As Wordsworth lamented, doubtless about Mondays, “the world is too much with us” and on the first day of the week he’s right. Thursday and Friday are too frivolous for these matters, and Wednesday, at least in my house, belongs to Micallef and Mad as Hell.
After deep introspection I choose Tuesday night, and Tuesday night it is.
Formerly, if somewhat brazenly called Sex Ed, the evening session of Growth and Development for children and parents begins at our primary school.
Looking about from the back row I see Max’s soccer coach and his son, our neighbour and his lad, and other slightly uncomfortable children and their significantly more uncomfortable mums and dads. Alex tells me he helped put out the chairs. We’re in the school gym. While it’s a place of fun and games I wonder about the kids for whom sport means humiliation and tears.
As such tonight’s about puberty.
The presenter is sunny and welcoming and she has a PowerPoint with amusing cartoons including the compulsory picture of a boy at his local pool on the diving board. It’s obvious to the world that he finds particular physical pleasure in wearing Tony Abbott swimwear.
We discuss a diagram of the female genitalia and use a glossary to identify what’s what. Working through the list our leader says, “Can anyone tell me another word for labia?”
One eager boy blurts, “Pecker!”
We then had the legislated vulva and Swedish car joke which always goes down well, especially on a warm Tuesday night in a beachside suburb.
Moving to the male anatomy chart the cheerful host pauses at scrotum, as we all do, and asks for alternate names.
“Ball sack,” yells a small boy up the front of the gym.
A disembodied, pre-pubescent voice squeaks, “Nut sack.”
“Good, good,” replies our expert and then in a synonymic surprise she chirps, “Now does anyone here call it a Santa sack?”
There’s much roaring from the floor. Alex and Max jump and dance in their chairs. Your correspondent guffaws.
I then find myself contemplating Vas Deferens, and wondering if as well as starring in the Male Reproductive League (MRL) he was a footballer in the 1970s. I can hear Rex Hunt calling, “Vas Deferens collects the air conveyance, breaks a tackle and goes looooong!”
What characterised his career? Impressive clearances (of course) and dour defence, but he couldn’t lock down a spot with Carlton, so moved to South Adelaide in the SANFL, played one hundred serviceable games and now runs a pizza bar at Port Noarlunga where among older footy fans he enjoys a cult following. To this day not even his closest mates call him “VD.”
Our host subsequently speaks of each male producing 30 to 250 million sperm per millilitre of semen and I feel proudly productive, if suddenly tired.
The PowerPoint then shows a teenager mid-wet dream and I’m sure the dads in the gym become distantly nostalgic although no knowing nods are exchanged among us in the back row.
Our final topic is on being kind to yourself through the challenges of puberty. We’re reminded that being a loyal friend is far more important than any temporary looks, and how we should think of the things we’re good at like caring for others or reading or helping at home.
She then asks us to be glad for other blessings, and I lean in to Alex, newly twelve and veering between young man and innocent boy and whisper, “I know you and Max are grateful for Dad’s tremendous comedy” and he punches me on the thigh with affection and I feel pleased for this tiny moment.
Walking home I’m keen to talk about our evening, but excited and with pent-up energy, the boys run and wrestle and bounce along the footpath like an enthused epididymis and I don’t mind. They’re busy being kids.
We’ll speak of sperm and scrotums in the morning. Or not.
There’ll be time next Monday.
It’s instructive, every now and again, to enjoy some sunny elevation. Not so much that you become disconnected from the good earth and its human endeavours, but just enough.
There’s a glorious, painterly aspect and my canvas bursts with sun and sky and sea. I look down the fairway, across the seventh green to the ocean and then to Brighton jetty with its abrupt pier and somewhat sinister telecommunications tower pushing upwards to transmit the city’s texts and calls and photos, and finally off towards the middle distance of the emboldened Glenelg skyline, behind which sits our modest bungalow.
