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Friday, November 19, 2010

Taragoola and Christmas time - Den's story

Den's story

So this is the third little story of the Taragoola trilogy - or maybe a triptych would describe what we've tried to do more accurately. It’s wonderful but not surprising that if we had written independently, we would have mentioned so many of the same things that struck us about Christmas time and going to the Jensons each year – yet inevitably there's that clear personal window that Jan, Lyn and I looked through when we went to Taragoola.

A farm holiday? For farm kids?

The Jensons were farmers; so were we. It may seem strange that we kids went for holidays out there, to another mixed dairy farm, and yet everything was so different. Maybe it was the river that was a big part of this. We had a creek running right through our place and practically none of it would have been over our head in depth, and the fish were very tiny – many varieties of native fish no bigger than your finger that probably and sadly are now extinct. 

But the Boyne River could be deep and wide, and eventually flowed into the sea. It had shoals of mullet in it, and other fish, and large turtles, and in flood times could be a wide and dangerous piece of water. All this made holidays at Taragoola different, and special.

Then of course, there were the Jensons themselves, Uncle Siv and Aunty Daisy (one of Dad's seven older sisters) and their sons, so lovingly described by my sisters, related to but not the same family as the Jensons who played a part in other stories about the Calliope dances. 

The Nordic connection

Uncle Siv surely came from Viking stock and he still retained a hint of the accent or pronunciation idiosyncrasies of his Nordic ancestors – the word we will all remember was how he said ‘Byoot-ee-ful’. 
‘They was beaut-ee-ful, Joan – Jan – June….’ 
It was wonderful that there were so many byooteeful things in his life, the grey-haired patriarch with those Scandinavian blue eyes and a wicked glint in them. Oh yes, they were wicked -  I don't know how much voolee-vooing he did in France during WW1 when he was 17, but he could certainly parlee-voo quite a bit - and I'll wager he didn't learn it from les hommes.

Their sons Mervyn and Neville were not that much younger than our parents – because when Mum was posted to Riverston school when she first started teaching there at the age of about 18, she taught Neville, so he was probably eight or so years younger than she. Mum boarded with Uncle Siv and Aunty Daisy as a teacher and that’s how she met Dad in the first place. Mervyn and Neville then treated us like much younger siblings, teasing us unmercifully and indulging us in ways one’s peers don’t.

"No moon landings!"

I guess what I remember most about those tropical Christmas nights was Uncle Siv’s tales, and some of his funny ideas.

‘They’ll never land a man on the moon,’ he would say.
‘Maybe they will,’ someone would bravely venture.
‘No!’ he would declare with total conviction. ‘And do you know why?’
He'd roll a smoke and light it.
‘Because it’s impossible,’ he would add, ‘And you know why that is?’
He'd draw in deeply as the tobacco smoke lazily curled out the wide-open windows.
‘Because….’ He would pause for maximum effect, ‘.... it ain't natcheral’.
He’d pause again, staring into space, to have a good drag on his ‘natcheral’ cigarette.
‘It’s just not natural.’…. And later he’d throw the natcheral dumper out into the garden through the nacheral window.  ‘It can’t be done.’
That was the end of the matter.  You can’t argue with impeccable logic like that.

