When the shack was built ….

I was fourteen when I put away the tools. The year was 1969 when I slammed the hammer down on that last nail head to secure the final floorboard. The shack was built. Two bedrooms – one with a wooden shelf, the height and width of a single bed that was attached to the four walls in a single unit where we five kids used to top and tail every night, the other bedroom had a proper double bed with four legs, a bed head and a proper mattress, a bathroom aka the washroom that was fully equipped with a footbath, a bucket and a hose, and a living room where we played cards most nights. There was a bench in the living room with a couple of shelves underneath and a curtain strung from left to right to make it look tidy. The Sunbeam frying pan, an electric jug and toaster sat on top of the bench alongside the Tupperware and that was known as ‘the kitchen’.  

Building the ‘crapper’

The only part of the shack that was a family project was the long drop toilet out the back. Everyone except Mum pitched in to help dig the pit. It was so deep that Dad’s head could not be seen above ground level. I don’t know how he raised that shovel high enough to fling the dirt up and out of that hole. What’s more I have no idea how he got out of that hole? I remember thinking, that crapper is going to take years to fill.

Unfortunately, the two youngest members of the family, Paul and Samuel, didn’t quite master the technique for digging a hole. As the hole got deeper and the surrounding mound of dirt got higher, the two little brothers started digging furiously with their plastic beach spades and throwing the dirt in on top of Dad’s head.

Dad’s angry voice sounded a bit muffled and not as scary as usual.

“Get those kids outta here”, he shouted to no one in particular.

They giggled and continued. At the ages of five and two, they knew they were safe from corporal punishment while Dad was in that hole.

“Mind your father’s head,” Mum said. “You know he’s always got a headache”. Mum was calm and never raised her voice, the complete opposite to my father.

After the hole was dug, it was covered with a piece of tarpaulin and we surrounded it with second-hand bricks to make a barrier. Over the next couple of weekends, Dad and I built the crapper shed around the hole. The shack was now ready for the holidays.

It was a bit scary using the crapper especially when it was dark because there was no electricity. We had a torch – named Big Jim – to take out at night. My brother John had a habit of using Big Jim to look down the hole, something I would never do. One night he got terrified because he thought he could see a corkadile swimming around in the shit.  He dropped Big Jim into the hole and ran out screaming. 

Writing the eulogy

I didn’t realise I had built the shack until my father died a few years later. My brother Bruce and Mum co-wrote Dad’s eulogy.  Bruce’s input was mostly about the shack.

‘Annette built the shack and Dad helped. Most weekends Dad hooked the trailer on to the back of the car and went with Annette to building demolition sites and the tip shop to get second-hand timber, leftover paint, a few bricks and anything else he could scrounge.  Annette went with him because no one else wanted to go. Dad was too bad tempered’.

That’s true. Dad was bad-tempered. Mum always blamed it on ‘the headaches’. But with me, he just didn’t talk. Spending a whole day with Dad banging in nails and levelling floorboards without talking to each other was bearable because I didn’t have much I wanted to say anyway.

Conversations were short

Dad was a good-looking dude, with his dark wavy hair and olive skin. He had these pock marks at the back of his neck, heaps of them.

“How d’yer get those holes on the back of yer neck? ” my eldest brother Bruce asked Dad.

Bruce often said he’d like a set of them on the back of his neck.  

“A kid threw acid on me when I was a kid”, Dad replied. End of conversation.

Before the conception of the shack

Twelve months before the conception of the shack, Dad started working at a transport company in Hobart. His job was to pick up shipping containers in a semi-trailer from the wharf and deliver them to various locations around Tasmania. After that, we hardly ever saw him during the week because the commute to Hobart was long and slow. He left before we were up in the mornings and didn’t arrive home until late at night.

Dad was still a pig farmer at Forcett on the remote east coast of Tasmania when he started his new career.  One sad day, Mum told us that ‘farming is no longer viable’ and that’s why Dad had to work in Hobart. Mum was really smart and often used fancy words. There was no need to ask for clarification of the word viable.  The look on her face said it all.

Mum loved living on the farm. She had a head for numbers and had always managed the business side of things. She could tell you how many pigs went to the butcher’s in February 1963 if you asked her. Or any other random date for that matter.  

Moving to Hobart

Mum and Dad packed our worldly goods on the back of a semi-trailer that Dad had borrowed from his work, and we headed straight for Hobart, none other than the capital city of Tasmania. The only livestock that went apart from the family members was Paul’s pet frog. Unfortunately, Froggy was a misfit in the city and expired after two days. He was eventually replaced with Haggis the cat. 

City life

Living in the city was different. As former country folk, we took time to adapt to city life. The boys were no longer allowed to go outside to pee in the backyard because we had an inside flushing toilet and neighbours only feet away on both sides of our house. There were cars everywhere, so we had to ‘watch for cars’ whenever we stepped out of the front gate. And a man in a van delivered ten bottles of milk to our back door in a crate each day.

Mr Whippy also drove a van. He visited every Saturday afternoon to deliver vanilla ice cream cones that he made and sold from a servery cut out of the side of his van. The music to ‘Greensleeves’ pumped out of the van like a calliope on a carousel as it approached our neighbourhood and stopped outside our house. Despite ‘all that bloody racket’ and the threat of an imminent headache, Dad always forked out for ice creams. Only because he liked ice cream.

