The Bridge: A Boyhood History (1954-66)

I lived in Murray Bridge from 1954 to 1966 but was not of Murray Bridge. I was not exactly a blow-through but I was not a Bridge person. My mother was a city slicker and my father (who grew up in Wasleys) mainly city by adoption. I have no roots in the town although my father died and is buried here. At best I have a loose connection which I only occasionally renew. In 1998 I walked down the main street (Bridge Street) and around some of my old haunts and reflected on what had been there when I had left over thirty years before. This is the landscape of history and it is a starting point which acknowledges elements of growing up in the Fifties and Sixties – education, religion, politics, amusements, sport – as I remember them.

Walkabout

The Town Hall clock gives the same musical chime. In Bridge Street Ruge’s Beehive Corner is still Ruge’s Beehive Corner. Bell’s department store is still established in 1906 and Grandison’s Men’s Wear is still two doors west of Bell’s.

Pasted on a side wall of the supermarket is a poster advertising Tommy Hanlon Jnr presenting the Grand Magic of SILVER’S CIRCUS at Sturt Reserve from 25-29 March. Families of two adults and two kids gain admittance for $35. Tommy’s been in the circus game for a long time now yet his photograph reveals the same brylcreemed-looking gent who used to host the 1960s television program, It Could Be You.

Moving along, the fish n’ chip shop where I used to get sixpence worth of chips and a threepeny glass of lemonade during the interval of the Saturday matinee is not there. The pictures cost one and six out of my weekend pocket money of two and six. I saved threepence a week.

In place of the fish n’ chip shop is ‘Steamer’s Cafe’ which offers alfresco dining and the special of the day is mild creamy chicken curry on a bed of jasmine, rice and green leaf salad for only $6.90. One should be grateful there are no spelling mistakes.

Offe’s Arcade has lost some leadlight from the arch on the top of the second floor. Offe’s Jeweller and Watchmaker retains its position except all the grandfather clocks have disappeared. Sold, I suppose.  I don’t see Mr Offe but always remember him at the golf club on Saturday afternoon, opening his bag straight after the first tee to consume an apple, a banana, a peach, a pear or whatever half dozen combinations of fruit were going at that time of year. He must have gone directly from business to course and skipped lunch. He was only a modest golfer.

Offe’s, the Commonwealth Bank, Bank SA and a chemist shop occupy the same four corners of Bridge and Seventh Streets. Bank SA is a brutal modern structure unlike the elegant old double storied stone building which the Savings Bank of South Australia previously occupied and where the manager, no doubt, lived with his wife upstairs.

 

The Bridge Street Meat Store remains a butcher shop next to the Commonwealth Bank but the greengrocer alongside is long gone. Beauchamp’s deli and shoe shop is still where it was, next door to the Ozone picture theatre and it was where I first had a coke spider out of a stemmed glass. The shoe shop was also where my father, showing an ex-military officer’s insensitivity to fashion, bought me a pair of square toed shoes when pointy toes were all the rage in 1964 or 1965. One of the kids at high school said ‘Hey, look! Whimpress has had his toes run over by a train.’

The Ozone is now a shopping mall. Gone are those magic afternoons that began with a serial of The Shadow and ended with a Tom and Jerry cartoon; of Jeff Chandler and Susan Hayward, of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and the hissing when the stars had the temerity to kiss. At eight I took my first girlfriend, Shirley, to the pictures on a date. We never got close to kissing. For several of my schoolmates came behind and niggled us. What I was doing there with a dame? I never went out with a dame again for twelve years by which time they’d become birds or chicks.

Across the road Brook’s Cycle Depot (established 1925) is still in business although it no longer opens onto the street from a garage. Here was where the bodgies and widgies hung out, the males like so many James Deans, a couple more threateningly astride their motor-bikes Marlon Brando-style, and the females would snuggle up behind them and hold on tight to their men in leathers. Often the group would skip into the pictures late, half-way through the first feature, stomp in formation to the front row of stalls seats, and flip them back in unison. How we little kids used to shudder. I never remember rolling jaffas at all. Barry Humphries invented that stuff.

