Friday, August 29, 2008
LEARNING TO SHEAR (part 2) ©
After smoko, the three of us went down to the shearing shed and we filled the shed up with the big, rough, woolly mongrel-bred wethers. As soon as everything was ready Burt started the Briggs & Stratton motor. He pressed the govenor down and swung the handle on the large fly wheel. The engine popped and backfired a few times, then spit out a cloud of blue smoke from the exhaust pipes and slowly came to life. After the engine was warmed up, Burt put the wide, long belt over the shiny pulley, which drove the long shaft and the shearing shed rattled into life. The rotten floorboards vibrated and the tin on the side of the shed shook as the engine cranked away.
Burt now stood at one of the shearing stands. He stripped down to his pants and singlet and tied some string just below the knees of his thick ex-army pants for a bo-yang. Then he picked up one of the ancient handpieces which were aptly named 'hot boxes'. (Some shearers call them 'bog-eyes' because they resemble a bog-eyed lizard.) He put a 3-pronged cutter in place and after that he screwed a comb down on top, screwed down the tension knob and put a good squirt of black sump oil over the comb and cutter; then pushed the ferell on the down pipe and pulled the bog-eye into gear for a test run. CLUNK! ZZZZZZZZZZZ. The counterweight swung over when Burt pulled the string and the handpiece was now running. He screwed down the tension knob a couple more clicks before he was satisfied it would cut. He pulled it out of gear and said to me,
"Go grab me a sheep, we'd best git started!"
I opened the pen gate which was held on by some fencing wire and went inside to grab one of the wethers. As soon as I tried to turn it over, the saffron thistles stuck in mi finger ends. I pulled my hand back quickly and removed the long thistle.
"What's the matter with ya now?" said Burt.
"The wool's full of thistles!"
" 'course it fuckin' is! They've been running in a thistle paddock for a couple of months. You'll get used to it in a few days. Anyways, how are ya gonna learn to shear 'em if ya can't stand a few burrs in ya hands!"
Fat Bill, who was lazily leaning on a broom, started to laugh at me when I tried to get another wether over on its back.
"What are ya doing mate?" he said. "Trying to fuck it? Ya need a good strong pair of gum boots for that and I just happen to have your size in the back of mi Ute"
"Fuck you Bill!", I said, as I dragged the old burry wether out of the pen.
Old Bill nearly fell over with laughter at my comment.
"Oh that was a good laugh mate. I've never heard an accent like that for years. Say it again Richard!"
"Fuck you Bill!" I said as Burt took the front legs of the sheep.
Bill roared with laughter again as Burt pulled the string and the bug-eye jumped into gear. It took Burt about 10 minutes to shear the big, flyblown wether and as he was shearing it, I was thinking to miself, 'I could do that miself! I could probably do a better job than Burt and when I get off his place, one day I'm going to shear sheep for a living.'
After the sheep was shorn, old Burt straightened his black and then shoved the sheep out the porthole into the 'counting-out' pen. Next, he showed me how to grab the fleece and throw it on the sorting table where bill was waiting to skirt it.
"After you've thrown it on the table, sweep up the board and get me another sheep", said Burt.
After he had shorn 10 or 15 sheep, I said to him,
"Hey Burt, can I have a go at shearing?"
"Ya can finish this one off for me when I get on the last side."
As soon as Burt had shorn the sheep to the last shoulder just below the leg, he pulled the string and the bug-eye stopped running.
"Here ya go mate.", he said as he handed me the handpiece. "Ya stick him between ya legs like that, bend over him and push down hard on the shoulder with ya left hand. Start from there and run the handpiece on the skin down to his flank. The next blow is supposed to start from here and run it down out to his toe and be careful not to hock him 'cause if ya hamstring him he's dog tucker! Are ya ready?
"Ready!" I said.
The hot box handpiece was red hot when old Burt handed it to me but I was determined not to complain. Burt pulled the string and the handpiece flew into gear. The dirt in the wool had blunted the comb and cutter and the tension on the handpiece was so tight it made it want to twist and spin out of mi hand. I put the comb on the skin and slowly pushed it forwards. The downtube swung around and the comb dug into the skin as I pushed it down towards the flank.
"Keep it in the wool!"
By now there was blue oil smoke bellowing out of the comb and cutter.
"Keep it on the skin and cutting wool, then it will stay cool!",said Burt, as I struggled to control the bog-eye.
By now, the rough-looking wether had worked out that this was my first go at shearing so just to make it interesting for me, he complicated matters worse that they already were by trying to kick my head off.
"Sit down, ya bastard!" I said, as I tried to keep the hot machine down on the skin but the sheep never took any notice, he kept right on kicking.
"Ya gotta keep the bottom tooth on the skin, mate, if ya wanna make a good, clean shearer!"
It took me, at least, 20 minutes to finish off the wether. The sweat was now pouring out of me as I bent over him. When I eventually finished shearing him, he looked like a lawnmower had attacked him. There were nicks and cuts all over his back leg and pieces of half-cut wool stuck out all over him. My hand was burned to a blister from the hot bog-eye and my back already had a sharp, crampy pain just above mi bum.
"Is that good enough Burt?"
"Grand streuth mate! It looks as though ya plucked him! Give 'im to me and I'll clean him up for ya."
Burt took the sheep and the bog-eye from me and finished cleaning up the old, wrinkly wether. He pulled the string out of gear and the bog-eye stopped. Then he kicked the sheep down the chute and said to me,
"Stop the engine. That'll do us for today. We'll make an early start on 'em tomorrow."
"That job is a lot harder than it looks!" I said to Burt.
"Sure is mate. I'm not much of a shearer but ya should see some of those blokes who live in town. There's one bloke - Johnny Bunt. He shore 250 one day out at Merri Merrigal. He'a a real fair-dinkum gun shearer, only problem is he likes his grog too much. They tell me, in town, that he shore over 200 for 2 weeks and at the end of the shed he was in debt to the contractor for 50 quid."
"What did he do with all that money?"
"He pissed it up against the wall, mate and blew the rest on the horses and cards."
"One day, I'm going to be a gun shearer."
"It takes a lot of balls to be a gun shearer and yours are no way big enough to take on that job yet."
"Don't you worry. One day I'll be twice as fast as you are."
"That'll be the fucking day a pommy bastard like you can run rings around me!" he said as fat Bill laughed his head off.
Being true to my word, I started shearing when I was 16 - ½. The best tally I ever shore in Australia was 230 on narrow gear and the best tally I ever shore in New Zealand was 375 in crossbred Romney ewes in 7 - ½ hours.
"In case your listening Burt, pommy bastard or not, eat ya words mate!"
18 years I shore sheep just to prove that old bastard wrong! It would probably take me another 18 years to tell what I had to go through, but nothing appears as it truly is and that's another story! The life of a shearer prepared me for the hardest task I've ever had to face, so like it or not, I have a lot to thank old Burt Booth for. He never let me down, he kept right on being his miserable old self.