Sunday, August 20, 2006

Measuring life in trains

Thomas Stearns Eliot, in his seminal Prufrock, bleakly spoke of measuring out a life in coffee spoons. For reasons that have never been absolutely clear, I have measured much of my in trains and railways. For outsiders, almost as trivial as coffee spoons – but never for me.

While I’ve come to love trains and railways over the years, I can’t say it was always the case. Pre-teens, I just remember them. As the years rolled on, and the fixation deepened, they have continued to punctuate elements of my childhood, youth and adult years.

There’s something about steel wheels on steel rails, and especially about decrepit rails disappearing into long grass, or being swallowed by encroaching bush. It has thrilled me to discover a line I never knew existed. Or one I knew of only vaguely, via hear-say. And if the gauge is narrow, say 2ft or slightly more, the thrill, for some odd reason, is all the greater.

I particularly love rickety, narrow-gauge tramways, the unsung underdogs of steel-wheel transport.

I remember clear events and sensations, many stretching back more than 40 years, all relating to trains. And rippling out from these still points are formalised elements of life, like memory tree rings – many in no way connected to trains.

The more sense I try to make of it all, the more I seem to become lost in it. I now simply accepted.

My Mum and Dad were a typical energetic post-war Australian couple, keen to buy a house, grow a family and somehow create a pastoral-like pleasantness that had eluded them to date. Initially damaged by the Great Depression, they continued growing, shell-shocked, in the shadows of fascism, Japanese military aggression and a World War that killed tens of millions and tore Europe a second, fresh, 20th Century asshole.

My parents, along with just about everyone else their age, were engaged in a collective head down-bum up charge into the 1950s. Their mission was to make life better all round, and to come to terms with neon lights, advertising, home appliances and brighter, more peaceful sunshine than they had ever known. To buy cars and mow grass more evenly with powered mowers. Joni Mitchell was to call it the hissing of summer lawns, but Her Generation was yet to arrive. Along with fast food, drive-thru convenience, espresso coffee and on line bill payment.

Dad, a fitter all his working life, really wanted to be a butcher. His dad, Ted, a Great War veteran, had said no, so that was that – a factory life as sullen consolation prize. Mum was a school teacher, and loved it all except for her stint in a dusty, racist two-street town west of Dubbo, before moving to full-time motherhood, as expected. My parents were, seemingly, tea-totallers, although Mum liked her occasional Secret Cigarette, especially when she burnt household rubbish in the backyard incinerator at night.

I landed as a mid-Baby Boomer on the last day in November,1954, while Mum and Dad were renting a flat behind a house in a place called Fairy Meadow. Mum swore I arrived on the 29th, but Dad in his confusion registered me as a 30th drop. Brother, John, followed two years later, then sister, Mary. There had been one still born before me, but never discussed.

And all the while, I recalled the trains. Punching through at critical points, marking territory in which I grew up. In the beginning, all were steam.


Sudden hernia

More than half a century ago, I was being bathed on the kitchen table. The evening was dark and chilly, and Mum’s face was alarmed at my hugely swollen groin. I remember crying – perhaps as much a reaction to her shocked eyes and flurry, as to her panic fingers rubbing my swollen hernia. I can’t remember it feeling like pain, although I still sense, after all those years, the enormous bulge. The rest of that evening was a blur, possibly cream ambulance interior.

My next snapshot is of bright sunshine, of hauling myself up to stare out the window at a flock of pigeons wheeling high in the sky. I watched them disappear from sight, and reappear just as quickly, not realising it was a trick of light on their wings and bodies. An illusion I still find takes me back to the dawn of memory.

The white of the steel hospital cot was covered with its fair share of paint chips, exposing its bare, almost black bones at strategic eye height. I was unaware of adding any chips himself.

I knew my parents visited regularly, but this day they brought me a small, bright, multi-coloured plastic train string toy. They were very well dressed, and smelt wonderfully familiar. I can see himself sitting on my haunches, playing with it, running it over my tiny legs. And can still remember the gut-tearing pain of being suddenly separated again from them, and not understanding why. Of Mum and Dad disappearing again, and of me wanting so badly to be with them and away from this place, and away from this strange steel cage. It was an horrific pain I still feel sharply, despite knowing for years that the best thing about physical pain is you can’t really remember it.

But I remember this pain. Of being alone in the middle of this chipped, cold cot, in this large, airy room. With only my small, cheap plastic toy train as company. I was 18 months old.


Our home

My next clear memories are of my Corrimal home. Mum and Dad had scraped together the deposit for an older weatherboard and fibro box with corrugated iron roof that boomed roundly when it rained. It needed work, side drainage and new fences. My bed was a night-n-day divan with a hard-as-nails, stuffed backboard that somehow swung down. How, though, I wasn’t quite sure. I remember being too frightening of jamming fingers to learn its mystery.

I’d lay awake at night, especially in Winter when the air was stillest, listening to crickets outside. Then I’d hear ancient steam locos pounding steadily up the hill towards Towradgi, heading south towards Wollongong and Port Kembla. The main Illawarra government line was a mile to the east. I could still hear the rhythmic clack-clack-clack-clack-clack of four-wheel goods wagons, specially when the locos shut off for the drift towards Wollongong, some three miles further south. It was always the same. Steam locos labouring loudly up the hill, then shutting off in silence. I always knew exactly when they’d do it, seeming to disappear as Towradgi cutting and the curved, brick single-lane Towradgi Road over-bridge muffled their noisy march south. But I knew they were still there, moving steadily forward, because of clack-clacking goods wagons obediently following. When the last wagons and guard’s van passed under the bridge and into the cutting, the silence was immediate – framed only by the incessant crickets.

