I had to go on hiatus from walking Westroads because Christmas time at the mall means Hickory Farms pop up kiosks; and that means holiday gift baskets filled to the brim with summer sausage and fresh cheeses. I refused to let fate find a way to my taste buds. And now I’m back walking the Mall five mornings a week. The other day I forgot to charge my Walkman so I spent my five times circling the perimeter looking for a mental distraction; I’ve grown accustomed to the window displays and the mall has lost it’s uncertainty of what’s around the next corner. So I started to think about the things I learned in school and have never used. In fourth form I spent a lot of time memorising basic cloud types; I began to silently chant: nimbus, cirrus, stratus and cumulus; nimbus, cirrus, stratus and cumulus. But then I paused and tried to think of the last time that I wondered if the clouds in an overcast sky are cirrus or nimbostratus. And then I thought about the Geometry and Algebra theorems that Mr Baldwin tried to instill in us; I couldn’t call to mind the last time I had to prove that two triangles were congruent, or to perform matrix multiplication, or to solve how long it takes train B to catch up to train A, if train A leaves the station travelling at thirty miles per hour, and two hours later train B leaves the same station travelling in the same direction at forty miles per hour. I think I was starting my third time around the mall when the elements of the periodic table, sorted by atomic number, started to flash before me.
There were three science rooms at Williamstown Technical School; they were alongside each other on one side of the central, long section of the school. The art room, clay room, and Mr Morrow’s accounting room were opposite the science rooms and they shared one end of the long section with the science rooms. Hundreds of lockers reached to just below the classroom windows and stretched the length of the building; they formed a long passage from which doors lead into the rooms. The science rooms had long wooden benches with gas taps for bunsen burners; and we sat ten to a bench, in a straight line, on lab stools. And how we delighted in those lab benches and stools; they released us from being jammed two to a desk. There was also a long bench around two of the walls; they housed sinks with curved taps and extra gas taps for bunsen burners. The middle science room had an inside walkway into the other two science rooms; it was the way into the two small equipment and supply storage rooms between the rooms. The science rooms always seemed to have a pervasive chemical smell.
Mr Fraser introduced us to fourth form chemistry in the middle science room. We watched Mr Fraser perform experiments at his teacher’s front science desk; and he would diagram the assembled equipment and experiments in coloured chalk on the front boards; along with detailed descriptions, observations and measurements, calculations, and conclusions. We neatly copied his chalkboard journal into our science exercise books. If the lesson didn’t deserve an experiment then Mr Fraser, with his back to the class, would fill all three boards with chalk written scientific theories, postulates, and laws. As the year wore on I had more and more difficulty reading Mr Fraser’s chalkboard journals. I asked Mr Fraser if I could move from the third row bench to the front row; and I could see once again to copy his chalkboard journals. I never did tell mum or dad that I had had trouble reading off the board. It was close on three years later when I was at Footscray Tech that I confessed that I had trouble seeing; and so I eventually got glasses. If only I had worn my glasses back then; that air of sophistication I had from smoking Kent cigarettes would have been enhanced by a somewhat mischievous and cultured look. Nowadays I wear classic tortoise shell Ray-Ban Clubmasters.
I think the most intriguing postulate that Mr Fraser wrote on the board was: atoms make up elements and atoms can neither be created nor destroyed. Back then my squinting had become the norm so I hurriedly copied into my science exercise book
athens is made up of elegance and elegance can neither be cheated or destroyed
And it wasn’t until my final year at Footscray Tech, and after what seemed a lifetime in the chemistry labs and classrooms, that I figured out what Mr Fraser had written on his science room chalk boards.
I was starting my fifth and final loop around the mall and I thought about air; that air was made up of a mixture of gases. Mr Fraser told us that gases were either compounds or elements. And I knew that elements contain only one type of atom. I had my epiphany; nobody uses all the oxygen they breathe in, and because atoms can neither be created nor destroyed I was breathing in oxygen that others have exhaled. I have other person’s exhaled oxygen in my blood; oxygen that was in their brain neurons absorbing their neuron attributes was pulsing through and soaking into my brain neurons.
