Dammed if you

It rained all summer the year they paved the road.

Our mob were opposed to the roadworks, of course, the natural (such as dirt) being spiritual and the artificial the domain of Ahriman, who would no doubt be as surprised to hear he’s not a spirit after all as he’d be to find himself specifically associated with tarmac.

Hornsby Shire Council also failed to grasp this reasoning, said some things about bus traffic and paved the road.

The sloping five acre block that was by then the Arcadia Free School had a rich but largely forgotten history and an ambivalent relationship with drainage.

Never ceded by the Dharug, nonetheless at some point someone with European masonry habits had quarried a fair bit of sandstone out of it, built some wonky walls and a small bridge over a creek at the bottom of the hill then abandoned the project when their incompetent stonework fell into the water.

The creek bowed to form two boundaries of the property. I can’t remember the high point of its origin – a spring, perhaps? A pipe under the road, or some uncharted source on the adjacent property? It’s just another thing I’ve lost along with the ability to locate the site of the school itself.

The farmhouse where the school began looked to have been built in the 50s. The creek ran close by it then a hundred meters downhill past the quarry to a concrete weir. There it formed a putrid ditch about two meters deep, surfaced with azolla and utterly anaerobic.

Being ten years old, Dang and me decided the most fun in the world was to stand in the middle of the weir and release methane bubbles by poking the rotting vegetation on the bottom with a stick. Having made the pond fart we’d try to ignite it by throwing lit matches. Naturally it was me that finally fell in.

Having to strip off my rank, sodden weed-encrusted clothes before Mum would let me in the car was humiliating enough that two years later I was still leery not just of the weir but all the other bodies of standing water on the school grounds.

There was the pond full of mosquito larvae in front of the covered walkway between two classrooms, a thriving swamp in the old quarry, and the dam.

The dam was presumably farm infrastructure from the same era as the house and had been used as a dump at some point. Or maybe it was a dump that had filled with water. Either way by the time I turned twelve it was a black pit of tetanus soup.

In dry weather you’d see barbed wire and the lace knife of a rusted-out 44 gallon drum crest the surface. When we returned to school after that wet summer it was brim-full and completely opaque with mud from the roadworks.

It being early in the term, our teacher Wat had yet to come up with anything to teach us. After some furrow-browed pondering he announced we were going to embark on “A test of bravery and common sense.” He instructed us to cross the dam while “avoiding hazards.” Dang shrugged, got his kit off and waded through the mess with the rest of them, having at least come up with the innovation of using a long stick to feel his way forward.

I just outright refused. You couldn’t have gotten me in there by throwing me. Wat was quietly furious and said several demeaning things about my cowardice while everyone else set about proving themselves. I sat on the side in the same nauseous adrenaline-chilled mortification as the time I’d had to strip off in the car park. I couldn’t win when it came to water.

Afterwards as the children sat in the sun to dry off he announced that “You have all passed the test of bravery. He, on the other hand,” pointing at me, my dread mounting – “Is the only one to have passed the test of common sense.”

*Names are changed regularly for OH&S compliance

Tin, lead, antipathy

I don’t know why Tin decided to take the children shooting. He said something about teaching us to respect guns but I’m not sure we learned that. Or much of anything else.

Tin had been some sort of bikie, apparently. Not a dog-pack “individualist” with the brittle dress code that runs all the way to a beard-redacted face, more your Stone bikie, a shiftless denim longhair on a big Kawasaki.

In 1978 he’d rolled into Arcadia chasing a rumour of construction work. The school fast turned him into a Seeker After Truth. They always did. He’d sometimes proudly tell us how he’d put his last cigarette out right there, slept on the farmhouse floor with the rest of them and spent two years labouring for nothing but shared lentils. He’d helped build the circle of decreasingly polygonal timber classrooms, to perform the rituals and lay the artifacts into the foundations. He’d get angry if you asked too many questions about it though.

When he announced we were going to spend the morning learning to shoot I asked why. It wasn’t received well. “It’s important to know how to respect guns,” he said, as if it would make more sense the second time. He threw the Meaningful Look the other teachers reserved for discussing esoteric knowledge, the one that said “If you’re spiritual enough this will be obvious, so if it’s not obvious then you’re intrinsically defective.”

I shut up and got in the van.

The van had two seats. Tin was in one of them. The other held an ancient single-shot bolt action .22, a cheap K-Mart .410 shotgun and a couple of boxes of ammunition. The kids got to ride in the back.

The back of a 1970s Kombi panel van is short on handholds. It’s a lightless steel box with nothing in it but a corrugated floor.

With the door open we could see it was painted the same slick baby-shit brown as the outside. With the door shut it was the inside of a tumble drier. We shrieked and tried to brave-face glee at the zero gravity moments when Tin hammered over rises in the road but a gut-deep sense of threat sharpened the edges of our laughter.

We were ten years old. Eight or nine of us in the class. We were told we were going to a rifle range. It looked like a desolate bush clearing designed for fly-tippers. It might have been in the backblocks of Maroota or Maraylya.

Clay, asbestos and old TV sets had been bulldozed into stubby berms. Tin propped both volumes of last year’s Yellow Pages against the nearest, one in front of the other. I felt like I was about to witness an execution.

He picked up a bit of what might have once been a Venetian blind and drew a long line in the dirt. “Nobody past here until I tell you,” he said. There was a ferocious look in his eye. That and the presence of of actual death-sticks – heavy and somehow far more intrinsically nasty than they had ever seemed as toys or television – kept us in a sort of shocked and silent obedience.

He set the weapons and ammunition on the bare dirt and lay down beside them. He was about ten yards away from the phone books. It didn’t seem very far. I remember looking at the rocks in the clay and wondering what would happen if we missed.

He loaded the rifle in complete silence and fired it once into the centre of the books. I’d expected a louder sound than its little cough. He repeated the procedure with the shotgun. It made a more worrying but still not very convincingly gun-like sound.

He picked us one by one and made us lie in the dirt while he stood behind. He’d load the rifle and hand it to us. If we missed our one shot we’d be dismissed. Those who hit the phone books were allowed to fire the shotgun.

I was picked toward the end, missed and was dismissed. The somewhat ragged phone books were packed away with the guns and remaining ammunition.

Tin seemed darkly disappointed. We rode back to school in a subdued mood, scrabbling for purchase on the steel floor in relative quiet.

The incident was never spoken of again.

*Names are changed regularly to enhance readability