Corduroy & Cabbage 12 – A Crappy Christmas

Like many immigrant families, mine continued to observe traditional customs, even when it seemed obvious that such customs might be unsuitable for the Australian experience. For as long as I could remember, Christmas Day revolved around the traditional roast turkey dinner. This was served in the middle of the day, regardless of the temperature outside – 25” or 40”. Most years, as we feasted on roast turkey and roast potatoes, our Christmas party hats would be wilting in the heat as sweat dripped from our foreheads.

My mum had been preparing the meal since breakfast. After the flurry and excitement of present giving, she would disappear into the kitchen, only reappearing to organise or instruct my three sisters and I. We would spend the morning exploring our new gifts – roller skates, bicycles, model planes, animal books, Barbie accessories etc. Soon, it would be time to put these aside and get ready for the day. This would involve donning our predetermined Christmas outfits – frilly dresses and frilly socks for my sisters; shorts, walk socks and sandals for me (very sexy).

Christmas dinner itself was usually uneventful. We observed the same rituals as any normal Catt family dinner. (My sister, Deborah, ate everything and wanted more. My youngest sister, Joanne, ate nothing. I tried to avoid brussell sprouts.) It was one of the few times of the year that my parents drank any alcohol, although they usually indulged in little more than a glass or two. If we were lucky, the kids also got a taste of the Summer Wine or Cold Duck (yuk).

After lunch, we gathered a few of our Christmas toys and our swimming gear, and headed off to our grandmother’s house. She’d followed us to Australia after divorcing my grandfather some years earlier, and eventually married a large, taciturn man we knew as Bill. They shared a house in nearby Pooraka, which included a large in-ground swimming pool.

Midway through the afternoon, the rowdy Catt clan arrived to ruin their Christmas solitude. But if it was hot the kids spent the rest of the day splashing around in the pool, playing nonsense games about sharks or crocodiles, hidden underwater caves or superheroes, leaving the adults to chat or drink quietly.

My grandmother, or Nanny, as she was known to us, prepared Christmas tea for us all – cold meat, salads, turkey leftovers, chips, nuts, cakes etc. We were usually so full after tea that we were forbidden from re-entering the pool until our meal was properly digested. (My sister, Deborah, always ignored this command, and I waited in horror for her to sink or explode. She did neither.)

As evening loomed, and everyone began feeling a little tired, we came inside, changed out of our swimming costumes, and played board games or cards. The adults usually played their own card games (bridge, canasta), leaving us to look on or pester them with demands for drink and food. By about 10.00pm we all climbed sleepily into our car for the short drive home to bed.

Year after year, our Christmases followed this basic format. There was rarely any drama or variation to the formula. That is, there wasn’t until my nan fell ill. One Christmas, we arrived to find her looking pale and complaining of an awful headache. When her situation worsened, and an ambulance was called, we were asked to visit her one by one as she lay on her bed. It was obvious that something awful was happening.

Our grandmother had had a brain aneurysm, and while she did not die that day (it would be almost a year before she finally passed away) she was never the same again.

Our Christmases were also never the same after Nanny died – no more afternoons in the pool, late night card games etc. We didn’t want to burden Bill with our noisy presence on Christmas Day, but invited him to spend it with us instead. And, most years, he did join us for dinner, sitting down in our tiny dining room to eat roast turkey in the sweltering heat, beads of sweat on his forehead dampening his party hat.

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Corduroy & Cabbage 11 – Bulldozers, Bridges & Pipe Dreams

In the early 1970s, Ingle Farm was an area of growth and development. Houses, schools and shops were being built. Roads and carparks replaced open fields. Consequently, there was always earthmoving equipment in the area – bulldozers, graders, steamrollers etc. My friends and I were fascinated by them. One of us would turn up at school with news of a grader or bulldozer in their street, and we would all run down to check it out. Sometimes, if we were feeling really brave, and there were no workmen around, we’d climb up into the driver’s seat. We fantasised about finding one with the keys still in the ignition.

At the peak of our fascination we pretended that a parade of bulldozers and steamrollers was planned for main streets of our suburb. The boundaries between fact and fantasy blurred, however, when we told other kids that we’d actually seen the parade, and produced ‘photographs’ as proof. I don’t think the crayon and pencil scribbles we claimed were ‘photos’ fooled anyone.