The infinitely jumping frog

An even better one that we could have differing opinions on was this doozy.
‘Jannie. Lindy. Denny. I’ve got a puzzle for you.’
Will it be the frog one? We had a fair idea it might be.
‘Now think about this,’ he would say. ‘There’s this frog in a ring….’
It's going to be the frog one.
‘How big’s the ring?’
‘It’s four feet across.’ (About a metre, for those of you who are imperially challenged.)
‘The frog’s right in the middle.’
‘So two feet from the outside.’
‘Yes. Good girl, Lindy.’
‘In any direction,’ adds Jan.
Uncle Siv contemplates that for a moment. He tricks us when he can and knows we are smart enough to get him back if the opportunity presents itself. Jan's comment makes him consider circle radii and diameters.
‘Yes…. That’s right.’
I want to ask if it’s a green frog like the one down the hole in the post at home, but decide not to complicate matters more than they will be in about 20 seconds.
‘Now. The frog jumps half the distance to the edge of the ring.’
My turn to add to the conversation. ‘One foot.’
‘He uses all his feet,’ cackles Uncle Siv and we all laugh.
‘Yes, one foot from the centre. The frog jumps again. He’s a bit tired, so he only jumps half as far.’
‘Six inches,’ we all say.
‘How many jumps so far?’
‘Two.’ I get in first. Anyone who calls me a mug’s no fool, as Erwin Holzheimer used to say.
‘He jumps again. Only half as far as the last time again.’
Three inches left to go before he gets to the edge. He’s had three jumps. We are in perfect agreement.
‘Right. Now, here’s the question. He keeps jumping, but he's running out of steam. So, he only jumps half as far as the last jump each time. How many jumps will it take before the frog gets out?’

This is the point at which things start to get a bit messy
‘He’ll never get out,’ we say. ‘But he can jump as many jumps as he likes,’ says Uncle Siv, ‘So he’s got to get out sometime!’
We argue it round and round, but infinity always gets in the way.

Then Uncle Siv ends the argument by telling us, ‘When George Dart was boarding with us, I asked him about this.’ (George Dart was one of a succession of teachers who took Mum’s place.) 
Apparently Uncle Siv and George debated the question for quite some time, with George writing down a set of mathematical calculations ending in larger and larger numbers after the decimal point, in order to introduce Uncle Siv to notions of infinitely smaller froggie jumps within the circle.

But I’m pretty sure that at last George realised there was no point trying to convince Uncle Siv that Freddo was never going to make it out of that circle no matter how close he got, and, in desperation, had finally recanted. We know this because Uncle Siv always ended this debate with ‘George worked it out. He found out that if you did the sums enough, the frog would eventually get out of there.’

I strongly suspect it was George who wanted to get out of there, not the frog, and found the only way to do so. Had he not been a teacher, he would have made a good economist, that's for sure.

Boy stuff

The thing that fascinated me about Christmas at the Jensons, or just being at their place anytime, was that they always had mechanical devices that my father never used on our place. We had a horse and sulky [buggy] in the earliest days, they had utes, and tractors with steel spiked back wheels instead of rubber tyres. To state the bleedin’ obvious, the tractor wasn’t designed to go on roads or car tracks, but the spikes must have done a damn fine job of aerating the rich river-flat soil with deep puncture marks into the ground. I got to drive theirs sometimes and loved it, even if it was just on the straight bit of grass beside the car tracks up to the dairy.
This is an antique tractor from the 30s. The Jensons' was much more upmarket and super-cool,
but you can see how the spiked wheels w

Mantle lamps

At night they would use a pressure lamp for the dining room instead of what we had at home – we had plain kerosene lamps that bathed the room in a soft yellow glow. The pressure lamp had a mantle, and the fuel under pressure was atomised on to the delicate web-like mantle inside, creating a brilliant white light that attracted moths and beetles for miles. The sound of the pressure lamp was a distinctive low roar or hiss. It was exciting. To us, it sounded and smelt of warm summer nights by the river.
Modern pressure lamp (camping!) Dual mantle
Not really that modern, this design!

Electric lights and Christmas beetles

At Christmas time, they also strung up real electric lights in the house. Of course, as in our case for a lot of the 1950s, there was no power grid to service rural properties, so if you were going to have anything electric, you made your own.

Mervyn rigged up a DC lighting system running off 12 volt batteries that were recharged by a generator. It was magic to have real electric lights for Christmas, and the insects loved them just as much as they did the pressure lamplight. When you were eating, you had to watch out for beetles or moths that might have suicided in your gravy, or in your Christmas pudding with the silver sixpences in it. Christmas beetles taste foul, I can tell you, even with Aunty Daisy’s custard.

