Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Wool packs were put in place and the catching pens were filled up. Six pieces of paper with the numbers 1 to 6 were folded up and put in a hat. After they'd been shaken up, each shearer drew out a number, which denoted what stand he would work on. Whoever drew number 1 was expected to do the reps job, which meant in the event of a problem arising, the representative had to speak for the men. He would complain to Freeman, who was the contractor, and in turn, Freeman would go and see the cocky.
The shearers all picked up their hand-pieces after the draw and then proceeded to screw a comb and cutter in place. At the back of the hand-piece was a screw hole which had to be filled with oil at the end of every run, which lasted 2 hours.
Everything was now in place so everyone stood around waiting for the bell to go at 7:30. When 7:30 arrived Freeman rang the bell. All six shearers entered their pens and grabbed hold of a large, rough Wether. After tipping it over on its' arse they dragged it backwards by its front legs to the down-tube, where their stand was.
Gundy sat up his sheep, tucked the sheeps' right front leg under the side of his ribs, tucked the other front leg behind his left elbow and pulled the string which set the shearing machine in motion. He adjusted the tension knob and then made 3 to 4 long blows from the sheeps' brisket down to its flank. He grabbed the now loose belly wool and threw it on the floor. It was my job to pick them all up. He then ran the machine out the top at the back leg, which trimmed all the wool off. Turning the machine around he made one long blow around the sheeps' crutch, from toe to toe. Then he shore the head, which is called the topknot. Taking a step forward, the sheep was now at a slight angle between his legs as he bent over and opened up the neck wool. The machine disappeared under the wool until Gundy flicked his wrist and the machine reappeared. He then proceeded to run his blow up the side of the wrinkly neck until it was clean. Picking up the front leg with his left hand he ran the blows down it as he turned around. Once the leg was clean he dropped the big Wether on its' back and started the long blow. In no time at all the sheep was half-shorn as Gundy dragged his right foot forwards and cleaned up around the horns and head. Once this was done, he pushed his blows over the wrinkles and down to the brisket. Then he cleaned around the shoulder and picked up the last front let. In a matter of seconds the leg was clean and he pushed the hand-piece down to the last flank, letting the sheeps' head come forwards. WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH, went the blows as Gundys' arm pushed the bog-eye flat on the skin, out to the toe then clean up over the tail.
'CLUNK!' Gundy pulled the string again and the machine came out of gear. The sheep, which was now shorn 'clean as a whistle', fell through his legs and he pushed it down the chute with the sole of his right boot. Straightening up, he wiped the sweat from his brow and walked into the pen for another wooly Wether.
A roustabout listens for the 'clunking' sound which the overhead gear makes when the shearer pulls the string. This means someone has just started or finished a sheep. It can be a very demanding job, picking up wool for 6 fast shearers.
At 9:27 the bell goes and the shearer is not allowed to go in the pen for another sheep until 10 O'clock. From 9:30 to 10 is Smoko. Half-an-hour to have a cup of tea and a sandwich. After that the shearer rolls a smoke and then cleans up the combs and cutters he's used, ready for grinding again. With about 10 minutes left before 10 O'clock he lays on his back on the shearing board and puts his legs up on the wall. This little trick helps relieve the pain in his back from 2 hours of bending over, working his guts out.
At 10 O'clock, the bell rings and the process is started all over again. By the time 5:30 rolls around, it's no wonder the shearer likes a few beers. He has just finished slaving his guts out for 8 solid hours in heat that can reach the 120 degree mark.
Cyclone did the first few days really hard. Each time he straightened up from shearing a sheep, the pain on his face and in his eyes could be felt by all. He must have been sat in Giltraps' bar for at least three months, boozing all his money away. Many people did not believe he could even shear a sheep, let alone be a gun shearer.
Each day, as he persevered with the task of getting fitter, his shearing tally improved slowly but surely. By the end of the shed, old Cyclone was the top tally-man. He was a good-hearted man and never abused the Rousie if a fleece was missed and left laying on his stand.
Many years later I heard ,'through the grape-vine', that Cyclone drowned in four inches of water. Apparently, him and a few mates were driving home from the Hotel, drunk as usual, when the car spun off the road and into a table drain containing water. The car flipped over on its top and Cyclone was trapped inside, face down in the water. His reckless lifestyle brought him to an appropriate end.
One evening when Gundy and Cyclone were grogging on, they ran out of beer and plonk. Gundy said to me, "Hey Chummy, ya got any plonk left mate?"
