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Saturday, March 31, 2012

My grandmother said (part 2 of 2)

my granny said (1) | my granny said (2)

The wasp incident didn't really have much to do with my story, now I come to think of it. What I wanted to write about was the hidden truth that's often immersed in "Old Wives' Tales".

I quickly got bored at the cemetery. I'd liked to have jumped from one grave to another, but that was disrespectful, Granny said, the first and only time I did it. That's naughty. Stop it right now.

I did. Granny's word was law.

She was right, I guess. You don't trample over your relatives' bones, even if you never met them and didn't have the foggiest who they were, and didn't care. But you know, if I were under that slab, I wouldn't mind if one of my three year old descendants played on the marble edges of my grave. I'd be quite pleased about it. "You might be in one of these one day, kid," I would have beamed up, "so be certain you make the best of the time you've got."

They wouldn't have known what I was talking about, but maybe something might have stuck.

On the way back from the cemetery, Granny noticed the clouds gathering.

"Good. Storms on their way. It takes thunder to really make the grass grow. It shakes the ground, and loosens the soil."

Granny said it, so it must be true.

Later on, when we were very clever, we'd laugh about this "Old Wives' Tale". Granny had some funny ideas, we'd say. She'd rub crushed leaves on insect bites and burns, or mix up and drink odd concoctions when she was feeling poorly.

But it won't come as any surprise to you that there is so often a basis to "Old Wives' Tales" rooted in good observation.

Take Granny's thunder, for example.

I had to admit, growing up on the farm, that after a violent electrical storm, even though there might not have been that much rain, there was extra verve in the new-grown grass within a fortnight. Was I just imagining it because Granny said it was so?

It made me think about the physics and chemistry of what happens in one of those really rip-roaring electrical storms I loved; where the lightning plays unceasingly along the edges of the clouds, bolts streaking from one to another, sometimes zeroing out by (apparently) striking the earth. Flash flash flash streak fork boom!

Let's think now. The clouds are full of electricity, charging, recharging and discharging. The lightning ripples and sparks like it does in a Van de Graaff generator.

Not the one in our lab!
We had one of these at the Physics and Chem lab at high school and I was fascinated by it – but let's not go there right now, except to say that I was privileged to study both these sciences for my whole time at high school.

And that was what made me think about Granny's silly "Old Wives' Tale." Maybe it wasn't that dumb after all.

The atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen and oxygen. Those storm clouds were full of water. Good old H2O.

Right there in the storm clouds, with powerful and constant electrical discharges of huge voltage for the milliseconds they exist, there were three elements: hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen.

Yep. Chemistry says there are the three ingredients of nitric acid. H2NO3. With each bit of electrical activity, the water in the clouds gets a very weak dose of this by the action of the constant electrical discharge, and falls as rain.

We go to the plant nursery and buy nitrogen fertiliser. We sprinkle it around and douse it in water. Our sweetcorn and roses love the hit of soluble nitrates.

So, Granny's "good thunderstorm" gave the entire countryside a mild soaking of the same fertiliser that we pay a fortune for in the gardening shop.

All Granny had wrong was to ascribe the effect of the storm to the thunder, not the lightning. I doubt the shaking of the earth was anything to do with it, but that doesn't matter. She heard the thunder, observed the grass growth, and put two and two together, and got 3.9. Nearly right. Near enough to award a tick for an empirical view of cause and effect.

How often we invent our own "Old Wives' Tales". Something looks logical enough; there's nothing that seems to contradict it, so it's true until proven otherwise. I have no objection to that.

That's the way science works. It's a work in progress. Newton was right because it all fitted perfectly with his mathematics, until Einstein came along and showed that his maths weren't comprehensive enough. Newton hadn't known about relativity or he'd have built it in, unlike the dogmatists who explain science away to preserve that dogma, come hell or high water.

Superstition does too. It avoids science.

It may seem like a matrix, but credulity is very different from superstition.

Our ancestors saw the lightning and thunder and assumed that the gods were having one hell of a row in Heaven. Empirically, it made the best sense, with all that superhuman flashing and roaring and mighty hullabaloo. No wonder the epic tales were full of quarreling, far-from-perfect gods and goddesses. How else can you explain all that racket in the heavens?

At least, till someone else came up with something better.

But it's still a work in progress. All knowledge is, and if you dare think you've got it down pat, someone's going to burst your bubble eventually. Don't fall too much in love with a theory.  

If you don't watch the first 25 seconds at least of this supporting evidence, the gods will get you.

I'm not joking. Granny said, and so it must be.

And the quote(6) I didn't want to start with in the first part? It's intriguing. Very, very intriguing. Are you game?

my granny said (1) | my granny said (2)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

My grandmother said


If I began this with the quote I want to, I'm scared I might lose you from the start. So I won't. I'll hide it somewhere, and you won't feel the need to read it if you don't want to. No pressure.

I'll sneak it up on you, that's what I'll do. That's my cunning plan, anyway.

My story starts with Granny and me. We were going to the cemetery to tend Grandfather Wright's grave. If "Grandfather" looks very formal, there's a good reason for it.(1) It took place when was I was well under four, but this particular episode is very vivid. As a trek to the graveside, it wasn't that far from our house(2), and we could walk it easily. The hardest part was getting through the barbed wire fences without getting scratched or hooking up our clothes.

