A favourite activity when holidaying at Townson with our grandparents was sliding down the hill on the other side of the gully from the house on cardboard or flour sacks. Cardboard was best but wasn’t always available. At the bottom of the hill was a barbed wire fence and the thrill was not baling off before the fence but to go under it at full speed. We knew that if we weren’t laying flat, we would be cut to pieces. That game was forbidden for a while after Bernie (the seventh child), who was always so fearless in his attempts to keep up with the older kids, lifted his head at the wrong time and was nearly scalped. He was only about four and there was blood everywhere! He was a tough little bugger, didn’t cry or carry on, and was all for keeping it a secret, but there was no way we could with all that blood on his clothes.
Grandad had a horse called Orphan Boy which had been around for as long as I could remember. When we were old enough we were allowed to ride him to bring in the cows for milking. It seems he had been ridden by at least one generation of kids before us because he knew all the tricks on getting rid of his rider. It would be a battle of wits, keeping him away from overhanging branches or logs on the ground, as he loved to jump or wipe his rider off on a low hanging branch. We had to make sure we didn’t go near fences or gates at a gallop or he would be up and over it before we could slow him down, leaving us on the ground on the other side. I also learned the hard way not to go too fast near corner posts because he got a special thrill out of cutting corners. I spent days with my leg in bandages before I learnt that one. I was glad when Grandad considered me a good enough rider to move on to another horse and for the younger kids to learn how to ride on Orphan Boy.
Whenever we went ‘exploring’ or on an ‘expedition’ we were always accompanied by one of Grandad’s blue heeler dogs. He always had one that was a ‘snake dog’ and this one would be our companion whenever we left the house. The dog always trotted on ahead and we kept an eye on him to see if he was showing interest in anything or ‘pointing’ to something. If the dog stopped and stared at something in the grass or amongst the trees we would turn around and race back to the house. We only ever doubted the dog once and went looking to see what it was interested in and Esme nearly stepped on a snake. We never hesitated to run after that.
We knew the farm was in “snake country”. Hearing conversations littered with Death Adders, Taipans and Big Browns instilled respect for these potential killers. And then there was the adults’ reactions to any sighting of a snake. An early memory, I think it was before I started school, is sitting at the table eating lunch and hearing men shouting from across the other side of the creek where my Grandmother’s brother farmed. Grandad leapt to his feet, went outside to put on his boots and headed to the shed to get his gun. Gran explained Uncle Dave must have seen a snake. I asked could I go with Grandad and she said alright but stay out of the way. So off I raced, trying to keep up with Grandad who was running. He used to always say Gran could “run like the wind” when she was a girl but that day he was doing a pretty good job himself.
When we reached the recently ploughed paddock along the banks of the creek, Grandad hoisted me up to sit on a fence post with the instruction, “Now don’t move!”
What excitement! Men shouting, pointing, Grandad firing off shots, Uncle Dave and Uncle Archie wielding pitch forks. I spotted it once and managed to stand up on the post to keep it in sight and pointed the men in its direction. I was so excited, I don’t know how I kept my balance. The whole episode probably only lasted a few minutes but to me it was a monumental occasion – I had been on a snake hunt! And Grandad sure knew how to make a big deal of little kids. I was lifted down off the post and joined in the post event discussion with the men. They all made such a fuss of me. Then Grandad put me on his shoulders and carried me in triumph back to the house saying things like, “We got him, Paulie. You’re a good snake spotter. Wouldn’t have got him without you”. I was on top of the world – I always was when I was on Grandad shoulders.
Snakes are now protected in Australia and I agree that all native animals should be. But our childhood wouldn’t have been near as much fun if they had been when we were kids. Gran and Grandad were fierce in their efforts to keep snakes away from the house and us kids. When one was spotted they would spring into action. Gran did all the dangerous stuff, poking around with a stick or whatever implement was handy, shaking bushes, doing anything she could to lure the prey from its cover. She had such quick reactions and sure needed them because often she had to leap out of the way of either the snake or Grandad’s bullets. I remember once when Grandad shot a snake that was just inches from her feet. How we laughed that Grandad had nearly shot Gran’s toes! Grandad was our hero and a crack shot – we knew her toes had been safe!
One of my scariest experiences was as a teenager and illustrates to me the trust we had in our grandparents. I was laying on a bed reading one hot afternoon and had drifted off to sleep. I awoke to Gran’s whisper, “Paulie, don’t move!” I opened my eyes and looked towards the door where Gran was standing, to see her pointing to my feet then making a stay still motion with her hands. When I moved my eyes downward I saw a snake weaving it’s way in and out of the wrought iron work on the foot of the bed. It disappeared from sight and I kept my eyes on Gran. She stepped back to check that it wasn’t coming under the bed in her direction, then I saw her signal with her eyes towards the window and there it was going up the wall and out the window. The minute it disappeared from our view, the shout went out and all hell broke loose. Someone spotted it heading towards the gully at the back of the house. That one got away.
I was 14 before power was installed “up the creek”. Early to bed, early to rise was the order of the day. Gran’s kerosene lanterns were a novelty for us. We loved to sit around in their soft light and listen to Grandad’s stories in the evenings. He would entertain us with finger shadows on the wall. The kitchen was always warmed in winter by Gran’s big old wood stove. One of the boys’ jobs was to keep the stove supplied with wood and, as they got older, to chop enough to keep her supplied for a while after we had gone. Gran seemed to be constantly baking, her cake tins were always full. How she managed it in summer when it was hot enough outside and twice as hot in the kitchen I will never know.
I don’t know when the telephone line was installed. I know the service had only gone as far as my father’s family home when he was a young man as any telegrams that came for people further up the road during the war (WWII) would be left with his mother. It was Dad’s duty to saddle up the horse regardless of time of day or night, and weather and deliver the telegrams. What an awful duty for a man who had enlisted and been on his way north for jungle training and then to fight in New Guinea when he was told he had been demobbed and was to return to the farm as it was important to keep the troops fed and no farm could be left without anyone to farm it. I wonder how many unwelcome telegrams he delivered, how his neighbours would have shuddered to see or hear him approaching and followed his progress if he went past, wondering which family was about to be shattered.
When we were children Mrs Day ran the local telephone exchange and post office. If Gran needed to make a call (Grandad would have nothing to do with “that damned contraption”) she would look at the clock and decide if it was a good time for Mrs Day to put through the call – would she be outside doing such or such or was she going to town today or was it dinner time. She offered a wonderful community service. If we rang from Brisbane and Mrs Day got no reply when she put through the call, we would leave a message with her and she would relay it on for us. She passed on warnings about floods and bush fires and, in earlier days, would saddle the horse and take urgent messages to those without phones – and it was often her turn to do the horrible duty that had once been my father’s.