Around 1961, our parents bought a brand-new house in a ‘burgeoning new suburb’. My one-year older brother, Clive, and I grew up in Niddrie (Melbourne, Victoria) where the first three houses clustered together on a ‘miles-long’ dirt road of paddocks and gum trees. Then aged seven and eight, this equated to… boring!
We walked everywhere; the nearest tram stop a distant hike. There was never much in the way of shop-bought toys, though we did have my grandmother’s ‘flotsam and jetsam’ from her haberdashery shop! Heaps of huge wool boxes and big cardboard rolls were turned into cubby-houses, both in the ceiling of the garage during winter, and outside in summer. Great fun!
On weekends we roamed the paddocks with a knife and string to make bows and arrows from gum tree saplings and fired nail-studded arrows into home-made targets. Or playing Cowdies and Indians, and yes, being one year younger, I was always the Indian!
We loved making brown-paper and string kites. Dad would fire up the donkey engine and grab a pot of glue (from the knackery, and boy, didn’t it stink), and with a chunky brush, would glue our stripling frame and paper together adding a long string tail with rags flapping every 12 inches or so. Watching them soar into the sky was so satisfying!
In winter, when the dirt roads were a quagmire and the paddocks sodden, we used to make what I think they call these days, a Knitting Nancy. However, in the ’60s it was a chunky cotton reel with four slender nails hammered in the top. With one sharpened nail, you could loop and weave the wool around the nails until a snake-like woven cylinder would start inching out of the bottom of the cotton reel. We’d both be at it endlessly, until our ‘rope’ was easily 50-foot long (15m). Once it was ‘cast off’, what did we do with it?
As my bedroom was at the end of the house and Clive’s up near the front door, we’d tie the two ends together so it made a circle, looping it down the hall, door handle to door handle. We’d sit in our respective bedrooms writing notes to each other. I can’t recall what about, probably spies, or codes or something secret. We’d pull the rope and the note would slowly dance its way up the long hallway. It kept us amused for hours.
Another amusement, albeit an ergonomic one for Mum, was floor polishing. Our new house didn’t have the luxurious new Axminster – we had polished wooden floors, so Mum would spread wax, tie old jumpers on our feet, and off we’d go, skating all over the house! Such fun, and Mum got the floor polished.
We loved our high jumps and tennis. Dad helped to rig up two 6-foot (1.8m) poles, whacked a series of nails in each, grabbed a bit of dowel, an old mattress, and bingo, one high jump set for the back yard. Tennis was played on a chalk-drawn court on the concrete in front of the garage. The net was a length of rope tied to the paling fence on one side and the garden seat opposite.
Then there were billy carts – our favourite was the silver-painted ‘Rocket’ with pram wheels! We also had a homemade skateboard, which was terrific! It’s amazing we didn’t get killed as we towed each other up and down hills with one riding a bike, the other basically ‘water skiing’ behind.
At our primary school – Doutta Galla – I played netball, Clive football. Jumping over elastic looped around people’s legs became a craze, as did ‘Jacks’, though ours were a bit embarrassing as we did not have the coloured plastic ones from the shop, but the actual knucklebones dried out from cooking lamb shanks. We played Pick-up Sticks, gutter ball and lots of card games.
We kids thrived in the Christmas holiday heat, whereas Mum got fractious, booting us out the door saying don’t come home till it gets dark. We’d cadge lemonade bottles from wherever we could to get the refund from the local milk bar to gain our entrance fee to the Essendon City Baths. No sun cream then. Coated in coconut oil, we’d lie on our towels and baste like sausages under a griller. Or we’d head off to the Niddrie quarry to ‘muck around’ – throwing ‘yonnies’, locating caves, looking for snakes and lizards, basically wandering around by ourselves in the middle of nowhere, with no way of contacting anyone should anything have gone wrong.
It totally freaks me out to think what we used to get up to back then, but I also feel quite special as that era will never been seen again and we were lucky enough to have lived through it!