coles showbags, licorice galore, comics.
We’d visit the upstairs office where he’d check files and reports while I’d ransack the place for anything of value to a kid. Or I’d sneak into the nosebleed haystack next door to watch goings-on far below. One shed below served as a kind of general store with newspapers and stuff.
The old boy and I would put the milk bottles out at night, spread honey on hot bread when it arrived in the morning. In winter, we’d crack the ice on puddles, cut kindling and check paddocks for mushrooms. We’d pore over solar system planets on petrol station posters, Tarzan comics, books about Cro-Magnon hunters, Aladdin, Moby Dick.
He could pull the tablecloth off the table without breaking anything. We’d listen to The Seekers on an old timber stereo that also played his old 78s. “When whippoorwills call and evening is nigh ….”
Dad humming tunes from the 1940s carried us all the way up to the Mitta Valley to see his Dad, old Ned, of whom I was apparently the spitting image. He was his old man’s pride and joy: boarding scholarships all the way through St Pat’s at Goulburn and St John’s at Sydney Uni. Ferocious bloody school reports he collected.
Milking cows, a spot of shooting, chasing turkeys, kero heaters, fire-driven fridges, drying clothes in the oven, the Angelus and old photos were the order of the day at The Mitta. And stories about floods, farms, mountain funerals, Banimboola, Tallangatta, Yackandandah, Wagga Wagga, families — Duncans, Carmodies, Larkins, Finns. Must get back there.
I was Dad’s first kid, he fathered seven of us, so he was pretty happy when my first kid came along on his birthday. Sixty-six years later, mind you. Was going to call the bub James, too. After him.
She’s pretty happy we didn’t.