Ever had an urge to return to your roots and check out the place where you grew up? I got that urge to make the trip 80 k north from the Sunshine Coast to the little city of Gympie, Australia some time ago.
Gympie was a frontier town bursting with restless energetic miners in the early 1800’s prospecting for gold on their return from the played out fields in California. For a brief time it made the fortunes of a few and caused the death of many before gold reefs retreated further into the ground and big companies took over to burrow under what would later be the city, setting the stage for future sink holes of gigantic proportions.
I recall houses teetering over a seemingly bottomless abyss in the late 40’s with shell shocked residents standing at a distance wondering if their house would collapse into the sink hole before trucks loaded with stone extracted from mines of those early days could provide a safe underpinning. Sometimes it would take weeks of constant dumping before these holes could be filled.
Well there’s still a fortune lurking under the city, but with interlocking mines flooded out in the big flood of 1893 the cost of pumping them out and re-timbering the rotted support posts didn’t make the effort commercially viable until recent times.
But it was not my purpose to visit the mining historical museum, or to check out places of interest from childhood wanderings. This time I wanted to return to the first home I remember living in when we moved to Gympie in 1939; the little home at Excelsior Road.
After our arrival in 1939 my father took temporary lodgings near the Gympie Elementary School. He later rented the Excelsior Road home from a Mr. Waples. Now this gentleman sported a walrus mustache reminiscent of the 1800’s, and was of portly appearance. I can remember holding tight to my Mother’s skirt whenever he emerged puffing and wheezing at our kitchen door after a long haul up the wooden outside stairway to receive his rent. To this small boy he was a fearsome sight indeed!
Whether because the trip up those back stairs was just too much effort for him each month, or whether my Father noted my intense fear of the man I cannot say, but money was exchanged and the house was soon ours.
Now my Father was a tinkerer. Every house we’ve ever lived in went through a metamorphosis. During our time of occupation, kitchen became bedroom, walls were realigned for the usual generous kitchen area my parents favored, and back stairway found its way to a centre of the house location. The ancient thunder box in the back yard was mothballed to be reincarnated as the indoor bathrooms we take for granted today. There was to be no more frightened forays into the darkness at night, torch lights arching to check there weren’t snakes in residence. We needed to do this so we could complete our nocturnal niceties before bedtime without a friendly bite from a death adder.
In the Waples era we sported an ice box to keep our bottled milk and butter refrigerated. One of my Father’s businesses dealt with household goods, so when the house had been renovated (we called it Griceized) some “modern” gadgets began to make an appearance.
The first appliance of wonder was the kerosene fired refrigerator. We gaped in wonder as Eric installed it and turned it on. Mother Maude decided we needed to commemorate the occasion with ice cream, so that night we sat down to an unusual concoction of milky ice crystals. For my Singapore friends you’ll recognize it as a kind of ice kachong.
The next appliance of wonder to appear at our house was designed to take stress out of Mother’s wash day. My earliest recollections are of the wash tubs with scrubbing board, and a wood fired ‘copper” in the back yard to boil out children initiated stains and the grime of the tire retreading plant; another of my Father’s businesses. Eric appeared one evening with a huge square box and a business like salesman who began to demonstrate our first washing machine. “There’s to be no more tubs and no more copper boiler,” he remarked!
We had our doubts about it at that first demonstration. In the wash mode it would rock with a gusto even Elvis would have been proud of. But this of course was well before his era. However in spin dry mode we all had to sit on the contraption to prevent it galloping back to the showroom. The salesman assured us all would be well when we had a cement base for it to be bolted down to. It worked well when that advice was later followed, but always looked like a person trying to extricate himself from a straight jacket on washdays.
Before the house was finally Griceized I was able to use the dirt floor under this house for my budding engineering experiments. Highways were constructed, towns sprang up with all facilities and my stable of elephant beetles labored over these highways in harness pulling their trailers made out of disused matchboxes with their loads.
I remember being deep in thought managing my city one day when a blast of water hit me across the face. Glancing around I saw nothing unusual and as children do, soon forgot this unusual occurrence. Moments later another blast hit me. Checking it out, nothing seemed to be out of place, except the beetles and a rooster scratching around outside in the garden. I ruled out the beetles, and returned to my important duties. But the third water blast screamed for attention. On my horizon, the rooster!
“Get out you dirty rooster,” I shouted as I chased it squawking indignantly down to the chicken yard. Then on the way back I found the real culprit snorting with suppressed laughter behind the wall. My Father Eric! For those of you who read my blog on the dirt bag episode you’ll understand my later naughtiness was genetically inspired.
There were other memories running through my mind as I stood in front of the old Excelsior Road home for Georgine to take my picture. The fig trees had been our vantage points to survey the world in the lower gardens hovering over a pathetic air raid shelter we erroneously believed would protect us from bombings, which fortunately never eventuated during the Second World War. There were also Macadamia trees from which we’d retrieve escaped nesting chickens and return them squawking to their coop at dusk when they were too lazy to run away.
Our pet wallaby (small kangaroo) was a source of continual enjoyment to us children in the days when it wasn’t illegal to keep such pets. For a brief time a porcupine made our yard his home. We sensed the caution of our domestic pets. All gave this creature his own wide space until Eric bagged it and returned it to the forested area away from town where it would be better able to survive and its quills wouldn’t be a threat to our pets.
My memory took me back to the tree house erected high in one of the trees using discarded wood and steel sheets. Our handiwork collapsed and a visitor was injured in the fall. Then there was the fort erected in the far corner of our back yard facing a disused mine behind which lived a family of Neanderthals. We made the mistake of challenging them to a play fight, only to have them appear from behind the mullock heap (mined stone heaps) firing pellets at us from their powerful air guns. When pellets penetrated our forts steel sheet walls we retreated to the protection of our house in a hurry. Later the Neanderthals caught us at the corner shop while we were out buying groceries and gave us a good beating. We lost interest in the fort after that.
I glanced at my watch. It was time to hit the highway again and return the 80 km home before night set in. Taking a final look at the Excelsior Road house I determined not to pass that way again. The house looked very mediocre now, it had been our castle through the 1940’s and happy events as well as sobering events were attached to those years. Now the magic was gone and it was just another ramshackle house in a rather old and unappealing part of town.
Heading toward the car I noted Georgine’s grateful look. It said “Why did it take him so long to get it out of his system?” She was right! I didn’t belong there anymore.
Turning the key in the ignition we were soon on our way home to the grateful sigh of my longsuffering spouse.
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