Wangaratta Jack by KB Hill

I grew up in the fifties and sixties, in a world uncomplicated by mobile phones and computers.



Personalities abounded: The driver of the Night-Cart…or ‘Bubby’ Bell, the Bread-Deliverer, noisily negotiating our pathway, at four, or five o’clock in the morning, the milkie, whose voice would pierce the stillness of the wee hours: “Whoa, you bastard,” was the throaty command to his horse, which had continued to clip-clop down the street. The old Clydesdale – and the cart, laden with clinking bottles – would stop abruptly.



If you sauntered down Murphy Street, you could run into a zany electrical retailer named Derek Bruce…the whistling grocer, ‘Coco’ Boyd…..the ‘Laughing Barber’, Jack O’Keefe and his neighbor, Myra Tipping – who made the best vanilla slices in town.



Most of our after-school hours were spent outside, belting a cricket ball or kicking a footy with the neighbourhood kids. When dusk descended we continued on under the street lights.



Friday was ‘Fight Night.’ We’d tune in to 3DB to listen to Ron Casey and Merv Williams describing the 12-Rounder from Festival Hall.



The golden tonsils of the doyen, Casey, still ring in my ears; his voice rising to a crescendo in the exciting final rounds. And Dad, craned over the wireless; lips moving in-sync; willed home Georgie Bracken, Max Carlos or Aldo Pravisani.



On Saturdays we’d be off to the cricket. Whilst Dad was engaged in ’warfare’ out in the middle, we played pick-up matches on the outskirts. In winter, of course, we were in the thick of the action, our emotions fluctuating, depending on the fortunes of the Rovers.



It was the era of the infamous ‘six o’clock swill’, when patrons hurriedly guzzled their last couple of seven-ouncers and spilled out of Pubs soon after ‘last drinks’ were called.



The TAB still hadn’t arrived, but I was intrigued by one of its illegal precursors: S.P bookmaking. An uncle – a sporting hero of mine – dabbled as an SP to supplement his occupation as a Stock-Agent. He had to tread a fine line to remain one step in front of the ‘boys in blue’. This only added to his charisma, in my book…



A couple of mythical locals featured prominently when we gathered in the schoolyard to swap stories of a Monday morning. Jack ‘Wagga’ Grundy always rated a mention. Usually clad in an army greatcoat, the dishevelled swaggie could be spotted wheeling his trusty old ‘steed’ around town, laden with items that he’d scavenged.



Where did he live ? How did he survive ? We added a liberal dose of ‘mayonnaise’ to most stories, as we did to those involving the unique, enigmatic, colourful, Jack Dick.



The town was familiar with his full ‘handle’ – Henry Archibald John – but the name ‘Jack’ seemed to fit better.



He had spent most of his life helping to farm the property on the Ovens flats, where his parents settled in 1906.



Rather than riding his bike around the side streets to get to footy training at the Showgrounds, Jack often used to throw his gear into a Gladstone bag and take a short-cut – swimming across the Ovens.



He was a handy player, good enough to slot into Fred Carey’s 1936 Premiership side – a line-up which included renowned Magpie stars Charlie Heavey, Jack Ferguson, Ernie Ward and Arthur Mills.



In the summer, under the guidance of Marty Bean and Stawell Gift champion Lynch Cooper, he competed with some success in local Athletics Carnivals. But it was as a swimmer that Jack was to achieve his greatest sporting success. Blessed with a rythmic, effortless style, honed from hours of frolicking in the Ovens River, he numbered several local and O & M championships among his list of achievements. He was also an outstanding diver and dominated the 10-metre tower events at the Merriwa Park pool.


Jack Dick, back row centre


Well after his sporting career had scaled down, the legend of Jack Dick was perpetuated.



Because he was reared on the banks of the Ovens, and lived most of his life there, he had an intimacy with the bush which made him as close to an expert on flaura and fauna as anyone in the area. Ferreting, fishing and duck-shooting were his pastimes.



They provided much of the fodder for the yarns which are attributed to him. Because he was such a reputed man-of-the-land, they were half-believable, like the day someone asked him how he’d fared rabbiting. “Not too bad,” he replied. “But I had to take two or three rabbits out of each burrow to get the ferrets in.”


Or the time he caught a huge cod behind the Sydney Hotel. “It was that big I had to ride it to the junction to turn it around and bring it home.”



And one duck-opening, when he got his gun tangled in the barb-wire fence. “It went off, and down fell 12 ducks.”



He would wander through the long grass on the Dick property, mostly clad in a pair of shorts – no shoes – and scarcely gave a thought to the presence of snakes.



Everyone was aware of his familiarity with ‘Joe Blakes’. The flats were often flooded and Jack was once asked how high the water had come up. He replied that he wasn’t exactly certain, but he’d seen a six-foot tiger snake and the water was up to its neck.



The quickest way to clear a bar in Wangaratta was to see him walk in with a hessian bag, which looked suspiciously like the latest ‘catch’ that he’d brought in to show off to the patrons. He was fond of the amber liquid and you knew that he was in town when his bike, with its familiar box attached behind the saddle, was ‘parked’ at the front of any of the local pubs.



The bike sometimes cropped up in his conversations. He was riding from Glenrowan one day, he said, when a storm blew in from the south-west. All the way home his front wheel made a dust-trail whilst his back wheel threw up mud. He only just beat the storm home.



There was the oft-quoted one about him driving a horse float on the Hume Highway, when the police apprehended him for speeding. His excuse was that he was taking two Hoysted horses to Albury and had to be there for the first race. The police checked the float and found it empty.



“Well, trust that bloody Hoysted to give me the scratchings,” he replied.



Usually clad in shorts, a singlet and thongs, he enjoyed yarning with anyone, about any subject, as he wandered along Murphy Street. Most youngsters, instantly warming to this larger-than-life character, would engage him in repartee. But Jack was also a man of intelligence, sought-after for his opinion on livestock, and well-versed in local by-laws and politics.



He was unable to avoid the five pound fine he once incurred for singing too loudly in the street, but escaped a penalty on another occasion by quoting an ancient piece of legislation. He said he’d ridden his horse to the court-house to settle a fine, but to his dismay, discovered there was no tethering-rail. He couldn’t leave the horse unattended, he explained.



Borough Council elections in the early fifties, were animated affairs. I came across a Chronicle report of one such Candidates’ meeting in 1955, described as the ‘…noisiest, most boisterous meeting in Wangaratta’s history, and attracting an audience of more than 650 people to St.Patrick’s Hall.’



Jack, superbly-shod in a suit, bow-tie and hat, added to the theatre of the occasion.



The report noted that ‘…laughter rocked the Hall, as Jack Dick, Wangaratta’s top-notch interjector, arrived late for the meeting, bearing placards fore and aft.’



‘The front sign said: WHERE ARE THE BIG FOUR ? The one at the rear was: REDUCE OUR RATES OR RESIGN.’



‘Jack was unable to take his customary seat in the front row, but room was made for him in the second row, near the Press table. He then revealed another sign: DOWN WITH LOCAL DICTATORSHIP. He was on his feet immediately in Question-Time…


In his day he was better-known in Wangaratta than any of the politicians, councillors, or even champion footballers, who dominated the headlines.



Jack Dick – sportsman, scalliwag, environmentalist, story-teller, prankster and heckler, was rarely seen in public in later years, and died, aged 82, in 1997.





KB’s original article can be read here along with other fine works at his site, “On Reflection” here.



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