Dodging dust and three-corner jacks
Helen and I were reminiscing over lunch today about the experiences of growing up in small Aussie country towns. The entire social life of the families revolved around playing sport: good old AFL or netball in winter and tennis or cricket in summer.
If you were too young, too old or too hopeless to play sport it still wasn't possible to escape it. You were instead required to offer your services in the club canteen, make the afternoon tea, be an umpire, run a meat-tray raffle or be a dedicated spectator either sitting in your warm car watching the footy or in your folding lazy-boy chair under a shady pine tree keeping an eye on the cricket game. Any person who did not play any sport at any time of year who wasn't clearly physically incapacitated or mentally unstable was considered a 'weirdo'. How could sport not be a major part of their lives, the rest of the townsfolk would wonder.
I dutifully played netball until university. Then I was in the big, bad city of Adelaide and didn't feel as though I needed the bitchy, pointless game of throw-catch-stop-start-throw to have a humming social life. I'd had enough of being the tallest player which always equated to being Goal Keeper: a thankless and boring task with only one third of the court to run around in and wearing a pleated skirt that would blow up in the freezing winds and give the local bogan boys something to snigger about.Tennis, however, was my game. From my first coaching lessons at age eleven (and first inter-primary school relationship - with Steven from Murray Bridge North Primary and me, from Murray Bridge South), I loved it. A few years went by between formal coaching and of bashing the ball against the back wall of the house or with my brothers on our quiet, gutterless street which sufficed until I was fourteen and ready to join the local church tennis club.It was intoxicating, especially being able to play a doubles match, a set of singles and mixed doubles all before lunch. I was fairly reasonable at it and for this I thank my two brothers. They taught me many things - not the least to give a good dead-leg, hen-peck and fart-in-the-face - but playing after-tea tennis with me in the long summer months was brilliant. Both of them were fiercely competitive, especially Rob who was (still is in fact) two years older than me.His tongue-out, steely-eyed, battle-to-the-death determination inspired me also to put my face and elbows on the bitumen surfaced line in order to reach that fuzzy yellow ball at any cost. I once beat a boy a year older than me - he was 16 and I was 15 - and in his anger and humiliation he hurled his racquet over the net at me. It was pretty damn flattering actually.
By sixteen I was in the adult competition, and the games were played from 1pm in the afternoon until sometimes 8pm that night. There were no heat rules then - if it was 43C, then it was 43C and you still went out to play but with a wet rag tied around the neck and two willow drink coolers instead of one. Despite having the skin of an English rose with matching fluoro-tubes for legs, I was lucky enough to be able to stand the heat and often the only way to victory was to be the player standing and not in a dead faint from heat stroke.What wasn't so much fun was being the team captain. Not surprisingly, a few more team members than usual used to ring in 'crook' on days that were above 38C and, again not surprisingly, anyone listed as a 'reserve player' weren't exactly overjoyed to be asked to fill in for them. "Errr..... (long pause)... errr.....I can't mate; I have a bone in me leg..."As you can see from this picture of Murray Mallee scrub, the country courts we visited and played at were not the most hospitable of places. Well, not in appearance at least: the players were all good old sticks but if you happened to get a bit carried away and hit a ball over the fence, it was likely to land in a sheep paddock or scrub and get covered in three corner jacks.These evil little prickles were in plague proportions and studded the balls like randy cloves on a pickled egg. They took ages to pick out and you normally scored a few in the pom-pom hanging over your ankle socks as well. Dad once put a few in a matchbox and gave them to a mate, telling him that some baby Thorny Devil lizards were inside.My mother had the foresight to see the impending dangers of sunburn, so I was always slathered in fifteen plus sunscreen, the highest 'factor' legally allowed back in 1984. When a dry northerly wind blew, I'd get double the sun protection when the red dust would land on the lotion and cover me with nature's version of cocoa on a truffle. I'd go home that night with white crow's feet around my eyes and only my teeth a cleaner colour than the rest of me.In addition to the heat, prickles, dust and the fetching scenery were the flies. Big, buzzy blowies that would never rack off no matter how angrily you waved your hands around your face: no, these buggers were so starved of food and moisture they'd intensify their attempts to land on human flesh and aim straight for the mouth, nostrils or tear ducts. This would lead to more angry arm and hand waving by the owner of the moist body parts but the flies would buzz even more insistently and start crawling slowly - almost insolently - over your lips and into the ears. Take my word for it: these tiny little insects have the power to make a person insane.In fact one day I was called upon to umpire a mens' doubles match. These were my least favourite because blokes tended to take it all extremely seriously and this required more alertness than my usual, "Oh yeah, I think that shot was OK Michelle.... 'that alright with you, Shaz?" On and on and on the rally went and just as Trevor volleyed a winner, a blowie chose that moment to fly right up my nose. (If you've seen my honker you'll realise that it's not a difficult thing to do - people have asked what price I'd charge if it was rented out as a warehouse). Not only that, but Malcolm wasn't so certain that Trevor's shot had landed in: "Well, MillyMoo - is it out or is it in?"I was too busy staggering around with an infernal beast ticklishly crawling it's germ-infested way up my nasal passage and hearing an infernal buzzing sound bouncing around like ECT therapy in my head. "Oooh ack, arck arrrgh!" was my response. By this time Trevor, Malcolm, Dennis and Wayne strolled up to the net and stood there rearranging themselves whilst they stared at me. "Arck arck arck!" Somehow the fly had maneouvred its way through my nasal S-bend and ended up finding its escape route via my mouth. "Ooooh yuck - where's some water?"~~ pause ~~ Malcolm asked again, in a slightly annoyed tone: "Well, what was it - IN or OUT?"I might have only been a teenager but their lack of sympathy was annoying. "Well Trev, the fly was in and now it's out. Toss a bloody coin and work it out yourselves." As I flounced back to the wooden benches, I'm sure I heard one of the fellas mutter something about a 'PMS princess' but I was too busy sneezing and gagging to care."Hey Dorothy - can I have a slurp of your red cordial?"