I knew some were coal trains from nearby mines, because I could hear the distinctive clonking of ancient coupling links slackening up for the drift south. And while I never thought steam would end, the rolling clank-clonk-clank-clonk of worn, banging connecting rods carried forever on crisp nights, tolling the inevitable. It was around 1959. The following year, Mum took me to school for the first time.

Corrimal nights were quiet back then. There wasn’t much traffic after dark along my Collins Street, down nearby Cross Street or along Railway Street, heading towards the railway station and the cokeworks immediately behind it. Corrimal was country in 1960, and cars came out only in sunlight. Or so it seemed in my early childhood. Cars also interested me at the time because Mum and Dad didn’t have one. Life was measured by public transport movements, or occasional late-night trips in the back of cold Holden taxi cabs, holding onto the chrome hand rails bolted to the backs of the front bench seat.

I also remember two street lights down on Railway Street. From my room at the front of the house, they threw light like stars on traditional Christmas cards. Whether it was the light sharding on my window glass, or the imagined activities of fairies among trees along Railway Street, or the notion that a Modern Jesus lay quietly in a manger not far from my humble bedroom, it was a memory I knew then would stay with me all my days.

The night air bore no other mechanical sounds. The light was still and steady. The calm punctuated the wait for the next train south, and gave the crickets all the confidence they needed to carry on full-tilt.

I knew from this early age that Corrimal was framed on all sides by railways. There was the main line, the one that delivered night trains, to our east. On the southern edge of the suburb was the ramshackle Corrimal Coal and Coke Co line that ran from behind the cokeworks due west to Corrimal Colliery on the Illawarra escarpment. Running about a mile along the escarpment, boring its way through thick bushland at about 400ft, was a 2ft-gauge tramway carrying coal from the colliery to the old 2ft-gauge incline. This incline delivered coal in quarter-ton dollops to the standard-gauge loading screens nestled in the folds of Tarrawanna, a mile west of our house. And on the northern edge of Corrimal, another line reached for South Bulli Colliery, also half way up the escarpment. Everything was steam. And ancient.

I often saw fluffy billows of pure white CCC steam cloud south of our street’s intersection with the Princes Highway, near Hall & Gibson’s Grocery Store and the old Co-Op building. From the hill to the north, near our Catholic Church and school, I also saw similar SB steam and white smoke clouds. I knew I could only see this as trains stepped gingerly across the highway, through their respective level crossings. And every now and then, as I peered from our back yard into the distant escarpment bush, I could see round puffs of white shredding themselves in bush branches. All these trains were largely mysteries.

I remember only once seeing a CCC loco propelling four-wheel wooden coal wagons over the highway, trying to gain strength for the up-grade push to the Tarrawanna screens. A crossing guardsman with a filthy patch of red cloth flag tacked to a stick was the only protection for highway traffic. While SB trains run until the early 60s, I can’t recall seeing any in action.

But rows of ancient, brooding wooden coal wagons of different shapes, sizes and condition – reddish brown for Corrimal, fading grey for South Bulli – stood on side tracks along their respective lines, and in the nest of South Bulli sidings running down to the mainline just opposite Bellambi Pub. I can also remember seeing them standing on sidings at the coke works at North Wollongong. Never moving. Always sullen, full of coal – or empty – and never giving any hint of their fragile future. Coal framed Corrimal, in delicate, 10-ton weathered-timber-encased loads.
I far more clearly remember two brothers, both old men, one with what I believed was half a bottom jaw, trudging down the highway hill from Corrimal, and turning west along the CCC line. I can still see them walking in Indian file, the taller one always about 15ft ahead of his slightly shorter brother, both with their hands clasped behind their backs. Every time I came near the CCC line, adjacent the original Street’s Icecream factory on the highway’s intersection with Tarrawanna Road and the Highway, I seemed to see them trudging up the middle of the line. They were always deep in thought, but I could never read their minds. The brothers were the railway’s flesh and blood, tramping between well-worn rails whose ancient sleepers had sunk into the right-of-way earth, and covered evenly by soft coal dust that had been accumulating for the better part of 60 years by then.

To the north, along seemingly endless Bellambi Lane, long lines of similar wooden wagons stood silently between the laneside split-rail fence and the backs of houses butting up to the railway property. Clumps of grass sprouted battleship-grey fence posts, and coal dust trickled from between twisting wagon boards. It’s a Saturday. I am young, as it’s before my mid-primary school foray into weekend football.


Saturday afternoon walks

My parents liked walking when I was young. We didn't have a car, and walked all over Corrimal, usually later on autumn and winter Saturday afternoons. Sometimes into the balmy Spring. Looking at houses we passed and gardens Mum and Dad admired. They took it in turns pushing the stroller with one or both of the younger kids onboard. I walked alongside, hanging on to cold chrome.

I remember these as pleasant, lazy sojourns, nearly always ending near the bushline, often in late afternoon gloom beneath the steep escarpment, when Dad disappeared into the undergrowth to retrieve yet another delicate fern for his fernery baskets. Mum and Dad liked each other then, and seemed to share dreams and stories we kids couldn't fathom. They'd talk, reasonably gently, of nothing in particular and everything in general. I smelt the rich bush earth, and wondered about the coal line we walked alongside as we headed west towards the Tarrawanna foothills. Dad told me what happened - how ti all worked - but without experience it meant little for many years. In fact, until long after the trains stopped rolling to and from the foot of the escarpment.

Then I'd see the brothers again. They were always dressed the same. And they were always walking west, towards Tarrawanna.
Into the sunset.


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