I have been teaching mathematics in an Australian High School since 1982, and I am a contributing author to mathematics text books.
When I was a teenager growing up in the sixties, thoughts of an internet, mobile phones, colour TV and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon were the dreams of soothsayers. In fact, a crystal pocket radio was the closest thing to high-tech I could hope to possess.
I was thirteen years of age and Mark Twain’s literary miscreants, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, held a special fascination for me. This was probably because I envied their misadventures, apocryphal as they might have seemed within the realm of boys’ escapades.
I lived in a timber house typical of the period, and my best friend, Tony, lived nearby. Our daily lethargic walks to and from school invariably included discussion of upcoming weekend activities and tentative plans for scheduling unauthorised day absences.
The creek and garbage site were our usual haunts, providing sanctuary from school drudgery and from home confinement.
The section of the creek closest to our homes passed behind several empty warehouses and a factory; edifices in the beginning stages of redevelopment and destined to morph into utilitarian housing complexes. For safety reasons and to discourage mischief seekers, a three metre high wire fence was erected along the entire perimeter, with locked gates regularly patrolled.
This was a problem because the shortest way from home to the creek was to follow a path lying between the warehouses and the factory, now no longer accessible. Much to our chagrin, the circuitous route we were now forced to navigate added twenty minutes to our trek time.
For several weekends we accepted the situation, but Tony, the smarter one, had had enough.
“George, we should dig a hole under the fence,” he suggested thoughtfully, without considering the illegality of his proposal.
“Why not just cut it?” I asked, tacitly approving his proposed crime.
“They’ll see the gap on their rounds,” he explained. “We’ll cover the hole with branches.”
Required apparel for adventuring on a summer’s Saturday afternoon was shorts, T-shirt and sandals. When we arrived at a bushy section near the fence diametrically opposite the main gates, the area was quiet. The security man was not due for another hour; enough time for accomplishing our clandestine activity. Shovels being unwieldy objects to carry and easy for parents to see, I had a rusty garden trowel and Tony brought a claw hammer that had seen better days. We squatted at a small area near the fence line that was devoid of vegetation. The sun-baked earth displayed numerous tessellating cracks that resembled a mural, and the peak of an embedded rock protruded from the clayish soil.
Some distance away, ants were going about their business, foraging for food.
“This is the spot,” Tony stated. “I’ll start first.”
I watched as he commenced his task, carefully avoiding the rock. After a minute or so of ineffectual pounding, Tony stopped and let the hammer drop. He was frustrated and breathing heavily, his face flushed from the heat of the day and from his fruitless endeavour. Not one to concede defeat, however, he made one last desperate effort to demonstrate that he could do some serious damage to the hard clay. It was a bad idea! His miscalculated aim hit the jagged rock and dislodged it. Instantly, the wooden shaft of the hammer snapped at its apex and the metal section made a swoosh sound as it narrowly missed my face before landing in adjacent bushes.
“Your turn,” he stated resignedly, avoiding commentary on the precariousness of human existence.
I tentatively poked the ground with my trowel. I might as well have been trying to pierce a sheet of steel with a toothpick! Grasping the handle with both hands as if it were a sledgehammer, I swung forcefully. Tony watched with apprehension but remained close. The tool grated along the hard, unyielding surface and left my hand. It sailed past Tony’s head and landed with a thud close to the rock, transformed into a misshapen piece of metal.
“Now we’re even,” I said to Tony, who appeared somewhat shaken.
He shrugged and tried to dismiss both incidents. “Let’s look for the broken hammer.”
We walked to the nearby bushes close to the fence. Part of a bush seemed especially dry. I grabbed its branches to begin my search, finding that it moved freely along the ground. The bush was covering a hole beneath the fence large enough to accommodate a lithe person. Somehow, the section of hammer found its way into the hole.
With this discovery, we were elated that ingress and egress into the compound was established, but also crestfallen that unknown enterprising juveniles had succeeded in accomplishing what we had failed to do. We hoped to meet them one day.
“Let’s rest a while,” Tony suggested, sitting near the upturned rock. I retrieved the broken hammer, covered the hole with the bush and sat next to him.
The warmth of the day coupled with our tiredness relaxed us considerably. I was dreamily reflecting on the day’s disappointments when Tony and I yelped and jumped instantaneously, our hands reaching instinctively to relieve the cause of our distress.
Eloquent cursing accompanied our feverish efforts to remove aggressive fire ants from naked skin. Apparently, the dislodged rock had exposed their nest and a sizeable horde of angry beasties were already closing in on our feet, intent on inflicting further misery. To add insult to injury, our cries of pain attracted the recently arrived security guard who was now warily walking in our direction. This forced a hasty retreat and time to call the day an abject failure.
Despite occasional unpleasant experiences, however, we looked forward to creek sojourns. Fishing and catching yabbies and tadpoles were chief preoccupations, augmented by eating apples from trees whose seeds had long ago been sown by bird droppings. For dessert we gorged on blackberries that grew in abundance along the water’s edge.
Our fishing gear consisted of improvised rods made from a branch of a tree. Each of us had a spool of nylon fishing line, a fish hook and a piece of cork that served as a floater on the water surface. When we caught fish (a rare occurrence), they were cooked whole over a makeshift small fire. During the meal we pretended there was nothing better than consuming semi-cooked, unsalted and undersized fish that had not been gutted or descaled and tasted of stale pond water.
We sometimes tied a small fish to the fishing line to lure yabbies. If any of these crustaceans clasped the fish with their claws, we would gently pull in the line and quickly grab their abdomen. It never occurred to us that the exercise of catching yabbies was ultimately futile. Firstly, it was a risky venture because a yabby will cling to a finger most tenaciously and leave a painful memory for days to come. Secondly, after being caught we had no further use for the critters, so they were liberated to fight another day.
