Quick hands at Uncle Stan’s in Grantham

Quick hands, as they call it, is a key concept in rugby league. When the game is played in the traditional way, the big forwards run the ball up, one out, for a few tackles. While they are battering the line, the dainty backs get themselves set, lining out across the field. When the half-back thinks enough of the defenders have been sucked in to the ruck as a result of the heavy tackling, and he sees his centres and wingers are set, he’ll yell, “Backs ball!”

And if the gaps are out wide he’ll call, “Quick hands.” Although usually he won’t have to call it, because the five eighth (that was eventually me) and the inside centre should see what’s on, and the ball will go through the hands with no dinkin’ and dummyin’ and fartin’ about. Half back, on to five eighth, to inside centre, to outside centre, with may be the full back chiming in, and then wide to the speedy winger.

You have to be able to catch and pass.

I learned about quick hands in a very Queensland way.

My Uncle Stan and Aunty June live on a little farm at Grantham. For years they grew vegetables. They made a modest living out of it: enough to raise four daughters, and keep Uncle Stan in beer and bait.

If you were with Uncle Stan at the bar of the Grantham pub, or outside of church, or when you spotted him on the beach at Fraser Island, and asked him what he did, he’d say, “I grow cabbage.”

He has always been a proud cabbage-grower and had a sense of providing the nation with coleslaw. And he has always said the word ‘cabbage’ in a particular way. I can’t describe it, or the way he talks generally. He just sounds like Uncle Stan: full of stories and editorials and opinions and mischief.

You’d have to be more than Professor Higgins to try to understand the combination of heritage and experience which have come together to form the way he talks. It’s a German, Lutheran, 1949, Lockyer Valley, in-the-paddock sort of sound, the distinctiveness of which is amplified by what he says.

At my brother’s wedding he wasn’t on the MC’s list of speakers but, moved by the spiritus mundi, he rose and headed towards the mic. Of course it was thrust towards him.

He cleared his throat. “From the bottom of my heart,” he began, “to the heart of my wife’s bottom…” No-one remembers the rest except that it was vintage Uncle Stan.

His speeches, like his life generally, are no-nonsense. He isn’t one to get involved in things that don’t matter, and he has a natural suspicion of institutions and government bull shit which, combined with a healthy belief in his own understanding of things, means he will tell you how it is – in the nicest possible way. The man can talk. He likes face-to-face talk. (“I haven’t got a fishin’ net, I haven’t got a hair net, why the bloody hell would I want an internet?”)

When we were kids we’d often go to Grantham to stay at Uncle Stan’s. He was huge. He still is: a great bull of a man; brown-black from the Queensland sun; his hands the size of couch cushions. Tough hands with fingers as fat as Chiko Rolls (“What is that purple stuff in them damn things – that’s not proper cabbage?”) and finger-nails with a fair portion of the bottom paddock under them.

His feet are just as big. And cracked. Because Uncle Stan has only ever worn shoes to church, to selected local council functions, and on the golf course.

We’d arrive at the farm with its two palm trees out the front, the city kids from that (huge) metropolis of Oakey just an hour or so away if the trucks crawling down the Toowomba Range weren’t too bad, and there would be Uncle Stan waddling from side to side on already-dodgy hips, through the paddock,  shifting irrigation pipes, picking them up like he was a Ukrainian weightlifter, and putting them in the next spot to water his cabbage (no plural) or onions or rock melon (“rock mellin”). Tramping through stinging nettles, the poison of which would incapacitate a small child for hours. (“Them damn things don’t worry ya, do they?”)

Massive shoulders and chest. And a wide arse. Big, and with a big tummy, but not a fat tummy in the way that farmers aren’t fat, even the fat ones.

When we first went to Uncle Stan’s in the late `60s we had to use the thunderbox in the lovely back garden. I remember how Uncle Stan could make that little structure rock, reading the produce prices in the Gatton newspaper, or tearing it up to use appropriately (“Paper? What’s wrong with an old corn cob. That’ll do the trick.”) He’d emerge still hitching his blue King Gee shorts (button-ups) as he headed off to do some other important job.

Their old Queenslander, on stilts, was beautifully cool in the shade underneath, and caught a lovely breeze upstairs. There were plenty of days, though, when the air was heavy and still with humidity and it would be an effort for Uncle Stan to release himself from the cricket in the lounge room.

The farm is a couple of kilometres from the confluence of two creeks: Lockyer Creek, quite deep and fast-flowing after a storm, and Sandy Creek, which runs through the town of Grantham itself. So the soil on the plain is very good. But it can flood: there was a big one in 1974 which flooded under the house.

Their place is on the old Brisbane Road. If you turn at the pub and go up a short bit, that’s the Schulz’s. The little old shop they used to sell from, when it was the highway, is still there, but is now a repository for the stuff farmers and their families accumulate over 60 years.

