JUMPING THE RATTLER
© David Campbell
Winner, 2008 ‘ABPA Victorian State Championship’, Benalla, Victoria
“We jumped the rattler, Jimmy lad, we rode the trains for free;
we had no choice, those days were bad for Mum, my Dad and me.
Depression years were hell on earth, we lived from day to day.
We begged for work, a few bob’s worth…there was no other way.”
His voice is soft, his hands are scarred, his eyes a deep, dark blue,
and when he speaks of times so hard his words ring clear and true.
He says to me: “Those years were tough,” and slowly rocks his chair,
“but words are never quite enough to tell of our despair.
My parents wouldn’t take the dole…we called it ‘susso’ then…
I had to take an adult role when I was only ten.”
He sees my smile and lifts his hand, then quickly shakes his head.
“Don’t laugh, my boy, please understand…you’d hate the life I led!
My Dad and I would leave at dawn and join up with the mob;
we’d stand in line while lots were drawn to see who’d get a job.
If luck was in they’d call our names, we’d do our twelve-hour day.
While you’re at school and playing games we worked to earn our pay.
We travelled all the well-known trails, but jobs were hard to find,
so Dad and I, we rode the rails, while Mum came on behind.
We chased the crops from place to place, and lived from hand to mouth.
Survival meant an endless race from Queensland right down south.
We’d pack ourselves a tuckerbag, a blanket, water, bread,
a billy and a twist of shag, some canvas for a bed.
We’d wait and hide beside the tracks until a train came by,
then when the guards had turned their backs we’d board it on the sly.
And these trains weren’t your fancy ones, The Ghan, The Overland,
on cushy intercity runs…no, nothing quite so grand.
We had to ride the slow and old, the goods trains and their kind,
like cattle trucks, in heat or cold, whatever we could find.
We’d grab a space, and I confess, we rode the couplings too,
where just a moment’s carelessness could be the end of you.”
He turns away, his mind elsewhere, and so, to me, it seems
the threat of death and danger there still darkens all his dreams.
But then he smiles and winks at me: “Don’t worry, lad, I’m fine,
it’s just that ghosts won’t let me be…those years out on the line.
It was an awful life we led, a fight to stay alive;
those rattlers kept us clothed and fed, they helped us to survive.
But still, when all is said and done, there’s something I was shown:
don’t take this world for granted, son, for nothing’s set in stone.
My Dad and I, we won the fight, but many lost their way,
and perished in depression’s night before the light of day.
It took my Mum, just wore her down, she lost the will to live.
She died in some sad, little town with nothing left to give.
Then on a train I met your Gran…that moment’s still so clear…
and that’s why you’re alive today, and we’re both sitting here.”
He stops again, and in his eyes I see a hint of tears,
and that is when I realise the price of all those years.
For life means loss as well as gain, a future we must make,
and how we deal with joy and pain will set the path we take