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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Storms and childhood

Everyone has their own childhood storm experiences, I'm sure. In the country, the vividness is enhanced by the natural surroundings - the absence of other distractions. It's just you and Nature. Jan and Lyn share theirs here and there's no way I could improve on them. I have added only one small bit because it's one where I really should have been killed by that experience.

Jan's story
   If there was one thing that Calliope could turn on with a was storms. And I mean STORMS.... scary, violent, rowdy electrical storms. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are about storms - because they usually happened about the time we were walking home from school - and I had some very personal encounters with them.
Brewing storms
   We would be sitting in our classroom after lunch and at about 2pm, big banks of cloud that formed the storm heads would become visible - usually to the south west - but not always. Our teacher would begin peering anxiously out of the window - and you could see the concern and indecision on his face.

Go or stay?  
   There were a few families of kids, including us - who had a fair hike to get home - and he had a dilemma! Should he allow us to go home early or not? School didn't close for the day until 3.30 pm then. As the sky became darker and more menacing, he would usually finally decide to send the kids most at risk, on their way - the Wrights, Lowes, Smalls, Whitneys, the kids from Stowe, Gunstons - all of us who had creeks (with the potential to flash flood) between our properties and the school. It wasn't an easy decision for him to make - obviously, it was risky either way, with electrical storms.
   Sometimes he timed it right - and we would make it safely home before the storm hit - but other times, the storms were fast moving - and it would've been decidedly safer if we had remained at school. There was no calling in to Mylne's store on stormy days! The thunder would be rumbling as we made our way along the road heading past the back of the pub in the direction of Elvie's place - and the lightning flashes would be more brilliant each time.

Trees and storms
   Dad always told us that if we counted the seconds between the flash and the crash, that would indicate how many miles away the storm was. Well.... I can remember on occasions that by the time we had passed Small's property, there was no time to count between the flash and the crash. The temptation to run and shelter under two large shady trees beside the road was very strong - but we had been warned about that! I can remember being terrified by a kind of a "crackling fizzz" as the lightning flashed - then instantly the crack and boom of the thunder!
   These weren't the most pleasant of experiences and I remember on more than one occasion that the tears wouldn't be too far away as we scrambled up the stairs at either Elvie's, Aunty Annie's or if we were lucky.... home!

Crossing the flooded creek 
   Sometimes, we would only manage to reach Aunty Annie's and Uncle Dave's house when the storm hit and when there was torrential rain, it would soon fill the creek which overflowed onto the flats. We would have to wait until the water subsided a bit before we could set out for the last part of our walk home over the creek, across the flats and up our hill. Uncle Dave was a lovely gentle man who would make sure we crossed safely - even carrying us if necessary.

   Occasionally, there would be hail - and I remember one enormous hailstorm where the hailstones were very large and in one area of the creek where there was a deep little backwater, the hail compacted into a solid block of ice, seven feet (just over 2 meters) thick - which took a couple of days to melt completely. 

Tempting targets    
    There were three large gum trees in a row originally, in the paddock between Aunty Annie's house and ours - standing alone quite some distance apart - and a perfect target for lightning. The farmers, then, were famous for cutting down everything in sight - leaving one lone tree - or at very best, two - here and there - instead of leaving small groves of trees for shade for the cattle and to give the poor trees some kind of protection from lightning. Anything that dared try to grow again would be despatched without delay. Some people made their living out of ringbarking trees or suckering any young ones that tried to make an appearance.
   Inevitably, the first of the three big gums, was struck by lightning - I was at home at the time. The tree was split in halves right down the trunk and I remember seeing fire. That tree didn't survive. Some time later, the second of the trees, the middle one, was also struck - and half of the tree was left on the ground - it eventually also died - after struggling for a time. The one remaining tree was close to our boundary fence around Dad's peanut patch at the foot of the hill, on which our house stood. It too eventually succumbed to a lightning strike - losing a large branch - but if I remember correctly, that one did survive - though definitely looking deformed and battle scarred. 
Cows know best
   One storm I remember vividly was when I was quite small - we owned only the original property then - and the milking was done in the dairy downhill from the house. As was the way with most farmers, storms were a part of life - and they tended to be a trifle gung-ho about them. On this day, there was a particularly nasty storm - Mum had retreated back to the house with us (and the dogs, who were under the bed on the verandah!) - but Dad chose to keep on working.
   I was looking out at the storm from the safety of our back door and I noticed that some of our cattle were sheltering under a large tree near the dairy. Suddenly, inexplicably and without warning .... they moved en masse..... out from under the tree and into the open. Less than a minute later, there was the most vicious flash of lightning followed instantaneously, by the most incredible crash of thunder - and then an awful CRAACK! Half of the large tree that the cattle had been sheltering under, fell to the ground exactly where they had been standing. Some instinct had prompted them to sense the impending danger. This was too much, even for Dad - because he seemingly suddenly appeared at the back steps of the house. I don't even remember seeing him run. He was a good athlete - but I reckon, had there been a time clock on him on that day, he would've broken a world record!

