Wednesday, 15 April 2015

COONAMBLE YARNS


COONAMBLE YARNS

   I have not had the time to do any more Canberra-based yarns, although some are being written by others as I wait. In the meantime I thought I would publish the following yarns that were written by my dad, the late Roy Wheeler (1924-2008). Roy lived in Coonamble for about 4 years between early 1948 and early 1953, working as a high school teacher. I was born in Coonamble during that period.
Dave Wheeler. 

AFTER SCHOOL
by Roy Wheeler
According to the thermometer hanging under the peppercorn tree it had been 105 degrees Fahrenheit when school went in after lunch. The afternoon’s lessons had dragged and the children were hot and listless. Everyone was relieved when the bell rang at half past three. This was a typical summer afternoon at Coonamble in 1951. 

I stood by the roadside in the shade of a cedar tree and saw the children from Quambone safely onto their bus. I felt sorry for them. Ahead lay 40 miles of heat, dust and corrugations, and beyond that little hot houses baking in the western sun. The temperature would not drop below 90 at night so there was no relief.

I stayed in the shade for a while, enjoying the slight breeze and thinking about equality of educational opportunity. I was in no hurry to go back into the hot school to prepare for tomorrow. The bus rattled over the bridge at the end of the main street and soon the only sounds were the “carr carr” of a distant crow and the slap of Cec Green’s paintbrush on the school’s picket fence.

“G’day Cec,” I said.

G’day”, said Cec.

Cec put down his paintbrush, pushed his sweaty hat onto the back of his head, and while he strolled over to join me in the shade, took out his tobacco pouch. We would share the next 10 minutes.

We squatted on our heels with our backs against the tree. Cec put the edge of a paper on his lower lip, put some tobacco into the palm of his left hand and passed me the makings. Mine were in the staffroom.

Cec looked up and down the main street, spat, paused for a while and then spoke.

"Bloody hot.”

No reply was expected.

“Thought I might go out on the stock route for some firewood this evening’” said Cec. “Evening” meant late afternoon.

Cec was a painter by trade and he successfully applied for all the government contracts. He painted the school, the post office, the police station, the courthouse and all their outbuildings and fences. Then it was time to start again. Cec never hurried.

“Too hot to go out today, Cec,” I said. “Might cool off a bit in a few days.”

By the time we had settled this problem we had finished our smokes. We stood up and were about to go back to work, Cec to his fence and me to prepare my lessons, when we heard a familiar roar from behind Titch Turner’s place opposite.

The familiar roar came from Titch’s T Model Ford truck. It came round the house in low gear, mudguards trembling, engine roaring and it moved slowly onto the road. Titch grinned, waved and turned the steering wheel. The left front wheel came off and the truck slid to a stop. The ancient Ford seemed to be kneeling in prayer; perhaps it was asking to be left in peace after years of hard labour.

Cec and I stayed where we were. Work could wait.

“G’day Titch,” we said.

‘G’day ,” said Titch, still gripping the steering wheel.

He got out and walked round to the front of the truck and scratched his greasy head. The end of the axle had ploughed into the gravel and the wheel, now attached only by a bent steering rod, lay nearby. Titch needed to think things over so he joined us under the cedar tree. This time I borrowed some of Titch’s tobacco and we rolled our smokes in silence, making sure that the three of us didn’t light from the same match.

“Broken kingpin,” said Titch, breaking the silence.

“Is that bad?”

“Aw no, must have some bolts about that size.”

Titch went off to find some bolts while Cec and I rested in the shade of the cedar tree awaiting developments. Titch reappeared carrying two bolts as candidates for the position of kingpin. The larger one wouldn’t go through the holes, even when encouraged by a four pound hammer, so Titch settled for the one that was too small.

“That should do it, ”said Titch as he set the throttle, retarded the spark and turned on the ignition. The coils buzzed their four different notes as he turned the crank handle. The engine fired.

Titch drove down the road, struggling to control the wheel wobble, and rattled over the bridge. All was quiet once more. Cec went back to painting the fence and, rather slowly, I walked back into the hot school.

A Model T Ford truck similar to the one driven by Titch Turner.