A neighbour of mine’s first cousin was second-in-charge of the bodgies. I don’t know whether this helped us ingratiate ourselves to the periphery of the gang but I do know that one summer, aged nine, I took to wearing no singlet and opening my shirt all the way down the front, at least when I got out of sight of home. I’m not sure how I acquired a pair of black jeans with heaps of zips, irridescent green socks and a bright pink bob-cut tie because these fashion items were the makings of a delinquent. Pink and black were Elvis’s favourite colours.  I know, because it said so in my film annual. I never did get that pair of suede ripple-soled boots.

At the corner of Diamond Park the Wishing Well was donated by sober Rotarians. I dropped a few pennies long ago without remembering the wishes. The pretty little rotunda with the band instruments underneath has been removed and the bowling and croquet clubs from across the road have gone. The cannon points at nothing. It’s a relic of the war – The Great War.

My mother was croquet club president and the greens were diagonally opposite Dutton Motors, where my father was sales manager. Dutton’s, remain. They just don’t sell F.J. Holden’s anymore. Holdin’ you in my Holden was the jingle that accompanied the release of that popular model.

I trace my steps down Seventh Street to where I used to live. Another greengrocer has disappeared. Come to think of it maybe the business didn’t survive long the male employee who committed a gross indecency behind the counter only in full view of a shopper peering through the window. Don’t ask me to go into details. It was something akin to peeling a banana.

 I look left at the next corner. The Methodist church, church hall and Freemason’s Lodge, those symbols of piety and rectitude are all gone. Now, a car park.

 At the corner of Seventh and Second streets there used to be a bakery which sold the most scrumptious oval shaped meat pies for eight pence and three-corner raspberry jam tarts for threepence. No longer is the stable next door, nor the Druid’s Hall opposite my old home. The lodges have taken a hammering.

Replacing the bakery and stable is a not-too-bad-looking brick building known as the Paddle Wheel Piano Bar Restaurant and where the Druid’s Hall was. What else? Another car park!

I sit down among the stinging nettles in the car park at the corner of Seventh and First. The radio station 5MU is at one corner and a chiropractor where there used to be a piano teacher on the other. The piano teacher turned religious, finding the Seventh Day Adventists a great comfort after the great earth tremor of 1954. Anyone got the Richter Scale measurements? I never took those piano lessons.

The old house I grew up in was a rambling fearful place. It looks more peaceful now as offices of the Department of Correctional Services. The wrought iron fence is missing and worth a packet no doubt . Many of the plants my father put in forty-five years ago are still thriving. I’d tell you their names only I’m bad with plants except for the diosma and the oleander. The scraggy almond tree remains out the back however the lemon and four orange trees have been replaced by garages. The back lawn where I used to practice my golf pitch shots to the rotary clothes line is dead and there’s no need for hanging out clothes.

I turn east down First Street. Matey was the first name of the lady who lived next door. Funny name for a sixty-something German woman with hard-dyed jet-black hair pulled black severely in a bun. She created weird drinks from the juices of weeds. New Australians had some strange habits though what seemed more shocking was that she said she’d eaten tomato sandwiches for lunch one Christmas Day. Everyone had chicken at least once a year. This was after her husband died and she had no kith or kin.

Mr Harper lived on the corner. A bent asthmatic man who wore a cloth cap and walked with a stick he wheezed around the block each day with his asthmatic golden cocker spaniel. The dog died before I knew its name.

Across the road the rail line to Adelaide is still there. As a boy it was at the fag-end of the romance of steam, the engines taking their names from venerable persons such as Sir Willoughby Norrie and Sir Malcolm McIntosh. Alas!

The puffs of steam float away. The bend of the river is in view. Thank God for the river! The Town Hall clock is chiming again as I make my way back to my car. Where? In a car park, of course. 

Education

I was five when I arrived in town and started my education at St Joseph’s Convent School. I began there because I was the product of a mixed marriage and products of mixed marriages were generally brought up Catholics.

The state (public) primary school was at the end of my street and the convent was on the other side, about a quarter of a mile away as the crow flies. If I rode my Super Elliott up First Street, turned right at Mannum Road, the distance I travelled was something around 600 yards.

When entering my school in Florence Street a few public school kids occasionally abused us with slogans like, ‘Catholic dogs stink like frogs under logs.’ They were pretty dumb and we had equally dumb rejoinders. One girl who used to call these out was in my Matric class in high school ten years later. I then thought she was rather sweet. She asked me to join her Methodist youth group. I should have.