Our interest in building sites went beyond an adoration of bulldozers. We also loved vacant blocks, bridges, pipes, pillars, hills and mounds of dirt. Anything that could be crossed, climbed, crawled through or under, or turned into a cubby house, a racetrack or a dam. If we found a new building, unoccupied but otherwise complete, we would try to find a way into it, by crawling beneath the floorboards, or up and through the roof cavity.

Once, when playing in the foundations of a new school, we were trapped by a bunch of older kids. They’d blocked the exit with a huge concrete slab, leaving us to tunnel our way to freedom. After escaping, we giggled while watching them look for us, baffled by our apparent disappearance.

But we didn’t need anyone else’s help in making things difficult for us; we were quite good at doing that ourselves. For example, one afternoon Keith and I decided to cross a local bridge on the outside of the pedestrian guardrail. There was nothing between us and a fatal fall to the road below. We thought we were awfully brave, but our parents would have been horrified.

On another occasion, Keith and I dared each other to crawl along the pipe that spanned the local creek. It was fairly narrow and very slippery, and while we both managed to slither across, it wasn’t without getting wet and quite muddy.

And then there was our storm drain period. When one of us discovered that a drain emptying into the creek led to a series of interconnected tunnels, we were compelled to investigate. There must have been half-a-dozen of us, armed with boots and torches, sloshing about in the pipes underneath the streets. We weren’t trying to cause trouble or upset anyone, but when one neighbour heard voices coming from the drain outside his house he threatened to call the police.

We gave up exploring drains when it became obvious that we weren’t going to discover the doorway to a secret military bunker or cavernous underground world.

Corduroy & Cabbage 10 – The Reluctant Boy Scout

When I was a child I had great difficulty asserting myself. Consequently, I often found myself talked into doing things I didn’t really want to do. When I was about 12 years old, one of my friends invited me to a ‘bring a friend’ evening at the local scout group. I thought the evening was ‘okay’, so when he asked me to go again, I said ‘yes’ – but just this one last time.

Six months later, and I was still going. I’d been talked into buying a uniform. I was talked into learning to tie knots and build a campfire. I was soon chanting along with the others (‘dib dib dib dob dob dob’). My father was so impressed that he became involved in fundraising activities for the group. Pretty soon I realised I was trapped. (Meanwhile, the ‘friend’ who’d talked me into going in the first place had stopped going.)

It wasn’t long before I discovered that scouts provided bullies with yet another opportunity to pick on the weaker kids. This was particularly evident with any hiking or camping activities. The bullies shared the same tent, smoked cigarettes and looked at pornographic magazines together. The weaklings (like me) got the worst campsite, the worst tent and the worst jobs. I can vividly remember washing filthy pots and pans in cold water at night, while the bullies stood around the campfire sharing cigarettes and sex stories.

My parents were oblivious to any of this. They thought that I was having a great time. In fact, I can remember Mum remarking on the fact that I used to stand by the window and watch for my ride to scouts drive up to the house. She thought I was excited and couldn’t wait to get there, when the opposite was true. I dreaded going, and was praying that they’d forget me, or break down on the way.

It wasn’t just boys that bullied. Some of the adult scoutmasters were just as bad. I can only assume that they themselves had been bullied as kids, and enjoyed the opportunity to enact some kind of revenge by bullying others. One of the scoutmasters was in the army, and used the scouts as a kind of ‘proving ground’ for his warped idea of discipline. He used to scream at us until his reddening face looked like it was going to explode!

But the worst thing about scouts wasn’t the bullying, the camping or even the evil scoutmasters. The worst thing about scouts was the dreaded ‘Bottle Drive’. About once a year, all of the scouts and their parents had to go doorknocking for empty beer bottles. On their own, individual bottles weren’t worth much, but a whole truck full of bottles provided a fair bit of much-needed cash for the group.

We’d start as early as possible. People would often still be having breakfast, and would answer the door dressed in their pyjamas. It was usually the bleary-eyed ‘man of the house’ that guiltily led us to the bottom of the garden where his stash was hidden. The bottles had usually been laying there for some time, covered in dirt, tangled in weeds, with snails and slugs stuck to them. Sometimes there was still a trickle of beer inside, and it ran down your arm, or the front of your shirt, when you picked it up the bottle. We loaded the beer bottles into boxes and crates and stacked them in the back of the station wagon. By the end of the day everything stank of beer – hands, clothes, hair. It was revolting.

It was years before I managed to worm my way out of the scouts. Long enough to develop an aversion to uniforms, discipline, marching, camping, knots, and – most of all – beer.

