Friday, December 16, 2005

The paddock bomb

A common fixture on Australian farms is the paddock bomb. In case you don’t know, a paddock bomb is a car, probably twenty years old or more, unlicensed for driving on the road, and most likely completely unroadworthy. Not to mention highly unreliable and unsafe. Its main purpose is to provide an excuse for farmers to spend time out of the house, tinkering around under the hood and generally undertaking a course in Experimental Mechanics, when there is no actual productive work to be done.

There was no particular means by which a paddock bomb might be acquired. In our case, it coincided with the demise of a large black bullock. It was a dark and stormy night (of course). One of our cattle, as a result of a late-night episode of extreme boredom, managed to breach the boundary fence of the property, and found itself in the unfamiliar environment of the main road between Fish Creek and Meeniyan. Notwithstanding the very infrequent appearance of cars on that road in the wee small hours, a poor unfortunate local happened upon the animal. History does not tell us which of the two received the bigger surprise. The cow, a solid, purpose-bred beef-laden beast, made acquaintance with the bonnet of the car, upon which it was then carried for some distance, balanced precariously, as the driver struggled to come to terms with this new reality, applied the brakes, and the cow, by now quite dead, rolled off the bonnet and onto the road.

The driver, who had a fair idea of the animal’s provenance, walked up the hill to the farmhousewhere my uncles lived, and woke them up.

“I’ve run into your cow.”

“Right. Let’s go and have a look, then.”

Arriving at the scene, the uncles did a quick bit of prioritising: first, they checked the cow to see if it was too late to salvage its carcass for meat. (It was.) So, with the help of a tractor, they dragged the corpse off the road, and towed the car up to the house. In the spirit of the pre-litigious 1970s, a deal was reached whereby we paid a sum of money to the other party, and became the proud owners of a seriously dented black EH Holden.

My uncles were of perhaps the last generation of human beings to be capable of doing almost anything they set their hands to, whether it be milking cows, making folk art, baking, converting a refrigerated truck into a fully appointed mobile home, conducting a home slaughterhouse and butchery, darning socks, constructing large-scale irrigation systems, or playing lawn bowls. They set to making the car operable again, most likely with help from my city cousins, who enjoyed nothing more than being surrounded by car parts and grease.

Actually, my cousins did enjoy one thing more than being surrounded by car parts and grease: they also loved to get into the paddock bomb and hoon around the farm, either (in the daytime) for the sheer heck of it or (at night) for the purpose of putting a spotlight on the top of the car, grabbing a couple of guns, and trying to shoot as many rabbits as they could scare out of their burrows. Goodness knows what the cows (not to mention the neighbours) thought about all of this. But one thing I do know is that it appalled my mother. This activity all took place at my uncles’ part of the farm, which was some miles away from our place. So I was for the most part sufficiently removed from it that she didn’t much need to worry on my account. But always when my cousins came to visit, we would go over there for a barbecue. I spent most of these visits wide-eyed with amazement at the kinds of things my cousins would get up to, while at the same time being too scared to actually get involved (and anyway, mum was usually not far away, making sure I didn’t get led astray). But my cousins, and Heather in particular, who was three years older than me and very persuasive in her own way, seemed to have a knack of getting me to do things that I didn’t really want to do (like the time they took me out for a walk in the dark one night, for the sole purpose of getting me to walk into an electric fence, just for a “laugh”), or that would get me in a heap of trouble if my mother ever found out.

Which is how I found myself one afternoon in the back seat of the paddock bomb, laughing uncontrollably, out of fear and exhilaration, as my cousins, screaming and carrying on as only they knew how, spun around and around one of the paddocks just up the hill from my uncles’ house: forwards, backwards, sideways, stopping, starting, skidding the wheels. Of course there were no seatbelts, and the entire back seat of the car was not attached to anything, so we were flying around the inside of the car at about the same rate as the car itself was flying about. I may have been too scared to contemplate going on the legendary Mad Mouse at the Melbourne Show, yet here I was, doing something that was at once more frightening than that, several times more genuinely dangerous, and, because it was actually happening, the most fun I had ever had in my entire sheltered life. I was in paddock-bomb heaven.

What I didn’t know, and only found out because my cousins’ mother, my aunty Betty, told me many years later, was that this was, in fact, happening right under the nose of my mother, who was watching the goings-on from the kitchen window with my aunty (who knew that I was in the car). “Well, would you look at that,” said mum, with all the disdain she could muster. “At least Stan isn’t out there with them.” (I don’t know where she thought I was. Probably my cousins had spun her a yarn about me playing cricket up at the nets behind the old house, or swinging on the makeshift swing under the cypress trees behind the house (actually the hook my uncles hung freshly killed cattle on until they bled dry), or fishing for eels in the creek.) Betty said nothing, but smiled quietly to herself as she went on drying the dishes. And as far as I know, mum never found out.