Paddling Peter’s Canoe

May 18, 2015 at 12:00 am | Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Australia, Discipline, Family History | 14 Comments
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I wrote this story a few years ago about one aspect of my childhood – a combination of where I lived; what I wanted to do; what I wasn’t allowed to do; what I did do; and what I was punished for doing.

We lived right beside Lake Illawarra when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. We played cricket on the shore outside the back yard (into the water was six and out), explored its shoreline and adventured in its casuarina forest. Several fishermen plied their trade in the deeper waters, catching mainly bream and mullet, and prawns in season. At night, the lights of the prawn boats and waders looked entrancing from our bedroom window. The lake wasn’t very deep in our bay, but we didn’t play in it because you sank to your ankles in sticky black mud when you walked in it.

ErnThompson &boat Dapto Abt1956 001

Dad with one of his boats. About 1955

In his spare time, Dad made boats for sale out of plywood. My older brother Peter wanted a canoe, so Dad made him one. It was flat-bottomed and had both ends enclosed on top. There was a seat at the centre, so Peter could put his legs into the front section for a foothold. For safety, because none of the family could swim, there was a small outrigger to prevent it tipping over. The craft was painted black and so was the paddle Dad made for it. Peter could now paddle off across or around the lake on his own adventures.

I was three years younger than Peter, about nine years old. A tomboy, I was jealous that, because he was a boy, he could have a canoe and go off on his own, whereas I, being a girl, couldn’t. One day, I decided to take Peter’s canoe out on the lake for a short paddle. It was just to see what it was like. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t: I would be careful; it was easy to paddle; and I didn’t even think about the possibility of capsize – Peter never had so it wasn’t an issue.

I carefully and quietly pulled the canoe down to the water’s edge, then pushed it out and climbed in. I began to paddle away quickly, so that I wouldn’t be seen from the house. I followed the shoreline to the south and, as I got into the swing of it, my confidence grew.  Deciding I didn’t have to go back straight away, I set about enjoying myself – just for a little while. I was sure nobody would miss me. So I paddled on, imagining myself as an intrepid explorer searching out new lands. Then decided it was more exciting to be Hiawatha, paddling down a raging river in his Indian canoe. I had a wonderful time, but eventually knew I must paddle back home.

canoe_outrigger

An outrigger canoe

I had not realised I’d been out a couple of hours. My absence and that of the canoe had been noticed. Mum was waiting for me and she was in no mood to be understanding. I had been disobedient and, in spite of the canoe having an outrigger, she, fearful of water herself, had been afraid I would capsize it and drown. As soon as I’d put the canoe and paddle away, I got the sharp end of her tongue and a thorough hiding with her green leather belt. Then I was sent to the room I shared with my two sisters.

As I’d been approaching home in the canoe, I’d noticed that I was developing a headache. After I went to my room, it got worse and worse. Soon I was throwing up violently and feeling terribly weak. It had been a warm sunny day and I had been out on the water for some time. We only wore a hat to church – we had no others. As a result, I had developed sunstroke. This was a natural consequence of a few hours in the sun, but, to my young Catholic mind, it was really God’s punishment on me for disobeying my parents. The illness I suffered, and my own guilty conscience, were much more effective than any hiding Mum might give me, and I was never again tempted to take Peter’s canoe out on the lake.

Linda Visman

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