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Monday, November 21, 2011

Guy Fawkes Night in Calliope 4

The Big Bang

'Have you seen these things?' I asked my cousin Beth.

   'That thing, you mean? No, what is it?'

   November 5, 1957. Not only had it been Melbourne Cup day, won by Straight Draw with a flashy finishing burst, but it was Guy Fawkes Night as well. Elvie's girls, our second cousins, had come over that evening to share the fun.

   The night had arrived at last.  It was clear, calm and tropical. We had been busy on the Sunday before, collecting wood for the bonfire.

   Collection of 'morning wood' (the small twigs that fell dead from the gums trees for the purpose of lighting the stove every day) was a job I never favoured much, but I had not the least trouble mounting enthusiasm for collecting timber for the bonfire on Cracker Night.

   Nor did my sisters, and even our cousins Beth and Gay chipped in and helped if they were coming over to 'our' bonfire that year. It was good if they did, because their collection of crackers would be added to ours, which meant the 'pretty ones' were value-added. All-girl families... that's what you get. Lots of Golden Rains, sparklers, some Tom Thumbs and a skyrocket, but no decent-sized bungers.

   Girls. Jeez.

   A guy had been fashioned from straw pinched from the hayshed and strung on a crucifix made of a couple of fair sized straightish dead branches. Poor old Guy Fawkes was going to get it for sure that night. Flames right up the armpits.

   Great excitement oozed from our very pores. The crackers had all been unstrung and there was a fair-sized box of them on the dining room table, all mixed together, as was the tradition.

   Back to the box of fireworks on the dining room table. We lovingly caressed these and smelt the wonderful aroma of gunpowder. 'Don't touch the wicks!' we were always told, with good reason. Sweaty little paws on a tropical night in Queensland November would dampen the fuses and the crackers wouldn't light.

   But back to the opening question.

   'No,' Beth said. 'What is that thing?'

   I opened it and revealed the matches inside.

   It may come as a surprise to you that a book of matches like this was new to our experience. Maybe they'd been around in other parts of the world before 1957, but Calliope hadn't been introduced to them until shortly before Cracker Night of that year.

   To us a match was made of pine, milled nicely and with a good splodge of red match-head stuff (OK, dialdehyde if you really want to know) on the top, not like the rubbish ones you buy these days imported from overseas. Exactly fifty to a box there were. Count them.

   'This is what you do,' I said, tearing off one of the matches from inside the cardboard case. These definitely had a good splodge of detonator on the top.

   I scritched (if that's a word; if not, you will still get the onomatopoeia) the bendy paper match along the ignition strip. The match exploded into life.

   What I didn't count on, not in a gazillion years, was that a tiny portion of the match head would fly a good metre in a perfect arc from the matchbook straight into the middle of the box of crackers. No sight is more vividly etched into my mind. It was as if the air, redolent of saltpetre emanating from the fireworks box, had provided the perfect conduit for the spark.

   Maybe it had.

   There was a solitary explosion of a Double Happy - like the crack of a .22 rifle cartridge.

   'What....??' came Dad's voice from the breakfast room, 'Who let off that ....'

   The end of the sentence didn't come, or if it did, I never heard it, because there was a second explosion, and as Dad was rushing into the room, a third, and a fourth in quick succession. At least one was a penny bunger.

   Then pandemonium reigned, as he grabbed the box of exploding crackers, rushed through the open front door, and hurled it down the stairs. It hit the bottom step on an angle, and scattered the contents on the grass, which was a very good thing.

Double bunger
   But inside the lounge room it was bedlam. Mum was being chased by a Jumping Jack, which must have been equipped with a motherfinding guidance system. Everywhere she went, it followed. A Catherine Wheel was whizzing merrily on the floor, doing its thing beautifully, entirely unconstrained by being pinned to any post. A Roman Candle was indulging in an orgy of fiery psychedelia and there were sundry bungers going off, including a precious double bunger that was intent on terrorising my sisters and girl cousins.

   There were no curtains in that room, which was A Good Thing, and miraculously, the one skyrocket sitting in the box had not fallen prey to a spark.

   That was an Even Better Thing, from several points of view.

