These recollections are by Ross Smith, written when he was only 86 years old; the same young man who subsequently went to war in New Britain; as related elsewhere on this website [read more...]. We learn about the development of the skills that later saved his life and those of others in his platoon. We also get a sense of what it was to be poor in pre-war Australia; and the continuity of that experience from the earlier convict and pioneering days from which our Australia grew. *
Many of Ross' recollections relating to corporal punishment and the rural pursuits of young boys still applied when I arrived in Australia as a child in 1948.
Our milk and bread still arrived by horse and cart; the milk being measured from taps on the back of the milk cart into pint, quart or gallon jugs carried to the householder's milk container by a running milkman; his horse moving to the next house undirected.
Although we had an indoor toilet and a refrigerator, many of the neighbours still had the night-cart and ice box; and relied on the 'dunny man' and ice-man.
In semi-rural Thornleigh I too had an air-rifle as well as a very effective catapult (shanghai) and various home-made spears and bows and arrows. Several of my friends had .22 calibre rifles that we took rabbit hunting.
Our teachers still handed out 'six of the best'.
While some of Ross' recollections are confronting remember, in mitigation, that rabbits and cats are feral pests in Australia [learn more...]. Rabbits are often in plague proportions and unconstrained cats predate on native animals and birds.
There has also been a big change in our attitude to animals. When I was a child, stray, unwanted and injured animals were routinely shot, drowned or taken to the vet to be 'put-down'. These methods were regarded as humane. While wanton cruelty has always been illegal, the concept of anyone spending thousands of dollars on a sick pet would have been shockingly antisocial, when many parents were struggling to feed their children.
The reversal in this social norm, when pet animals are treated like children, and people are frowned upon for 'putting a pet down', is quite new in Australia; within my lifetime. And pet cats are much better managed today. Unless specifically kept for breeding, pet cats need to be RFI tagged and neutered; and not let out at night without a bell.
In the following story the page breaks and headings are added by me. I have also moved some content around into these sections. Some spelling and punctuation has been corrected. But otherwise it is exactly as Ross wrote it.
by Ross Smith
To those of my children and grandchildren who have read about some of my experiences in the 1939-1945 Second World War, I will now at the prompting of Jordan, write down a few little highlights of my life as a young child, say between the ages of eight and 15 years.
Some of you who are faint-hearted may find some of the things that I did a little disturbing but I am not going to pull any punches otherwise there is not much point.
I want to tell you what I did and what I thought about during those tender years that we all go through but first let me tell you about the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1933.
Amid great pomp and ceremony all the dignitaries of course were there, the premier, all his cronies, the police, the army, people of importance from other countries of course were all there. They strung a ribbon right across the entire width of the Bridge and the honour of cutting it was given to the then Premier of the time, the Right Honourable Jack Lang. At the given time he was given a pair of gold scissors and he then readied himself to cut the ribbon but it was not to be; without any warning a Captain de Groot of the New Guard came charging across on his mount, drew his cavalry sabre from its scabbard and with one mighty blow cut the ribbon. He had stolen Lang’s thunder; of course he was immediately arrested and later charged. The ribbon was immediately rejoined and recut by Mr Lang, but it will go down in history books that Captain de Groot of the New Guard opened up the Sydney Harbour Bridge ‘just for your edification’. After that there was only one thing in everybody’s mind and that of course was to walk over the bridge which 1,000 did including me and my family. [Read more elsewhere on this site...].
Okay, so much for the bridge, now let me tell you about me.
In those days there were of course no mobile phones, no computers, no video games, no TVs – you were lucky if you had a radio. Mum got a battery operated one on HP [hire purchase] but it was repossessed because she couldn’t keep the payments up; and also no refrigerators, most people had an ice chest. The ice was supplied every week out the front of your house by a man in a horse and cart; if you didn’t go racing out when he blew his whistle you missed out.
Milk was delivered every day in the same way; poured straight into your jug.
Only the very rich had a house phone, most people had to go to the nearest post office to make a call.
Again only the very rich had a car, most family’s transport was by horse and sulky (cart). The owner had the horse tied up in a big paddock of which there were plenty.
A lot of people owned cows also kept in the paddock. Every morning they would go out and milk them, what they couldn’t use themselves they would give to their neighbours; of course there were also dairies as well. Even riding in a horse and sulky was dangerous; sometimes the horse would ‘shy’ and bolt. Deaths and injury were the same results as in a car crash.
Everybody in those days grew their own vegetables in their backyard and also we also had a big pen full of 'chooks', which gave us a sufficient supply of eggs. They were mainly laying hens with a few roosters thrown in. You didn’t need an alarm clock in those days, every morning before sun up you would hear the roosters crowing.
