During my childhood, a typical Australian summer, at least in the bush, was a somewhat expiring event. Unlike nowadays, no-one had any air-conditioning, which meant that it was often better to swelter under a eucalyptus tree than to slowly cook inside one’s own house.
From this perspective the Metung Primary School was no exception. Built in the 1890’s, and located in Victoria’s only gazetted village, on the beautiful Gippsland Lakes, as a pupil there, one had the feeling that not all that much had changed in its almost 90 years of existence. The only source of heat throughout winter came from an open hearth, whose fuel source often depended on the rather Dickensian process of us children having to wander into the surrounding countryside collecting firewood. Not that we were complaining. The more wood we collected the better our parents were informed of how well we were progressing in our learning, of which there was very little of by the way.
In fact, apart from our timetables, and a few spelling books, I can’t recall having been taught anything at all. My own recollection is that if we weren’t playing cricket, every lunchtime most of us (the boys at least) were doing our very best to recreate various scenes from Lord of the Flies, often by way of a variety of home-made weapons, some of which included slingshots, spears, and the odd bow and arrow (one of my closest friends smuggled in a plastic replica of a German WWII Maschinenpistole 40, but since all it did was make a whirring noise none of us took it seriously, despite how impressive it looked).
In other words, so long as no-one was killed or maimed the Principal couldn’t give a stuff, provided each of us returned to class in one piece after an hour or so of attempting to do as much bodily harm as we were capable of, black eyes and all. Although to be fair, he was renowned for being fond of the old devil’s lettuce every now and then, so whenever we saw him smoke a rollie after letting us outside, how would us kids have known that that was probably the reason why lunch time would sometimes last for two hours?
Now it just so happened on one sweltering summer’s day, a day too hot even for snakes, that our hirsute Principal made an executive decision to take us down to the local beach, a locale not too far away (so therefore no need for organised transportation, and certainly no need for parental approval). As children, who were we to object to such a stroke of genius on his part. So off we marched, like a rag-tag troupe of underage conquistadors heading in search of El Dorado, though unlike the Spaniards, we actually knew where we were going, and what we’d find once we got there – namely nice cool water – Lake King to be exact, well known for its fishing and boating, but also for its algal-blooms and jellyfish.
As I hadn’t yet properly learnt how to swim, I was assigned the not so inconsiderable though nevertheless demeaning task of supervising the younger children, i.e. prep, grade one, two etc. Mind you I was only in grade four so why I was picked was in my estimation perhaps due to three things: 1: I was more sensible and more adult-like than the older children; 2: I wasn’t a strong enough swimmer; or 3: perhaps the fact that I refused to leap into a lake plagued by jellyfish may have had something to do with it.
With one eye on the ‘youngsters,’ I decided to take a walk on the jetty beside which many of my fellow pupils were swimming and paddling in the calm refreshing water, blissfully unaware of the immediate danger that was infiltrating between them. Despite my warnings, no-one took the slightest notice, not even the Principal, who happened to be wearing jeans whilst standing waist deep in the aquatic shallows.
However, it didn’t take long. No sooner had I returned to the beach, then suddenly, like a scene from jaws, everyone made a desperate dash for the shore. Although instead of a Great White Shark, it was a swarm of jellyfish, stinging all and sundry.
Many were clambering, crying while collapsing on the sand, clutching at their limbs in agony, while those rare few who hadn’t been poisoned were nonetheless stunned by the drama as it was unfolding. The only person who seemed nonplussed was the Principal, who due to the fact that he was wearing denim, remained unaffected by the multitude of toxic tentacles which could have easily put half of the village’s children in hospital in one fell swoop had they of remained in the water any longer than they actually did, and who at that point appeared more aware of the situation than he was.
Somebody ran off to fetch bottle of vinegar from the general store, and in the process made a phone call to the parents of one of the children whose surname shall remain unknown, a hippie family who smoked pot on weekends and generally managed to live the organic dream while staying out of harm’s way. Needless to say, the important thing in all of this is that they had a van, a butchers van at that, one large enough to transport a bevy of lightly injured minors back to school. How I remember sitting in the back of the said van, feeling as though we’d just been rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, injuries and all.
Lucky for the Principal, and education department, there would be no reprisals or lawsuits on the part of the parents, as would happen today. Instead, the only act of justice served was that every mother in the village had decided on a boycott, preventing each child from attending class for the rest of the week.
And from that perspective, it was an afternoon of agony that appeared, in hindsight, extremely well spent.