Read The Road from Coorain Online

Authors: Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorain (6 page)

The combination of the 1939–1945 War and my brothers’ departure for boarding school meant that I was alone at Coorain
with my parents. Single young men from the backcountry were always the first to volunteer for military service. By 1940, the few station hands available worked on the larger stations where there was company and some after-hours sociability. After Japan joined the Axis powers and entered the war in 1941, all able-bodied men were drafted, and there was total manpower control of all adult women and men. My father, a war veteran, with injuries and heart problems we were told resulted from being gassed in the 1914–1918 War, could have requested help for an essential primary producing industry. He and my mother were intensely patriotic and it was a matter of pride for them to manage alone. Each of us contributed to the war effort as best he or she could. Our contribution would be to work longer and harder. The job of running Coorain itself became harder as we began to experience the effects of the war. Australia produced no gasoline, and the produce of the oil wells and rubber plantations of Southeast Asia was diverted to Europe to meet the wartime priorities of motorized armies. After gasoline rationing was introduced, we went back to an earlier transportation era. Everything took more time. Picking up the twice-weekly mail on the dusty main highway four miles from the house took several hours. Going to the post office seven miles away was a morning’s expedition. Traveling the twenty-odd miles to work with sheep or tend the bores and water troughs at the far end of our odd-shaped property meant rising at 4:00 a.m. to put in the hours of riding necessary to get there to start work before the heat of the day. We saved our meager ration of gasoline for essentials, going forty miles to the nearest store in the railroad town of Ivanhoe, meeting the train when the boys came home from school. A reserve was necessary for emergencies: bushfires, a broken arm, a wound needing stitches.

After the first shock of the boys’ departure, my loneliness was moderated by the arrival of a fascinating new companion. The expanded size of Coorain meant that my father could hire a man who was a mine of bush lore and knowledge to put down a bore
to provide a plentiful water supply for the Coorain homestead. Bob McLennan, universally known as old Bob, was not fazed by the lack of gasoline to power his well-drilling equipment. He had drilled many bores by hand in his long lifetime, and was quite ready to begin again. I watched intently as his auger was produced, the hole begun and steadily deepened as old Bob paced around in a circle, like some medieval figure on a treadmill. Since his task required slow movement, he had plenty of breath left to answer the questions of a curious child. We would find the first water at twenty feet, he said. It would be salty, and useless for our purposes. As each layer of soil came up, he explained about its place in the formation of the earth. We should find good water after about one hundred and twenty feet, he thought—that was unless we struck stone, which would mean the sweet, fresh water was deeper underground. We both tasted the water at twenty feet, and agreed that it was very salty. At forty-eight feet, another stream was crossed, equally metallic in taste. Soon after, very interesting things began to come up with each return of the drilling equipment to the surface: gravel, shale, slimy black oily-looking mud. Bob began to look troubled. The going was getting harder, and the chances were increasing that he would hit rock. At ninety feet, there it was, solid and desperately hard to drill. Bob was philosophical, pacing steadily, but his auger now made a few inches a day. My parents joked that perhaps he would be in residence with us till retirement. Months of work and wages had been invested and it was too late to abandon this effort and choose another site. Many weeks later Bob was through his six feet of granite, and the water found at one hundred and twenty feet was sent away for testing. He and I had done a lot of tasting and shaking our heads over it. It was not very clear, and after we had carefully measured the flow, it was less than a hundred gallons an hour. Bob said it wouldn’t do, but my father, hoping the job, now much more extended than he’d planned, would be completed, sent the water to the assayers anyway. The answer proved Bob’s point. It was not fit for human consumption. It
contained too much salt, traces of gold, a minute quantity of lead sulfate. So Bob resumed his slow pacing. He was a slight bony man, small in stature, slow and deliberate in all his movements, endlessly talkative. He kept the same pace in heat or cold, and he respected the earth he worked with. He called the earth “she,” and he personified the hole he was drilling, now of epic proportions, and his auger. “Now we’ll see what the bastard has to offer,” he would say, winding his winch furiously to pull up the next load of earth. The mechanics of drilling were endlessly interesting to me. As the hand drill ate away the earth, metal casing was pushed down inside the hole. As the hole deepened, casing of a smaller and smaller size was pushed down inside the original. This provided the firm outer casing for the bore, within which piping and a water pump would eventually be installed. Bob began with casing of a monumental size “in case the bugger’s really deep,” he explained cheerfully. As each new piece of casing was driven into the earth and the next piece attached, a few inches of the original would protrude, requiring slicing off to make the joins even. These round wheels of metal became my toys, each succeeding size being delivered to me as a gift by Bob. It seemed that I had a family of them, all in neatly descending ages and sizes. I knew too few people to name them after actual acquaintances, but eventually I hit upon calling them after the various leaders of the Allies, both political and military. I knew who all of them were because I went regularly with my father to collect the mail, and he had me read the front page of each issue of the
Sydney Morning Herald
to him on the slow return journey from the mailbox. I named the amplest and most impressive circle of metal Winston Churchill, and a smaller but nonetheless impressive one, General de Gaulle.

