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Au­thor Peter FitzSi­mons rem­i­nisces about keep­ing up with the big boys on the fam­ily farm.

Australian House & Garden - - Content - by Peter FitzSi­mons

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).

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