Magic radios

The other thing that fascinated me was that Mervyn and Neville each had portable transistor radios. Sometimes they would have them on at each end of the same room, and as I walked between them, the sound would seemingly pass through my head and at some point seem to come from right in the middle of my brain. You aren’t impressed? You have studio quality ambient noise cancelling wireless Senheisser headphones? Well, bully for you… so do I. But in the 50s, the sheer wanton luxury of a portable transistor radio at each end of the room was just as magical, so there.

1960s portable trannie. (Jan had a tiny Transistor 8 in a leather case, that she paid a fortune for!)

The one-holer on the river bank

The penultimate thing I’ll mention was the one-holer dunny at the Jensons’ place. This was an amazing piece of sanitation engineering. If you opened the lid and looked in, which you always did, of course, the hole simply descended into blackness. It was so deep I was fairly sure that there was lava at the bottom of it. If it wasn’t lava, well…. let’s not explore that too deeply. I just didn’t think it was humanly possible to dig a hole that deep without bringing in Caltex or Shell. 

It never needed maintenance, it didn’t smell too bad, but you wouldn’t have wanted to drop a torch down there, or got sucked in yourself as you sat there contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Nothing in the caverns of Lord of the Rings would prepare you for a fate like that. Ecologically, it was probably nearly perfect. Scary for a kid, but perfect in its way.

Party lines

And, of course, they had the party-line telephone, another piece of magic that Jan has described already. A real telephone that you could speak to people in other houses round about the river and beyond. 

Each house had its own allotted ring combo, so if you wanted to ring Jean Stark across the river, you'd do a sort of Morse Code short-short-long-short turn of the ringer handle and she'd know someone was calling her. Confusions, accidental or deliberate, often led to multiple conversations between A, B, and C, which could be even better than two-way, except if A and B wanted to gossip about C or about something that C shouldn't hear. Party line conversations could be fraught with danger - though mostly it was just good fun, and could save a life in an accident.

Neville's death

Tragically, the phone didn't save Neville's life, when the river bank close to where he was ploughing gave way, and the tractor plunged fifteen metres down the high crumbling bank to the water's edge below. That was heart-breaking for us all and would have happened in about 1969. Nev, the gentlest soul in all the world, had a pretty good voice and I'll never forget him sitting there milking by hand, head tilted to one side, in a world of his own, and singing the Slim Whitman classic, China Doll.

Copy and paste the link below into a new page in your browser. I tried to embed it here but it didn't work. It is so evocative it will make my sisters cry when they hear it. This is the 50s and it is the country, don't forget!!

Things unsaid

But let's smile again because no-one should grieve forever. There are a million things I might have written about, including the snottaberries and the Buffs, but you’ve probably had enough by now. It was a magical world, with magical people, with those blue, blue mountains as a backdrop, and how lucky we were as kids to experience it.

Our mother's painting of the old steam engine, the Boyne and the mountains


  1. I love it. There is an old bellows in a falling down slab shed out here -I think it (they?) are made of wood - I would have to crawl in to see. Did you have one of those? Would it be for blacksmith sort of things (horse shoes?).

  2. Could be bellows for a forge, but yes, you'd have to crawl in - watch out for Jo Blakes right now though- many reported sightings with the wet weather in dryish places like you're describing. Tree and carpet snakes, harmless. Red bellied blacks - back off. Browns? Really back off and leave them right to their domain....
    We didn't do farrier work. That's specialised. Nor smithying. That's a real art too, much underrated in terms of skills required.

  3. Oh yes, good point about the snakes in sheds. It's warm enough for them to be about but too wet to be outside. Brown snakes, shudder. They are so aggressive and fast.

    Anyway, why NOT write more about Tarragoola?

  4. No reason from the viewpoint of what could be of interest, except there are quite a few things I want to write about before that, and I have to eke out my energy levels.


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