The barbed wire fence was a place paper wasps used to love making a nest. Perhaps instinctively, they knew people and animals avoided barbed wire if possible. In any case, just as Granny lifted the wire for me to get through, and I got one leg across the bottom wire so that I had barbed wire as close to my precious-s-s-s jewels as it could be, I noticed a scary thing. There was a grey paper wasp nest attached to the fence about a metre along from my cute little nose, and Granny's lifting the wire had got them well stirred up. As far as they were concerned, the shaking of the wire meant that they were under attack.

Paper wasp nest. Mt Larcom in background.
Naturally, they went on the offensive, as paper wasps are wont to do. They're quick-tempered little sods. They didn't even bother to get into V formation; they dive-bombed sans merci – at least fifty-five three of them.

My angelic little face and sturdy arm sustained several bursts of fire. "Fire" is a good word for it when you're three and a half and the subject of what I felt was an unprovoked attack by wasps, because that's what a paper-wasp sting feels like. A hot needle,(3) the omnishambles made worse by my frantic attempt to leap away, with barbed wire all around. There were portions of my anatomy I could well have lost on that day, thanks to
(a) the normal practice for little boys in the Queensland tropics to travel commando while 
(b) straddling barbed wire while under acute wasp attack
and my life might have changed forever. Not to mention my daughters' lives, if indeed they had ever been born.

Let's not dwell on it but just say that the cold water from the cemetery tank did alleviate the burning stings eventually, and although I was pretty certain I was about to expire,(4) the attack was not lethal. The barbed wire scratches looked worse than what they were and I had lost nothing of permanent consequence, but I milked the experience for all it was worth.

My mother used to say that Granny, who I thought rather stern, regarded me as an angel who could do no wrong. This, as other stories corroborate, was totally unwarranted, and would sometimes drive Mum near-crazy, because Granny would refuse to let Mum discipline me when she considered that whatever had happened was Mum's fault and not mine. It was pretty near always Mum's fault.

I confess I always tended to Granny's point of view on such matters, but I had no shame. Granny was fairly tyrannical in our household.

She passed away when I was a bit over three and a half, on St Valentine's Day 1951. I missed her, especially when I needed support in a case of alleged mischief on my part.

The cemetery incident did leave me with a particular dislike of the place though, with its glass-domed fake flowers bleached white daily on the old graves by the tropical sun. But it did engender a huge respect for paper wasps.

My mother tells the story that for years after this incident, whenever I saw a hornet or wasp within twenty metres of me, I'd say:

"Mum?" **Eyes as big as saucers**

"Yes?"

"Just... don't go near the cemetery, Mum."

Oh. This is where my story actually starts. Sorry....

You'll notice I have footnotes. This is an invitation to read something relevant to the particular sentence but a distraction from the main story. Thus I have reverted to form as an historian. If you click on one of the footnotes above, it will take you to a footnotes page. You may need to hit the BACK arrow on your browser to return to the main story.

Alternatively, we may never see each other again, which I would feel sad about....

continued

How big each wasp looked to me. Don't laugh. You weren't there.

my granny said (1) | my granny said (2)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reporting to the oncologist


"I'll give the clinic a ring and see if they're anywhere near schedule,' said Tracey, knowing that, if we're punctual, there's usually a fair wait to get in.

She was told they were right on schedule. I was a bit skeptical, but we got there, right on time, and lo and behold, there were very few people there; a bit miraculous for a mid-afternoon appointment.

We were ushered in. Pam, the head of the Oncology unit at the hospital, was there to take notes as usual, because what the oncologist says affects the treatment at Oncology.

"I'm very pleased to see you," said he as I limped in, me silently cursing my leg for not cooperating in letting me put on a good show for him. "Very pleased indeed. After four months, I'm delighted."

We both knew what he meant. A lot of patients with my condition don't make it back, or if they do, in a much worsened state.

He'd been going through Pam's notes she takes meticulously every three weeks, when I get an Avastin infusion at Oncology.

I always do a written report on how I feel things are going with me. It's a little light-hearted, but it serves some useful purposes. From his point of view, it includes the answers to many of the routine questions he would have to ask. Not all of them, but most of what he needs to know. He reads this through and in less than a minute knows the score pretty well.

From my point of view, it makes me think carefully about what has happened in those four months, and it's astounding the details I forget since the last consultation, until I go back through my blog diary.

A now memory of the last four months can be quite skewed. Time becomes pretty stretchy, and events may be falsely compacted. Mostly I forget things that happened.

He smiles when he comes to some bits. He looks at Tracey, and asks (as he does each time), "Did you help with this?"

She hasn't. I don't want her to, because I also have a second purpose in my "report", or "homework" as I often call it. I want him to get a picture of my state of mind. What I can do and can't. What I think is important.

Hell, let's come straight out with it. Whether he thinks I'm going gaga.

"I don't quite get the purpose of the last bit," he says.

"It's just to show you that I've been trying to see if there's a pattern to the seizures. If they relate to when I get an Avastin shot, and how far apart the seizures are."

He's not surprised there's no correlation. He didn't expect it. As we both know, the variables are huge.

"One thing I wanted to ask you. Tracey and I have been talking about this. I started with oral chemo and ended with intravenous. From what we can make out, we doubt the chemo made a bit of difference. Not in a positive way, anyway. What do you think?"

He disagreed. Fair enough. He's treated many with this illness; mine was a sample of one. Me.

