On Thursday morning, January 3, 1963 I caught a train out of Melbourne bound for the town of Bendigo to meet Barry Reynolds. When I had seen him in Perth, he introduced me to his best buddy from Windsor, England - Roy. We three would be working together in the fruit harvest until Easter (3 1/2 months away).
For years Ardmona canned fruit was available in super markets here in Canada. The cannery was situated in Ardmona, Victoria near to the larger town of Shepparton. That area is agricultural and most of the crops grown there are fruit trees.
If you are familiar with the story "The Grapes of Wrath" you will know the situation in which we found ourselves for a number of weeks - competing with other people for scarce picking and packing jobs - and being held hostage by the weather conditions.
We were able to find some work in and near Shepparton - most of which was on a 'piece meal' basis. We were paid only by the number of boxes of fruit that we managed to pick each day - and were docked if the fruit was not ripe enough or was too small. For all of those positions we competed with others who would jump in front of us if they had the chance.
Most of the work was for a man who had a huge orchard of pears and peaches (also we worked for a neighbor of his who had plum and apricot trees). Years before - at home in Coquitlam - I had wrenched my lower back which I thought was healed. Not so - one day I was loading some fruit onto a truck when my back gave out and I was in excruciating pain. While the orchardist had seemed to be a hard nosed person, he too had a back problem so he took me to his chiropractor whom I thought was going to break my back but he cured the problem!
A much pleasanter experience occurred one afternoon when a group of us were picnicking on the banks of a river - we saw and watched a duck-billed platypus that was swimming in the water. Those animals are fairly rare now so it was a real pleasure to see one in its natural habitat.
Before picking the pears and peaches we had a day or two picking plums and apricots. As a food I love fresh fruit - but I am not all that fond of having to pick them for a living!
The best known grape growing area in Australia is the Barossa Valley in South Australia but there are vineyards in the Mutrray Valley on the New South Wales side of the river as well. Barry and Roy had worked for a man, John Kemp, during the previous season and were invited to come back again.
When the pear and peach crop came to an end we drove up to the larger town of Swan Hill, Victoria and then crossed the river to the hamlet of Goodnight, New South Wales. As that is rather an odd name for a community, I will give a history.
The Murray is one of Australia's larger rivers and, during the days of early settlement, paddle wheel steamers were used by a surveyor as a means of mapping the valley. It was dusk when the boat was brought to the bank to be tied up for the night. As far as the surveyor knew there was no one near by - and then he heard a voice call out of the gloom "Good night!" So that was what he named the spot which, in 1963, consisted of a number of vineyards and sheep farms plus a general store and a post office. The larger community of Tooleybuc was not far away and there was a larger store and a pub in that community.
John knew that Barry and Roy were coming and that they had a third person with them. He made me welcome too. John, his wife and a number of neighbors belonged to a small Christian sect who did not believe in a denominational structure. They were a wonderfully warm couple who did not proselytize, honored the Sabbath (we never worked for them on that day) and who were very generous in the lunches that were sent out to the vineyards.
Two types of grapes were grown. The first to ripen was a variety of green grape and these were dipped in a special solution and spread on racks to dry and were packed as sultanas. The other variety was a larger dark purple/black grape that was dipped into a different solution and, after drying, became raisins.
Later in the season a tanker truck (with the top of the tank taken off) pulled into the yard and was left there. Into it were dumped the lower grade purple grapes and the load, when full, was taken to a winery to be turned into cheap wine ('plonk').
It was my job to be up in that tank stomping on the grapes as they were dumped in there. While doing that I was thinking of that episode of the "I Love Lucy" sitcom where she and Ethel were in Italy and stomping the grapes with their bare feet. In reality, as the grapes are smashed, the pulp and juice have a high sugar content so every bee and wasp for miles around converge on the truck to feast. Only a fool would do that task barefoot - I was wearing knee high rubber boots!
The weather there was interesting and challenging. For most of the time the sun shone but there could be sharp thunderstorms and, what is worse, dust storms. I remember one afternoon when a dust storm blew out of the desert in Central Australia. In unpleasant weather we had to lower hessian 'curtains' to protect the sultanas and raisins so they wouldn't be spoiled. The dust storm came as a wall of brown moving inexorably across the land. It was quite a sight.
The land where the vineyards were was irrigated which, for me, created a psychological problem - snakes liked to live near the water. The itinerant pickers' cabin was situated on the edge of that canal and the outdoor privy was a few hundred feet along it. I didn't see any snakes there but I most certainly watched for them - especially for tiger snakes.
Barry and Roy slept on cots in the cabin proper while I slept on a cot in the lean-to. There was an electric bulb on an extension cord that extended to a large tree that was beside my bed. Therefore I could read upon retiring and then, when I had finished, just reach up to turn off the light. Sometimes I had interesting visitors - including a group of frogs one of which hopped right up my sleeping bag towards me.
Also, we had visitors in the cabin. One evening we had gone to Tooleybuc to the pub and, when we returned, we went into the cabin and, turning on the light, we saw an unexpected and not too welcome guest.
Immediately on our left, were the shelves where we kept the pots and pans, next to it was the wood stove and then more storage for dishes and things. On the wall above one of the pans was a huntsman spider which I recognized from having seen another one in Tasmania. It was huge. We didn't kill it as we did not consider it too much of a threat to us. I got a good look at it, though. It was huge - about the diameter of a saucer - brown in color and had the most remarkable markings.
A day or so later we came in from work and found two guests. The big guy had returned and was on the wall above the pots while - beside the pots - was a smaller version who looked to be quite nervous of the big guy above and of we humans.
Rabbit stew was on the stove so we dished out some on each of our plates, Barry was curious as to the relationship between our two 'guests' so he placed his hand on the shelf between the smaller spider and the stove. That spider had the option of running past his hand (there was room) or to backtrack towards its larger cousin. Fatally, it chose the latter so, as I was eating my plate of stew, I was watching 'Bruta' (as we named the giant) sucking the life juices out of its victim.
Some of the neighbors grew watermelons and, more than once, we were called upon to assist with that harvest. Barry - the biggest of the three of us - was walking along each row snapping the vine so that Roy and I could pick up the melons and take them to the truck provided. I bent down to pick up one when a fairly large dark brown snake slithered over it. So help me - I tried my darndest to reach one of the satellites orbiting overhead! It was a brown snake and not a tiger but it was still poisonous. Barry - the devil - had seen the snake but didn't tell me so he could see what would happen if I sighted it.
Our last day of work was on Easter weekend. I said "Good-bye" to Barry and Roy and caught a train for Melbourne. I never saw them again.