Chapter 16 DOT 1951
On my first day at Sydney Teachers' College I left Lugarno at seven o'clock to be there by 8.30. Nothing happened until 10 when we began to enrol, so on the second morning I left much later, as I normally liked to stay in bed and relax until the last minute. Of course that would be the day that the bus was held up, causing me to miss my train at Hurstville. I hurried to college from Redfern. It was mortifying having to walk into that huge assembly room, fifteen minutes late. I struggled to appear composed. Years of being required to conform to the "norm" had resulted in a person who was embarrassed to look or behave differently from everyone else. Being a teacher-trainee had not changed me from the schoolgirl who hardly dared to look at strangers. I had not suddenly become mature and confident! And I still looked young enough to get away with half-fare although I was now 18!
I wore my home-made version of the "New Look", the full, calf-length skirts, (which I had thought to be such a waste of material when the fashion first came in) with stockings, and sandals with a medium heel. After five years of compulsory uniforms, to "engender pride in the school", we were wearing ordinary street clothes which could be bought readily "off the peg" or made more cheaply and with more individuality and better fit. Rationing had ended. I never wanted to wear navy again, and believed colours suited me better. My Globite school-case would no longer do, and I had acquired a cheap briefcase, the sign of a college or university student.
I had never been in the same room as so many boys but I noted there were far more girls than boys. Most boys with good Leaving Certificate results looked to careers in many fields; teaching was often a second choice. For girls teaching was seen as more desirable and even offered the chance of returning to work with school-age children, but for most it was for a few years until marriage.
My name was called out for a section doing training to teach in Lower Secondary Schools. These schools were generally made up of students who intended to leave after the Intermediate Certificate. This idea upset me very much as I wanted to be an infants teacher. Margaret, my friend from Fort Street was in a similar plight. Top passes in the Leaving Certificate were awarded University Scholarships. On our results that is what we had been awarded and had declined. A degree would have taken at least two years longer and we would have been under bond a year longer and it was not what we wanted. Two years at College and a three year bond seemed long enough but not unreasonable. It had been assumed that we would do the nearest thing to a degree. They assumed wrongly. I could not imagine standing in front of a crowd of critical teenagers and give lessons on any subject whatever. After running here and there, we obtained a promise that we would be placed in the primary section. Meantime we were to go with the Lower Secondary section and hear a lecture in the library: how to find books by the use of a simple catalogue. The library was certainly a fine one, but I certainly did not need an hour to learn its potential without touching.
Everyone was issued with a copy of "Australian Insects" and a book on Sex Education, in case our parents had not told us about reproduction, the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy, the tragedy of being swept into a damaging or premature marriage (a "shotgun" wedding) and the risk of contracting venereal disease. None of us wanted to rush into intimate relationships. Passionate, insincere flirting was frowned upon. We were torn between a strong urge to react positively to someone we thought attractive and a level-headed caution and prudence. We should not lead others to believe we were interested in more than platonic friendship when we were not.
We saw options which included travel and had chosen our careers accordingly. I wanted to see places I had heard of, from Ayers Rock to Stonehenge, from Port Arthur to the Great Wall of China, from the Barrier Reef to Niagara Falls. There were wonderful places and cultures to experience. There was no concept that overseas was better than Australia, just bigger (no "Cultural Cringe"). If anything I believed that Australia was the best country in the world and migrants were flocking to share our good fortune. My dream was to meet the "right" person in a few years and have a home and family, but in the meantime meet a lot of people and do a lot of things without the possibility of a failed relationship. But what if "Mr Right" was at college now? Looking around me at the male students I did not see anyone alluring. They were mostly immature schoolboys. Although my parents' marriage had not worked and divorce was unacceptable to them and generally stigmatised, it never occurred to me that I could not succeed with a suitable husband. I had a five-year commitment and would be 23 before I would be free to travel or to become a mother.
The next day Margaret and I were demoted to the primary section and began our lectures with another hour on the library and its catalogue!
