|Several years later. Note the scar to the left of my left eye.|
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
The scars around my eyes (pt 2)
This second attempt to divest myself of an eye, or at least to create the appearance of a pirate complete with eye patch, was such a big deal to me in my early career as a kid that I found it necessary to consult recently with my older sisters on this incident. Given that I had such a lively imagination, it was possible that I had blown it out of all proportion retailing the story, with embellishments that became part of truth for me. If you tell yourself enough times that something happened even when it didn’t, then you come to believe it.
Anyway it turned out that Lyn wasn’t there when this happened, but Jan, almost five years older than I, had extremely vivid memories of it, with only a few of the finer details we recalled differently. I’m rather pleased that we can stand up in court if necessary and corroborate each other’s accounts, not that there’s much chance of that happening. I don’t think I can now sue the Queensland government for skull damage because they built a railway line that got in my way. But let’s get on before I spill the beans good and proper.
I must have been about five years old. Jan says that as she and I were walking across the paddocks to get to the Taragoola road, I was racing ahead of her. This was unusual for me as I was usually dawdling way behind, watching beef ants trundle round their nests or a huge praying mantis stalking some smaller insect.
It all takes time. You can’t rush these things, but that wasn't what I was up to this time.
To get to the road, we had to go through two barbed wire fences, one on each side of the railway line. Someone, probably Uncle Dave, had wrapped hessian bags round the barbed wire at strategic spots so that we could get through the fences without tearing great holes in ourselves or our clothes.
I went through one fence and came to the edge of a little gully about three metres or so from the railway track. About three times a week a train passed through town, so the chances of getting run over by one were as small as my winning Lotto before next Saturday.
I don’t even have a ticket.
Nevertheless, Mum had drummed it into us to look up and down the line every time before we crossed it, which we did. I always thought it was a bit pointless, as a steam train is a monstrously large thing, and you can hear it coming half a mile away, but look we did, faithful to orders.
The truth is that I was scared of steam engines even though I adored the rare occasions we got on the train at Calliope and went to Gladstone on it. The smell of the varnished wooden seats, the creak of the timber as the train started, a whiff of creosote from the coal... that was magic. Getting a speck of coal dust in my eye wasn’t, though.
‘Don’t stick your head out the window. You’ll get a cinder in your eye.’
I always looked out the window. I always got a cinder in my eye, and arrived in Gladstone with one of them blood-red and painful.
It's called karma, also known as wilful disobedience.
But close up, when you’re about five or six, a steam engine is a truly terrifying thing. The enormous wheels shudder and grind on the tracks, steam is shot out of places where you don’t expect it to come from, it pants and puffs like a living thing and the driver might make it whistle when you’re close by just to scare the hell out of you.... Smoke and steam ooze from funnels in great clouds high into the sky - it’s damned scary round a steam engine when you’re little and not very brave.
I was both.
So when I looked up the line towards the Taragoola end and saw a goods train coming, the lingering memories of that huge black screaming iron horse now bearing down upon me made me pause, and reflect on the wisdom of crossing the tracks in front of it.
It was a long way off – 200 metres maybe – but Jan had still to catch me up. This she was desperately trying to do, knowing that she’d get the blame for any mishap I might encounter, even though she was entirely unable to prevent most of them. I was just that sort of kid.
No doubt the driver saw this tiny figure standing hesitantly by the track, but in any case the engine always gave a long whistle as it approached the road-crossing about fifty metres away from me. Jan had barely made it past Aunty Anne’s house when she heard the train whistle and saw me standing by the train tracks contemplating the thrill of the risk in crossing ahead of the train. She yelled at me to stop and raced for the barbed-wire fence between us, which she still had to negotiate.
You know how it is when you have done something like getting through a fence a thousand times on the way to school but in a panic, this is the one time you get hooked up on the barbs?
Well, that didn’t happen to her; I’m just building up the dramatic tension here. (Fooled you, didn’t I?) Just before she put one leg through the wire and her head down to go through the fence, she shouted once again, ‘You WAIT for me!’
That was a mistake. Rule 1 of being a little brother is to remind an older sister that she can’t boss you about. I wasn’t putting up with that. I looked at the train now passing through the road crossing. There was oodles of time. Well, put it this way, the Queensland state railway gauge was 3 foot 6 inches, the narrowest in the country, therefore quicker to cross by milli-seconds than dumb old New South Wales’s 4 foot 8.5 inches, or even sillier Victoria’s 5 foot 3 inches.
Should I go or should I stay? Jan had slipped though the fence without the barbed wire tearing off even a finger or catching her bow in the strand above. ‘STOP!’ she screamed. 'STOP NOW!!!'
That was it. No bossy big sister was telling ME what to do. Should I do it? No. Yes. Ummm, maybe not.... YES!!! I ran to the line and leapt, but not really like a panther, as I had intended. My right foot caught on the first track as I tried to jump it. I went down like a sack of potatoes, and my head smashed on the other line, opening a gash right at the corner of my eye.
The wisdom of Victoria’s 5 foot 3 inch railway gauge might have made itself apparent to me at the time, had I been thinking mathematics, as I would have avoided that second line altogether when I kissed the gravel between the tracks. But to tell the truth, right then I was vaguely thinking, ‘Where am I and what’s this warm stuff running down my cheek in copious quantities?’ Something like that, anyway. ‘And.... what’s that hideous noise?’
I think it was more Jan screaming that I heard rather than the whistle of the steam engine, but I was a bit stunned, so can’t vouch for my recollections. All I do remember was Jan dragging me bodily off the line on Elvie’s side of the tracks, and the train trundling past seconds later.
It didn’t even stop. The driver figured he had a schedule to keep and I was probably still alive. If I wasn’t, he didn’t want anything to do with it. I can’t blame him really.
It was a pretty nasty gash. Jan put her nice clean hankie over the wound and carted me off to Elvie’s, just across the Taragoola road. Elvie was a trained nurse and she knew it should have had a few stitches, but Calliope was 20 km from Gladstone. There was no-one around with a car, nor the rest of the day to waste hanging around the hospital, so she cleaned it up, sterilised the wound with Dettol (which stung like hell), and strapped it as best she could.
That was it. In those days, if you were still alive, that was pretty much the only required outcome. The rest was purely cosmetic.
When it healed, it did gape pretty impressively, and for my entire childhood was a significant feature of my visage. But I do remember I took it better than when Robin Sugars hurled the gibber that hit me below the eye. My mother recounted with high amusement many times after that incident my looking at my face in the mirror at the damage he had wrought, and saying sadly,
‘Robin Sugars? Sugars what?’
‘Sugars RUINED me!’
Strike 3 coming up. “It’s for the blood!” my youngest sister said. But you’ll have to wait.