1963; nearing the end of a childhood

 

A letter to my siblings.

Dear Steve, Chloe, Jerry, Terry and Margo

I used to think our family was pretty normal, but I guess I am not the first person to realise just how strange their upbringing has been.

As I have been writing the “Early Years” the letters I have written over this time to each of you, to Mum, Dad and others, have marked specific times I remember from this time; from the very early memories and then, heading towards my twelfth birthday.

What have I learnt after having gone through the sometimes painful task of detailing these Early Years?

Lesson One 

I was put off haircuts at a very early age, and the ensuing years; have done nothing to change my mind on this most trivial of things.

Lesson Two 

I have tried, not always successfully; to live a life free of pomposity and elitism after having seen the example of the Abominables and the effect these dreadful people had on our mother and our parent’s marriage.

Lesson Three 

The importance of mentors has become clear to me as I recalled the time with John, Miss F and Mr Frankland.

How much poorer would my life had been if I had missed the simple joy of sitting with John, and he; having the patience to indulge the mutterings of a small boy?

What would have happened to a small boy had not Miss F made him feel special and provided an escape from the bitterness and acrimony of the family?

How important was the intervention of Mr Frankland; instilling in me the love of reading, spelling and numbers that has stayed with me for my whole life?

These were the people who made the time and, devoted the energy to making my life better and I thank them ever so much

Lesson Four 

The magic of being able to retreat into my own cocoon with, or now; without an imaginary friend has always given me an escape when the world has pressed in upon me. The times I spent with Bill Wilson were some of my happiest childhood memories and even today; the magic of just being with me has never left me; there is a vast difference between being alone and being lonely, somehow I learnt this from a very early age.

Lesson Five 

I learnt from a young age a love of the land, the smell of the soil and the feel of the wind. In my mind, even today; I could walk every metre of the farm, know every contour, remember every paddock and every dam.

People were hard to understand but the land was easy to love!

Lesson Six 

I understood the value of honesty and love in a relationship and, the effect; the lack of these could have on the growing child torn between parents.

I had lived with this and I should have known better. This is the major lesson of my childhood and the fact I betrayed this, in later life; is the biggest regret I have with my life.

I wish I had learnt this lesson better, but it is hard to regret the years I had with Sascha before I realised the damage a marriage built on a lie can cause.

The hurt I caused my own family; Sascha and the kids, is something I still struggle with. This was a lesson learned, but ignored for far too long. I can only hope, the example of love without bitterness we have been able to demonstrate in the years since our separation has healed some of the pain.

Lesson Seven 

I learnt to hate aggression and violence, hopefully; I learnt this better than the last lesson, but I know at times; I have failed at this too.

Lesson Eight 

I learnt to hate guns and the always lingering potential for tragedy these can have.

Lesson Nine

I learnt to distrust organised religion; the fire and brimstone of our own church and the examples of hatred I saw in other religions, spoiled my love for a truly spiritual God, I am sorry this happened.

Sadness and Joy 

Our childhood was robbed of the joy the land should have provided, our relationships as siblings, were marred by festering anger and we never really knew each other as kids.

The joy my relationship with Terry and Margo and to a lesser extent; Chloe, (due to distance and circumstance) now brings to my life, is something I am very humbled by.

With Love

Bruce

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A letter to my old Primary School Principal; Thanks

Dear Mr Frankland

I think this must have been late in 1962 or early 1963; you had been the Principal of our tiny, two roomed, two teacher school for a number of years by then. 1963 would be my last year with you before heading off to Boarding School.

You and Mrs Frankland together with your family had joined us for Sunday lunch at the farm. You were helping Mum with the washing up in the tiny pantry room after we had eaten, I had stepped into the adjoining kitchen without either of you noticing and I heard you say.

“The boy is not dumb, Carol; he is just bone lazy”

You had been discussing my chances of passing the selective schools exam in the middle of 1963, Jerry had sat for this and passed with flying colors four years earlier.

Now, with things being what they were on the farm; Mum was hoping I could follow him to the cheaper Government Boarding School, especially designed for the sons of farmer’s, rather than having to go to the more expensive option of Steve’s old Private School in Albury.

The entrance exam for this School was testing and Mum was obviously concerned my lack of interest in anything, let alone education; would be to my detriment.

