Too young for 1, too broken for 2

Too Young     2069 Words

I was too young for WW1, just after it finished I turned 10; being the ‘after-thought baby’ all my brothers went with the Light Horse but I was just a kid.

By the time ’39 came around and it was time to fight the Hun and the Jap, I’d been breaking horses for years and been chucked off so many times things were a bit busted up. On top of that I’d messed my knee up playing footy; my right knee had been a bit buggered since I was 19; I can still wobble it a couple of inches from side to side, it doesn’t give me any trouble though.

I’ve spent my whole life working in the bush, walking for miles every day, but the Army doctor reckoned I’d never be able to march with a full pack so he classified me 4F. That meant that I could never go overseas; the only chance I’d get for a crack at the Hun was if they made it into Australia. We didn’t realize then that the Nips would join in and make a beeline for our shores; little bastards nearly made it too; by crikey I would have loved to have a crack at those little buggers. If it hadn’t been for the blokes up on the Kokoda the Nip probably would have landed here too; then it would have really been on for young and old.

Before the Nip joined in by attacking the Yanks, military intelligence told us that they couldn’t fly planes because their funny shaped eyes meant they couldn’t keep the plane level; so much for military bloody intelligence.

Anyway I was one of the first to enlist, a bushman and a crack shot; and they stuck me up on the Brisbane Line driving a truck in a salvage unit. Like all my brothers, I’d always been a good shot; I was runner-up in the Queens Shoot in ’35. There was one bloke in the Regiment who could outshoot me in the field; Bill Thompson, his name was and he’d been a roo shooter out West before he joined up. On the range I could outshoot him easily, but in the field, with moving targets he was deadly; I told the Sergeant he was better than me, but the Sarge said the scores proved me wrong. They made me the Sniper and the Bren gunner; not that it made much difference because there was nothing to shoot at.

Every time I could, I asked for a transfer to the fighting; my mates were dying over there and I wasn’t allowed to go and help them. I’d volunteered right at the start of it all and I was as fit as a Mallee bull; I’d been working as a sleeper cutter before the war, getting 6d a sleeper so I had to work hard to make a living. Every morning, except Sunday, I was up before dawn; I’d make myself some breakfast before I dragged my old wheelbarrow full of tools to the tree I’d earmarked for the day’s work. A single person crosscut saw, an axe, an adze and a broad axe along with a crowbar, a variety of wedges and a maul wasn’t a small load, even in a wheelbarrow.

Cutting railway sleepers you don’t get paid for how long you work; you get paid for the sleepers you deliver; on a good day I could cut fifteen to twenty, on a bad day none. Even after you stack them down by the road for pickup, the inspector can come along and reject any he doesn’t like the look of; the slightest bit of sapwood and he’d get out his big red crayon and put a red X on the end of the sleeper. Sometimes, if he was in a bad mood, he’d just reject some because he felt like it. If you argued with him, next pickup half your sleepers would be left behind with a big red X on them. Inspectors were gods; they had the power of life or death over a man who actually worked for a living.

Every day, except Sunday, was the same; select a tree that looked like it would yield a good pile of sleepers and go to work.  Thin axe cuts into the trunk about four or five feet from the ground allow you to wedge in 3 feet long planks to stand on while cutting the tree down; you don’t want that bottom section of the tree because it will never split straight. Felling a tree in the bush is a dangerous business and a lot of blokes died when they got it wrong. First, you have to figure out which way the tree wants to fall; no tree grows straight up and down, so you have to find out which way it leans. Then you look at which way most of the branches go; often, the weight of the branches will counter balance the lean of the trunk, so once you’ve figured out which way the tree wants to fall, you have to look at where you want it to fall. If it falls in the wrong direction it can get hung up in another tree, or fall where there’s not a good, clear work area. One of the main killers in the bush is when a tree twists as it falls and comes sliding back along its own stump, crushing the poor bloody faller as it goes.

Actually, when I think about it, it’s a pretty complex business getting a tree to fall where you want it to; funny it was always just second nature, you looked at a tree and you just knew where it would go. Anyway, once you’ve decided which way you want the tree to fall, that tells you where you want to make your cuts; it’s time to go to work. Now’s when you start to seriously swing your axe to cut the scarf; the scarf is a V shaped cut across the trunk of the tree that weakens it on one side and determines which general direction it will fall in. the scarf cuts in about 1/3 to ½ of the way through the trunk and you can angle it up or down the tree a bit to help direct the fall. Now remember that you’re doing all this balancing on 4 inch wide planks hanging out the side of the tree.

