(Graphic: Stuart Krygsman; Source: The Australian)
[Reposted with kind permission from Bernard Salt, originally printed in The Weekend Australian, Sep 14-15, 2013]
MORE than 50 years ago, before going to school – I must have been four – I spent half the day with my father at his work. Mum must have been ill; I can’t quite remember the circumstances. Dad worked in the produce department of a country co-operative store in a small town in western Victoria.
Dad’s workplace was the most wondrous place. It was a drive-through shed that was cavernous, cool, dark and terribly manly.
The store sold farming and building supplies, as well as clothing and groceries. They even had what was known as a “fancy department”, which sold gifts and dainty stuff and was staffed by women. But down in the produce department, where dad worked, it was men who were always scurrying about, busy at their work. They wore Yakka overalls. They rolled their own cigarettes. Have you ever seen a man roll a cigarette? I know it’s a confronting concept now but back then I thought it was a choreographed work of art.
One man wore a leather apron; he had a pencil balanced permanently behind his ear. The shed was filled to the rafters with stacked hessian bags of wheat and chaff. Have you ever smelled hessian? Have you ever run your fingers through a bin of wheat? Have you ever wondered at the lightness and fluffiness of chaff? Have you ever smelled timber being dressed?
There was a joinery attached. It had a buzz saw that was strangely reassuring; it was the sound of work. At morning tea the men would gather in the joinery and pull up a saw-horse to sit on, drink black tea from tin cups, eat broken biscuits that couldn’t be sold in the shop, and joke and laugh and talk about football. I was in heaven. They had names like Tom and Jim and Harry and Bill.
Dad dispensed a product known as millet. I think it was fed to chooks. It smelt malty. It smelt delicious. I ate some. Damned lucky chooks, I say.
Every year the co-op store had a company picnic. Maybe 30 families would board buses to a park on the foreshore at Port Fairy. There were egg-and-spoon races, sack races and three-legged races. There was a sprint once. Dad didn’t win, but then he didn’t come last either. Late in the afternoon the entire picnic would bus to the wharf for a joy ride on a fishing boat out into the blue water beyond the breakers. Perhaps 30 people would cram aboard a single boat. No safety harnesses. No life vests. Kids were left to wander the deck of a working fishing boat that would pitch and roll. Salt water would spray in your face if you managed to get into the right position. Back then it was “your lookout” and not someone else’s to ensure that you didn’t fall off the boat.
The danger, the fun, the adventure, the edge that was that boat ride is something that has stayed with me for decades. On the way home, in the cool of the summer’s evening, there would be singing on the bus: Irish Eyes are Smiling and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary were favourites.
It’s odd, the seemingly irrelevant minutiae from childhood that stays with you for years, and that perhaps will stay forever.
Bernard Salt is founder of the facebook page Decent Obsessions.
Bernard Salt’s piece brought back memories of my grandfather, Jan Groenenboom. He was a greengrocer and mixed business operator in Lidsdale, NSW. He had one of those leather aprons. It had silver rivets on the corners. He wore the trademark pencil behind the ear. I can still see him, stand there with his hands in his pockets, underneath the apron, and a Ritmeester ‘Little Cigar’ between his lips. I can smell the fruit and veggies. I can hear the compressor pump kick in under the work bench.
And I remember the hessian bags and the smell of wheat and grain from the back of the shop in Portland where Leigh Eave’s father worked. The whole footy team would be weighed in there on his big produce scale. Me, Bellamy, Kearnesy and all the others. And an older man from the team would be there, writing everyone’s weight in the sheet in his knife chiseled pencil…
Great memories. Thanks, Bernard, for bringing them back…