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Saturday, March 13, 2010

11. Autobiography (4) Sketch: My Dad, the Sewer Man

My father worked for the Board of Works - in the Sewerage section. It was his job to descend into the area where the jobbies of others were transported to the treatment plant, at Werribee, there to be rendered sanitised and made germless, odourless, colourless, clean. If your ever drove down Geelong Road, past Werribee, back in the sixties or seventies, you will recall having to drive with windows firmly closed - they did poorly on the odourless critireon.

My father's job was to make the journey of the waste matter as easy as possible - to remove any impediments that might otherwise slow or halt the flow. He was a Blockage Removalist. Each day, in preparation for his work, he would dress in long gum boots, thick rubber pants, thick rubber coat, gloves and a rubber sou'wester, clamber through a manhole. Once suitable attired, he would climb down a vertical ladder that took him into the intricate system of concrete drains that formed the veins of the city's sewerage system. There, with a hooked pole, rather like a shepherd's crook, he would break up the blockages and remove any obstructive material.

It was amazing what he found down there: dead animals - cats, dogs, and the like; live rats; articles of clothing; bottles; jewellery; watches; money. And, of course, turds, in various stages of decomposition, slowly dissolving into the mix of urine, storm water, dishwater, and god knows what else that formed the nutrient rich soup that helped turn Werribee into an agricultural paradise.

It was a lowly job, but somebody had to do it. It did mean that dad received a little additional money - a gesture to compensate for the unhygeinic and unpleasant nature of the work.

My father had few pleasures in his life, few indulgences. Unlike virtually all of my uncles, my father was not a drinker, although he smoked like a chimney. He occasionally drank a shandy - a weak mix of beer and lemonade; it was the only alcohol dad drank; he certainly didn't touch wine or whisky - he called them 'plonk'.

In my whole life, my father hit me perhaps four times. Others in my extended family were used to physical punishment, usually at the hands of their fathers, usually when those man had had a bit too much to drink. No - the smacking in our family was my mother's domain.

Dad's virtual tee-totalism cut him off from other men. Though working class through and through, and born and bred and schooled in Coburg, he was not like other blokes. He didn't join the congregation around the bar at the Post Office Hotel at the corner of Reynard Street and Sydney Road each day for the hour of drinking that preceded what was then called the 6 o'clock swill. In those days - the forties, fifties and sixties, hotels were required to cease serving alcohol at 6 o'clock. As a consequence, the seasoned and crafty drinkers would order several drinks at five minutes to six, and line them up on the bar so that they could consume them in the next ten to fifteen minutes. At six or so the barman would call "Time, gentlemen, please." And that call signalled the end of the sale of beer for the day; no more could be sold, but it could still be drunk. The gentlemen around the bar would pour their last pints down their throats in that hectic final ten minutes before they were required to vacate the premises. It was "gentlemen" because women were not allowed in public bars.

The drinkers would then stagger out of the pub. They would be a rowdy lot, and would often slur their words when they spoke. They frightened me when I was a little boy. Sometimes they would stagger into a back lane, or worse - into our sideway - a narrow entrance way into our house - and relieve themselves against a wall. Thankfully, that sort of behaviour was not my father's way.

He was far from perfect, and had a number of habits I found unpleasant. He smoked heavily, and as a result suffered from all kinds of respiratory tract infections: bronchitis, catarhh, and the like. Each morning, I would wake to the sound of his cough and spluttering - my bedroom window was just above the outside gulley trap into which my father would spit brown green phlegm that he had hawked up each morning.

He took me camping, took me rabbiting with him, taught me how to weave rabbit nets, and showed me how to catch fish and how to gut rabbits. When I was about 9 or 10, and started to tell him jokes and riddles, he would listen politely, and then invariably say: "I fell out of the cradle laughing at one."

And every Christmas, as Mum prepared the pudding, and needed coins - thrupences and sixpenses to poke into the pudding - Dad would bring out his jar of coins, the ones he had salvaged from the sewers, and say, "Here you Linda. You can use these."
And Mum would shrink back in a pretence of horror, and say, "Oh Garrie - don't be so disgusting."

And Dad and I would laugh ourselves silly.

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