Memories of Melbourne

Memories of Melbourne


I arrived in Melbourne the first week in October 1958, a few days after the VFL Grand Final. To the uninitiated, the VFL Grand Final is by far the most important event of the year for almost every red-blooded person living in Victoria, even more important than the Melbourne Cup, which comes in second. Consequently my arrival was totally unnoticed.

From the minute I stepped off the train onto the Spencer St Station platform I disliked the place. It looked dirty, tired, unloved and the traffic had to be seen to be believed. But just two years later I liked Melbourne so much and was having so much fun, the Army, in their infinite wisdom, thought it was time for me to leave so they posted me to the Woomera Rocket Range in the far north of South Australia. You may well ask, what changed? Several things! All of which happened over a period of about two months and from that time forward there were not enough days in my week. I met the young lady who became my wife. I purchased a car. It was a 1954 Wolseley 4/44. I joined the Youth Hostels Association, the St. Kilda Football Club and started a part-time business manufacturing wrought iron furniture, plant holders and balustrades.

Several quite humorous incidents happened during those two years. In no particular order, here are a few:

Running late, as usual, one morning I opened the garage, backed out, closed the garage, got back into the car and was about to drive away when I was surrounded by several large, armed policemen. One grabbed the door while another pulled me out and forced me to stand with my feet wide apart and my hands on the roof as he searched me. 'They must be shooting a movie', I thought. Then one yelled, ‘Are you John Kahuna?’

‘No,’ I answered indignantly.

‘Do you come from New Zealand?’

‘No,’ I replied.

Then one of the more astute coppers looked at the sergeant and said, ‘I think we might have the wrong guy here sarge. He doesn’t sound like a Kiwi to me, he’s too skinny to play Rugby Union - and he’s not black.’

‘OK, then let him go,’ said the man in charge.

That was it. They promptly got into their cars and drove away; leaving me there, still with my legs wide apart and hands on the car roof.

On a foggy, Saturday night I parked the car in Fitzroy Street St Kilda, we had a coffee then walked back to the car. As I started to reverse I heard a loud thump on the boot. After getting out I discovered a lady draped across the boot and a pair of legs protruding from under the car. We helped her to her feet then asked if she was hurt. She then gave us a mouthful of the worst language possible. I repeated the question, she repeated the abuse. I said that we should all go to the police station to report the incident. More abuse followed, so I said, ‘Whether you go or not is up to you, but I’m going straight to the police.’

At the station, the cop in charge asked to see the victim. When informed that she had refused to come, he said, ‘Then what the hell do you expect me to do?’

‘I don’t care what the hell you do after I’ve gone,’ I replied, ‘but I want it recorded that I have been here to report an incident and I have three sober witnesses to back me up.’

I went through it all again, he wrote it down, we all signed it and left. I had the distinct feeling that, as soon as we were out of sight, he filed everything in the circular basket on the floor.

One Saturday, the boarding house bunch - Doug, John, Neville and I - joined the vast crowd and hurried straight from the Junction Football Ground to the Corner Hotel. Generally referred to as ‘The Six O’clock Swill,’ six o’clock closing was still the law in Victoria at the time, hence our haste to have a few drinks before we crossed the road to visit Hamburger Max. Doug picked up his brown paper bag containing the six large bottles and we started to cross the busy road. We were about halfway across when a rather large and very intoxicated lady ran out from the crowd on the footpath and flung her arms around Doug, putting him in a giant bear hug, simultaneously shouting out, ‘Darling, my darling, at last, I’ve found you! Where have you been my love?’

All eyes turned to watch as they wrestled in the middle of the road. Doug, a very conservative bank clerk, struggled to maintain his dignity as his new friend continued to shout, ‘Darling, I love you! The kids love you! Please come home again, I forgive you, we all miss you. Please come home.’ While Doug responded with phrases like, ‘Get away from me you stupid woman! Let me go. I don’t know you! I’ve never seen you before in my life.’ In stunned silence, we, his friends, watched from the safety of the footpath and pretended not to know him. It was better than a ringside seat at Celebrity Wrestling. Unfortunately, in pushing her away Doug loosened his grip on the precious brown paper bag which crashed to the ground and disintegrated. His wrestling companion picked herself up and shouted for all to hear, ‘Now look what you have gone and done, you silly man.’

For months we laughed about the incident and would say to him, ‘Now Doug, we are your friends, you can tell us. Just who was that women?’