Whenever mum decided to have chicken for dinner she would go into the fowl pen, drag out a rooster, put its head and neck across the chopping block and with one blow of the axe chop off the chook’s head. Blood everywhere when the chook thrashed around in its death throes minus its head. Then mum would put the rooster in a big tub of hot water and then proceed to ‘pluck’ it, gut it and cook it; sounds awful to you lily-livered people today, doesn’t it?
You would much rather go down to Coles and buy your chicken already cooked, wouldn’t you? But we’re talking about 1933. In those days if you wanted to eat chicken you had to sometimes be your own butcher and executioner, for us poor people anyway.
I was a little too young for such a task; my father was never there, so if mum didn’t do it who would?
Yes, my mother and father were separated. He had another woman. My sister Beryl, three years my senior, knew all about it and one day she saw our father sitting on Merrylands Railway Station with his girlfriend. She 'saw red' and warily snuck up on them and then with all the force and fury she could muster she delivered an almighty kick to the woman’s shin. The woman screamed in agony and Beryl took off at a full rate of knots. Nothing ever came of it.
My father was a Kiwi and his father fought in the boxer Rebellion in China in 1901. His regiment sacked (looted) a temple in Peking, called the Temple of 10,000 Years and he brought home many priceless (in today’s terms) artefacts of which we had quite a few on the walls of our lounge room and in the cupboard drawers of our house at 21 Lockwood St Merrylands which my father built himself, as I did my own.
He separated from my mother when I was very young so I don’t really know all that much about him. He first met my mother on one of the many ferries commuting around Sydney Harbour. She ‘accidentally’ dropped her handkerchief and he swooped on it. Eventually they got ‘married’ but in point of fact as was later found out they were not really married at all because he was a bigamist, which of course made Beryl, Lucy and me illegitimate, or bastards, whichever term you prefer to use.
When I was very young mum took me down to Circular Quay where we met his mother; dressed in black from her hat to her shoes as was common to see in those times. We went to her house at the Rocks. They must have lived there for a long time because my father as a child attended Fort St School also at the Rocks.
My father was an unemployed marine engineer, a very keen yachtsman and an expert cricketer. He tried to teach me how to bat but every time I tried to hit the ball I got out for a duck which saddened my dad immensely. He would go inside to mum and say “the boy hasn’t got it in him Sarah. He just hasn’t got it in him”.
One Monday night when he came to see us (he always came on a Monday night, he had the habit of tapping on the side window of the house to let us know he was coming) he presented me with a magnificent yacht about ¾ metre long. It had taken a whole year of his spare time to build it and it was a masterpiece. It must have been worth a lot. I did sail it a few times but showed very little interest in it. It was not my scene, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
I was gun mad, always have been. At age 10 I was always at my mum and dad to buy me an air-rifle but they just couldn’t afford it and had to go without. There was a boy in the next street who had an old worn out one worth next to nothing who wanted to sell it and my parents couldn’t even afford that, so I said to the kid with the air-rifle, ‘would he swap the gun for the boat?’ Of course he said yes, only an imbecile would have said no. But if an imbecile was involved at all it was me. Of course I asked mum first and she said “do what you want to do, son”. The deal was struck and I became the proud owner of an old rusty worn out air-rifle. Didn’t I give those sparrows and starlings hell! When mum told my father I made it my business not to be there. But she told me he said “it’s the last thing I will ever make for that boy” (love’s labour lost).
Because I did not see my father very much I had an almost estranged relationship with him, it was most unfortunate for me because I think a young boy needs his father sometimes, the same as a girl can relate to her mother. Also I think I needed a bloody good hiding sometimes, to boot. But I can honestly say I don’t think I grew up any the worse for it. That’s about all I can tell you about dad and his family.
During the Depression almost every man was out of work. It didn’t matter how educated they were, it made no difference whatsoever. They were put on what was known then as ‘relief work’; digging up the streets with a pick and shovel - road works. They did not always pay them money either. You had to line up every week for your ration of food for your whole family. Occasionally they even supplied you with ‘dole boots’ and other things that were necessary for your survival with the exception of accommodation; that was your problem, not like today. As you can imagine it was very degrading for your pride and self esteem to live like this.
A lot of men went on the ‘wallaby tramps’, a swag over their back containing two blankets, a cup and a billy, walking almost everywhere, sleeping under bridges and culverts. Some were called the ‘sundowners’, calling into homesteads in the late evening when the sun went down, asking the lady of the house for any scraps she could spare and then off again to settle down, light a fire and boil their billy. A lot of them travelled in groups; when they wanted to travel long distance they would sometimes ‘jump a rattler’ (steel a ride on a freight train).
When people cooked sausages and meat a popular additive was dripping; after cooking the residue was not discarded but kept in a small container and placed in the ice-chest and later was spread very liberally onto a piece of bread with a knife and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Believe it or not this made a very delicious snack (bread and dripping), consumed and enjoyed by almost everybody during the depression.