Corduroy & Cabbage 9 – Uneasy Rider

I got my first bike when I was about 8 years old. I called it the ‘grasshopper’, partly because it was green, and partly because I believed it could go anywhere, leap over obstacles like a long-legged insect.

Of course, it couldn’t really do this, but that didn’t stop me trying. I used to ride it everywhere. There was plenty of vacant land in our neighbourhood. Between the shopping centre and the high school was an enormous mound of dirt. We used to race around and over it. And on the land that now houses a community centre and a hotel, we used to devise elaborate obstacle courses.

When I was a few years older I was given a red dragster – long wheelbase, banana seat, high back bar, three gears, hand brakes – the works. It looked great, but wasn’t as versatile as the ‘grasshopper’. It was heavy and slow – more of a ‘street bike’ than a ‘dirt bike’. Eventually, I converted it to something a little more ‘hip’. I took off the banana seat and the back bar, and swapped the dragster handlebars for ‘cow horns’ (they were very wide – difficult to get through doorways). I also painted it black and yellow in imitation of the motocross bikes of the time.

My friend, Keith, had done something similar to his bike, and the two of us would cycle around the neighbourhood feeling very cool. We rode into the city (where I was once pulled over for going through a red light) and into the country. Cycling down the Gorge Road past Kangaroo Creek dam was a buzz.

When Keith bought a real motocross bike I was nauseous with envy. I used to spend every weekend watching him either work on his bike, or ride in competition at the local Motocross Club. Every few months he would update his bike. He always had something bigger and better.

Initially, there was no hope of me buying a motorbike. With four young kids, and only one working parent, it was impossible for my family to afford one. We always had to ‘make do’. However, I managed to scrape together a bit of cash by doing a few odd jobs over the summer. It was just enough to buy a motorbike.

Of course, I didn’t buy a fast, flash motocross bike like Keith, I bought an ugly, noisy second-hand agricultural motorbike. It belonged to the ‘friend of a friend of a friend’ and Dad said it was a bargain. It wasn’t what I wanted at all, but I went along with the idea so as to not disappoint Dad.

To add further embarrassment, we had to transport the motorbike on a boat trailer. The bike sat on a wooden crate and was tied to the trailer with bits of rope and rags. Keith would turn up at the motocross track with his shiny new Yamaha, while Dad and I rolled up with something that looked like a really daggy parade float.

And unlike the zippy motocross bikes, mine was heavy and slow. While Keith was scrambling up and over mounds on his bike, I was lumbering up and down the flat open field on mine. Which was fine until I hit a pothole at full speed and spent the rest of the ride hanging onto the handlebars from the rear mudguard.

Eventually, I became bored the bike and bored with Keith. I sought new friends with less expensive interests. The motorbike stayed in my father’s shed for about fifteen years. Then my brother-in-law dismantled the bike and put the pieces in his shed. And that’s where they’ll remain until the end of time.

Corduroy & Cabbage 8 – Lost in Television

When my daughters were young I exercised strict control over their television watching habits. They weren’t allowed to watch tv in the morning. They weren’t allowed to watch too much tv. And they weren’t allowed to watch certain types of programs at all. (I wasn’t censoring content, but quality – no game shows, no crummy soaps or sitcoms.) This is all quite ironic when I consider my own tv watching habits as a child growing up in the 1970s. My sisters and I watched television from the moment we got home from school, to the moment we went to bed. And on weekends we used to watch it all day (if we could get away with it).

I was ‘hooked’ on tv from an early age, watching Andy Pandy and The Flowerpot Men in my high chair. I graduated to Top of the Pops pretty quickly, then Dr Who and Thunderbirds. I loved Dr Who so much that when our tv broke down I spent a few days sulking. I liked cartoons too – Secret Squirrel, Atom Ant, Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, Lippy the Lion and so on.

In the mid-70s the big day for cartoons was Saturday. I used to get up around 7.00am and sit there in my pyjamas until midday watching one Hanna-Barbera show after another – Wacky Races, Scooby Doo, Space Ghost, Herculoids, Hong Kong Phooey, The Hair Bear Bunch, Funky Phantom, Josie and the Pussycats etc. I spent the rest of the day feeling sleepy and spaced out (but that didn’t stop me from sitting down later that afternoon to watch the Banana Splits or Cattanooga Cats).