I’m at Marion Golf Course on a bright Wednesday morning strolling the primary school cross-country track that Alex and a host of unknown competitors will soon tackle. Much of the running circuit is out-of-bounds for the golfers, although probably well explored by high-handicapped hackers like me whose Hot Dot is drawn to the fierce wilderness like a goat to the roof of an abandoned car.
Later, I’m by a green with the loose knot of our boys and a tall, kindly grandfather who offers grandfatherly pre-race wisdom.
“Just do your best.”
“Where you finish is irrelevant.”
“The main thing is to enjoy yourself.”
You can imagine my surprise when he then channelled Walter from The Big Lebowski and barked:
“Dude, this is a league game, this determines who enters the next round robin. Am I wrong? Am I wrong?”
Actually, I just made this bit up, but enjoyed the generosity of his encouragement, and hoped the boys, now squirming with energy and anxiety, did too. We were, for that moment, a little community. It was lovely.
About three dozen boys from half a dozen schools strained across the line, gawping at the official’s earnest, controlling remarks.
“Don’t sneak over or there’ll be a false start.”
“When you hear the Robin Hood horn, go!”
Alex was mid-line, tall and tense. On his left was a small lad who was sporting that most ridiculous of hair sculptures, the man-bun. Oh, dear.
A minute or two in and a number had already surrendered to their personal galaxy of defeat and were walking, some distraught and slump-shouldered, while others, without an outward care, were happy to be out of school, and in the perky, breezy, coastal morning.
Running, of course, is the original and most pure of sporting pursuits. There’s no ball, or inferior teammates: just you, your legs and a relentless, unyielding terrain. I reminded myself that this is a gruelling event, especially for a ten year old, and requires uncommon resilience. How many young kids really want to run long distance?
On his final lap Alex emerged from the hilly scrub, exhausted, but still running. And while he’d finish mid-field it was his first cross-country race, and he showed impressive grit. I hoped that this was a metaphor for his inner character and a likely predictor for how he’d face his future. Who could tell? At that point, I was proud.
In the car on the way back to school I offered him an apple, but he was busy with a bucket of orangey sports drink. He didn’t even mind that the radio was on Triple J.
“Dad,” he noted, “You’ll have to run faster when we go to the beach. If you were out there today, you’d come last.”
“I reckon you’re right.”
“I’m gonna train 355 times before next year’s race. So I can do better.”
Would he be an Olympian? Possibly not. Had we handed him the key to an active, participatory life? I hoped so.
From our elevated spot we drove down to the flat and into the rest of the day.
Today is the first day of the new school year for our boys.
At about ten to eight Max asked, “Can we go now?” And then about half an hour later his brother urged, “Let’s go so we can see everyone.”
With teeth brushed and hair styled- Alex’s sticking up, not unlike Tin Tin’s, and Max’s smoothed flat onto his head- just as I did for a while in the way which maddened my Mum. And just like me he was impervious to suggestions that it looked a bit, well, gooby.
I took some photos out the back as the boys posed on the lawn. Often siblings have to be welded together to construct an appearance of closeness, have to be moved like pieces of Lego, but I felt a hot tear when, without prompting, Max flopped a loose arm about his brother’s elevated shoulder.
They smiled willingly. Alex with his boyish radiance, all hope and joy and beauty. Max; restrained but with a cheeky knowingness that shares a confidence and a wink with the camera.
In the playground they both scarpered to friends and spent some boisterous minutes before the bell.
I watched, grateful and happy and sad, and all the things a parent feels on the first day. Both boys enjoyed those carefree moments of movement and interpersonal exchange, when time is endless, and unburdened.
I felt another tear of thankfulness when I reflected upon that other parental nightmare: to happen across your child, sitting alone in a busy playground.
Later I remember another first day of school. I walked from home, and soon caught up with a mum and her kids, making the same journey, in the dust and descending West Coast heat. I said hello and the mum, the wife of a bank manager replied, “First day?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Are you looking forward to it?”
I nodded. “I am, although I’m a bit nervous.”
“You’ll be right,” she reassured me. “The kids here are pretty friendly. So, what year are you in?”