It was a similar situation with tadpoles, whose habitat was water near grasses, weeds and water plants. With cupped hands we gently scooped them out of the water and watched as they wriggled through our fingers back into the safety of the water.
As we sat fishing, the silence around us would be interrupted by magpies singing, kookaburras laughing and the rustling of trees. Occasionally, a flock of ducks drifted gracefully past us, carried downstream by the current. Tony and I kept conversation to a minimum. We couldn’t compete with nature.
Our other favourite venue was the local garbage facility, situated not far from home. It was once a stone quarry, but when the supply became exhausted, nothing remained but a large hole in the ground. Concerned bureaucrats decided that the best option would be to fill the hole, preferably with garbage.
Our first visit to the tip was a case of serendipity. We would frequently ride our bikes past the main entrance on our way to the swim centre and sometimes saw trucks entering or exiting through the main gates. Nothing exciting, we thought. One day, as a challenge, I suggested to Tony that we ride around the tip’s perimeter to see who could best negotiate the uneven path. Shortly after we started, I lost control of the bike and fell roughly to the ground. I was unhurt and stood up, waiting for Tony to join me. My attention was drawn by the noise of a garbage truck, which sounded close. There was no fence around the old quarry -it was erected a year later due to community concern-, so I was able to get quite close to the edge and look down. A truck was shedding its cargo of refuse, and amongst unrecognisable debris I saw bicycles. It was not bicycles per se that drew my attention. After all, I had seen old bicycles dumped in stranger places. It was that each bike gleamed in the sun as if it had just emerged from the showroom floor.
I pointed this out to Tony and we decided to investigate next Sunday, when gates are closed and all is quiet. On a sunny Sunday morning we carefully negotiated a path down the rock face, grasping plants and stone protuberances to keep our balance.
After reaching the bottom, a short walk took us to the location of yesterday’s truck, where five bicycles lay scattered amongst an assortment of cartons and broken crates. Each of them appeared to be in pristine condition except that two had pedals and handlebars missing and the other two required front wheels. At the time, the philosophy of recycling and DIY was in its infancy. Manufacturers found it expeditious to simply dump ‘defective’ products rather than to repair or find alternative uses for them.
Tony and I realised this on subsequent visits. Certainly, typical household garbage was everywhere, but amongst this bacteria-infested land fill, surprising objects were discovered. There were neatly packaged electrical kits, vacuum diodes, balls of wool and bolts of fabric with a myriad of designs. We also came across boxes of new pens (working, but without tops), crates of bottled drinks close to or past their expiry date, wholesale size packets of band-aids and toothbrushes, boxes of stationery and decals.
In fact, I took a box of the decals and stuck them on lamp posts on the way home. It wasn’t until my parents saw one on the lamp post outside our house and laughed heartily that I realised their source of amusement. The decals were for the promotion of a new model of car. Above a picture of the futuristic-looking vehicle was supposed to be, ‘The car of the century!’ and below, ‘Don’t miss your chance’
What the decal actually boasted was, ‘The cur of the century!’ and, ‘Don’t piss your chance’.
I wondered if it was the advertising executive or the typesetter responsible for this faux pas, or perhaps it was the brainchild of someone’s peculiar sense of humour.
I am convinced that some of these discarded items could have found a second home, confirming the attitude that garbage is ‘anything that isn’t wanted’ rather than ‘something that no longer has a purpose.’
On one occasion I came across a biscuit tin emblazoned with a colourful image of a parrot. It looked very old, so I assumed that it was empty and was about to move on when I changed my mind and picked it up.
Tony was nearby, opening and playing with packets of balloons and party hats. I held the tin up in the air for him to see, but he was more interested in inflating the balloons and watching the escaping jet propulsion of air propel them through the air.
The lid was tight and required some time to open without damage.
Inside were several medals awarded for service in World War 2, some coins of the era, and a handwritten letter written in indelible ink.
Dear Mr Treadmire,
The School Board wishes to acknowledge your continued patronage. It is only by your generous endowment that the vision of establishing Spencer Primary School is maintained.
A formal function will be held in your honour, with details to be confirmed.
Again, accept our sincerest thanks for your support.
Spencer Primary School Board of Governors
I surmised that Mr Treadmire, a philanthropist and hero of the war, is a key player in helping to establish the school. How the tin and its contents ended up in a tip was a mystery that I thought I could unravel by somehow speaking with Mr Treadmire or Mr Summers, not a difficult task, I thought. I placed the tin exactly where it was found, with the intention on taking it home to begin my detective work. Meanwhile, I joined Tony and we continued our treasure hunt, coming up with a substantial amount of goods that we wanted to keep. Our arms were laden, so I left the tin until our next exploration date.
Our next visit was one week later, a long time in the context of disposing garbage in a dump. The area where the biscuit tin was found had been covered with several layers of rubbish, too much for me to search. Tony and I had more good times with each visit, but the story of the biscuit tin lingered on. I thought of making contact with Messrs. Treadmire or Summers, but youth, timidity and procrastination eventually stalled the plan.
Many years later I visited the signposts of my youth. Our timber home was now a modern town house, the creek seemed manicured and shrunken behind the high-rise housing complex, and the old dump site was now host to Spencer primary school. I smiled at the irony that the history teacher imparts knowledge but is unaware that fifty metres below, a rusting biscuit tin contains evidence of the school's genesis.
Tony on September 26, 2020:
I enjoyed reading this immensely! The reason is that your stories parallel my childhood with a friend I had named Butch. Reading your adventures was like reliving mine in an alternate reality! Uncanny!
Thanks for the walk down your memory lane.