There were other things made because they were cheap and people could only eat what they could afford. Jam tarts – you would mix corn flower and water to make the pastry then form it into a tart with the edges turned up into which you would place a liberal amount of apricot jam or similar. Another thing you would be more or less forced to eat or go without was bread with either golden syrup or treacle spread on (a by-product of molasses), which as you might imagine did wonders for your teeth. There were many toothy gums with teeth either missing or rotten in the adult fraternity, because people could not afford to buy false ones.
A very popular dessert was bread and butter custard which was enjoyed by almost everybody. For breakfast, mum used to give me an Arrowroot biscuit on a small plate with hot milk poured on with a little sugar added. Also mum would make up a starch with warm milk and sugar. Of course we did have cornflakes very occasionally.
The winters in those days were bitterly cold, you could look out across the back paddock in the morning and it was like a big white sheet covered with a heavy frost. The water tin in the hen house would have ¼ inch of ice on the top. Every night, sometimes by candlelight and sometimes by kerosene lamp we would all sit around in a semi-circle; mum, me, Beryl and Lucy with our feet in the gas oven. It was the only lighting and heating mum could afford. Later mum had a gas light fitted; electricity came much later.
I have always had a ravenous appetite and sometimes I might say to mum when I had finished eating the meal I had been given, “mum I’m still hungry have you got anymore”? Mum would say “here son, have mine”. I would grab it and wolf it down without so much as a second thought. If ever an angel came to earth in human form it was my mother.
Mum had three sisters; Bessie, Mary and Florrie and two brothers; Herb and Jack. From what I know Jack died at a very early age. Uncle Herb owned a small gold mine at Nerriga not far from Moss Vale or Braidwood. He managed to eek out a meagre existence but never ‘struck it rich’ and died a poor man. Mum originated from Bulli and had relations at Cessnock. Her mother died at a very early age from cancer and is still buried to this day in a cemetery not far from Bulli. Kathy Ryan knows the exact location.
Mum’s second cousin was Les Darcy, a very famous Australian boxer who is of course not known today by most of our younger generation, but will always remind in the history books as a future world champion who was unfortunately denied that privilege by the Americans, who as rumour had it, poisoned him. In her late teens, mum came to Sydney and seemed to prefer working as a housemaid for rich people in and around the very exclusive area of ‘Roslyn Gardens’.
Just about all the kids in those days used to either walk or ride on their pushbikes down to the local cinema to see the ‘flicks’. One day they ran a serial and after the first episode we were told to go home and write an essay about it. I didn’t bother but my sister Beryl did and she came first out of about 1,000 entries. Her prize was a six month pass with a friend, mum made her take me instead of a friend, which infuriated her.
Not long after that they put a jam jar in the window of the cinema shop on the corner; the jar was full of peas. The person who came up with the right number of peas in the jam jar would win a pushbike which was also on display in the window. All my mates had a pushbike except me so I raced home, secured a jam jar and started filling and counting the peas into it. Mum said, “Rossi you don’t do it like that, you do it like this”. She put a round scroll of paper inside the jar and said “now Rossi you count all the peas around it”. When the moment of truth came the following Saturday, the manger got up on the stage and said “the winner of the Malvern Star pushbike is Ross Smith”. I raced up onto the stage and he said, “hold it son, it’s all yours”. I was, of course, ecstatic. I couldn’t ride it; I had to push it all the way home. Good on you, mum!
Yes, they didn’t come much poorer than we were, sometimes the ‘rabbito’ would come calling “rabbito, rabbito”. If you went out he would sell you a pair of rabbits skinned and gutted for two shillings (underground mutton). The skins when dried out he would sell to Akubra. It was a hard way for him to live but it did give him a good financial return and as always money is the name of the game.
Sometimes at Christmas my uncle Bill would take us down to Jervis Bay in the back of his truck. Mum had a 8’ x 10’ duck tent in which the four of us (mum, my two sisters and me) slept on the ground – although they made up a ‘Queensland bunk’ for mum; two supported uprights at each end with a longitudinal pole along each side covered by a big chaff bag about 6’ x 3’; quite a comfy arrangement.
But the best of all was the fishing. In those days the fish were more than abundant. Every morning when we woke up the first thing we heard was the crashing of the waves onto the beach and the absolutely beautiful smell of fish being cooked everywhere, and I mean everywhere, not like today.
One morning I remember walking along the beach and I saw a launch with three men fishing in it using hand lines. After about an hour it came into the beach where I was; it was a 16 footer. They did not have maybe a basket half full of fish; the whole boat was full of fish almost overflowing and they were very selective of their catch. No sergeant bakers, parrot fish, nannygai or other rubbish, they were nearly all snapper, morwong, bream, flathead, yellow jackets and other of similar quality. They said “here, son, would you like a couple” and handed me two beautiful squire, which I immediately took home to mum.
