The Day I Defied Gravity
2nd Oct 2020
Parents give kids lots of rules like ‘don’t talk with your mouth full’.
That makes sense. Sort of.
And don’t drink out of a tap in case a spider has made a home up there.
That also makes sense. At least turn it on a bit first…
And don’t run with scissors. That one makes a lot of sense.
But running with scissors didn’t bring me undone.
Sitting with scissors brought me crashing to earth.
Aristotle or St Ignatius Loyola or some observant bugger said show me the boy at seven and I’ll show you the man…
And what was I doing with those scissors?
I was making a parachute!
You see, young boys growing up in regional towns pre-television and computer games had to make their own fun. Guess I was about eight years old.
I’d just seen the 1962 movie The Longest Day at a matinee and was very impressed with the troops invading Normandy by parachute, even if Red Buttons did end up dangling from a village church spire. I made a note that religion wouldn’t get in my way!
The first movie I recall seeing at the Gundagai Theatre was a lovely little flick called Smiley. It was an American-British production about an Australian kid who set out to buy a bicycle and had lots of adventures along the way. It didn’t have a great impression on me, no more than being an extremely enjoyable Saturday afternoon diversion. Before half-time they would run a serial with a cliff-hanger to get you back again the following week.
A shilling upstairs, sixpence downstairs.
I always hit the folks up for a shilling so I could go downstairs and pig out on sixpence worth of mixed lollies. Freckles, cobbers, mint leaves and a musk stick. And you can stick your milk bottles. What a disappointing confectionary item they were! Same with bananas. They were flavoured yellow, not banana.
The shilling, by the way, had a ram on it. Possibly the first sculpture I admired, apart from the Dog on the Tuckerbox.
Anyway, Smiley starred a few actors I would later bump into in real life, Chips Rafferty, Guy Doleman and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell. Chips lived next door to a mate of mine in Parsley Bay, Sydney and I shared a taxi with him during my boarding school days. He seemed a nice enough chap and judging by the number of empty bottles near his front door, he didn’t mind a big tipple.
I bumped into Guy in the Green Room at Channel 7 when he was a guest on the first situation comedy I wrote on, Kingswood Country.
And Bud used to be a co-judge for an annual short-film competition. He was the ‘acting’ guru and I was meant to be the ‘writing’ guru. You might have seen him as the judge in The Castle. Good actor, lovely man.
I believe one of the Smiley movies met with censorship in America because the kid says something like, “It hurts like buggery, Dad” which, in Australian slang, means it hurt a lot. To the Americans, not the same.
Oh! And returning to The Longest Day… It was an epic kind of war movie, presented as a factual documentary. It had obviously taken poetic licence with its all-star cast including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger and Peter Lawford, with Paul Anka knocking out the theme song. Apart from the scene with Red Buttons tangled up on the church spire with the bells ringing in his ears, which I found amusing, the other memorable scene also had a pinch of comedy in it…
…A German soldier is sleeping. He hears something outside, hurriedly pulls on his boots and goes to investigate. We later see him dead…
Why was it funny? He pulled his boots on the wrong feet!
Did I go looking for comedy or did comedy somehow find me?
Doesn’t really matter. It has been a fun ride.
Gundagai Theatre also served up a hefty dose of slapstick with The Three Stooges. Enjoyable, totally watchable, disposable waste of space that left you wanting more. Not more length, just more depth.
The Marx Bros movies knew about depth. Well-drawn characters, a coherent story, of sorts, music and sparkling scripts, like A Night at the Opera. Made way, way back in 1935 it contains the famous ‘contract scene’. Have a Google, the ‘sanity clause’ is one of the best tags to a sketch ever.
The silent comedian Harold Lloyd was terrific. He was way before my time but some of his movies got a run at the theatre and I loved them. He was even better than Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton for mine. Go to You Tube for a look at the famous ‘clock’ scene from his 1923 flick, Safety Last. I dare you to invest seven minutes in a silent movie! And if you have a slight fear of heights or a hint of vertigo, I double-dare you!!
Oh! Sorry. Got side-tracked. Speaking of heights…
Before taking a leap of faith, it was time for imagination, physics and experimentation. Oh! And stealth. I had availed myself of a pair of scissors from mother’s sewing basket and a couple of sheets from the linen press that wouldn’t be missed.