Back in 1975, when my Dad had long-service leave, we spent the first month picking onions at Uncle Stan’s so we could afford a family holiday in the south. It was hard work, but good fun.

Onions were OK. But what we really wanted to do was pick cabbage. With Uncle Stan. On many visits he would take us down to the cabbage paddock and get us to form a chain – a rugby league back line of cousins. He’d have a razor-sharp knife, and he’d bend over, his magnificent arse pointing to the sky, and swish, off would come a huge, green head of cabbage. He’d toss it to the first cousin, maybe his 12 year old daughter, to me, to my 10 year old brother, to his 9 year old, and then to a cousin from New Guinea (one of Uncle Cecil’s boys) who was having a weekend away from boarding school, to my 9 year old brother, to another of his daughters, to Aunty June (under her hat) packing the wooden crate.

You needed quick hands. And good hands. Catch and pass. Good catch. Accurate pass. Pass to the catcher’s advantage so they were in a position to pass easily. Uncle Stan set the pace – and he didn’t like his rhythm altered. Dropping a cabbage would bring the half-laugh-half-wrath of Uncle Stan who’d have seen the knock-on from the corner of his eye and would be complaining about getting the job done before dark. (“You damn kids.”) Looking back now, I can see the theatre that was Uncle Stan’s paddock, the Zorba man he was (and still is), and the cheeky performance he always gave. Anthony Quinn would have been a fop in Uncle Stan’s presence.

So we learnt quick hands, to please Uncle Stan, although we all laughed when our feet got sucked in to the mud which slurped at us like it was a living thing, or someone went down in pain stung by a bastard nettle. Or someone did the unthinkable and dropped a cabbage. (“They won’t take that one, you damn kids.”)

The great (and very occasional) treat was to be the cousin picked out to go with Uncle Stan and Dad (Uncle Stan always called our father ‘Pastor Elmore’ because  that’s how he first knew him) in the truck, laden with crates of Schulz’s cabbage to Brisbane. The old Bedford would be coaxed into action and away we’d go to arrive at the Rocklea Markets after midnight. This was an invitation into the adult world, and there were few things as thrilling as a pie with mash and gravy at 3am at some truckies’ stop near Goodna. I learnt to understand why men rubbed their hands together in hunger, and in the knowledge that a solid day’s work had been completed – in the most satisfying way.

Uncle Stan may not have realized the impact he was having on the rugby league careers of his nephews. He didn’t play any football, nor much cricket. His main sports were fishing and drinking, and the occasional game of golf.

He would duck up to that little Grantham pub after knock-off and have a quick 12 pots. “Why do you have to have 12?” my father would ask in moments when piety took hold.

“Because, Pastor Elma’, I work that damn hard I don’t taste the first ten,” he’d say. The round dozen seemed to have no effect on him, nor on his brother Col.

For years, when driving to Brisbane we’d look out for the ’69 Falcon station wagon and there it would be, parked at the Grantham pub.

Uncle Stan discovered Fraser Island in the 1960s; he was one of the first regulars up there. He’d plant cabbage in Grantham, say a few prayers, spray for bugs, and go fishing for tailor. He became an institution of the place – Black Dog, they call him.

I have never played golf with him but I imagine it is a remarkable site. He had an exotic set of clubs. In the days when most of us could only afford a driver, 3,5,7 irons and putter Uncle Stan had a 4-iron which one of the cousins would borrow as a welcome addition to their set when heading off to play at Gatton (rather than visiting Nan).

He follows the cricket – and has his opinions about it. I remember one of the saddest nights of my life was during that onion-picking season in 1975. Every sunset we’d stumble in to the house, exhausted, and dinner would be chops or steak or rissoles or sausages with mashed potatoes and chips and veges, and beetroot and corn, and tomato and cucumber salad in a creamy vinegar dressing with onion, and bakers’ white bread. There wasn’t a bit of plate showing. One night we were waiting for the final day of cricket from Headingley. McCosker and Walters were making a good fist of the fourth innings chase and Australia was in with a good chance. We’d talked cricket all day in the westerly winds out in the paddock. The anticipation had built and built. And then news came through that someone had dug up the pitch. The Test was abandoned. I was distraught.

In recent times Uncle Stan hasn’t done as much on the farm, but he’s never stopped being a farmer. He doesn’t drink beer anymore. His body tried to tell him not to. But he didn’t really listen. His doctor gave him no choice. So now he drinks red wine. And talks. He’ll drive (“the Toyota”) to the Barossa to stock up. He’s got a little wine fridge under the house to beat the Queensland humidity.