PERCY SIMPSON
by Roy Wheeler
Surrounded by a noisy, beery mob I shuffled into the boxing tent at the local Show. The ring was set up and sawdust covered the ground. It was not my scene but I was rather worried about Percy Simpson, our school captain. He had been up on the platform outside, next to the spruiker, and had been presented to the crowd as “the local boy” who was to go three rounds with one of the boxing troupe.

I knew Percy was only fifteen and he had been matched against a wiry lad who looked about twenty. I was hoping Percy would get a fair go, although there was not much I could have done about it if he hadn’t. Percy was big for his age and was well built. I needn’t have worried. He gave a good account of himself.

I was teaching in a small central high school in Coonamble in 1952. The pupils were friendly country kids and Percy was in the final Intermediate Certificate year. He was the school captain, a natural sportsman and one of nature’s gentlemen. He would punish my slow off break when I joined in playground cricket, using a tennis ball and a garbage tin wicket. He was also Aboriginal.

About a week after the show I was sitting on the tank-stand doing lunchtime playground duty. Percy came up for a yarn, as pupils often did. I asked him if he wanted to become a professional boxer. He paused. “No,” he said. “I’d rather have a proper job.”

The year passed happily but we were worried about Percy’s future. At that time Aborigines could only get menial, poorly paid jobs in town. There was prejudice. The owner of a local store had asked me to suggest a “good strong lad” to help in the shop on busy Saturday mornings. I suggested Percy. I well remember the reply. “Hold on. Isn’t he that Aboriginal boy? No, he wouldn’t do. You see I’d want him to take money to the bank.”

We talked to the officers of the Aborigines Protection Board when they made their regular visits to the town. Yes, they would do something for Percy – arrange for him to go away for further training leading to a worthwhile job. They’d give him a chance.

At the end of the year I received a transfer to Lismore, hundreds of miles away. Our furniture was being loaded when a police constable arrived with a telegram from the Aborigines Protection Board. It asked him to contact me to see if the two of us could find Percy a job in town. I left in disgust.

Over forty years passed and I retired. I heard that Percy was living in an Aboriginal community near Ballina and that he was far from well. I called on him. The years dropped away and he told me his story.

After leaving school he drifted to the city, going from job to job. He earned money in the gyms by sparring against big name professional boxers. He fought in some preliminary bouts and finally joined a boxing troupe, following the show circuit around Australia. Unfortunately too many punches had got past his guard and he suffered from bad headaches.

I felt a heavy load of sadness for what might have been. This sadness was tempered when I realised that he was loved and looked after by children and grandchildren. But I still see a country schoolyard and a young man smiling brightly while he is lofting me for six ---- a long, long time ago.
The late Percy Simpson aged around 15 in 1952.

SATURDAY NIGHT PLAYOUT
by Roy Wheeler
I could throttle that kid. He’s doing it again. He’s pretending he has a sticking valve and has stopped playing. I’ll have to struggle on alone.

We are playing our opening number, “Colonel Bogey,” and we are down to our last strain. The regular euphonium player has been called out on an urgent job and that leaves young Jimmie and me to play the euphonium part. I am still a novice, whereas young Jimmie, the bandmaster’s son, is a remarkably good player even though he is only 10 years old. The high notes are no trouble for him.

The last strain has an important and, for a beginner, a rather demanding counter melody. I struggle on alone, miss a high note, lose my place and stop playing. Jimmie is still fiddling about with his valves. Out of the corner of my eye I see the bandmaster looking across at us, wondering why the counter melody isn’t coming through.

The last strain is repeated. As expected, young Jimmie’s valve has suddenly become unstuck and now he is showing me just how good he is and how the part should be played. I could throttle him.

It is a usual Saturday night in or around 1950. About 20 of us, resplendent in uniform, are in a circle under the shop awnings in the main street of Coonamble, a small north western NSW town. The usual crowd is in the street listening to the town band before going to the pictures.

We’ve finished “Colonel Bogey” and we open our spit valves and blow silently through our instruments to get rid of the condensation. There is nothing as bad as the bubbling of “soup” through in the tubes.

While the librarian is collecting our music I look around the group. My teaching mate, Joe Bruce is over with the solo cornets. He’s pretty good. During the war he was a navigator in bombers in England and he has carried on aircrew practice by severely altering the shape of his band cap. Instead of being flat on top it now drapes down on both sides. They call him “Sloppy Joe.”
The late Joe Bruce to the left and the late Roy Wheeler to the right at Coonamble High circa 1950.

