Monday, July 9, 2012

Bush Cooler

My mate Rich asked me to share some stories about attending school in the bush at an all boys Christian Brothers boarding school, and since I'm back to working on my novel about that very subject I thought it was a cracking idea. 
Then I thought what story would best exemplify my time spent there, and so after my headache subsided from giving this the proper thought and attention it deserved I figured the following would be a pretty good representation of my time there.

The Upper Floor were the Dorms, Building on the right is the Chapel
Tardun, CBAS, St.Mary's, Christian Brothers, the Big House... Some of the names that the "Tardun, Christian Brothers Agricultural School," was known by, was where I was remanded to for three years, yes I did say "remanded to," because that's truly what it felt like when I first arrived. Even though my parents paid for the privilege of me attending school it was highlighted in more than a few places on the application that this was a working farm school and the boys would be expected to engage in very physical and demanding work regime's which would do nothing but build the young mans character, oh and please sign this part ot the bottom of the sheet where it says that it's acceptable for the Brothers to engage in corporal punishment for the good of the child.
To be fair to my parents, they really didn't have many choices for secondary education since we lived in the bush and had no schools around that I could attend on a day to day basis. They probably picked the cheapest alternative and Tardun won.

Nearest Town --- Tardun --- Population 7 --- Distance from School approx ten Kilometers
Nearest Big Town --- Mullewa --- Population 200 --- Distance from School approx 30 Kilometers
Nearest City --- Geraldton --- Population 20,000 --- Distance from School approx 120 Kilometers
Nearest Capital City --- Perth --- Population about 1 million --- Distance from School - Light Years...
Average temperature when I arrived in February about 120 degrees --- Air Conditioning ?????
Average rainfall for the year 2 inches (we were in the middle of the Wheat Belt of Western Australia, attempting to be self sufficient by growing cereal crops and raising sheep and cattle.)

Student population 100 boys, grades 8 through 10 
Farm Size 70,000 acres 
Teachers 3
Farm Bosses 8
Jailers 2
Hours per week spent in class --- about 20
Hours per week spent working the farm --- about 40, except during ploughing, seeding, harvesting, and shearing, then it bumped to about 80.

Fun and exciting life experiences looking back on my time there --- Priceless and immeasurable.

So, I said I was going to tell you about one particular event in my time there and while I've been writing this I've changed my mind about a thousand times, but I've settled on this one.

As I said earlier we were a cereal crop farm and we would begin harvesting around the beginning of October and go through late December which is a pretty hot time of year in that part of the bush, pretty consistently over the 110 degrees mark.

The system was, around 4am we would be woken by a Brother carefully sneaking through the dormitory picking a few select kids to go out and spend the day working a harvester instead of being in school. You know how exciting that was to a 14 year old right? A day out of school AND we got to either drive the big rig collecting wheat from the harvesters or we operated the actual combines, they put a lot of trust in us.
This one particular morning Brother Morgan, Swifty  (we had nick names for all the brothers and this bloke could run like the wind,) came to my bunk and shook me awake, which was pretty easy since I was laying in a mess of sweat soaked sheets and had spent the night tossing and turning trying to get some shut eye.
"Wake up Master Egan, we need you on a combine today, breakfast in 5 minutes."
"Yes Brother."
CBAS in Greener Times
You bloody little ripper...
 Me and about 5 other kids met down in the kitchen for our burnt toast and rubbery eggs, seriously the old cook Joe, would prepare the fried eggs about an hour before we got there, he'd have them lined up on an aluminum tray, drop them and they'd bounce! then after breaky we headed out in the bed of a ute (Aussie for pick up truck) to be dropped off at various machines in the paddocks. We got no choice when it came to what machines we were allocated and we had everything from vintage John Deere's to a brand new Massey Ferguson which of course everyone wanted since it had an air-conditioned, air ride cab. Of course I didn't get the flash new shiny Red Massey, I got the old piece of faded green John Deere, no air con, no air ride, no enclosed cab, but no worries, I was out of school, I had about a 200 acre paddock of wheat to crop and I wouldn't see anyone but the grain truck for about 4 hours, till old Brother Synan (Goggles,) showed up with my frozen cheese and tomato sandwich, yep frozen, but it also came with a hot cuppa tea that you could dunk the frozen sarny (sandwich,) in to defrost it enough to bite through.

So, I'm dropped off with my big water esky (cooler full of iced water) which I leave strategically under the partial shade off an old gum tree and the ute pulls away. I go around my machine checking that everything's where it's supposed to be, grease a few fittings,  and get to work cropping the paddock, by this time it's about 5:30 the suns coming up, the flies are out and the engine is humming beautifully life's grand. I'm already just two eye holes and a smile after being covered in dust from the ride out here in the back of the ute, and even though the sun just broke the horizon, I'm turning into a muddy pile of red dirt, first item of removed clothing, Singlet (tank-top) that gets laid across the back of whats left of the tractor seat and I feel a little relief although by now the open air cab is catching and trapping all the heat it can from the engine, and as per usual there is absolutely not one wisp of air movement except the flow of air that idles through the cab as I move along at a snails pace. My arms are in constant motion as I lift and lower the comb on the front of the combine, due to the drought conditions the wheat stalks had barely reached a foot tall, so I had to watch for logs, and bundies (big rocks) that had been missed and disturbed during ploughing and seeding season. The Brothers didn't like it when you dinged up the comb and they had no issue showing their displeasure with a swift smack to the jaw.