Whilst growing up and living the The Land Down Under I would have inhaled an incredible amount of oxygen that at one time was carried in blood as it flowed through the brain neurons of a crowd of commanding Australians; Richie Benaud, Reg Grundy, Germaine Greer, Greg Norman, Albert Namatjira, Slim Dusty, Errol Flynn, Edward Hargraves, Barry Humphries, Dame Nellie Melba, Cathy Freeman, and Robert O’Hara Burke to name just a few.
But how do you decide who are the great Aussies; and then whittle that back to the great among the greatest in Australia’s history.
I inhaled oxygen that once percolated through the brain of Cyril Callister. Cyril was a food technologist and is known as the man who invented Vegemite. In 1922 he was asked to make something from the left over waste yeast from the Carlton & United Brewery; to which he added celery, salt and onion and came up with a black sticky paste that looked like axle grease. It’s not because Australians are fed Vegemite from the time they are babies that causes them to travel the world with at least one small jar of Vegemite in their luggage, it is because we have inhaled oxygen from Cyril’s brain.
I’ve had Errol Flynn’s used oxygen coursing through my brain neurons. Errol was born in Hobart, Tasmania and was known for playing the freedom loving rebel, a man of action who fought against injustice, a man who won the heart of many a damsels. Even when he wasn’t acting Errol was a spirited womaniser who gave the world the expression; in like Flynn. It is claimed that the doctors who examined his body when he died at the young age of 50 said it bore the physical ravages of someone who should have been 75 years old. And that would describe the average Australian male.
Innovation, ingenuity and entrepreneurial flair comes naturally to Australians; it’s accepted as a way of life. I’ve sucked in some of Lance Hill’s second hand oxygen. Even though Lance didn’t invent the rotary clothes hoist he demonstrated true blue Aussie creativeness by using metal tubing salvaged from the underwater boom that hung under the Sydney Harbour Bridge to catch World War II enemy submarines to make his clothesline. And he came up with a simple winding mechanism to hoist his big metal tree up into the breeze. The Hills rotary clothes line became an icon of Australia suburbia; the wind spinning the clothes around in the backyard. I think all Aussies have a little of Lance Hill in them; who wasn’t told by mum to get off the clothes line. When she wasn’t looking you would hang from the line and spin each other around until you became so dizzy that you couldn’t walk. Every great backyard had a Hills that was always tilted at a weird angle and with the clothes lines stretched and saggy. Thank you Lance.
I lived in the sixties and grew up in the seventies. When the Beatles toured Australia in June 1964 and the Rolling Stones a couple of years later Melbourne was maturing as the epicentre of Australian progressive music. Berties, Sebastian’s, and The Thumpin Tum would become nationally known discotheques. You danced to what would become classics of Australian music every Saturday night. Harry Vanda and George Young formed the Easybeats in the early sixties and Friday On My Mind, the first international hit by an Aussie rock band, escorted you up the stairs and into Berties; a three story building of Edwardian opulence on the corner of Spring and Flinders Streets. And soon after, George’s two brothers, Angus and Malcolm, were in a new band called AC/DC; and they guided the new bands future by producing their first five albums. I must have taken in oxygen expelled by Harry Vanda & George Young; I can’t think of any other reason why I still wear my old Williamstown Tech school tie.
I remember the streets of the old historical neighbourhood of Athens being lined with small pastry shops, old men playing backgammon, nightclubs, and street vendors selling what I though was the best ever pita wrapped souvlaki. I walked and climbed the twisted hilly narrow streets of the Plaka to wander freely and sit alone among the Acropolis stones; sometimes using one as a back rest to watch Athens endlessly stretching out below. On other days I sat inside the curved outside pillars of the Parthenon and mused over the irony of Greece; the birthplace of democracy and the Olympics: And now a country under military rule, a dictatorship of repression, torture, and grief. And I remembered what Mr Fraser wrote on the board
athens is made up of elegance and elegance can neither be cheated or destroyed.
Just as I completed my fifth and final time around Westroads I remembered that the symbol for oxygen is O; it has an atomic number of eight and is a member of group 16 in the periodic table. We were fortunate that Mr Fraser’s didn’t mess around with developing our self-control, motivation, focus and resilience skills but instead focused on creating chalk boards of notes detailing scientific laws and principles; to be neatly copied into our science exercise book.