Seventeen in 1962

This longish poem, Sev­en­teen in 1962, is a pretty accu­rate descrip­tion of my first job in Nun­dah, Bris­bane, in 1962. I was a stranger in the city. My fam­ily came from around Syd­ney, and had just retreated, nearly bank­rupt, from a failed migra­tion to north Queens­land where south­ern­ers were unwel­come. The bit­ter­ness of tone per­sisted for much of my first ten years in unskilled jobs after leav­ing high school,  partly per­haps from dis­ap­point­ment after hav­ing topped the school aca­d­e­m­i­cally, then col­lid­ing with the incom­pre­hen­sion of work­ing class par­ents and the indif­fer­ence of gen­eral Aus­tralian cul­ture. The peo­ple I knew or met seemed to resent intel­lec­tual curios­ity. They wanted to be respected veg­eta­bles in a very small gar­den plot. As a com­plete out­sider with­out money or any social skills at all, it was a friend­less time.

                    Sev­en­teen in 1962

The wait was over, the grow­ing done,
Just the fill­ing out to come;
Time of promise, time to fear,
Gan­gling sev­en­teen.

First job, be-clerked, min­nowed and shoaled
With the eight o’clock tide, be-tied.
And the man­ager, Minikin, said marry your­self
To the com­pany, boy-man to be made;
Tuck in your shirt and swear
Here will be done as your elders have done,
Let all debtors be blessed, amen
And wipe the smirk off your face.

He watched them parked, bum to chair
Head to har­ness, ear to phone,
Smil­ing brightly right on cue.
Sell­ing paint was the mis­sion here;
Sales­men had all claims to glory.
He the sludge, untouched by praise –
Add the num­bers, count the hours,
Keep you head down boy!

They put him there one sul­try day
And shrugged; did Ben­son err?
He always got the num­bers right, that man,
And chose the boy for brains, he thought,
Or marks at school, or maybe his big ears –
It didn’t work …
For brains are apt to think, and think­ing dream;
And boys are apt to drown
When tides of years come in upon the man.

Nine months he watched the num­bers drift
In spiky, ink-stained lines, and won­dered
This boy-man, what thin life
Could come from cans of paint; could almost under­stand
The fleet­ing pain in har­ried salesmen’s jokes,
Or pale Ben­son, boxed in glass and bril­liantine,
The dour men­tor, office man­ager and guide,
Rush­ing to his Bap­tist god for hope.

Was this all? Was this ambition’s end?
The bleak rou­tine of cat­a­logu­ing days
That fled on unmarked feet? Should he court
And marry such a fate, then marry
bed and breed with some slim, sim­ple-minded girl
To pass on the ledger’s pen before he fell?
He wept. It had to stop.

The wait was over, the dying done;
Just the killing of dreams to come.
Stripped of promise, stripped of fear,
Armed with doubt, he snarled
And slammed the door. Threw the dice,
Picked up the card: it shouted
Break out of jail !! Be damned…

Thor, 2000

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