‘Mountain Nights’ and more

 [EDITOR’S NOTE: Bessie Jennings (Port Macquarie U3A) delivered the following poem to the U3A Network  NSW AGM in 2012. She has added a few extra memories here.]

 This is my poem Mountain Nights. It's a true story about my experience as a young bride in 1952-3, roughing it in the Blue Mountains (with no telephone, water or electricity) after growing up in an all-electric home. We were seven miles from Jenolan Caves – and thirty-one miles from Lithgow, our shopping town. And I couldn't drive.

We were up above Jenolan, in a tiny one-room shack;
the Caves Road at the front of us, a dunny down the back.
Our home-made door, with leather catch, had leather hinges too;
in winter, where the boards had shrunk, the wind would whistle through.
Our water source, a spring-fed creek, had formed a little pond
where brumbies drank at night-time; and the gum trees grew beyond;
and we were young and strong then, and we didn't mind at all
that the mountain nights were chilly – and the bed was rather small.

He was there to cut the timber; hardwood first, and later pine;
hardwood slabs, and poles for pit-props, for the nearby Lithgow mine.
Proudly he would fit the axe-heads; fit the willow handles tight;
hammer out the heated metal, strong and hard – annealed just right;
balanced well; then, with the oilstone, hone and spit and wipe with oil;
reverently pack his axes, ready for tomorrow's toil;
slept the sleep of the exhausted; warmed me with his body heat
underneath the old tin roof that sheltered us from rain and heat
Yes, we were young and strong then, and we didn't mind at all
that the mountain nights were chilly – and the bed was rather small.

Every morning, I was wakened by the dread alarm-clock bell;
mercilessly, in pitch darkness, torture-clanging noise of hell.
Shivering in frosty dampness, frozen fingers struck the match,
lit the oil lamp, set the fire – kero paper made it catch.
last night's kettle – hot at bed time – frozen solid overnight;
struggled into coats and work boots, as the sky was growing light;
cooked our porridge, packed a lunch-pack, filled a flask with strong hot tea.*
Mornings were the stuff of nightmare, for the town-bred part of me.
We survived the winter blizzard. Snow blew in through every wall.
Up there on the mountain summit, snow comes sideways – doesn't fall –
but we were young and strong then, and we didn't mind at all
that the mountain nights were freezing – and the bed was rather small.

Saplings made our rustic love-seat. Saplings made a cot-bed frame,
hessian stretched across it tightly, ready when our baby came.
Loving hands had plucked the grasses from the hill, to pad her bed.*
Currawongs were there in chorus, warbling welcome overhead.
Springtime brought cascades of flowers, garlanding the mountainside;
drifts of gleaming everlastings decked the gullies, like a bride.

Summer sun beat down intensely – fierce dry heat that stung the eyes –
and our shack was like an oven, and we cursed the stinging flies.
Insects, dazed with heat and honey, loudly droned from dawn till night.
In the twilight cam shy creatures, animals that shun the light.
Possums chattered in the branches; shy echidnas passe our door;
mopoke sang her mournful music, and we saw the wombat's spoor.

All too soon, the summer ended. Frost and snow transformed the scene.
When we woke, one freezing morning, all was silent – white, and clean –
like a Christmas card from England! All the ground was draped in snow;
pine tree branches in the forest heavy-laden, hanging low.
Icicles hung down around the eaves, like little stalactites –
and a bright red-breasted robin, on our doorstep – magic sight!
Not a day for cutting timber; so my love marked out a tree
just a stone's throw from our doorway, where in earshot he would be;
wedged his axe-head in quite tightly, in a special notch he'd made;
and he sang and whistled sweetly, as he honed the steely blade.

Then, the sound of singing altered – and he called me to the door –
and I can't forget his words then,nd the vision that I saw:
"Don't be scared!" he said, and then I knew he'd cut his hand.
He was walking, hands together, and like footprints in the sand
there were blood drops on the snow. Well, I didn't mind at all
that the mountain nights were chilly, and the bed was rather small,
but I minded that the nearest help was thirty miles away,
and I vowed that I would learn to drive, after that gruesome day.

In our truck that had been once a 1926 sedan,
we set off around the mountain – and the nightmare trip began.
He could shuffle-clutch and throttle, and with one hand he could steer –
but his left hand, cut and bandaged, couldn't operate the gear.
My hasty driving lesson was like:"Push, when I say go!"
and we headed off for Lithgow in a scud of driving snow –
no wipers on the windscreen, and do windows at the side –
and when we'd turn a right-hand turn, the door would swing out wide.
I had to use one hand for that, and one to change the gears.
The sound of crashing gears still travels with me, down the years.

The wounded hand was fixed, and healed; but when our little daughter
turned blue with cold, and solid ice formed on the running water,
the time had come to pack the truck and move to warmer climes.
And now I'm old, and keeping warm; I think again sometimes
how we were young and strong once, and we didn't mind at all
that the mountain nights were chilly – and the bed was rather small.

 *The cot mattress was a calico bag I sewed up, stuffed with dry grass from the hillside. There was no money for a bought mattress, or to buy chaff or straw (the fillings recommended in those days for babies' mattresses.)

 We had no stove for cooking, those first few months – just an open fireplace, frypan for frying, kettle and billycan for boiling, camp oven for baking. The blowflies were so desperate, one even blew our corned beef while it was still boiling – because we had no lid for the billycan.

 We had no wireless. Our evening entertainment (when we had any) was a weekly game of cards with our nearest neighbour, maybe half a mile away; or a few tunes my husband Glen played on his mouthorgan.

 On schooldays, another neighbour's two children aged 6 and 5 came twice a day (hiking a mile or so) for me to supervise their Correspondence School lessons – until my child was born, when I persuaded their mum it was her turn to take on the job.

 My daughter Ruth was born in Lithgow Hospital. The people we met there were warm, hospitable neighbours; I've long believed that cold climates produce warm hearts. From here we moved to the North Coast of NSW, to grow bananas at Scotts Head. That was another wonderful new experience for me, and has produced another reminiscence poem….as did my childhood memory of watching the bullock team pass our door in the early 1930s in Nabiac, the first home I remember. That bullocky was never known to swear.

 Bessie Jennings