(Left: May Mission)
I grew up surrounded by boys in every direction - only one brother, but two male cousins and several sets of neighbours and friends put the total at twelve or so. Unlike the rest, my brother and I were homeschooled. Up until the age of ten or eleven, this consisted of reading and re-reading the stock of books owned by my parents, and those hauled home from the library. Sometimes I drew or sewed or built something, but mostly it was the books that pulled me in. But I ate my Weet-Bix just like every other Kiwi kid and dashed out to eat fruit off the trees while the cool grass tickled the soles of my feet.
Each day I would wait eagerly of three o’clock when the others would get out of school and come to play. We ran wild in the park, in trees and gardens, and in the patch of bush between our neighbourhood and the start of the industrial area in the Wairau valley. On weekends, when the factories closed, we zoomed on bikes around their adventurously sloped carparks and driveways tangled around the network of cul-de-sacs. When the park was mowed, we scurried about to gather armfuls of fragrant cut grass, with which we built walls, houses and furnishings on the wide green spaces. We took turns at pulling the flying fox to the tower for each other, while yet others waited below at the point where you’d begin to lose speed - ready to catch the rope’s tail and propel you to the far end for a second, shorter thrill ride. We climbed trees and built platforms in them from wood scraps.
We went to zoos and museums and beaches in two or three carloads, sometimes with a few kids in the boot of Dad’s old French stationwagon - before the days when it became illegal. Once on the motorway at high speed, the hatch opened when two boys were in the back, but Mum was able to pull over before anything happened. The backseat was empty that day because the boot was, just, well, cooler.
Those were the days when “choice” was a word of high praise, when a frozen Fruju was the epitome of summer happiness at the beach. Mr. Whippy’s van would blare Greensleeves from its horn and we’d run up to the street to get a choc-dipped Flake cone. We’d come home with sand all through our clothes, bags and hair, and starving from hours in the sun and salt water. But the milkman’s siren would creep ever closer and I’d have to rocket down to the bottom of the drive with Mum’s small change jingling in my pocket, so as not to run out of milk. That would keep us from eating Weet-Bix in the morning, and we couldn’t have that.
We built huge Lego constructions that sometimes , and taped wild zig-zags of empty toilet rolls, cut-off plastic bottles and other junk to the ragged wallpaper in my room to make “marble machines” as we called them - then we’d pour marbles in the top end and patch up any spots where they escaped before landing in the yoghurt pot at the bottom.
In the May holidays, the church used to put on children’s programmes which everyone called the May Mission. I don’t know what they call it now - since the school terms were rearranged, there’s been no holidays in May for years. Anyway, for that week we’d gather up all the boys and ferry them to the church hall to sing songs, learn Bible verses, and play games like newspaper bat-ball, Duck Duck Goose, Matthew Mark, and Hit the Deck. And let’s not forget the church camps, where there was more of the same - day and night. The campsite had three giant flying foxes, which was the main attraction for us kids.
One winter Dad and I spent many evenings down in the garage, making a huge mural of Noah’s Ark with all the animals. Fabric and wool and paint were applied to a wide roll of newsprint paper. When it was done, the whole family showed it to visitors by holding it up in a circle to walk around them. It was too long to stretch our straight in any one room.
With Mum we’d go shopping in our bare feet, which was chilly in the freezer aisle, but shoes are no fun anyway. Afterwards we’d pop into the library next door and check out books, and videos from the children’s section - most notably one called Music Box where a man in a dreary city discovered a song to make him happy. Each time he opened the music box, dancing black angels in white tuxedos would appear and sing Gospel Hallelujas. We loved that story, watching how the joy changed that man’s life as he passed it on.
On weekends in New Zealand, houses for sale are opened to the public. We visited a great many, but never found one we liked more than our own dilapidated yellow clapboard by the park. To this day my mother and I look up the open homes and go touring every so often - it’s a stimulating hobby even if we aren’t quite planning on buying. Maybe one day.
We had one cat of our own, and a few from the surrounding houses who liked to hang out with him. One summer the neighbours had kittens, and al of us kids rejoiced in carrying them around the neighbourhood. Of course, we had only our swimming togs on, havinig run a hose out to a plastic sheet laid out on the park hill, where we slipped and slid and cooled off during the long hot days. Or we splashed in plastic pools or sanced through lawn-sprinklers.
And then there’s the other animals. We made ant houses of glass and tape, and watched with great interest when the ants moved in. Later, the cousins gave us a white rat they’d found running wild, and we liked her so much we got five more in all colours, and later some breeding pairs. Every boy that came to our house wanted a rat of his own, you see, though not all of their parents were as impressed with the idea.
My brother talked to dogs along his paper run, got to know their owners, and tooke them for walks at times. Then other times, they’d escape from their yards and come to find him. We borrowed quite a few dogs in this way over the years, but their owners always knew where to find them.
Thus was my childhood in New Zealand - a mingling of sights and sounds and textures, experiences and smells and the unmistakable ambience of each individual situation. Much I have forgotten, but not the richness nor the colours, and not the toys nor the boys.