This was your solution:

“I tell you what I will do Carol; I stay after school two or three days a week to catch up on paperwork for an hour or so, why don’t I get him to stay back for some intensive spelling, reading and arithmetic?”

My fate was sealed, and for the next six months I would be forced to sit in the classroom after school and complete reading, spelling and maths assignments before I could be allowed to leave.

Just what you thought of this geeky, skinny kid being thrust into the maelstrom of masculinity that the Farmers School offered rather than, the more genteel and civilized atmosphere of Grammar School, I will never know.

Jerry and I could not have been more different, he was a farmer born and bred, and; also stockily built, able to hold his own against anyone, whereas I was a sickly, weak, short sighted kid, scared of violence and aggression.

The reasons for me passing this exam, would never have been explained to you in anything other than in terms of how well Jerry had done at this school.  I am certain the financial imperatives would never have been mentioned, but I think you understood.

I passed the exam and was accepted for the Farmers school, but that is not what I am writing to thank you for.

During those afternoons in the quiet classroom, you instilled in me a love of simple arithmetic, a passion for spelling and a joy in reading that I have never lost, and for this; I am eternally grateful.

The capacity for quick calculations, an almost messianic belief in good spelling and a voracious need for something to read at all times, are the legacy I took away from our time together and I am humbled when I think of the time you spent with me, well beyond the call of any duty.

On top of this; my time with you got me excused from many of the chores that would normally have been mine to do in the afternoons after school.

I will take reading a book in the quietness of a deserted school room, any day; over cleaning shitty straw from cattle sheds!!

Thank You

Bruce

The times were changing but old religions and beliefs still held sway in late 1961

A letter to my oldest Brother

Dear Steve

You were home by now; finished with boarding school, working on the farm, joining organisations like Junior Farmers and creating a social life for yourself in the area. Like all little brothers who idolised their big brothers, I was probably a pain in the arse; an almost ten-year-old, wanting to be part of your grown up world!

The old religious mores were being severely tested with tensions running high between adults and their children as the early baby boomers came of age.

Tensions between you and Dad seemed to fill our days, what you wore, how you worked and who your friends were, seemed to be the source of never ending criticism.

On the other hand, I think Mum was pleased to have you at home, another ally in the ongoing battle with our father

I have often wondered how all our lives would have turned out, if you had been allowed to leave the farm; I wonder if at that age, you ever resented the choices you did not get to make.

Did you ever dream of a career in music? Did you ever want to break free? Or did you just accept the way your life was pre planned for you?

The Beatles were yet to make an impact on our lives, but the advent of music as a medium of protest was beginning to take hold, with the music of Elvis and our home grown, Johnny O’Keefe becoming the mainstays of the local dances, often held in neighbouring farm’s woolsheds.

These icons were becoming the arbiters of style for youth, via the newfangled TV that some people already had. Scratchy black and white images flickering across the screen, I remember standing in front of the hardware store in our nearest big town with almost the whole population of 1,000 people being captivated by the pictures that appeared magically on those tantalising boxes.

A little known country to the North of Australia was beginning to make the news headlines as first America, and then Australia; committed troops to counter the so called, Communist insurgency happening in South Vietnam.

Voicing an opinion against our involvement in this war would have been treasonous in our world with Dad an integral part of the local RSL. Conscription for 20 year olds would not be introduced for another three years, by which time you would be over the age for the ballot.

At this time, Vietnam was just something that our country was involved in and the fledgling antiwar movement in the Cities was as removed from our world, as was indeed; Vietnam itself.

The fact that we lived in an area dominated by stolid Lutheran families perhaps shielded us even more from the growing rebelliousness in the outside world, but fractures were beginning to occur; even in our hermetically sealed environment.

Your friend; John was perhaps the most open in his disdain for the old limits, this was even more outrageous, because his family were not simply Lutheran, but an integral part of the High Lutheran Church which; while on its last legs as a separate identity; still held firmly to its prescriptive beliefs.

John drank openly, drove a loud, fast car and was often to be seen at the local dances, flaunting his contempt for his religion’s strictures.

I remember being at the silos with Dad, this was not the usual silo where we would take our grain, but because the line was shorter we had gone there on this day. It would have been about the last year we were delivering our wheat in bags, before the advent of bulk handling. The line when we got there was a mixture of trucks with bags and some of the early adopters with their shiny new bulk bins perched on a variety of farm trucks.

