Y Fronts come to mind as we witness both Geelong and Fremantle get caught too close to the fire in this week’s finals, glowing vaguely like the Aurora australis before dimming at the final breathe of their season. I’m sad and nostalgic this week. Sad because we lost my partner Erin’s mum Mary aka “Mrs Judd” secretly between her husband Ben and I for her ongoing optimistic devotion to Carlton. We’ll talk about Mary in the next post. Got me to thinking about my own Dad again. Lost to use in 1981, My dad was a farmer who is his 40’s who copped a serious dose of arthritis after falling from a ladder cleaning the House spouting of cypress needles that shed from the massive trees that shadow dwarfed us daily. He fell from 4 metres up, hard onto a concrete path freshly laid for Mum to traverse from laundry to clothes line. His elbow took the impact and imploded releasing later, as we discovered, chronic arthritis that in ensuing years twisted and snarled his proud athletic body while stooping him in night cramps and pain that wouldn’t shift.
As a teenager I empathised with his sudden predicament but wrapped up in my own developmental issues I never really understood the struggle he made on a daily basis, going about his work and it’s myriad of physical, mental and seasonal demands nor how compromised particular hopes and dreams made in happier times had become. But he did it without complaint, occasionally asking for assistance for simple physical tasks on the job but on the whole immersed in adapting his new life to the ongoing rhythms of the old.
He’s been long gone like the button up boot but only in recent years as my own experience of a parallel condition swept over me in an instant. In the wink of an uncharacteristic flu that just wont quit I am dumped at the foothills of a new unchartered land at 50. Not only do we share the odd tuft of hair on our foreheads that defies comb and hairdresser solution, both of us are joined in auto immune bending invaders, attacked from within with different consequences yet with dualist implications. I asked all the questions that I imagine he did: How was I going to be able to work? Was I going to die soon? How might the building of my syndrome chip away at the physical and mental quality of my life? What are these physical manifestations I am seeing in the mirror leading to? Is there a cure? And, briefly with an almost even contempt for the collective world of smug wellness to whom I’d been hitherto a paid up subscriber…Why Me?
He grew up in the long after burn of World War 1 to an artistic mother and a wounded veteran farmer who insisted the townfolk call him “Captain”. Cold outside showers and bread lashed with dripping are staples growing up. With his twin Beryl he’s the dux of the school, bound for Teacher’s college once a stint as an RAAF navigator takes him into the last 18 months of World War 2. On return and headed for School employment, he gets the calling to own his own farm and establishes a carrying business to save collateral. He marries my mother Margaret Baldwin and within 4 years has 3 children under 3 years old and 90 acres of prime rich red soil annexed from the family farm.
The first crop of potatoes will bring home the cash flow to initiate the building of a milking shed and a herd of cows to fill it twice daily in the confidence trick that is agricultural lactation. Right on harvest, they awake to an unusual smell. The black sludge of potato rot has infiltrated the entire planting, not worth a brass razoo. The screws now tight on cash flow, for two years, he doesn’t venture into nearby Leongatha in case he runs into an old mate for whom he cannot afford to shout a beer.
I’m the last and a post pill child, spawned after baby sitting a close friend’s son that reincarnated the child urge. I grow up as if surrounded by affluence as the farm takes hold and builds a decent income and lifestyle for our whole family. Dad buys a boat and we learn fishing and skiing. We all attend the same primary school – Leongatha East – as Dad did, we all frequent the haunts and locales of his youth too like the Koonwarra Store, Tennis courts and the Leongatha footy oval or “The Rec”. These are continuities we each as siblings break with our own subsequent families, the last of 3 Gwyther generations to sustain those ties to that land. We even had a Road and a railway siding named after us. As settlers. Where’s your feckin’ road? We’d ask detractors.
Dad – Noel or Toby to most, and triple Best and Fairest for the Leongatha Rovers in the late 1940s turned to the South Melbourne Swans in 1933 as he tuned into the underdogs on a crystal radio while pulling tits on the family diary farm. The Swans whipped the Tigers that day but there is no historical evidence of this event on subsequent milk yields. He died well before the move of the Swans to Sydney and the later flag under Roosy, plus the one hijacked by Horse Longmire over my Hawks in 2012. What a day there we missed together. As a kid I could never reach his brutal 8 foot up stab kicks from 40 yards on our nightly kick to kicks on the farm before the cycle of milking called curtailed only by that arthritic preying mantis. I never saw him play of course but from our 10 years of kick to kick I imagine the Swans player he most approximated would have been Paul Kelly.
But the Y fronts? As his arthritis flared in the 70s, any moisture build up through sweat or rain in his clothes and socks triggered the arthritic pain held at bay long enough to get through the 12+ hours of farm tasks. He’d come in from the shed, shed his clothes in the kitchen and hang up his underwear and socks off the rail on the combustion stove to dry overnight. Then he’d redress by the heat of that stove. Nothing would stop this ritual so central to his ongoing wellbeing, be it a visit from his twin sister, my mates over for the night or the presence of my brother’s girl friend. He was oblivious to the delicate nuances of dressing etiquette but nor was he some rural incantation of a 1950’s Betty Paige. Frequently he’d be talking as disrobing, often stopping midpoint attired in singlet but sans underpants continuing the discussion as if to emphasise his well pondered point.
Auto immune conditions – are they diseases? Are you ill? Your body certainly thinks so and it takes on itself in search of an imagined internal invader. The by products of this war you shore up against each day with mental checklists, preparations and medication intakes, adjustments to your diet along with your self perception.
I often wondered where this lack of shame came from. Was it the incompatability of privacy with his hard yard farm upbringing alongside 4 siblings? Whatever the case, Dad just never seemed to quite get that when the blue vein piccolo uncounsciously joins the musical conversational it’s time to draw down the flannelette curtain over the orchestra pit.
Years after his death while searching through the farm records still kept by my mother, I uncover a series of photographs taken by him as navigated “turning points” from the air, signed and dated early 1944 presumably during his RAAF training while stationed in Mt Gambier. Tiny and in black and white of the the technology of the day, they depict a variety of Ballarat scenes. The Arch of Victory built in 1919, the voracious gold mined scars of the slowly rejuvenating Black Hill and the silver shimmer of the reclaimed Yuille swamp now known as Lake Wendouree destined to host the rowing competitions of the ’56 Olympics in nearby post war future. And our future home – at 415 Eureka Street, Ballarat East, a gun-smoke whiff from the presumed location of the infamous stockade. Centre of frame, in box brownie focus, lies the Edwardian weatherboard I’ll buy with my partner Erin some 47 years later. Over 300 kilometres from Mt Gambier to Ballarat to find that one house from his undiscovered lost experienced future.
His attitude to life mirrored his favourite line from Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
There were many times growing up when I’d wish he grasp his undies, and pull em up.