I can’t imagine any better holiday than that. At that particular time the two loves of my life were fishing and shooting; outside of my own family of course.
Every Saturday arvo we all went down to the local cinema to see the ‘flicks’. Mum would always give me sixpence to go in and a penny to spend. One of my favourite shows was Frank Buck in ‘Bring ‘em Back Alive’; a real African adventure.
Back home again you could say that everybody’s loo or outhouse was, as the name suggests, way out in the backyard. In the middle of the night or in the pouring rain, that’s all there was and no toilet paper either. The Sydney Morning Herald was the paper of choice. A far cry from today; you didn’t have to press a button or pull a chain either. Oh no! All you had in those days was a very big ‘pan’ about 18” high by about a foot wide with a wooden dunny seat and a lid on the top. Upon lifting it you would see what was in the pan; the stench of which would knock a horse over.
The ‘night man’ would call about once a week in the wee small hours to change the pan, heave the full one up onto his back, with the family dog snapping at his heels and trying his best not to contaminate both himself and your backyard with its contents ‘a la dog’. Every year at Christmas he would leave a card asking for either a tip or some sort of gift. What gift could you leave him? A piece of cake? My humorous instincts were always in poor taste.
In the late 20’s and 30’s poor people like us did not have the same freedom of movement that we have today with hardly any communication with anybody else outside of your own family. No motor car, no telephone, not even a horse and sulky. There was of course public transport but that could be very time consuming so unless it was very important you just didn’t bother; so we made do with friendly neighbours visiting each other, even at night. Partying at each other’s house was a popular event, playing cards especially was all the go. Sometimes they would play poker; when they ran out of what little money they had they would then play for matches. Games like gin rummy and 500 were also played.
I remember one incident I will tell you about but first let me start from the beginning. Mum had a very good friend only a few doors up the street; a Mrs Terry – ‘Eva’, who she had known for a long time. They had one thing in common; they were both separated. Eva had an elderly mother, Mrs Wright and two sons, Reggie and Raymond, who I used to ‘knock about’ with.
Mum and Eva were keen tennis enthusiasts and sometimes would attend séances about spirits and come home all ashen and scared. Eva’s mother was a little on the witchy side. She had this big crystal ball about half a house-brick wide with funny little flat sun faces on it and in the light of the kerosene lamp it would flash all these beautiful colours, like a huge diamond.
I remember seeing her stare into it with this fixed expression on her face as though she was in some sort of trance and inform everybody present what she could visualise in her ‘mind’s eye’. She seemed to be a little incoherent in her weird statements about the ‘other side’ which terrified everybody there as if she was performing some kind of séance. She would come up with these spooky ghost stories like, if you hear a dog howling at night it was a bad omen and somebody you knew would die the next day, which so terrified me I was too scared to walk home at night without my mum.
She also specialised in reading tea leaves. In those days there were no teabags; if you wanted to have a ‘cuppa’ you would put a teaspoon of tea into your cup and when you had finished drinking there would of course be a lot of wet tea leaves clinging to the bottom of your cup which were all different shapes, sizes and patterns. If you had a very vivid imagination like Mrs Wright you would then ‘read’ to the consumer about what you could see in their future, like if you could see any of the leaves formed a cross, that would mean that somebody you knew was going to die. If they resembled a horseshoe you were going to win the lottery; and a small circle meant a wedding or an engagement and so on, depending entirely on the imagination of your fortune teller. In the case of Mrs Wright she was really a fortune teller extraordaire.
I can remember Eva coming to a party at our place at night with mixed company; men and women but not necessarily attached couples. I will now continue with the incident I was going to tell you about previously. This particular night mum and Eva were sitting down in our kitchen in deep conversation just before the other guests had arrived and I nonchalantly happened to stroll into the adjoining lounge room which was in darkness. I was accosted by a strange man who put his hand over my mouth and within seconds I recognised Mr Terry; Eva’s husband. He whispered to me in a threatening voice that if I told anybody he was there he would kill me. Deciding straight away that discretion was the better part of valour I said nothing. He then released me to go about my business while he continued to eavesdrop on their conversation. After a short time when he had heard all he wanted to hear he went into the kitchen and made his presence known. They were probably all in their late 40’s or 50’s.
One day at the Merrylands Public School when I was in 5th class primary, just after the lunch break we were all lined up in our separate class rows, the same as a regiment of soldiers. It was stinking hot at 105 degrees Fahrenheit. You could have fried an egg on the black asphalt parade ground. Nearly all the girls wore shoes but 90% of the boys did not and of course I was one of those unfortunates, all the teachers in front of their respective classes; the hot asphalt was burning the soles of our feet and we were moving them trying our best to relieve the pain.