"It's possible that it may not seem to make a difference in some cases, but there's good evidence that it does help with some people. You just don't know. That's the thing. It's the same with other drugs, including Avastin. It doesn't seem to make a huge difference for one group, unlike in your case, where it's certainly helping to keep the oedema at bay as well as containing the tumour."

"In your case, it's performing remarkably well. You surprise me each time you come in."

I'm gratified, as if I personally invented the treatment that keeps me hanging on.

"We know things can change quickly, but it's obvious what we do from here on."

"Yes," I say, "We don't rock the boat."

"Exactly. Do what you said on your report, about sleep, diet, exercise.... I'll see you in three months. Touch wood all will go well till then."

He did indeed touch the wooden table. He knocked it hard, in fact.

I was glad he added that little bit of superstition, so dearly held by me.

So, here's my report. And my head is getting whoosy as blazes, so even though it's now 5:10 pm, I better have a sleep. Forgive any errors - I'll re-check it later and find loads no doubt, but having sat here and done this, let me post it. 

Oh, I see I've said 2012 in one of those dates at the end, which timewarps us to Christmas this year. That's clever. I'm not redoing the graphic though. I'll be a Timelord instead. Dr Me, that's Who.





Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pride and peripatetics




Armidale's trees are colouring nicely. The claret ashes are turning from deep green to that of a rich cabernet (I guess I should say 'claret'!) and along what used to be the old highway to the south, the tall poplars are a distinctly shimmery-golden-green in the breeze from the west.

I can see these things clearly on our walk now, but it's as though it's for the first time. Why? Because I have abandoned pride. Not pride in the positive sense, because I still have enough of that, but vanity. Vanity in this physical sense at least.

Let me explain. As I related in some detail in an earlier posting, which I am vain enough to think you might read if you haven't already, I now have more trouble walking, because the right leg is not getting the same motor signals from the brain as the left. I also have an increasingly troublesome issue of general balance.

In fact, there are two postings on this subject; the first, a brief one from September last year with 'coming of spring' photos Tracey had taken on the way round. This one had faded from my memory. I'm shocked now on reading it at how much greater the walking problem has got compared with six months ago. Things creep up on me.

The second entry, which was what I was really recalling, was from just last month. I thought I'd written it earlier than that, but my perception of time these days is weird.

As I said in that February posting, this means that I have had to focus deeply on the mechanics of walking, looking just one step in front of me at a tar road or concrete path while we pass the urban beauties of nature by.

" [Taking Tracey's arm] is very steadying," I said, "but it also fosters dependence. It gives me a false sense of balance." I am indeed much steadier when I take Tracey's arm and there's logic in trying to retain independence.

BUT as the days go by, and as balance declines, the sheer mental effort of holding so many 'walking' arts in mind becomes too much.

Finally I had to admit it. When I took Tracey's arm, to walk the regular paths and not just street corners or obstacles or young women with twins in strollers coming the other way, everything became that much easier. I could relax, and with that, walking itself became easier and less exhausting.

I could look around and see what was happening. We could talk if we wanted to, not that we always do. Neither of us is the sort of person who demands that silence be filled with inconsequential chatter. We feel no need to entertain each other every second we're together. Just being close when walking can be enough, and the unspoken words may be more important than those that come out of our mouths.

The reality is that for the past few weeks I had been fighting against pride, but not the healthy sort. I mean the ornery soul-sapping kind that makes me irritable and frustrated with myself and, no doubt, irritating to others when it surfaces.

So in the past few days, walking has become so much more enjoyable (for me at least), as it becomes more natural in the ways that really matter. It may not look graceful, this guy clutching a young woman's arm and stumbling occasionally, but I don't stumble anywhere near so much. I arrive home less exhausted. I can put in the effort where it is required without fear of spearing my nose into the concrete or shattering a few rather important bones.

Pride is fine. I just have to draw the line between it and vanity, and not look on unavoidable dependence as public humiliation.

That, my friends, is a bloody sight harder than it looks when I've spent 98.46% of my life standing - and walking - on my own two pins.

(Autumn photos by Tracey)

Friday, March 23, 2012

The old 'bananas and monkeys' story


I'm pretty sure you've run across this story scores of times, because I have. There's a dozen versions on the web, many unmercifully plagiarised from each other.

Just in case you somehow missed it, I'll reproduce here what I think is the best version of it, though for all I know it could have been derived from one of the ones I've discarded.

I have a reason for mentioning it because it's important to a coming serious discussion that I have in mind about our experiences with brain cancer therapies, and I don't want to have to explain this yarn there.

I'm not the first to ask whether this story has any basis in fact. It smells mightily of urban legend. The great website for sniffing out all sorts of urban myths, snopes.com, is surprisingly vague about it. I thought they'd be sure to dismiss it summarily as apocryphal, but they didn't.

I did get interested in whether or not this experiment was ever carried out, in any variant form, and there's some basis in fact for it, as you can see at the end if you want to check it out.

(I've excluded the introductory moral of the story bit as it diverts from my intent, but it's there in full on the website.)

That’s The Way It’s Always Been
Post written by Zen Family Habits contributor Corey Allan.
....

Start with a cage containing five monkeys … Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth.

Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water.
Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.

Why not?

Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here.

(Closing moral excluded, but you can guess it. This tale has been adapted to suit business management as well as family relationships. As you'll see, I have my own purpose, which will be revealed in the fullness of time.)