I first met John Jackson or ‘Jacko’ as he was known to most, in early October 1958 on my first day at an Army Workshop. He was about 22 years old, fair-haired, blue-eyed, well-built, and a chronic sufferer of short-man syndrome, always ready and looking for a fight. Shortly after arriving at the apprentice’s school, he, along with all the other rookies, underwent a long and exhaustive series of aptitude tests. Somehow Jacko slipped through the filters and, despite knowing that he lacked interest and ability in anything mechanical, the army thought he should be a fitter and turner. He wanted to be a carpenter, or a panel-beater/spray-painter.

The following year, 1959, the army decided to replace their ageing VIP fleet of Humbers with Chrysler Royals. It was, in my opinion, a poor choice, but those in control didn’t think to ask me. Who in their right mind would choose an outdated side-valve-six in preference to a modern overhead-valve-V-8? All VIP vehicles were required to have a small flagpole mounted on the bonnet which carried a red triangular flag to indicate the rank of the passenger inside. Jacko was given the job of fitting the chrome-plated flagpole to the first car, a task which would normally take about thirty minutes, allowing fifteen minutes for morning tea.

All that was needed was an eight-millimetre hole in the centre of the bonnet, as near as possible to the front. He decided not to mark the spot with a small centre punch because it might chip the paint; instead, he chose to use a twist drill that had been sharpened to cut sheet metal. Drills that are ground for this purpose are a little more difficult to use, especially on a curved surface, because they have no clearly defined point and can easily wander away from the desired position.

As soon as he applied full pressure, the electric drill slipped sideways and chewed its way across the brand new, shiny, black bonnet, leaving in its path a series of deep, semi-circular grooves that cut through the paint, the undercoat and into the steel. Poor Jacko just stood there wishing the ground would open up and swallow him or that he could disappear in a cloud of smoke. Not surprisingly, neither of those happened; instead, the sergeant in charge appeared with smoke pouring freely from both nostrils. He was not amused.

I had always thought that my vocabulary was fairly good because once I got fifteen correct answers in the Readers Digest ‘It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,’ but that day I learned several new words, all were very uncomplimentary, and several suggested that perhaps his parents had been little more than just good friends. The scratches were too deep to repair so the bonnet had to be removed, stripped right back to bare metal and then repainted. The job, which should have taken half-an-hour, took nearly two days and the beautiful friendship between two Collingwood fans was severely tested.

Because our unit was so close to the city and even closer to Victoria Barracks in St Kilda Road, it was a very convenient place for senior army officers to take visiting military personnel. As a result, we were kept in a state of constant readiness for a tour of inspection by a group of dignitaries from some obscure country or island who hoped to receive substantial foreign aid if they were lucky, or a few second-hand Chrysler Royals if they were not. Consequently, the most frequently used items in the workshop were the paint brushes, paint stripper and the gallon tins of ‘deep bronze green.’

If we were not painting the floor, then it was either the walls or the machines. We must have consumed dozens of tins of the awful stuff, trying to make the place appear cleaner and prettier than any respectable, operational workshop should hope to look. Much of the dreaded deep bronze green had arrived with the First Fleet and needed a great deal of stirring to make it usable, having long ago become almost too thick to pour. To make the task easier, Jacko made himself a stirrer, which he designed to fit the large, pedestal, drilling machine. It consisted of a 15mm steel rod about 400mm long with two paddles welded at right angles, one at the bottom and the other about 100mm above it.

When all was ready, he clamped his great invention in the drill chuck, lowered it into a full tin of paint and turned it on. Most reasonably cautious people would have checked the speed control before touching the switch, but caution was not part of Jacko’s nature. Within a few seconds, it was obvious the speed was much too fast and as the paint started to swirl it began to rise up the inside of the can. As the machine continued to accelerate the liquid rose higher and higher towards the rim and Jacko’s cries for help became louder and increasingly more desperate.

People came from everywhere to see what all the fuss was about. By the time I arrived, the paint had reached the top of the can and was heading skywards like a horrible, green water spout while Jacko held grimly on to the gyrating tin as hard as he could, wanting to let go, but too afraid of the consequences if he did. We just stood there, with our mouths open and stared.

Eventually, he did let it go and in the same movement leapt as far as he could. With nothing to restrain the now half empty tin, it jumped up and down frantically as the paint showered everything within a four-metre radius. Poor Jacko! What a mess! Rivers of green paint dripped from him and pooled on the floor while we collapsed in uncontrolled laughter. The consequences of this episode were lasting. Firstly, the milling machine, cylindrical grinder, power hack-saw and large pedestal drill all received an unexpected coat of paint, Jacko got a severe skin rash on his face, arms and hands from all the turpentine he used in cleaning up the mess and I had sore ribs for a fortnight from laughing so much.