We would learn a smattering of biology, economics, politics but mainly we would learn practical craft and teaching methods. In the surrounding suburbs were "dem" schools where teachers demonstrated types of lessons while we stood around the classroom and the children tried to ignore our presence (no doubt bribed and/or threatened). We absorbed something of class management in a room where the lessons always went smoothly.
At my first practice teaching, the headmistress ushered all the student teachers into a room separate from the real teachers and insisted that we help ourselves to tea. Until then I had not developed the habit of drinking tea. If tea-drinking was a requirement I would learn. With milk and sugar was what Mum drank, so that's what I tried. We were each allocated to a class, spent the day watching the teacher, learning a few names and routines and in the afternoon discussed the outline of lessons for the next day. I prepared my lessons as required, then spent half the night memorising and rehearsing them. At my first attempt I was quite surprised and a little embarrassed to find all the eight-year old children listening attentively and watching my face open-eyed. I was able to get and maintain attention at least for the duration of that lesson on frogs for which I had drawn one on the blackboard. Any doubts about my ability to teach were diminishing. I could do it.
We should acquire some background about the world in which we lived, basic knowledge of geology and flora and fauna, including the appropriate classification of whales, dolphins, crocodiles. Unlike our early settlers I did not have to describe them as fish so as not to offend the church view. I had no problem with the word mammal and did not feel that it was sinful in drawing attention to a "private part" or that mankind was disrespectful by calling humans Mammalia.
Also we had to understand something about outback schools and problems such as latrines and hydatids which we may need to deal with or know when to seek help. We had grown up with the need to dispose of our own rubbish, usually to the chooks, found jars, paper and string useful, so saved them. Plastic had not yet become a problem and few people bought anything in cans. Now in the cities and towns the councils were providing a garbage service with garbage men running behind a truck and throwing the contents of metal garbage bins into it. It would not always be so in the country.
Most of us were pretty bored with the subject of politics. Those students whose home background had a political bias probably had their points of view and party allegiance reinforced . The main conclusion I came to at the time was that I was not interested and would not have known who was the Prime Minister (I learnt it was Menzies). Jehovah's Witnesses tried to separate themselves from "worldly" laws.
Something must have penetrated my apathy, as I did take on board that the concept of "left wing" and "right wing" are so general they are meaningless. I didn't know how I would have been labelled. There is nothing measurable which divides them neatly. Extreme governments of either persuasion (Germany under Hitler or Russia under Stalin and many unions and prescriptive religions) are all very authoritarian, telling people how to think and act, whereas most democracies are moderate, supporting different areas with pensions and concessions, discouraging others, allowing different points of view. But for every benefit created, a new set of regulations is needed to control it and the more the government does for people, the less they will do for themselves and each other. A government's task is to make the laws, the judiciary and police are to interpret and enforce the laws. Commerce is a different field, but governments world-wide are dabbling in it more and more. Some candidates said "The government should do something about this. If you vote for us we will do it for you." Other people said "Let us do something about this." I would have been in the latter group if it seemed possible. This was how people in the past had worked together to get what they wanted. But there is a big overlap and many inconsistencies. The topic was also discussed that state laws were often conflicting with Federal laws and those of other states. I thought this was not sensible.
It seemed to me that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said "You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong." Welfare creates dependence.
Economics was equally boring and irrelevant in my life and I absorbed even less. There was something about an island with a cowrie shell currency where one fish or one coconut cost one cowrie shell. When a fisherman decided a fish was worth two cowrie shells, he found that very soon a coconut also went up to two cowrie shells. The inflation spiral in action. And another man presumably in another place kept his money under the mattress, which was the only really BAD thing he could have done. Spending his money in any conceivable way, on extravagances and luxuries or anything else was fine and employed people, therefore it was good. [At this time the concept of drug taking and environmentally harmful activities was rare.] I had played enough Monopoly to know that if the balance between income and expenditure were lost, one person won everything, everyone else went "broke", finally the winner could not rent or sell anything and the tedious game collapsed.