The footnote:
"Stephenson (1967) trained adult male and female rhesus monkeys to avoid manipulating an object and then placed individual naïve animals in a cage with a trained individual of the same age and sex and the object in question. In one case, a trained male actually pulled his naïve partner away from the previously punished manipulandum during their period of interaction, whereas the other two trained males exhibited what were described as "threat facial expressions while in a fear posture" when a naïve animal approached the manipulandum. When placed alone in the cage with the novel object, naïve males that had been paired with trained males showed greatly reduced manipulation of the training object in comparison with controls. Unfortunately, training and testing were not carried out using a discrimination procedure so the nature of the transmitted information cannot be determined, but the data are of considerable interest."

Sources:
Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

Mentioned in: Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88:

I was a bit amused at the intensity of the discussion around this tale, ranging from observations about the effect of the behaviour of the Alpha male of the group on attempts by others to reach the banana, to outrage at the cruelty of spraying water on the monkeys participating in the experiment. Not amusing was the thought that this was a mild experiment compared with some experiments our little monkey brothers and sisters are put through, but let that pass.

In the end, its veracity in simian behavioural studies has little to do with my story. The general point will.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Four bob well spent (4)


The story so far: I bought a plastic bow and arrows with the four shillings that Cam Lowes gave me, supplemented by eleven pence from Mum. Did I really need three episodes to get to this point?

The train seemed to take ages to get home that day. We had to wait at the junction for some goods train to pass through, and by the time we walked home from the station it was dusk.

I had adhered to my promise not to open the cellophane wrapping, but my fingers were burning all the way home. At last the time came.

The bow turned out to be everything I could have desired. The plastic was incredibly sturdy and even though I was no weakling, I couldn't draw it back quite to its fullest extent, thus allaying Mum's fears that I'd snap the bow in two in the first minute I tried it.

I don't know what the formula for that plastic could have been, but it was amazing. Maybe it was the red colouring. Whatever. Even the poncy rubber stickered arrows went like a bullet in the girls' bedroom, though I was banned from putting spit on the rubber sucker to help it stick to the unpainted wall.

I had to wait till morning to do some proper military testing on the new device, but having it by my bed on the verandah that night was a great comfort to me. Should the half-man-half-apes have attacked me that night instead of nearly doing so on that other occasion, I would have been fully armed and pretty damn dangerous.

The bow, as I said, was perfect. The arrows left much to be desired, though the rain gauge on the post was, admittedly, more in fear of its life than ever before. For some reason I was also banned from including it as a target in my series of military tests. Obviously Mum decided, when she saw me on the missile range, that the rain gauge's original function, namely, to measure precipitation, was in need of protection.

The arrows were not aerodynamic, that much was certain. Over five metres it wasn't a serious problem, but a new warhead had to be developed. Or to be more precise, a new delivery system.

Then I had a cunning plan. And this wasn't a Baldrick cunning plan. It was genuinely good one.

In one part of the creek were bulrushes. These plants are reputed to be bad for the ecology of water systems, but I had plans to help solve that and build an arsenal at the same time.

Actually, I wasn't that concerned about ecology. Besides, if this worked, I would need lots of bulrushes, so extermination was not on the agenda. It would become resource management.

By cutting a maximum sized bulrush spear, and slicing off the bit where its seed head was, I had the makings of the perfect arrow. I mean, excellence with a capital YES.

The Moses principle
I had no trouble wading into the bulrush pool. In the tropics where we lived, mud squishing between your toes was a good feeling. What I really needed was a good cutting instrument. Even the Sharp Knife in the right-side kitchen drawer – the one with the black handle and one rivet missing – wouldn't ... well... cut it. Nor the tinsnips. I needed something to cut the end with absolute precision, at 90° to the perpendicular, i.e., perfectly square.

The solution was obvious, and that was Mum's silver dress-making scissors – the ones we kids, especially one kid in particular, were barred access to on the grounds that we would do things to blunt them.

This of course was no barrier to me. It was just a matter of sneaking them out of the sewing machine drawer when she wasn't looking, which I was able to do because I was very good at doing stuff when she wasn't looking. I'd had experience.

Silver scissors in hand, I waded in knee-deep and found that I had struck arrow gold. Some of the stems with that brown fluffy bit at the top were quite dry from age, and the spores or seeds were already being carried off by the wind. I snipped off the base of the stem, as well as the top bit, and I had in my hand the lightest, straightest arrows ever devised by nature.

It was no use going to the tedious task of fletching the arrow before preliminary testing, so I fitted one of these prototypes to my new bow, unfletched. I aimed straight up in the air, and fired.

The result was pure, unmitigated ecstasy. I mean this when I say that it shot so high and so fast that I lost sight of it in the woolly cloud above. I don't mean that it went into the cloud (though I don't dispute the possibility); it just disappeared from view as it went slightly off course at its apogee as the result of its lack of a tail-feather. It floated down quite a few seconds later. No, I don't know quite how many, as I didn't have a stopwatch on it. I didn't have a stopwatch. I had no timepiece at all.

This was just before the Russians put sputnik into space. I almost beat them to it with my bulrush arrow, though I admit tracking it might have been a problem, as it was an under-the-radar device.

With proper fletching, the bulrush arrows were deadly accurate over twenty to thirty metres, once I'd had a bit of practice and adjusted angles from those of the unsatisfactory mulberry wood bows I had made.