“Err,” I looked down at my Roman sandals (yes, I’m still a style icon) and said, “I’m actually teaching.”
I arranged with Alex and Max to meet me by a tree so I could walk them to their new classes. On the bell, I farewelled one of the other dads and made my way there. After a minute or two with the playground emptying I smiled to myself, strolled inside and joined the bustling corridor, all new bags and shiny uniforms and shepherding parents.
Alex was in his class and at a table, with old friends. As the adults swarmed about all keen to invest a minute or so with the new teacher I gave Alex a pat on the shoulder, ruffled his product-ed hair and said, “Have a good day mate.” But my voice broke a little at the end, and he glanced up, not concerned for himself, but me.
Next door Max and his class were already on the mat with Mr Smith gently giving instructions. I caught Max’s eye and gave a wave. He looked happy and comfortable, and the world was bright and sunny and spinning silently on its axis.
The first day had begun, and would soon be over, and replaced by another. I hoped they would continue like this, and flow all year like rain.
During the second quarter, on the fifty-metre arc, at the Punt Road end was, to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, when the stories and the beer began to take hold.
Six of us are in Row S, connected by the time we spent together at Kapunda High School, and variously on the Barossa’s cricket and footy ovals.
Much of our conversation is our old cars and coaches and mates and publicans and parents and maverick teachers who shaped us.
It’d been a ripping trip so far: early flights, the North Fitzroy Arms for the Footy Almanac lunch which concluded with the final siren at the SCG, the obligatory Young and Jackson nightcaps, and a Saturday laneway breakfast.
With the Uber app showing cars descending like black Pacmen three of us ride in a Caprice, and I’m reminded of the great Dave Graney and his song “Feelin’ Kinda Sporty” which opens with the magnificent
A black Statesman “73
At high noon, and accompanied with ample yarns, we entered the All Nations Hotel to confer with the ghost of Bill Hunter, and then white pub-vanned to the MCG as the match commenced. Each of us is merrily apathetic about the result.
I love footy, but occasionally its lone function is to provide a panoramic context across which we can splash our stories. Rocket would love to be watching his beloved Sturt while Nick, the Hayward boys (not Kapunda’s Gatlin boys) and Lukey are Norwood men, but as neither is scheduled at the MCG today we get along to Collingwood and Port.
With the match chugging along Nick and I discuss contemporary AFL footballers and old players from home, in particular one Mail Medallist and local publican who loved scrapping at the bottom of a pack, like a nuggetty 1970’s Selwood.
“You know what he used to do in the sheds before a game?”
“No. Tell me.”
“He’d smear heaps of Vaseline on his eyebrows so the elbows would slide off.”
Needing to refresh their refreshments the Haywards return with their shouts: Bundy for them, and mid-strength beers for us. For a moment, I fear we’ll need petroleum jelly too, but happily there’s no fight in the forward pocket.
We move onto that most vital of topics: Which Test Cricketer would you most like to have a beer with? (until very recently in pre-production at Network Ten)
“There’s nothing to discover. Nothing.”
“Yeah, and I can’t have a beer with someone who calls their book, ‘My Autobiography.’”
“That’d have been a funny meeting at the publishers.”
I take a difficult sip of my mid-strength. “Waugh twins?”
“No. Steve’d bore you to death.”
“The worst kind of mental disintegration.”
Ultimately our choice is clear. One of the most stylish middle-order bats we’ve seen, and still a bloke about whom little is really known. An anti-Warney. The one who quit the night of the famous 2006 Ashes victory in Adelaide. Damien Martyn.
On the ground, Port is doing well with Robbie Gray slotting a few while Unley Jets alumnus Brodie Grundy is holding his own for the Magpies.
We wonder if the Chappell brothers still own the Leg Trap Hotel, and if David Warner is less likeable than a curved television and if it’s possible to make Boonie more Australian. It isn’t.
This brings us to the best quotation ever, the one which places sport and our little, self-tortured world into perfect context. Nick remembers his Dad giving him Australian allrounder and WWII pilot Keith Miller’s book. “Pressure,” Keith said. “I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not.”
