Voyage not Completed - part 3

Arthur Jenner
2nd February 2009, 04:45
Voyage not Completed - Part 3

Fruit-picking sailors

It was about eight the next morning that Gordon Moss picked us up in his utility outside the general store and drove us out to his farm; number 1142 at Merungle Hill. The farm was owned by him and his brother Neil. Gordon was married but Neil was single. Gordon’s wife was Joan and they had two small daughters June and Ruth.
There was an open sided shed in the yard that housed the tractor, the car and various items of farming equipment. They cleared a space at one end for us to camp in. Opposite our camp a large friendly dog was chained up. I wish I could remember his name.
The main crop on the farm was apricots and we were soon set to work at one pound a day. We mainly worked off ladders and we picked the fruit into kerosene tins that had one side removed. They were suspended from our shoulders by a length of webbing, As we filled our tins we tipped the apricots into boxes that had previously been scattered along the row. The boxes were then collected by one of the brothers loading them onto a flat-top, horse-drawn vehicle, known locally as a lorry. The horse was called Baldy and he managed to consume quite large quantities of fruit that had fallen from the trees with the result that as he trotted back to the sorting area he tended to eject large quantities of gas from his rear – he was almost jet propelled.
The fruit was picked for Leetona; the local cannery. It was sorted by Joan and Gordon back at the shed. The perfect fruit was for canning and slightly specked fruit was for jam. The remainder was discarded.
At morning and afternoon smoko Mrs Moss would come down to the orchard with a big can of tea and some biscuits or cakes.
Sometimes she would give us a dinner in the evenings. I can’t remember whether she did it every evening or whether it was only on Sundays.
After our first week of picking we received our wages; the first money we’d earned since leaving the ship: less tax of course.
We couldn’t wait to get rid of it. We tidied ourselves up a bit and headed for the Yanco Hotel. In those days pubs closed at six but many country pubs locked their doors to stop the customers escaping too soon. We managed to get in before locking up time and proceeded to become somewhat inebriated before being ejected. I can’t remember at what time we returned to the farm but I imagine we may have had some trouble finding our way. My only clear memory was sitting on the ground with my arm around the dog’s neck, singing to Ted’s mandolin.
The picking continued for several weeks. I can’t remember how many days a week we worked; it may have been five or it may have been six or even seven. I do know that we worked all day on Christmas day in order to get all of the crop in. They took us on a picnic to Yanco Weir on New Years Day to make up for it.
Sometimes we went into Leeton for a drink or a meal and sometimes to the pictures. There were two cinemas in Leeton in those days. One was a normal cinema and the other was open air. I think that the normal one was called the Roxy but I’m not sure. The open air one seemed to have only two records that they always played before the performance and during the interval. One was the overture to Die Fledermaus and the other was the Nun’s Chorus from Casanova; both by Johann Strauss.
After the apricots we were given the job of picking prunes. This was a less pleasant task. Yanco was part of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area and all orchards were connected to a water meter on an irrigation channel which was an offshoot of the main irrigation canal. The prune orchard, for some strange reason, was flooded before and during the picking. Picking was not picking off the trees but picking off the ground after the fruit had fallen. This meant we were picking on our hands and knees and often dredging for the fruit with our hands. After picking, the prunes were put into metal baskets and dipped in a boiling mixture of water and caustic soda before being laid out on wooden trays to dry in the sun.
After the prunes, for some strange reason and although we had saved no money, we decided it was time to continue our journey. This was to be the second and final leg of our journey from Port Kembla to Adelaide.
Roy had met a man in one of the Leeton pubs (a driver of a beer truck) who was going empty to Griffith the next day. He would, he said, give us a lift According to our map Griffith was sort of on our route; slightly off the line but a little closer to our destination. We had to meet him at 6 o’clock in the morning. If we were late; too bad.
We were not late. Our gear had been packed the night before and we had marched the five or so miles from Yanco in record time. On our way at last after about three months of picking apricots and prunes.
As usual, we were not well prepared for the journey. We hadn’t much money and I can’t, in hindsight, understand how we could have been so stupid as to imagine that we would manage to survive a six hundred mile hike on so little; especially after the experience of our traumatic three hundred mile journey from Port Kembla some months before.
After Griffith, the next town of consequence on our journey would be Hay. I imagine we thought we would be able to get enough work there to finance us to, at least Mildura.
I can’t remember when we left Griffith but I imagine we would have arrived there fairly early in the day and would have set off straight away. The journey on the beer truck hadn’t been the pleasantest of trips although it was only about thirty five miles. Most of the trailer was taken up with empty beer containers and we were sitting right at the rear end. When you consider that the roads in those days were a bit rough to say the least you can imagine that we were somewhat saddle sore when we arrived.
Our next objective was the Sturt highway about another twenty miles due south and we arrived at Darlington Point about midday. It was mid summer and very hot so were very tempted to call at the pub for a drink but after a lot of discussion we slaked our thirsts from our water bottles and kept going the remaining couple of miles across the Murrumbidgee river to the highway. Once there, we assured ourselves, we have no trouble getting a lift into Hay.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. This stretch of road was the flattest, barest and dustiest that we come across so far. The weather was hottest. The highway followed roughly the route of the river but the two never converged. Occasionally we would see a vehicle in the distance dancing in the heat haze and as it drew nearer we would stick out our thumbs in the time-honoured hitchhiker way but they never stopped and we would be left blinded and gasping in their dust clouds playfully shouting curses at them as they vanished into the distance.