When you’ve finished your scarf, it’s time to move around to the other side of the tree and cut the bark away from where your next cut will go. Now comes the final cut; this one’s done with the crosscut saw, a bit above the line of the scarf; its position and angle in relation to the scarf will fine tune where that tree will fall. Now Redbox is as hard as the Hobs of Hell so none of this cutting’s easy and dropping the tree usually takes most of the morning and your tools are all blunt by the time you finish. You give your axe a quick sharpen while you have lunch but the saw will have to wait.

Straight after lunch it’s time to trim the base of the log with your saw where it came away from the stump; once the end is square you have to saw the log into sleeper lengths with the crosscut before you get rid of the bark. Now getting rid of the bark depends a lot on the time of year; in Summer the trees are dry and the bark holds on for grim death, Autumn and Winter there’s plenty of moisture in them so it’s not too bad, Spring is the best though; the sap’s rising and sometimes the logs’ll just slide straight out of their bark.

To start barking a log you do a zigzag line of axe cuts down its length that go right through the bark and into the sapwood. When that’s done, you use the back of your axe and bruise the bark on either side of the axe cut so that it comes away from the wood. When the edge will lift enough, it’s just a matter of sliding your axe blade and crowbar in to pry the bark away from the wood; if you’re lucky the whole thing will come away from the log in one piece and you’ll be left with a cylinder of bark. You can use this to make flat sheets for you hut if you need to; it’s like corrugated iron. You just stand the cylinder up on its end and fill it with dead bracken and leaves then set fire to the bottom; the bracken and leaves will burn inside it and boil the sap in the bark. While it is still hot it becomes soft and pliable, so you can lay it out flat and put some logs on it so that it stays there; when it cools, it stays that shape. Stringybark works best, but I have seen it done with Redbox.

When you’re cutting sleepers though, all the bark, and even the sapwood is just waste; what you want for sleepers is the heartwood. When you’ve finally got your bare log in front of you it’s time for the real work; after you’ve planned out how to split the log to get the most sleepers out of it. Splitting logs is just continual backbreaking labour; hours of swinging a bloody great wooden sledgehammer, called a maul, driving wedge after wedge into the log to slowly pry it apart.

Once the sleepers have been roughly split out it’s time for the broad axe and adze. A broad axe looks like the axe you see executioners using in the movies; it’s got a long blade with about a foot long sharp edge. One side of the blade is flat and the handle comes out of the blade at an angle away from this flat side; this is so that when you’re working down a flat surface with it you don’t bang your knuckles. With the flat side towards the sleeper you can trim it down to a good smooth finish; the smoother it the harder it is for rot to start, so the longer the sleeper lasts.

The adze is more like a really sharp hoe and you use it to the top face of the sleeper; cutting a bit across the grain, you chip away until you have a neatly squared sleeper made completely of the deep red heartwood.

Once your sleepers are cut it’s time to get them down to the road for pickup; it’s best to cut above the road so that you can slide them downhill; sections of bark with water poured over it makes a good slide for moving sleepers – if you’re lucky.

This is how I worked every day of my life, so imagine how I felt when I turned up for my army medical and this young army doctor, who didn’t look like he’d done a decent days work in his life told me I wouldn’t be able to march or carry a pack.

I volunteered to defend my country and instead I was destined to drive truck loads of junk around Queensland; after I was classified as an F4, and so was unsuitable for active duty. I was assigned to a salvage unit as a driver. I argued with them until I was blue in the face about my classification, but the army knows best; like when they put my picture in my pay book standing beside a ruler showing that my height was 6’3” and wrote my height down as 6’5” and wouldn’t change it.

The long and the short of it all was that a fit, healthy young man, eager to fight for his country served out the war stuck on the Brisbane Line driving trucks full of garbage around. True it was vital work and someone had to do it, but they were much shorter of fighting men than they were of truck drivers. There were thousands of blokes who’d to be conscripted, then dragged kicking and screaming into uniform who would have loved to change places with me.

The part of the job that I really hated was when I have to drive some bloody pipsqueak officer to the docks so that he can get on a Pilot Boat and go out past the three mile limit to be eligible to collect all the benefits from overseas service because going past that three mile line meant the bastards had been overseas. I volunteered to fight the Hun, and I spent my time chauffeuring toffy nosed young officers around so they could cheat the system.

Every cloud has a silver lining though; the silver lining on this cloud was Millie; Millie was a nurse at the Royal Brisbane Hospital and I met her at one of the dances her church organises for the troops. Her dad was a priest at the local Church of England church which was a bit of a problem; I was Presbyterian. For Millie I changed though; just imagine, if I’d gone overseas, I’d never have met my Millie.

About a foolhardy florilegium

Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.
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