"Sure have Gundy. Why?"
"Can we have some of it?", he said with a boyish grin.
"Tell ya what I'll do Gundy. You teach me to shear and I'll provide you with a gallon of plonk and a carton of fags a week. How's that sound mate?"
"You're on Chummy! Now go and fetch ya' half-gallon flagon. We'll start ya payments off tonight!"
That evening Gundy and Cyclone almost finished the whole flagon off. I said to Gundy, "Fuckin' hell Gundy! You're like a big kid with a bag of lollies. Ya can't stop till you've drunk the lot!"
This little joke of mine sent old Gundy into fits of laughter, along with a spasm of coughing.
The following morning, true to his word, Gundy stared my shearing lessons. At the end of the first run, he called out, "Chummy! Git over here mate, if ya wanna' learn to shear!"
He pulled the machine out of gear and said, "Alright Chummy, ya can finish the last side. Pull his head forwards and put ya knees there. Now push down on his shoulder and hang on to the hand-piece."
The hand-piece was really hot from all the sand in the wool and it wanted to spin out of my hand as I tried to control it.
"Ya gotta' keep it on the skin, Chummy. It's the shortest way around the sheep, mate! Don't do any of that jabbin', mate, or it will become a habit."
The wool was actually coming off the skin as I pushed the hand-piece along the contours of the sheep.
"That's it Chummy! Keep the comb full and go slow until you've got all the blows down."
As I finished off the big wether, Athel Cook came walking up the board.
"What are ya doing with that sheep, Chummy? Tryin' to root it mate?"
"I'm leaning to shear, Athel.", I said, without raising my head.
"You shear, ya pommy bastard? You'll never make a shearer as long as ya arsehole points to the ground, mate!"
"He'll make a better shearer than you Athel!", said Gundy.
"Bullshit mate! No fuckin' pommy will out-shear me!"
"Tell ya what, Athel, I'll bet ya, before this shed's over that Chummy can shear one of these wethers under 5 minutes!", said Gundy.
"Fucking bullshit Gundy!"
"I'll bet ya 10 bucks and a gallon flagon of plonk, mate!"
"Alright Gundy, ya fuckin' on, mate!"
As I pulled the machine out of gear, the sweat was pouring out of mi forehead and the small of mi back had a cramped pain in it from bending right over.
"Ya hear that mate? I'm gonna make a good shearer out of you. Just listen to what I tell you and every spare moment ya have, stand in front of me and watch."
"I'll give it my best shot, mate. I won't let ya down.", I said.
Each day, I started and finished off sheep for Gundy. Towards the end of the first week I shore a Wether from start to finish. It took me about 14 minutes and by the time I was finished, I was drenched in sweat.
"Good on you Chummy!", said Gundy. "that wasn't too bad for a learner. We've got to work on the blow and keep the machine flat on the skin."
The Shearing Shed on the One Tree Plain was now on it's last day. I had shorn my sheep in 4 minutes and 50 seconds! Gundy and the others had won their bet. Athel Cook was not too pleased about this. That evening, in the barroom, he tried to make things hard for me by calling me a 'pommy bastard' all evening. Eventually, his wife came out of the Sow Pen and took him home.
For the record; 15 years later, I was shearing around the Lake again. Athel, who was now about 60, had the misfortune of meeting me in Giltraps. A bloke, Mark Hargraves, had been kind enough to find me some work. Athel would be working alongside me for two weeks! On Sunday night, he was trying his best to upset me by calling me derogatory names and telling everyone in the bar that he was going to 'work me to death' in the following two weeks.
The first day, Athel shore 110 and I shore 125!
The next day, he shore 120 and I shore 150!
Try as he could, for the next two weeks, he could not keep up with me. By the end of the first week he was not looking too good. At first, everyone at Giltraps took the piss out of him 'cause he'd bragged and skited that he'd shear more sheep than that 'gutless, pommy bastard Yorky'! Halfway during the second week, he looked terrible. His ego was crushed and he could hardly walk. He was overworking his body so much that people stopped teasing his and told him to 'slow down before old Yorky works ya into the ground!' He refused to listen and kept up his pace hoping to catch up with me. At the end of two weeks he had to visit the local doctor for some pills. A week later, he had a heart attack and dropped dead.
From that day on, some shearers claimed that Yorky was the only shearer in Lake Cargelligo to work another shearer to death!
"Bullshit!", I said. "He had no hope of catching me!"