Living at home as a child
When I was very young, from about 2½ years old onwards, I used to love going out on the farm with Dad and my uncle Stan after lunch. They would often take me out as they were droving sheep, or collecting hay. There were, however, times when they either didn’t want to or felt that it was unsafe, so they would sneak off after lunch before I found out. When I did find out, I used to run outside after them and then throw myself onto the ground, burst into tears, crying “Daddy gone! Daddy gone!” Mum tells me that the only way she could placate me was with a chocolate frog.
We had a big car which had big tail fins. It was a 1952 Fordomatic. I think it was one of the earlier automatic cars to be brought into Australia and it was my father’s pride and joy. When I was 4 years old, I was sitting in the front seat of the car and discovered the cigarette lighter. I found that you could push it in and you could pull it right out. I pushed it in, waited for a few seconds and then pulled it right out and put it on the tip of my tongue. Those few seconds were enough to heat it up somewhat and the pain and screeching that ensued when I placed it on my tongue brought my mother running outside to find out what was happening. Suffice to say, I never did that again.
We didn’t have electricity at home until I was 7 years old. We had a small green wooden shed about 10 metres from the house which contained an old Cooper one-cylinder petrol engine. It had a large flywheel on the front, about 40cm in diameter, with a metal groove in the middle to insert the starting rod. On one side of it was a copper cooling tank which held about 20 gallons of water to cool the engine. On the other side was a small 32 volt light generator which was driven by a pulley belt. From the shed to the house was a power cable to supply a couple of light globes – one in the kitchen and one in the hallway. Every evening about 6pm, my father would start up the engine so that Mum could prepare tea by electrical light, instead of always using hurricane lamps. The engine would pop, pop, pop away into the night, its sound ringing out across the open paddocks, until it was time to go to bed, at which point Dad would shut it down for the night.
We had a kerosene fridge which smelt all the time, a carpet sweeper, the hot water was heated by the slow combustion stove and a kerosene copper to wash clothes in.
We finally got electricity in 1968 and I think Mum thought that all of her Christmases had come at once. We bought a new fridge, washing machine, clothes dryer, vacuum cleaner, stereo system and a black and white television. We bought a mix-master, a toaster, electric frying pan, a fan and other small appliances. It was wonderful. We could only receive two channels on the television – BTV6, which came from Ballarat and the ABC. It changed our eating habits. Whereas we had always eaten around the kitchen table, with the advent of television we got into the habit of taking our dinner plates into the lounge and eating off our laps in front of the tv. One the one hand it was a bit of a conversation stopper, but on the other hand it opened up a whole new world to us. It brought news and events from other places outside of our local district into our home.
My father and uncle Stan worked on the property, as well as another man who was a loyal employee for many, many years. Norman McKay, who had lived in Glenthompson his whole life, was a short wiry man with swarthy skin, tanned by many years working in the sun, and dark wavy hair. In his younger days I think he would have been quite good looking, but my earliest memories of him are when her was in his late fourties and even then he still had a keen look about him. He smoked profusely – I don’t remember ever seeing him without a cigarette in his mouth, and he hit the drink way too often. I wouldn’t say he was a complete alcoholic, because most days he worked long and hard on the farm, but he was close to being so and at nights and on weekends he spent many a long hour at the local pub. In later years, when I was in my teens, whenever shearing time came around in September, Norman would go “AWOL”, as Stan described it. Once a year at our busiest time Norman would get depressed, hit the grog big time, and be totally drunken useless for about 3 – 4 weeks. He’d cry, apologise for being unable to work and say that he’ll do better next year. But, of course, next year was the same again. We all felt sorry for Norman and Dad and Stan knew that they couldn’t rely on him at shearing time, so they prepared for it. There was no question of dismissing him. We all loved Norman and his loyalty and hard work far outweighed the yearly drinking routine. He was such an agreeable man, even when drunk and rarely got irritated or angry. He was a loner and I think his depression may have sprung out of the fact that he liked the ladies but had little or no success with them. To his dying day I don’t think he ever had any lasting companionship with a woman.
During the winter months Norman used to wear a black and yellow woollen beanie – he was a staunch Richmond football supporter. Near the sheds on the farm was a row of eucalyptus trees and during August the magpies nested in those trees. Nesting time is always when birds will seek to protect their young and they had an absolute hatred for Norman. They swooped and clacked their beaks over head and sometimes even scraped the back of his head. Every time they saw him, they’d have a go – even if he was not near the trees. It was great for the rest of us because they left us alone, but were relentless in their attacks on Norman. We suggested that his beanie might have made him look like a large bee or European wasp, but Norman was too attached to it and refused to part with it. He just put up with the attacks until nesting season was over.
He shared one of our four houses with a much older woman, Mrs Huse. I believe it was a totally platonic relationship, as she was nearly old enough to be his mother. Mrs Huse came from England, with a strong accent to match, moved to Australia after the war and originally settled in Portland. Her husband had died and she had one daughter. She applied for a house-keeping position in Auntie Oll’s house, so moved up to Glenthompson. She cleaned, prepared food for Auntie Oll during the day and for Norman at night. I never had much to do with her but Mum liked her, so that was good enough for me.
Eventually, after Auntie Oll died in 1981, Mrs Huse decided to retire back to Portland to live with her daughter. Norman, having been cared for like a son by Mrs Huse for nearly 40 years, was very distressed and went on a lengthy drinking binge. I think she helped him keep his life in check and now he was without his anchor. It was only a few years after she passed away that Norman also passed away of liver failure.
