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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dad, the bung and the oranges 2

Batting a tennis ball up against a weatherboard house was not a sport included in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Putting aside modesty, I have to tell you that if it were an Olympic sport, I'd have faded photos now, possibly even in colour, of me waving gold on the winner's block in the centre of the packed arena in front of a delirious Australian crowd, a tear of pride and joy on my mother's face.

    But it wasn't, so you'll have to take my word for it that from a very early age I had near perfect hand-eye coordination; at least in the art of hitting a ball with an old banister. Roughly forty million times I had batted a ball pretty near continuously against the southern side of the house under the mango trees next to the downstairs water-tank.

    I was, in short, the Bradman of this art. Hour after hour I played tournaments with complicated local rules derived from cricket and tennis against opponents like Ritchie Benaud or Rod Laver. Both of them had a very keen interest in the sport and were up for a game any time. On the rare occasions I lost, I was granted an instant rematch, and my rightful place as world champion was restored within minutes.

    So it was with interest that one day I perceived an opportunity for a variation of the sport, but I have to take another slight explanatory detour first. Stick with me now because the climax of the orange story is near at hand.

    For reasons I don't know for sure, but can speculate on, what we called "bush oranges" grew amongst the bottlebrushes overhanging the creek. They might even have been a native fruit, or maybe the panners for gold in the 1860s spat out a pip or two of some old orange variety, and they took root where they were close to water. At any rate, they produced a tangy but edible orange with thickish pith. (Thay "thickish pith" thpeedily theven timeth).

Original image source: Robyn Oyeniyi
    A lot of little trees sprang up along the creek edge, and Dad conceived the idea of creating a mini-orchard of them on the northern side of the house. He carefully dug them up and planted them in rows, and bucketed water to them to keep them alive. They struggled, but finally produced fruit, the quality of which depended mainly on how much water they got – and that depended on how many baths we had, which weren't many in drought times.

    Now at last we're here, at the business end of my story.

    It was the day the bung had nearly decapitated my father. It was hot and he was tired, and went off to sleep in the bedroom.

    Usually he would have taken a rest on the shearer's stretcher, a comfortable but spartan bed on the front verandah, but on that day the air was very still out there. The breeze was blowing from the north and he was getting a ripple of it in the bedroom through the one small window in that entire north wall.

    I meanwhile had won my ten-thousandth championship at banister-ball on the southern side of the house. Before lying down, Dad had requested that the "bink-plop bink-plop bink-plop bink-plop" ad infinitum of my sportscraft come to an immediate halt, and his requests were invariably ones to be accommodated, not even one "bink" or "plop" after being issued. It also meant that I couldn't tease any available sister with my usual lack of mercy; my customary way of filling in time when options were limited. I'd have copped it for sure.

    I'd read all my books, including the fiftieth reading of At the Eleventh Hour starting at the point where Ferrand was levelling a gun at the head of Patricia Richmond as she drove a Bugatti towards Paris to save the father of her companion Suzanne de Brissac from being unjustly shot as a spy.... I told you I'd read it fifty times. Post World War 2 stuff.

    So, at a loose end, I took my banister and sauntered round to the northern side of the house.

    I've said already that it was a period of drought. There had been a fair crop of oranges on the trees but just at the point they needed rain the most it hadn't come, and the house tanks were almost empty. As a result, the parched little fruit had given up the ghost and all dropped off the trees.

    They were all about the size of a golf ball and just as hard.

    I picked one up and an idea formed in my mind. Aiming down the hill, I tossed one up in the air and struck it with the banister. It hit the sweet spot of the banister with a very satisfactory 'thunk' and went the best part of a seventy metres before I lost sight of it in the dry speargrass.

    I repeated the exercise with great pleasure, and then turned to the house. I reckoned I'd have no trouble clearing the roof with my next shot. So I tossed up, timed it gloriously, and it flew over the house, coming within a whisker of clearing the mango tree on the far side as well.

    A challenge! I reckoned I could send an orange over both house and mango tree.

    A banister has a round hitting surface, like a baseball bat. It's vital for the trajectory, and therefore the distance, to get what's hit smack in the centre of the curve.

    Sadly, with the extra effort I put in to clear the mango tree, this was the one occasion when I was a fraction low on the hitting surface. Instead of flying over the house, and the mango tree, the orange flew like a tiny cruise missile squarely through the bedroom window.

