I grew up in country Victoria — and spent some of my early childhood at a place called Beazleys Bridge — which is about 10 miles (16km) from a place called St. Arnaud, which is a town 244km north-west of Melbourne. It’s summers were baking hot wheat harvesting weather; the sort of early morning sun that burnt the grass silver made it tinder dry with northerly winds that sucked the moisture from your lungs.
They were the sort of summers where horizons danced in the heat haze. We were working class poor. I doubt that we ever thought of ourselves as poor — everyone we knew were battlers, struggling to make ends meet.
Mum operated the local telephone exchange. It was a single person operation — 24/7 in the days before that became a popular abbreviation. You called the exchange and they transferred the call to the subscriber. The exchange was the centre of the district; no exchange, no phone calls. It was a time when people considered if a phone call was necessary and when late night calls indicated an emergency. It was the social link connecting the rural families scattered throughout the district. Isolation by a mile is as bad and as lonely as being isolated by 100 miles (161km).
Running the exchange gave mum her own income for years, helping her make old things new and new things last longer. Country women were like that — resourceful, strong and with an enormous capacity to ‘make do’. There was no corner shop. If you ran out of bread or other necessities, you improvised, made do with what you had.
For Mum, the telephone was the link with the outside in an otherwise isolated life. She didn’t drive and there weren’t many visitors. It was a time when the mail was important. Thursday was the district’s shopping day, a day for gloves, a hat and the ‘good outfit’. For her, like many others, going to town was special. Sometimes, we would walk down from school and met her in town; mostly we took the 40-minute bus ride home to milk the cow, feed the animals, cut the wood and start dinner.
The exchange was more than just a local service. Later, telephones would become a lifestyle addition. Then, it was critical to the social fabric of the community. Not everyone had a phone so exchanges were where messages were taken, fire brigades activated and doctors notified; where deaths and births were shared. It was how you got the district together. It was critical during summer, when farmers would look at the baking sun and decide not to go too far from home “just in case”; when people spent most of their time looking for a smudge of black somewhere in the hot, cloudless, blue sky.
These days were followed by similar nights that weighed you down with suffocating stillness — where the best relief was to drag your mattress out onto the verandah in the hope of catching the slightest whisper of a breeze. You could lie there, staring at the pin pricks in the dark sky, wondering what you were doing in this dry and dusty place, dreaming of lights and people in faraway places, until you finally dozed in the cool just before dawn, only to be woken by the sunrise announcing it would be hot again and the cycle started all over again.
The exchange connected neighbours who made up the team for the Country Fire Authority supplied fire truck. These were men who would drop what they were doing to fight a fire no matter if it was close or miles away. That is what neighbours did. Not that it was all work. Some Sunday mornings would see them gather at the fire shed to practise fire drills –- some more seriously than others. For most it was the chance to get together and have a yarn and on a hot day a quiet beer or three. It broke the drudgery of everyday work; allowed the men to stand around discussing crops, harvesting, and the lack of rain. It was part of the initiation ceremony. The entry to manhood was marked by your capacity to participate; to take part in some of the community’s rituals. This was one of the last public displays of maleness, where the men protected their families, their farms with their mates. It provided a bonding agent for a group of men who otherwise had little in common.
So it was, in the heat of summer, watching and waiting, always feeling that you were halfway to somewhere. There was a lot of Henry Lawson out there — in this place, where mum worked relentlessly. She didn’t have nice gardens or the softness of green grass. In summer it was baked flat and in winter it was cold, wet and muddy. She was reliant on tank water, boiling up the copper for hot water, an electric light that sometimes worked, a kerosene fridge and flat irons heated on top of the stove. She would knit and sew endlessly at night; mend and ‘make do’. They were remarkable women, these mums who lived in the bush. The exchange was her lifeline, her connection with the world. You still meet them in all parts of regional Australia, tough, resilient women skilled at “making do”.
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