The ex-military headmaster not having a brain his head, bellowed an order “you are standing at attention, the next boy who moves his feet gets six on both hands”. I could not bear the pain any longer and moved my feet. I was told to report at the headmaster’s office first thing after school which I did and copped a good six on both hands. The pain was almost unbearable and I cried all the way home. If such a thing happened today they would have crucified the bastard. I might tell you from my own experience he was a real sadist.
I was never dux of the class; about midway was about the best I could do, though one day I came first in the class writing a composition about a bushfire. It was so good the teacher read it out to the whole class.
In those days there were no laws preventing people from chastising their children. A father had the right, even in public, to bash the living daylights out of his son even with a cane or a strap until the kid was red raw and mothers to beat their daughters until they cried.
When anybody misbehaved in class we were sometimes told by our teacher to report to the headmaster’s office at lunchtime. I will now tell you about one such incident which befell me. When the dinner-bell rang all the classes bundled out to the dinner-shed to consume their lunch all except me; I was standing outside the headmaster’s office.
When he arrived with his hot meal he walked straight past me pretending not to see me, into his office and leaving his door open so I could see his every move. He consumed his meal very slowly sipping his hot tea and reading the days’ paper all the while. After our meal break had come to an end he suddenly noticed me standing there and said “why are you here?” as if he didn’t know. When I told him he went to a cupboard and opened the two doors to display the greatest collection of medieval canes that I have ever seen. After selecting the one that he thought would inflict the most pain he said “put your hand out” and gave me six almighty whacks across the palm of my hand. The pain was excruciating. I tried not to cry but after I copped six on the other hand I really bawled and as I walked away he gave me one across the arse for good measure.
One other day a kid came to school with long hair; the mob singled him out, he was soon encircled by about 100 kids as though he was some sort of a freak, which he was in those days. An unsavoury element of the crowd started throwing insults, I forget now what they were but I do remember he didn’t show the next day.
Almost every day after school there was a fight up the street just behind the school tuck shop. There would be about 50 or 60 kids gathered around in a circle in the centre of which was the two combatants. After a bloodied encounter the winner would walk away triumphant and the loser would cry.
I was hardly ever involved in a fight because of my size, nobody ever picked on me or I on them. I was quite content with that arrangement. I was head and shoulders over my teacher even at a young age, I must have sprouted pretty quickly and I soon learned to live with my nicknames ‘giant’ and ‘king of the little kids’.
I find it very hard to understand that nearly all the kids at my school around my age were only weeds compared to me but now almost every boy is very tall, it beats me. You know, there must have been a lot of stupid, ignorant, unintelligent people around in my day. Everywhere I went I used to cop “what’s the weather like up there mate” or “if you’re not long I’ll wait”. You never hear any of those silly remarks these days.
There was a billabong not far from our place. If anybody ever wanted to get rid of any unwanted puppies or kittens it was no problem, all they had to do was to put them in a sugar bag with a couple of house bricks, tie the top of the bag and toss it in the billabong. You could see dozens of these bags half submerged floating around covered in a filthy green slime all over the place.
The billabong was also home to thousands of crayfish, which by using various means were not that hard to catch. I would take them home and mum would put them in a saucepan and proceed to boil them on the gas stove, you could see filthy brown slimy bubbles coming out of them. I never told mum about the cats and the dogs. How we all did not come down with some serious disease I will never know, we must have all had an iron constitution.
After a lot of rain most billabongs were home to hundreds of frogs. The bloody things would keep you awake all night with their croaking, but we would get our own back the next morning. We got stuck into them with our catapults, it was great fun. We would often see a frog on top of another one; we used to call them double deckers, not knowing in our youthful ignorance what it was all about. Small birds like sparrows, starlings and pee-wits were easy prey with the catapult but the bigger birds required the use of the air-rifle.
Since time began most males have a hunter and predator instinct and I was no exception. The only world young boys know today is a world of televisions, computers, mobile phones and video games. Not so in my era, about the only things we had to do apart from playing marbles and rounders (a form of baseball) was to climb trees, rob bird’s nests, shoot birds, rabbits, frogs and almost anything else that we could see.
A lot of boys used to collect birds eggs; once having secured the eggs we would very gingerly stick a pin in both ends of the egg and then blow one end until all the white and yolk came out, then place the eggs in a box naming all the different birds that each egg came from. Most boys I knew could tell at a glance which egg came from which bird. Even today I could recognise most of them we.
We used rifle, air-gun and catapult and with practice became pretty adept.
The best fun of all was shooting rabbits with a .22, if you had one that is. Furthermore they could be taken home and eaten (underground mutton), they were quite delicious, almost on a par with chicken (I can see you now turning your nose up).