I should add that I wasn't interested in shooting birds or anything live; an inanimate target was fine by me, barring the rain gauge as I said. I didn't want my weapon to carry a warhead of any description. I was happy to put an old towel on the clothesline with a hand-drawn target on a sheet of paper sticky-taped to its middle. It caused less damage to the arrow tip, reinforced only by a thin wrapping of tape, than hitting a tree.

The towel came off worse than my arrows and I was banned from using good ones, especially Mum's.

Science suffers terribly from restrictions, and when I was seven I got banned from experimental activity more than most scientists, it seems.

But I'll bet William Tell would have been using me as Phone-a-Friend when the dictator Gessler made him shoot that arrow at the apple on top of his son's head. I'd have hit the apple dead-centre while Mr Tell "shot the wicked tyrant through the heart" as our Grade Four Reader said when telling the story.

You question the veracity of the William Tell story? Well don't. If it's in the Grade Four Reader then it's gospel, like anything in the Courier Mail.

On several later forays to the bulrushes, I had to be extra careful commandeering the good scissors. Luckily, because mothers don't understand the physics of bulrush arrow technology, I got away with it, though on one occasion after I re-stocked the quiver there were some suspicious looks in my direction, when she needed to cut out a dress for one of the girls from a new McCall's Pattern.

I thought that accusatory stare was pretty unfair, because nothing could be proven. There was not the slightest trace of mud on the silver shears. I hoped.

I found an excellent use for the bought arrows with the rubber suction caps on the end. At the height of summer, a lot of flies would hang around the milking shed. There was a particular wooden post on which they'd snooze in the middle of the day.

These flies were a constant source of irritation, as we didn't want to use any more pesticides (mainly DDT in pump sprays) than we needed to, but it also wouldn't look good if the Health Inspector came along and thought that there was (or were) an excess of them flying about, or sitting on that post.

So, you can see where this is going, right? From two metres away, with the suction-cupped arrows, I would target an unsuspecting Cyclorrhapha musca domestica on that post and with unfailing accuracy, would send the fly to meet its Maker in a zillionth of a second.

It was a merciful killing, DDT being a painful way to die I'm sure, legs kicking in the air and that death-rattle buzzing. With my method, they wouldn't have known a thing about it. By the time they thought "Wha..." they were mashed to the post as if they'd been through a blender.

My accuracy over two metres was excellent. I say that with pride and not a trace of conceit. Well, maybe a little. My hands never touched the mortal remains of a despatched musca, nor did I touch the suction tip, which I washed thoroughly after the killing spree.

I was a perfect killing machine with the scent of blood in my nostrils and I had no pity. I was the Fly Hunter. Tarzan may have reigned supreme in the Darkest African jungle; I, in the milking shed, Lord of the Flies.

I couldn't wait to show Dad the results of my skill and ingenuity. Strangely, he was not happy. The thought that the Health Inspector might come along unannounced right then and survey the mortal remains of two or three score barely-recognisable flies on the pole between two bails where cows were milked sorely displeased him. He handed me an ancient nail brush and a prune-tin on its last legs full of hot water and milky-white Dettol, and I was ordered to scrub the post clean-as-a-whistle before leaving the establishment.

That's gratitude for you.

I promised utterly faithfully to end this story with this posting, and I have. There were Appendices to this that I decided to leave out. Maybe, in some other format, I'll return to them. It is done, it is done.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Einstein the man: a worthy quote




Of course, he uses the gendered language of his era, but in my case, I wouldn't want it to look as if women had been left out. One in particular, without whom I would not be here now.

By the way, this isn't the first time I've invoked Einstein's words about others. I also referred to him here in the story written in red.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Four bob well spent (3)


My hopes were thus cruelly dashed, by the evil hand of capitalism and being seven years old. I slunk away a little from the shop window, determined never to look at its contents again.

My mother came along, having crossed the street from Friends Department Store, and noticed me standing outside Stobo's, not-looking but looking sadly at the Stationer's window.

'What's wrong?'

Mothers seem to know when some disaster has overtaken the applets of their eyes.

'I was going to buy... it was 3/9 but only the arrow and it was more than a pound....'

I admit my lip was a bit trembly.

Mum looked in the window, and saw the price-tag on the bow now clearly displayed side-by-side with the three-and-ninepenny arrow, and quickly assessed the full extent of the tragedy.

An item over a quid was not a matter she could help with. Sympathy, yes, but not £1/1/6 worth.

'Why don't you go into Woolies like you always do, and play with the Wheelos? I've got buttons and things to get from Manahan's and not a lot of time.'

Manahan's. "MANAHAN'S ARE MARVELLOUS" was their ill-grammared slogan, but that shop was full of the most boring things in the world, like clothes and knitting wool, large bolts of dress fabric, and very strange undergarments that women squoze their bellies into. And buttons, obviously.

Give me Woolworth's toy counter any day. There were trays of toys just beyond the reach of toddlers to put their grotty fingers in, but full of magical things I could pick up and fiddle with. Those were the days long before that sort of unyielding plastic no-one without a pair of tinsnips and a lot of swearing can open.

And there was always a Wheelo, which I loved and would play with in Woolies for hours. A Wheelo was a yellow wheel, strongly magnetised at its axle, which ran up and down a stout wire.... hang on.... let me check something. Yes! To my amazement and joy, I find they're still around, in their retro glory, only they've gone wild and made the wheel red instead of the traditional yellow.

