Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tardun 14: A harvest story

Today's post on age 14 for the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge is by Jon Egan.

Tardun, CBAS, St.Mary's, Christian Brothers, the Big House.... These were some of the other names that the "Tardun, Christian Brothers Agricultural School," was known by, and where I was remanded for three years. Yes I did say "remanded"  because that's truly what it felt like when I first arrived. Even though my parents paid for the privilege of me attending, it was highlighted in more than a few places on the application that this was a working farm school, and the boys would be expected to engage in very physical and demanding work regimes which would build character. (Oh, and please sign this part at the bottom of the sheet where it says that it's acceptable for the Brothers to engage in corporal punishment for the good of the child.)

Upper floor were the Dorms. Building on the right was the Chapel.

To be fair to my parents, they didn't have many choices for secondary education since we lived in the Australian bush and had no day schools nearby. They probably picked the cheapest alternative, and Tardun won.

Nearest town --- Tardun --- Population: 7 --- Distance from school: approx 10 kilometers
Nearest big town --- Mullewa --- Population: 200 --- Distance from school: approx 30 kilometers
Nearest city --- Geraldton --- Population: 20,000 --- Distance from school: approx 120 kilometers
Nearest capital city --- Perth --- Population: about 1 million --- Distance from school: light years...

Average temperature when I arrived in February: about 120 degrees --- Air Conditioning: what's that?
Average rainfall for the year: 2 inches (We were in the middle of the Wheat Belt of Western Australia, attempting to be self-sufficient by growing cereal crops and raising sheep and cattle.)
Student population: 100 boys, grades 8 through 10
Farm size: 70,000 acres
Teachers: 3
Farm bosses: 8
Jailers: 2
Hours per week spent in class:  about 20
Hours per week spent working the farm: about 40, except during plowing, seeding, harvesting, and shearing, then it bumped to about 80.
Fun and exciting life experiences looking back on my time there: priceless.

So, I said I was going to tell you about one particular event in my time there, and while I've been writing this I've changed my mind about a thousand times, but I've settled on this one.

As I mentioned, we were a cereal crop farm. We began harvesting around the beginning of October and went through late December, which was a pretty hot time of year in that part of the bush, pretty consistently over the 110-degree mark.

The system was, around 4 am we'd be awakened by a Brother carefully sneaking through the dormitory picking a few select kids to go out and spend the day working a harvester instead of being in school. You know how exciting that was to a 14-year-old, right? A day out of school AND we got to either drive the big rig collecting wheat from the harvesters or we operated the actual combines. They put a lot of trust in us.

This one particular morning, Brother Morgan, Swifty, (We had nicknames for all the Brothers and this bloke could run like the wind) came to my bunk and shook me awake, which was pretty easy since I was laying in a wad of sweat-soaked sheets, and had spent the night tossing and turning trying to get some shut eye.)

"Wake up Master Egan, we need you on a combine today, breakfast in 5 minutes."

"Yes, Brother."

 Me and about five other kids met down in the kitchen for our burnt toast and rubbery eggs. Seriously, the old cook, Joe, would prepare the fried eggs about an hour before we got there. He'd have them lined up on an aluminum tray, drop them and they'd bounce! After breaky we headed out in the bed of a ute (Aussie for pick up truck) to be dropped off at various machines in the paddocks. We got no choice when it came to what machines we were allocated, everything from vintage John Deere's to a brand new Massey Ferguson, which of course everyone wanted since it had an air-conditioned, air ride cab.

That day I didn't get the flash, shiny red Massey, I got the old piece of faded green John Deere: no air con, no air ride, no enclosed cab. But no worries. I was out of school, had about a 200-acre paddock of wheat to crop, and wouldn't see anyone but the grain truck for about four hours, 'til old Brother Synan (Goggles,) showed up with my frozen cheese and tomato sandwich. Yep, frozen, but it also came with a hot cuppa tea that you could dunk the frozen sarny (sandwich) in to defrost it enough to bite through.

So, I'm dropped off with my big water esky (cooler full of iced water) which I left strategically under the partial shade off an old gum tree and the ute pulled away. I checked that everything on the John Deere was where it was supposed to be, greased a few fittings,  and got to work cropping the paddock. By this time it's about 5:30 am. The sun's rising, the flies were out, and the engine hummed. Life was grand. I was already just two eye holes and a smile after being covered in dust from the ride out  in the back of the ute, and even though the sun just broke the horizon, I was fast becoming a muddy pile of red dirt.

First item of removed clothing: singlet (tank-top). It got laid across the back of what's left of the tractor seat.  I felt a little relief, although by then the open air cab caught and trapped all the heat it could from the engine, and as per usual there was not one wisp of air movement, except the flow of air idling through the cab as I moved at a snails pace. My arms were in constant motion as I lifted and lowered the comb on the front of the combine. Due to the drought conditions, the wheat stalks had barely reached a foot tall, so I had to watch for logs, and bundies (big rocks) that had been missed and disturbed during plowing and seeding season. The Brothers didn't like it when you dinged up the comb. They had no issue showing their displeasure with a swift smack to the jaw.