Three nuns taught us. Old Sister Benedictus was in charge of the infant school (grades one and two) as well as taking music lessons. Sister Moira, who was young and plain had grades three, four, five and six. Sister Romanus, the head teacher, was probably middle-aged. She taught grades seven and then first, second and third year of the secondary school.

I was reputed to be a sook in kindergarten until I could mount the rocking horse. I was a rocking horse winner long before I read the D.H. Lawrence story of that title. Fortunately I didn’t quite rock myself into the frenzy that killed the rider.

The most memorable thing about Sister Moira’s classes was the general knowledge quizzes in which the threes, fours, fives and sixes were pitted against one another. When I was in the threes we had three bright kids – I reckoned I was one, the fours had two, the fives and sixes none. They were dumbclucks. It was always a contest between us and the fours.

When I entered Sister Romanus’s class I marvelled at her ability to teach not only four grades simultaneously but so many subjects. She taught both general and commercial courses: English, History, Geography, Maths, General Science (which was a mixture of Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Botany) in addition to Shorthand, Typing and Book-keeping. In her spare time – what spare time? – she had a couple of private students doing Physics and Latin. She asked me whether I wanted to do Latin. I should have.

Of necessity Sister Romanus would often start one class, say Science, then run to another. The scientific experiment – heating some sort of liquid in a test tube over a Bunsen burner – would be carried on by the senior students with the younger ones looking on.

Some of us fell behind in some things and bounded ahead in others. I was behind in Maths and Science, ahead in English. The classes I remember best  were when Sister Romanus used to group the sevens, first, second and third years together to teach Shakespeare’s plays and poetry studied by the third years. When I got to high school in the Intermediate year I already knew the Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Twelfth Night. I’d even played the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Badly!

High school was quite a change. Now instead of four grades in one class, instead of one teacher for all subjects, I had different teachers for each subject. Whereas in my previous grades there had been around 15 kids in each and 60 in a room, now there were 44 in one class. I remember the number. Whereas I’d been used to coming first or second in my grade, now I came 44th out of 44. I cried. 

The class I was allocated to was 3GF. It was actually the A class and the GF stood for General and French. Some teachers were good, some not-so-good, but the worst was my first History teacher who admittedly was in his first year out of training college.

Thirty-seven students took this subject which covered England under the Tudors and Stuarts while seven took French as an alternative. The teacher used to hand out roneoed notes at the start of every lesson and then proceed to read through them without pause. If ever there was a way to kill interest in a subject this was it. He was a funny looking bloke with a long face and big teeth whom we nick-named ‘Horse’. Oddly, one girl had a crush on him. There’s never any accounting for taste. ‘Horse’ got the grand results at the end of the year Intermediate Public Examinations Board exam of one C, six Ds and 30 fails. This was the top class remember! A grading of C was reckoned to be worth between 56 and 65 per cent (a reasonable pass), a D was a bare pass reckoned between 50 and 55 per cent. I got one of the Ds. Two of the kids who failed later majored in History at University.

I did have some good teachers and I will mention two. Stewart Tebble was an Englishman in his late-thirties who took us for Modern History (in fact, British Empire History) in Leaving. Tebble impressed me early on by stating that he had graduated from England’s third oldest university – Durham. He then pointed out that it had been established around 1825, more than 600 years after Oxford and Cambridge!

Tebble had served in the British Army in various parts of the Empire – South Africa, India, Hong Kong – and this enriched our understanding of the places where our history course was set. ‘Tell us another story about the Army, sir’ and off he would go. We loved those digressions.

Strangely, some of the same students didn’t appreciate the digressions of English teacher Mike Dilena. ‘He should stick to the texts’, they complained. I disagreed. We were discussing T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ when Dilena explained that Eliot’s experiments with the poetic form was part of a Modernist movement which was going on throughout the artistic world: James Joyce’s Ulysses in the novel, the Bauhaus movement (Architecture), the Cubists/Futurists/Dadaists (Art), Stravinsky (Music) and Isadora Duncan (Dance). There was a relationship between things. It was a Lesson for Life.