That's not right. They should be subject to Heritage Protection.

So now you understand. But that little movie demonstrating Wheelo action on the page is disgraceful – they have no idea of the proper art of spinning the Wheelo.

Even the Wheelo failed to lift my spirits. After a few thousand perfect executions of full Wheelo cycles, I walked disconsolately along the trays of toys, picking up and discarding items I'd played with fifty times before.

Then I saw it.

It was brilliant red, it was plastic, and it had three arrows with sucker things on the end of each, all sealed in cellophane, on its own stand in the corner.

I'll give you three guesses.

But its cost, about which there was no doubt because it was emblazoned gaily on a large card in red numbers, was 4/11. One penny short of a crown - five shillings; and nearly a silver shilling more than what was in my buttoned pocket.

I gazed with a similar longing for this plastic bow to that which Romeo must have nurtured in his bosom manly chest for fair Juliet. I could not leave. Romeo had his problem; I had mine, no less anguishing than his.

Mum came along looking for me.

'Come on. Uncle Frank will be here soon to pick us up. What are you staring at? Ohhh.... I see.'

She saw.

'It's only 4/11,' I said, with spaniel eyes. 'I've got four shillings. I just need ... eleven pence. Not even a whole shilling.'

She buckled. She had witnessed the result of the debacle at Stobo's, after all, but she did not yield until picking up the object of my passion and looking at it long and hard. It was, after all, Made In Japan.

The fifties was an era where cheap low-quality Japanese toys were flooding the market, and the chain stores were on to it like a flash. It was barely a decade since the end of the war, too, and bitter memories were still fresh. Little did I know that in another decade I would be buying a Datsun 1000 car, far higher in quality than anything produced in Australia, and shortly after, that Japanese optical and electronic goods would be the apex of quality worldwide.

But she was right to be suspicious, as lots of toys broke the minute you got them out of the packet, and she examined it minutely.

'All right. I'll find a shilling. But on one condition.'

'What's a "condition"?'

I didn't really care what one was; I would have agreed to anything. Lucky my name wasn't Faustus.

'It means you can't do it.' Mum was not about to explain the legal niceties of contract law.

'You can't open it till we get home.'

She obviously had visions of my terrorising the good people of Gladstone by firing suckered arrows indiscriminately in all directions before we got to Uncle Frank's car.

She could have been wise to impose that clause in the contract. Alderman Stobo would have been the first to go. A rubber-suckered arrow right between the eyes.

Look, I know I said I'd finish this this time around, but I didn't Swear to That on a Stack of Bibles or Cross my Heart and Hope to Die, did I? I have other things to do, and you can wait a day or so, can't you?

I'm afraid what I said earlier turned out to be a non-core promise, but I didn't know it at the time. I had no intention of doing a Scheherazade. Honestly. Cross my heart, but I refuse to hope to die.

I have sorely tried your patience. I apologise, fairly sincerely. But heck, I started this at 7.45 am, my stomach is grumbling piteously and it's now near lunchtime, and I haven't done a thing else. Give me a break, hey?


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Four bob well spent (2)


I've been reading too much Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century literature lately, and it's affected my writing. I'm using sentences that are too complex, unnecessarily convoluted phraseology, and long words when smaller ones will do perfectly well.

Even that last sentence is a disaster. Well, no more! The KISS principle is hereby invoked as I go on with my story.

Friday morning came. Mum, Kay and I were off to Gladstone in the train. Instead of Saturday, as I expected, an opportunity had come up a day early, and this was school holidays.

I adored riding on the train. The steam engine still frightened me, with its noise and steam and mighty power. The carriages were varnished wood and creaked as the train moved. The pungent aroma of stale tobacco and creosote was addictive. I loved it.

Fifteen miles (twenty kilometres or so) took about an hour, depending on whether we had to wait at the junction five miles down for some other train to go through. This was a single track line, carrying traffic both ways. Sometimes that wait took an extra hour as well, but on this day, we went straight on.

I had my four shillings in my pocket, the one that buttoned at the top. It may surprise some to know that zips were rare in those days, and if a button would suffice, then it was used instead.

Even at high school, the flies of our khaki shorts and winter long trousers were buttoned, not zipped. You'd be amazed at how adept....

Focus, boy. This isn't about flies. You have money to spend.

Uncle Frank Ford met us at the station. Lord knows how he knew when to come, as we had no phone and neither had he and Aunty Lucy. They probably heard the train come in, as there weren't that many going through that end of the town in those days. Aunty Lucy made an obligatory cup of tea for Mum, but I was longing to get up town.

I had something to buy. Something good, as Cam Lowes told me to get.

I don't know if he was talking about something altruistic, but 'something good' has a broad spectrum of meaning in the objective sense. With four bob, I might have bought all manner of things for the benefit of humankind, but hell, I was seven, and the problems of humanity did not weigh heavily upon me.

There was only one speciboy of the human race I had in my little self-absorbed mind for a good-thing-to-buy on that day, and that was guess who.

Between Woolworths and Coles in the main street there was a stationer's shop – Stobo's. Bill Stobo ultimately became Mayor of Gladstone, but that was later.

You know how pharmacies sell everything these days, from sweets to eyeshadow? Well, for some odd reason, there was one item displayed in the stationer's shopfront window that would appear to be completely unrelated to stationery.

A bow and arrow.