Oh! Sorry again. I just realised that some people these days wouldn’t know how important sewing baskets were back in the 1950s and 1960s. It was mother’s little tool kit. Socks weren’t synthetic and had to be darned. Missing buttons had to be replaced. And while knitting could have been for pleasure it was also likely to be practical. Jumpers, cardigans, baby clothes. I was taught to knit but never got past a scarf. Black and gold. The colours for the Gundagai and Balmain Tigers.
Times were a little different then. There weren’t frozen chickens in the supermarkets. You had a chook run down the back garden. Mostly for eggs. But, a few times a year, birthdays and Christmas, poultry was on the menu and one of the birds would be neatly despatched on the blood-stained chopping block under the loquat tree. After doing a lap of the yard without its head it would be hung, upside down on the clothesline, to be bled out before plucking. This is why you never name your chickens. You wouldn’t do that to a pet!
Another thing that happened, thanks to the sewing basket, was the reversing of shirt collars, particularly shirts that had been worn with a tie. This craft entailed unpicking the collar, turning it over and restitching it with the worn part neatly hidden and the upper part as good as new. The perfect Pelaco for twice its life! Remember, it was unpicked, not cut…
After a short, successful foray into energy, force and resistance utilising a handkerchief, string and a metal washer, it was time to spread the wings a little, so to speak. Keeping in mind, of course, that many people thought the Wright brothers were wrong.
Of course, this was way, way before I got to really defy gravity and actually travel in a plane. But when I did get to do that, I thought it was very cool. Efficient, fun and way beyond any science I could fathom.
The first plane ride I recall was in a Fokker Friendship from Wagga Wagga to Sydney to go back to boarding school. Perhaps there was a train strike. The schoolmate next to me, Tony Lloyd Jones, threw up. Handy things those fortified paper bags. Handier than parachutes probably.
Incidentally, Tony threw a New Year’s Eve party on his property at Bethungra to end 1978 and see in 1979. I was 24. At that party I met a gorgeous girl by the name of Annie Flanagan. We’re still married.
Yes, I’m very grateful to the Wright Brothers and all those magnificent men and their flying machines. They gave me access to more than thirty countries and every state and territory in Australia. That led to the writing of my first book, A Small Guide to a Big Country. And I am also very grateful to Gilmore Tilmen Schjeldahl who, in 1949, invented the humble airsickness bag. But for Gilmore I might have had Jonesy’s breakfast on my lap.
The dimensions for the second prototype would have been around a metre square. Can you have two prototypes? No matter, I did. A metre square of fine linen with string meticulously attached at each corner and leading to a central point, where the ends were carefully threaded through a weighty selection of nuts thanks to father’s shed collection.
Neatly folded then released from the verandah the breeze caressed the fabric immediately, puffing a pocket that allowed the invention to float gracefully and effortlessly to the lawn below. Poetry had met science brilliantly.
It was time. Onwards and upwards! Time for a rooftop, not a verandah! Time for rope not string! Time for a full sheet, not a snippet! And time for a hero, not a bunch of rusty old nuts!
“God, that’s a long way down…”
No matter. Cometh the hour, cometh the boy. Or rather, goeth the boy. Gracefully, effortlessly, to the waiting lawn below.
“God, that is a long way down. What was the name of that Indian again? Oh yes, that’s right…”
I guess I have always been one to take the occasional risk without considering consequence.
Like being part of the first school group to walk the famous Kokoda Track in New Guinea, only to be medically evacuated by light aircraft…
Or getting a gig writing for that Oscar winning rabbit, Bugs Bunny, and subsequently being frog-marched from Warner Bros studios in Hollywood…
Or going to Vanuatu for a two-week holiday and staying there for three years…
Or telling the producers of Kingswood Country that I had written an episode and them responding with, “drop it in before nine in the morning” only to stay up all night to write the bloody thing!
“Eh… What’s up, Doc?”
That’s what I could have asked Dr Gerald Dalton as he studied the x-rays of my wrists.
Broken both of them.
No pushbike riding, no ball games, no scratching yourself and no showers without plastic bags and a sticking plaster seal.
Snip. Snip. Snip.
It was six weeks until I heard the sound of scissors again. Large surgical scissors. Surgical scissors removing the nicely autographed plaster casts.
A lesson had been surely, and sorely, learnt.
“The sheet has to be bigger… and we need more height!!!”
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