Friday, January 20, 2012

Memory lane

I was reading a blog post about childhood, and how much times have changed - the experiences that we had as children are so different to what our children experience. This is especially true for me and my children - our experiences on some levels are so very different, and sometimes I wonder how that will effect them, and who they will become.

I grew up on a farm, in northern NSW, just outside of Murwillumbah. My Dad was a semi-retired saddler, and my Mum stayed home. There were four kids, and we had what you might call an idyllic childhood - loving parents, pony club, freedom to roam, etc etc.
I don't know if anyone else will find it interesting or not, but I thought I might walk down memory lane and take you with me... just for fun.

Cattle farming
We lived on a small hobby farm in northern New South Wales, hidden in a valley overshadowed by Mount Warning, and ten minutes’ drive from Murwillumbah. It was a beautiful valley, and a quaint farm, where I got to spend my rosy childhood. It was spring, and on a cattle farm that means only one thing – calves! Tiny little calves were being born everyday, and they were so cute I couldn’t resist spending every moment with them. In excitement I’d watch them being born, and then in disgust as the mother cow crunched through her afterbirth. I’d watch them being licked clean, and mewing - quietly finding their voice. Then I’d wriggle closer until I could touch their curly forehead, soft nose and rough tongue. They’d smell me in curiosity, and the mother would pay me no attention. Then they’d wobble to their feet and begin to move haltingly in for a feed, only minutes after birth. It was an amazing thing to witness. Then after that, I’d walk with them, talk to them, pat them, cuddle them and watch them learn about the world around them for hours of each day, until one day they’d shy away and then that would be it – they were tame no more.

One night, we were all fed, bathed and ready for bed. Mum was reading our nightly story, sitting on the floor in between my bed and my sister, Fiona’s bed. I loved this time of night, the stories Mum read were a fantasy world where I could go and be anyone I wanted to be, and anything was possible. Dad came in and said that he needed my help out in the paddock, and I was to bring a torch. I got up and got changed into some warm clothes, and went out with my torch to meet Dad. We walked up the paddock together under the moon and stars, with the mountains dark shadows in front and behind us. I couldn’t see a thing, other than the shaft of light at my feet, and those shadows all around. Dad stopped beside a cow, laying on her side and moaning. She was in labour, and it didn’t look like it was going well. Dad told me to hold the torch up, and he reached inside her and pulled on the calves legs. It took a while, but finally he managed to heave it out onto the ground. It didn’t move. Dad looked at it a moment, gave it a rub, checked its airways, but there was nothing to be done. He unclipped the small sheath attached to his belt, and pulled out his pocket knife. Then he started to skin the calf. I held the trembling torch up as high as I could, and tried to look away, but every time I did the torch light shifted too, and Dad told me he couldn’t see what he was doing. So I looked back and held the torch diligently in place as Dad removed the pretty brown and white spotted skin from the tiny calf, leaving only pink in its place.

When he had finished skinning the calf, he took the skin in his hands and beckoned me to follow him. I walked along beside him until we came to another calf. This one was standing on its own in the middle of the paddock. I asked Dad where his Mum was, and he said that she was too young to be a mother and had rejected him, and he was starving without her milk. Then he knelt down beside the calf, patted it gently and slung the newly stripped calf skin over its back. He took some string from his belt, and tied the skin firmly in place. Then, he led the little calf over to the mother whose baby still lay pink beside her. She sniffed eagerly at the little calf in his brown and white spotted coat, and stood up next to him, mooing softly. She pushed him gently towards her udder and he began to feed timidly at first, then urgently. Dad and I smiled at each other, and turned back towards the house, suddenly very tired.
School & floods
One gloomy school day, just after lunch a student came into my English class and gave Mr Cross a note. He read it and then clapped for our attention. “OK, listen up! Anyone on the Tyalgum bus, get your bag and head to the upper bus stop, you’re going home early today.”

Yay! I loved floods. We usually got one or two big floods a year in Murwillumbah, sometimes even three. Floods where half the town went under, at least all the houses on stilts did anyway, and we were always stranded out in Eungella, unable to get to school for several days. We would have so much fun. We’d head down to the Oxley river, just under the big old timber bridge where the water usually danced and shimmied over the rocks in gentle bubbling rapids. When the flood waters came though, the rapids would be smoothed out into big brown rolling waves, and the river would speed by, in a hurry to get to the ocean, carrying logs, branches, livestock and anything else it could pick up on its way.

Then, Belinda and I would jump into one of those big waves, and let it carry us too. The key to successfully navigating a flooded river was to relax, stay calm, and not fight it. We would do a gentle breaststroke towards the side of the river, ever so slowly inching our way to the side, while the river carried us swiftly towards its destination. After a while we would get close enough to a fir tree, whose tip protruded from the rushing water, grab a-hold of its spindles and drag ourselves bit by bit to the shore. Sometimes it was quite a hike to get back to the bridge to jump in again, but the ride sure was worth it – that mix of fear, adrenaline and satisfaction always drove me back for more.

If however, I saw a goanna, snake, or any other similar type of creature swimming towards me, I’d duck under the water before they mistook me for driftwood and climbed onto my head.

After swimming in the swollen river, we’d head back to my place and join the boys riding bodyboards in the flooded creek on our farm, past the big tree, through the paddocks and down over the driveway in one big rush.

