Continued from Legends of Myself 52
53. Port Essington, 1958-59: Inkwells, Cloakrooms, Old Tom and Broken Pipes
The school in Port Essington was perhaps a hundred yards from Gus and Irene’s house, hardly more, back of the boardwalk known as Lansdowne Street. That meant it must have stood in front of the same hill, also behind our house, which Gus had converted into a sledding hill. No matter how I try, I can’t picture it, though. The universe might have fallen out of existence back of the school’s back door for all that I can bring it to mind.
The school had a steeple, I remember, presumably to house a bell to summon the school children in the morning, but I don’t remember any bell except the one which was sometimes in the teacher’s hand. Was the steeple bell not in use by then, or have I just forgotten?
My image of inside the schoolhouse is fragmented as well. I remember the rows of joined wooden desks, standard issue for all schools of the period, with inevitable ink wells in the right hand corners. The first commercially available ballpoint pen was sold in the US at Gimble’s Department Store in 1945. It cost $9.75, which, in that era, was enough to feed and house somebody for a week. It wasn’t affordable in 1945 for school issue, and probably wasn’t practical even by the late 1950s.
I’m not sure when fountain pens were finally abolished from the schools. The early ‘60s, I suspect. But in 1958 Port Essington, fountain pens were still the kind of pens we used to practice our writing. A bottle of blue-black ink fit neatly into the inkwells. Schoolgirl’s pigtails had been dipped into those jars of ink for generations as a continuing schoolboy prank, but no schoolgirl ever suffered that from me. None sat in front of me in Essington, and by the time I was ready to engage in that particular brand of schoolboy flirting—years later and in another school—the inkwells no longer housed bottles of ink.
I learned to write with a fountain pen, a scratchy, inky business requiring a lot of blotting paper, to no particular purpose at all. Old form books show how elegant a hand someone could aspire to using ink and nib, but I never got there, and when ballpoints came along I never used a fountain pen again. The only pleasure I remember getting out of those old pens was depositing drops of ink onto random pages of my notebook and smearing it into a comet. There were comets all over boys’ notebooks in those days, and girls’ too, for all I know.
In the back corner of the classroom was the cloakroom, where we left our boots and coats in lieu of having lockers. There was a backdoor there, as well a door leading—I presume—to the teacher’s quarters upstairs, which I never saw open. I remember a girl running out of the cloakroom once and reporting that the grade seven boy was kissing someone or other.
“And he had his hand up her dress, too,” she said.
I was shocked, although I wasn’t too clear on why anybody would want to reach up there anyway.
In front and beside the school was an area where, in the spring, I remember playing baseball. Now arranging a baseball game in a school with grades one to seven and only ten students requires some adjusting and some democratization of the game. So we played Old Tom, the only form of baseball I have ever felt comfortable with. Everybody shifted playing position—strike-outs to the outfield, outfield to infield, infield to pitcher to catcher to batter—every time a batter went out. If you negotiated the bases to home, you stayed as batter. In Old Tom, everybody simply played for their own satisfaction and there were no teams to choose or to let down if you were not particularly good at the game.
After departing Port Essington, I eventually grew to loath baseball. You know that kid who the team captains argued over? “You take him,” “No, you take him.” I was that kid.
But I loved Old Tom.
The sledding hill that Uncle Gus had cleared behind the house found full use in the wintertime. I remember going down it in a toboggan, but my cousins had railed sleds which went faster and were somewhat steerable. I got a chance to try out my cousins sled once when we tried sledding not on the hill but on a tilted boardwalk around the front of the house. Art and Reynold had already gone, and done so successfully. But when it was my turn, I promptly went off the edge of the boardwalk and broke the water pipes that were running along beside it.
I guess there was a lot of shouting and I was soaked, and I remember a bunch of adults emerging suddenly out of the house—I suppose Gus and Irene had visitors that day—and rallying around the disaster. Soon I was dry again, in fresh clothes, and, after some excitement, Gus and the other adults had the pipes put back together and the water under control. What I don’t remember—and this is typical Aboriginal behaviour, I think—is anybody getting mad at the kids for the accident, offering either blame or lecture.
The hazards and flaws of sledding down that particular piece of boardwalk had become obvious to the three of us anyway, and I don’t remember any of us venturing to do it again. Even as children, we didn’t need an adult to tell us that. The adults never felt a need to explain what didn’t need explaining, and none ever presumed or insulted us by trying.
Wasn’t the mess and fuss enough to memorialize any lesson?
Continued @Legends of Myself 54