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Saturday, April 23, 2011

More Calliope tales (pt 2): Sunny Hills lights

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So, we got electricity on the virgin territory of Sunny Hills. Oh, the paperwork! Did you know that the State Electricity Commission had to buy each bit of the ground where they put the poles - an area each the size of a sunhat?

   It's not as silly as it sounds. If they purchased the land then they had legal right of access to it, which meant they could come across our land at any time, cutting fences if necessary to deal with a problem concerning that pole or the wires it carried. 

   We duly got a cheque in the mail for the sale of these hat-sized bits of land. It was for one shilling. We laughed about it, and showed it to neighbours.  

   No, we never cashed it, even though you would have got a good meat pie for a shilling. These days it would have gone straight to the poolroom, framed neatly above the cue rack. But there was no poolroom at Sunny Hills, nor ever likely to be one.

   At a painfully slow rate of progress, the long hardwood poles were embedded deep in the ground. An electrician was called in from Gladstone to wire the house. As there was no cavity in the walls, silvery-grey steel clips were simply hammered where required on to the face of the wall, and the black electric cable clamped by those down to the switch and across the ceiling (where ceilings existed in our house, and that wasn't everwhere.)

   It was about as elegant as wiring for a decrepit garden shed, but it was strong and safe, no doubt about that. The light switches were each mounted on a bevelled wooden square; big bakelite black switches they were, and it required some effort to turn them on and off.

   Probably no more than three power points were wired into the system for the whole house at that time, as there were so few appliances, and most of those we had, such as the fridge, were so fixed that they were directly wired in on a heavier circuit. In the bedroom? Why? What use could a power point possibly be in a bedroom?

   And nothing sissy like power boards; they hadn't been invented yet, as far as we knew. We had no use for them. What? Electric shavers? Hair dryers? Why would anyone need those? Do you imagine the cows cared whether the hair was curled or not? In any case, Elvie permed Mum's hair with clips and little paper bits and strange smelling chemicals, and Mum did hers. It was a great chance for them to catch up on things. Waste of money, hair dryers. No extension cords even. What the blazes do you think would be plugged into them? Vacuum cleaner? Get real. That wasn't how housework was done on a farm.

   A huge 240 watt street lamp had been wired in under the house, our house being on stilts like any respectable Queensland dwelling, so you had an underneath space the size of the house three metres high to store things, where kids could play 'beamy' in wet weather and where you might get relief from the heat on a summer afternoon. (And, of course, to hold concerts, like this one I've already written about.)

   Anyway, the wiring was done and we played with the switches, and waited for the glorious moment that flicking on the switch would actually produce the magic of light. We cared not about appliances; just the light. In a dimly lit house where homework was done under the kero lamp and you got buzzed constantly by moths and Christmas beetles, the luxury of brilliant light was what we coveted above all else. Romantic it wasn't, but it saved carrying a kero lamp or candles to the bedroom. AND less chance or burning the house down.

   It finally happened, as things do. The extortionate guarantee that we'd use enough power per quarter to light up the entire city of Brisbane was paid.

   It was ON.

   I came home from school, rushed halfway down the back stairs where the switch was, and TURNED ON the huge bulb under the house. LIGHT! Even in broad daylight it lit up the bench below it where the guns and tools were kept. I turned the switch to OFF. NO LIGHT! I switched it on and off quickly a dozen times until I got scolded because the light might blow.

   (In fact, that 240-watt bulb NEVER blew in all the years we lived there, during the countless times it was turned on to guide someone home at night across the gully and up the hill. Never.)

   It was magic. We swooned. Citysville, eat your heart out. We had power. But I'm not going to tell you the other things we did under the spell of novelty of electric lighting, or you'll start to think we were unsophisticated in such matters.

   AND I had a switch and a light out on the verandah where I slept. I could read till late and not go blind, as we were always warned we would if reading for hours by the dim yellow light of the kero lamp.

   My bed on the verandah was up at the closed-in end and the switch was way down near the door to go inside the house. This had the advantage that I could switch on the light over the bed from near the door when I first came out there in the dark.

   The disadvantage was that I had to get out of my snug, safe bed when I had finished reading, go right down to the internal door, turn off the light and find my way back to bed in the dark.

   I wasn't fond of the dark, as a kid, on that verandah. It could be a bit creepy, and the dark on a moonless night was... well... very dark!

   Oh - that reminds me of another story directly related to all this - a terrifying one that will have you on the edge of your ergonomic office chair - but I better finish this one first.

   Being a resourceful child, I hammered a few nails into the wall from above the light switch and along to the top end of my bed on the verandah. I performed this delicate operation while Mum and Dad were milking, as the project might have been vetoed by a parent had they known I was belting three inch nails into the wall, and the points of the nails were coming out the other side - which happened to be in their bedroom.

   Then, I looped a piece of twine around the light switch and ran the rest of the cord across the nails back to the place where, lying in my bed, I could reach out, give the twine a strong tug, and it would turn the switch off. 

   It worked a treat. Aesthetically, it was a disaster, but I think Mum was so impressed by the ingenuity that she allowed me to keep it, on the condition that I filed off the sharp points of the nails sticking out in their bedroom. 

   I thought that she might some time in the future regret making me do that, as one or two might have been, fortuitously, in a good position to hang a picture or something in their bedroom. However, I decided against attracting any more attention to the nail holes by emphasizing the many potential advantages of the status quo. I just filed them off and shut up.

   Now, that terrifying story. Oh, leave 'em hanging on.... Scheherazade had the right idea. Just wait. You've had your quota for now and so have I.

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