Author Peter FitzSimons reminisces about keeping up with the big boys on the family farm.
The world that I came to when the almost unconscious veil of babydom is lifted from me, is all soft pink and lovely… and then very bright and hot… and then soft pink and lovely again… and then bright and hot once more.
I am just three years old and still small enough to fit beneath Mum’s petticoats as on this hot summer’s morning she stands talking in Mrs Slade’s garden to that fine woman who lives just up the Ridge from us. “Time to go home, Petey-boy…”
And then the veil falls once more.
By the time it lifts, maybe four or five months later, it is dark outside on a bitterly cold, wintry night, and yet there is a great excitement in our house. A phone call has come from our neighbours, the Summersgill brothers, who live on their farm just down the bottom of Brieses Road. They need help because their milking cow, Bertha, has fallen into a ditch and cannot get out. Can we come?
Of course, my dad replies. What do you need? Some ropes, a couple of pulleys, some shovels? Okay, on our way. Here is a real man’s job to be done by the FitzSimons men. Already, my older brothers, David, Nook and Jum, have started piling stuff into the back of the old ute, while Mum and my sisters, Cathy and Bubs, are sorting thermoses and making sandwiches on the probability that it’s going to be a long night for the men.
No one seems to have given me a thought. I am the Woozle of the family – nicknamed after the AA Milne character in Winnie-the-Pooh – the youngest. I am a boy barely out of toddlerdom, so of course I’m not involved in the women’s work of making sandwiches or filling thermoses with hot soup. But still, I’m nowhere near being a young man like David – 17 and bulging with muscles – or Nook, who at the age of 14 has shot up two or three inches in just the last year or so, or even a strong young lad like Jum. So it seems my wretched lot is to be left behind with the womenfolk.
But just then, Dad says, oh so casually, “And Woozle, you can come and help, if you like…”
Mum is not sure if it’s any place for a Woozle to be, nor are my brothers, but it is too late. Dad has no sooner offered than I have rushed to get out of my jim-jams to put on my ‘work clothes’ – an old shirt and pants – and I’m ready to go, Dad!
Suddenly, I am out in the night, in ecstasy, as my eyes sting in the wind. Dad is driving the ute and I am standing in the back, gripping onto the top of the cab, face straight into the wind, while Jum and Nook press close behind me, their arms encircling me to keep me safe (just like Mum has told them to), and David is roaring behind us on the Massey Ferguson tractor, his headlights two little bumping beacons behind us in the darkness.
The freezing night air whips our faces and whistles through the holes in our shirts and trousers as we tear down the old dirt track, but I’m not remotely cold. For though I am not quite four years old, I am now a man,
Though I am not quite four years old, I am now a man, taking my place with my brothers… as we meet this emergency head on.
None of them seem to have noticed that I have grown four or five inches since we left a couple of hours ago... but never mind.
taking my place with my brothers and father as we meet this emergency head on. We Fitz men are boss, that is who. I am so proud and excited I can hardly raise spit.
We get to the Summersgills’ place and in no time we are making our way to the ditch, guided by a waving lantern we can see out in the field. Even before arriving we can hear Bertha’s tearing groans as she tries again and again to heave her massive frame out of the ditch she has fallen into, to no avail.
This is the Summersgills’ place and it’s their cow, but it is my dad who now leads, giving us all directions. First, we need more light and now the ute, the tractor and every lantern the Summersgills can muster is soon in position, throwing long shadows across the furrowed fields. The big shadow next to the little shadow is my dad talking to Cyril Summersgill; the three to the left are David, Nook and Jum getting all the shovels, pulleys and ropes out of the ute.
Jum is irritating me something terrible by doing so much to help our oldest brothers that there is little left for me to do. The tiny gadabout shadow flitting back and forth is me, vainly trying not to get in the way of anyone, but way too excited to stand still. I want to help, Jum, I want to help, why can’t I help, let me help, Dad said I could help! J um gives me a wit he ring look – he is five years older than me and twice the size – but reluctantly cedes. The truth is that Dad is the authority and if he says Woozle can ‘help’, then he can. I am given the smallest of the shovels and told to start digging carefully around Bertha. I don’t know how this will help, but it is clearly man’s work and I set to with a will.
Soon, other men have arrived. They have brought more lanterns and more shovels and, most importantly, Mr Watts has brought the large piece of canvas Dad says we need. See, by digging the ditch out at just the right spot, we can maybe get the canvas under Bertha and pull it out the other side. Then, if we spread it out properly under Bertha and sort of wrap it around beneath her and join it at the top, secured by a rope, we can turn it into a sling! How to get upward pressure on that sling?
Dad has thought of that, too. You see, by getting some long posts and constructing them in a tee pee fashion right above Bertha – tying them very tight at the top, and then suspending a pulley from it – he thinks we should be able to get enough lift if we all haul on the rope at once. And if we can also get a sling under Bertha and attach the rope to the sling, we should be able to get ol’ Bertha out of there!
It takes two hours of digging, heaving, hauling, straining and much shaking of our heads and scratching of our chins, but at last we are in shape. The canvas is under Bertha, the rope is attached and, at my Dad’s command, all the men start hauling.
MOOOOOOOO! Please hurry.
And then, inch by precious inch, Bertha starts to move! She is coming up! Heave! Heave! HEAVE! Hey, ho, and up
she rises! With one last massive heaaaave, Bertha breaks free of her earthly bonds and is not only out of the ditch but trying to bolt away. There is a mad rush forward as we release Bertha from her sling and, in the confusion, I feel a sudden stabbing pain as the cow’s stamping hoof comes down on my bare foot. But do I utter a cry? Not a peep, I tell you! Didn’t hurt a bit! (Actually it hurt like all get-out, but I already know that men do not scream so I cried inside.) Now Bertha is totally free and, with one last mighty MOOOO of appreciation, trots off into the night. No need to thank us, ma’am. Our work here is done.
It has been a great night. Bertha has been saved and I have seen my father for what he is: a man who is respected in his community, a man who is capable, someone who can make things happen, a man people know they can turn to when they’re in trouble.
And now it is time for us FitzSimons men to get home. No doubt there will be another man’s job for us to get stuck into tomorrow. When we get back, Mum and the girls are still up, of course, and want to know how we went. Strangely, none of them seem to have noticed that I have grown four or five inches myself since we left a couple of hours ago, that my chest has puffed out to twice its normal size. But never mind. I know I have grown that much, and that is what counts.
Journalist and author Peter FitzSimons AM has written critically acclaimed accounts of historical events such as Gallipoli, Kokoda and Tobruk, plus biographies on trailblazing Australians Nancy Wake, Ned Kelly and Les Darcy.
His latest book, a hardback due for release in November, is Burke & Wills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Australia’s Most Famous Explorers ($49.99, Hachette).