Yep. In a stationer's. It made perfect sense to me, along with diaries and notepads and that day's Gladstone Observer. What didn't compute was that it had been sitting in the front window for months and I had drooled over it every time we came to town. How could someone not have bought it, at the generous price of three shillings and ninepence on the tag attached to the arrow? Were people insane?

Well, all that was about to change. The arrow was nothing special. I could make better ones myself, fletched with a section of carefully chosen wing feather from a chook who'd come off worst in a pecking-order scrap in the henhouse.

But the bow. Oh, that magnificent bow! It didn't have all those fancy bits on it you see on competition bows these days. It was a real Robin Hood bow, made of I know not what timber. Maybe even yew, like Robin's. Yes, definitely yew. I'd heard of that, but I had no idea what a yew tree looked like. They didn't grow round Calliope, I knew that much, or if they did, they'd all been made into bows long ago. Maybe that was it.

Maybe that was the last yew bow in Queensland, on the shelf at Stobo's.

I'd made all my bows from mulberry branches. I'd cut one from our tree that had the right bend in it, trim it and find some string in the kitchen drawer. All pieces of string around packages were un-knotted and wound into little coils and put in the left hand drawer of the cupboard, next to the cutlery one.

I'd get a coil the right length for the bow and string it, but to be perfectly frank, mulberry didn't have as much spring in it as I hoped. My beautifully fletched arrow would go maybe ten metres at best, with a very unsatisfactory trajectory. Getting an arrow to hit the rain gauge on top of the fencepost meant aiming at about a 45 degree angle over the distance.

It didn't add to my confidence as an archer, but in computing for hitting any given target, I did learn a lot about elementary laws of physics, mathematics and probability. And, dare I say it, string theory. Some strings were more equal than others too.

The string on this bow, about to become mine, was red and white very finely plaited material of uncertain origin; maybe catgut. I didn't care.

I walked into the shop. Alderman Stobo was there on the front counter.

"What would you like?"

"I want that bow and arrow set in the window."

He looked surprised.

"That bow and arrow, do you mean?"

"Yes." Heck, how many bow and arrow sets did he think were in his window? There had always been one set, and only one. 3/9. Three shillings and nine pence. Not quite four bob.

I produced my money to prove intent to purchase. My two shiny florins.

His face changed from surprised to puzzled.

"You can't buy just the arrow. It's a set."

Of course I wanted the set. Did he think I was stupid? Well, I wanted the bow. The arrow was rubbish, but it was part of the deal for the set.

Wasn't it? Then the dreadful realisation dawned on me.

The three and ninepence was the cost of the arrow. Only the arrow.

I must have looked thunderstruck. Or maybe pierced through the very heart by that shoddy arrow.  [** Violins **]

"How.... how much is the bow?"

Alderman Stobo gently took me by the hand and led me to the window.

There was a label on the bow that had turned around so you couldn't see the price from the street. In fact, you could barely see the label. I sure hadn't.

As he turned it round, there was a little smile on his face; half amusement, half pity. Then he turned away and walked back to the counter.

The label read: 21s./6.

Twenty-one shillings and six pence. £1/1/6. I can see that label to this day. It may as well have been twenty-one thousand pounds, from where I was standing, 17 shillings and 6 pence short.

But.... that wasn't the end to this story. In spite of my dreams having been crushed so quickly and brutally, I still had my four bob, and the terrible disappointment was quickly erased by what happened next.

This I will narrate briefly in the final instalment. Yes, I thought it would be finished this time too, but life at age seven often has a way of reversing despair, even if a little more explanation is involved. 

And no, I never did get that yew bow.

Hey, it was probably a fake anyway. A genuine yew bow and arrow in a stationery shop? Sounds dodgy really, don't you think?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Four bob well spent (1)


As I've said before, in the early days, we would sell only cream to the butter factory. That was before they got on to the idea (a bit slowly, I reckon) that producing whole milk and selling it in bottles to the townies was a licence to print pound notes. The milkmen who sold whole milk to people with billies in hand would have to adapt to delivering pint bottles.

We didn't have a car then and Dad used to put the few cans of our hard-won pure cream into the back of the sulkey, hitch up the half-draught horse and trot down to the depot with it. It took a while, even though it was only a couple of miles at most, so he usually did it alone, even stopping on rare occasions to have a beer before the trip back.

Occasionally though, I'd jump in the sulkey with him and go along for the ride. There was always a chance he might have a beer, in which case I'd score a lemonade in a seven ounce glass. And I always got to drive the sulkey up the final hill home. There's something about the sense of power slapping the reins on the old horse's back to make her move that you only get with driving a Formula 1 racing car.

I imagine so, anyway. I've never done the latter, but I'll bet the number of Formula 1 racing drivers who've driven a horse and sulkey are few and far between, so suck eggs, whoever.... Sebastian Vettel.... (Thanks, Google. The last Champion I could remember was Niki Lauda. And that was 1977.)

I wish I had a picture for you of the horse and sulkey ready to go, but you'd be surprised how few iPhones there were around in the 1950s to take a quick snap. All we had was the Box Brownie. Everyone had one.

In a way, you know, in order to frame your shot, a Box Brownie had something a bit like an LCD screen, but about the size of a postage stamp. You'd peer down at this tiny image of what you were aiming at and hit the button, and hope for the best. More often than not, you got a good shot of your subject's decapitated body and a broad expanse of grass in front, all in glorious black and white.

