The message of ‘You don’t know how easy you’ve got it’ came right through my life and is now going on through to my boys. My parents used to tell us often that they used to have to work hard - all horses, no tractors - in the very early days. And how they’d get up at 4 o’clock to prepare the horses before breakfast, then work the horses all day – three teams of eight horses pulling ploughs – with the brothers driving those teams. And how they used to race one another around the paddock ploughing. To win, they used to cheat by feeding the horses some wheat in their feed to give them some more energy. They had to be very careful not to make the horses sick though.
At the age of nine, my brother Peter and I had to kill sheep. But we couldn’t do it, we were too weak. So we would start the lamb at sun down, cut its throat and start taking the skin off it, and my father would come home and finish it off; sling it up in the air, put a calico bag over it overnight, then early in the morning before there were any flies around he would take the carcass and chop it up for our meat. And that was what we were living on. We also had two cows, which Peter and I had to milk before school every morning. My mother would then boil the milk and skim the cream and we’d have that cream on our Weetbix.
We employed an Aboriginal fellow after I left school, to help with the new piggery. Good, fit, hardworking man, who was well motivated, named John Fitzgerald. We gave him a house, a wage, a lamb a week, a car and petrol. That worked really well for about six years until welfare told us that for his wage we weren’t paying him the full ward rate. John was taken away from our employ.
My grandfather, who was Dr Ward, was the doctor in York for 40 years. My mother used to come into town and see him and he used to come out and see us too; there was a tradition that he would come out every Sunday night for dinner. He would bring one of his medical cases and he’d pop it open and pull out five bottles of Fanta. And us kids, we thought that was great. One thing we used to do was go and sit in the lounge room, while they sat round the kitchen table and had some beers (he also brought a couple of King Browns out in that case). We would sit by the fire in the lounge room and when we’d finished the Fanta we’d take the straw out of the bottle of Fanta and light it up and smoke it. Without the parents knowing of course.
The worst reprimand I got was from my father, when I was the ripe old age of seven and chose to go down the following path of crime. I asked my father for some money to buy some marbles because ‘Everybody, dad, is playing marbles’. He said ‘No, you play cricket and football. We’re not going to waste money on marbles.’ I knew where he kept his money. It was in a very high cupboard in the bedroom and was on a shelf that was far too high for me. But I climbed and reached over and I felt some paper money there, grabbed that, pulled it down and it was blue. It was a £5 note. Having pocketed this £5 note I felt a bit nervous but thought he would never know it was missing.
Off I went to school. I rounded up a couple of mates at lunchtime and said we were going to go into town and get some marbles. I went into the local newsagency that sold the marbles, it was owned by a fellow called Alan Stacey. Big shot Tony walked in there and plonked the £5 on the counter and asked for £5 worth of marbles. £5 worth of marbles would have bought a semi-trailer load. He gave me a bag of marbles and off I went. But unbeknownst to me he rang my parents soon after.
My father was sitting in the kitchen when I got home, which was most unusual. ‘Hello Tony, what did you do at school today?’ ‘Oh the usual, played cricket.’ ‘Oh really, you didn’t play marbles?’ ‘No, you said I couldn’t have any marbles.’ ‘Tony, bring me your bag.’ He tipped it up and marbles went everywhere. ‘Where did you get the marbles?’ ‘I won them.’ ‘Playing cricket?’ ‘No I won them playing marbles.’ ‘Do you want to tell the truth?’ By then I was quite upset, and told him ‘I bought them with some of your money.’ ‘That’s stealing. Your brothers and sisters can divide those marbles between them and you and I are going to pay a visit to the apricot tree.’
At the apricot tree he broke a branch off, about as thick as my thumb, and it had pink buds all along it. I can see it today as clear as anything. And much to the amusement of my brothers and sisters he gave me six on the backside with it. Because they were laughing I turned to my father and said ‘Didn’t hurt a bit’. Wrong thing to say. Another six. And this time it did hurt. I had bruises down my legs so couldn’t go to school for a week, well my parents didn’t want me to go until they were healed. So I worked with my father all day, every day, that week - and we became good mates.