‘…..SPUD……….’ – KB Hill

Renato Leonardo Patat…….the name rolls smoothly off the tongue……

But everyone, bar his wife Marie, called him ‘Spud’.

He always reminded me of Nino Culotta, the fictional hero of the popular fifties novel : ‘THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB’.

 

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Both were tradies, Italian immigrants, grappled valiantly with the English language and succeeded in assimilating themselves perfectly into the Australian lifestyle.

In fact, Spud, who passed away just on a fortnight ago, became a true-blue Aussie character………..
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He was born in the hilly town of Gemona, in North-East Italy, in 1927. Because of the family’s precarious financial status, he was required to leave school early, and join the work-force, to support his seven siblings and parents, Maria and Umberto.

Tough times prevailed in post-war Europe, and work opportunities were scarce. It prompted Renato to answer an ad in the local paper, which sought tradesmen in Australia.

He landed in Wangaratta in 1951, and started work on the Housing Commission’s kerb and channel project in Yarrunga. It would, he thought, keep him going for two or three years, before he inevitably headed back home to Gemona.

Fate intervened. One of his regular outings was to the Movies at the Plaza Theatre, in Murphy Street, where he was drawn to a friendly, good-looking usherette.

The attraction was mutual. The handsome Continental swept young Marie Stevenson off her feet and, as their romance began to blossom, he was invited home to meet her family.

Sounds like one of those Mills and Boon novels, doesn’t it ?

But he was a trifle reluctant. One of his countrymen had told him that he’d been invited to meet his Aussie girlfriend’s father, and had been threatened at the door, with a shot-gun.

Again, this drew me to an excerpt from ‘They’re a Weird Mob’: Nino Culotta is invited home to meet Harry, the dad of his girlfriend Kaye. Harry says he doesn’t like Tradies or Dagos. Nino, sitting in Harry’s lounge-room, points to a picture of the (then current) Pope on the wall, and says: ‘If I am a Dago, so is he’. Abhoring the prospect of calling the Pope by that name, Harry accepts Nino…….

Spud had no need for such concerns , though. He hit it off well with Horace Stevenson, and he and Marie were wed in 1954. It was his dad-in-law who recommended him to Bill Parnall Snr, after his contract with the Housing Commission had been completed………..
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When I was growing up, Spud was a familiar figure around the Rovers Football Club. Someone – probably his future brother-in-law Alf Onslow – had swayed him into following the Hawks, and with his set of skills, he became a valuable acquisition.

The Club had shifted to their new home at the ‘Cricket Ground’ in the early fifties, and Spud was always at working-bees, building this; repairing that.

Along with Harry Armstrong and ‘Doodles’ Dodemaide, he constructed the wooden seats that ringed the oval. Then there was the decrepit, ruin of a building that he helped convert into single-storey Clubrooms, as well as ‘knocking up’ the original wooden Kiosk and Bar.

Initially, he knew nothing about the nuances of Aussie Rules. Alan ‘Dinger’ Bell, a Rovers star of the fifties, recalls him ‘blowing his top’ when the goal-umpire disallowed a certain Hawk goal at the Yarrawonga Showgrounds one day.

He started to straddle the fence and blurted: “I kill you”, before he was restrained. Spud continued to remonstrate with the ump for the rest of the quarter, and was eventually escorted from the ground.

As the years rolled on, he became a connoisseur of the game, and would prognosticate on it from the northern end of the Hogan Stand; with VB in hand; in the midst of the most one-eyed, umpire-baiting Rovers supporters……
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Marie, of course, became a wonderful teacher, who influenced generations of kids at West End Primary. But surprisingly, she was unable to induce Spud to master the English language.

 

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He perfected its slang however, and even conjured a few words of his own, one of which – ‘Blood a Fuck’ – he inserted into conversations as a noun, verb or adjective.

