Wednesday, October 22, 2008

1970 - Love On The Afternoon Train

I’m not certain when I became Jennifer’s first boyfriend. Or she became my first girlfriend. But our delicious afternoon meetings, beneath the trees midway along Bellambi platform, followed by dreamy hand-holding all the way over the hill south to Corrimal was recognised, understood and accepted by our peers.

I cherished those innocent days throughout my third and fourth high school years of 1969 and 1970. The couplings had clunked and ground in unison as the ancient wooden passenger cars groaned behind the diesels’ distinctive exhaust beat. We held hands and stared into each others’ eyes, equally astonished by feelings we shared for each other – well ahead of experiencing anything like it for those life’s loves to come.

I still see myself, wishing against the clock, wanting the train to go even more slowly than its crawling reality, wanting to stay holding Jen’s hand as long as possible. Wanting to capture her sweet smell for as long as possible. Wanting to watch Jen’s excited, blushing smile for as long as possible. Delighting in her bottle green school uniform, white blouse and sheer tan nylon stockings – the ones that always accentuated her wonderful knees.

When Jen left for boarding school at the end of Year 10, I happily took to my push bike for the ride to and from Bellambi. There was no need for the circuitous train trips, my ride taking no more than 15 minutes each way.

Jen and I stayed a pair until the end of our school days, but never again shared innocent hand-holding on afternoon trains.

1965 - Strange David

David was oddly strange, always vaguely standing outside our classroom group. Not quite fitting in somehow, in ways none of us could pin down or explain.

Thick set and dark haired, he had strange habits. Like picking his nose with his thumb nail and showing us the contents. And farting to matching, gleeful giggles. And sticking his tongue out, firmly clenched between his teeth, when concentrating on small things. Which he often did.
I noticed, too, that while his nails were strong and perfect – I chewed mine to their stumps – they were always grubby, carrying beneath them the collected baggage and behaviour of something near wild.

David was the only boy I ever knew who could deftly catch flies and tie lengths of cotton around their bodies, then tie the other ends to the end of his wooden ruler. Those flies would often circle, only six inches off his desktop, for hours on end. And if they had enough strength, they’d occasionally lift the end of the ruler off the surface, causing it to flap up and down, much to David’s glee and sense of peculiar achievement. Mind you, boys in the class, including me, were always highly amused and in awe of his skills.

His sense of humour was oddly strange too. He always had a joke, often gleaned from older, more vulgar brothers, and laughed at the drop of a hat. I guess you could describe him as genuinely easy going. Seemingly nearly always happy.

But our primary school nuns were watching from the wings, carefully, sure somehow that he was nearly always up to no good, and nearly always willing to corrupt those more innocent around him.

The final straw came one afternoon, when behind the school’s huge cast iron incinerator, itself tucked carefully into a back corner of the school yard edging Cox’s Lane he decided it was time to show off his bum. And for more than 20 minutes, he’d pull his pants down, expose his bum, and gently rub it’s pinkness for anyone willing to look. And all the while, his tongue sticking out, clenched between his teeth, trying to stifle a most satisfied laugh. Or laughing along oddly with any of us who found this funny.

Word of his exploit spread like wildfire. And I remember being shocked, staring at him doubled over, bum as high in the air as he could get it, his face turned almost over his back to ensure the show was delivering according to expectations, that tongue clenched firmer than ever, and hand motions in order. I’d always been too afraid to use the school’s toilets, frightened other boys might hear me farting. I’d never dream of exposing my lower body, let alone for collective amusement.

As the throng grew larger, none of us noticed the nun wading through, arms flailing to get at David and his exposed bum. And when she reached him, his smile was climactic. “What an achievement!” I read in his sparkling eyes.

David didn’t come to school the next day. Nor the day after that. In fact, David never came back to our school. Nor did he go to our Catholic boys’ high school in Bellambi, despite living just across the street from it. A story soon quietly seeped through our primary class that David was somehow a pervert-in-the-making, and he’d fortunately been nipped in the bud. Just in the nick of time.

I saw him a number of times in subsequent years, in his green Woonona High School uniform (which reminded me, oddly, of the contents of his much younger nose). Although he seemed content, I never knew if he continued his schoolyard exploits. Nor did I ever see him smile again.

1968 – Real Death

Five years later, early in my second high school year, the ancient two-car diesel railmotor train rocked and rolled through Corrimal station right on the knocker at 8am on its regular high-speed morning dash from Thirroul into Wollongong. As it roared alongside the weathered fence edging the brick railway worker’s cottage immediately north of the Railway Street level crossing, the railmotor kicked up a huge, ominous dark dust cloud, swirling with sheets of paper. I saw it clearly from the platform on which I stood, another 100 yards further south, but didn’t comprehend.

Moments later, after the two-car train had screamed through Corrimal at better than 110km/hr, terrified kids in tears pelted onto the platform, racing straight into the station master’s office without knocking.

This was the first I realised Alice DeMartin had been struck, and that same sensation of untimely horror swept through and emptied me. Mary, and the dog, flashed across my eyes. Nothing as final as death was supposed to happen to us this early stage. Alice, my age, attended the girls’ high school adjacent to our boys’ school.

I still see the ashen-faced station master and two teenage platform assistants dashing along the platform and bobbing north across and between the lines to where a group of people were milling near the level crossing’s eastern boongate.

I had known Alice since kindergarten. We went to the same Catholic primary school, high on Corrimal hill.

Alice, with Italian parents and a younger brother, had always been quiet. I can’t remember ever saying more than three or four words to her the whole time I knew her. High School Alice always walked alongside the railway line to the level crossing, her back to Wollongong-bound trains. Why she wasn’t aware of the speeding railmotor, I’ll never know.

Like almost all other mornings, it was on deadly time this fateful day. It had scooped Alice up from behind, and carried her forward at lightning speed before thrusting her headlong into a steel post by the level crossing. She would have been terrified for a second or two before, in a blink of an eye, being catapulted to somewhere infinitely calm, surrounded by angels.

As our school train slowly laboured past the scene, someone in the milling crowd had thankfully covered Alice’s tiny body with a tartan car blanket. Looking down from my carriage window, full of horror dread, I also saw her smashed school case lying close by, along with one of her empty brown shoes.

Apart from almost being struck myself by an extremely quiet and lethal steam locomotive gliding through a freight yard many, many years later, I have never seen another rail accident at close quarters.

1963 – Near Death

As much as they have excited me from the earliest age, trains and railways could be deadly with little or no emotional notice. Like the time we were walking along the platform at Otford railway station, on the far southern end of the Royal National Park, south of Sydney.

