A slice of 1960s NZ, young Specs moves from the country learning survival in the suburbs.
1960 Cannons Creek
Surviving at school was about finding a group of people you could survive together with, Specs held that view. Wearing glasses all his life he had been called four eyes, pushed around and always ridiculed since he could remember. Teachers, the trusted heads of his school life made fun of him openly, when complained at home his father would simply ask him what he had done to deserve it. Specs became used to just grinning and baring it, the simplest answer. Mates who stood up for him became such an important part of his life if you had mates you looked after them and they looked after you, he became a very loyal mate to the few who befriended him.
Specs had lived in a small village environment just south of Christchurch, a very country experience. A village green with the houses all around it, a tall belt of deep green pine trees around the whole community. Each wooden single-story house sat on quarter-acre plots; the plots called sections in local language. Every family grew their own vegetables, some kept chocks, (hens or chickens), the kids all played together walking freely in and out of their friends' houses and the families gathered together for events, everyone simply knew everyone.
Cannons Creek came as a complete shock to his view of the world, from the Canterbury plains that stretch out until they hit the snow-capped South Alps of the South Island of New Zealand, switched to the raw yellow clay backdrop scoured out of the green hills near Wellington, one of Wellington's newest fastest growing suburbs. Completely new the suburb of Cannons came with almost no infrastructure at all, there wasn't even a school. Still, under construction, it would be across a clay wasteland from their three-bedroom brick home. The only individual home on the street perched on a tiny piece of land with no grass just more yellow clay and mud. Every other dwelling a unit dwelling with up to four two-story homes joined together in hundreds of "affordable" government housing dwellings.
A significantly different demographic from Christchurch. Specs had lived in a middle-class white community with most people in the armed services, and a community organised around the armed services. Socially a rude shock, Canons Creek consisted of a majority of less well-off families significantly immigrants from the Pacific Islands who organised themselves around family groups.
This is mass cheap state housing going in at an alarming rate and spreading through the surrounding countryside as they knocked the hills down to fill the gullies. A massive project, with the constant noise of bulldozers, compactors and Euclid earth scraping equipment, ripping the tops of the hills and carrying down to the gullies to drop the contents. To an eight-year-old boy the enormous machines were surreal, he would site on a ridge and watch these giant dirt-eating monsters tear up the green pastures into the huge bucket and then hurtle down to a gully and release its load as it scraped it flat for hours.
The Euclid scrapers were the most fascinating, a giant green or yellow engine section with a driver on top exposed to the elements with only a windscreen to keep the dust and deafening roar out, the giant diesel engine dragged a huge pivoted green bucket behind that, in turn, had an enormous set of wheels at the back. When Specs stood next to one of these giant wheels the hubs were above his head, they were truly giants.
Entertainment didn't exist other than a couple of am radio stations. Specs dad had made him a crystal set that needed a headset to listen to the radio stations it could receive. In the lounge of their household sat a large valve cabinet style radiogram with a 78 RPM record player integrated into the top. This sat next to the fireplace in the lounge with a lounge chair on either side of the fireplace. A large heavy oak family table sat in front of the windows of the lounge, this table was used on festive occasions such as Christmas for family dining and the rest of the year Specs father used it as he work table for his tailoring profession. Directly out from the lounge a large yellow clay indent made up where a front lawn should be and across the road were rows of two up two down housing units.
TV didn't come to Wellington until three years later during July 1961, it was loudly announced with "Time for a Capstan", a cigarette advertisement as the first broadcast. Everyone smoked, well every adult and those kids who could nick them off their parents. Specs dad would smoke in the house and a cloud of grey filled the air whenever his dad was home. The ceiling slowly changed from a bright white to a dirty yellowish-grey.
Porirua had a movie theatre a must go to on a Saturday afternoon if you could get there. A forty-minute walk, or a five-minute drive or 20-minute bus ride. Mum and dad were never going to run you to the movies don't be stupid, most mums didn't drive and dad was full into garden work on a Saturday. Mum would spring for the bus fare; Dad didn't care much what you did as long as you buggered off and kept out of his hair. With the bus fare, you would have extra to spend at the cinema, so the logical answer was to say you would take the bus and actually walk. Specs would arrange to meet his mates on the way and then would have the extra cash in his pocket to purchase goodies to eat and drink at the theatre.
Specs parents decided early that he would join the cubs. Cubs is a junior version of the boy scouts and this would teach self-assurance and help him grown as a man. Attending the first cub meet for Specs drew conflicting emotions, heading into new social environment had always meant a significant amount of taunting from other boys because of his glasses, especially when medical science concluded he needs to cover his good eye in a vain effort to encourage his bad eye to work, which meant weeks of banging into things and losing the ability to read books while another failed experiment work its way through.
Cubs proved to be a life changing experience for Specs, he hooked up with three boys who he sought of new from around the streets and from school but didn't know them that much. This bunch of boys indulged in fun and excitement. Walking the one and half mile's home from cubs they made plans mapping their future, as well as finding fruit trees to raid.