We learnt a smattering of the class structure of society. The term "lower class" was considered derogatory so was euphemistically called "working class". We were all "middle class", needing to earn a living but having certain characteristics which enabled us to postpone the day of earning and continuing our studies to gain more satisfaction and salary in the future. In general "middle class" people were brought up able to postpone any gratification by looking forward to a greater benefit at a later time. "Upper class" members were born to some degree of wealth, but most of them had to work hard to manage that wealth or it would soon disappear. Many of them contributed greatly to society as they had time and leisure to study (ie Sir Joseph Banks). Even if they led a life of leisure, they employed a lot of people and this was beneficial. The only "bad" thing (other than illegal or destructive activities) to do with money was to do nothing - to put it "under the mattress". It was obvious that I now had things unavailable to my mother at the same age, through no special effort of mine. This was the "filter down" effect of increasing national wealth.
Most of this went over my head. I had other things to think about, but learnt enough to pass the exams.
In the weekly assembly we were told of the various college clubs and other activities for which the college provided meeting rooms. A young university graduate doing his Diploma of Education, gave us a most amusing talk on the bushwalking club. He invited us to come and lose ourselves in the glories of Nature. This immediately struck a chord. I knew exactly what he was talking about. It sounded so exciting. One of the girls assured us that girls need have no fear of any unwanted advances from the boys. Any such behaviour would result in ejection from the club.
On the day of the bushwalkers' meeting I could not find the room and arrived late. My love of the bush overcame my self-consciousness and I slipped into the meeting, trying not to be flustered as I became aware of the sea of faces that looked up, and the president's frank gaze. They were planning a trip to the Shoalhaven River at Easter, and my name was placed on the list of intending starters which included other newcomers. This was an unexpected wonderful opportunity which would open to me a whole new world. Serendipity.
The club had some basic maps, a couple of packs and a sleeping bag with an inner sheet for hygiene. As I had no equipment I had to borrow a pack from the club and make a sleeping bag out of blankets. We got a list of items to bring; intending starters and available tents were counted. My shorts were really not tough enough, nor were my slacks. I had never bought, cooked or eaten dried vegetables, which members bought from a large showroom in the city owned by Paddy Pallin. Helen helped me find suitable food and a billy-can. Everything would be cooked in one vessel. I was used to meat and vegetables cooked and served separately on the plate. I bought a sheet of plastic, a novelty at the time, to serve as a ground sheet.
On the Thursday before Easter I wore my slacks and golf shoes to college to save having to change, left my pack at the railway cloakroom and felt conspicuous, being the only female in my section dressed like that. It was not a comfortable feeling but I was determined to do what was sensible rather than conform. Most of the group hitchhiked down straight from college, but I wanted to visit my mother in hospital first. She was hopeful of being home again soon to supervise my activities more closely. She was not at all convinced that it was desirable for me to go off with a group of young people tramping around the countryside. To her it all sounded rather dubious. To me it was so thrilling.
Four of us, easily recognised by our packs and bushwalking clothes, left on the nine o'clock train which was crowded with many other holidaymakers. Someone saw my pack and decided it would make a soft seat for a couple of hours. Result - one battered billy-can, several squashed tomatoes and tomato-coloured decorations on my clean shirt.
We very nearly missed the little station of Marulan, because where our carriage was stopped, there was no sign of a station. Just in time we realised we were there and threw our packs to the ground and jumped down after them. Two miles to walk to the little creek where the others had made camp much earlier.
There was an understanding of a suitable place to go "behind a tree", girls right, boys left. I was glad that by economising, my regular if modest income enabled me to buy tampons for bushwalking and disposable sanitary pads for other times. The chemist had them under the counter and when asked for, they were produced, already wrapped in brown paper. As we did not carry pyjamas, we slept in our clothes. Our tents were called Picanninies, big enough for two bigger boys or three smaller girls. We were all allocated our accommodation.