    Where my Dad was.

    On the bed.


    I waited....

    Not long.

    There came a sound through the window similar to what Goliath would have made if he'd regained consciousness and saw what he was in for just before David cut his head off.

    Dad appeared at the window, orange in hand, fury akin to what looked from where I was standing, banister in hand, like the imminent murder of his only son. Kidicide.

    Look, I think he knew that I had no intention of hitting him squarely between the eyes with a golf-ball sized orange as hard as the hobs of hell as he lay in a troubled sleep, probably dreaming of being split open by the bung from the 44 gallon drum not an hour earlier.

    But he was a bit disorientated.

    "What the bloody hell did you do that for?" he roared, hurling the orange back at me, which I had the good sense to allow to find its mark just a fraction above the cojones.

    "Ahhh!" I gasped, as if mortally wounded. 

    I wasn't. It was purely strategic, but it didn't fool him. Maybe at least it saved me from the dreaded words, "Come up here...." Instead:

    "Go and get a load of morning-wood!"

    This was the penalty for a multitude of sins, but it seemed a reasonable one to me. It got me well away at lightning speed. However much I hated getting morning-wood, the further out of his sight I was right then the better.

    Later, when it was obvious neither of us had sustained any serious injury from the encounter, he saw the funny side of it.

    "My legs flew in the air," he said, "And then I sat bolt upright. I thought the flamin' roof had fallen in."

    Only he didn't say "flamin'".

bung and oranges 1 | bung and oranges 2


  1. I absolutely love it. Used to hit the tennis ball against the wall too and now as parents we contend with the sound of bouncing basketballs!

    1. Thanks Robyn. Yes, the world has changed. A tennis ball just doesn't cut it any more. It has to be something slam-dunkable.

  2. You've made a movie in my head, Denis. How delicious to be transported back to the 1950's to my rural Australian childhood - of heat, drought, tanks stands, and father's who very definitely knew where they stood in the constellation of family life.

    How many fathers, these days, take afternoon naps? My Dad always took "40 winks" - and could wake up from a deep, snoring sleep, after 10 or 15 minutes, completely and utterly revived.
    It's a beautiful story, Denis. Thank you.

    PS Does cricket still do it for you?

    1. Thank you, Ros. The beauty of dredging these genuine stories up from the past is that they evoke others as well, and my sisters add other details when they read them [which I wish I'd remembered or known at the time of writing.]

      Your napping Dad reminds me of another story I want to tell – but quite different in location and time. I do hope to get to it.

      As to cricket, I'm ambivalent. I have a natural resistance to its morphing into another form of baseball, but that's where it's heading. The subtlety, sportsmanship and charm of the 5-day test will disappear soon [compromised already], though I'm glad to say, in a way, not in my lifetime.

  3. Your poor father. What a bad day!
    I understand that practising on the wall was the start of Rosewall's fame - or at least I was told that by my tennis teacher in Rosewall's suburb. Perhaps the day off and the morning wood task spelt the end of a Wimblledon title for you.
    A lovely story. Anne Powles

    1. Thanks, Anne. Yes, it wasn't a great one for him. And as a dairy farmer, it's impossible just to ride it out by staying in bed. Clearly as my story showed, he wasn't even safe there....

      Bradman certainly started with a stick and ball against a wall. Forget expensive coaches!

  4. Denis this is a very unsettling post. After years of pedantry, honed from a very early age by my own version of 'unforgiving father', I drew back in horror at the wording on your first pic - i.e. to myself I said "that's never a banister; that's a balustrade!"

    But I see you are right, and that I have been in error all these years. Now I shall have to go back and watch all those cheesy American teen and music fillums wherein which the athletic hero slides down the banister with carefree aplomb, sometimes singing. I must say I'm not particularly inclined to thank you for this :)


    1. Funny that - I took some time over choosing the spelling of banister. The stationery store "Bannister's" had me wondering, but I see both are acceptable.

      I'd never say, "he slid down the balustrade" – I, no doubt inaccurately, would say he slid down the rail along the top of the balustrading. Given the splinters, sliding down the banisters we had would be a recipe for disaster for his own balustrading. If you get my meaning, which I'm sure you do.

      Anyway, if you don't tell, I won't – deal? :)


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