I was thinking about all of this as the bus carried us home, and the rain continued to hammer against the windows, the noise drowning out the hum of conversation. When we got past Sproule’s and saw our house in the distance, a little sliver of concern started to spread in the pit of my stomach. Our house already looked almost surrounded. The creek was more swollen than I’d seen it in a while, and the rain was showing no signs of letting up. I turned to look for the horses, they were close to being stranded in the front paddock, with their means of escape diminishing with each passing moment. We had to get home quickly, before the water got any deeper over the driveway, and before the horses were cut off from higher ground.

All three of us got off the bus together and headed up the dirt road for home. Small rushing creeks of water ran along each side of the road, and large potholes filled with muddy water pockmarked the road, each raindrop landing with a large splash as the soaked ground refused to hold any more moisture.

We reached the driveway, and all bent down to remove shoes and socks. They were already wet, but we had to be able to feel our way across the little bridge over the creek on our driveway, since the creek was now rushing over it and churning about on the other side where it met with the water coming through the big cement pipe under the road. We picked our way across the bridge slowly, and in single file. Feet feeling around for a firm grip before committing to the next step, each following in the others’ footsteps. The rushing water tugged at our legs. I could feel it pulling, cold pins pushing into my calves. I slipped on a rock, but managed to catch myself before I was dragged under the muddy waves.

When we got home, Mum was smiling at us, standing behind the bench, spatula in hand, flipping pikelets in the hot buttered electric frying pan on the kitchen bench. “How was your day”, she asked as we each hugged her side and bent to smell the golden pikelets sizzling in front of her. They smelled delicious, and the others each dried off, changed, and then sat down to eat as many as they could – hot with honey or jam on top, and butter melting down the sides and dripping onto our eager fingers. There’s nothing like coming in from the soaking rain, to a warm home, a fresh change of clothes, and hot buttered pikelets made with love and a smile. I didn’t have time to change though, so I grabbed a couple, and headed out the back door to rescue the horses. I picked up my gumboots and banged then upside down on the ground to make sure they weren’t housing any snakes or spiders before slipping my feet into them. Then, I licked my fingers and reached for three halters before making my way down the paddock to the front of the property.
The horses were blithely eating grass, in complete ignorance of the rising creek on their right side that was cutting them off from escaping the encroaching river on their left. I pushed the halter over Pride’s nose, and led her through the swirling creek water, up the hill, through the sucking mud in the gateway that took the boots right off my feet as I walked causing me to stand on one foot and yank the boot free before taking the next step. I let Pridie go, and then headed back for Amber and Twinkle. They didn’t want to follow calmly like Pridie had, and shied away from the brown creek, but I persisted and managed to get them to higher ground. Time to go inside and enjoy some dry clothes and more hot pikelets. As I was walking through the backyard, each footstep slushing  and slurping, I noticed something small in the grass. I bent down and picked up a penny turtle, pushing its way through the grass and rainwater. I felt its scaly skin and tiny sharp claws, and peered into its small blinking eyes, before placing it back into the water. It felt strange to find a turtle swimming through the backyard.

The rain kept coming relentlessly, not pitter patter rain, but pounding rain. Rain so loud that it’s hard to hold a conversation, so everyone lays about reading, while Mum irons. I couldn’t even practice the organ with rain like that downing out every other sound. Late in the afternoon Mr Sproule came across the paddock on his tractor. He asked if Dad could help him try to rescue a man who was stuck in his car down on the road in front of their house. The river was getting higher by the moment, and they really needed to get him out of there before it got any higher.

I didn’t want him to go, but didn’t feel as though I could say so, seeing as a man’s life was at stake. So he went, and we all sat around waiting, while Mum put the tea on to cook. We waited and waited, and the gloomy day began to darken as night crept in. Finally, Dad came back and told us what had happened. By the time he and Mr Sproule had gotten back down to the road, the river had risen to the roof of the man’s car, and he was standing on top of the car. When he saw them, he called out ‘Help me! Please!”.

Dad threw a rope out to him to catch, but the man was too far away, and when it landed in the water the rope was violently sucked underneath. Everytime Dad threw out the rope, it never quite reached the man, and every time it was sucked under the water. The water level kept rising, now up over the roof of the car, now tugging at his ankles, but he was just too far away to catch the rope. Then, Dad and Mr Sproule went up to the house and found a surfboard. They tied the surfboard to the end of the rope, and the other end they fixed to the tractor. Then, they lowered the surfboard into the murkey water from the side of the tractor, intending that Dad would paddle out to the man and pull him to shore. However, the moment that the surfboard touched the swirling surface of the water the nose of the surfboard was sucked under the water and the surfboard was pulled away, popping up at the end of the rope. It was all they could do to haul it back to the tractor again. They laboured on until dusk, but couldn’t reach the man on the roof of his car in the middle of the raging river, and had to turn back for home.

Dad said he could still hear the man calling out and crying for them to come back and help him. I shivered when I thought of him out there now in the dark, surrounded by the engorged river, rising steadily, all alone in the night.
to be continued...
Disclaimer: I definitely don't recommend doing any of the things in the above post, and my parents had no idea what I was up to most of the time since  I didn't want to worry them with little things like that, and anyway the only rule was to be home by dark... :)

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