We were only kids, and my sister, Mary, would have been lucky to have been five. The surrounding sub-tropical rainforest of this part of the Park smelt damp and richly rotting, of aging timbers sinking back into their landscape, constantly washed by repeated rains. The bush birds called incessantly to each other across the narrow valley in which the station is jammed, and the brilliant spring morning sunshine struggled to break through between the trees and branches towering over the station.

But the smell and sounds came to an abrupt end as my young sister, Mary, somehow slipped off the edge of the platform. One second she was with us, walking and chatting as part of our family along the eastern platform. Next second, she was sprawled between the tracks. One second more and she was on her feet, looking up at us, hands reaching upwards in begging grasps. The look on her terrified little face said it all without a word. I have realised down through the years that I was terrified, instantly, of losing her, knowing the expected southbound train would be here at any second.

Dad leapt over the edge, and in a single, swinging motion, lifted Mary up to us and safety. Then, with a deft side hop and a push, he was up alongside us all – just as that south-bound, Wollongong train steamed around the bend to the north and rolled purposefully, almost regally, into the station area, gliding around the curved platform. The gap between fall and train rolling over the same spot wasn’t more than 30 seconds, but it felt like an entire slow-moving, shuddering, freezing afternoon.

It still does when it comes to mind, which, interestingly, it often does. Ironically, Mary is now near 50, and the C32 Class steam loco only survived another few years before falling to the scrapper’s torch.

The House My Dad Grew Up In

Nana’s and Grandfather’s Campbell Street, Wollongong, house, while nothing fancy in its weatherboard siding and corrugated iron roofing, became precious down through the years simply because it didn’t change.

The bathroom/laundry was still out back, attached to the rear, along with a flush toilet at the very end of the building. This had been installed when the sewer was first run into Wollongong, and like everything else, was original. To use any of these facilities, you’d step out the slapping back screen door, and walk up the side of an ancient concrete courtyard. Dad said it originally contained a well for drinking water, which explained why it’s concrete surface had drooped towards its centre.

Even the external colour scheme reflected an age long gone, and before nostalgia restored it to popularity. Light mustard-tan coloured weatherboards, pure white window frames and Indian Red roof.

Inside, all walls and ceilings were delicately, yet starkly, lined in pine match-board, with ceilings white and walls a deliciously dark cream colour. With no further covering, these walls had no way of obscuring accumulating soul.

All pine-board floors, including that in the main drawing room that was set up with a formal table setting we never used, were covered in ancient, dark and shining linoleum – complete with intricate Deco patterns – which added to the aging aroma. The centerpiece of this long dark-timber dining table was a green-grey ceramic bower birds' nest with several small ceramic eggs securely positioned deep inside. One of my visiting rituals was to peer inside, and run my tiny fingers over these small, smooth, cold eggs, while the small pair of frozen green birds watched down eternally from atop their nest.

My Dad’s old room, off this formal room, contained yet more treasures from another era. Several
Boys’ Own annuals from the 1920s and very early 1930s, and an oval tin filled with Dad’s childhood marbles. I’d pour over the crude line drawings of these musty books, while marveling at the beauty of some of the marbles, already well past being found among crude Japanese marbles sold by the bag-full by our local newsagent.

I found it curious that Nana and Grandfather maintained separate bedrooms on both sides of the front door. Both had large, austere iron double beds. Nana’s room had a large metal trunk set under its bay window, and I always assumed it brimmed with Nana Treasures. Her mirror-mounted chest of drawers set in one corner always had brushes, combs and other womanly objects neatly arranged on crisp linen doilies.

Grandfather’s room on the opposite side of the hallway contained only his bed, a single wardrobe and small chest of wooden drawers. Yet unlike Nana’s, which always had its shades drawn to induce gloom, Grandfather’s spartan room was light-filled, even delicate. Today, Grandfather’s taste could be described as delightfully minimalist, bordering on monastic. Something you’d expect to find in Japanese serentity. Perhaps he couldn’t shake his military past.

Grandfather always kept two sheep grazing in the yards around the house, and once a year would have a man come by and shear them. He’d give them lumps of rock salt to lick, and they’d reward with the best looking buffalo grass lawns I’ve ever seen. He’d rake their droppings in to fertilise everything.

Five generations of Heininger men, including me and my son (also named Joe) have called that house home through the years. First there was Grandfather and his dad. Then my Dad.

My sister, Mary, her husband, Horst, and their son, Paul, now live in it, and while its basic shape remains intact, it’s overshadowed by blocks of home units on two sides and behind.

PostScrpit And More Poetry

Life after Hilary, after university, after finding initial full-time work, was a manic, erratic blur of sex, dope, dead-end jobs, adventures and determined hopes. Then I pushed my way into my first newspaper job, in Launceston, Tasmania.

However, seven years later, having spent that time as a reporting journalist and sub-editor, working my way across Australia, up through the grades, on various rounds and on various quality newspapers, I thought I’d had enough. Well, certainly for then.

Already millions of words past university, I needed a break. I was burnt on all sides, as well as top and bottom. So I vented my frustrations and exhaustion in the only way I knew. In words . . .

Brace yourself!


There Was Still More Poetry

I continued reflection on school days, and on trains, the things that had sparked me from the outset . . .

School Boys

From one generation
to the next
they're grubby cuffs,
loose shirt tails
and stone-cut shoe leather toes.
Scraping and scrapping along,
pushing and shoving
- 14 or 15 years or so -
in unison
with mouldy oranges
in dark recesses.

School boys
never change.


Standing on one of Sydney's busy far western, multi-platform suburban railway stations, in the midst of a dry summer setting sun almost 30 years ago, just after carefree university, caused me think momentarily of how Columbus - arguably the world's greatest dead-reckoning navigator - and his crews battled their way through sunsets and superstitions - towards their New World . . .

Devils, Dragons & Trains Rolling West

We form three crews
in this
reddening anywhere railway place
near the world's western edge.

Our platforms blister and paints flake as
dust swirls in dry-heat dancing.

Ochre teeth scuttle
up and by
crackling, cackling, cracking
at the west,
uncaring of long-past Columbus passions,
and dead reckoning.

And boisterous trains slide by,
between our standing crews,
after the other
after the other
after the other
with blank souls they’ll inject again,
out there. Further west.

We feel no green-blue salt spray or swell.
No cool water-logged, rolling timber decks.
No mission for a malevolent god.

Yet rust-red trainsroll on, relentless.
Roaring headless towards setting sun blood.
Towards dragons,
and lost salvation
our lust-filled ancestors dreaded.

1973 - Problem With Roots

By the end of 1972, the year I finished high school, I had a major-league problem with my home city of Wollongong.

