Recalling good old days ... and others

I RECENTLY completed my annual four-week caretaking job at isolated Bustard Head lighthouse station, a bit over 100km south of Rockhampton, and once again it took me back to my days growing up in Central Queensland towns and cattle stations in the war and post-war years of the '40s and '50s.

How come, you ask? Well, it reminds me of the isolated living of those long-gone days in cottages built in the early 1900s and still standing in peace and calm that makes bird calls clear as crystal and wildlife ever-present.

The light station atmosphere is so long-gone you start humming old songs you heard as a kid on the ABC's Hospital Half-hour program on the wireless in Yeppoon during the war.

In the Bustard Head isolation you start singing Open Road, Open Sky along with John Charles Thomas ... in your mind, of course. You hum along with that incredible choir's rendition of The Nuns' Chorus. And Paul Robeson's Old Man River isn't far behind.

We were only allowed to listen to dad's huge wireless set at breakfast times for those great songs. At night it was the Seven O'Clock War News and maybe Dad and Dave if we'd been good.

I keep singing those great songs, and many, many more in a crackling old voice when I'm at the lighthouse, just as I sang them back in the good old days ... when I was alone, of course.

In fact one of the most embarrassing moments of my life was singing The Rose of Tralee at the top of my soprano voice striding through the scrub between my school, St Brendan's, and Yeppoon township when an old lady, sitting on a log near the rough bush track, started clapping.

I shut up, started running, tripped over a dirty big log, scrambled up and really took off.

I sang on St Ursula's Convent stage a couple of times with my big sister Bernie to entertain US troops who were camped all over the Yeppoon, Emu Park and Rocky areas.

Then, up at the lighthouse a while back we heard about that woman school principal who split the community by suspending kids from school for breaking the rules and playing up. She was punishing the little turds by sending them home. And didn't that give us a laugh.

Because in that old-world atmosphere at Bustard Head it's so easy to recall the old days ... the good time as well as the bad.

The bad times were mostly at school and among the worst were under the iron fist of a young Irish nun who didn't want to be in Australia and took it out on us kids - me in particular, mostly because I was a very poor speller and slow reader. I got belted over the head, back and knuckles with blackboard dusters, wooden pointers and rulers. One time she belted the hell out of me with all those as well as twisting my ears just about off and sent me crying out of the school room.

Another nun who saw the attack left her class to sit with me on the steps outside, put her arm around me and started crying along with me. I was about eight years old.

The Brothers at St Brendan's weren't too bad, although I used to get a few “sixes” with their thick, stitched leather straps. One bloke even had a cut down fan belt from an old utility as his strap. Thank God I didn't get that.

The worst belting I got as a boarder at Brendan's is worth a mention. I was in my final year. Junior was as far as I was going because I wanted to be an apprentice electrician. An apprentice mate back in our hometown of Maryborough asked me to take his newly built one-valve wireless set up to St Brendan's and see how many radio stations I could get around Australia because Brendan's was isolated high up a hill overlooking the ocean at Yeppoon.

Naturally I had to get permission from the principal because the wireless needed a very high aerial and the only place to put it was up the school's very high water tower and I couldn't do that without someone asking questions. Reluctantly he gave me permission on condition I didn't try to use it after 5pm because after that we had to have dinner (it was called “tea” back in those days), do our night study and go to bed at about 9pm.

Trouble was I could only get Rocky's ABC and the commercial station in the afternoon.

I wrote and told my mate and he wrote back saying I was a bloody idiot because you can't get proper reception before dark.

I thought about it for a while then one night, about half-an-hour after “lights out”, I crept out of bed, down stairs, across the yard into the locker room where the wireless was, and started twisting the dial.

The noise through the powerful earphones nearly knocked my head off and in about half-an-hour I had tuned into about 25 stations around Australia. Next night I had another pile of new stations written down.

That'll do for now I thought, switched off and started creeping back under the mango trees to the main building.

Suddenly out of the darkness came a shout: “Kavanagh, get over here”.

Two Brothers grabbed me and dragged me into the principal's office.

“You promised not to muck around with that wireless after 5pm,” the principal said.

“Touch your toes.”

I got six of the best on the bum, then three on each hand. A few days later one of the younger Brothers told me what happened. They were listening to their favourite wireless programs in the principal's office when suddenly all hell broke loose on their set.

“The noise was terrible,” he said. “It was like a cross between air raid sirens wailing, trumpets blasting and bulldozers roaring. We couldn't hear our program because of you mucking around with your wireless trying to get so many different stations and interfering with ours.”

The principal made me rip down the aerial and threw it and the wireless into the dump.

But by far the worst school punishment I got came from an ancient, retired Irish brother back in Maryborough. Our regular brother was sick and the old bloke came in to look after us for a day. He was a mad keen boxing follower who had taught in the Bronx, New York, in younger days.

He put an algebra problem on the blackboard, looked around the class of about 14 kids and said: “Kavanagh! Get up here and work this out.”

So I did, and got it correct. He turned to the class and said: “Stand up those who got it wrong.”

I got it right, so I pretended to sit down, squatting on the floor behind him. The class laughed. He turned around and said: “Get up Kavanagh."

Feeling pretty smart I stood up with a smile across my dial.

Suddenly he let fly with as great right cross to the jaw, knocking me out, cold as a maggot.

When I woke up about five minutes later he simply said: “Get back to your desk, Kavanagh.”

I certainly did.

Of course we never mentioned these things at home, otherwise we'd get another belting. Like the time I broke an old crane at Yeppoon railway station. I was swinging on it when it somehow broke, throwing me onto the rail lines and knocking the stuffing out of me. My mates all took off, and the station master, who was talking to the local policeman on the platform, heard the noise, came and grabbed me.

He dragged me by the ear into the platform and complained to the cop. The cop booted me up the backside, grabbed me by the other ear and dragged me across the road to the Railway Hotel, which he knew my old man managed.

There he told my old man I had broken the crane. Dad took me upstairs, ripped off his belt and laid into me.

Ah! For the good old days. Things sure have changed over the years, eh?

Kavanagh will be guest speaker at the Sunrise Rotary lunch at Callaghan Park on Sunday, October 25.

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