A Time to Explain

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Some skills have been forgotten and terms lost, but that day they had been spoken of again.

Submitted: June 13, 2017

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Submitted: June 13, 2017



The carefully worded eulogy was meaningful, especially for the older people assembled in the chapel.  Young and old came together over the loss of a man who reached just three years short of a ton, and a Queen’s message. It was a celebration of a life that had seen many changes, experienced extreme hardship and shared in the joys of family. The old boy had nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He was proud of them all. But his end wasn’t easy, seldom do fit, well people die.

‘Why did Grandad collect birds’ eggs?’ Henry was asked by his daughter after the interment of the ashes.

‘You have heard of the Great Depression?’ Henry replied with a question.

‘Yes, but I don’t know much about it.’ Relied Vaileth.

Henry was a little bemused because at twenty seven, he thought history lessons may have been enlightening for her, but then not everyone is interested in the subject.

‘Well,’ Henry began, ‘there was a crash in the American stock market. Wall Street.’

‘I’ve heard of that.’ His daughter nodded.

‘Well here, we call them ‘shares’ and the shares in businesses and companies lost their value, in other words, were worthless. This caused a huge impact world-wide, even here in Kiwiland. It started in 1929 and went on through to about 1935. Grandad was born in 1920, so he was a growing lad during those times. But you have to remember that although the depression ended in 1935, the recovery took almost as long as the depression itself!’

‘So everyone was poor.’ She was trying to understand, but didn’t really!

‘Desperately poor!’ Henry emphasised. ‘His father worked on the railway, so he had a job, but the government couldn’t afford to pay him much. But they were better off than people in towns. The people had nothing in towns, yet were expected to give a pound (in weight) of food per week, any food, for the poor it was. Unemployment was fifteen percent for men, but for the total working population it was around thirty! That’s a lot.

‘Grandad lived in the country, so they were better off because they could grow vegetables, keep a cow and hens. But people all the time were walking the country begging for food or would do a days’ work just for a meal. His mother used to sew flour bags or sugar bags to make clothes for him, his brother and his sister.

‘Small birds like sparrows, starlings and even thrushes and blackbirds used to damage fruit orchards, crops and even gardens so the local council paid boys to collect birds’ eggs to try and keep the bird numbers down. They paid the value of a pint of milk for one hundred eggs! Which wasn’t much, but it was some important money for the family. Grandad had permission from the botanic gardens in town to collect eggs in the trees, but he had to be careful not to do any damage or they would kick him off!’

‘Made clothes from bags?’ That astounded Vaileth. ‘How did he collect so many eggs without breaking them?’ she asked.

‘He kept a billy at the bottom of the tree.’ Henry held his hand up because he knew the next question. ‘A billy is like a tin with a wire handle. Before bottles, everyone had a billy and left it out for the milkman to fill. Grandad put straw in the bottom of the billy or dry grass. He just climbed the tree and robbed the nests popping the eggs into his mouth.’

‘Yuk.’ Vaileth didn’t like the idea. ‘What about the ferrets?’

‘Well, ferrets are a menace to our environment these days.’ Replied Henry. ‘They are long, skinny animals, maybe a foot and a half long, including their tail. They can be a bit ferocious but make good pets. Anyway during the depression, boys kept ferrets to hunt rabbits.’

‘Did the ferrets eat the rabbits?’ Vaileth couldn’t see the point of hunting rabbits for the ferret to eat.

‘If they had a chance, but no. Rabbits were a pest but there was money in them. The skins mostly, so if a ferret actually caught the rabbit, the skin would be damaged.’

‘So what did they do?’ Asked curious Vaileth.

‘They had nets.’ Explained Henry. ‘They chased the rabbit down into the burrow. You see most burrows have exit holes too, so the boys put a net over the hole and the ferret would go down the entrance and chase the rabbit into the net! Caught alive!’

‘I won’t ask how they killed them then.’ That was the soft side coming out in her.

‘Ok.’ Smiled Henry. ‘But the family ate them. Rabbit stew was an important part of their diet. He used to sell pairs of rabbits to the butcher shop when the butcher had money, but he had to leave the skin on for display in the window. Grandad reckoned they made money from the skins!’

‘So the depression taught him to conserve, he didn’t like wasting money.’ Vaileth commented.

‘Right! He always thought phone calls were toll calls so didn’t waste words because of the expense.’ Replied Henry. ‘In February 1942 he enlisted and was off to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Like many returned men he seldom spoke of those days, there were no fond memories. Not quite twenty two when he joined up, the economy hadn’t picked up. It was there he learned to be tidy and keep everything clean. He stayed that way for the rest of his life.’

‘I’m wearing the coin he gave me from the Pacific.’ Vaileth showed her necklace, the coin with a hole. ‘He told me that a little girl over there had given it to him and he’s kept it over all those years to give to me.’ She had a tear in her eye. Henry rubbed her shoulder.

‘Y’know,’ he said to change the subject, ‘they never mentioned it, but as a boy he collected cocksfoot seed from the roadside. A dusty, laborious job, and it paid bugger all!’

‘What’s cocksfoot?’ asked Vaileth.

‘A hard grass that stands droughts, so is good food for sheep and cattle.’ Replied Henry.

‘It’s the end of an era.’ Said Henry at last after a long, thoughtful pause.

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