In bitterness struggling to break out, I wrote: Wollongong's nothing more than a three-shift steel-mill town, a sad string of soulless suburbs, staggering down the coastline in search of a city.

Where haute cuisine is an Hawaiian pizza on a Friday night - and you can find it after the bars shut, and it isn't cold . . .

It's always still cold in the morning . . .

1971 – Braces accident

I hadn’t seen the blue car stopped dead in Rothery Road, heading west into a low-slung sun.

Perhaps it was the sun playing tricks. Perhaps it was practised familiarity. But head down, peddling down the slight incline from the Rothery Road rail bridge, the first I knew of that car, waiting to turn right into its driveway, was me sailing gracefully through the air – a split second after my old bike hit its chrome rear bumper.

I marvelled, momentarily - as my bike’s front fork buckled - then sailed, seemingly timeless, before my face slammed into the car’s roof. The braces on my teeth drove deep into the soft, warm flesh of my mouth. Numbness and blood mixed as I rolled off hard into the sharp gravel beside the car.

I blacked out, but not before wondering in horror how much damage I’d done to my mouth, and those expensive, unpleasant braces, due to come off in less than a month.

The equally shocked middle-aged driver somehow managed to find out who I was and where I lived, me equally shocked at fumbling with my own home phone number. Where I went to school wasn’t in dispute, despite blood and saliva that had splashed down the front of my white shirt and over my loose blue tie.

The man left his car standing in the middle of the street and lifted and walked me to the back of his house where his wife gave me water and a place to sit inside their dark, cool back room. Their cat meowed loudly, and their caged birds shrieked their own welcome.

I’m not sure how long it took Dad to turn up to load me, still dazed, and my battered bike for the short drive home.

I stayed away from school for several days, unable to move my raw, smashed mouth around those unforgiving braces and wiring, but relieved I hadn’t damaged anything.

And when those braces came off at their allotted time, my mouth felt utterly empty. My gleaming teeth seemed assembled tightly in a cavernous, breezy cathedral. And while they were beautiful, I was left with those stubbornly healing scars. Like two strands of fleshy barded-wire welts, one inside my top lip, the other inside the lower lip. What’s more, I was to find they’d never disappear.

I replaced my bike’s bent fork the following week with a different coloured one, and resumed my riding to and from school. The different-coloured fork and my healing scars were badges of honour, and a constant reminder to stay vigilant.

Several years later, at university, I’d find myself pondering issues while rolling my tongue gently across those welts. Slowly, from one side to the other, then back again. First the top scar, then its lower running mate.

1969 - Ilario lost

The grey surf had welded itself to the grey of a sullen late-summer sky, on an afternoon when the ocean’s horizon seemed less than a ship length offshore. Those boiling, eccentric waves should have been enough of a warning. Yet after a solid hour’s work-out on Bellambi beach, towards the close of classes, we were hot, and the water cold. Besides, we were invincible and 15.

School was less than 300 yards away, and we’d only be in those waves for minutes. Plenty of time to get back. Get changed. Get on our bikes and trains. Get home.

The sandbank was deceptively soft underfoot; calm despite snapping, snarling frothing salt water thrashing in at us at all angles. Before any of us could comprehend, the entire class was rushing forward, fast into deeper water. Into instant dark terror. We were being pulled by a savage force that suddenly showed no mercy.

The harder I swam against the force, the more it wanted me. The more it wanted my classmates. The more it was determined to have us all. The Devil Is Making Me Do It, it seemed to scream. Panic swelling inside. The taste of salt water climbed my throat, scoured the back of my nose. Sand scraped my chest, my back, tore at my hair. I swam like life depended on finding energy I didn’t believe I could muster.

Then we were clear enough, several of us, to struggle against the tugging. Sea down below our hips, then below our knees, then below our ankles, freeing us enough to collapse, face first, into the cold lumpy sand. Then more of us struggled to the sand, face first, panting our panic away.

Just as the light grey rain started falling.

Father Lionel Dean was running desperately back and forth, counting all his charges, realising in his agony that one was missing.

Ilario Ceroni had never been a strong athlete. We never thought of him ever being a strong swimmer. He’d always been quiet.

It must have been an hour of us waiting in hope, watching Father Dean thrashing through that killing surf, before we realised Ilario wasn’t coming back. Wasn’t getting changed. Wasn’t riding his bike or the train. Wasn’t going home. By then other teachers were at the beach. Then police arrived, and the tragedy slammed into us all as volunteers pushed the surf club’s boat out through the raging swell.

When I finally got home, I found it impossible to find words to tell Mum what had happened. I was filled with a grief I’d never felt before, one all the sharper because it could have been any one of us. It could have been me. Unlike other, impersonal tragedies, I had a front row seat.

I simply could not imagine the fathomless grief his parents felt that night. They, nor any of us, ever saw Ilario again. He’d left home, gone to school, then gone to sea. Forever.

Monday, January 28, 2008

1972 - More Gun Play

Dad somehow knew of this back-blocks dairy farm whose owner had a small rifle range squared away, deep in the foothills, immediately below the treeline. Up along a steep twisting, single-lane track, deep in Heininger Country in the shadows of Marshall Mount.

Having discussed our Proposition with the farmer, we proceeded through several paddock gates, careful to stop the car and close and secure each one before reaching the range.

Dad then produced a hessian bag from the boot, and slid his gleaming .22-calibre rifle from it, along with a box of shells. He then found the dozen paper targets he’d laid flat under this lethal load. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he then strode over the cow-shit strewn, uneven ground to fix several targets in their frames some 100 yards further on.

After several hours of lazy shooting, when our tiny valley seemed weighed down with the stench of gunpowder and decidedly mixed results showed we were generally poor shots, we left.

Several weeks later, with Dad’s approval, I took the car, my friend Tony Clarke, the same rifle, another box of shells and more targets back to the same farm.

Not more than 20 minutes into our target practice, the furious farmer, in shorts and singlet, his black gumboots slapping against his bare calves, strode up demanding what on earth had possessed us to shoot near his cattle. And without permission. Several cows too busy grazing in the next field to even look up, moped gently along in the shadows more than 100 yards to our right.

The farmer demanded we leave immediately, and never return, promising us he’d discuss our transgression with Dad. When I got home, I realised there was no hiding. I blurted it all out to Mum and Dad, who curiously, displayed a meek oh-well, boys-will-be-boys reaction.

The fast and furious phone call came that night, and afterwards, Dad gently, matter-of-factly, told me he agreed with the farmer. That we should have sought permission again, at least forewarning the man of our intention.