I walked with Dad up to near the front of the line, chatting to different farmers about the season and the weather. Because this was not our normal Silo, there were people there I had never seen before, I soon realised we were in the heartland of the High Lutheran area.

There was a flurry as John pulled into the line with his truck and dark mutterings against this boy who was something of a hero to me; Dad quickly took me back to our truck and I was ordered to stay inside while Dad mingled with the Presbyterians and Methodists, all waiting to see what was about to occur.

The High Lutherans had decided this was their opportunity to punish John and I saw him being gang marched up the line of trucks.

To this day, I am not sure what actually transpired because I was confined to the truck but Dad did not speak as we slowly edged to the front of the line and headed back to the farm for the next load.

There were mutterings between Dad and Mum when we went home that night and I think you were told to ring John. I think I heard something about a whipping and I know I did see stock whips in the hands of some of the farmers before John had arrived. Whatever form it took, John had been publicly beaten and humiliated. I know from the dark whispers between you and Mum and Dad, it had not been pleasant.

We did not see John for some time after this, and when I did see him next time; some of the cockiness seemed to have been drained from my hero.

If there was any good have come from this, it seemed for a while; that relations between you and Dad had moved towards a better balance, someone he had been suspicious of had been hurt and I think at this time he did reach out to you.

I have often wondered whether this was a turning point for the eventual end to the demarcation between the mainstream Lutheran Church and the High Church. I do know that by the late sixties the two branches had combined in our area and in somewhat ironic fashion, the last time I looked; the Old High Church buildings were now occupied by the Catholics.

We lived in changing times Brother and there are times when I wish we could have had a more honest dissection of our lives, our hopes and our dreams.

That chance was stolen by your death in 1990 and I am left with a dichotomy of memories; the brother I idolised at the time I write about now and the person you became.

Whatever was to happen later you were my hero then

Love

Bruce

 

A letter to my younger brother; scared shitless in the kitchen

Hi Terry

The fact that we are now closer than we have ever been, gives us the opportunity to look back and laugh at the ways things used to be.

Mind you; it has needed the passage of many decades for me to be able to laugh about this particular occurrence and, still I have questions; as to whether the bloody gun was loaded?

We have spoken of this several times and your answer has been different each time; I think also, your answer has always depended on how many Rum and Cokes you have tucked away before the topic comes up!

It had been a pretty ordinary day, from memory; neither extremely hot or bitingly cold but this had not stopped us from having one hell of an argument as we pedalled over the hills and back home at the end of another school day.

What the argument was about, has been lost in the mists of time, but what happened once we got home has been etched deeply in my memory for the last 55 years.

There was no one home when we arrived, Mum was out with Margo and the men, were of course; occupied in distant paddocks.

We were screaming at each other, even as we walked up the path through the gardens and I went straight to the kitchen to get away from you and to make a cup of milo.

The floor space in the pantry adjacent to the kitchen was barely a metre wide with a wall and window at one end and the only access point; close to the door, which opened to the rear verandah.

I was sitting on the stool with my back to the window when you stormed in with the double barrelled shot gun belligerently poised on your hip.

You could not have been older than eight or nine but there is no minimum age limit on untrammelled anger and rage.

“I am going to fucking kill you” was spat from the doorway and the twin barrels of the shot gun took on a fascinating clarity from my trapped position.

I don’t know how long this siege went on, but to me it felt timeless as we screamed at each other from either end of the pantry; there was no escape for me as you played with the cocking mechanism of the gun, all the while keeping it aimed directly at my face.

Blind fear met blind hatred and rage in that confined space as I pleaded with you to put the gun away. At times a surge of optimism would rise as you appeared to be calming down, only to descend back into a screaming rage in the next few seconds.

I felt a warming sensation between my legs and realised I was pissing myself, completely involuntarily; you laughed and mocked me for this edging a step closer so I had an even better view of the oiled insides of the two barrels waving unsteadily in my face.

I have been involved in many negotiation during my life, but in none of them, have I been as desperate or impotent as the scared, quivering wreck, pleading for my life, I was that day.