Bevan, Barry, John and Specs were a team, their played very successful softball together, as part of a local club team, were in the same six at cubs and had an adventurous streak. Barry tended to lead, a short stocky boy with light brown hair and a round face had a burning desire to win everything he came across. Summer they played softball winning nearly every game they played, winter their only had cubs. Barry convinced Specs for his own safety he should learn something like boxing or wrestling, when the salvation army put on free wrestling for kids at their hall in the winter, the boys were in. Wrestling gave them strength and confidence which insulated them from school bulling.
They all came from families with very little spare funds, this mattered as the boys received little or know of their own spending money and at ten were beginning to feel the need to be a little more independent. The cubs and scouts were making money from recycling bottles, mainly beer in this suburb and it proved very lucrative, but meant it wasn't open to the boys.
Barry had a stroke of genius he had been told that if they could find possum furs, they could sell them to a dealer, some of these skins could be worth as much as 2 shillings each. 2 shillings was way more than any of them could hope to earn from pocket money and so the idea started to germinate. This conversation leads them to be standing just after dawn on a bush track through a gully in the hills to the east of Cannons Creek.
A hissing growl came from deep inside the grey furred creature, its ears sticking sharply up and big yellow eyes with huge pupils. With a front leg jammed in the steal jaw trip, the giant cat sized furry animal sat back as far as it could on its haunches and faced for young boys.
"We got one, jeez now what", Specs shouted
"We kill it and then skin it", Barry responded with a matter of fact tone.
"Does it have a valuable skin", Bevan chipped in.
"Nah just normal, it has a big black stripe down the back" Barry replied
"So how much is it worth", Bevan inquired.
"About a shilling" Barry responded and then added "If we get a real silver it will be worth nearly 5 bob" (a bob is local language for shilling, 5 bob being 5 shillings)
The other two boys sucked in hard.
"Who's gonna kill it" Barry asked the boys
Specs just slipped back leaving Bevan standing near the possum.
"Okay Bevan" you can do it" said Barry pulling out a wooden axe handle and handing it to Bevan. Bevan looked at the handle then the possum then at Barry then Specs and again the possum.
"You have to belt it in the head" Barry instructed
"Shit really", Bevan replied meekly
"Yes, really you big girl just fucking hit it hard between the ears" Barry continued his tutoring.
"Fuck", Bevan raising the axe handle and closing his eyes at the same time as he swung at the animal in the trap. Thud, the axle hand came down across the animals back.
"Between the fucking eyes not the back, do it again" Barry yelled
Bevan responded by lifting the axe handle again and bringing it down again, and again and again on the animals' skull.
"Shit" said Barry as the possum still appeared to have fight left in it, he grabbed the axe handle and gave two swift blows right between the eyes and the life went out of the creature.
"Fuck we have to get better at that" Barry said as the boys nodded in agreement.
"I'll show you how to skin them he said", and proceed to work through the process of removing the skin from the beast, taking the body and throwing it deep into the undergrowth.
The mood lightened as Barry help up the pelt to his companions, and proudly said "This will give us to purchase two more traps, if we get one more, we can buy enough traps to keep us in pocket money."
"Do we take the skin just like this", ask Specs
"Nah, we have to dry them first and take them to buyer." Barry replied
"Where's the buyer." Specs asked
"My brother told me he comes to the Porirua East shops once a month, I will go with my brother." Barry said.
"Okay" the reply satisfied them both
"We have to dry them first" said Barry
"How do we do that" Specs inquired
"Simple we stretch them out on a board and rub the skin down with salt, well that's what my brother does."
"Okay, how many skins does your brother get" Specs replied
"Shit hundreds, he traps in the Tararua Ranges goes in for a couple of weeks at a time comes how with hundreds." Barry chest puffed a little as he talked about his brother. "He lent us the gear to try our hand. He taught me how to dispatch the possums and skin them, I have been with him once, really cool. We ate them as well."
"What they like."
"They're make nice possum stew with them, bloody nice" Barry responded.
The boys carried on through the thick green bush, where the undergrowth was thick and the trees not really very high as the gully was subject to the south westly wind blow up it to the ridges.
Plenty of possums exist, New Zealanders outnumbered ten to one by this feral animal introduced from Australia in 1858, With no natural enemies they strip the trees of foliage and the food of native birds they also feed on the eggs of precious New Zealand native birds and lizards and eat their young. The eradication of possums in New Zealand is an ongoing and constant battle for governments through the ages and any activity that reduced their numbers is considered useful.
Setting traps after school, picking them up in the afternoon became a routine, they had amassed six traps, hiking to bush pockets around Porirua East in the early morning two or three times a week. Their skills at despatching and skinning made the process second nature, they could expect to get five or six possums a week which gave them a tidy some of money., however the drying skins caused some trouble as the number they accumulated in a month was more than they could lay out in one place.
At school, they had been sanctioned as a legitimate club, for the afternoon a week that had been set aside for club activities. Most kids were in sewing, knitting, and modelling clubs, these four had the possum hunters club. The teachers supervising this activity were quite proud of the group who were using their initiative to earn a few coins to contribute to the family.
The early exposure to hunting and gathering by Specs between his tenth and twelve years set him up for the future and it would become an important direction they had all taken for the rest of the lives. Who knew how important it would be in the future to be competent having the core skills to live off the land?
It all came to an end which Specs father announced they were leaving this rented place and moving to a house closer to the city in Northland Wellington where his mum and dad had purchased land and would be building a house.