I later reflected on the casual familiarity I’d assigned to our outing, and the equally casual way Clarkie and I had handled the weapon.

I never picked up a gun again.

Cats & Dad

Dad loathed cats.

They’d dig his precious vegie patches, the ones edged with gnarled logs and lovingly fertilised.

Cats, while sensing the fertiliser and the neatly turned soil, were always indiscriminate. They’d dig silently, maliciously ,through anything growing. Then deposit their own feline crap before methodically scraping soil, seedlings – even well-established plants – back over their own handiwork.

When he could, and thought he could get away with it – which was always in my childhood – Dad would shepherd these cunning, silent devil predators beneath our house and swiftly dispatch them in the shadowy forest of tall brick footings with a single blast from his side-by-side 12-gauge.

Boom! And sometimes Boom!-Boom! – in quick succession – if a cat dared tried to slink away.

I only once saw Dad come up from under the house, his shotgun snapped open and draped over one arm, a dark, dishevelled bag of devil fur, still dripping, draped over the other.

Our eyes locked in what I now understand to be mutual guilt.

- “They’re homeless and starving. It’s better this way.”
Because he was Dad, I agreed. Silently.

I never did discover what he did with these pellet-riddled carcasses. Dad never said, and I never asked. Nor did my brother John.

By the time I’d started high school, Dad had stopped his secret culling. But by then, he’d also stopped growing vegies.

1971 – Poetry

My friends Tony and Brian encouraged me – ‘dared’ could be closer to the mark – to submit some of my work to Poetry Australia. I was 16.

We were all shocked and surprised (and I was deeply honoured and thrilled) when, several months later, a copy of Issue No. 26 arrived in the mail. Inside, ennobled through print, were the two poems I’d submitted for publication. I treasured that small, soft-covered book for years, but somehow still managed to misplace it, possibly while living in Tasmania as a junior journalist.

But in those final years at home, Brian, Paul and other friends would gather with me on our front verandah and read each other’s work to each other. We thought we were good poets. I loved Brian’s work, and there was no disputing my young abilities . . .

However, I was never published as a poet again . . .

Was War Like

A lonely patch of battlefield soil,
Trickling wet
In early morning light.
Snow flakes falling
Into a dead hand
Clutching nothing.
Bitter wind moaning high above through pine trees.
All around
A deep human silence.

1970 – Lost Art

I loved writing letters. And the older I got, the longer, more intimate, descriptive and sharing they’d become.

I wrote to young people my age everywhere, almost daily, trying my best to explain a life. Putting into context what I had no way of knowing was western civilisation’s tipping point for a new millennium.

And I loved receiving letters. From distant ‘pals in India, England, Finland, New Zealand and the Americas, and from friends here in Australia. Wispy-thin blue Airmail letters. Bulging white envelopes holding upwards of a dozen pages. All in different hands. All with different, exotic stamps and post marks. All with strangely different smelling paper. Nearly all upwards of a week old before I’d rake them from our Collins Street letterbox.

I’d keep those I received, reading some until the pages fell apart - literally. Sometimes they’d contain photos, snaps of life in far-distant places I imagined I might, one day, visit. Like London, New York, Montreal, Paignton, Auckland, Helsinki.

I loved the pleasure of feeling pens moving between my fingers, over different types of paper. Light touches. Heavy touches. Fast-flowing writing. Slower, methodical impressions. Often pausing to collect thoughts, or determine more precise descriptions, thoughts, dreams. Or stopping for a minute – or an hour – until the just oh-so-right phrases came to pass.

I loved the smells of different papers, and of different inks.

Letters were different. Simpler. Much quieter and introspective. An ages-old communication, helping me commit, forever, in a slowly developing longhand style.

Letters to and from my boarding-school Jenny were particularly treasured, as they kept our relationship’s embers alive enough for them to explode again, in person, when she’d come home for holidays.

I continued writing at university, and didn’t use a mechanical device – the first being a portable Olivetti typewriter – until 1978, when I entered journalism. I’d move into an electronic world in the early 80s, and onto a much more truncated, filleted email world a decade later.

It’s now more than 30 years since I’ve written, or posted, a personal letter, having now truncated such communications to a few quick pars, perhaps only a few quick words, flicked through the ether at light speed via the clacking of keys.

Not once, though, had I ever thought of myself as a Man Of Letters.


I can count the number of friends from my school days on less than two hands. But they were good friends.

I can still see them all – Paul, Tony ‘Clarkie’ Clarke, Tony Allan, Michael Carr, then later, in high school, John ‘Heppy’ Hepworth, Brian O’Malley and Jim Pettingel.

My earliest memory fragment of friendship has me walking arm-in-arm with Michael, around our asphalt covered primary school playground, discussing all things vital to 7- and 8-year olds.

Michael left our ranks in high school, courtesy of his parents shockingly separating and divorcing (no other parents I knew had done this yet), and his leaving the district. But his place was quickly filled by Jim, an exasperating tear-away with wiry black hair from Unanderra, south of Wollongong, Heppy, who’d moved up onto the coast from a small, dusty country town not far from Yass, and Bob Spiers from Austinmer. Heppy’s dad had been a one-school-room teacher reassigned to work in the much larger Illawarra.

I spent many early high school Saturday afternoons at Clarkie’s place in Bellambi, where we’d explore the rough bushland between the end of Rothery Road and the sand dunes flanking the ocean about half a mile to the east. Or we’d melt lead in his backyard to make crude fishing sinkers. I’m not sure why, as neither of us liked fishing.

Later in high school, with my first push bike, I’d increasingly spend time with Heppy and Paul who lived quite close to one another in Russell Vale, to the north of Bellambi Lane. Brian, my first real friend in early poetry and writing become increasingly influential. Bob and I explored the wilds of the Austinmer escarpment together.

Some of my most treasured memories, are of Paul, his brother Jerry and myself hunkering down in his parents’ tiny sunroom, working our way through one pile or another of amazing vinyl albums. We’d discuss the music, the styles, the amazing lyrics, believing we were rolling headlong into a world without bounds. And we’d make and share pots of steaming tea with Mrs Reilly, who’d delightedly hover in the wings of her nearby kitchen, savouring our enthusiasm for life.

Jim and I also shared another experience; we both had braces fitted to our teeth, and removed, at the same time. Jim said he was determined to stick with me, so together we could deflect any classroom teasing – which never happened.

And all my friends knew and liked Jennifer, and appreciated us together.

My friendships were fine balancing acts, with no two individuals alike. But I found each rewarding and stimulating and easy as we collectively stumbled wonderfully towards adulthood.
All bar my friendship with Paul, however, have succumbed to the life pressures we’ve all individually faced, and the directions, States and countries our lives have eventually taken us in and to.

