“Dad, did you shoot the possum?” Charlie’s daughter Annette stood in the centre of the living room questioning her father. Something unpleasant wafted about, causing Annette to fear the worst. The windows all hung open, ceiling fans swished overhead, the small of baby powder hung heavy in the air, a trail of evidence that could only lead to one possibility.
Like Ted E. Bear, Charlie shook his head vigorously, “No luv, not me”.
“What’s that smell then? Something’s dead. Are you sure you didn’t shoot the possum?”
“No way, what smell would you be talking about? I can’t smell anything,” again with a shaking of the head.
An almost imperceptible pause, “Na Annette, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” still shaking his head… but a little less confidently this time.
Charlie, as if to validate his point attempted one more good head shake, before gently, almost imperceptibly, adjusting his side to side shake into a gentle up and down.
Charlie was my uncle’s dad, and obviously a man not discouraged by the smell of decaying marsupial while attempting a cover-up. At this juncture it should be said that Charlie was not my Grandfather, but the father of my uncle-by-marriage. Not that this should serve as an arm-lengthener by any stretch of the imagination, because it has long been the policy of my family that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Consequently Charlie fulfilled an additional Grandfather role for more than just his immediate family, and grateful we are for that, because how else is one meant to understand that it is a bad idea to shoot a possum in a wall cavity?
In addition to possum shooting, Charlie had a rather unique vocation. He was one of Australia’s first chicken sexers. From 1934 until his retirement in 1983 Charlie toiled to ensure that Australia’s chicken farms remained free of cockerels (male chickens to the uninitiated). He was a proponent of the Suzuki method of chicken sexing, popularized by the Japanese (who seem to know a lot about these sorts of things) chicken sexer Hideo Kataoka. Charlie was one of Kataoka-san’s most devoted students, and achieved a 97 percent accuracy when his sexing skills were tested. It seems that it is quite an art form to be able to look into the nether regions of a baby chicken and ascertain whether it is a male or a female. It just can’t be done by any swinging dick! And just in case you felt as though you might not be able to sleep tonight without knowing the central component of the aforementioned Suzuki method… let’s just say that the chick’s legs are facing away from you, and the operative word is cloaca! And if you don’t believe all of this, please, check my facts by reading “The Specialist Chicken Sexer,” by R. D. Martin, an unexpectedly riveting exposé into the development of the chicken sexing industry in Australia. I swear that this is all true!
Sexing baby chickens must have been good to Charlie, it allowed him to buy a home , raise four children and indulge in one of his greatest loves, junk! Though it was not just junk to Charlie, each piece contained nothing less than the potential to change someone’s life for the better. As a 15 year old I was treated to a guided tour through Charlie’s vast sheds, marveling at the array of items stored there. Stoves, motors, whole kitchens, cars, tools, and various bits of unidentifiable metal all vied for space in their cramped quarters. As Charlie walked you through his private domain he would grab at random objects and, holding them up in front of you say something like, “Now there’s a Coonara wood heater mate. I ripped it out of an old house that a mate of mine from the footy club passed away in. He was dead for four days before they found him sitting in his favourite lounge chair. I have his chair too, you wanta see it? You know you should take this heater for when you get a house. It’d warm the toes off an Arab, that heater would!”
Racial metaphors aside, Charlie was also a man who would talk to anyone, about anything. He was the first to offer assistance and advice… advice that, although practical in its purpose, did sometimes have a unique quality about it. Like the time that the washing machine overflowed in the laundry, Charlie’s solution was to drill a hole through the floorboards to let the water out. Or the time that a snake was hanging around Charlie’s cabin up at his bush block. As we have already learnt, Charlie was always ready to drill something (though this time with bullets instead of an actual drill), but managed to miss the snake, watching it escape down a hole. Never a person ready to give up the chase, Charlie’s solution involved cementing the hole closed! That poor snake never did see the battle turning in that direction, “let’s see that dirty little bugger slither out through 16 inches of concrete mate.”
A devoted member of his local community, he volunteered for several roles at his local footy club, eventually becoming a sort of quartermaster, taking charge of all the team’s equipment. Once, while visiting Charlie’s house he opened the door of his caravan to reveal an inside filled with footballs. Taking one from the pile he hand-balled it to me saying, “There you go mate, fresh from the hands of the Eltham Football Club’s star full forward.” I still have that ball, although the sweaty hand smell has diminished somewhat! Charlie was also a proud parent and grandfather, although his grandchildren’s names sometimes caused some consternation and confusion. On being informed of the naming of his grandson he said, “Joshua, eh. I don’t know any blokes down at the footy club with a name like Joshua!”
Charlie was also a Mason, as many well connected gentlemen were at that time. Occasionally he would attend official events where he was required to wear a tuxedo. Prior to one event Charlie found that he had put on a considerable amount of weight since his last tux episode. Never one to waste a moment, he took a pair of scissors and cut up each side of his dress shirt, while he was still wearing it! Unfortunate it was a hot evening, which left Charlie having to suffer, for taking off his dress coat would have revealed the jagged cuts he had inflicted on his shirt in order to be able to button it over his large belly.
If it isn’t already clear, Charlie was a story-teller as well as a story-maker, a raconteur. And it was from this man that I received one of those life lessons that all young boys remember and carry with them through life. We were at Charlie’s bush block, 40 acres of otherwise useless land where Charlie and his children had constructed mountain cabins; weekenders where the children could run about, cut down trees and cause general havoc without the fuss and bother of cleaning up for the parents. It was here that Charlie taught us how to pan for gold, and convinced us that, with a little determination, we could all be millionaires!
My father and uncle had been working on installing yet another wall in the cabin. They were using a window that my father had found… who knows where… probably on the side of the road. That’s the thing with these cabins, they were built for almost nothing, with evolving plans that were determined by what additional piece of useful material was found or picked up. A favourite saying during construction was, “It ain’t the Taj Mahal mate!” As a confidant young buck I thought I knew a thing or two about constructing a stud wall, I had after all talked to a mate who had seen how to do it on television. Armed with this depth of knowledge I ensured that my father had the benefit of my presence throughout the procedure, offering advice, critiques and corrections whenever necessary. Amidst much grinding of teeth, deep sighs and looks of resignation from my father, Charlie put an arm around my shoulder and steered my away from what might have been a certain case of child murder. Walking me to a small bench he sat down and said, “Listen mate, I want to tell you a story, would you like to hear it?”
“Sure Charlie, I’d love to,” I’d better humour this old bugger!
“ There’s this old bull and a young bull ya see, sitting out there on top of a hill, looking out across a paddock at a herd of beautiful cows. The young bull turns to the old bull and says, ‘Hey old man, how’s about we run down there into that there herd of cows and do a few of them over?’ The old bull looks over at his young mate and says, ‘How’s about we walk down there and do the lot!’”
Thanks Charlie, for all the memories.