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.