It was customary to be up and away early, and we were on the road bright and early next morning, in spite of the fact that some of us had crawled into bed at 2.30 the previous night. "Water's fresh," we were told. "There are tadpoles in it."
There were four miles along the dirt road to the lookout above the Shoalhaven River.
"Four miles of road-bashing," apologised Bob, the leader of this trip and the club's president. "We only walk on roads when there is no alternative."
I lapped up every word. I was determined to become what he would call a good walker.
On arrival at the Long Point Lookout we spent some time breathing the fresh air and admiring the wide panorama and the little silver thread of water far below. The mountains on both sides were very steep and it seemed there was no room on either side of the river for our large party to camp, with the exception of one beautiful green area on a bend of the river. It looked so enticing. I wanted to fly down there like a bird.
The track to the river was steep and soon gave us "jelly-legs". At times it seemed that our legs were no longer obedient to the instructions of our brains, they shook at the knees and gave way at unexpected moments. A more rapid descent of some parts was made on our backsides. Of course the colour of our clothes suffered from this treatment, but what did that matter? Only Bob refused to join us in our giant slippery-dip. He had only one pair of shorts which he was now wearing inside out so as to be fairly respectable on his return to civilisation.
A couple of hours later we were at river level and threw down our packs and searched for snacks and drinking mugs. As we walked to the river we staggered and felt as if we were floating minus the weight of our packs.
"Ten minutes" was Bob's ultimatum. "Then we look at that camp site."
We had a snack, using our packs as back rests to relieve our aching backs.
What had appeared from above to be a flat grassy field, was the least suitable place imaginable for camping, for it was as lumpy as a ploughed field. However there was a river-flat hidden by a group of casurinas (she-oaks) just around the bend. Those who had carried the tents found two tent suitable sticks for poles in the area and tents soon stood in little clusters scattered among the trees. The next thing was a fast change into swimming costumes and an hour's fun in the water.
Harry, now a teacher and an old hand at cooking bushwalkers' fare invited me to be his guest for the first meal. I began to learn how to light the preferred kind of fire using only a small amount of paper and one match, how to cook dried food in a billy-can and how to eat in the dark. When he asked me how I took my tea, I said with milk and sugar. Harry supplied powdered milk and sugar. Then a campfire was organised and my lesson on singing began. Someone produced a mouth-organ. Oh so many new songs - "Alouette", "Good-bye" from "The White Horse Inn", some "walking" songs made famous by the Australian baritone Peter Dawson "I've Always Been a Rover", written over fifty years earlier by Leslie Coward and which really resonated with me, "I Love to go a Wandering", "Green Grow the Rushes Oh", the mysterious semi-pagan semi-Christian origin of the words were of no consequence. I was especially taken by one which was quite new to me, but really "rang bells".
WANDERING THE KINGS HIGHWAY
I've always been a rover
Summer and winter too
Wandering the wide world over
Seems like I always do
But when I start the journey
At the dawn of another day
I give a health to my comrades
Pals of the King's Highway.
Song long to you, gotta be on the road again
So long to you, gotta hitch up my load again
It's been great to meet you here
Right good company, right good cheer
Now then my lads, anyone like to come with me?
A wandrer's life is free.
I can say night and day
Nothing ever worries me.
Nights are cold, maybe I am growing old!
Yet I thrive
And the pals I meet make it good to be alive.
Comrades farewell, what if we never meet again
The memory will stay
As I go rain or snow,
Wandering the King's Highway.
In this atmosphere I began to lose my self-consciousness with strangers and even enjoyed myself.
My metamorphoses into a "Dot" had begun.
