Thursday, August 18, 2011

Turn 'im Loose


Gunnedah 1949

Once upon a time, a rather confused, fifteen year old boy was cut loose from adult guidance to find his place in the world in a small bush town on the Northwest Slopes of New South Wales.

His only relative, a sister Mary, had left town to secure what she thought was a better future with an itinerant surveyor who promised her a better life than bookkeeping at the Boggabri Farmers’ Co-Operative.

Having failed the Third Year of high school and lost his scholarship at Riverview, Bill was forced to repeat the school year to secure the very basic Intermediate Certificate issued by the New South Wales Department of Education. Two weeks into the year, Bill rode the bus twenty-five miles to Gunnedah Intermediate High School and announced to the Principal, “Ook” Whitbread that he would be his new student. Graciously, Mr. Whitbread admitted him and placed him in 3B sitting in the front row next to the class nerd, whose face covered in teenage pimples.

But Bill was a bright lad despite his recent failure at the prestigious Jesuit college in the Big Smoke and soon was upgraded to the more elite, 3A. And better yet, he was recruited to sit in the back of the class with the ‘in’ crowd of local blokes: John Jones, Rossie Norman and the rest of the footy team. Bill was not a great sportsman, but had a quick wit and as the curriculum was very much below what he had in Sydney, he was able to be a smarty-pants and earn the respect of his peers, if not his teachers.

Luckily, John Jones’ parents took a shine to Bill and allowed him to stay with them. Mary was still sending 10/- a week for his board and this seemed fair to the Jones. He shared a twin bed with his mate John in the sleep-out at the back of their house by the single railroad track leading north to Moree and south to Sydney. Soon however, with John’s help, he got a job selling newspapers at two of the local pubs: The Royal and the Court House Hotels on Conadilly Street. Not a bad lurk! Bill borrowed Mr. Jones’ bike and John and he would rendezvous at the Gunnedah Railway Station at 5 PM, collect their 100 Daily Telegraph and 20 Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, secure them between the upturned handlebars, and head downtown to their pubs.

“Laaaaay-up, laaaaay-up,” he yelled as he entered the six-o’clock swill at the Bar. Quietly he would go from table to table in the Lounge asking, “Paper sir? Madam?” Papers were tuppence, and most of the drinkers who had their schooners lined up on the bar or window-sill, gave him a thrippenny bit and winked at the change. The Lounge offered better tips, but was not shoulder to shoulder like the Public Bar. Not a bad job for the fifteen year old.

Not content with the newspaper job, Bill introduced himself to the local photographer, Keith Riley, a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society who having avoided military service in World War 2, made a pile of money taking pictures of the ‘diggers’ prior to their leaving the nearby military camp enroute to the Middle East to defend the Empire. Keith and his attractive wife, Joyce, a relative of a local squatter family, the Heaths, offered Bill a job taking photographs at local dances – ‘candids’ as they were then called. This was great fun and allowed Bill enough pocket money to relieve his sister’s burden of supporting him. It also allowed him to upgrade his clothes that were now looking a bit worn. These new threads attracted the attention of the local girls who while they did not consider him future husband material, found him a bright spot in this rather quiet country town. And, he was a foreigner! Yes, Bill had never forgotten that his parents had not only left him their kind regards, but a birth certificate which showed he was an American!

Being a good Catholic boy, he did not join the Church of England Youth Fellowship with John Jones, but searched for a Catholic alternative. The local parish priest, Monsignor McDermott, had decided that the Young Christian Workers (YCW) was the choice of youth groups for catholic Gunnedah.

The YCW became a focus in Bill Critch’s life. Guided by his close friendship with its president, Bill Clegg, he could see the advantage of being associated with a fraternal group of young men and women: trips away from Gunnedah to visit other YCWs, dances at the Parish Hall, and an imprimatur from the priests which allowed him to associate socially with ‘cockeys’, business owners and professionals beyond the social contacts of the Jones’ family. And his new job as a photographer gave him entrĂ©e and some small standing in the community.

But the Saturday afternoon in the Jones house showed him another, very traditional side of Australian life.