Finally; the siege was over as quickly as it had begun, you turned and left the room and I heard you putting the gun away in the dairy room as I made a dash for the toilet in a vain attempt to regain some dignity.

You have to promise me, that before I depart this world; you will tell me honestly, the answer to the question that has burned fiercely in my mind for all these years.

Was the fucking gun loaded??

Love

 

Bruce

Footnote -I sent an email to Terry and included this letter in the email – I did not expect he would actually tell me the answer to my burning question; he has always been very circumspect, whenever the issue has come up.

To my surprise I got the following SMS from him

“To my loved brother, yes that shotgun was loaded with one cartridge, I clicked the trigger on the empty side several times, thank God I never got them mixed up!

It is 7.00 am in the morning and I have not had a bourbon today, this is the true version of events.

Looking back; I was sadistic little bugger but don’t worry, I love you more than ever now”

I am not sure if this answer has helped me in any way, but at least I know now!

What would have been the situation had the finger of this highly agitated, eight-year-old boy accidentally strayed onto the wrong trigger?

I know for sure I would not be here, there was no escape from a shotgun blast in the confines of the pantry! But the damage something like this would have done to Terry and the family I would have left behind, is beyond comprehension.

No wonder, I have always abhorred the gun culture!!!

 

The Hills were alive with the sound of fear

Dear Dad

The bitter weather was matched by the bitterness at home this cold July morning.Terry and I set off on our bikes, ill-equipped to handle the cold.

The first hill was hard, with the cold wind biting through the thin layers of clothes and chilling our bare legs and hands. Terry had been riding to school with me for some months now but he still struggled with   the hills.

I resented his intrusion into my time and I resented having to stop and wait for him to catch up at the top of every rise

I knew every bump and broken piece of bitumen on the road, I knew the first hill was the hardest because you did not get a run to it. After the first hill you could accelerate down, over the next small rise at the large horse paddock, past the lane and the momentum, on a good day; could take you almost to the top of the next steep hill.

At the top of this hill you drew breath, threw caution to the wind and peddled like fury to at least get you somewhere up the long slow grind of Fischer’s hill before you usually had to get off and walk the last steep rise. From there it was an easy ride down the hill, round the sweeping bend, along the flat and then the three small rises before you got to the small school house.

The Principal would light these heaters early in the morning, so; by the time the kids arrived, there was at least somewhere to thaw your hands before picking up your pen for the day.

I knew how to ride this trip but Terry did not and his timidness at the top of the second big hill annoyed the crap out of me, we argued almost every day about the extra time I would spend in the cold.

This morning was no different, just more intense; we had left home with hurriedly prepared lunches and the sound of you and Mum, still yelling at each other as we peddled up the drive.

It was as if Terry was taunting me as he slowly pushed his bike up the easy part of Fischer’s Hill and we   screamed at each other over the distance from the top of the hill to the culvert at the bottom.

Our screams of abuse floated across the valley in the misty, dewy morning air, down to the sheds at the bottom of the valley where you were working.

Tony had almost joined me near the top of the hill when we heard the roar of the old International one tonner thundering over the hills behind us.

I knew what was coming and I tried to get Terry on his bike quickly so we could fly down the hill and get closer to the sanctuary of school. If we were lucky you may have forgotten about this morning by the time we got home.

Terry could be a shit at times and he looked at me with all the cunning a five-year-old can muster and stayed where he was; “you are in trouble; you are meant to look after me! Ha Ha you’re gunna get a hiding”

We were only minutes away from safety but Terry stood his ground

The truck screamed to a halt, you stumbled from the cabin already unleashing your belt, before grabbing me round the shoulders and delivering half a dozen vicious strokes to my icy arse in your frenzied rage.

“How dare you fucking embarrass this family with this screaming and shouting at your brother, the whole fucking district could hear you”

The words were delivered in a shower of spittle and red faced rage, it took me a while to realise you had grabbed the wrong end of the belt and the heavy buckle was slicing through the cold thinness of my skin. I could feel the blood or, perhaps; the piss dribble warmly down my leg and I struggled to get free.

The irony of you screaming at me for embarrassing the family, while your yells could probably be heard right across the district escaped me at the time, but do cause me some wry amusement with the benefit of distance.