Possessing in these toys a perfect symbolic system for representing hierarchy, I named a very modest one after the Prime Minister of Australia, thereby recognizing a set of power relationships I could not then have articulated. These pieces of metal were assembled to mimic the Quebec Conference, and a new
character, larger than de Gaulle but noticeably smaller than Churchill, was introduced, President Roosevelt. The fortunes of war had already required regular reorganization of the rank order, my need after the battle of El Alamein being for a General Montgomery, second in size only to Churchill.

One day, more than six months after old Bob began his labors, my father and I returned from an afternoon expedition to see old Bob, a beatific smile on his face, rolling a sample of water around in his mouth as though it were vintage claret. As we approached, he spat it out and said, “It’s beautiful water, Mr. Ker, and she’ll pump thirty thousand gallons a day.” The assayers agreed on the quality, and time proved him right about the flow, which never faltered in the driest seasons. We never knew how many hundreds of miles he had tramped in his months of labor, but he wore out three pairs of boots and one steel auger. The equipment for the windmill and storage tank had already been purchased in anticipation of the moment. Shortly, a fifty-foot steel windmill tower and a forty-thousand-gallon tank on a thirty-foot stand towered beside our house.

The arrival of the water wrought miracles. My mother, freed of cooking for two hungry boys and a governess, raced through the household chores to work for three or four hours after lunch in her garden. The soil was fertile, there was ample fertilizer from the horses, cattle, and sheep, and the blessed water proved to contain only a little limestone which most plants flourished on. My father built a high windbreak, made of cane grass which grew on the property, to shield her seedlings from the hot winds. Inside it she produced a vision of paradise fit for a sultan’s courtyard. In front of the house were perennial beds, lining the verandas. Two perfectly balanced rectangles of green lawn were laid out, framed by long, thin rectangular beds for annuals. To the south of the house was the vegetable garden, and to the north the citrus orchard. The northern side of the cane windbreak became a trellis for grapes, and a little to the northwest was the potato bed.

She had a fine sense of color, and a passion for scented flowers. Soon I would drift off to sleep in the evening bathed in the perfume of stocks, wallflowers, and heliotrope in summer, the crisp aroma of chrysanthemums in autumn. A whole bed was given over to Parma violets, and great fistfuls of them would sit in the middle of the round table on which we dined in summer on the southern screened veranda.

The fruits and vegetables were as marvelous to a child raised on canned vegetables and dried apples. The scent of orange and lemon trees, the taste of fat green grapes, and the discovery of salads were marking points of that first year of water.

Because it was clear that I was educating myself through reading everything within reach—a topsy-turvy mixture of children’s books, my mother’s books on current affairs, war correspondents’ accounts of the war, my father’s books on stock breeding—my parents decided not to bother with elementary school by correspondence for me the year my brothers left for boarding school. Instead, I became my father’s station hand. He needed help with mustering sheep, something which needed two people on horseback to accomplish easily. I rode out with him to check the state of fences, always in need of careful attention if bloodlines were to be kept clear. We went together to clean watering troughs, carry out the maintenance of windmills, trim and dress the fly-infested spots which developed around the crutch of sheep where flies would lay eggs in the hot summer months. Dressing fly-blown sheep was hard, hot work because one had to round up the particular flock, get the sheepdogs to hold them, and then dive suddenly into the herd to tackle the one animal whose fleece needed attention. An agile child was better at doing the diving than an adult, and in time I learned to do a kind of flying tackle which would hold the animal, usually heavier than I was myself, until my father arrived with the hand shears and the disinfectant.