And there’s big Lennie. He plays the double B flat base. It’s a big instrument, it needs a big man and Len does a good job. He has never married and at the age of thirty five he is getting on a bit. The story is that before he had gone off to the war Len had been very keen on a certain girl. In his courteous, old fashioned way he had approached the girl’s father for permission to pay court. Her father had high hopes for his daughter, and as Len was a house painter he was shown the gate. Poor girl; she missed out on a good man.

There is compensation for Len. It is amazing the number of respectable matrons who, on their way up the street, stop and have a long chat with him. They must enjoy his chiacking and the mild flirtation.

Little Titch Turner plays the trombone, or rather moves the slide up and down with great vigour. He’s a shocking player and not infrequently plays the dreaded extra note after everyone else has finished. When that happens it’s impossible for the offender to look nonchalant and unembarrassed.

Titch gets dirty with grease and sweat during the day because he earns a precarious living doing backyard car repairs. His wife doesn’t seem to mind because almost every year yet another miniature Titch is enrolled in kindergarten. However, Titch scrubs up for Saturday night and looks quite smart in his uniform.

Now Titch has an application in to the council for the sanitary contract; to collect the nightsoil, as it is delicately known. This gives Lennie‘s earthy sense of humour good scope, “Gawd Titch, a man your size couldn’t lift a full can, you’d have to pour half of it out. And what if you tripped over and fell in? Jeez, you’d drown.”

My musings are interrupted by the librarian who is handing out the next number. It is the “Cuckoo Waltz.” Beauty! The euphoniums have the melody for sixteen bars with the cornets playing in close harmony. It is so sweet it brings tears to the eyes. I might be a poor reader with limited range but long slow passages in mid range I can handle. Furthermore I can get the full, sweet, mellow tone that the euphonium is named for: I can make it sing. As yet Jimmie can’t.

We lift our instruments and watch for the bandmaster’s beat. My turn young Jimmie.

Above is the Coonamble Band in the main street in 1950. The band is also shown below and at the bottom of this yarn are the names of the members as shown on the lower photograph.



Footnote by Dave Wheeler
  Since this yarn was first published I have discovered that the "young Jimmie" Roy was referring to was Jimmie Sloggett. He is the kid with the euphonium 3rd from the right in the second row from the top in the closest photo above. Roy is on the far right of that row. Jimmie became a well-known and highly skilled professional saxophonist who was New Zealand-based for much of his career. Jimmie has played with Johnny O'Keefe, Max Merritt, Johnny Rebb and the Rebels and many others. He also had his own bands, "Jimmie Sloggett & Combo" being one of them. He has also been employed as a musical arranger. As I lived in New Zealand for several years, on and off, starting in early 1972, and saw  many NZ bands, including Max Merritt and the Meteors, I probably saw Jimmie play. Below is a link to Jimmie's profile, followed by a youtube link to him and his band. Jimmie plays a mean sax.
http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/jimmie-sloggett
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8r3P2J3GzA
   Roy, on the other hand, never had a musical career, although he continued to enjoy playing the piano and organ, and occasionally the euphonium, until his death in 2008. He was never in the same league as Jimmie Sloggett. Roy however, was an accomplished poet. He wrote the words to Slim Dusty's song, "Clara Waters," which can be heard on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0b5jq1Zdv0&nohtml5=False, and other songs such as "By the banks of the Berembed Weir," on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoEnxkREkLQ&nohtml5=False  He also wrote the "Breaker Morant Waltz" and "Goanna Oil." Goanna Oil was recorded by Raymond Crooke and can be heard on youtube by clicking on the appropriate button at the top of this page and the "Breaker Morant Waltz," with Roy Wheeler on the organ and Spud Murphy on the voice, can be heard by clicking on: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZauzB6LnOVU
   Jimmie Sloggett teaches the sax online on http://www.musicteacher.com.au/jimmie-sloggett/saxophone/ 
   Jimmy Sloggett was interviewed on the Radio National Program, "Rare Collections," on the 24/5/15. The program was entitled "Jimmy Sloggett on the Sax." It was a very interesting interview which briefly covered his life and career. It also plays some of his music. It is well-worth downloading on:


Jimmy Sloggett & Combo-Cowabunga.