What I loved doing the most was riding my pushbike to my Uncle Frank’s poultry farm at Dundas where there was plenty of bush, a distance of some 30 odd kilometres. I had two cousins there, Bill and Frank who I loved, respected and admired greatly.
They would take me down into the bush and teach me how to handle a rifle, shoot straight, bush lore hunting skills and how to set a rabbit trap. A rabbit trap was probably one of the most evil things ever invented by man. It even made me grimace.
You would first dig a small hole big enough to conceal the trap, open the jagged jaws of the trap, put a piece of paper over the jaws and then cover the whole thing up again, taking care you did not set off the trap in doing so. But there was only one place to set the trap: You had to look for a dung hill of which there were many but only one that had been visited the night before. You could tell that by seeing several pellets of fresh dung.
The poor little bunny would see the freshly disturbed earth that night or early morning and start scratching and would of course trigger the release tab and set of the trap, usually breaking one or both of his forepaws and he would remain there all night in his suffering until you arrived. When he saw you coming he would really struggle in vain until you picked him up by the hind legs and with one might blow with the side of your hand just behind his ears (rabbit killer), you would end his suffering.
When I was about 10 years old ‘Cowboys and Indians’ was all the ‘go’.
All the kids used to dress up as either a cowboy or an Indian. Our mothers would make us up all different types of wearing apparel out of sugar bags which were cheap and plentiful to suit either Indians or cowboys; bows out of bamboo, chook feathers for the headdress of Geronimo. Bullet belts were easily obtainable for the cowboys complete with holster and all.
Somebody had given me an old worn out .22 calibre pea rifle. It could not really be used as such because the stock was broken, the barrel had no sights on it and it had a hair trigger. Otherwise they would not have given it to me in the first place, but it could still kill you.
Nonetheless it was all I required to suit my needs. First I cut off most of the broken stock and fashioned what part of it that was left into a sort of a pistol grip (handle). Then I cut off the barrel with a hack-saw making it into a sort of a horse pistol. Some people would not know what a horse pistol is but the main thing is that I knew.
So one day I acquired a bullet belt complete withholster and ‘live’ bullets all around, strapped the whole thing around my waist like a cowboy, put on an overcoat so nobody could see it, jumped onto my pushbike and rode through the main street of Parramatta en-route to Dundas witha pistol on my hip at full cock with a hair trigger.
Had I fallen off the bike and survived not being shot and killed the police would have been called. And I would most likely have been thrown into jail; or a lunatic asylum.
My mother's sisters Bessie and Florrie met two English sailors on a British battleship visiting Sydney; Bill and Frank Evans who were brothers. They must have fallen in love straight away because they both ‘jumped ship’ (deserted) and if they had been caught would have been given a very long prison term or worse had there been a war on, but luckily for them they got away with it and after a short courtship Bill married Bessie and Frank married Florrie.
After they all settled down to the Australian way of life, uncle Frank started up poultry farm at Dundas and later raised two sons, Bill and Frank.
As much as I liked my two cousins I hated their mother, my auntie Florrie, she was a real battle axe. She would reprimand me if I left too much sugar in the bottom of my tea cup. One day she cooked me some banana custard out of sugar bananas, I hated sugar bananas, they made me sick but I knew if I didn’t eat it all she would abuse me so I ate it all and came close to bringing it all up. I was too terrified to do so.
They were pretty well off, they owned a poultry farm and a car and we were the poor relations and she treated me as such.
Another time she noticed three or four bullets in the red hot embers of the fuel stove; of course I got the blame straight away and she really got stuck into me for being so dangerously careless and stupid for doing such a thing. In the midst of all the ridicule, luckily for me Bill walked in and he took the blame. He noticed some mandarin peelings mixed with the bullets and said he had put his hand in his pocket to throw the peelings he had there into the embers and also had some bullets in his pocket as well. Do you think she apologised to me? You’ve got to be kidding! But that was nothing.
One day when I was on school holidays it was decided that I was to spend a whole week there and be with Frank and Bill all the time. I was ecstatic; I caught the motor train of the time to Telopea Station. The next stop was Carlingford, the end of the line. I remember running from there to my uncle’s place about one kilometre, jumping up and down in happiness as kids do, firing my air gun into the air, I was so happy.
When I arrived there I was met at the door by the ‘battleaxe’ and she said to me “you can’t stop here now Rossi we have visitors staying here, you will have to go back home again.” My whole world collapsed, I have never been so disappointed in my whole life. It all happened so quickly that I caught the same train at Telopea on its return trip.
As they became older the two juniors of the family, Bill and Frank, had to decide about their future.
Billy decided his future was to follow on with the farm raising chickens, but Frank had other ideas and took on something else, at which it turns out he was extremely gifted: ‘chicken sexing'.