I'd been working for about an hour or so, and was now down to being shirtless, shortless and bootless. Boots were replaced with typical Aussie safety shoes, otherwise known as thongs, and I would have been barefoot, except the floor of the tractor was too hot for my feet to handle, so other than my undies, I'm pretty much naked. The grain truck had just been by to unload me, so I wouldn't see anyone for at least another hour. This was before the time of cell phones, and we didn't have CB's, so I was most definitely out there alone plodding around the paddock, covering a lap about every 15 minutes. I had to ration my water, so I'd stop and jump out for a drink every other lap, knowing that at lunch time they'd bring me a refill on my esky.

By about 10 am I was getting no relief from the heat even after guzzling down mouthfuls of by now, tepid water. The dust was caked on thicker than my mum's foundation, my eyes were raw from the layers of red dirt that were getting harder to clear with each blink. It was as if I were rubbing them with sandpaper. My once tighty whitey's were now dirt red, and chafing my thighs with every bounce of the piece of crap John Deere. Oh, how I wished I were sitting in the comparative cool of the 90-degree classroom! BUT! an idea sprang to my mind about half way through my next lap...

I eased the rampaging combine to a grinding, dust cloud-inducing, halt in the middle of the paddock, just across the way from my old pathetic non-shade covering ghost gum, and proceeded to trudge through the grain stalks in nothing but my undies and thongs. My legs looked like they got caught in a shrapnel attack, as the stalks ripped into the skin deeper than any of the canings I'd suffered at the hands of the Brothers. (Did I mention they enjoyed corporal punishment at this place?) I made it to the tree and the esky and proceeded to put my plan into action. It went something like this.

1. Remove mud-caked undies
2. Remove mud-caked safety boots, aka thongs
3. Remove 2-cup capacity cup from top of esky
4. Fill said cup with tepid cup from under-performing esky
5. Toss contents of cup high into air
6. Run naked through falling water thereby creating a cooling rain shower
Old esky
 It worked to perfection. Absolute and utter perfection. With the first cupful I was a little timid and didn't fully commit, but then with subsequent cups I became braver, my strength grew, and my abandon became absolute. I was giddy, nae, intoxicated with pleasure at being cool, so much so that I never noticed, honestly, didn't hear, see or in any way whatsoever notice that Brother Kelly (Roo Dog) had driven into my paddock and was watching from a distance of about a hundred yards as this naked, semi-delirious student/ farm hand/ inmate, danced like a banshee. Arms raised, legs pumping, hollering at the sky in a Native American kind of rain dance.

As God is my witness, when he actually pulled up next to me and I realized I was busted for naked rain dancing, I still don't know who was more scared. He looked at me. I looked at him. He nodded toward my undies and thongs. I stared at them. He nodded again. I walked over and sheepishly pulled them on. He nodded at the bed of the ute. I looked at him. He nodded again. I climbed in, burning my ass on the side of the bed in the process.

He drove me back to the school. No stopping at the still idling John Deere to get the rest of my clothes. Straight back to school in the back of the ute, even though there was a perfectly good seat in the front next to him. We pulled up in front of the main building and I didn't move. He still hadn't said a word to me. Then the bell rang for lunch, and out into the yard poured the 90 or so students that weren't working the farm that day. Roo Dog looked at me as he got out of the ute. I looked at him. He nodded toward the dorms. I didn't need another nod. I raced upstairs in my dirty mud-caked undies to the shower block.

Not a word was spoken to me regarding the incident from anyone other than the students, and surprisingly I was not called on for harvesting for the rest of the season. Never got my singlet back, but did get my boots returned to me! One time I was woken early by old Swifty a couple of weeks after that, but it was for bakery duty, not machinery operating, and do I have a great story about baking the weekly bread for the farm. But that's for another time.


  1. Wow! This was so interesting and well-written. I'd read a whole book of these coming-of-age stories. Have you written one? Are you? If not, do it!
    Jane Ann

    1. Thanks Jane, as always it's great to get feedback and yes I am about 3/4 the way through a book about my time at the Christian Brothers, although it feels like I've been 3/4 way for about 20 years now!

  2. Great tail, Jon. I mean "great tale" (sorry, was picturing your rain dance). I don't doubt every word is true. Always love hearing your boyhood stories! Hope to see some of them published very soon.

    1. Thanks Kathy,
      I'm starting to get back into writing that book. It's the one I originally sent in for our first Rich workshop together, I'm looking forward to finishing it.

  3. It's like Holes. Write the book, Jon.

    1. I'm trying Ann... I just need a Warden Walker, already have Mr.Sir!

  4. What a wonderful story! I'd happily read more, too.