The last two weeks of my childhood

by Roger Shouldice

The last vestige of my childhood vanished in the final weeks of 1966. I had completed my School Certificate and had been taken on as an apprentice fitter with a large company in Drummoyne.

I walked out of school basically illiterate and under-educated. The fault didn't lie with the religious Brothers who taught me. The blame for my stark lack of education was my own. I keenly wanted to work with mechanical things and an apprenticeship in fitting well suited this desire. And when the door opened I strolled through.

I was sixteen years and eight months old. There was a month to go until I got my permit to ride a motor bike. To get a bike was one end of getting a job. Bikes were a passion. Another end was that I had to get a trade. That is, some base on which to build my life. What this actually meant I wasn't sure of at the time, and really, to be honest, I still don't fully know. I went along with it anyway. There was another end that I didn't realise then, but it quickly made itself known. That end of being welcomed into the world of men. My eyes were opened.

My father left home when I was one and never returned. My sister was two and my brother three. My mother made dresses for 2/3 the male wage as we grew up. My world was devoid of everyday and normal interaction with men. I had a defacto grand uncle who ran a cake shop in Paddington, and Mum had a boyfriend for a while. But this wasn't everyday contact, even though, perhaps, it was normal.

I watched my mates' fathers and mainly I wasn't impressed. These men seemed aloof and cold, and not of my world and the world I shared with my friends. Our world was intimate, fun-filled and free. The neighbourhood men too left a lot to be desired. Nearly every one of them I viewed with increasing disgust as I grew. What these men gave to my mother was a hard time. They, maybe through ignorance, insensitivity and sheer weight of their own loads, gave Mum nothing, and, occasionally blocked and harassed her. Times were bloody tough for divorced and single mothers in the fifties and sixties. Mum held her own.

The third group of men I came in contact with were the Brothers at school. From them I got another vista, and it was distorted. I saw these Brothers as good, honest and sincere men who were decent. But I also saw them as wasted men who were frustrated and distraught in some undefined way. Of course I generalise here. A few were very happy, happy in themselves because they were being fulfilled. But only a few. From these men, and one or two of my friends' fathers, I did glimpse what men are or ideally could be.

Seeing all these men in action didn't disillusion me about men in general. I simply didn't clearly know nor question what I observed and thought. I felt something contradictory and uncomfortable, but this usually concluded in vague thoughts about men being enigmas and all-knowing.

When I entered that factory in Drummoyne around mid-December, 1966, I was to witness a smorgasbord of men. Every dimension and type were represented and o£ most nationalities. You mention it and I'm almost positive it existed within the walls of that factory. It was a Noah's Ark of men, a representative sample of men. This didn't faze me. I guess my street education from being brought up in Parramatta had produced a worldly boy in many ways: I was street-wise, I wasn't hardened and I understood that people weren't as they necessarily seemed. I wasn't. I looked innocent enough with my clear smooth skin and conservative features, but behind it lurked a gutter mind that could run with the best.

Look, I'm being straight here. What filtered through to my understanding in those last two weeks of that year was that these men didn't have a real grasp on what life was about. I listened to their conversations and watched them. It became apparent that a great percentage were confused sheep and hid behind acceptable behaviours and speech. I know this sounds hard and damning, and, of course, it is. Shit, to be different in that environment was to leave yourself open to all sorts of attacks. The enormity of conformity shouted out. And when someone was radically different from the rest, then I was impressed.

There was a bloke in my second year there who was a vegetarian. (I'm talking here three-square-meat-meal and pre-health food consciousness days.) Literally the man shone. His unusualness wasn't solely a matter of diet. I heard in his words and saw in his actions, and with my sixth sense, that he was more together, more his own person and happier. I experienced this even though I couldn't fully comprehend and appreciate it then. He had a type of strength and way that made itself appear more genuine than the strengths and ways of others at the factory.

So there I was seeing for the first time the enigmas that men were evaporate before my eyes, ears and brain. The conclusion being: too few men were men.

What also struck me was that these men I worked with weren't omniscient as I had covertly assumed. They had every affliction and doubt of mind and body that affected me and my mates. I saw myself in them and they in me. We were part of a brotherhood, a species that knew of itself partly because it saw itself as sharing a similar character with fellow members whatever their age. There was the old grey-haired ironworker who was an alcoholic. He drank from a tin beer can which had been punctured with a nail. He drank in the toilets. His diet at work was a couple of sandwiches and Bex powders, with a few more grogs at the club at lunchtime. Then there was a wiry bloke who sold black and white pornographic photographs. A family man you couldn't help but like. I saw an old fitter frequently grabbing the dick of an ironworker he worked with. It was done in fun I'm sure, but I sensed a certain sexual enjoyment by both. I saw countless hours wasted on bludging - it had no other name. The white/blue collar dichotomy was rife. I was made to believe when growing up that all men were equal. Clearly I was seeing something different. I heard married men speak about screwing the office girls, and when I mentioned their daughters I was viewed as low and set upon with venom. Thieving took place on a scale that was only contained by random checks of our bags at the main gate. The tall stories I heard were truly amazing, particularly in relationship to sexual exploits and volumes of alcohol consumed.

I was abruptly awoken, and found out what I previously thought men to be was bullshit.

It may sound like I am, in retrospect, writing with some abhorrence at my initiation into the world of the adult male. It wasn't abhorrent. I experienced another part of life, of living. It elated me and educated me. In a real and lasting sense it wasn't a let-down. Rather it had the effect of allowing me to see myself and other males as part of life - playthings if you like - and gave me an understanding and a desire not to accept the role as being my lot too. I was extremely immature and therefore had plenty to learn.

This was the start of adult life. The change-over from childhood to being an adult was taking place. This realm of men that was now new to me, this realm that I was now part of was, from that short period on, made more open and factual. And I am thankful for my start and to those men, in all their colours, who I worked with.

My memories of that time are good and wholesome and surprisingly vivid.

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