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Friday, 17 January 2014

Possums, Pets, and Poddy Lambs

     This is a photo of my mother, aged about 14, feeding the poddy lambs, accompanied by her sister, Lil and (probably) baby brother, Doug.
     A poddy lamb is one rejected by its mother. In a flock of one or two thousand, there might be four, five, or six such virtual orphans at any one time. One year, there were a whole two dozen requiring bottled cow's milk. Lambs, of course, like humans and koalas, all have different faces and sizes, but folks unfamiliar with them labour under the illusion that they all look the same. Once Mum had to go to town, leaving her mother to handle the lambs. Chaos! Confusion! All those lambs jostling for the teat; they wouldn't stand in line! How do you tell them apart? She strongly suspected some of them got in for a second helping.
     As you can see, the photo is of typical quality for those old, unprofessional, point-and-shoot type cameras, and I have made no attempt to straighten it. In case you are wondering about the contraction in the background, it is a Furphy water cart. Their original function was to carry water to livestock, but they provided an invaluable service to the human livestock of the First World War, where they also became a venue for gossip and rumour allegedly provided by the office water cooler today. However, considering that military plans usually issued from much higher up, and were supposed to be secret, the reliability of such rumours tended to be low - hence the term, "furphy" for questionable or unreliable unofficial information.

     Once, when she was about the same age as per the above photo, one of the hired hands brought home a little ringtail possum. Having been adopted by the family, the little mite used to sleep in one of the large water bags which used to hang from the top of the verandah, as described in a later chapter. It also used to scurry upside down along the telephone line to one of the trees, where it found a mate, because it then returned to the house and produced a baby. The possum family was never really friendly to their hosts, but they found a home behind the chimney, and used to make shocking noises when they were up and about (which, if I know anything about possums, would have been during the human family's bedtime.) The youngster eventually went over to the shed. Possums, you understand, are territorial, and a grown-up offspring isn't allowed to stay with its mother forever.
     Years later, after Mum had left home, another possum was acquired by either Charlie or Doug, the two youngest sons. Perhaps it arrived at a younger age, but this one was friendly. It would snuggle in the boy's arms, and sit on his head with its prehensile tail curled around his face or neck. It used to empty its bladder in that posture also, a habit which was considered less endearing. Whereas, the earlier pet would scurry along the telephone wires, this one would climb over the tops of the wall paintings. It would also share Grandma's bed, though I am unaware of Grandpa's opinion on the matter. However, one day, when she was in bed, and pet possum was perched on top of the wardrobe, in walked grandson Rex, Halley's son. According to Mum, the possum was jealous, but I suspect something equally basic: territoriality. Here was a stranger, violating its domain! That possum flew down off the wardrobe and assailed poor Rex, who was reduced to hiding under the bedclothes for protection.
     They eventually gave it away, and it died of heat stroke under the laundry during the 1939 bushfire.

     Would you believe that, in those days, you never called a female dog a "bitch"? It was a disreputable term. The proper word was "slut"! I learnt that when Mum casually threw the word into the conversation, but it can also be found in Henry Lawson's short story, "That There Dog of Mine".
     Dogs were not pets on the Wagga farm; they were workers, mostly kelpies. Normally two or three at any one time, they were kept chained up outside and not allowed into the house. The children were not supposed to handle or play with the puppies, or they would not grow up to be effective sheep dogs. But Grandma did, just the same.
     Nevertheless, Grandpa loved dogs, and they reciprocated. Indeed, at one time Doug acquired a dog, but the wretched canine transferred its affections to his father. One slut - I think her name was Coffee - absolutely doted on Grandpa. She would come into town in the sulky with him, and he would leave her there while he dined at the hotel. But it was a futile exercise; she used to sneak into the dining room and curl up under his table. (This was before health regulations became too strict.)

