When I was 14 years of age, adventure came easy. I had a close-knit group of friends who made the tribulations of school-life bearable, and the only trammels we faced were unreasonable parents and overzealous teachers.
A creek ran adjacent to our school, but it wasn’t the sanitised, debris-free waterway of today, with manicured trees and foliage providing a too-perfect picturesque backdrop for runners and cyclists as they travel along a bitumen track.
The creek was separated from the school by a high wire fence, blanketed by eucalypts, bottlebrush trees and several apple trees that probably germinated from bird deposits or from careless students tossing apple cores over the fence. Beyond the trees, an assortment of boulders, earth mounds, wild raspberry bushes, waist high ferns, grasses and weeds gently sloped downwards, unevenly following the gradient of the ground to meet the edge of the flowing water.
It was here, at weekends and when we truanted, that we had our adventures amongst outcrops of rocks and vegetation. Fishing, catching tadpoles, hide-and-seek and role playing occupied our time, but a particularly favourite activity was to catch yabbies, a type of freshwater crayfish not unlike a large prawn.
Our modus operandi was to tie a piece of meat to the end of a length of string and then toss it amongst the creek rocks where we guessed yabbies lurked. The string was slowly pulled to imitate a live creature, and the unsuspecting yabby, eager for the gratuitous gift of a tasty morsel, would grab the meat with its claw. The next step was the trickiest, to carefully scoop the crustacean out of the water while it still hung on to its meal. This was attempted using home-made nets constructed by attaching the open end of an old stocking around a wire frame that included an elongated section to serve as a handle.
Catching yabbies in this way was not always successful. Sometimes, the yabby, sensing danger, would release its grip on the meat and swiftly dart away to bury itself in the sandy bottom between inaccessible rocks. At other times, after the yabby was scooped out of the water, it would wriggle incessantly and somehow find its way out from a run in the stocking that we never bothered to mend.
It was not always a pleasant experience when we tried to keep pincers at bay by holding the yabby with two fingers firmly placed between its claws and tail. Some of these creatures were contortionists, swiftly manipulating their bodies to stubbornly latch onto a finger, requiring much shaking to encourage them to release their grip.
Eddy, the Tom Sawyer of our group, turned every defeat into victory. He was mischievous but not nasty, simply wanting to amuse himself whenever the opportunity arose without considering the consequences.
When a yabby hung on to his finger, he would emit exaggerated whoops, prance about and generally do everything except to try to detach himself from the offending invertebrate. Our laughter at his predicament was the catalyst that prolonged his performance.
One particularly fine morning we were enjoying a feast of wild raspberries when Eddy, who had wandered off behind some trees, called out.
“Look what I have,” he said, proudly approaching us. Both his hands were wrapped around a litoria ewingi, better known as a southern tree frog. It was a magnificent specimen, muscular and covered with characteristic shades of brown and black, tapering off to a symmetrical V shape between the eyes. This amphibian was particularly vocal, emitting sounds as any protesting frog held in captivity would want to do.
“His name is Prince, as in The Frog Prince fairy tale,” Eddy informed us. “And I’m taking him to school tomorrow,” he added mysteriously.
After each of us had our fair share of patting Prince, Eddy placed him in an old tin can he had found, and we made our way home, tired but happy after our day out.
We thought about what tomorrow, Monday, will bring.
True to his word, on Monday morning, Eddy arrived with Prince resting comfortably in his school bag. He paraded it proudly to us, at the same time looking around for an opportunity to have fun. As students milled about the school yard waiting for the first bell of the morning, Eddy ran up to a group of girls, placed the frog close to one girl’s face and begged that she should kiss Prince to turn him into a prince. The girls shrieked in unison, more amused than afraid. Eddy enjoyed their cries of displeasure and repeated this performance several times before we marched to our first class of the day, English.
Our English teacher, let’s call him Mr Smith, was a stern and inflexible school master, demanding, and receiving, respect and obedience.
He was a damned good teacher, but we simply did not like him because of his aloofness and because he generally came across as unfriendly. This was especially true as far as Eddy was concerned, because Mr Smith seemed to go out of his way to fault him. When we read at loud, Mr Smith usually assigned Eddy to read extracts replete with difficult words and phrases. Later we were to discover that this strategy was the recommended approach for students who were slightly dyslexic, as Eddy was, but, at the time, it seemed to us a clear case of victimisation.
Anyhow, at the start of the lesson, Mr Smith took a piece of white chalk from his unusually large chalk box that rested on the desk in front of him. He began to write on the board, but suddenly turned to face us and stated that he had to go to the outer office to collect some reading books. He instructed that we should sit quietly and commence to read our novels until his return.
When he saw Mr Smith exit and turn the corner of the corridor, Eddy went into action. He plunged his hands into his bag and lifted his arms in the air, displaying Prince to the class as if he was a trophy. We had no idea of his intentions, but we found out soon enough. Eddy slid to the front of the class and gently placed the frog on the table, immediately behind the chalk box. None of us could see the frog from where we sat. After convincing himself that the frog was not going anywhere, Eddy returned to his seat.
Nervous excitement buzzed through the room. Should we say something to Mr Smith upon his return? Should we tell Eddy to put Prince back in his bag? Will Prince croak or jump off the table? This and other hypothetical musings presented themselves, but somehow we all stayed seated and quiet.
Mr Smith returned several minutes later, holding a pile of textbooks. He walked to the front of the room, intent on placing the books on the table. His gaze and the immediate expression on his face confirmed that he saw the frog. Without a word, he made a deliberate show of loudly slamming the pile of books exactly behind the chalk box.
Poor Prince! If it were possible for a class to be quieter than quiet, then this was one of those occasions. I saw Eddy’s face turn ashen. Mr Smith took up the piece of chalk, finished writing on the board, asked us to commence answering the questions, and, calmly, he sat down. We dutifully set about our task, but our thoughts were preoccupied with a dead frog. The bell rang for the end of the lesson. Mr Smith simply stood up and left, leaving the chalk box and books behind.
We rushed to the front to examine the corpus delicti, but there was no vestige of it. Eddy searched inside the chalk box, inside the drawers of the desk and, in desperation, between each pair of books. The noble Prince was gone.
It was later in the day that all was revealed. As we aimlessly walked about the yard in deep thought of the events that transpired earlier in the day, Mr Smith summoned us to his office.
By sheer coincidence and good luck, Mr Smith had observed Eddy’s earlier tomfoolery with the frog and anticipated what may follow in his class. When he returned to class under the pretext of requiring text books, Mr Smith, despite his theatrics, ensured that he missed Prince as the books slammed down on the table. He had also, using sleight of hand, grabbed the docile amphibian before his departure and released Prince in the creek later that day.
We held a genuine respect for our teacher after the Prince affair. Even Eddy was later heard to say, “He’s all right for a teacher,” which, coming from him was the highest accolade he could bestow upon a teacher.