The first night under canvas had been so short and I had been so tired, that I slept. The experienced walkers told me I would get used to the hard ground after a while. That was hard to believe as I tried to make myself comfortable. Next morning how my back ached and how sore my shoulders were. I was up early simply because I couldn't bear to stay on my back a moment longer. Birds trilled their many songs, and the river hummed steadily to provide background music. Bob was already up and calling to everyone to be up and doing on a beautiful morning. Occasionally there was the sharp snap of sticks being broken for firewood; or a hearty cooee from nearby boy scouts, feeling they must express their exuberance. Then our own camp was stirring. Fires were lit one by one and smoke began to drift lazily up to the tree tops.
After breakfast the tents were taken down, neatly rolled and packed away in the rucksacks of the more experienced walkers, who each practised his own favourite routine of rolling and packing.
During the morning we followed the river downstream. Before long it was impossible to continue on the western bank, so we had to swim across the river. We were told to put our ground sheets down and our packs in the centre, wrap it up like a Christmas pudding and it would float quite well. "Breaststroke and push your pack in front of you."
In spite of carefully following these directions I found when we stopped for lunch that some of my essential dried food was now soggy and some of my clean clothes were damp, but my dry biscuits were edible with cheese or cold meat. Some of the more experienced walkers developed a taste for salami (imported from Poland) which kept well and was convenient for walking trips.
A few hundred yards further downstream we had to cross back. Bob may have sensed some rebellion in the ranks at the suggestion of a third crossing, so instead we scrambled up an extremely steep slope and edged above a vertical drop, finding footholds gingerly and fingers searching for something solid to grasp.
"Well you've had a taste of just about everything this trip. You'll all be seasoned walkers after a couple more walks. How are you going Dot?" Bob directed his remark to me as we all sat in the sun at our next campsite.
"Oh I'm beginning to pick it up. There's so much to learn."
"You're doing really well. Not afraid to try or worried about soiling your hands. Better than most beginners. I watched you light a fire."
"I'll have to learn to drink tea."
"Yes, that's absolutely essential. Unless you are sure the water's safe to drink. If there are tadpoles it's OK."
"We're not out yet. It will be much worse going up than coming down. I hurt my back as a girl and it troubles me a bit, the heavy pack."
"I'd much rather go uphill any day, than come down a steep hill. You just have to take it steady and keep plodding. I hate the jelly-legs coming down."
"The first thing I'll have to get is a pair of suitable slacks and good rucksack or maybe a pack or proper sleeping bag."
"Yes, blankets are so heavy and too bulky and not warm enough. Try the army disposals stores for clothes and boots. And for good lightweight sleeping bags and packs go to Paddy Pallin's. He has a store upstairs near Town Hall Station."
Another day and it was time to return. Bob was right about going uphill. Go steadily and just keep on and on, one foot in front of the other. After half an hour it was legitimate to drop packs and flop down for ten minutes, preferably at a scenic spot, although some of the proud young men did not deign to drop their packs. The view of the Shoalhaven River and the way along which we had come, was unfolded with each section of the climb until the trees at the top obscured it. I found I had a pretty good sense of direction and automatically knew which way to turn when we reached the track at the top.
From a little farm house one of the boys obtained water and we stopped for lunch. We scrubbed up and changed into clean clothes, or turned our dirty clothes right side out again, using a clump of trees as dressing-rooms, before setting out on the tedious "road bash" to Tallong. The unpleasantness associated with such evils was reduced by the formation of a choir to sing marching songs.
To save valuable money we all decided to hitchhike back to Sydney, splitting into pairs for the purpose.
"Dot would you like to come with me?" asked Bob casually.
I felt less self-conscious because he was so nonchalant, and he took the initiative in signalling for a lift. Boys get lifts more easily with a girl, girls feel more secure with a known boy.
"Don't worry," he said. "People who give lifts to bushwalkers and their enormous packs are invariably nice folk."
"I suppose so and if I'm going to do much walking I'll have to get used to it, the fares would be too dear."
"You're going to make a first-rate walker, not scared of pulling your weight. Nobody would think it to look at you but you're as strong as an ox. You did very well on the climb out."
