Life on Main Street
My father Tom had worked as a wood machinist for Queensland Rail, a car salesman for Advanx Toyota and done some building work to fill in the gaps. In 1978 he decided to try his hand at private enterprise. There were two petrol stations in Edmonton, one on the south end of town owned by George Lee and one at the north end, owned by his brother Dennis. The brothers had come to Australia from China some years previously, but by the end of the 70’s Dennis had decided that he had enough of Far North Queensland and wanted to move to Sydney. Tom was great mates with George and when he found out Dennis wanted to move, he decided this was an excellent opportunity and promptly signed a three-year lease to run the business that was registered under the name ‘Tin Sang & Co.’ The shop was on our main street, The Bruce Highway, as all businesses were, to get the benefit of the passing traffic.
I am not sure if it is just me or if we all have a certain clarity about what happened when we were 12, yet we have trouble remembering what happened yesterday. However, I can remember the shops along the highway like it was yesterday. I can remember how they looked, how they smelt and the people who ran them. They were, from north to south:
Neil Gill’s Butcher Shop
Edmonton Post Office
Tom’s Tin Sang & Co
Keith Auld’s Chemist Shop
Terry O’Farrel’s Newsagency
Jeff Donaghy Butcher Shop;
Chellimi’s Bakery; and
Slavik’s Fish and Chip Shop
That was my immediate ‘hood’, then came The Grafton Hotel, the The Hambledon Hotel and the two local general stores, Piccones and Cavallaros. Further south was the Police Station and Georg Lee’s petrol station. When it came to weekly shopping, Piccones was owned by the town’s most successful business-man Lou Piccone. It was similar to the supermarket of today. More often we shopped at Cavallaro’s, which was a more ramshackle old store, run by two Italian brothers, Dino and Alfie. It had a wide array of goods and the smell of ground coffee in the air and for me shopping there was a real adventure.
Tin Sang & Co included two petrol bowsers out the front and a small general store inside and a house out the back where we lived. Living in the commercial heart of a small country town would have been dull for many, but it was exciting for a young boy to move into a house just behind the shops in the main street. Yes, it seems decidedly small time now, but the increased activity and the movement of people in and out the shop was a new experience for me. However, the greatest cause for excitement was what we called the “Lolly Cabinet” which stood in the corner of the shop and held everything from Freckles (very small pieces of chocolate covered in hundreds of thousands) to the one hundred-gram Cadbury chocolate bar which was enough to make a 12-year old’s eyes pop and tummy rumble. It was at this point I decided my future was in the service industry, the self-service industry!
Alas my father was far too generous to be a remarkable success in private enterprise. I can still recall how he would give away fruit and vegetables to customers and extend credit to people he should not have. However, he was a man with an optimistic attitude who would always land on his feet. During the 70’s he served as a Councillor on the local council which was known as the Mulgrave Shire. He would later make a quick transformation from private sector survival to a highly successful career in public service. This was to prove a good career move as his outgoing nature and ability to communicate made him perfect for local politics.
The Floods of 1979
One summer’s night in 1979 we experienced rainfall the like of which I had never known. The rain was hitting our roof heavily when I went to bed and it just kept coming down throughout the night. By the morning the drain behind our house had burst its banks and a foot of water was flowing through our yard. Thankfully the house was on cement stumps a foot and a half high. However, none of the shops were. My parents quickly opened their shop and moved as much of the stock as they could to higher shelves. I remember mum saying, “Tom, the pumpkins are floating out the door” and reflecting on the surreal nature of the comment, as dad sloshed towards the door to reclaim his floating pumpkins.
The adults handled the flooding without too much drama (and without any opportunistic politician needing to tell them how ‘resilient’ they were). For us children it was all an exciting adventure. I remember getting my kayak and paddling up and down the drain at the front of all the shops, but rather than it being a drain, it had just turned into the deepest part of a much bigger pool lying to the west of the highway, between all the shops and the Bruce Highway.
Before Bentley Park
It feels a little strange these days when I am in Bentley Park and visit the massive Bentley Park School. It seems only yesterday that area was little more than two short dirt roads, Robert Road and McLaughlin Road. I knew the area well, as there were two local families with rugby league loving sons living there, the Stones and the McLeods. The McLaughlin Road I remember was no more than a few hundred metres long and two well-known residents where Ron Macleod and Dr. McLaughlin.
Dr. MacLauchlan lived in a large property opposite where Bentley Park School is now. He lovingly referred to it as ‘Mango Park’. It was appropriately named with mature mango trees appearing at regular intervals along the long driveway into the property. Doctors had no forced retirement age and Dr MacLauchlan spent many of his years in semi-retirement and is said to have written the occasional script at the bar of the Hambledon Hotel. He could also tell a good yarn, and one story I remember him telling me and my good friend Allan (Dick) Whittington, was told while we were painting two rooms in his house at Mango Park.
