“So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city”
(Joshua 6:20)

The subsequent description of the carnage that took place after the ‘children of Israel’ captured Jericho makes the Egyptians and their Pharaoh look like ‘saints dipped in Omo’ and confirms my idea that there is no right side and wrong side in war, just winners maybe, losers always, and then the living make up their own minds where to allot their morals. But enough of religion and war, because mostly, too often in fact, the two go together.

I want to talk about my Grandfather and give you a sample of the jokes he frequently told. He preferred the more long-winded ones to give himself time to roll a smoke as the joke was told.

I only wish you could, in your imagination, picture what I see in my memory. Somewhere we are working together on his once beautiful farm, in Queensland and nowhere on it are you out of sight of the surrounding forest if not actually in it.

Grandfather’s beautiful farm in Queensland,
now just a memory and an image on an old photograph.

The forest has now been cleared by the new owner. I’m about ten or twelve years old, but Pop’s age is a mystery to me then. Even now there is something timeless about him, partly because my time with him only amounted to fairly long but sporadic visits when Dad took Mum back to see her parents and partly because I never saw him grow old, lung cancer having moved in first!

But today we are putting in a new fence, not far from a grove of Brigalow trees, where the Apostle-birds are squawking and whistling with gravel throats, arguing amongst themselves, while trying to get at our lunch which is securely packed because of them. Pop gives the post hole one last ram with the crowbar and then leans it against the now planted post. At the same time his hand goes around to his hip pocket and I know already, we won’t be having lunch until after he lights up and the joke is told.

Back when I went to school, with just one teacher, and, of course, Pop too, one double lesson per week was for Religious Instruction and I still don’t know if that’s good or bad. But what you need to know to follow the joke, is that we did have the local minister to the schools, once a week. We also had school Inspectors come around from time to time. And for some reason, I was then too naive to realise that despite what the teacher led us to believe, the Inspector wasn’t really there to check on us.

Yet to follow the joke one has to be, at least in your imagination, as naive as I was, because, as the tobacco tin opens…’the Inspector strolls into the classroom’. Then while the tobacco is pinched out and rubbed… ‘the Inspector starts asking the class various questions’. To me, back then, even the questions were a little amusing, coming from a mouth with a cigarette paper stuck to the bottom lip; as Pop rolls the tobacco into a loose ball. Then the tobacco is laid on the paper and is being teased out… ‘the Inspector decides to check on the students’ religious training’.

Both fingers are working the tobacco along the paper and… ‘the Inspector asks, “Who broke down the walls of Jericho?” and all but one student put up their hands’. Now, I don’t know about you, but teachers, and Inspectors, in my day always picked on some poor student who didn’t have their hand up! These days I would know what to say to them, and how to phrase the reply too, but sadly, back then…!! Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t know back then! What do you think?

Inspectors were always ex-teachers, so they behaved the same way. And as the tobacco is tamped down a bit, ‘he demands an answer from poor little Johnny, by means of a stern and unrelenting stare’.

Pop’s fingers are dry from calluses, so to ‘roll’ he has to lick them and each thumb… ‘Poor little Johnny looks up and stammers out “It wasn’t me Sir”’. Pop never liked to waste tobacco in the butt, so the burn end is rolled thicker than the other. ‘The Inspector looks at the teacher with something like disgust, at this reply’. While the paper rolls back and forth over the tobacco… ‘and the teacher insists the boy is honest, and would never lie about something like that’. There is a premature chuckle from deep in Pop’s throat as he decides the rolling is correct… ‘and the Inspector strides from the room’.

I hand Pop a mug of water, because I already know his tongue will be too dry to lick the glue strip… ‘While the Inspector wants to know, “What’s going on here?” from the Headmaster. The Headmaster claims he doesn’t know the boy’… and after the glue strip is licked… ‘he points out that the teacher is one of his best and would know if the boy was lying!’ And a thumb and finger smoothes out the treacherous white stem… ‘With the Inspector driving away, back to head office’.

The ‘smoke’ is slipped into a corner of Pop’s mouth and then huge dark tanned hands ‘pat around’ for the box of matches. ‘While the Inspector is reading a reply to his correspondence, from the Minister of Education’. The match is in Pop’s right hand… ‘while the Inspector fumes’. a low chuckle emanates again in anticipation. The ‘smoke’ is alight and a cloud of it hangs listlessly under the hot sun.

The Apostle-birds temporarily fly off a metre or two as we stroll to the shade,…

‘with the Minister for Education’s words prompting disgust from the reader. “Dear Sir etc. etc. I do believe we are making a mountain out of a molehill,” the Minister writes’. At the edge of the shade, the first puff of inhaled smokes comes out, while… ”the Minister goes on, ‘I think the best thing to do is to just compensate the owner of the wall (this Jericho chap) for the damage and leave the matter there’.

The sunlight shines through the bow in Pop’s ‘saddle set legs’, once again reminding me he is so much like some characters in Henry Lawson’s books and stories. To look at, and to listen to. And his chuckle goes all the way down the bowed legs to his boots.

Tell me now, why does this story, with its humorous little joke included, bring tears to me, every time I recall those moments, so long ago. And why is it so disappointing for me, that you were not there too? Sipping hot tea in the shade of the Brigalows and eating sandwiches.

With Apostle-birds squawking, squabbling and flapping greedily over the bits of bread we toss them.

Just like Joshua and his mates after the walls of Jericho fall. Only last week, and then again tomorrow and again and again, since time itself begins and ends! While here in Australia, and some other countries too, we struggle to protect what remains of the natural world; and only remember our history! Not relive it day after day. In doing what we do in places like Moorunde and others, we can see where they have gone wrong. They fight over land there because they want it for themselves, in the name of God and their religion. Better to preserve what’s left of it, the way it was as we found it, knowing that therein lies the answer to attaining peace!

Sep-Oct 2010