One day my uncle Frank had read in the paper that the Japanese were introducing a new way of determining the sex of a chicken when it was one day old with 99% accuracy, which was very important because only the pullets laid eggs and the cockerels were worthless and had to be destroyed. Only a few were kept to fertilise existing fowls or chooks.
The Japanese started up an education program at different places throughout the state to teach people with a gift for this sort of thing; that is it took exceptionally good eye sight not only to handle the chickens gently and to be 99% accurate; but to be very quick because as always, money is the name of the game. At this Frank was the most successful and farmers only employed the best.
He worked very long hours and made lots of money. When most people’s wage was about five pounds a week, he was making 100 pounds a week. But he could only work six months of the year (it must have been seasonal) so Frank made hay while the sun shone.
Even today he beat the Japanese at their own game and still holds the world record of x amount of day old chickens sexed with 99% accuracy in one hour. Bill at a later date also took it on occasionally but was nowhere near as successful. As a matter of fact that is where Frank met his wife Mavis who was also learning the art. Nowadays there is a more efficient and less expensive method.
When I was working, at age 15, I bought a .22 rifle. Almost everybody owned a rifle in those days; only a .22 calibre but it could still kill you.
One day mum said to me, “Rossi there’s a cat under the house that’s going to have kittens, can you get rid of it”. Of course that was right up my alley. I thought the loud bang would only be heard by the neighbours so I only used a .22 short, not the full power of a .22 long. Then I had to entice the cat to come out so I put a saucer of milk on the ground and said “here, puss puss puss” and out came the cat to within about six inches of the muzzle of the rifle.
I pulled the trigger… There weren’t any comments from the neighbours so I thought if I did it once I could do it again. Every night there were dozens of cats; spitting, meowing and caterwauling everywhere. You could go out the back door and shine a torch and you would see 15 to 20 cats sitting on the back fence.
I would lean the rifle up against the side of the doorway, shine the torch along the top of the sights of the rifle right between the eyes of a cat and squeeze the trigger. I very rarely missed. Within the next couple of weeks I killed and buried quite a lot.
One of the neighbours in the next street was missing her prize Manx Persian cat; it didn’t take her long to find out what had happened to it. Just about everybody knew what was going on, so she summonsed me. There was a big write-up right on the front page of the Daily Telegraph – the headlines:
Cat Killer bought to Book.
The reign of the Merrylands cat killer ended this week when Mrs Melinda Black summonsed Ross Smith, a 15 year old youth for shooting her prize Manx Persian cat.
The lad confessed to the crime.
I have a very good long term memory but I probably couldn’t tell you what happened yesterday. A big sergeant of police came around to see me. Feeling a bit sorry for me he advised me to go around and apologise to the old lady which I did; and she withdrew the summons.
So it was when I was a boy.
At age 15 in 1939, the Second World War ‘broke out’ with very vivid implications even for those of us at home: food rationing; petrol rationing; and later when the Japanese came into it brownouts and blackouts were also imposed.
Coffee for one thing was practically unprocurable so people had to make do with substitutes both for that and other things. For a coffee substitute you could stick together about a dozen pieces of wheat with burnt sugar to form a sort of a blob; if you put three or four blobs in a cup of boiling water it would taste like coffee. I know; I used to drink it.
Everybody was issued with ration tickets which had to be used very sparingly. Of course the few who were fortunate to have money could buy all they wanted on the black market with the possible exception of petrol, of which the Military and Essential Services had the monopoly. But for everybody else there was nowhere near enough.
But most problems have a solution – in this case a ‘charcoal burner’ – a big ugly monstrosity of a thing about five feet high by one foot wide mounted on the passenger side of a car on the running-board (step), belching fire, smoke, fumes and pollution everywhere. The gas the charcoal emitted was fed into the fuel system which in some sort of way took the place of petrol but was nowhere near as potent.
Vehicles in those days did not develop very much horsepower at all, compression ratios were very low, about 7.5:1 compared to about 12:1 today. Also the octane rating of petrol was only about 70 compared to 91 or 95 today. To coin a phrase ‘they wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding’. When the car was going uphill under load in top gear the engine would start pinging (ping ping, ping ping, ping). The only way you could stop it was to back off on the accelerator then you had to change down a gear, which would use more fuel. It was compulsory to paint the sides of the mudguards of your vehicle white so they could be more easily seen in the brownouts.
After Darwin was bombed and the fear of a possible bombing and invasion by the Japanese drew closer people started digging air raid shelters.
I spent a whole week digging a huge hole in our backyard. It was very hard digging through clay let me tell you. It used to stick and cling to my mattock and when it was finished I was very proud of the effort I had made for my family. I was only about 17. One night it rained very heavily and filled the whole bloody thing with water; so much for the air-raid shelter. Luckily as it turned out it wasn’t needed anyway.