Last year he had a bit of a setback. He fell 15 feet off a ladder while trimming the top of the hedge. (“Mum brought two wheelbarra’s’ o’soil and it still didn’t fill up the damn hole in the ground.”)

I have noticed that since that day last February, the weather hasn’t been the same – around the world.

A fortnight or so ago it started raining in the Valley. It rained a lot just below the Toowomba range. That had happened many times before, although this rain was very heavy and persistent. It kept raining.

Uncle Stan thought there would be a bit of water coming down the creek.

The phone rang at the house about one o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. They were told they had five minutes to prepare for the water that was coming. Aunty June took the car to the small patch of high ground and was returning to the house on foot when the flood started rising. Quickly she was in waist-deep water and in trouble.

She made it to the steps and up in to the house. She looked at Stan.

The water continued to rush carrying with it masses of debris. It rose quickly. Then it subsided a little.

Uncle Stan and Aunty June had nowhere to go. A second flood came: this time even more water. They photographed it. They were concerned the force of it would wash the house away, or that one of the many logs it transported would crash destructively into one of the stumps.

Fortunately it didn’t. They sat there for two days waiting for the water to go down. Eventually the police insisted they leave. They learnt of the fate of their townsfolk. A dozen or so drowned.

We couldn’t contact Grantham by phone, but word came through that they were alright. I finally spoke to Uncle Stan on Tuesday afternoon (a week after the flood), just after he had been allowed to return to the house.

At first there was no ratbag in his voice. He was still very shaken.

“It was unbelievable,” he kept saying, in a voice I had never known was in Uncle Stan. He has never been one to show his trouble, his upset. “John, you cannot, cannot imagine what it looks like here. Forget the damn news reports. That can’t show it.”

And he began to tell me how it happened. And how the news analysts had it wrong. “This wasn’t Toowoomba water,” he said. “That all went west to Oakey.”

Which it did.

“This was from the massive rain on this side [of the range].”

Gradually the Uncle Stan voice came back; the one that has at its heart the sense that the good Lord knows what he is doing; and the voice of gratitude that they were spared. “There’s many worse off than us,” he said, a number of times.

“The car’s alright. Which is a pity,” he said. “I hit my head on the damn thing every time I get in.”

“The Toyota’s up to the horn in mud. The wine fridge has had a little float, but you know what John, not one of them damn bottles was broken.”

The beautiful farm is a mess. This garden paradise where we learnt quick hands is a mess.

But they’re going to clean it up and keep going.

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au He has written many columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted j.t.h@footyalmanac.com.au He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo10, Anna8, Evie7. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Really enjoyable read Harmsy.

    Uncle Sam sounds like a beer drinkin’ Tom Hafey…no finessin’.

    Loved the line about the ‘nets’ crack up. Hope this terrible event doesn’t break these people. They are the salt of the earth.

  2. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Sorry Harmsy, meant Stan. Just another example of how pop culture can seep into one’s brain!

  3. Peter Schumacher says:

    John, as a matter of interest in his own way my 92 year old father in law who has still lives in his own home at Beenleigh is a bit like this. He was a builder, tough of nails, appropriately enough I guess, who was a real “can do” man. I must admit that as a person who is probably the exact opposite I have always felt slightly intimidated in his presence although he has never once given me reason to feel so.

    My favourite memory of him is to see him passing wasp nests that got in his way and rip them up on the way through while anyone else nearby was trying to duck for cover. This was an ordinary everyday event for him.

    His wife died 5 or 6 years ago but he took on the matter of living by himslelf and learning new skills whilst doing so without a blink.

    Our son had to as part of a job application write an essay on the person he admired most. He chose his grandfather. George Harch, though he slowed down now, has been an inspiration to his family and the wider community as a fair decent man who seemingly could do anything.

    Once again in your writing you have captured the moment(s) and the atmosphere perfectly.

  4. Genevieve Clark says:

    Thanks for making me laugh in a time of not so many laughs John. Dad will love this story.

  5. Stan the man sounds like a cracker! Glad to hear he came through OK. As I read the story Harmsy I had a feeling of dread. I once picked Tomatos with a bunch of guys in Swan Hill [that paddock will be under water in the next day or so] who looked and talked like Tony Soprano. God love this diverse and weird country…

  6. John, Uncle Stan must have passed by my father’s mango farm on the way to Fraser if he went there in the past 20 or so years. Having planted 800 of the trees there and a fair few seasons picking with the odd cousin over the years, your description of the time spent (possibly begrudged at the time?) seems like a truly important part of who you became.

    Glad to hear more survival stories. I heard yesterday from my musical mate who had the river come up to his backyard. Although it didn’t touch the house, his Bali hut “has been washed 4 or 5 houses down”. Having seen photos of the hut and the distance and height from the river; a very impressive feat. Not to mention the suggestion of the hut being better built than it would have been had it been built in Bali!