But those years between 1967 and 1972 were great. Uncomplicated times of vinyl records, transistor radios, leisurely bike rides along near-country roads that still had years to go before becoming busy, and lazy times spent at the beach. And we all thrilled to our collective, rising excitement as small cogs in the seemingly unstoppable Woodstock Generation machine.

As fashion and mores and music and literature radically changed and buffeted us, we were keenly aware of society changing all around us, rubbing us smoother –for a better future.

Some years later, after I’d graduated from university, I bumped into Jim on Wollongong University campus. He was as manic as ever, and drinking fairly heavily. Not too many months later, Mum called to tell me he and his girl friend had died together in a house fire somewhere south of Wollongong. She thought they’d fallen asleep smoking.

The other lives took paths as different as we’d been as individuals. Tony and I went on journalism – he eventually into radio, me always in print. Heppy’s an architect. Clarkie lives with his family in a small town in Northern New South Wales. Brian spent years as an English Bobby before returning to a life as a Federal public servant. Bob took over his dad’s engineering business in Fairy Meadow. And Paul’s now a nursing sister, caring for the elderly in their own homes.

Michael, a lawyer, somehow managed to wangle a slot in the diplomatic corp., spending several heady years in exotic cities like Vienna. He’s now an Eastern Suburbs art dealer.

My wife, Faye, puts it so clearly . . . She says life’s a train journey. People get on and off at each stop along the way. Some stay only a stop or two. Others ride longer with you before getting off, or changing trains. And some souls enrich your life exceedingly by riding with you all the way to the end of the line.

Even if I could, I would not have changed a thing.

1970 - Jennifer

Jennifer, my first real girlfriend, was lovely. Not petite like so many other girls, she stood tall, her long brown hair pulled carefully back off her face and around the side of her large, friendly face. With a hint of freckles, large blue eyes and delicious teeth, her coy, almost self-conscious smile seriously entered my life when I was 16.

Jenny’s skin was delicate; she could never be accused of being a weekend bikini-brigade girl. And I liked her hips, her bum, her legs and her breasts – although it took me more than a year to bring myself to touch them, feeling their soft, feminine warmth between my young, ignorant fingers.

And I particularly liked her calm voice. Not quite the tone of a woman, but no longer that of a young girl. Always smooth and mellow. And because she liked me too, she touched me well and comfortably.

We’d known each other for years, through a shared primary school experience, but I’d only ever liked her peripherally, from an unemotional distance. Now I liked her immensely, close up and personal. Jenny, her brother, Peter, and her mum and dad lived in a solid, but unassuming rendered brick and tile-roofed house in Tarrawanna, a short bike ride down the highway, and across a small footbridge over Angel Creek on the southern side of Corrimal.

Initially, we’d see each other at school dances and other social events, and increasingly I’d invite Jen to dinner at our home, especially during the holidays of our final high school years. By then, she’d left Holy Cross College which butted up against our boys’ school, and was ensconced in a serious Sydney boarding school. And while our languid afternoon hand-holding train trips home at the end of each school day had ended, we were entering a new, mysterious, erotic world together. We wrote to each other constantly.

She was great company, Jenny, and a great kisser too. I recall as though only yesterday the first time she allowed me to touch her breasts as our lingering kissing wafted skyward on delicious evening pleasure wings. By then I was 17, and still very much the anxious, awkward virgin. She was too. Yet despite this crystal clear memory fragment, I can’t recall our first kiss; it must have been so natural as to have been expected by both of us, and those around us.

We’d also meet up in Wollongong, while she was working at the city’s largest department store during the summer holidays, and she’d always smile coyly and excitedly when I walked up to the counter she was serving on. And we’d go to parties together.

We got better and more practised at exploring each other, slowly, methodically, more comfortably. And we enjoyed the experience immensely. I’d particularly delight in holding Jenny’s hands and kissing her in the back of our car, as Dad drove us back to her place after dinner. I’m not sure what Dad thought. Nor did I care. We never discussed these erotic sojourns.

I just needed as much of Jen and her delicious, young-woman fragrance as I could have at the time.

I’m still not sure what happened in the end. Perhaps it was the almost two years of forced school-year separation. Perhaps it was the sheer weight of fresh university experiences when I, too, moved to Sydney in 1973. Perhaps our relationship just ran its course and, short of taking the next full-blown Great Leap Forward, had nowhere to go.

But for whatever reason – and to Mum’s unspoken relief – I wasn’t quite ready for sex, and I’m not sure Jenny was either.

We just moved on to the next phases of our increasingly complicated lives, farewelling forever the clear-cut, simpler days of lives in Corrimal.

Communion Stones

I recall my First Communion not for my supposed closer embrace of my Catholic God, but for being dressed down severely by the Principal of Corrimal Public School. I was heading off to a chilly early-morning preparatory class, just before 7am.

Cutting through the school’s grounds, to cross the highway to our church, I’d found some stones close to the back of one of the tall brick classroom blocks. I’d taken aim at pigeons foraging on a patch of playground lawn, adjacent to the headmaster’s back fence, and had managed to throw only two large stones before this secular authority figure exploded out his back door, screaming for me to stop. And in shock, I dropped my remaining stones and slunk away to practise at being a good Catholic.

Later that same day, one of our senior nuns called me in front of my class and gave a non-secular dressing down for the same offense.

As I hadn’t aimed at anything other than much flightier birds, I felt my acute embarrassment rising again. I realised that while, on one hand, I should have been better behaved, on the other I’d been far from criminal in intent.

I thought then I could never really trust non-Catholics to keep their silence. For several years, I felt it boiled down to nothing more than religious jealousy.

1965 - Stones & Bottles

Another day soon after, with my top-lip scab still doing its reparative work, I was back on the same lunar landscape of dozens of evenly spaced and high piles of clean fill, my brother, John, and Hartmut in tow.

We were too busy smashing the bottles we’d discovered between several hillocks to see the police car roar up the dirt track and slide to a dusty stop immediately behind us. A firm blue man-mountain of a policeman leapt out, strode up and matter-of-factly demanded names, addresses and other blurred details.

Stunned, we obliged, our policeman admonishing us for making such a dangerous ‘playground’ even more dangerous because of the jagged shards of beer-bottle glass we’d produced.

Later that same afternoon, a sharp series of authoritative raps on our front door produced the same policeman who, in front of my shocked but bemused Dad, proceeded to recount our offense, and warn us in no uncertain terms never to do it again for fear of being charged.

When he’d left and Dad closed the door gently behind him, smiled briefly, but never said a word.

I never smashed another bottle in a public place.