On a hot, busy Saturday in Jones’ yellow frame house on Wentworth Street next to the railway tracks leading into town, the corrugated iron roof would crack and snap in anger at the Outback summer’s heat. The kitchen was a cream painted room with a black woodstove, a tiny sink with a simple, copper faucet leading out to the metal fresh water tank connected by downspouts from the iron roof. The ‘Fridge’ throbbed in the corner, its compressor competing with the heat from the open window.

Mrs. Violet Jones always cooked on Saturday. But why heat up the kitchen on an Australian summer day?

The woodstove had a dual task. Fired up early Saturday morning it was for cooking and security. Mrs. Jones baked on Saturday, but as she formed her scones and mixed the Sunday sponge cake, she knew that the real purpose of the blazing stove was not only to ensure a fully risen sponge, but to prevent the Sydney Police’s Flying Squad from finding the evidence of her husband, John’s Saturday business.

John Sr. had an illegal, Starting Price, horseracing ‘book’ and the betting slips were carefully stacked in the living room. If front door was opened on the Squad’s command, to “Open up, this is the police!” the slips would be thrown into the stove.

Behind the house where copies of the bets were stashed in a bottle ready for a long throw into the tall grass, John Junior and Bill watched and waited in relaxed anticipation for a ‘bust’ that never happened. Why? The Clerk of Petty Sessions and the local constabulary were all punters who laid their bets with big John. If they knew the Sydney cops were in town, a quick call to Jones would shut down the operation till the threat passed and headed north to Boggabri and Narrabri!

Bill and John were inseparable. Neither excluded the other from his life: Bill helped John with his homework, John ensured his mates were Bill’s mates. They rode their bikes everywhere: to sell their papers, to collect the small bets for Big John’s bookmaking business, out to Cushan’s swimming hole, and up onto the Porcupine, the hill overlooking Gunnedah. They ‘hung out’ down the lane with John’s future wife, Shirley Southorn and her brothers, and played under the street light until bedtime.

On his sixteenth birthday, Bill left high school and went to work full time as a photographer with Riley. He learned most of the tasks required of a small town photo studio: developing and printing, enlarging, lighting and portraiture, weddings, debutante balls, and when the boss was away, cuddling in the darkroom with compliant girlfriends. Even now, Bill’s libido is still stimulated by the smell of Kodak D-76 developer and fond memories of Carmel and Patricia.

The Jones were Bill’s anchor and for six months, his surrogate parents. However, the workload of two teenage boys became too much for Vi, a tiny woman with a huge heart and a true Aussie ‘mum’. She sorrowfully told Big John to ask Bill to look for another home. But the parental feeling remained for many years and John Jr. and Bill remained mates until John’s death.

Ozzie and Eileen Cross lived around the corner. They were younger, liberally minded couple that offered Bill their hospitality and provided room and board to this young, still confused, rudderless boy who had not yet set his sails. He had met their pubescent daughter, Beverly, at school and they were friends – not boyfriend/girlfriend, just friends. Beverly was a good swimmer and as there was no public (nor private) swimming pool, she and Bill enjoyed swimming at Cushan’s, the local swimming hole on the slow moving Namoi River. John and his steady girlfriend, Shirley Southorn, also swam at Cushan’s, but Shirley was never one to allow another girl to catch John’s eye. Shirley kept a tight rein on John and several years later, they married.

Now eighteen, Bill was eager to return to Sydney and enjoy what he envisioned as a more exciting social life. When Keith Riley decided to close the studio and take an extended vacation in Europe, Bill made plans to move to Sydney.

Late one night while visiting a YCW friend on duty at the Post office telephone exchange, he made a free long distance telephone call to an old friend, Bob Bower, who lived in Waverley, a Sydney suburb. Mr. and Mrs. Bower who had known Bill’s mother, agreed that he could live with them an find a job in Sydney.

He put his bicycle in Cross’s back shed, packed his suitcase and got a free lift to Sydney in the back of a friend’s ‘ute’, waved goodbye to Gunny and disappeared into the night.

Eight hours later, he began his Sydney adventure.

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