Sometimes, it seems, my grasp on reality slipped. I’d watched an episode of The Impossibles (superheros disguised as pop stars), which featured a machine that transformed illustrations of animals and monsters from books into living, three-dimensional beings. I asked my father to make one of these machines. As he worked with metal in a large factory, I considered it quite a reasonable request. I thought he could just throw one together in his morning tea break. I pestered him about it for a few days then lost interest.

After school, my sisters and I watched all the American sitcoms – Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, I Dream Of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, The Munsters, Bewitched, McHale’s Navy. These shows seemed to repeat endlessly throughout the 70s. Then, in about 1975, Happy Days appeared and instantly became everyone’s favourite show. Of course, like every other kid, I wanted to be The Fonz (although I didn’t even have enough ‘cool’ to be Richie Cunningham).

If we were especially lucky we got to stay up late and see the ‘adult’ dramas like Streets of San Franciso, Police Woman or Starsky and Hutch. My sisters and I had a theory that if we were really, really quiet and sat very still, Mum and Dad would forget we were there and let us watch television until the stations closed down for the night. It rarely worked. However, during school holidays we were allowed to stay up all night and watch the Abbott and Costello or Three Stooges marathons, even though we invariably fell asleep well before the end of the second movie.

But my number one, absolute favourite show on tv was Lost in Space. There was something about the dull adventures of the hapless Robinson family that I found captivating. Was it the tacky sets and costumes? The silly characters and storylines? The endlessly annoying Dr Smith?

When colour television was introduced in Australia – some time in the mid 70s – my best friend and I stood outside Radio Rentals in the local shopping centre so we could watch Lost in Space in colour for the first time. We bought hot dogs and drinks, and made ourselves comfortable on the grubby floor of the mall. Soon there were a dozen or so kids sitting with us, cheering on the Robinsons as they fumbled their way around another papier-mache planet.

It was a thrilling moment.

Corduroy & Cabbage 7 – Wildlife

As a child my passions included dinosaurs, cars, geography and outer space. I also loved reading about animals. All sorts of animals. At one point I planned putting together an encyclopedia of animal life, but became daunted by the task, and didn’t make it past the first page. My friend, Ashley, shared my interest in animals for a time, and joined me in expeditions to the nearby creek and fields in search of insects and reptiles.

One spring, a vacant block near Ashley’s house yielded a tremendous number of grasshoppers. We collected dozens of specimens, and took them back to Ashley’s house, where we placed them in various boxes and jars, along with the butterflies, crickets, bugs and praying mantis already on display.

There were so many grasshoppers that we ended up putting some of them in a large plastic boat we pretended was an ark. One of the grasshoppers was unusually large and, unlike the rest (which were green), a dusty brown. We called this grasshopper Captain Hoppy and kept it on the deck of the ark where it could navigate the ship around the room.

But the prize specimen in our ‘miniature zoo’ at that time was a tiny pale-skinned gecko. The gecko was given the most lavish ‘cage’ of all the creatures – a ‘fortress’ made of Lego. It even had a Dinky Toy car in the driveway, and submarine in the adjacent ‘harbour’. Ashley and I took turns in looking after the gecko.

One afternoon, not long after the grasshopper ‘harvest’, Ashley and I got into a fight over the gecko. One of us accused the other of hogging the gecko. Of course, this was denied, and the argument went back and forth until tempers flared and things got violent. A full-blown fight erupted and we ended up thrashing around on the floor like a couple of feral cats. Legs knocked over jars, heads and elbows crashed into boxes. We rolled right over the ark, splitting it in two, and freeing the grasshoppers trapped inside.

When Ashley’s mother came to find out what the noise was about she was greeted by a swarm of emancipated insects.

Ashley and I didn’t talk for a long time after this, even when the school finally announced the dates of an upcoming Pet Show. Before the fight we’d talked about the Show and had decided to work together in winning a prize or two. Now, we were likely to be intense rivals.

I knew that Ashley planned on entering his two stumpy-tailed skinks – Dino and Bronte. I also had stumpy-tailed skinks – a family of them – but decided to take only the biggest and most impressive of the group, a dark, sleek individual called (sarcastically) Speedy. On the day of the Pet Show, my dad helped me put Speedy into a box and carry the lizard to school. I filled out the necessary entry forms, found a spot in the display area, and stood proudly as parents and children filed past to look at my pet.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I didn’t stand much of a chance at winning a prize. There were guinea pigs, chickens, ducks, galahs – even a goat – along with the usual dogs and cats. And Raymond Jackson had bought along his cousin’s bearded dragon, a far more impressive and exotic reptile than mine.