Dilena also corrected my excesses. I once laboured for an hour over the first sentence of an essay in which I employed four jaw-breaking words. ‘What’s this bullshit?’, he wrote in the margin in red ink. I was cured.  I wrote, clear, clean prose thereafter. It hasn’t done me any harm.

Religion

The Holy Redeemer Catholic church was (and remains) over the road from the St Joseph’s Convent. I attended Mass there each Sunday to ward off the possibility of mortal sin and confessed my venial sins most weeks to ensure that my soul was in a state of grace.

For four years, from the ages of ten to fourteen, I attended Mass twice a week as an altar boy and took particular delight in parroting responses to the priest in Latin. The Mass became rather ‘common’ when it went vernacular.

There was never any ‘trouble’ between priests and altar boys because as far as I could tell our two priests were holy men. They were also social men.

The first, an elderly Irishman, was popular with the Italian market-gardeners with whom he would converse outside the church long after Mass was due to start. Then he would fly through the service, abbreviate the sermon and finish well within the appointed hour. Time for more talk outside.

The second priest had a reputation for enjoying a beer and a game of bowls at the RSL club. He was an Army padre during the War. He was undoubtedly more popular with his RSL mates than his congregation because his sermons went on and on and on and on – sometimes for 45 minutes – and Mass could take and hour and half. This was more time than most parishioners bargained for in their weekly worship of the Lord.

Religion was thrust upon us at St Joseph’s through lessons, prayers and learning the Catechism although it all seems to blur together now. Only one thing stands out and I suppose it is a moral story.

A young man of a good (Catholic) family who had left school not many years before, took an apprenticeship and seemed to have a solid future ahead of him. Then he got a girl into trouble – a Protestant girl – and worse was to follow. He married her outside the church which actually meant inside a Protestant church.

One of the nuns asked us to ‘imagine the heartbreak to his poor little mother at seeing her son lose his immortal soul’. We were asked to pray for that immortal soul. The moral is that the young man had two younger brothers and a sister still at the school. For them it must have been a public humiliation. I wondered how they felt. I know that whenever I walked the past the workshop where the young man was employed as a mechanic I did not think about how good might have been at repairing differential joints or a cracked head. I felt concern only for the sake of his soul.

The town had a lot of churches – Catholic, Anglican, two Lutheran, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Church of Christ, Salvation Army – that I can remember plus a new fundamentalist faith that was started by one of our high school teachers. My feet only passed over the threshold of one of them.

Politics

Politics doesn’t appear to have been discussed much.

I do have a funny recollection of a walk to the fish n’ chip shop mentioned earlier, during the interval of the matinee at the pictures, and discussing with a friend the Big Four summit meeting to be held involving Macmillan, Eisenhower, De Gaulle and Kruschev. I must have been ten at the time. Perhaps I knew more about international politics then than I do now.

At the national and state levels Bob Menzies and Tom Playford kept being returned. I knew nothing about Menzies’ one-seat margin in the 1961 federal election or Playford’s gerrymander. The one immediate threat to the status quo was that in 1956 Gabe Bywaters won the state seat of Murray for Labor and continued to hold it. Although my parents voted Liberal I came to understand that men regarded Bywaters as ‘a good bloke’ and women said he was ‘a good man’.

The only direct political discussion in my early years at school must have been around 1958 when one of the nuns said that our parents shouldn’t vote for Dr Evatt because he was in league with the Communists. I must have taken this information home because my father went to the school and stated that he didn’t want to hear of political indoctrination taking place in the classroom. It didn’t happen again.

At high school there was some spirited discussion when Menzies announced that we were entering the Vietnam War and that National Service was being reintroduced. However, most of our worries remained in the future.

In 1965 Labor won the state election and I met my first Marxist. A fellow student, he was English, seemed to know a lot about class struggles, and was intending to study law at university. A conservative friend and I used to chide him that his government couldn’t really do anything because we held the Legislative Council 16-4 due to a restricted franchise. I don’t know where these childish supremacist fancies came from. I’m glad I soon laid them aside.

Amusements

When I began I briefly mentioned amusements at the pictures. One place that was certainly out of bounds for my amusement or recreation was the river. The river drowned people. The river was where bad things happened. A widgie was once reported swimming out mid-stream, removing her bathing costume, holding it aloft and waving to the boys on the bank. The 1956 flood broke that bank and my father helped the volunteers with sandbagging. I was safe. We lived on high ground.