Still laughing at the magnificence of this, Rocket heads off to a cavern and emerges with some appropriate beers. Normal transmission is resumed. Pendlebury is smooth and constructive, as usual. We note that Ollie Wines has thighs like Californian redwood.
The conversation then tends, as it must, towards other nostalgia and juvenalia. We’re now at Stalag 13. The verdant field of the MCG recedes and we’re all in front of a black and white TV, sliding our paws into packets of Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs.
“Burkhalter and Hochstetter.”
Much giggling, given to misty eyes.
“No prisoner has ever escaped from Stalag 13.”
“I’d like to hear this on the BBC World Service: Munich Messerschmitts 2, Stalag 13, 3.”
Someone slides next to me with a pie. A message comes through that another Kapunda High contemporary is on the second deck behind the Port cheer squad. We wave at Maria, who waves towards our bay.
Looking back now it makes sense, and indeed there’s a happy inevitability in the childhood image that would become our weekend’s talisman. The footy is now on mute as we moved towards the creature that Mark Twain described as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton.” The coyote, but of course for us, Wily E Coyote.
I don’t know how we came to this, and I don’t want to know, but as the shadows lengthened across Melbourne, Lukey, with his talent for the comic and the absurd mentioned it and we were off.
“Easily the greatest cartoons ever.”
“The coyote hanging in mid-air until he realizes that he is about to plummet into a chasm!”
“Yeah, and he’d hold up a sign like ‘Goodbye cruel world.’”
“Or ‘Help me.’”
By now the laughter and the memories and the beer and our good fortune at being in this fun space meant, for some of us, there were tears of childish abandonment.
“What of the Giant Kite Kit?”
“The roller skates and the fan blowing the coyote along?”
“From the Acme company.”
Bombs, detonators, nitroglycerin. Not so funny in 2017, but when you’re seventeen and watching Looney Tunes…
We talk of the Road Runner’s ability to enter the painted image of a cave, while the coyote cannot, which showed us that the existentialists are correct: it is an unknowable and absurd universe. Cartoons teach us this.
And then as the Paah (sic) delivered their knockout blow to Collingwood, Lukey delivered his knockout blow to us. A childhood picture that captures the fun, the innocence of the endless battle between the Roadrunner and the Coyote.
“Free bird seed.”
And there it was. Only three words. But a beautiful mantra of the past, a pulsing refrain, and the best televisual picture of a little bird nibbling at food in the desert, likely just outside Albuquerque.
Out the gate, backpacks jumping, and into the heart of a suburban morning. The simplest of connectives, from home to school is a pair of comfortable 8-irons. One to the corner, and then one to the playground.
By the gate, I guard after them. Alex and Max dissolve around the turn, with a sudden jolt to the right.
It’s their first time. It’s both ordinary and extraordinary.
In my car, I edge around the block to meet them. Our bond’s broken by a tangle of local geography and ribboned tarmac. The one-way street demands I steer away from them, counterintuitively, cruelly, past the park, and then down a hopefully untroubled avenue.
Of course, their little world grows. Out they go, in beautiful binary.
It’s one hundred seconds of quarantined blackness. It’s one hundred seconds of paused parental terror, but it’s also one hundred seconds they need.
Alex and Max have jettisoned from my troposphere, but I launch to them like a satellite, eager to discover a warm orbit.
At the intersection by their school, my car crouches as the outdoor squeals spurt through the open window like snatches of pop songs.
And there they are, bouncing along the path, side-by-side, as brothers should, their flapping shorts of shamrock-green, quince-peels of hair. The roadside trees fold forwards.
Spotting me is simple permission for them to accelerate to school, exploding scraps of rainbow. They scamper through the gate, and to their mates.
I yell after them, but my voice vaporises behind their giraffe legs and the innocent rush of a new day. “Good job, boys. See you tonight!”
Misty-eyed, I drive off. A bright, early morning, already it seems late.
Soon, it will be.