Of course, Ashley was there. As expected, he’d brought along Dino and Bronte. I could see him out the corner of my eye, looking very awkward and uncomfortable. The reason for this, as I was delighted to discover, was that his sister had insisted on tying little bows around the lizards’ necks. She stood next to him, beaming, while her friends milled around them giggling and petting the lizards. Ashley looked like he was on the verge of strangling someone.

To my amazement, I won second place in the ‘Most Unusual Pet’ category. Anita Wood won first prize with her bantam hen, which was fair enough, but Ashley won nothing, and Raymond Jackson’s dragon didn’t even get a mention.

Ashley had left as soon as the winners were announced. I saw him storming off with his silly sister in tow, poor Dino and Bronte, still beribboned, bouncing around in their box.

It was a pity he left, actually, as he would have had the ‘last laugh’ as far as our short-lived rivalry was concerned. For when I went to collect my prize, I discovered that the judges had run out of ribbons, and I was given one that didn’t actually describe the prize I’d one.

My ribbon was pink and silver, and read – ‘The Prettiest Unusual Pet’.

Ashley’s sister would have loved it.

Corduroy & Cabbage 6 – Sex Education

My parents took me to all those Primary School sex education evenings where you watched dull 50s American documentaries involving clean-cut American teens and their mysterious problems, and you were given diagrams of such things as fallopian tubes and vas deferens. I came away from those evenings with some understanding of the mechanics behind the reproduction process, but no real idea of how it applied to the real world. It all seemed very vague and abstract to me.

Everything became even more confusing when my friends and I found a collection of pornographic magazines. We were riding our bikes around the back of the local shopping centre one afternoon, when Ashley suggested we look in the big industrial rubbish bins kept there for use by the shops. He was convinced we’d find toys, electrical goods, tools and other goodies in there. We didn’t find anything like that, but we did find a big box of porn, not just glossy ‘girly’ magazines, but hard-core stuff, with head jobs, spurting cocks and wide-open beavers. For a bunch of 7 or 8 year olds it was like coming across evidence of an alien civilization. The pictures were exciting, shocking and a little bit frightening.

As the ‘finder’ of the magazines, Ashley felt he should be the one to look after them. We helped him carry them home in a variety of bags and boxes, and smuggled them into his room, where they were secreted safely under his bed. The next day at school, news of the discovery spread like a contagious disease. “Ashley’s got porn,” was the catch cry of the day. The fact that no one actually knew what ‘porn’ was made everyone all the more curious.

That night, and every night of that week, children that Ashley barely knew were appearing on his doorstep. “We came over to…er…see Ashley,” they would explain to Ashley’s bewildered mother. After being escorted to his room, Ashley would reveal the magazines with great ceremony, to gasps of disbelief from his visitors.

Ashley’s mother may have become suspicious of the sudden interest in her son, but it was something else that gave the game away. After spending time in the shopping centre bins with rotten meat and other revolting items, the magazines had acquired a rather unpleasant odour. It was upon investigating the source of the stench that Ashley’s mum discovered his porn stash. He was ‘grounded’ for a month. Of course, Ashley’s parents immediately told my parents about our disgusting secret, and I was punished too.

Things never entirely returned to ‘normal’ after the porn incident. It was like we’d been awakened to a new and ugly side of life. Suddenly sex was everywhere. It’s not as though we started having orgies with our 8-year-old friends – it was just as difficult connecting the pornographic images to ‘real life’ as it was the images in the Sex Ed documentaries, but some of our activities did become tainted by the exposure to sex.

Not long after Ashley’s one-month punishment had expired we built a cubby in the vacant block next to his house. We’d found a pile of discarded building materials and managed to erect quite a solid structure. The cubby house had walls and doors, and a carpeted floor. We felt quite safe and sheltered there. Some days, when everyone was together, we’d take our clothes off and sit there in the nude. It wasn’t overtly sexual at all; there was no touching or anything. It was just like a nudist colony – for youngsters.

And later still, a bizarre trend started among our peer group. We started wearing our trousers low at the back, so that the tops of our bum cracks showed. This was especially exaggerated when we rode our bikes. Our backsides would have been almost completely exposed. Thankfully, the trend never caught on in the wider community.

I’ve had an aversion to pornography ever since that first incident. I’m sure it has something to do with the smell accompanying that first glimpse of hard-core flesh – rotten cabbage, rotten cauliflowers, and rotten meat.