   The guns, or rather the crackers, suddenly fell silent. An ominous hush ensued. The whole episode had taken probably less than a minute, but it seemed like forever. It was a very awkward silence for me, because in a room full of girls, there could be no doubt who the perpetrator was. The one who always got up to mischief.

   'Why?' roared my father. 'WHY?? Why would you do such a bloody fool thing?'

   'But I didn't.... I wasn't... it was the match...' I looked down, and it was still in my hand. 'It jus.... a spark just... I didn't know....'

   Tears were running down my cheeks. As any kid knows, tears are an excellent strategy for mollifying parents, but there was nothing even slightly feigned about these. Nothing makes a child cry like a sense of injustice, and I felt a rare claim to innocence. How could I possibly know that could happen?

   Already I thought of our bonfire, sitting there unlit as the darkness closed in, the guy atop it preparing to meet his maker(s) but now with an unexpected reprieve; and the box now devoid of crackers. Gone. All gone. Bonjour Tristesse.

   The anger on my father's face disappeared. There was the evidence - the match still in hand - and I hadn't moved from the spot a metre away from where the box had been. I couldn't have put the match to them, and Beth corroborated my version of events.

   'All right. Check that nothing's smouldering up here in any room. Then we'll go downstairs with the torch and see what crackers are still there.'

   We all went into the garden and searched under torchlight. Green Tom Thumbs are the very devil to find in a green 'lawn' - if you could call the patch of grass at the front of the steps a lawn. Each blade of grass looked like one, but, sadly from my point of view, wasn't.

   Quite a few fireworks were salvaged, and we still had those from the Brown's box. The house was not burned down, and though there had been serious attrition in our somewhat blackened and battered box of fireworks, we made the best of it.

   Best of all, I didn't really get into trouble. Images of the stockwhip had flashed briefly into my mind - not that it had ever been used on me. Once I accidentally whipped myself around the bare legs with our best one when trying to crack it rodeo fashion, and let me tell you, it stings like blazes. You don't ever want a whipping.

   I would live to light another double bunger, but not that night. The double bungers, it seems, were particularly vulnerable to premature explodation, for not one remained virgo intacta in the box.


  1. Denis, this account reminded me for some inexplicable reason of the scene from Colin Thiele's The Sun on the Stubble when there' s a possum loose in the house. Must be because you have captured the sudden chaos so well - Armageddon comes to Calliope! One of the best things I always enjoyed about cracker night at Beecher was the next morning - up early exploring for any bungers that hadn't gone off, and finding where the rockets and Catherine Wheels had landed. Plus the smell of faded gunpowder, treason and plot on the early morning air. Janice

  2. Hi Janice. I don't know the Thiele book and would happily read it if time allowed. Oddly enough, a friend here in Armidale had that very experience of a possum [it came down the chimney] loose in the house for an entire weekend when they went away, and coming back to a house in an indescribable state of carnage and offence to all the senses.

    The possum, it must be said, was also deeply offended, and had no hesitation in showing it.

    YES – first thing next morning, scouring for all unexploded munitions! Some retained a wick so could be as good as new ones when the dew was allowed to dry off them. Others you would bend till they were partially broken, like a V, and light the spilling gunpowder. The 'fizzers', while unable to explode, made a very satisfactory two-way shower of sparks – even the Tom Thumbs.

    Bungers were even better. Luckily we didn't have the pyrotechnical expertise to make bombs or some potent incendiary device with them or the gunpowder inside. We would have, you can bet on that.

    Did you share Cracker Night with the Punters, or go it alone?

  3. Sometimes the Shultz family. The Punters, Reynolds, Wyndhams and Jefferis must have done their own thing.

    1. Ah - the Wyndhams! I was trying to recall the surname. Margaret and Robert – and maybe a younger sister [Jenny? I may have invented her]. I wouldn't have recalled the Jefferis [Michael, Maryanne, Paul, Peter?] till you mentioned them, or the Reynolds's up on the hill. Their names were on my lips a minute ago and now they've gone. There was a fair tribe of them as I recall. Was the Shultz family about a km closer to Gladstone in the fibro house on the left? Was Rosie one of them? Mickey and Penny? I think I'm getting to families mixed up here....

      I'm prattling. Sorry.


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