Did he realise how much effort it had been to keep my legs going? Or how my back ached? Tomorrow my muscles would ache terribly, but next time would be better.
It seemed strange to be back at Lugarno that night. I lit the chip-heater and had a long, hot soaking, bath. More frequent baths and showers were beginning to become the norm but to us they were still a luxury and so relaxing. In my own (actually Mum's) bed I thought of the graceful casurinas beneath which our little tents were pitched and the campfire smoke curling up into the starry sky. It had been an even better experience than Blue Gum Forest with Dad and Bill. I had never done anything so exciting, so different from the ordinary. I had never enjoyed such companionship or made so many friends. Colo Heights was now less exciting than it had been. I felt I could handle any approaches that might be made by my equals better than those of men during my adolescent years. Even hitchhiking was less daunting. Why worry about what some people might think? We were not rebelling against authority, just finding an affordable way to get somewhere to enjoy our bush.
"You're going to make a first-rate walker," he had said. did he mean I was not a whinger, but cheerfully took things in my stride. My thoughts centred on the next trip to the Blue Mountains. My inhibitions began to diminish. My confidence grew. I had less need for day dreams. However extravagant my previous fantasies had been, none of them had ever depicted me in bushwalking gear. Bushwalking removed many common prejudices. People were judged on their own merits not on their appearance. There were a few budding romances within the club but these were kept out of club activities. "Pairing off" was an unwritten taboo as it would have spoiled the group. Little of this could be shared with my mother. I only told her I had I begun to copy out the songs we had sung, by hand in my best printing in a little book I acquired for the purpose. The songs were mainly about the joys of walking and discovering wonderful scenery. I found I was good at lighting fires. Talking about things like this seemed to reduce some of Mum's doubts.
The club's name, Kameruka, means "I will return" and I knew I would again and again. My goal in life began to change from acquiring material goods, to the accomplishment of all the recognised walks, the Reserve in Tasmania, Milford Track in New Zealand, even maybe the Himalayas. Bushwalking became an influential aspect of my life which taught me about the wide world. And I readily accepted the philosophy of conservation, "Take nothing but photos leave nothing but footprints", preservation of the bush and enjoying the freedom from the burden of too much gear. What was really necessary apart from enough food and clothes? A pack seemed to be the priority then a sleeping bag and wind jacket. Until I could afford a proper ground sheet, a piece of plastic would have to do. Most of the experienced walkers had boots, but golf shoes would have to suffice for the present and could be worn on other occasions too. By now I realised that my Box Brownie camera was thoroughly outclassed. It was too cumbersome to carry and very limited in focussing but getting another was a low priority. Knitting a bushwalking jumper using scrap wool was something I could start immediately, a "Joseph's coat" (a coat of many colours), also making cloth bags to hold measured quantities of dry food. Some things were better contained in small lightweight aluminium tins which were available from the chemist when the tablets that came in them were sold. The tins came in various sizes suitable for weekends or longer trips, made by May and Baker, known as M & B tins.
I was soon an active member of the bushwalking committee, doing by hand a newsletter and posters.
I was quickly making myself frocks suitable for College, all simple cotton gingham and a few warmer clothes for the coming winter, skirts and jumpers or "twin sets", a matching jumper and cardigan. Being young and fit none of us felt a need to wear corsets. They were for "well-upholstered" matrons.
There was a march for more money from the Department of Education while I was at College but Margaret and I, and no doubt others, felt so lucky with a regular sufficient income, more than we had ever had, and did not join in. Higher allowances and wages in the wider world led to higher costs for the taxpayer, which led to higher taxes which led back via strikes to higher wages. What was the point? Members of my family who had been influential in my life were self-employed or took jobs as it suited them without any expectation of permanence. For them there was no point in striking. Few jobs had any element of permanency and those that did, such as teaching involved an undertaking. I was used to the idea that if you wanted something you found a way of earning it. Mum was glad that I found other things more important than acquiring more material goods.
