that or the rat shed

Grandpa was a quiet and gentle man. Grandma did most of the talking. He was over six feet tall and she was a little over five feet, feisty and independent. They obviously had agreed that he would make the big decisions and she would make all the small ones. All of the decisions were small.


I was four years old when my brother and I were sent to live with Grandma and Grandpa, whom I called Papa, during World War II. My father was away, not at war because he had failed the medical, working on the railroad tracks and bridges. Mother was in a sanatorium for advanced tuberculosis suffers. She had undergone surgery to remove a young fetus and collapse a badly diseased lung. The sanatorium was located in the mountains about 500 miles away from our town in an aptly named place called Waterfall where the patients could live isolated and silent in the cold dry air that doctors thought could cure TB. There was a large cemetery located on the grounds but the two years in the sanatorium and extended rehabilitation prolonged mother’s life for another twelve years. Grandma and Papa, then aged 81 and 76, had the task of raising two active and undisciplined young boys. Even at their advanced ages I was told they apparently did a good job of it.

Papa had little education but, unlike his father, he could read and write. He was the tenth child of a family with twelve children, eight of them girls, but three had died as infants. When I went to live with Grandma and Papa they lived on a 2½ acre block of land on the edge of town. They walked to church and caught a bus to the local store. Even though I was then only 4 years old I still remember the house and garden, the horse named “Toby” and some of the stories Papa told me.

The house, which resembled the old house on their farm Windy Hill, had two bedrooms and a sitting room used when guests stopped by. The center of the house was the kitchen with a large wood-fired stove that burned all day to provide hot water and heat. Papa and Grandma slept in one bedroom and the other was kept for visitors. The rest of the time my older brother slept there and I slept in a small iron bed in the laundry next to the wood-fired copper tub for boiling the clothes and two tubs to rinse them after they were boiled. The house had electricity but Grandma preferred to use the oil-burning lamps to save money. At the front of the house Papa built a small wire enclosed room under the veranda where our mother could sleep if she came home for rehabilitation. As it was outside the house the room was a cold and lonely place.

At the rear of the house was a large verandah with a dirt floor where Grandma would sit in her rocking chair next to a huge pile of firewood ready for the kitchen stove and the laundry. In summer it was the coolest place in or near the house because it caught the breeze. No one else sat in Grandma’s chair. As they did not have a refrigerator the back verandah was the best place for the “Coolgardie Safe” to keep the food and milk cool and fresh. Grandpa made the “Coolgardie Safe”, originally designed in the gold fields, from a wooden frame and wire mesh walls. On top of the 6’ safe was a galvanized iron tray filled with water and hessian material was hung over the wooden frame with its ends in the water tray. As the hessian became wet and the breeze came it would pass through the hessian and evaporate the water. This cooled the air inside the safe and the food. There was a metal tray underneath the safe to catch the excess water as it soaked through the hessian.

There was a large garden shed where Grandma hung her precious pot plants, and a deep well where Papa could draw water for the animals and the vegetable garden. There was no sewerage so a small toilet was built about 50 yards from the house. We called it the “outhouse” and the “soil man” came each week to empty the can. It had no lighting and the narrow path from the house was the longest walk I ever experienced especially on winter nights. Grandma would send my brother to walk with me carrying a lantern and wait while I sat inside the “outhouse” shivering with fear and from the cold night. Most nights my brother would run back to the house leaving me fumbling for the little squares of newspaper hanging from a hook behind the door, terrified of the darkness and the walk back to the house. On other nights he would hide behind the garden shed and leap out with a loud scream as I stumbled past in the dark. He laughed when I ran crying back to the house.