     My mother didn't tell me anything about cats. However, according to my Aunt Hilda, her sister, Olga always kept cats. I suppose she was a young adult at the date of this anecdote, because she was 14 years older than Hilda, who was a little girl at the time. In any case, one evening this cat was making a noise in the tree in front of the house, so her father decided to shoot it. He always was a lousy shot, and in this case he merely blasted off its lower jaw. Olga, needless to say, was outraged, and insisted he go out and finish the job properly.
     The Dennis children also discovered that if they acquired a magpie while still young and brought it up, it would remain a pet. One would have thought this a rather risky undertaking, considering the parent magpies' propensity for dive-bombing potential predators, and I am sorry I never asked Mum about it. In any case, the usual place to find them was the lucerne tree. (Lucerne tree? What the heck is a lucerne tree? I thought lucerne was a ground crop. It is. The other name is alfalfa. However, there does exist a distantly related tree, native to the Canary Isles, which can likewise be used as a livestock forage crop. You hardly ever see them up here in Queensland, but entire hedges of them can be found in New South Wales, and especially in Western Australia.)
     Now, I don't know how many such magpies had been tamed, but one of them was certainly acquired about 1922, when Mum was aged 13. You'll remember from an earlier chapter that, at the time, she was required to take her three-year-old brother, Charlie everywhere with her on the horse. Well, it is likely that the little boy had teased the bird, because it took a virulent dislike to him. Whenever it saw the two of them riding past, it would swoop down from the lucerne tree or shed where it was perched, and peck poor Charlie hard on the head. That same bird had also been taught to speak; it would say, "Charlie's a bad boy!"

     Although they don't actually fit the title of this chapter, we might use this space to mention snakes. Once, while in her early teens - it must have been spring, and haymaking time - Mum was sent out to deliver lunch to her father in the paddock. On this occasion, she took the exceptional step of walking; probably she hadn't been able to catch a horse. Much to her alarm, she almost walked on a snake, and a bit farther on, another one slid down a hole.
     But the real adventure happened to Jack, the oldest brother, when he was in his late teens or early twenties. Now, as a zoology graduate, I would like to make two points about Australian snakes. The first is that the most common ones are some of the most venomous in the world. The second is that, despite everything, they are generally docile. They'll leave you alone if you leave them alone. Most Australians, and in particular, most rural Australians, are aware of the former, but not the latter. They think that the only good snake is a dead snake.
     So, when Uncle Jack came across a snake while working alone away from the house, he picked up a stick and tried to kill it. The snake, provoked into self-defence, turned and sunk its fangs into his leg, below the knee. Suddenly, Jack saw the Grim Reaper advancing, dark scythe in hand, and his mind raced through all the procedures he had been taught for treating snake bite. In those days, there was little, if any, antivenene and, in any case, he was a long way from any medical facilities. Standard first aid for snake bite was much more brutal than today, and it continued right up to the 1960s, when I was a boy. First, you had to place a tourniquet very tight around the upper part of the limb, tight enough to prevent circulation of the deep arterial blood which would be carrying the venom to the rest of the body. Then you were supposed to make a deep (up to one centimetre) x-shaped incision at the site of the bite, and suck the blood and venom out. Of course, if you had a cut or sore in your mouth, the venom would enter by that route as well.
     Now, the hay bales were bound with extremely strong binding twine - about which more in the next chapter. He managed to get hold of one of these bands and tied it really tight around his thigh. Now, how to cut the wound? "Be prepared!" the Scouts say, and this is one reason why you should always carry a knife with you, especially on a farm. But he had no knife. Bright idea! He took out his tin of Capstan tobacco, and somehow ripped the lid to obtain a sharp edge, if not exactly a very stiff one, and was able to slice into the wound. Unfortunately, not being a contortionist, he could find no way to suck out the blood. This should preferably be done by a companion. Instead, he pressed out as much blood as possible.
     At this point, another problem arose. He was seated, and he couldn't get up, for he was suffering from so much emotional shock. But eventually he managed to get to his feet, only to find that his thigh was so swollen, he was unable to remove the ligature. (These days, a tourniquet is not recommended, because it may result in tissue death. Instead, you are advised to wrap a tight bandage around the effective limb - not that that would have been possible in his circumstances.) With great difficulty, he limped the mile or so back to the house, where a family member cut off the tourniquet.
     All that happened in the afternoon. Would you believe! By evening he was well enough to go courting.

Now go forward to see how the farm was run,
or back to return to the index.

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