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Rob Greaves

I Remember .... when it was great to be a kid!

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I look around me and in particular I look at kids and I see young people desperately trying to be sophisticated at a young age, or worse, I see kids whose parents try to make them sophisticated at a young age. With the progress that technology has both provided and forced upon us, it seems to me that kids just don't get to be kids anymore.

Being a kid in the 1950’s was probably amongst the best time to have indeed, been a kid. Life in Australia was pretty good. The war was over, foods and household goods were in abundance. The country was riding high on the back of wheat and wool and unemployment was almost unheard of, so family life was settled and in the main quite stress free. It was then that my family made a move that would be the last move before I left home on my own accord some 10 years later. We moved to a new suburb of Jordanville. Jordanville was about eleven miles (just over 18 Km) South East of Melbourne, it was a suburb almost exclusively built from prefabricated concrete slabs. It was a Housing Commission project to open up these new areas and build low cost public housing. What is quite fascinating is that now it is no longer a 'Housing Commission' estate, it is now called Chadstone (far more sophisticated)!

This was the best move my family ever made. There were two major reasons for this. The first was that there were many many kids. The second was that there were just so many open spaces to explore and play in. We lived at number one Jindabyne Avenue and when we first moved in it was just an open space and a large creek behind us that in turn just went across a large paddock and up a hill. There was one house to the left that fronted Railway Parade and past that an open tract of land and a railway line which must have been a good 10 meters up on the top of an embankment. Over the railway embankment and down the other side there was a very large open tract of land, mostly covered with blackberry bushes. There were houses to our right going up Jindabyne Avenue, and houses across from us in Jindabyne Avenue, with houses in turn behind them.

It took little time to find four other kids around my age giving us a core of five, and with brothers included we had seven. The eldest were Donald Stockwin and Warren Williams, who were about a year older than me. Over the road from me was Keith Osborne, who was about my age, and if you stood in our backyard looking at the creek, the house on the right fronting the railway line, was the home of Colin May, about a year younger then me. Donald had a brother about three years younger called Raymond and Warren had a brother about the same age called Peter.

Now Donald was a rabid football fan, and it was the Victorian Football League in those days, and his family followed the Richmond Tigers. I was about 12 years of age by now and was quickly taken by a team called the Tigers and adopted them as my own. In fact, by acclaim we called ourselves the Tiger Gang. Our territory was wide and far, with the only acknowledged boundary being the railway track atop the embankment. Over the railway line was the territory of the Scurrah Gang. In retrospect and as silly as it seems I never found out who Scurrah was, assuming there was a kid called Scurrah, and I was never certain just how many were in their gang. But we rarely ventured into their territory and vice versa.

There were a number of incidents where war broke out. On a number of occasions I was summoned by one of the Tiger Gang members to come quickly and would usually find the Scurrah Gang atop the railway tracks flinging rocks from the tracks down upon us. We would retaliate of course, and if the time was right, like there were more of us than them, we would drive them back down the other side in triumph. If we were outnumbered, we would retreat, and sometimes the Scurrah Gang members would even come down our side of the embankment, but never cross the barbed wire fence that would supposedly keep us from railway property. Some things were inviolable. The other strange thing is that it never came to fist fights; in fact we never fought anyone with our fists.

It was a glorious, wonderful place for boys. Hours and hours were spent down in the creek. We could wander far and wide and our parents’ wouldn’t worry. This wasn’t because they didn’t care; it was just a sign of how safe it was in those days. Back doors would be left unlocked and in summer, front doors left open to allow any stray cool breeze to visit and apply its ministrations. As unbelievable now as it may seem, I recall on many occasions when doing a morning paper round, finding people asleep on their front lawns where they had gone to seek relief from hot summer nights.

Now many great plans were formulated for the taking of a large hill out the back of our place across the other side of the creek. On top of the hill were large pine trees and in the trees nesting at the right time of the year, were magpies. They became the enemy.

The hill was crisscrossed with tussocks and covered with clover and daisies. It was intoxicating in summer as the sweet smell of the pollen mixed with the heat haze and the sound of cicadas was almost deafening. But the hill had to be taken. The birds would alter their tactics as often as we would. Sometimes they would swoop as soon as we started our climb. Sometimes they would wait until we were almost half way up before commencing what seemed to us, to be kamikaze aerial attacks upon us. And they didn’t hold back. At first they would just swoop over our heads but the closer we got to the trees and their nests the lower their attacks would become.