The big cyclone (1949)
   Of course, the grandfather of all "storms" that I remember was the cyclone, which hit our area when I was six years old. Usually cyclones passed us by just out to sea on the ocean side of the Great Barrier Reef which gave us some protection.

   Even so, they were bad enough - but this one was different. It had passed by us out to sea - but these brutes are unpredictable. This one did what was later described as a U-turn and began heading north again - but this time, on the inside of the reef. This was big trouble - and so it turned out to be. There was dreadful damage in Gladstone and environs and I still have vivid memories, despite being so young.

As it approached    
   I remember our house swaying in the wind - it was a new experience and very scary! How thankful we were that Dad had anchored our house to the wooden stumps with cyclone bolts - or it would surely have been blown down. The noise was dreadful - and we had no idea what was going to happen. Our neighbour’s house collapsed - the roof was lifted and then the whole thing came down. He came over to our place - and of course, we gave him a bed on the verandah of our house.

As it departed
   The storm went on for hours and hours - first the winds howling from one direction - then a small lull - only to be buffeted again from the opposite direction. I remember thinking it was never going to end! Finally, it did.... and we were able to venture out and see what damage had been done.

   Our dear old house was the only building that came through relatively unscathed - every other building was damaged - the farm buildings and sheds all required repairs. The most spectacular thing that happened (apart from our neighbour's house) involved a special dairy, in which our cream was kept. (These were the days before Mum and Dad purchased Toohey's property - and later began to supply milk.)

   To our astonishment, the cream dairy had disappeared completely. The winds had lifted it from its concrete base and deposited it upside down about 100 metres away beside the creek. The most unbelievable thing was - that the cans of cream were still sitting as Dad had left them, on the bench.....untouched.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose...    
   I hear a lot today about the severity of today's storms - and there's no doubting that - but they would certainly be rivalled by some of the most memorable ones from my young days at Calliope! 
Lyn's story
Those storms - they were the only blight on summer but we lived through some fierce ones when we were growing up. Jan, you have filled in a few things for me that I wasn't quite aware of – I had a hazy sort of an idea why the cement slab was down the hill but not really tying it in with the old dairy.

The vanishing dairy
   I can just remember the old dairy. I can recall the one above the cowyard a lot better, but the slab that was left after the cyclone took the building down from the house was a site for many of our games. We used to pretend it was a ballroom - testament to the power of our imaginations! And the old tree that the cattle moved out from under in the nick of time would have been the pepperina, I'm guessing.

Verdon and the snake
   We didn't play there much but Verdon Harrison disturbed a brown snake there once which stood up on its tail and scared the living daylights out of us. He lifted up a big sheet of tin and it was underneath it. I remember cutting through the corner of Boys's paddock running to the yard to tell Mum and Dad about it. Luckily the snake took off too, away from us....

Scared? What, me?  
    But to get back to the storms, we used to hate it if they came during the night and you and I Jan would be diving under the blankets all the time so we couldn't see the lightning. But walking home with one threatening was the worst. We probably all remember the day when you and I, Jan, were hurrying home and you, Den, decided to dawdle. We kept singing out to you to hurry up but you wouldn't. We were at the first railway fence when you had just got to the big tea trees, when a vicious bolt streaked down just on the other side of them and the thunder cracked straight after. THAT did the trick. You took off and beat us home by a long way after that scare.

Comment by the dawdling boy
    [I have refrained from commenting on things through these stories, as to do so would be a pure indulgence. But I feel I must on this one as it was literally a hair-raising experience for me.]
    Lyn was right. I was just dawdling. Unlike the girls, I adored storms – the lightning and thunder - and the closer they were, the better. But I was almost killed this time. Jan and Lyn were imploring me to get a move on. As I got close to the fence, I had a weird sensation. The hairs on my arms started to rise and my hair started to float upwards.
   Then beside me, about 20 metres away, a small bright light extended into a five metre high ribbon of electrical energy, dancing up and down on the spot, shimmering and wobbling just above the ground. Just dancing there, on the spot. I was utterly mesmerized, transfixed by the sight. It was like I had a partner beside me. I guess I did...
   This little shimmering bolt of energy suddenly extended upwards to the cloud above with a sizzling hiss. Simultaneously, there was the most earth-shattering noise I’ve ever experienced.
    As Lyn said, THAT did the trick. The hair-raising experience was the lightning searching out a path through my body to discharge the cloud above at that point. But although I was the tallest object in the immediate vicinity, it chose a path nearer the fence to strike.
    Had it chosen me, I would have become one sad little statistic relating to storm activity that day. Lightning became something to be viewed from a safe distance from then onwards. But I still loved it.