It was on this road we saw, for the first time, a group of large kangaroos sheltering under a tree, quite close to the road. I was surprised at the size of them. They were the biggest I’ve ever seen.
I’m not sure how long it took us to walk from Griffith to Hay. It was a hundred miles and assuming an average rate of fourteen or fifteen miles a day it must have been at least a week.
When we reached Hay we were exhausted, hungry and thirsty. We were just about broke and had completely run out of tobacco. We headed for the river and rested on the bank. We had no food and very little money but our major concern was the lack of a smoke. We did have a few cigarette papers and I can remember carefully sifting through the detritus in my pocket for any strands of tobacco that might have been hiding there. We decided that we would spend our remaining money on food and a packet of tobacco. There was a shortage of tobacco and cigarettes at the time so we congratulated ourselves when we managed a packet of the popular Log Cabin.
Mosquitos were a big problem in those days particularly if you happened to be camped on a river bank.
There was a retired couple permanently camped a bit further up the river and they were very good to us. They gave us some food.
After three days of unsuccessfully searching for a job we were becoming desperate.
Eventually Roy went off into town on his own and when he came back he was waving a handful of pound notes. He had sold his watch in a pub for twelve pounds. It must have been some watch to fetch that sort of money. Twelve pounds was about two and a half weeks wages.
We went off to the pub and he ordered us a feed. We really enjoyed that meal. I can’t remember what it was but it seemed like the best food I’ve ever had.
Then it was off to the railway station and three single tickets back to Yanco.
We arrived in Yanco in the early evening and we settled ourselves on the dirt track leading to the power station. The same spot where had camped three months earlier when we had first arrived.
As soon as we got settled Roy announced that he was going into Leeton on the bus to the pictures. I imagine he got himself a good feed in Leeton as well. He gave us two bob each. We were astonished, but I suppose he thought he had done enough for us having bought us a feed and paid our fares. Luckily Waring’s general store was open and we bought some very basic supplies; enough for a small meal. A few saveloys, a small loaf, a handful of tea, a little sugar and a tin of condensed milk. Because we were both a bit miffed with Roy, we decided to camp further up the track so he wouldn’t find us when he came back. A bit childish I suppose, looking back. I think he found us, but I can’t really remember.
There was a barber shop in Yanco which was also a kind of meeting place and in some ways a kind of labour exchange and it was there that we heard of a farmer looking for pickers for his oranges., I can’t remember his name but we phoned him from a public phone and he picked us and took us to the orange farm. He had a large block of land across the road which seemed to be derelict. There was a house on the front which was rented out and further down the block was a large shed. He said we could live in the shed and he told the man he employed to make us three mattresses from sacks filled with straw. The shed had two halves. One half had a door and we thought we would sleep in it until we smelt it. The other half was open along one side and we set up our camp in that.
We started picking oranges that day. It was quite different to both apricots and prunes. With apricots you could eat the odd one while you were picking without losing any time but with oranges it was necessary to stop picking while you peeled them. We had been picking for about a week when the farmer told us he would have to lay us off because the packers in Adelaide had gone on strike. I suppose it was his way of saying we were picking too slow: he was letting us down lightly. He was a decent bloke and let us stay on in the shed.
Whenever we were between jobs and at week-ends we used to haunt the Leeton swimming pool and it was there, three hundred miles from the ocean, that I learned to swim.
We heard about a Mr. Johnson from a feller in the Yanco pub. Mr. Johnson apparently grew rice as well as running a few sheep. As I suppose you know, rice grows in flooded paddocks with raised up paths around the edges. Burrs are a weed that sheep farmers don’t like because they do something to the wool. I can’t remember what, but it sufficient to know that if burrs are found on a sheep property the farmer could be in trouble. Apparently Mr. Johnson was suffering from burrs around his rice paddocks and he needed someone to do something about them. So the following day we turned up about 8 am and knocked at his door. None of us had any experience of sheep or rice farm. Since we had been working in the area for several months picking apricots, prunes and oranges we had found that all of the farmers we had worked for were decent blokes who worked with the pickers and provided such things as waterbags as well as biscuits and tea at smoko. Mr. Johnson was an unknown quantity but naively we assumed he would be like the others. His was a large farm and the rice paddocks occupied a quarter of it. His house was an old timber building surrounded by a verandah and it is doubtful if it had received a coat of paint since it had been first erected many decades earlier. We knocked at the door and after a few minutes it opened a bit and Mr. Johnson stood before us. He was a fairly old man, I suppose in his sixties. He had sour expression on his weather-beaten face and he glared as he said, “Whadder yer want”.
“Are you Mr. Johnson,” I asked.
“Yes”, he said, “Who are you and whadder yer want”.
“We were told you were looking for someone to cut yer burrs”
“Huh, I’ll give yer a pound a day each and I want a good day’s work fer it. You’ll find shovels and a file to sharpen ‘em with over in that shed”.
He pointed to a building across the yard.
“The burrs I want cut are over there along side the flooded paddocks. Do you know what burrs look like?”
None of us would have known a burr from a buttercup, so we had no option but to admit that we didn’t.
