Sunday, August 13, 2006

The story of underpants

[Have been neglecting you guys lately. Apologies. Here's one I have been putting together over a long period.]

Whoever invented y-fronts must have had a cast-iron bladder. White undies, bog catchers, boston stranglers – call them what you will, they certainly don’t allow for any activity that is not tightly choreographed and premeditated.

(I would also like to have explained to me the distinction between “boxer” and “jockey” shorts. The two professions, as far as I am aware, make up a fairly small proportion of the overall male population – wouldn’t it make more sense to label them, say, “builders” and “accountants” shorts (although which would be which I could not say)? And what of that curious anomaly, the Jockette - a word that, or maybe this is just me, has certain feminine connotations, even though the Jockette is unequivocally a male undergarment.)

I managed to survive most of my primary school years wearing plain and structurally sound white underpants, the new coloured and skimpy variety - “jocks” by name - not arriving at Fish Creek until somewhere around the time that I was in grade five, by which point the Whitlam revolution was in full swing at our school (but that’s another story).

In the pre-jocks era, we boys were entirely comfortable and relaxed exposing our white undies on social occasions such as the changing rooms at the Foster Swimming Pool, or visits by the travelling school doctor. The principal source of underwear-derived embarrassment in those days was the existence and magnitude of brown skidmarks.

The obvious advantage of these newfangled coloured underpants was that they successfully camouflaged all but the nastiest cases of skidmarks – especially with brown being such a popular 1970s colour. However, the sudden appearance of choice in the underwear racks allowed, inevitably, for entirely new opportunities for social stratification, and ostracism, in the playground. The ongoing battle between the haves and the have-nots moved from footy cards and yo-yos to underwear.

This was particularly difficult for me. I grew up in relative isolation as an only child on a farm. My parents remained deeply scarred by the Great Depression and held firm in their resistance to my increasingly desperate pleas to be allowed to have a couple of pairs of coloured undies. My aversion to water can probably be traced back to traumatic experiences in the boys’ changing rooms during this difficult period (although it could also have something to do with the fact that I never quite got the hang of swimming, and, because I have been seriously short-sighted since I was five years old, never quite knew, in that pre-goggles era, where anything else was when I was in the water).

My crazy cousins who lived in Melbourne, and were therefore a few steps closer to what was fashionable than I would ever be, eventually came to the rescue, giving me a pair of black-and-white paisley jocks for Christmas. (I suppose mum could have had a bit of involvement in that, come to think of it.) My general demeanour must have instantly lifted, because the floodgates opened up and, before too long, I was also the proud owner of matching brown and green pairs, designed in a kind of late abstract-expressionist style.

And so it came to pass that I was able to go on the Fish Creek Primary School grade six camp, the undoubted highlight of the primary school years but which I had previously been facing with underpants-related trepidation, with some confidence. This camp, a five-day affair, took us to Phillip Island (about an hour’s drive away), where we stayed at the exotically named Island Bay Ranch. This turned out to be a kind of Wild West theme park, where we slept in covered wagons arranged in a circle, ate at long tables in a log cabin, and engaged in activities such as archery (heavily supervised, for obvious reasons), a flying fox (not for me, thanks), mucking about on inflated inner tubes in a dam, and hay-rides (the latter being particularly underwhelming for our group, given that most of us lived on farms, where “hay-rides” meant work). We even took a boat trip out to something called Churchill Island, where absolutely nothing awaited us, although I guess it filled up another half a day of “activities”.

Even though I was by now a fully fledged member of the coloured-underpants set, and therefore “okay”, the absence of older brothers in my life meant that I was deemed not quite “in” enough to be allowed into the tight circle around Tim Farrell, who had brought along his older brother Jonathan’s cassette tape of the first Skyhooks album, “Living In The 70s”. I was, however, accepted as a proud member of the massed air-guitar ensemble that, at the traditional “student entertainment” on our last night, performed a highly animated mime (Countdown-style) to The Sweet’s “Fox On The Run”.

Towards the end of the week, just when the teachers had begun to relax a little on the basis that we had all been reasonably well behaved, and therefore would all go home unscathed (physically, at least), Peter Napier poured himself a glass of what looked like green cordial but which soon revealed itself, as he began frothing at the mouth, to be dishwashing liquid. Several rounds of induced vomiting later, he seemed to be okay, but a number of us followed him around for a while, in the hope that other unusual symptoms might start to reveal themselves. We were, sadly, disappointed (which, in hindsight, was probably for the best).

Anyway – underpants. Having secured himself a fairly discreet spot on a top bunk in the back corner of one of the covered wagons, Justin Heyne (who was the son of the best teacher I ever had, someone who seemed to see behind my insecurity and weird behaviour, and who encouraged me to write stories and to read anything I could get my hands on; thank you, Mr Heyne, wherever you are) had managed to get through the first couple of days unobserved. Inevitably, though, he was “outed” wearing a pair of pale blue boston stranglers. He swore that they were bought like that, as if this would lend them an air of credibility, but a conclusion was instantly drawn that they were nothing more than white undies that had been dyed by his mother, and that this was, according to the Unwritten Law, not acceptable. A period of degradation and ritual abuse, like an unpublished chapter of “Lord of the Flies”, ensued until, eventually, the perpetrators ran off, pack-like, in search of the next victim, each one trying as hard as possible to make sure it wasn’t him.

Eventually, my original stockpile of coloured undies went to that big top drawer in the sky, to be replaced by others covered in road signs or farm animals (although I was destined never to own a pair like the much-coveted ones worn by Mark “Chook” McLeod, South Gippsland’s number one Ted Nugent fan, and about whom much more can be written, which featured prominently on the front a picture of a rooster and the words “Cock of the Walk”) and on to more subdued, single-colour models.

And now, thanks to the good works of Calvin Klein and the supreme power of advertising, it is, once again, safe to wear large white underpants. I guess this means that the schoolyard pecking order will have moved on to other things – mobile phones, perhaps, or hoodies. Or, this being the Information Age, the ultimate taunt: “My hard drive is bigger than yours.”