This is sadly going to develop into a series of digressions (I think I warned you about this possibility earlier on). I think I should tell you a little about the NSW Railways back in the 50’s.
When I left school I went to work for General Electric for 2 Pounds a week (try to live on that Tom Cruise) but I only stayed there for a few months because my Uncle had pulled a few strings to get me a job in the Railways. "You can stay there for life," he told me, "Once you’re in you can never be sacked."
You have no idea how right he was.
I went to work at the HQ of the Railway Refreshment Rooms at Central Station. They ran all of the railway cafes around the state. I was a message boy and filing clerk and lasted about 9 months.
I arrived in the office which was run by Mr Turner and had desks for four people. The first day I arrived the guy on the next desk shuffled a few papers around and then put his head down and went to sleep. Mr Turner looked up and "huffed and puffed" but did nothing. I knew the man was asleep because he was snoring.
Anyway he woke up when the tea lady came in at 10:15, shuffled a few more papers and then put his head down and went back to sleep. He woke to go to lunch, went back to sleep, woke for afternoon tea, slept again and then went home at 5:00. I won’t say this happened every day but it certainly happened a lot.
In the meantime I was loving my job getting to know all of the underground stairs and tunnels at Central Station. I was given 90 minutes to complete my morning and afternoon mail runs and by the time I left had got it down to 13 minutes flat. I don’t know whether anyone ever broke the Central Station record.
But there was one route I took which nearly got me arrested, possibly even hanged. It was during the 1954 royal visit.
I had this little operation where I raced up a flight of steps, normally used by the boiler room engineers, ran out on to the main country platform and ran down another set of steps, saving up to 15 minutes. I was very proud of this tactic.
I hadn’t realized that the main country platform was out of bounds this morning because the Royals were taking a special train into the country. I came up the steps, running the 100 at about 11.5, careered out the door and ran straight into all of the dignitaries saying farewell to the Royals. Dead in front of me, just two metres away, were the Queen and the Duke. They looked at me in amazement. Official's jaws dropped.
I was beyond embarrassment. I’m not sure what lies beyond, but I was there. I looked at the Queen, then at the Duke and thought, "I’ve got to get out of here." I did a big leap to the left, hit the other doorway (thank God they hadn’t locked it) and disappeared.
I never heard what happened. But there’s a bit of railway folklore from the 50’s which tells of a strange apparition... A young man, carrying a suitcase... Who suddenly appeared and then disappeared in the blinking of an eye in front of the Queen and Prince Phillip. Some say it was the Ghost of Central Station--like a Railways version of the Flying Dutchman--and that he continues to haunt the bowels of Central Station to this very day.
Back at the office we had this senior clerk who would have to be described as one step left of a buffoon. Why they employed him I will never know, but one day I happened to be adding a leave application to his personal file and noticed that he’d been investigated for stealing 37,000 Pounds from the Department some years earlier.
The Railways had done a deal with this bloke for him to continue working and pay off his debt, or as much as he could, before he retired. It took a while for that to sink in, but I thought, "Hang on, here’s the Railways using its own money to recover its losses." I’ve never been strong in maths but I knew that wasn’t going to work.
But my uncle was right. In those days the unions were the Gods and nobody ever got sacked. But I knew immediately I had to get out of there and managed to do so going into radio.
So I went from one place where nobody got sacked to another industry where a lot of people got sacked... Often. Tell me about it.
2MG, the station and the transmitter, were on the edge of town, on the river flats.
There was a hotel, I think the Woolpack(?), just across the road. I got to know the ropes doing a few day shifts here and there. The funny thing is I never worried about the job. I did it as if I’d been in radio forever.
I remember listening to 2MG on my first Saturday night there and a presenter, I think it was Brian someone, did a ballroom programme using well known orchestral records and fake applause. He mixed them together so well I thought it was the real thing. I loved the way he did that show.
You can imagine how excited I was when Mr Marsden gave me my first night shift.
It was such a big moment that he even came in himself to make sure I was okay. And it went well. Really well until it came to sign-off time. I’d done the last show and put away the advertising log when I put the mic' on to start signing off. For no reason I decided to give the sponsor of the last half-hour an extra plug saying something like, "And our thanks to...". Then I suddenly realised I had no idea who had sponsored the last programme. The manager’s face appeared in a small window, in the studio door his eyes showing concern as I paused.
"Our thanks to..." I repeated, "To, er..." and I blurted out the name of a well known local business.
The manager’s eyes suddenly appeared to be haunted. He shook his head from side to side. So I just kept going and mentioned another well known local business. Again, horror. Anguish. So I gave it another shot with my third well known business. And this time I got it. The manager looked faintly relieved as I finally said goodnight. He drove me home that night, but the journey was deafeningly silent.
After a while I mumbled, "That wasn’t good was it?" After long consideration he responded, "No."
We never spoke of this again.
Now when you did nights at 2MG you were ALONE… All alone.
Once the hotel closed down over on the corner it was as if you’d been stranded on the far side of the moon. The presenter sat in a chair in the studio and behind him was this large, wall size window. Beyond the window were the river flats and beyond that--only the local surveyor knows.
But I’d be sitting in the chair at 10:30 at night and I’d get this awful feeling that there was something at the window, looking at me. Something unspeakably horrible. Slowly I’d turn around, sweating in terror, but there was nothing there. Just the imagination of a very young 17 year old.
17 year olds in 1954 were roughly akin to 12 year olds in 2007. We were all unbelievably naive.
What was particularly difficult for me was leaving the premises late at night. You closed the station down and your last act was to turn off the front light and make the long walk down the gravel driveway on to the main road and then back into town. It was pitch black and you knew... You just knew... There were terrible things walking behind you all the way... Just waiting to pounce.
One night I was walking down the driveway and I heard footsteps. I froze, "Don’t be stupid, you’re listening to your own footsteps, you idiot."
So I set off again down the path, and the other footsteps set off again. So I stopped. And the other footsteps stopped. I had to face it. There was something out there, somewhere to my left, getting closer with each step. I was about to face the monster of the Mudgee River flats, the monster who’d been lurking behind the window, waiting patiently for me to come outside.
The hairs on the back of my head were standing on end. I didn’t have time to check but I think my eyebrows were at right angles. I emerged from the 2MG gate and the steps were almost upon me. Suddenly on my left a man emerged from the darkness. It was dark but I could see his face was white, sweat staining his forehead. We had both been walking down separate roads at the same time and for about ten minutes that night we’d scared the living daylights out of each other. I’ll never forget that evening.
Just as I’ll never forget the great Mudgee flood.
But I think it’s best I pause for a while, allowing you to recover from the preceding drama. We’ll pick up the flood story and a tale which you won’t believe when we next meet.