It emerged that Dr. McLaughlin had given helpful advice to an Italian cane cutter, who complained of occasionally getting insects in his ear. The suggested treatment involved shining a light directly into the ear. The insect, being attracted by the light, makes its way towards the light, thus vacating the ear-drum. What the good doctor did not know, was that his cane cutter patient did not have a torch, preferring to use candles when in need if additional light. So it came to be that the when a small beetle found its way into his ear the patient, he had his wife hold a candle over his ear to attract the beetle. With the base of the candle shadowing the ear, the good man’s wife did what may have seemed appropriate at the time and turned the candle on its side to let in the light. Instantly hot molten wax flowed from the candle and filled her husband’s ear drum. I remember Dr MacLauchlan roaring with laughter as he described the enraged canecutter chasing his wife down the road, swearing in a foreign tongue, with a cane-knife in one hand as his ear was held by the other.
Rugby League Days
My passion and favourite pastime growing up was without doubt rugby league. Around this time Edmonton had its own Junior Rugby League teams and some of the local 11 and 12-year olds would tumble into the back of dad’s Toyota carrier van every Saturday and head into town to play the local rivals, Cairns Wests. A group of 12-year old’s tumbling into a van without seat belts or even seats was something we thought nothing of doing back then and no parents expressed any concerns when dad called to take one of their precious children in the back of the van to the footy. We would head in along Mulgrave Road to the rectangular fields which were then in Wesctourt (where DFO now stands) stopping only to collect ice from Cousins Ice to keep the drinks and oranges cool.
One Saturday I was out exploring with friends. Not far from the Hambledon Mill were great pools of stinking mess known as the mill ponds. These ponds consisted of liquid waste from the mill. The waste the ponds held, was the consistency of quick sand and stunk to high heaven. This Saturday, while exploring with friends we came across these ponds and I saw an island in the pond I decided to jump on. The problem was that it was not an island at all, but a clump of grass growing on the crusty surface. I jumped and went straight through the surface, becoming fully submerged. Thankfully I did resurface and with help from my young comrades made it back on the bank. Realising it was Saturday, we returned home, making it just in time to head into Cairns for rugby league. The way I smelt on the way into football was indescribable, but it was worth it. It was not just my team mates who were reluctant to come near me. I had never played better in my life. I scored a few tries that day, two without even having a hand being laid on me. It did not occur to me at the time that the reluctance of defenders may have been due to the fact I smelled like a septic tank.
The highlight of 1978 for myself and some of the other rugby league mad boys was the 40 kg rugby league tournament for Far North Queensland. The concept behind the 40 kg competition was that children of the same body weight would be competing against each other this was done to avoid the unfairness of the fact some boys grow much quicker than others and you have little boys completing against rather large lads.
The coach of the team was an ambitious Gordonvale school teacher by the name of Warren Pitt. He was a hard taskmaster for us kids and he later became the Member for Mulgrave is in the Queensland Parliament. It was a joy to play with the other boys many of who were you are older than me and who I had looked up to over previous years including Captain Brian Clarke.
I played in the same competition the following year and at the presentation night I was named ‘Player of The Carnival’. Of course I was very proud at what was to prove the highlight of my rugby league career. However, looking back there is something depressing about peeking in your favourite sport at the age of 12. My slow decline in the sport continued to the age of 22, when I spent a year as a B grade player for Ivanhoes (a season I was unable to complete due to a bad back). I did manage an A Grade game for Southern Suburbs and a Foley Shield Game for Cairns in the interim, but that is cold comfort when your childhood dream is to play for St. George.
There was such a powerful sense of community in those days. Memories of driving with dad every Saturday in winter, and picking up young friends like Marcel McLeod, Robert Stone, Nicky Bromley and other local kids and taking them in to play rugby league. Those years were innocent, and they were fun. How sad indeed it is that to do this today you need insurance cover, a blue card and even a coaching licence. We were blessed to live in such care free times.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Our lease expired in 1980 and our family moved back to our home at 88 Mt Peter Road. The move coincided with my dad’s increasing obligations to local government and my own transition to high school. The closest high school was Gordonvale State High. The fun-filled days of freedom and discovery would become fewer in number.
The thing I remember most about those pre-teen days was the carefree feeling of not being under pressure from the clock, of not needing to be having stuff done immediately and not being under pressure to perform and get things done.
Memories of days spent out in the environment, swimming, exploring and adventuring with mates. I contrast that to the life so many young people live today. Spending their days within four walls staring unto one electronic device or another. Of course we could not possibly let children out these days as people say condemning them I feel we are condemning our current generation to a life of obesity hooked on electric devices of all manner.
History tells us many unfortunate practices took place in the 1970’s, everything from discrimination, the poor treatment of our first peoples, to the sexual abuse of children in instructional care. However, that was not my story and my story is the only one I can tell. For me those days in the seventies and early eighties where the good old days. Perhaps not for others, but they were for me.