    Hasn’t had electricity for the 4 days they have been back home, so couldn’t communicate. All of my friends have come through better than expected and all concerned that many are much worse off. Also cannot say enough of the volunteer army who have come through to help clean up last weekend and since. Has made a 3 week job into a 1 day effort for Hillsy to salvage what was worth saving and gut the rest. Carpet, bedrooms, bathrooms, hot water system, all out onto the footpath along with everybody elses from the rest of the suburb…

  7. keep writing john, you are a beautiful artisan of the written word, and you describe an Australia that I am so glad still exists, now living back in Adelaide after 6 years in FNQ I miss the “real” Australians and when I read your tales, predominantly of Queenslanders, and yes they are a different breed, it brings back my many memories of the characters I met in the pubs and racetracks of Cairns and Mareeba. thank you

  8. Alovesupreme says:

    John,
    A characteristically beautiful piece of writing. Your Uncle Stan seems the perfect embodiment of that admirable stoicism of rural Australia which has enabled generations to survive against the odds.

  9. Hi John. Saw this published in the Courier Mail today and wanted to thank you for the excellent storytelling. Top work. Cheers.

  10. johnharms says:

    Thanks Andrew. Much appreciated. I haven’t seen it yet. Did it have a pointer to footyalmanac.com?

  11. Elaine Liekefett says:

    Great storey. I knew the Logan family
    years ago. Keep writing.

  12. johnharms says:

    G’day Elaine

    Did you know my Mum, Fay?

  13. Elaine Liekefett says:

    Hi, John,I knew Cecil, Peter & June.
    Now I know your cousins Brett & Geoff here in the Redlands area.

  14. Hi John, Thank you for a great story you made me cry! Your uncle John is made of the same tough ,rough,beautiful mold as my Dad. Unfortunately I lost Dad 3 years ago & I miss him more than anyone could ever know.We were small crop farmers in the Redlands for 40 year plus until we sold to developers.I too loved watching Dad cut the cabbages with his huge cane knife and will never forget the excitement of being alowed to go to the Rocklea markets at midnight.I used to wish I was a boy so he would take me more often.
    Anyway the main point of my contact is that I have a business Harbour Day Spa and so many of our Clients,Friends & Staff wanted to help the flood effected in some way. We also felt strongly towards helping the people on the land and in country areas. We have collected 12o plus large plastic containers full of personal products to restock the bathrooms.I plan to use a van to deliver to Grantham & other areas for the community to distribute.Could your uncle help me with a contact in Grantham? Many thanks for raising the memories. Warm regards Leanne Morris

  15. johnharms says:

    G’day Leanne

    Thanks for your kind words. Always lovely to know that a yarn resonates. What memories heh! I just loved those days. I will contact my cousine Gen and get back to you.

    Cheers
    JTH

  16. Matt Watson says:

    I reported on this year’s Grantham Floods Commission of Inquiry.
    Uncle Stan was right. The media could not adequately describe the devastation that claimed 12 lives.
    Here’s to Uncle Stan’s life and the impact he had on his family.
    Great story John. Sorry for your loss.

  17. Jamie Simmons says:

    This one resonates with me. Wish I’d read it back in 2011. My favorite JTH to date I think.

  18. Love it.
    Robbo

  19. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Some of that “natural suspicion of institutions and government bull shit” seems to have rubbed off onto his nephew.

    Uncles, cousins, extended family holidays – are they still a thing?

    Outstanding.

  20. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Very sorry to hear about your uncle Stan, John. I recall reading this wonderful piece when you wrote it. It will remain a lasting tribute to your treasured uncle .

  21. “…to the heart of my wife’s bottom”. Ahh love it. Sir Les would be envious. Beautifully played John.

  22. Debbie Steinhardt says:

    Dearest John , What wonderful recollections of days gone by. Dad would have loved this. Being the humble man he was! Our lives without him will never be the same but Oh..the memories! Thank you for this wonderful picture your words have painted for us. Tim wrote .. as a small boy he found his Uncle Stan three parts hilarious and one part vaguely terrifying! The Story telling gene runs deep in our wonderful family. Much love. I will treasure this piece always.

  23. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    WHAT a portrait!
    Could a poor brush do even half the job?
    Just a perfectly rolled piece of writing JTH.

    I’m holding Uncle Stan in mind this week. And all who loved him. Might even do cabbage for dinner.

  24. Sad news JTH. Another hole in that generation. There will not be another like it.

  25. Sorry for your loss JTH.

    I love pieces like this which make the ordinary extraordinary. Such a richly drawn character. The Queensland you describe is familiar to me and makes me want to visit it again soon.

    And I love your Uncle’s shoelessness!

Leave a Comment

*