FLAPPING MY PYJAMAS
by Roy Wheeler

   It was half past two in the morning and I was standing in the dappled moonlight on the back path, under the grape trellis, flapping my pyjamas. To understand how this came about I must tell you something of the sanitary arrangements of small, far western country towns about 1950. This was in Coonamble and we had dunny cans. The dunny man would come around once a week with an empty can and take the full one. I suppose it was better than having a pit toilet.

If a bloke is in a hurry and forgets to take his wallet or his tobacco pouch out of hip pocket he can lose them forever down a pit toilet, but with a can, retrieval is possible. On the other hand, every country town has its story of dunny men, called nightsoil collectors, who have walked into newly erected clothes lines at night and have spilt the lot. Anyhow to get back to the story…….

It was that time of year when the “gastric” was sweeping the town. It happened every year, like the seasons rolling around, and was accepted as the natural way of things. Some people reckoned it was because of the flies and that not everyone put the lid down.

Well, I had the gastric and had to answer the call about 2 am. It was a nice, warm moonlit night. I turned the torch off and left the door open so I could contemplate the backyard; the old copper under the tree, boiled up every Monday, the sagging clothesline with its prop, the woodheap.

The woodheap was always close to the dunny so if there was anyone about, within earshot, when you went down the back you could abort the mission and pick up some wood for the stove instead. Anyhow, to get back to the story…..

There I was, sitting comfortably, enjoying the view of the backyard, thinking about the brevity of life and the length of Eternity. In the far distance a rooster, deluded by the moonlight, crowed to announce the dawn.

I was about to make arrangements to leave when I heard the neighbour’s back door open. There was a soft shuffle of slippers down their path. It would be Molly. Their dunny door creaked and I heard their lid go up.

In those days it was custom to build dunnies back-to-back, so to speak, so the neighbour’s dunny was just over the fence from our dunny; only a few feet separating them.

Now there is a sort of unwritten law, I suppose you could call it bush etiquette, which says you can’t embarrass them by letting them know, that you know, that they are in the dunny. If I left now Molly would know that I had been in the dunny and she would know that I knew that she was in the dunny. It’s just not done.

So there I was, stuck, and unable to make a sound. I would have to remain, seated, for the whole performance.

Now Molly was a bit “la-de-da;” she bunged it on at times. She often mentioned, in passing, that she had been to Ladies College. When she entertained graziers, which she often did because it helped her husband’s business, her accent got very fruity. She sounded like one of those rich, chinless wonders from southern England. She didn’t speak with a broad Australian accent, so much in keeping with our wide, brown land. Not Molly.

Well, to get back to the story….She must have had the gastric pretty bad because she kept saying things like “Ohhh GAAAWD” and JEEEZ.” It wasn’t Ladies College. She probably came from Queensland.

I was becoming fed up with being stuck there. Then came a sound which captured my musical interest……..you know I belonged to the town band. It was quite drawn out, which is not unusual for the gastric, but the note didn’t get sharper or flatter……it remained at the same pitch all the way through.

I reckoned it was middle C. While I was reflecting on this link between music and physiology, she sounded again. This one held its pitch too and I judged it to be about E on the scale.

“Aha” I thought, “She’s building up a major chord. I’ll bet she goes for the G next time.” I sat there expectant but was disappointed because there was a rustle of paper and then she left. The slippers shuffled away up the path, and their backdoor closed. I was now free to go.

Now there is another thing you should know about dunnies. If you’ve stayed any length of time, people can tell where you’ve been for some time afterwards. The smell clings to the clothes. The song may have ended, but the melody lingers on, so to speak.


So, before I went back to bed, I stood in the dappled moonlight on the back path, under the grape trellis and flapped my pyjamas.
 The photo above is of our family home at 12 Arthur Street, Coonamble, circa 1950. My older brother, John, had a mate who lived nearby in Arthur Street named David Lyons. I can recall John bringing up stories about David Lyons and himself even though the pair would have only been around 4 or 5 when we left Coonamble. One day our chimney caught fire when my mum was home by herself. Fortunately David Lyons' dad came running over and put the fire out, preventing the whole house from burning down. My brother John was killed in Vietnam in 1971.

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