You weren't too free with your shots though, because they weren't free. A roll of film had to go off to town to the chemist's, you'd wait about a week, and back your expensive shots would come. Often terrible.


Anyway, I don't have a picture of our horse and sulkey on the starting grid. I do have one of half the sulkey you can see indistinctly in the background, a milk bucket tastefully placed in front of the wheel for effect, three gorgeous kids carefully posed on the steps of our mansion, and all four of the dog's legs thoughtfully captured on the steps at the top of the picture, to provide aesthetic balance.

That could be an award-winning shot, really. Pity about the crooked grin and the shifty eyes of the brat in the middle....

Dad and I had barely got to the depot when one of those idiotic little Chihuahua-type mutts that our cattledogs would have eviscerated with one snap of the jaws came racing out of Mylne's yard, yapping furiously and trying desperately hard to get trampled to death under the horse's hooves, each of which were as big as the 'dog' itself.

I'm sorry if you have a dear little Chow or a Pomeranian, but when you've lived with cattledogs that aren't afraid of going for a wild boar, you don't credit toy yappie things with the 'dog' title.

Come to think of it though, going for a draught horse when the attacker's the size of an egg carton is kind of brave.... No, let's be realistic. It was just plain bloody stupid.

But the Chi Pom-pom upset old Junie greatly. Maybe she thought it was a gigantic March Fly. Though Junie hadn't lifted her hooves more than six inches off the ground even one at a time in the previous eight years or so, she snorted and reared and whinnied like those stallions in the old movies do – the ones they hit with a high voltage cattle prod for the sake of the movie action.

You didn't know that? Then you haven't the foggiest what they put horses through in movies to get the effect they want.

They should have had the cameras on Junie. At the very least it would win an award on Funniest Home Videos, a show the only purpose of which is to demonstrate how many different ways candidates for the Darwin Awards try to fulfill their death wish by hurting themselves (often very unoriginally, I might add. At least this thing that was a cross between some genetic mutation from Mexico and an equally freakish Chinese masterpiece of inbreeding had the virtue of novelty for its desired manner of death.)

Junie reared and screwed round in the shafts of the sulkey. The idiot dog-like thing took off, totally unharmed but protesting volubly, as if its freedom of speech, both Mayan and Cantonese, had been grossly violated. Still miraculously all in one misbegotten piece, it disappeared under the stock shed at the back of the store.

Uninjured was more than what I can say for the sulkey. There was a distinct snapping sound as Junie reared, followed by a splintering groan of one of the shafts. Junie suffered no injury, I hasten to add. But our noble chariot now looked a bit sad.

I've a feeling you have never tried to drive a sulkey without its full complement of shafts. Neither had we. It almost certainly doesn't work, unless you want to go round in circles infinitely, and few people do want to, however much they succeed in other ways to master that skill.

You don't usually need to pack a toolbox in a sulkey as you would in a car, so Dad faced a dilemma. How, with no tools, do you patch up a broken sulkey shaft?

It was solved when old Cam Lowes came along in his Ford ute. He had a brace and bit for drilling holes in timber, and No 8 wire.

Everybody in the country always carried a length of No 8 wire in the back of their truck. They probably still do. It's a well-known fact that there wasn't a thing that couldn't be fixed, on a temporary basis at least, with that sturdy gauged wire, though it was an utter bitch to bend without a good pair of fencing pliers. Even then you had to use every ounce of strength you had in your best arm.

Cam was a farmer and good handyman. He had connected the pipes for us from the windmill up to the dairy, thus giving us the incalculable blessing of as much water as we needed at the cowshed, instead of years having to bucket it from the Old Kitchen in dry weather. The latter had increased all our muscular girths by a considerable amount, but it was surely a tedious task.

He took one look at the problem, figured out a solution and within half and hour the shaft was firmly secured. It wasn't pretty, but it would easily get us home.

In fact it stayed like that and kept the sulkey in service for several days until Dad got a splint made out of angle iron for the shaft, and it was all neatly bolted in place.

Dad, of course, made a gesture of payment to Cam. All he had was four shillings in his pocket.

'Here, take this.'

'No, don't be bloody silly now – it was nothing.'

'Take it anyway,' said Dad, throwing it into Cam's battered old toolbox. 'Have a beer.'

Cam carefully picked the two two-shilling pieces out of the box.

'Here, lad.' He put them in my hand, knowing my father would never take them back personally from him. 'You take these, and you do something good with them.'

I was only seven or so, and didn't have the grace or experience to refuse. Besides, it was a fortune to me, and you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, do you? In this case, the gift horse was Junie, standing there rather sullenly all ready to go, probably thinking she'd escaped dragging us home when she was unharnessed for the sulkey repairs.

In fact, the whole ritual was bound to end in some way like this. Dad would have offered something, Cam would never have accepted it, and it would have ended up in my pocket anyway. Luckily for me, it was four whole shillings.

But what would I do with it? Something good.... yes, I knew exactly what I was going to do with it, and I could hardly wait to take my fortune to Gladstone the next Saturday, and do this good thing.

You know, come to think of it, yappy little doggies do have their place in the order of the universe, don't they? Without that particular one, I would never have got the chance at fulfilling a dream I had nurtured for many moons in my bosom manly seven-year-old chest.

And you're going to have to wait, because I've just had a follow-up cursed seizure, less than 24 hours after what I hoped was the main event for the month. Permission to swear volubly.