‘Dinger’ remembers calling in to pick up some tomatoes one Sunday. “He was ‘f…..n’ this and ‘f…..n’ that, when Marie interrupted: ‘Renat, go easy on the language. I’ve just been to church……’

“Sorry Marie….didn’t f…..n know you were there,” he said, as he continued to forage around the garden bed.

His use of the vernacular added extra charm to his stories.

I liked the one he told about he and a couple of workmates dropping in for a beer at the Plough Inn, on the way home from a job. He hadn’t been in the country all that long, he said, and was still a touch sensitive about the racist culture of that era.

Also in the tiny bar was a formidable, well-known businessman who had been enjoying a ‘long lunch’. Spud was sure he heard him mutter something about ‘bloody dagoes’, and moved to reproach him.

He menacingly pinned the suited gentleman against the wall. The bloke was that shaken that he managed to wrench himself free, bolted out the door, jumped into his car…..then sideswiped the Tarrawingee bridge, as he headed for home…………
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Spud became part of the furniture at Parnall Constructions. Bill Parnall Jnr, who grew up beside him – and learnt from him – claims that he only took one sickie in the forty years he worked for them.

“It was in 1959 – the day after he became an Australian citizen. He spent the night celebrating. In fact, he turned up to work, but Dad sent him home.”

Bill says Spud received a few offers to depart over the years, always for more money, but knocked them back. “He told one fellah he couldn’t leave because he was the unofficial boss of Parnall’s, and that old Bill worked under him…….”

I used to deliver a Rovers membership ticket to the Patat residence at 84 Phillipson Street. The Blue and White Kingswood HK station wagon was usually nosed into the garage.

 

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Depending on whether he was going – or had just returned – from fishing, craying or camping, a ‘Tinnie’ was attached to the roof.

Spud, clad in his usual garb of bib-and-brace overalls and flannelette shirt, would greet you and conduct a guided tour of the backyard, pointing over here to his tomato patch ( “biggest tomatoes in Wangaratta”) and over there to his lettuce, onions, cauliflowers and carrots.

His next-door neighbor, Mario Solimo, reckons the reason for his ‘green fingers’ was the concoction of cow dung that he’d pile into a 44-gallon drum, let soak for a while, stir, then pour onto the veggies.

“Geez it stunk, but it worked,” said Mario, who claims his neighbour of 41 years taught him to swear. I thought it might’ve been the other way around, but if Mario’s correct, then Spud succeeded spectacularly.

 

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The back shed, meticulously laid out, included jars of relish, pickles and jam. Fishing rods and tools would be in perfect order, and he’d proudly display the items he’d just produced from re-cycled timber.

At the rear of the shed stood a bath, more often filled with yabbies. There was always a stock of fresh barty grubs in cigarette packets, stored in the beer fridge, in preparation for his next fishing trip to Makoan, or ‘down the Ovens’.

You inevitably left, clutching some chutney, tomatoes and, in one case, a couple of ornamental frogs…………..
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John Tanner was playing footy with the Rovers in the late fifties when Spud first started shooting ducks on his Greta South property. He made the annual pilgrimage for more than forty years.

“It threw him out a bit when they introduced new rules about identifying ducks before firing a shot,” John recalls. “Spud reckoned that was nonsense. He said : ‘When I go to put my glasses on to check, the f……n duck’s gone.’ “

“I asked him what he did with all the ducks he shot…….’Give ‘em to the relations,’ he said.”

The Patat’s weren’t able to have kids, but acted as second parents to their nine nephews and nieces and, in turn, their 14 children.

They idolised the kids, who became the beneficiaries of tile-top coffee tables, stools, photo frames and vegetables and thrived on Christmas get-togethers at Phillipson Street.

Spud used to string up a shuttlecock net from the clothes-line to the house and engage everybody in the games. They were keenly-contested and  he was never too fond of losing .

After Marie passed away in 2008, he never really adjusted to life without her in their home they’d shared for 51 years . He was relieved to move into St. Catherine’s in 2016 and felt pretty comfortable there.

His departure, at the age of 91, has robbed Wangaratta of yet another legendary figure……………..

 

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