1965 – Stones At Play

I saw the sharp, jagged shape of grey stone gliding slowly through the air, before connecting, mercilessly, with my top lip. For some inexplicable reason, I knew it was going to strike, but froze in the moment.

I felt the sharp stab as that stone stopped dead in its flight, followed by the warmth of blood trickling over my front teeth. Shaking my head, as much to loosen pain tears from my shocked eyes as in stunned disbelief of what had just happened, I could see Hartmut running over the last pile of dump-truck spoils to get to me. To say he was So Sorry, while simultaneously stifling that familiar boyhood glee at having hit his mark.

I knew then we shouldn’t have done it. In a split second I came so close to losing an eye or several teeth. This stone was large enough to bruise my entire upper lip. And adding insult to injury, this was the result of play rather than anger between males.

I used the waistline of my T-shirt to stem the steady flow of blood, and when I got home, Mum inspected the neatly cut skin flap. She calmly said I’d live.

Hartmut, whose German parents owned and ran the small corner store on the corner of Collins and Roberts Streets, and I had been exploring the proposed building up and levelling of clean fill for yet another playing field t Ziems Park. And we’d been engaged in the thoughtless play of throwing stones at one another for less than several minutes.

1963 – The Dog

I’d pressed the button to cross the highway crossing to our school gate, and was waiting for the lights to change.

I saw the elderly black and white spaniel, its black ears dragging through the footpath grass, following its nose to the edge of the road where I stood. Then, without looking up, it stepped between the wheels of a slow-moving cement truck lumbering through only a foot or two in front of me.

The truck’s back wheels rolled up and over the dog’s body, but didn’t stop. Even though it banged heavily back onto the roadway. I’m not sure the driver would have seen him, or could have stopped even if he had.

The dog twitched once, then died where it lay, without a single sound. Traffic following the truck respectfully swerved to avoid hitting the body further.

I quickly crossed when the lights changed, horrified, and told a nun on playground duty.

By lunchtime, the dog had disappeared.

But I had nightmares on and off for years, and never again crossed those lights without thinking of the dog, and how slender the gap between living and death, and how quickly, convincingly and irrevocably it could be breached.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Secluded mystery

Mrs Mascord’s flaking once-painted-white brick house next door was always a secluded childhood mystery.

Brooding and heavy on its unkempt block, a seeming maze of overgrown, crumbling greenhouses and sheds out the back, it begged for exploration.

Thick, shiny vines smothered the dank walkway sheltering its back door. The main delinquent greenhouse was always humid and richly rotting, with countless plants jostling madly in whispering chaos, seeming to hold its fragile glass sheets aloft.

I always knew when Mr Mascord, a brooding, grey, thickset man, was working to assemble the evening’s firewood. His humming bench saw, set in the darkest recess of the adjoining garage, would screech as each fresh lump was reduced to manageable lengths. And the tang of freshly wounded wood and swirling sawdust would waft out the open tilt-lift door, up and over the weathered paling fence marking our boundary.

I’m not sure when it dawned on me that Mr Mascord was no more an addition to his household than the gleaming cream Rover car he’d ferry Mrs Mascord around in. A ‘Poor Man’s Roll Royce’ Dad always called it; a way of hinting at having money without overstepping one's mark.

Mrs Mascord controlled her inherited fortune, being a younger sister of Edwin Street, the Corrimal store keeper who’d created a far bigger fortune from Streets Icecream, and the factory he’d built to produce it on the corner of the Princes Highway and Tarrawanna Road. It was Wollongong’s first building with a blinking neon sign – a huge polar bear licking a cone.

Mum and Dad had bought our house from the Mascords. And when we could least afford it, in our early, thin financial days, Dad suspected Mr Mascord of relieving us of a bag of cement resting under our back awning. They never forgot how 'miserable' they thought he was.

But Mrs Mascord was a round, happy woman, always smiling behind her glasses. She – unlike her stone-faced husband – liked us kids.

She’d always conjure up some ‘surprise’. Sometimes from her gloomy kitchen. Sometimes from even darker recesses. Once, inside her home, I was aware of its fallen glory, of windows that always seemed drawn and of that vague, sweet smell of aging newspaper print.

I remember her giving me a small rag doll one day, and clinging to it until Dad came home and took it off me.

Later, after Mr Mascord had died, and Mrs Mascord sank further into the dark folds of her flaking fortress, my brother John and I would crawl through a broken window pane of her back shed and explore its rusting, dust-covered marvels stacked inside on sagging, mummified shelves. Or push our way around the tight, choking confines of the steamy, crumbling greenhouse.

I’m not sure how Dad negotiated use of Mrs Mascord’s detached garage, long after her Rover disappeared. But in short order, he’d fashioned a crude gate into the fence, immediately behind the tilt door, giving us access to the space we then used to house our first car.

But Dad never touched the bench holding Mr Mascord’s electric circular firewood saw. Years later, it and Mr Mascord’s final small pile of sawn timber still sat there, slowly succumbing to the same weight of dust burying everything next door.

At some point, Mrs Mascord disappeared to a small retirement unit in Corrimal, continued exploring the wider world with a series of personally funded travelling companions, and appeared briefly in a WIN TV regional support ad.

Then she, too, died.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Terror incognito

Nuns taught me in primary school. Shapeless, clear-skinned, plainsong women whose pinched lips and crystal-clear eyes protruded beyond starched white face frames. Their heavy brown, ground-scraping habits sublimated anything hinting of personality.

Cattle-whip rosaries hung long, menacing and heavy and brooding from black buckled belts marking where waists should be. And severe black shoe-boots clipped along the ground and school floors.

All seemed stamped – some short, some tall, some slimmer than others – from the same Australian Josephite mould. And all with borrowed saintly names designed to resolutely close doors on any sense of the individual.

I realised early that nuns were orderded in Orders.

Even their smell was ordered. Sensible common soap and regulation toothpaste. With never a hint of fragrance.

Yet despite this regimented sameness, one stood out in brutal solitude. My fifth grade teacher, Sister Theopholis. Like so many before who’d made life-shattering mistakes, this one was determined to shatter all in her path, especially young, impressionable flesh.

Theopholis radiated perfected terror as her omnipresent identity.

Canes, long, flat wooden rulers, backs of hands, and a vicious, barbed tongue were her weapons of choice, often wielded in unison. With piercing liquid-blue eyes, she’d dart effortlessly into the lonliest recesses of young souls with practised precision . . . and start cutting.

Theopholis' world was pure Dark Ages discipline of-the-line. Of forcing us to learn slabs of irrelevant social studies text on equally irrelevant, long-dead souls I struggled to imagine clearly, or arcane mental arithmetic, or obtuse lists of spelling words.