He took us over to the shed and gave us our long handled shovels and a file. After demonstrating the method of sharpening a shovel with a file he led us to the rice paddocks and after pointing out some burrs and watching for a while at Ted hacking them, he turned back to his house and we started to attack the burrs.
It was mid summer. Not a vestige of cloud sullied the pure blue of the sky. Not a hint of breeze disturbed the stillness of the air. Not a shadow, even of a leaf, hindered the sun from its purpose of burning its rays into our lightly clad backs as we chopped and hacked at everything that looked remotely like a burr. As I said earlier it was usual, in all of the fruit farms we had worked on, for the farmer or his wife to come out to the workers with tea and biscuits about ten o’clock. So when our watches showed it was about ten thirty, we started to glance anxiously towards the homestead. No sign of Mr. Johnson. Hard luck boys, keep chopping burrs. Now and again we stopped and applied the file to our shovels. Ted, enthusiastically filing away, pushed his thumb too close to the shovel blade. The blood spurted.
“You’d better take that thumb over to the house and get it bandaged, Ted,” I said. So Ted walked off. When he came back he was trying to bandage the thumb with a bit of old rag that Johnson had given him. The cut really needed a stitch or two but there was no chance of that. I took the rag and bandaged the cut as well as I could. The bleeding stopped, but Ted was now having to chop one-handed.
At twelve o’clock we decided to knock off for lunch. We had brought some sandwiches with us as well as a billy but not the makings of tea, because we had assumed that Johnson would supply some.
“We’d better go and ask for some tea”, said Ted.
“OK, I’ll go,” I said.
I walked over to the house and knocked at the door.
“Is there any chance of a cup of tea Mr Johnson?” I asked when he opened it.
I thought he was going to choke.
“I pay you lazy bludgers a pound a day. Do yer want yer keep as well?” he said.
“Well, what about some water then?”
“There’s a tank alongside the tractor shed. You can take some of that, but not too much.”
“Any chance of a waterbag? It’s bloody hot out in them paddocks,” I said.
“Go ter hell and buy yerselves a waterbag,” he replied. “Any more of this and throw youse off me property. I’ll be out later ter see how much you’ve done an’ it’d better be plenty if youse expect ter get paid.”
I went back to the others and told them what he’d said.
"Miserable ole bastard," said Roy, "I'll go an' get the water".
The afternoon passed in much the same way as the morning. There was no smoko, so at four o'clock we knocked off, walked back to the homestead, put our tools in the tractor shed and went home. Mr. Johnson didn’t come out like he said he would.
When we went to work next day we took some tea, sugar and condensed milk with us so we could have some tea at smoko time. .
At smoko time we made a bit of a fire an` brewed a billy of tea. In the afternoon we did the same and when we went to put our tools away at knock-off time, Johnson came out and said that that was it. He’d had enough of our bloody commo games. He gave us our wages and said he'd stopped the time we spent making tea out of our pay. The cunning old devil must have seen the smoke of our fire and guessed what we were up to. Well that was a bit rough; two days work for a day and a half's pay. He'd taken the tax out of course, but we never thought to ask him for the tax stamps.
It was about this time that Ted and Roy managed to acquire a couple of bikes. They said they were going to cycle down to Adelaide. They didn’t go straightaway; in fact I’m not sure what they did. They might have got themselves some work somewhere but I only saw them when they came back to the shed in the evenings.
I managed to find a job with a peach farmer named Oag. He was growing fruit for the cannery but on a bigger scale than Moss brothers. There was quite a big crew starting work at that time. They were all local lads except me.
On my very first day picking peaches it was noticed that some of the fruit I picked was not quite ripe. The reason, of course, was my colour vision problem. Mr Oag was very understanding and instead of sacking me, I was given the job of driving the lorry. This lorry had been a world war one German gun carriage, or so I was told. It was pulled by an odd pair of horses; a small black one and big greyish one. I was delighted. This was my best job so far.
I used to walk back to our shed in the evening after work and one day when I arrived home I found that my two companions had gone. Now I was really alone; not that I minded because we had drifted apart over the previous few weeks anyway.
On my way home from the peach picking I used to pass an odd sort of a caravan in a field and one day, I can’t recall why, I went over and spoke to the inhabitants. They were very friendly and invited me in. They were a large family; husband, wife and six kids. The caravan had been made by the husband from the remains of an old motor car. It was fitted with bunks for the kids and the parents bed area was partitioned off from the rest. The wife used to cook on some kind of portable stove; inside in winter and outside in the summer. They invited me to dinner and after that we played euchre and drank wine all evening. This started to become routine.
The Moss’s had started to invite me to Sunday lunch and after the peach picking had ended they also gave me some work during the week. One day Mr Waring from the general store appeared at the farm and said that my companions had absconded owing him five pounds and what was I going to do about it. In my innocence I didn’t know what to do so I agreed to pay him and asked the Moss brothers if they'd pay the bill would take a pound a week out of my wages which they did.
When I didn’t arrive for lunch one Sunday the Moss’s came looking for me. They came to the shed and found me lying unconscious. I had apparently contracted pneumonia, They took me back to their house and Joan nursed me back to health.
It was then that I decided that I might try flying down to Adelaide. I discovered that the fare was fourteen pounds. At my request the Moss brothers saved money from my wages each week until I had enough for the fare. The plane flew from Narrandera and so; train to Narrandera; taxi to the airport.
I had only the clothes that I stood up in. The heel was missing from one of my shoes and I had a schoolchild’s tiny case filled with my meagre possessions..
When the DC3 arrived I felt somewhat nervous but I had to go. So goodbye Yanco; Adelaide here I come..