We tried ice-cream containers on our heads, we tried coming from different directions simultaneously, and we tried using noisemakers. We had tactics and the birds countered them. Umbrellas worked well but Donald declared that they were sissy, so umbrellas were outlawed. In retrospect I think it was because he could never get one. Who won? Well we got to the top eventually, in fact several times. Once Colin sustained a bad scratch on the head, but that was the worse. I guess not surprisingly, once we started to continually conquer the hill the fun declined rapidly and we stopped, much to the magpies’ relief. You need to understand, that today that would be really frowned upon and rightly so, as inappropriate behavior in terms of treatment to wildlife. But in the early sixties attitudes toward conservationism, animal rights and even what constituted right and wrong behavior were considerably different to later years. We never undertook this (ad)venture with any desire to hurt the birds, to disturb their nests or even mistreat the birds in any way. It was simply another great adventure, to pit us against a worthy adversary.

Eventually the creek was filled in to develop a major linking road. Progress was coming as the Housing Commission started building again. We lost our wonderful creek, but gained a fabulous network of tunnels. Now our parents were a bit more concerned. Far more knowledgeable than we were about the dangers of playing in such tunnels, we were forbidden to play in them. I mean to say, that is an invitation in itself to go play in them and we took the invitation.

At first they were a series of semi-connected tunnels. Sometimes they would only be a couple of hundred meters long with a gap of so many meters before the next section began. These were light and airy and made great places just to sit and talk or play in. They made great shelters from the weather and we often road our bikes through them, building mounds and other traps at the end of them that we would ride over and through.

Slowly but surely they were connected and while this meant our traditional use of them was no longer possible but it now meant we could really adventure. Armed with torches we would meander through them for hours. Once we came up through a manhole cover in the middle of Warragul Road, a main road some 5 kilometers from where we could enter. The fact that we came up in the middle of heavy traffic wasn’t entirely lost on us and it was one manhole we avoided in the future.

Wandering really was a major activity. In fact we even used the excuse of going to the Saturday afternoon movies as an excuse to explore. Now Saturday afternoon movies were a must. Every kid wanted to go. The nearest theater was quite a distance away in Oakleigh. This meant a 15-minute walk from our location to Holmesglen, where we would catch a bus that would take us to the Oakleigh theater some 5 Kilometers away. The movies would cost us around one shilling and six pence. Now to understand the worth of that amount of money, I did a paper round for 6 mornings and earned the princely sum of 11 shillings. So you can work it out from there. In fact there is another interesting money equivalent. On the way home, if we had any money left, we would buy potato cakes, which cost 1 penny each. For those of you who don’t know, 12 pennies made up 1 shilling. When decimalization eventually reared its head 1 shilling was deemed to be worth 10cents.

Anyway I deviate. For 6 pence at the theatre, you could buy a large bag of mixed lollies and in a certain number of these bags would be a free theater ticket. If you were a lucky recipient it meant you got a bag of lollies and the afternoon in the theatre for 6 pence and still had money in your pocket. Saturday afternoon at the theater followed a true and tried formula that never varied until the whole Saturday afternoon movie session for kids was eventually dropped. It always started with a newsreel. Now remember television was in its very earl stages, so newsreels were a major source of national and world information, although to be honest, I think in the main they were thrown in for the few adults that were crazy enough to attend a Saturday afternoon session.

Following the newsreel came what was called the short. Probably short for short movie, it was usually 30 minutes of the Three Stooges or something similar. A cartoon often followed this, and if the short was indeed too short, we got two cartoons. Then came the serial. I really loved the serials. Westerns, strange post war hybrid serials where the forces of evil fought the forces of good, usually with cars and bi-planes, and science fiction serials – my favorite. No matter the genre, each week’s episode always finished with the hero, heroine, friend of the hero or such being blown up in a hut, a car, a plane, a train or driving over a cliff, or crashing their plane, whatever, they always ended in a disaster. However, we knew different and sure enough, next weeks episode would start by rewinding to that disaster where we the viewer would discover that they had in fact escaped. Oh how we lapped it all up.

Then it would be interval. Time to get more food or to participate in Jaffer wars, where these very tasty round hard lollies would be used as missiles. The balcony seats would hit those below them in the back seats. Those at the back would hit those at the front, who would return the fire. Now, you need to understand that in the main, and unless you were unlucky enough to have your parents attend, there was a strict code in place in terms of where you sat.