Missing country life

Despite all that, we still missed living in the country, so it wasn’t long before the idea for the shack was born. The folks settled on a block of land for $180 and Mum started drawing up a shack plan immediately. Geographically it wasn’t that far from the farm at Forcett.  The name of the place, Primrose Sands was deceiving. We were surrounded by a rocky beach so Dad still drove us five miles or so to the sandy beach on the other side of the dunes. I cursed that toe stubbing and thong busting location every day because I wanted to be on the sandy side.  

But I had no complaints about the shack. It was unreal. Dad and I had done a great job. Mum said it was a standout amongst the other shacks in its dazzling bright yellow coat of paint and purple front door.  Other shacks had drab grey and splintered walls with roofs of corrugated iron that had gone rusty. Or they were multi coloured.  Or walls and roofs that were sagging or collapsing.  Some were sizable while others were one room shanties with a veranda and a single dilapidated chair out the front. Some were even infested with vermin because they hadn’t seen their humans for years.  And then there were the old ‘slug bugs’ that refused to go anymore and were parked on blocks of land and used for shacks.

Travelling to the shack

Most weekends and all the holidays were spent at the shack after it was finished. Driving from our house in Hobart to Primrose Sands took at least a couple of hours. Once off the smooth bitumen of the Arthur Highway, there was about another further 15 miles of yellow, dusty, bumpy unsealed road. If we were going for more than a weekend, Haggis always came too, only because Dad liked cats. Haggis had a habit of licking his hairy orange coat relentlessly which caused him to vomit fur balls regularly.

“Dad, stoooop! Haggis’s chucking” was a common shriek from the back seat.

 “She’s a’richt.”

Dad always ploughed ahead as Haggis vomited noisily in his travelling box. Mum was always prepared ‘just in case’ with a couple of small floral lady’s handkerchiefs that she placed over her nose and held tightly for the rest of the trip.

I’m surprised that Dad even drove that car to Primrose Sands.  After our arrival at the shack, he immediately washed and polished the car before inspecting it for scratches and small dents caused by rocks flying up off the unsealed road.

Almost there

Dad had a special car rule about seating arrangements. Mum always sat nestled in by his side in the front bench seat. He manoeuvred the steering wheel with his right hand and kept his left hand free to fondle Mum’s upper legs. It was gross how those two loved each other.

Samuel, as the baby of the family, always got to sit in the front passenger side next to the window. His vinyl tartan baby seat hooked over the front passenger seat like coat hangers hook over hanging rails. 

‘That’s an interesting front seat arrangement’ quipped Jim Glover, our neighbour at the shack.  

He always rushed over to greet Dad as he drove the Ford Falcon up onto the grassy verge between the two enormous pampas grass bushes. Jim liked Dad but didn’t care much for the rest of the family. 

I heard Dad mutter ‘fool’ under his breath as the rest of us kids piled out of the back seat.

The beach and …. oh, no the sand

Despite Dad’s love of the beach, he hated sand in his car. After a day at the beach, we’d be sent to the beach tap to rinse off all traces of sand from our feet before we were even allowed near the car. Dad would be leaning on the open door to the back seat of the car watching us. And Mum. Well, she’d be sitting in the middle of the front bench seat waiting to go.

The path from the tap to the car was sandy.

‘Put your thongs on.’

Easy enough to put the thongs on but as kids, we all found it was difficult to walk in them especially along the sandy path. Especially the younger kids. Imagine a two-year-old trying to walk in thongs and keep the sand off as well. Dad had little tolerance for age related inadequacies.

We didn’t see much of Dad

During the school holidays, Dad used to make the long trip into Hobart each morning and return late at night because he still worked at the transport company. One night he didn’t return to the shack. The next morning Jim Glover drove Mum into town thinking Dad may have had a headache and was resting at home in Hobart.

There was no sign of Dad in the house. Mum dialled the number of Dad’s work.

The boss answered.

“Er, can’t help darlin’. He left work early yesterday and didn’t show up this morning. I’m going to have to dock his pay”, he churtled in a raspy voice.

Mum was not amused.

She immediately took a pragmatic approach. Mum called the hospital and discovered that Dad been admitted during the night and had suffered a brain haemorrhage.

He never came home again.

The year is now 2012

The year is now 2012. There are no shacks left these days.  The crumbling, inadequate infrastructure has been replaced with new roads, power, water, and sewage systems. Shacks have become demolition sites with excavators crushing and destroying them and scooping up their remains. One after another, they have been replaced by big, modern permanent homes with all the amenities.

As I lay in my hospital bed in the neurosurgery ward recovering from a brain haemorrhage, I begin thinking a lot about my father and realise it’s just like thinking about me.

He loved cars, cats and the beach, shiny shoes and crystallised ginger, swimming in the ocean and listening to Scottish music. He loved eating ice-cream in cones and hated dry sand when it squeaks underfoot. He regularly suffered from headaches ……

My thoughts were interrupted by an orderly who arrived with a gurney.

‘My name’s Frank and I’m here to take you for your angiogram.’

Photo taken by Annette Leishman at our shack at Primrose Sands, Tasmania. I’m in the blue top, Mum is wearing a hat and my brother Samuel is standing at the back.



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