When the Japanese bombed Darwin there was complete and utter panic and thousands of people fled south in a mass exodus to a small place called Adelaide River. They came on horseback, cars, trucks, motorbikes and bicycles. It was referred to as the ‘Adelaide River Stakes’. At that time Adelaide River was the culminating point of our rail link.
Both the casualty rate and the damage caused by the bombing were very heavily censored. The next day I remember seeing a lone soldier with a Bren-gun mounted on a tripod standing on Manly Beach.
The Australian Government also in a state of panic had formulated a pathetic plan to abandon the whole northern part of Australia to the Japanese and to form a last ditch stand at the ‘Brisbane Line’. All I can say is ‘God bless America’ because if it hadn’t been for them the Japanese would have been all over us like a rash and what do you think would have happened then?
‘That’ I will leave to your own imagination.
For what happened next go to A Digger's Tale
I have just about reached the end of my tether and enthusiasm for writing stories, but because you have requested me to do so Wendy, I will now endeavour to do one more “just for you” especially because you seem to have shown the greatest interest of all my other stories to date.
Cousin Bill and his wife Margaret had four children; Billy, Ray, Jean and Rosemary. Practically the whole Evans family were atheists and did not have any of their children baptised.
A strange quirk of fate; when Ray and Rosemary grew old enough to think for themselves they had themselves baptised and became missionaries up in the mountains of New Guinea. Margaret visited him once by plane and four wheel drive. When he came back both he and Rosemary preached the gospel for a time in Queensland. As I said some time ago, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
To my knowledge Frank and Mavis had two children, Joan and Gary. At about age 12 Gary came down with cancer and Frank was so involved with his beliefs that he would not even pray to save his son’s life. Within a year Gary was dead.
Aunty Bessie and Uncle Bill only had one child, a daughter named Marjory. Because she was a girl I did not have much to do with her. She was several years older than me and her interests were far removed from mine. She is still living and Lucy makes contact with her sometimes. Every time mum took me to see them sometimes all uncle Bill and mum talked about was politics and aunty Bess just sat there and listened. She always struck me as a very meek, shy and worrying sort of individual.
Every other weekend I would ride my pushbike which I had won at the ‘flicks’ all the way from Merrylands to Eastwood just to see them. I first started when I was only 10 years old. They were very nice people and I loved them very much. The other weekend I would alternate to Dundas to see Bill and Frank. A pattern I had set myself into that I don’t remember stopping.
In 1945 when I was still in the army tobacco was almost unprocurable. I didn’t smoke myself but if I chose I could get a pretty generous ration which I then passed onto my uncle Bill. But Joan put a stop to that and ‘demanded’ that I give it to her father instead, ‘ole Aub’. It was never the same again after that. Looking back now, in hindsight, I should have given them half each but knowing Joan like I do now she would have demanded to have it all.
At about age 65 or 70 both Uncle Bill and auntie Florrie died, not all that far apart from one another; victims of old age, or whatever, that left two very lonely people, Uncle Frank and auntie Bessie. Both of them were at a loose end and in need of companionship so they started keeping company, which was accepted by all as a good idea until they wanted to get married only about three months after the deaths of their spouses. All hell broke loose and vicious innuendos which I did not think for one minute had any truth in them. Mavis in particular was very upset and abusive about it and told me in no uncertain terms what she thought about the whole thing. But as time passed it was eventually accepted and nothing more was said.
Now that leaves my auntie Mary and Uncle Ted. They had two boys, Teddy and Darcy and one daughter called Mary. The boys were older than me and queer types who I did not relate to very well. Mary was a very nice girl but I did not have much in common with her really. Auntie Mary was almost a clone of my own mother with similar characteristics.
Uncle Ted did not have all that much going for him at all; he had a very bad habit which was quite sickening to watch: whenever there was a young girl close by who was unfortunate enough to be in his presence, he would come-on with his slimy smile and oily charm. Even as a young boy I couldn’t help but notice it. Beryl and Lucy tried to avoid him at every opportunity.
They owned a cow; it was a Jersey. It didn’t return as much milk as a Friesian but the milk was a lot richer and had a much greater cream content which was essential for making butter.
I can remember my auntie Mary putting a big aluminium container full of milk in the ice-chest and the next morning the whole top of it had all this cream as thick as your thumb which she then scraped off into a container. What you didn’t consume yourself; i.e. putting heaps of it on top of blackberries and other delicious snacks (cholesterol was neither known or cared about in those days), was put in a deep dish and beaten fast and furious for about two or three minutes with a wooden paddle and all of a sudden you would see all this white cream turn into yellow butter right in front of your eyes. Amazing! What was left was buttermilk which was either discarded or fed to any poddy calf that happened to be around at the time.
Well I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you about my family Wendy; I hope you are happy with it.
I remain your loving father.