Back to Lyn
    I remember those three trees on the flat. The middle one was a very good launch pad for a bad tempered magpie who would wait for me to be all by myself and then attack from the tree. I had quite a few holes in my straw hat from it - better the hat than my head, I suppose. When one of those trees came down its trunk made a nice bridge at the point where we crossed the gully, though the water was usually so shallow we didn't need to walk on it. When I was in hospital after I fell off the bike and couldn't walk, I fell asleep one afternoon and dreamt I was walking across that tree trunk, and just as I got to the middle, it broke, and I woke up with the most enormous jump, my heart pounding very fast!

No wasting milk!  
    Of course, Mum always talked of her own big fright at the old dairy when a huge bolt of lightning and crash of thunder so scared her she bolted for the side fence of the bails which was made of big old logs and got to the top one complete with a bucket of milk from which not a drop had been spilt and without really knowing how she got there!

More storm activity – by us!  
    I also remember us all being on the big verandah bed when a fierce storm struck one morning. As I remember it, Dad had gone into Calliope for the mail, etc. in the sulky, I think, and this terrible storm came up very quickly. I thought we counted ten trees that had been struck that morning. The dogs were under the bed whining every now and then. Den, you decided you would hop off the bed and have a look over the verandah rail, but just as you put your feet on the floor, another flash and crash made you change your mind, and you were back on the bed in a twinkling!
    Given the number of wire fences we had to climb through and the trees along the way, we were lucky that we never came to harm but there were a couple of close shaves that were quite enough for us. I don't recall the cyclone, but I do remember the floor of the old outside kitchen being there for a while before Dad removed it. The cyclone had blown the rest of it down.

After the storm….  
    The only good thing that went with the storms was the rain, and I have lovely memories of the brilliantly clear air after the storm, the sunset causing the strangest glow behind the retreating storm clouds, and the poddy calves all running madly and kicking up their heels. The creek trees were for a little while, hung with diamonds and the ozone charged air made it feel very good to be alive.
    Lots of memories - and I always think of one more! I used to love it when the frogs sat on the wire mesh lid of the tank under the spouting when it was raining heavily. Up to six would congregate there and have what looked to be a delightful shower! Froggie heaven, I think!
 Jan’s final word on storms
     Sounds like I wasn't the only one to have some vivid storm memories! Actually Lyn, the tree that was struck where the cows had been sheltering, was a big gum - I think it was what we used to call a bloodwood, with reddish bark. The big branch that came down was really heavy and fell from a considerable height - had the cattle not moved, there would surely have been some bad injuries or worse.    
   They were corkers of storms though, weren't they? Really vicious! It IS a wonder we weren't hurt - guardian angels working overtime, I think.     
   You would only have been three when the cyclone hit - and Den, you were only one - so you won't recall much of it. It's funny about that big verandah bed - even through the cyclone, Mum and the three of us spent some of the time on that bed. Maybe it was our storm haven - I know that UNDER it, was a favourite hiding spot for the dogs - the only time they were allowed upstairs. You had to take pity on them - poor things - they were terrified!    
   All of the other kids who were allowed to go early had bikes - we were the only ones who had to walk. No wonder poor old Mr Curtis was worried!

1 comment:

  1. These stories are so evocative for me. Growing up on the NSW north coast, cyclones were the most memorable weather events. Almost every late January/February one or two would arrive and make the seas enormous and exciting.One year millions of pilchards (tiny fish) were washed up and blocked the mouth of the Tweed River, then died on the banks, so that the whole of Tweed Heads smelled unimaginably bad. Another time at Kingscliff, sharks came in after the pilchards on a big high tide. The whole (small then) township came down to the beach to see the sharks, so close up in the trough as the waves swelled in. One man brought a rifle and shot a shark, which was pulled up onto the beach, where my cousin and I jumped up and down on its stomach, so that volumes of pilchards shot out from its mouth. We collected them to take home to her father for bait! (The poor shark). Often the Tweed River would flood hugely during cyclones, so that when I was in high school at Tweed Heads the school bus couldn't get through :) And the winds! As a child of about 9 I remember walking home (we lived on top of a hill) and really feeling the wind was pushing me back downhill. It was as if I could lean into the wind, supported by it (surely not, of course!). I often dreamed in those days that I could fly, just by letting myself go on the currents of the air. And one more thing: after a cyclone, the wonderful sea treasures on the beach! Even seahorses, once.


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