Chapter 1: Childhood Memories — Steam and River

The goods train was getting closer and closer to the bridge on which we were standing.

Its protesting snorts and grumbling were growing louder and louder. The funnel was spewing a pall of thick black smoke, and steam seemed to be issuing from every orifice of its blackened bulk. I was petrified with fear.

Then we were suddenly enveloped in smoke and steam as the loco passed under the bridge. When it was directly beneath us, the driver sounded the whistle.

I must have jumped at least twelve inches — and at three years of age, that’s not a bad jump. At the same moment I dissolved into a paroxysm of crying and screaming.

My parents, who if I remember rightly thought the situation hilarious, did their best to pacify me.

We were in Portland. My father was on this annual leave from his job in the P.M.G. — as the department in charge of telephone services was known in those days.

That episode with the steam train is my earliest recollection.

Before that everything is blank.

The next incident I recall from my early childhood also involved steam — or a mode of transport powered by steam.

The year was 1923. Again we were on my father’s annual holiday — this time cruising the mighty Murray aboard the paddle steamer “RUBY”.

Today the “RUBY” has an honoured pride of place on the bank of the Murray at Wentworth, on the N.S.W./Victoria border.

In 1923 she was on the regular passenger run from Swan Hill to Mildura. Our cabin was a tiny “fox-hole” compared to today’s standards — just large enough for two bunks.

I think I probably dossed in with my Mum in her bunk.

I do remember vividly that after the evening meal on this night, my parents decided to socialise with some of the other passengers, and they left me securely tucked up in the cabin.

What with the slow movement of the boat as she rocked lazily at her mooring and the strange cacophony of noises that seemed to steal into the tiny cabin through the crack under the door, I was scared out of my childhood wits.

Finally I could stand it no more. Clad in my pyjamas, I climbed out of bed, and ran from the cabin, along the narrow companionway to the passengers’ lounge, where I flung myself into the arms of my mother who was somewhat taken aback by my unexpected arrival.

They did not leave me alone in the cabin for the remainder of the cruise. Another recollection I have of that Murray holiday was that the river was in the grip of a huge flood, making it almost impossible for the helmsman to follow accurately the true course of the stream — which probably accounted for our late arrival at the home port of Mildura.

When I was six years old, I was enrolled in the “bubs” class at the Mont Albert Central School.

We lived in unmade Kenmare Street about half a mile from the school.

I have been told that on my first day at school, I arrived home unexpectedly at lunch time, and announced to my mum that I wasn’t going back there. My reason?

“That woman is too bossy!”

“That woman” was a kindly spindly spinster called Miss McDonald. She was in charge of the infants class. She really was a lovely patient lady.

There was another Miss McDonald at Mont Albert Central. She was an amply proportioned lady in charge of Grade Six.

To avoid any confusion as to which Miss McDonald we were referring, these two stalwart ladies were known universally throughout the school as “SKINNY MAC” and “FATTY MAC”.

I don’t know whether the same terminology applied in the teachers common room in their absence, or for that matter when they were present.

Amongst the other teachers I recall at Mont Albert Central were “Cocky” Lachlan, whose nickname aptly described his general demeanour — except when he was ingratiating himself to Miss Shapcott. Miss Shapcott was pert and pretty and young, and even stirred a strange and unusual sensation in the loins of some of the “big kids” — the boys in the fifth and sixth grade.

“Cocky” Lachlan thought — or at least hoped — that he was on a winner there, but I feel pretty certain that the lovely and desirable Miss Shapcott was well and truly spoken for by someone remote from Mont Albert Central.

Today, sixty years later, in my mind I can still see stocky “Cocky” strutting around the school, like a pouter pigeon, with a superior smile creasing his Irish features and befitting a man in his position. He was after all a senior master at the school.

But the dominant personality amongst the staff at Mont Albert Central was the Headmaster — a hoary irascible, dribbling elderly gent, either approaching retirement, or perhaps past it.

He was known as “Boss” Harley. His rages were legend.

I remember vividly the occasion when, in a temper tantrum, he was uncontrollably pounding the blackboard to emphasize the point that ten twelves are one hundred and twenty.

He didn’t realize that with every thump on the board, a heavily laden vase of flowers on the shelf above the board was creeping towards the edge of the shelf, and none of us kids was game to tell him. Our joyous anticipation was too great.

When the inevitable happened, “Boss” Harley, flower strewn and dripping, stomped out of the classroom without another word and no-one sighted him for the remainder of the day.

My best friend at Mont Albert was Bill Leigh. His father was a God-fearing Methodist disciplinarian, who taught at the local Methodist Sunday School. After weeks of solid and uninspired gospel, the boys in the class (including myself) may have reluctantly declared our love for Jesus, but we certainly bore no great love for my friend’s father.

I can still feel the pain in my knee-cap where he used to grip it “vice-like”, if he felt we were not paying attention to his divine message, or had forgotten one of the commandments.

We had a two-acre block at Mont Albert. We also had a car, a “REGAL ROADSTER” — pre-1914 war model. It used to go like the clappers. We had no idea what speed we were doing, because it had no speedometer, but we seemed to pass most other cars on the road at that time. Reluctantly, by 1929, the Regal Roadster had become a 1928 Essex Super Six Tourer.

My father also had a well-equipped engineering and carpentry workshop.

In my ignorance, I thought that everybody’s dad had a workshop. My schoolmates used to look at me blankly, when, if I visited their place, I asked, “Where is your workshop?”

In time, I realized that most of them were lucky if they possessed a hammer.

Our immediate surroundings in Kenmare Street were wide open spaces.

On one occasion, in the mid 1920s, I was playing in the front garden, when suddenly “WHOOOSH” — an aeroplane of doubtful vintage skimmed our hedge and landed in the paddock opposite.

On another occasion, the Army staged a mock battle in the area between Union Road and Elgar Road. It was all paddocks almost as far as the eye could see.

But our Mont Albert era was drawing to a close.

Ahead lay another chapter. Castlemaine and the goldfields!