Sometimes it was difficult to choose between the College dances and other activities such as bushwalking. Very few people did not dance. No doubt the boys had lessons at school and some went to dance classes to give them more confidence before they asked a girl to dance. For some it came more naturally than others but it was considered very rude for a girl to refuse without good reason. There was no alcohol available. For us it wasn't necessary in order to have a good time. The dances I liked best were Labomba, done to Tango rhythm and Maxina which were slightly more complicated but more interesting. Those of us who knew them were often asked to help the boys learn. Occasionally there was a "ladies' choice" when the girls had to pluck up courage to ask for the dance.
I had put my name (Dorothy) down to make my debut at the Fort Street Annual Ball held at the Trocadero. I bought a pair of silver sandals and some white satin and lace and made my dress and thought I looked demure as was required for a debutante and quite pretty. The bodice was lace and fitted neatly over my waist, the skirt was satin and very full and swayed gracefully over borrowed petticoats which rustled with every movement. I felt like a queen as I danced in front of the mirror. My partner was an instructor from the dancing school where we were taught to do the debutante's waltz and it was easy to follow him. My girlfriends from school were there with their families and other friends. We sat at our own table, decorated with flowers, rather than around the walls. Most of the girls had a brother or family friend to be their partner. It was out of the question for Mum to attend, she said the thought made her feel exhausted. Uncle Viv was on leave so he bought me a string of pearls and came to the ball with Auntie Clytie. I was going back to Pennant Hills with them afterwards. Penny, my friend from Lugarno, came with her brother. No-one else was able or willing and I did not ask many people. A formal suit was necessary. It was not the sort of function that Bill could have attended. I imagined the "gentlemen" would ask me to dance which was all that mattered and I would not be left as a "wallflower" too often. The problem was coping with all the petticoats when I needed to go to the toilet, and I had a touch of diahorrea from the excitement!
We were presented to a judge, an ex Fort Street boy, curtsied to his wife and then did our debutante's waltz. Then followed the real dancing and I found I did not sit out a dance.
The bushwalkers' ball was an annual event held in the Union Hall at the Sydney University. At the club meeting Bob suggested that a party of us should go, but as we were all students, that we should each buy our own ticket. Probably sensing my excitement at the thought of a ball, he looked intently at me and asked if I would be interested in going, and when I nodded mutely, he asked me if I would care to go with him. My first date! And with an older man! A graduate, at least 21 years old, the president of our club, with so much bushwalking (and other?) experience.
My dress was home-made and decorous, my school debutante dress which I had worn only once a couple of months earlier. I walked to the bus stop, with my pyjamas, a toothbrush and street clothes in a case, then caught the bus to Hurstville and train.
"You look great," Bob said when we met at Central station. "Bit different from bushwalking gear, eh, Dot?"
"Oh I'm glad of that."
"What's in your case? a dozen bottles of beer?"
"Oh no, I'm afraid not. Only my clothes for tomorrow. I'm staying at my uncle's place at Pennant Hills because there aren't any buses back to Lugarno. I want to leave it at the railway cloakroom until I'm going home."
"Let me carry it then."
We walked to the cloak room before catching the tram. He knew that the men were required by etiquette to walk on the outside of the footpath (a carryover from the days when a horse carriage might dash past and spray the lady's dress), and I had to learn to take my place on the inside. I also had to learn to pause long enough to allow them to step forward to open doors or push the chair under the table. Bob knew all these things from long practice.
The University Union hall was crowded with noisy people putting last minute touches to their table decorations, or greeting members of other clubs, people they had encountered on walks. We overheard snatches of conversations.
"Didn't I meet you in the Reserve in Tasmania? I think you had slipped in the mud and were trying to scrape it off your clothes."
"I'll never forget that. Were you the guy with the big camera?"
"Yes I got a really good shot. I'm very proud of it. I'll send you the negative if you like. Give me your address."