And every morning, she’d parade slowly up and down between us, standing motionless next to our desks, drinking in every fear pheromone our 40 or so young bodies could exude.

There were group recitals, at the front of the classroom, of learnt-by-heart poetry and other works for no more seeming reason than to allow fear to hover just above our heads, beating time like evil black wings.

Even today, more than 40 years on, in another century, I can still taste the fear. And see Theopholis enjoying every second of her handiwork. Barking her staccato questions, pounding on booming desk lids. Flailing into stammering children who stumbled – no matter how briefly – in her withering line of fire.

Her favoured method was division. Culling the weaker from the pack. Then administering measured pain and humiliation with seasoned alacrity.

How any of us maintained a liking for school and learning after Theopholis remains one of my life’s enduring mysteries. And I’m still not convinced she’s dead.

I sense her still, drifting somewhere silently, precisely, wickedly between heaven and hell . . . even though 1965 seems so long ago . . .

Thursday, May 17, 2007

One dark, warm Christmas morning

Christmas was always warm and gentle in the Heininger household. Not just because Christmas falls at the height of the Australian summer, but because . . . well . . . it was a time when peace and tranquility always descended on our Collins Street home.

Mum and Dad never fought through the short Christmas break. They deftly called whatever unspoken truce was necessary in any personal, ongoing trench skirmishes they happened to be involved in during our early childhood.

Christmas was for sharing, for laughing, for feeling summer’s heat, for rich baked dinners at Nana Lizzie’s and Grandfather Ted’s Campbell Street home. And for recognising – for better or worse – we were all OK together. When my brother, sister and I were very young, we may not have been swimming in luxury, but we constantly and smoothly swam in each other.

While almost all childhood Christmases are blurs, I remember one in particular – a year Mum and Dad must have been struggling financially behind our young backs.

It’s a fragmentary, yet calm, memory. So fragmentary, I can’t remember how old I was. All I can remember is that it was just before I started school.

The house was dark, so it must have been very early on an extremely excitable gift-giving morning. The walls of the living room towered over us all, and the room itself felt cool and spare, the carpet square failing to reach the edge of the unpolished hardwood floor. Our tiny stockings had been pinned to the mantelpiece above the Cozy coke heater – the one that came with the house, and would be replaced in the years ahead by a far more modern and functional chrome-covered wood-burning heater – set into the main wall.

Our stockings were small but bulging, only adding to our young excitement. There were so many small things inside. Tiny, intimate toys, many metal, and many of them wind-up. I remember silver paint . . . There were pencils and other small things designed to fit neatly into very small, trembling hands.

I can still see my tiny arms and hands protruding from my checkered dressing gown, and can feel it rubbing against my summer pajamas. Making me feel particularly secure. I’m aware of the cord fluting around the cuffs.

Mum said something about there not being many presents this year, but I'm aware of being delighted with the number and intricacy of the many small things. My brother and I had these treasures spread around our feet, and I can see us playing with one after the other after the other, and with each other.

I must have been excited, so unaware of adult matters that Mum and Dad so deftly maneuvered us around.

I'm not sure how long these tiny treasures lasted, but they obviously had no way of outliving the memory.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My Mum, Dulcie Irene

My Mum, Dulcie, could only be described as a product of her times. Her name – and the fact she didn’t have a decent pair of shoes until she was almost five – was hard, and said it all.

The eldest of three children, she roamed NSW as a penniless Depression child, as her father, a laid-off government railways worker, desperately sought work. Those early years moulded her, and her marriage to my Father, Joe, set her hard.

Mum’s earliest shared memory is of her father walking with her from their down-at-heel rented home in Balmain to the official opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge. She was seven.

She’s never talked about the Depression much, or what it was like being a child in a struggling, poor, unemployed household, with hunger snapping constantly close by. I only ever saw her cry over it once, and that’s when I found out about her shoes. Her tears for grinding poverty were mixed with bitterness and long-remembered fears of Hitler, Tojo and other 30s and 40s maniacs who continued to rob her generation of any glimmer of innocent childhood and youth.

When her father finally found work, it was at the Port Kembla steelworks in the late 30s, and he’d trudge daily to and from their small weatherboard house in Banks Street, Wollongong to the mill some three miles further south. Mum says she remembers watching him walking past other unemployed men, leaning over their front gates and wishing him well. She says he found that the hardest part of the day.

Mum was a good student by the time she got to St Mary’s College, Wollongong. By then she’d somehow developed a wonderful smile that, looking back, belied any troubles she’d experienced. It also masked her fears of impending global war. Her parents eventually managed to put a deposit on their house, and all seemed well enough . . .

But no matter how gentle the smile, no matter how secure and settled life appeared to have become, hardness remained just under her skin. Like tungsten.

It surfaced, according to her younger brothers, Jimmy and Kevin, whenever she had to look after them as small children. It surfaced when her mother told her to steer clear of Dad until she’d been educated and had secure work of her own. It surfaced when her father died relatively suddenly, courtesy of his industrial accident at the same steelworks. And it continued surfacing all through my childhood, whenever she and Dad increasingly fought over whatever it was that parents battle over.

I loved my Mum beyond words when I was young. I always felt secure around her, especially when I’d feel the dread of my father returning from work on many an afternoon. I sensed her deep-buried softness.

I sense her smiling lovingly at me as a very young child while I crawled into one kitchen cupboard, squeezed through pots and pans, to emerge from behind another painted Masonite door several feet away. Mum often let me be whoever, and whatever, I wanted to be.

But I could also fear her rages. I’d often disappear as far from the house as I could while she screamed and ranted and cried at Dad, often for days on end about one or two subjects I could never comprehend as a child. I’d cower somewhere secure, praying to my tiny God for her to stop. For life to return to normal. To climb down off its infinitely high knife edge. And all the time, Dad simply remained stoically silent.

This ongoing series of parental battles – interspersed with genuine care for one another – reached fever-pitch towards my closing primary school years.

But Mum would also try and stand up for me, and for my brother and sister. Like the time Mrs Mascord next door gave me a small rag doll, which Dad took from me that very afternoon when he returned from work.

- “For God’s sake, Joe, it’s just a dolly . . . “
- “No bloody boy should play with dolls . . . Boys don’t play with dolls!”

I apparently loved that doll, but Dad took it anyway, and I never saw it again. Mum said I sobbed, but she couldn’t win the argument either.

She’d also fiercely come to my protection when Dad boxed me around the ears.

- “For God’s sake Joe, don’t
ever hit the children around ht ears!”
- “Well if it was good enough for me with the Christian Brothers, I can’t see why it’s not good enough for my own . . .”
- “And what ever made the
Christian Brothers right?!”