Life on the farm for a boy was good. Stan taught me how to weld, how to work with metal, how to work with wood. My great grandfather had an old wood lathe which we resurrected, attached an electric motor to it and I make some chair legs with it. I learnt how to repair lawnmowers and motorbikes and how to make fences and gates. Stan taught me how to drive and Dad taught me how to ride a pushbike and a motorbike. I worked with them when we were working with sheep, I learnt how to use the wool press for packing the wool into bales and I did a lot of the hay making and a lot of the sheep dipping. The work was never ending.
I spent much more time with Stan than I did with Dad. My father inherited their father’s bad temper, whereas Stan inherited their mother’s more mild disposition. I was scared of Dad. Nearly the only time he ever spoke to me was when he was shouting at me or at Sue. “What the stinken’, flaming, blazes do you think you are doing?!!” was his standard demand of us if he thought we were doing anything wrong. He and Stan argued all their working lives. Stan would want to discuss things, but Dad was so impatient. He’d go bright red, beads of sweat forming on his brow, “We don’t have time for this!!” and off he’d storm to commence the next job, all the while muttering, “If you want to get the stinken’, flaming thing done, you’ve got to do the stinken’, flaming thing yourself!”. Summertime was the worst, because not only was Dad hot-headed, but he was feeling the heat as well and this just added to his rage. We’d be sorting sheep and you had to look at the ear tag on each sheep as it came down the race to determine if it was male or female and then move a gate one way or the other to separate the sexes and direct the sheep into the right pen. As the sheep come down the race, they tend to run and you have to be quick to move the gate. If Dad missed a sheep and it got into the wrong pen, he’d be furious and “stinken’, flaming blazes …” as he’d go to retrieve the sheep that got into the wrong pen. If one of us offered to retrieve the sheep for him, he’d fume even harder and you were made to feel ashamed for offering to help because it was obvious to Dad that you couldn’t possibly retrieve the sheep as well as he could. Most of the time we learnt to just be quiet and weather the storm. Dad would eventually stop his tirade and move onto something else. He never hit me and I only remember him slapping Sue on the legs once. But he was like a volcano, constantly rumbling underneath, just waiting for the lava to build and come exploding out onto the surface. I found my life with Dad very distressing.
I remember one Thursday early afternoon, we’d just finished dinner and a stock and station agent turned up. These men were basically sales reps selling agricultural equipment, chemicals and supplies. It was a necessary service to farmers but sometimes their timing wasn’t always the best. He knocked on the door, Mum let him in and he came into our kitchen, went over to shake Dad’s hand and Dad just got up and pushed past the guy with “I don’t have stinken’, flaming time to talk to you!” and stormed out the back door. The agent looked flummoxed, Mum was mortified, Stan, Sue and I were frozen, not knowing what to do. Mum apologized to the agent and led him out the door, promising that we would talk to him soon. Later that afternoon, on one of the rare occasions I saw Mum get angry at Dad, she told him off for being so rude. Dad wouldn’t back down and said something about not having time to talk to agents at the moment, but Mum had said her piece and that was enough and the matter was dropped.
Until 1971, we took most of our school holidays at Bacchus Marsh with Mum’s parents. Dad rarely went on holidays with us, always having to “look after the stinken’, flaming farm”. We also went every second Christmas, leaving Dad by himself because he refused to be with us, much to Mum’s considerable disappointment. The 2½ hour drive to Bacchus Marsh would be punctuated with Mum’s comments to me about sometimes feeling unloved by Dad because he almost never came away with us. The other Christmas we would spend at home with Dad, Stan and Auntie Oll. After 1971 when Mum’s twin sister Joan and her family moved to Tasmania to live, we would go to Tasmania one year and Bacchus Marsh the other year. I have been to Tasmania some 30 times or more and I don’t remember Dad ever coming with us once. On the one occasion I remember Dad deciding to come with us to Bacchus Marsh for Christmas we got into the car, ready to go and Dad for some reason wanted to move the driver’s seat forward. Then he wanted to adjust the seatbelt. This was pre the days of seatbelts with retractors and he started to adjust the seatbelt, tightening himself in like he was in a rocket about to fly to the moon. He fussed and huffed and snorted and got himself into such a state, adjusting the seatbelt this way and that, until finally after 20 minutes of us sitting in the car waiting, Mum became frustrated and said “Can we go now?” Dad went off his head. “How am I supposed to drive this stinken’, flaming car when you’ve got the stinken’, flaming seatbelt all adjusted wrongly?!! What the stinken’, flaming blazes have you been doing with it?!! The stinken’, flaming police will be all over me if I have the seatbelt adjusted wrongly!!!” Mum said something about the fact that, given that she drove the car the majority of times, she had it adjusted to suit her. Finally, he got it right and we headed off, but it was an uneasy start to our holidays. I think it was much better that for the most part Dad didn’t accompany us on our holidays.
We didn’t get STD telephones until I was 18 yrs old in 1978. We had an old phone with a handle that you used to have to turn vigorously to get the attention of the operator at the local post office. She would answer curtly, “Number, please” and you’d ask for Melbourne 24568D, for example and she’d say, “I’ll call you back in 20 minutes.” She’d call back and say “The number was engaged”, and hang up. So you’d have to try again. We were on a party line with Stan, so we could ring him for free, which was good. Great Auntie Oll was also on a party line, but with five other homes nearby, and it didn’t matter which ring she heard, she’d answer the phone anyway. Each phone had a specific ring, for example our house was one long ring and two short rings. Stan was one long ring and one short ring and one long ring. Auntie Oll had no idea which ring was for her, so when she answered it and the correct party answered it they would always say “It’s alright Miss Thacker, this call’s for us.” Auntie Oll would say “Oh, sorry” and pretend to hang up, but she would just cover the mouthpiece with her hand and then listen in to the conversation. She was a horror. Finally when the new STD phones came in, it was all too confusing for her – these new telephones with all these numbers on them, so she rarely used it. She finally died in 1981.