2nd February 2009, 08:09
Arthur, I have just read parts 2 and 3 and sitting in Brisbane on a hot February evening I can feel the heat, taste the dust and smell those hides as though I was there with you.
It reads like a good Aussie country yarn, the flies, the mossies, the billy tea all become very real as you tell it as it is.
I drive around those sort of parts today in an air conditioned car but just stop, get out and breathe the air it is still the same. Those fruit and rice farmers are having the toughest of times now with the Murray river system all but dried up but I bet that they are still the same type of good country folk that you describe.

No time for rest, have a cup of tea then get on with the next episode. We wait with bated breath.


John Briggs
2nd February 2009, 09:54
Just shows that seamen can turn their hands to anything and make a success of it. All interesting stuff Arthur, keep it coming.

2nd February 2009, 11:46
Arthur a superb narative, kept me enthralled to the end. We are now looking forward to the Adelaide episode.

Peter Jenner
2nd February 2009, 16:18
Gee Dad, you wrote that one quickly! You were only talking about it on Saturday. You should work for a newspaper. :-)

2nd February 2009, 20:18
Please trim it down just a little bit.
Yours aye,

3rd February 2009, 10:59
Arthur No need to trim it down, it is your story and you do it your way.

3rd February 2009, 11:48
Well done Arthur, no need for trimming. I'm off to Adelaide so see you there !(Jester)

4th February 2009, 20:39
I wish I was a publisher or somesuch. You have a gift with words and your experiences would make a wonderful book. Keep it coming !