My first strong school memory of Mum was when she came to my school for a day's relief teaching. Lazlo Able and I were whispering to each other behind our shared, lifted desk lids, Mum seemingly miles away at the front of the classroom.

- “Won’t we get in trouble for talking?”
- “No . . . Mum won’t do anything . . .”

Bang! Our desk lids crashed down out of our hands, and both of us were dragged, by arms and shoulders, then pushed, to the front of the room. It happened so quickly, it took ages for embarrassment to seep in. Mum dressed Lazlo and I down in full view of everyone’s shocked sniggers, and I understood the tungsten. She meant business. And I can still feel her humiliating, stinging slap across the backs of my legs.

Later that day, at home, she told me quietly and firmly that the last thing she needed was for the rest of the class to feel as though her own boy was receiving anything but equal treatment at her hands.

Mum would work routinely, every school night, with us on our homework and other exercises, around our kitchen table. It always felt like an educational swing shift; Round II of an otherwise cramming day. But no matter how hard I tried, I was never much chop at mathematics, even quite early on.

One night, early in my primary days, Mum became so agitated over my inability to grasp a mathematical concept that she bellowed at me the way she'd bellow at Dad, and scooted me out the back door, to continue her loud throwing and clattering of kitchen utensils – her way of relieving frustration. I’d never felt so crushed, or so bereft of her support, something I’d taken for granted until then and carried with me like a comfort blanket. I so much wanted her to take me under her wing again, and softly explain what she meant. But she didn’t. I remember walking into the front yard and sobbing for ages, every now and then returning to the back of the house, pleading for her to help me. But she didn’t. I went to bed that night crying, not having been helped, and thinking my days of support at school had ended abruptly.

The next day was bright, cold cobalt blue sunshine, and Mum didn’t say she was sorry, or made up for the rejection. It was as if the previous evening had never been. She did, however, resume helping me. While I remember reading, spelling and other exercises using her home-made collection of word cards, I can’t ever recall her help again with maths.

As I grew up and Mum aged, she seemed to soften. She was gentler with us kids, but more matter-of-fact in her own burgeoning high-school teaching career. She even reached a point where arguments with Dad subsided. Most of the time she seemed happy enough with life – although her soft, gentle smile continued fading. By the time I’d been at university for a year, it seemed to have faded altogether.

My softer Mum somehow seemed resigned to life. Not long after that, she and Dad started globe-trotting, entering a new phase of learning about each other, and understanding more about the wider world . . .

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Holidays, Uniforms & Trains

I always associate childhood holidays with trains. And with memories of early morning excitement, on the day we'd depart for exotic destinations, coupled with spic-n-span school uniforms and shiny brown school shoes.

It seems odd looking back, but at the time - before I was 10 - I always saw wearing my school uniform, on a train going somewhere further than the extremes of the Illawarra District, on a holiday morning, as somewhat reverent.

Suit cases would be packed and ready the night before, standing to neat attention in the hallway near the front door. Dad would have called to order a cab to take us to the station, usually not long after dawn - or so it seemed. We’d all be up early, excited, having breakfast, while Mum disposed of last-minute perishable items from the bottom of our fridge. She’d then turn it off at the wall, leaving the door jammed open to stop mould from developing while we were away.

The finale was Dad neatly combing my hair, and that of my brother John, while Mum put sister Mary’s hair in pigtails. Usually as the cab beeped its horn outside. There’d be a mad scramble, as Mum checked she’d switched off other appliances and pulled electric cords from walls. This mad, excited scramble would continue until we were all safely seated on our train, catching our breath, heading north to Sydney.

Sydney was exotic enough a destination for kids without a family car. Yet we always knew holidays were to be had further afield, needing changes of trains at Central station. Another mad scramble from one platform to another, hauling cases and coats and travelling rugs as quickly as possible. The change to very different trains meant different lines, different stations along the way, different scenery beyond Sydney’s limits.

Summer weeks spent on Tuggerah Lake, near The Entrance, meant we’d leave Sydney in a quiet, all-steel, air-conditioned Express Train coupled behind a gleaming tuscan-red electric loco. Train refreshment crew staff in pale blue uniforms and white aprons would glide between us as we hurried smoothly along, heading towards Newcastle, offering delicacies such as vanilla icecream in tiny waxed-card buckets. I’d feel like a privileged prince with tasty treatures like these . . . But when our train arrived at Gosford, Dad would invariably disembark - and have us join him on the platform - in time to see the electric wheeled off, and a huge, well-maintained back C38 Pacific express steam loco pushed back into the traces for the next short stage of our dash north. While we’d only ever go as far as Wyong, the train would continue full throttle, behind steam, all the way to Newcastle, another 50 miles further ahead.

Wyong was the place to see all sorts of steam still operating along the Short North. I remember one afternoon seeing a double-headed freight lumber through while we were waiting for the cab to take us to the holiday resort. Heading south, back towards the Gosford change-over, two elderly Standard Goods wheezed their way through, squeezing gently down the side of the double locos' train of over-stacked, tarp-covered wagons. Steam, by now, had disappeared from the Illawarra, and had been replaced by 48 Class diesel locos that - from Day One - always seemed too under-powered for whatever task they were given.

Holidays to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, brought different scenery, and different trains - what we kids called Silver Trains - stainless steel multiple-unit electric trains introduced to the steep line with electrification in the late 1950s.

These trains were fast off the mark, always slick away from any station - even those on the steep mountain slopes heading almost due west towards Katoomba. And we rarely rode electrics, even in Sydney (where all electric services were handled by so-called Red Rattler suburban trains). Red Rattler passengers nonchalantly leaned out of every other wide vestibule door, nearly always pinned back while in screaming motion, using nothing more than deft balance and a firm grip on well hand-polished brass poles bolted floor to ceiling.

The Blue Mountains trains had no such vestibules. Once inside their sensible end-car doors, there was nothing to do but to occupy vacant green vinyl-covered seats. Occasionally, you might have to swing a seat from its old position to the travelling direction. But that was it; no further subtlety. Just stainless steel, effortless speed and vinyl-clad cleanliness. And I always equate this cleanliness and the gleaming fluted stainless steel sides of these train cars with Katoomba’s thin bracing, crisp air, smacking our young faces as we alighted at the end of Katooba Street. It was different from the thicker, balmy coastal air or Wollongong, especially in Autumn or Winter.
Yet no matter where we went for our annual two-week holiday, we kids would invariably head off in our neatest school uniforms. It didn’t affect us then, and never raised second looks from fellow passengers.