Much of the work with sheep involved riding slowly behind them while moving them from one paddock to another, traveling
at a pace which was a comfortable walk for the animals. Often we dismounted and strolled along, horse’s reins looped over an arm. Occasionally something might startle the sheep, requiring my father to shout commands to the dogs, but otherwise it was not demanding work, and it was a perfect setting for extended conversation. Why did God allow the crows to pick out the eyes of newborn lambs, I asked, as we passed a bloody carcass. My father never treated such questions as idle chatter, but tried seriously to answer. He didn’t know, he replied. It was a puzzle. The world seemed set up so that the strong preyed on the weak and innocent. I would ask endless questions about the weather, the vegetation, the transmission of characteristics through several generations of sheep. How to breed to eliminate that defect, or promote this desirable characteristic. When the lambs were a year old, we would bring the sheep into the nearest sheepyards, or make a temporary one, so that we could cull the flocks, selecting the discards which would be sent for immediate sale or used for our own food.

I did reasonably well as a station hand while in sight of my father. He could shout directions, or notice that I was having trouble getting the dogs to work for me and arrive quickly to solve the problem. I didn’t always do so well when we worked in the large paddocks, twelve or fifteen thousand acres in size, where we would separate, one going clockwise, one counterclockwise, turning the sheep into the middle, to be gathered into one flock and moved as a whole to a new spot. I was a long-legged seven-year-old, but not quite tall enough to remount my horse if I got off to kick some lazy sheep into motion, or to investigate a sick or lame one. Then there would be no getting back on till the next fence, or the rare occasional stump. At first I was not quite secure enough in ego to cope with the space, the silence, and the brooding sky. Occasionally I would find myself crying, half in vexation at my small size and the pigheadedness of sheep, half for the reassurance of a sound. By the family’s code it was shameful to weep, and I was supposed to be too grown-up
for such babyish behavior. Once the wind carried the sound to my father on the other side of the paddock. By the time we were reunited, I had reached a fence, climbed on my horse, and become secure again by seeing him in the distance. “I thought I heard someone crying,” he observed to me as we met. I looked him in the eye. “I didn’t,” I said. There he let the matter rest.

The sheepdogs were always a trial to me. They were trained to respond to a series of calls. Their trainers were station hands and drovers whose calls were usually poetic, blasphemous, and picturesquely profane. I would try to make my voice deep, and sound as though I really meant to flay them alive when I got home if they didn’t go behind or get around or whatever other command was needed, but I didn’t believe it and neither did they. My father would laugh at me shouting to the black kelpie whose pink tongue and nose I loved, “You black bastard, I’ll flay the hide off you if you don’t go around.” “You don’t sound as if you mean it,” he said. “Why not just try whistling, that’s easier for you to do.” He tried to teach me the series of whistles used to command sheepdogs. I did better at that, but they would never obey me perfectly, as they did my father.

As we did our day’s work, theological questions kept cropping up. “Isn’t it wrong to kill?” I would ask, as we drove home with a fat young sheep, feet tied together, who would be slaughtered when we arrived at the wooden block near the dog kennels used for such purposes. I always felt a sneaking fellow feeling for the creature as its neck was slit and its blood ebbed away to be drunk voraciously by the dogs. Skinning a sheep was a lengthy process, so there was plenty of time to explore the question. God made the creatures of the earth for man’s use, my father responded. It was wrong to kill needlessly for sport, the way some people hunted kangaroos, but it was moral to kill what we needed to eat. Besides, he said, what would happen to the sheep if we never culled them. Their wool would deteriorate, their body types grow weaker, and they would all starve because we couldn’t feed them all and all their natural increase. “Did you kill people
during the war?” I would ask, meaning the 1914–1918 War. “Yes,” he would respond. Killing in self-defense was moral also, and the war had been a generalized version of that situation. But no war was ever really just because of the pain and suffering inflicted not only on soldiers, but on civilians. We should work for a world where there were other ways of settling conflicts. It was wrong for so many generations of young men to be killed, as had happened in 1914–1918, and was happening now. He prayed the war would be over before Bob was old enough to go.

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