As quickly as the onslaught had started, it finished, with you storming back to the truck, struggling to put the belt on and cursing the blood that made doing up the buckle more difficult in the cold.

“You pissed yourself, you weak little cunt!” were the last words I heard as the truck showered gravel, reversed across the road and in a roar of accelerated rage you sped off, back the way you had come.

The belting hurt like hell but your words hurt more

Even Terry was shocked at this outburst and tried to comfort me as I sat sobbing on the road, my wet blood stained shorts and my throbbing arse, the only evidence of what had just happened.

Luckily it was sports day at school, I had a spare pair of shorts in my pack and I rode standing up all the way to school. The bus had not yet arrived and I snuck into the toilets to change my pants, padding my arse with paper to absorb the blood.

I think this was the first day I ever went commando!!

We were all lost Dad; you took things out on me and I took things out on Terry, the chain continued and we all suffered.

Love

Bruce

 

A letter to my baby sister – A stormy arrival

Hey Margo

It was December 1960 and we welcomed you to our world; a squirmy bundle of rage and spirit born into a divided family. Probably the last thing this family needed was another child, but somehow your appearance seemed to heal some wounds.

I may not have been the most caring big brother when Terry was born, but you were different; I don’t think an eight-year-old boy could have loved his little sister more than I loved you.

I don’t know what madness dictated that in early 1961 just weeks after you were born, we would embark on one of our irregular holidays to the South Coast with hired caravan in tow and the old army tent stowed to accommodate Terry and I.

I am not sure why Steven, Chloe and Jerry were spared this jaunt into happy families but I am certain there was just the three of us children plus Mum and Dad.

The trip across to the Coast in those days was a series of stops to ensure the car would not over heat with the weight of the caravan behind it and traversing the Mountains; was always an adventure. I am not sure what was worse; the slow winding up the mountains or the constant push of the van to rush us down the other side with brakes screaming blue murder, hairpin bends looming ominously and car sickness just a gulp away.

We would set off well before dawn and it would be very late in the afternoon before we would pull into the caravan park and begin the setting up of the van and the tent.

Invariably in our family, there would be a loud argument at some stage of these proceedings and it was a lucky kid who managed to make the trip without getting boxed round the ears as the heat and frustration at the slow progress took its toll.

I think you were pretty well behaved but having a very small baby along certainly did not enhance the journey and by the time we arrived I think everyone was at the end of their respective tethers.

The van and tent was eventually set up after the regulation tantrums and our holiday was in place, Terry and I took you in the stroller for a walk along the beach, Dad took the car to go and buy fish and chips for dinner while Mum made up your formula or whatever it was that you had at that time.

My memory of this holiday was that there was less tension in the air than usual and Dad, as was his wont, quickly made acquaintances with other farming families who had escaped the heat and dust for a few days by the beach.

I think these holidays were always harder on Mum,she did not easily make casual friendships and, given her budding artistic side; probably did not have a lot in common with most of the other farming wives.

We had had a few days at the beach and my pale Scottish skin was rubbed raw with sunburn and blisters before the itchiness infected Dad and he made arrangements with a few others to have a day at the Berry Artificial Insemination farm.

The men set off early one morning and we spent a day on the beach with Mum before coming back for a rest late in the afternoon.

The clouds gathered as we were walking back and soon, the sky was an ominous black  void full of foreboding. The rain came in sheets followed by a fierce wind which tore at anything loose, soon the sanctuary of the caravan was shattered as the wind rocked it back and forth before finally tipping it on to the sturdy centre pole of the old army tent.

Mum, Terry and I made a mad dash for the brick toilet block with you, wrapped as much as possible   against the wind and rain. I looked forlornly at our van, skewered in the side by the pole with chairs and book and clothes being tossed devilishly by the surging wind.

There was no sign of Dad and we were crammed into the small laundry shower / block with a host of other women and kids, the wind was screaming around our ears and the rain was driving sideways in great slants of water.

Finally, it all subsided and Dad was back. They had called in to have a drink and the excuse was that the verandah of the Pub had come crashing down and they could not leave; so criticism was reluctantly muted.

Now we had a caravan with a hole in the side but otherwise things packed up pretty well and the holiday passed without any further incident.

You certainly knew how to announce your arrival darling and nothing much has changed since!!

Love Ya

Bruce