I'd been working for about an hour or so and was now down to being shirtless, shortless and bootless, boots were replaced with typical Aussie safety shoes, otherwise known as thongs, and I would have been barefoot except the floor of the tractor was too hot for my feet to handle, so other than my undies, I'm pretty much naked. The grain truck had just been by to unload me so I wouldn't see anyone for at least another hour, this was before the time of cell phones and we didn't have CB's so I was most definitely out there alone plodding around the paddock covering a lap about every 15 minutes, I pretty much had to ration my water so I'd stop and jump out for a drink every other lap, knowing that at lunch time they'd bring me a refill on my esky.

By about 10am it was sweltering and I was getting no relief from the heat even after guzzling down mouthfuls of by now, tepid water, the dust was caked on thicker than my mums foundation, my eyes were raw from the layers of red dirt that were getting harder to clear with each blink, it was as if I were rubbing them with sandpaper, my once tighty whitey's were now roughy reddies and were beginning to chafe my thighs with ever bounce of the old piece of crap John Deere, oh how I wished I were sitting in the comparative cool of the 90 degree classroom! BUT! an idea sprang to my mind about half way through my next lap... The truck had just been and lunch was still a good hour or so away, so I'd improvise in order to get cool, yep necessity the mother of all invention had just necessiterated my mind, and it was a good un.

I eased the rampaging combine to a grinding, dust cloud inducing, halt in the middle of the paddock just across the way from my old pathetic non shade covering ghost gum and proceeded to trudge through the grain stalks in nothing but my undies and thongs, my legs looking for all purpose that they were the result of a shrapnel attack, as the stalks ripped into the skin deeper than any of the canings I'd suffered at the hands of the Brothers, (did I mention they enjoyed corporal punishment at this place?) I made it to the tree and the esky and proceeded to put my plan into action, it went something like this.

  1. Remove mud caked undies
  2. Remove mud caked safety boots aka thongs
  3. Remove 2 cup capacity cup from top of esky
  4. Fill said cup with tepid cup from under-performing esky
  5. Toss contents of cup high into air
  6. Run naked through falling water thereby creating a cooling rain shower
It worked to perfection, absolute and utter perfection, with the first cupful I was a little timid and didn't fully commit but then with subsequent cups I became braver, my strength grew and my abandon became absolute, I was giddy, nae, intoxicated with pleasure at being cool, so much so that I never noticed, honestly, didn't hear, see or in any way whatsoever notice that Brother Kelly (Roo Dog) had driven into my paddock and was watching from a distance of about a hundred yards as this naked, semi delirious student, slash farm hard, slash inmate, was dancing like a banshee arms raised, legs pumping hollering at the sky in a Native American kind of rain dance.
As God is my witness when he actually pulled up next to me and I realized I had been busted for naked rain dancing I still don't know who was more scared. He looked at me, I looked at him, he nodded toward my undies and thongs, I stared at them, he nodded again, I walked over and sheepishly pulled them on, he nodded at the bed of the ute, I looked at him, he nodded again, I climbed in burning my ass on the side of the bed in the process, he drove me back to the School, no stopping at the still idling John Deere to get the rest of my clothes, straight back to school in the back of the ute, even though there was a perfectly good seat in the front next to him. We pulled up in front of the main building and I didn't move, he still hadn't said a word to me. Then the bell rings for lunch and out into the yard pour the 90 or so student that weren't working the farm that day. Roo Dog looks at me as he gets out of the ute, I look at him, he nods toward the dorms, I don't need another nod and I race upstairs in my dirty mud caked undies to the shower block.

Not a word was spoken to me regarding the incident from anyone other than the students, and surprisingly I was not called on for harvesting for the rest of the season. Never got my singlet back, but did get my boots returned to me! One time I was woken early by old Swifty a couple of weeks after that, but it was for bakery duty, not machinery operating, and do I have a great story about baking the weekly bread for the farm, but that's for another time. When I'm more in the mood to Write in Spite of Myself.


  1. Great stuff!

  2. Loved it!

    1. Thanks A... So glad you, or was it the Big P read and commented on this...

  3. Oh, that was all kinds of awesome. Yet...horrible! I can't believe you spent 3 years there. Ack!

    Jon, I love your writing. When are you gonna get your book out into the world and become famous already, eh? :)

  4. Seriously I ended up loving the place and didn't wanna go home after my time was up!

    As for publishing my book, lets just say that's in the hands of the interns :( maybe once day it'll get out there :)

    Thanks so much for reading my blog and commenting, I know how busy you are with your writing/family/looking for deals on puffy pants, so I appreciate it.

  5. So now I get to finally read some of those excerpts from your novel. (Or at least the stories that inspired your novel.) I think there's more than one book in here, Jon, since what I just read probably occurred in week one of year one! Such a different world. And the school is still around grooming "young farmers?!" Wow. Enjoyed all of it, Jon. I don't think I'd last very long living in the bush or farming for 80 hours a week in heat like that. I'm glad you did and can now write about it.. and so well. Amazing stuff.

  6. Thanks Sandra,
    The school sadly closed its doors in 2009. In fact I think I'll blog about that today as my next post, because the circumstances of its closure still bother me.
    It was for sure a different world, that influenced my life beyond anything that a "normal," school would.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting, I love to see the feedback (what writer doesn't?)