Bob of course knew everyone and everyone knew Bob. Suddenly I felt like a little mouse, an impostor and I was once again Dot. I didn't really belong. I wanted to vanish, but with Bob's arm around me and becoming aware of his quiet air of assurance and his pride in me as a partner, I found myself going eagerly from group to group, talking and even joking a little. Many of the decorations were extraordinary as table-centres at a ball. One club had a canoe resting on a frame above their heads, giving us a hint of their special interest. Another group had a three-foot bushwalker made of tubing. He carried a sandwich in one hand and a map in the other, a compass around his neck and a much-travelled hat sat on his head. He wore size ten boots and socks on the ends of his spidery legs. Other tables hinted at rock-climbing and caving.
Our club had an enormous imitation cheese, because the name Kameruka also happens to be the name of a brand of cheese. The meaning according to Bob "I will return" was more appropriate to a bushwalking club than a cheese.
A lot of friendly rivalry between the clubs was evident. Ours was one of the smaller groups, the only student club. Our badge was a simple gum leaf with a yellow arrow through it and the initials K.B.C. (Kameruka Bushwalking Club). Although only a very new walker I felt a great pride in our club and especially in the president.
"I think the music is going to start. Let's see if the rest of our group is here yet. Ah there is John. Looks more at home in shorts and hobnailed boots than in his tuxedo. You think you get to know people so well bushwalking and you do in many ways. Then you see quite another side at an occasion like this." John was at our table, a newcomer like me and about as nervous. I felt something in common with him.
My dancing experience until then had been in the school hall when we girls had been given the privilege of teaching each other The Pride of Erin and the Barn Dance to records on a wind-up gramophone on rainy days, occasional school dances at the boys' school, College dances and finally the school Debutantes' Ball.
"You have a really good sense of rhythm," Bob assured me. "You'll be a good dancer when you get a bit more practice." Under his firm guidance it was easy to glide through the steps of the jazz waltz.
John asked me for the next dance and I no longer wanted to wait until the floor was crowded before accepting an invitation. Even though John was no more experienced than I was, we enjoyed a lively quickstep to music that made the feet tap, "In the Mood" popularised by Glen Miller. The more spirited the tune, the more I enjoyed it.
Bob was an energetic dancer and sufficiently experienced to avoid monotony. In one dance we won a bottle of sherry for being in the vital "spot" at the vital moment. Our combined economic situations had not allowed the thought of such a luxury! Among eight of us it was no more than a drink each, but added greatly to the feeling of festivity. Even the empty bottle sitting on the table made me feel grown-up. Such an occasion! Wearing a long dress (even home-made) being out with a man (although I had bought my own ticket) dancing and whirling under the spell of that exhilarating music until I felt exhausted, then refreshing myself with a drink of water (and wiping my sweaty hands) between dances. But the important thing was I didn't sit out a single dance, and was even asked before the dance started!
At one o'clock we did our own boisterous version of the cancan and sang Auld Lang Syne and it was over. Feeling a bit intoxicated from all the excitement, I went with Bob back to the railway cloakroom to collect my clothes. I had overlooked the fact that the cloakroom closed at eleven.
"I haven't a toothbrush or a thing to wear to bed or put on tomorrow."
"Never mind," Bob comforted me. I'll come in again in the morning and collect it for you. Save you the embarrassment of having to travel back to Lugarno in broad daylight in your Glad Rags."
At my uncle's door he kissed me goodnight and gave me the impression he wanted another date.
"It has been a fabulous ball. You dance very well for your age."
With only my underwear on, in a strange bed, after the rapture of my first date and that stimulating music, I could not relax. There was not much sleep that night and when I did drop off I dreamed of dancing in Bob's arms. I already had the hope of another date... He really does like me...
He did take me out again - to a University Revue. I wore a cotton frock I made especially for the occasion. My lack of sophistication must have been evident. I really wasn't sure when it was appropriate to laugh. That was our last date.