Sometimes the upstairs would be closed off. But if it wasn’t, generally the older kids went up there. The very back seats of both upstairs and downstairs was reserved for the older kids with girlfriends, and the closer you sat to the front the younger the ages became. So as you got older you graduated further and further back as recognition of your age.

So where does the great wandering come into this. Well it was only about a fifteen-minute bus trip from Holmesglen to Oakleigh, which meant you could walk it in about an hour and a quarter. The time really depended upon the route you took and the diversions this lead to. Very early in the piece we discovered a great creek along the way that was well stocked with Red Fin fish. This led to a number of expeditions that would often take the better part of the day, in order to fish at this particular part of this creek. However the prized route, which coincidentally was the longest route, would mean a journey from home to Oakleigh would take took us nearly an hour and three quarters. This is because this particular trip went through the Oakleigh Cemetery.

At the time we never consciously thought about why we were so drawn to the cemetery but drawn we were. I guess for us there was an element of fascination with all things dead and we really enjoyed finding the oldest dated grave. There was also an element of being somewhere we shouldn’t have, as inevitably the cemetery was closed and we would climb in through holes in the fence. Yet whether it was open or closed one thing we always showed was a kind of respect. We never damaged anything, we were very careful not to walk over the graves, now whether this was from respect or a kind of hidden unspoken fear I’m still not sure.

I found a particular kind of irony that many years later when I drove past the Oakleigh Cemetery I found that the majority of it had been built over with shops and that it had a road through it. Respect for the dead?

Often we would often deliberately choose to walk home to save the bus fare so that we could buy chips and potato cakes on the way home. For six pence we would either get six potato cakes or a serving of chips and three potato cakes, all lovingly wrapped in newspaper. For us as kids, there were no hygienic waxed cups or greaseproof paper bags. Nope! Straight into newspaper, print and all and we would not have had it any other way.

All of this reinforces one of the greatest differences between life in the fifties and early to mid sixties, and that was the issue of safety. We were safe, we could travel anywhere on foot or by public transport and safety simply wasn’t an issue. In fact in all the years that I grew up living at Jindabyne Avenue and the many adventures, which included playing around the railway line, playing in the drain tunnels, traipsing from area to area, playing in the houses and flats being built, we never saw the police. From our point of view this was probably a good thing because not all we did was safe, and in at least one instance safe for others.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea but I know we used to hammer two metal stakes into the ground in the backyard of Keith’s house. We would then stretch a cut inner tune from a bicycle between the stakes making a fairly powerful and very large, slingshot. We would ‘fling’, probably to great distances, rocks and large stones toward the railway line, but on occasions our direction wasn’t so safe, and our missiles would be launched over the roofs of many houses landing, who knows where. Extremely dangerous and very irresponsible; but that’s the words of the young Rob now grown up!

Firecrackers also played a large place in our lives. There were absolutely no restrictions on the purchase and use of firecrackers and as individuals and as gang members we made good use of firecrackers. In addition to skyrockets, assorted squibs, flowerpots and other devices that shot coloured flames and sparks into the air, there were bungers! You could purchase a penny bunger, a tuppenny bunger (cost two pence), but the Magnum Opus of the bungers’ was the threepenny bunger. This guy was about 4cm in diameter and 10 cm long. It was loud and it was powerful.

Firstly they made great ammunition for mortars. We got a piece of metal pipe, blocked one end a dropped a lite threepenny bunger into it, aimed it and ‘boom!” A great explosion followed by the exploding carcass of the bunger flying out of the tube as the exploding gases propelled the remaining cardboard plug out of the open end. Then they could also be used quite successfully in letterboxes. Drop a lite threepenny bunger into a tin letterbox and at the least, the lid would be blown off. At the best, total destruction. We were very lucky and with the wisdom age brings I have no problems with the ban on fireworks today.

Yet, kids today do miss out on the wonderful time that we used to have on Guy Fawkes Day, when we would celebrate the failure of the great gunpowder plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament by Guy Fawkes. We were sort of aware of what the celebration was about, but the real fun was the building of the biggest bonfire we could out in one of the surrounding paddocks, and then in the evening, with the permission and often attendance of our parents, we would light the fire and set of our fireworks. The sky would be alive with colour and the air alive with sound. It was a day that we really looked forward to.

I look at the ‘sophistication’ of kids today, and I know they would hate doing what we did as kids. I also know, it was great being a kid in the 1950’s.

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Updated 8th April 2013 at 06:34 PM by Mick Pacholli

Rob Greaves , I Remember