Saturday, 19 December 1959 was a big date in the town’s history  because it was the day when the Olympic-sized swimming pool opened. Swimming was safe. I did my beginner’s, junior, senior and bronze medal/life-saving classes there. I dived off the high board. It cost sixpence to get in, twopence for a bush biscuit and maybe another bob for drinks. You spent all day there and got change out of two bob.

One day the pool was cleared. Someone famous dived in, swam a couple of laps and got out. I said something like, ‘She’s a good looking sort.’ She looked eighteen but must have been about thirty. There was a public announcement. It was Dawn Fraser.

In between and alongside the pictures and the pool were the action games and fort-building. The games are easier to explain.

Usually we (boys) were American western heroes who in some cases still existed in real life on the screen. I was Hopalong Cassidy and my friend over the road was Roy Rogers. Hoppy and Roy were quick on the draw. They shot each other and shot a lot of baddies who wore handkerchiefs tied across their noses. They also shot Indians because there was no such thing as a good Indian.

My fort-building phase grew out of the movies of the US Cavalry defending themselves against Injuns, of the Knights of the Round Table, of the Crusaders, the Romans, the Greeks: Rod Cameron, Rory Calhoun, Forrest Tucker, Charlton Heston, Victor Mature; The Black Shield of Falworth, Ben Hur, El Cid, Alexander the Great. Someone was always storming forts and defending them.

With a couple of friends I would ride to a scrub at Rocky Gully  five miles out of town on a Sunday afternoon, dismember a few trees, create some sort of elevated platform on which to sit and consume a bottle of coke or lemonade and eat a bag of crisps, and then ride home again. Since I cannot remember any single fort I think a new one might have been started each time. Since I cannot remember a single discussion I must have given up on international politics.

It was a constructivist (or destructivist) period but no future skills were acquired building forts. It led nowhere. No ability with tools, no hobby, no inclination to attend to even essential house maintenance ever grew out of it as an adult.

Six months later I put aside boyish pleasures for the grown-up pursuit of golf.

 Sport

Sport has often been said to be integral to country communities. However, in 1960 when I attended my first football finals in the city I could name virtually the entire Norwood side but only two or three players who represented local teams, Imperials and Ramblers. I was in but not of the town.

My first game of golf was in May, 1961. My partners were Brian Martin, Gary Thompson and Des O’Sullivan, Catholics all!

I don’t know whether Des ever took up the game later but Brian, already on a four handicap after just six months play, became South Australian country champion several times. Brian (Grange), Gary (Glenelg) and me (North Adelaide) all played A pennant golf in the city.

 Brian’s younger brother, Terry, later captained a state junior side and played A pennant for Grange, and Mick Scannell had a handicap of five. There were a few good senior golfers who were Protestants but we Catholics absolutely dominated the younger brigade.

 If my academic work was below par when I first went to high school I assimilated easily because of my cricket. Not that I was a dominator: rather a stern resister. The school cricket captain shared the bat with me so that when he went home to lunch I had to retain possession by not being dismissed. The result was that I once batted through one whole week (five hours) for 22 runs.

High School fielded cricket teams in the local association against Imps, Ramblers, Tailem, Monarto and Mypo. I enjoyed these games against the other sides – railwaymen, farmers, fruit-blockers in the last three instances. My most dismal effort was when I opened the batting in A grade on a treacherous home turf wicket and was told to ‘merely occupy the crease’. Occupy it I did for 85 minutes in the two innings. Without scoring!

A year later I became a little more spritely, making 65 in four hours, and 59 in three hours, in the Bs. The second of those innings earned for me (at the time) the ultimate reward, a mention on the local Saturday night sports wind-up broadcast on 5MU by Roy Liebelt. Roy said something like: ‘Bernie Whimpress made a fine score of 59 today. He’s also an excellent golfer this lad …’

That’s where dreams begin.

However, dreams are modified by experience. I was a reasonable cricketer, a better golfer, and a career in teaching seemed to lie ahead. I was leaving the Bridge. It had formed me for a new life.

Bernard Whimpress

©2010

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