Grandma looked after her beloved flower garden and pot plants, and the large vegetable garden where she grew tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peas, potatoes and strawberries. Papa tended to the apple, orange, lemon, almond and walnut trees, planted and harvested the crop to feed the sheep, the only cow and the horse called Toby. They grew nearly all the food we needed. My brother and I were too young to help even though Papa thought we should do so. Papa had a small furnace in the yard and an anvil where he made shoes for the horse. I loved watching him, pound them into shape with a large long-handled sledge-hammer. There didn’t seem to be anything this quiet old man couldn’t do.

whipThe old sheep dog and I followed Papa as he did his daily chores asking the questions of a four year old. Occasionally, he stopped to talk, when we were out in the yard, away from Grandma. Mostly he ignored me as he went on with his chores. If I couldn’t contribute to the work around the place then he didn’t have time to talk to me. Left to myself I played my own games, often annoying Papa. I could tell when I had gone too far in the nuisance department when I saw Papa reach for his bull whip. It was a terrifying 20 foot Kangaroo skin whip with a long handle. As he picked it up I knew it was time to start running. The loud “crack” of the whip followed by his laughter and the dog barking was enough to scare me away. One day I wasn’t fast enough and felt a searing pain in my butt as I heard the crack. Grandma had the task of applying her home-made soothing cream to the affected parts. Then she took to Papa with an angry voice and told him to put that whip “where the sun don’t shine.” She always was on my side. As I grew, became faster and Papa older, I could easily outrun the bull whip. I told him so, carefully standing more than 20 feet away. But Papa had one more trick up his sleeve. The ultimate punishment for a four year old kid who refused to obey his “rules” was to carry me screaming down to a large shed where he stored the harness and feed for the horse. The old steel shed had no lights and the large doors were locked from the outside. Once in there and the door locked you couldn’t get out, and it was far enough away from the house that my screams could not be heard by Grandma. As it was the shed where the loose feed for the horse was stored I called it the “rat shed” because I could hear the sounds of tiny feet and the squeaks as the rats scurried around hunting for food. I would have settled for the whip. After 5-10 minutes of screaming Papa would appear outside the door and quietly ask if I was ready to say “sorry” and go back to the house. Trying to control my tears I would promise that “I wouldn’t do it again.” I don’t remember what the “it” was but I do remember the uncontrollable screaming and crying to be let out as Papa unlocked the door.

Papa told me stories about his life on the big farm, his oldest son going to war, the death of his second son and how his father was strict and sometimes “cruel” to him. But there were a lot of things he didn’t tell me before he died. When Grandma died at the age of 93 Papa lived alone with his big vegetable garden, fruit trees, the sheep dog and Toby the large draft horse. Toby was a strong, patient and docile black Clydesdale with white markings. Papa didn’t have the sheep and cow anymore and the 2½ acres began to look neglected. We lived about five miles away and mother would visit him two or three times every week to do his laundry and cleaning and to make sure he was ok. She rode her bicycle to Papa’s house, carrying a basket of freshly baked or cooked food, in the morning and returned home in the afternoon. Often Papa wasn’t home because at the age of 85 he had begun a firewood delivery business. Early in the morning he harnessed Toby to the wagon and they walked slowly to the saw mill, about eight miles away, where he collected a load of wood offcuts. Late in the day Toby would walk back home with Papa seated on top of the wood pile. Toby knew the way so often Papa fell asleep lying on top of the wood. It was dark when they arrived home and Papa climbed down from the pile of wood, unhitched and fed Toby and walked to the cold lonely house. Next day he delivered the firewood to his long list of customers.

I remember several times people coming to our house to tell us they had seen the horse and wagon slowly heading for home with Papa lying on top of the wood pile. They didn’t know if he was asleep or had died but thought we should know. We didn’t have a telephone so they came to our house with the news. Mother would cycle to Papa’s house to find him carefully unhitching the horse in the dark or feeding him from the big trough outside the “rat shed”. After making sure he was ok and had something to eat for dinner, Mother rode back home.

Papa continued his little business until he was almost 90 years old when his beloved horse died. Toby had known the way home but a new horse would have to be trained so Papa gave up his business. He died the following year when he was 90 years old. I remember him for his stories, what he did and how he taught me to start fast and run hard.

Images: "Papa" provided by the author, Ken Peacock; the whip is from (promotional image).
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.