My 28 year old son and I sit comfortably, crowded onto a rear facing seat, midway between the doors. Our train is swaying it’s way to the MCG. Essendon is playing Melbourne. Across the narrow aisle is a grey haired old man and, I guess, his eight year old grandson. The boy is all questions and his grandfather is an endless well of patient answers.
That use to be me once. At one time I had the answers to all the questions too. When he was that age, Redmond had unquestioning confidence in my knowledge and abilities. Now, it is I who leaves it to him to let me know when to be at Elsternwick Station. I follow his lead to our seats in the Southern Stand. He has just assumed the leadership. Naturally, without competition, without rancour, without volition.
Watching this grandfather with his enthusiastic and excited grandson rocking gently in the crowded train, I could not help thinking of Percy, my own granddad. When I was a little older than this boy, maybe ten or eleven, Granddad and I would spend nearly every Saturday morning trudging across the paddocks of one or more of several Craigieburn beef and sheep farms. Percy carried his Greener double barrel shot gun in the crook of his left arm, I, being a mollydooker, had my single barrel 12 gauge over my right. Our sandy coloured lab Snowy, running ahead.
We had the run of all the farms in the area. Over the past however many years Perc had spoken to each and every owner. In fact, on two of the farms, the most recent owners inherited us with their purchases. We often stopped to chat with one or another farmer as we came across them. I always found it a little strange, because they often complained about gun toting idiots from the city traipsing across their farms, leaving gates open and scaring livestock. It seemed we were considered to be honorary family members or some such.
We always came home with something. A pair of rabbits. Half a dozen quail. In season, a couple of black ducks. Percy knew everything about guns and game and farms and dogs, about everything that mattered. With a natural ease he allowed me to learn, without ever making me feel inferior. I learned to carry a loaded gun safely across paddocks and through fences. How to shoot safely, to respect danger and life and death.
Without actually realising it, I learned to shoot a shotgun, how to gut and skin a rabbit and how pluck a duck or a quail. I learned where food came from. I learned to respect the farm and the privilege we had in using it. We occasionally disentangled a sheep from a storm damaged fence, or we would cut short our hunt to report a bogged cow to the owner if we came across one.
I loved those Saturdays with Granddad. He was this wise, robust, quiet old man. Strong and wiry. He wore grey trousers, a collared shirt done up to the top button and a grey felt Stetson hat. Always in control, never bombastic. Talented but never a braggart. I looked up to him, relied on him, trusted him unquestioningly. I loved him.
In 1978, when I turned eighteen, my dad said I was allowed to attend my first opening of the duck hunting season with him. He and his mates always went to the Murray Swamp, near Kerang. It had been something I looked forward to for five or six years, after listening to tales over the kitchen table or in the back yard, after they had got back with their bags.
I was excited, I will not lie. This was a right of passage, a family tradition. In the pre-dawn light we all climbed out of the cars at the edge of the swamp. The best shooting was in the swamp’s centre and that was where our party was headed. We pulled on our waders, unloaded the shallow punts from the roof racks and set them at the waters’s edge.
As the men were deciding who would go in which punt, Perc stood back, quietly watching. He was feeling his age, he was eighty four after all. I was keen to prove my worth so I was in the thick of the unloading. When we were set to attack the swamp granddad told my father that he thought he would just stay here on the shore. He did not feel up to the trials of punting and standing waist deep in the cold water. He might just keep Snowy, our labrador, with him for company. And he wished us good shooting.
It was then, without any conscious thought or plan, that I proved to myself that I had actually grown up. Without really understanding it I had become a man. Without any fuss or drawing any attention to myself, I quietly told dad that I thought that I would like to shoot from the shore, I’d prefer shooting with a retriever.
Perc and I watched the three punts disappear beneath was the shaggy gums as the sun nudged it’s way grudgingly over the horizon. Granddad said nothing. I said nothing. There was really nothing to say.
After we had packed the cars and replaced the punts on the car roof racks we all headed back to the Bray’s farm for a well earned breakfast. As in previous years I listened to my dad and his mates banter and brag over their various bags. My granddad and I had got a single pair between us. Perc had got both birds with the only shot either of us fired. It was my first duck open and I had not fired a shot. And it was perfect.
Six months later Percy had a stroke and, after a week in hospital, died. He was eighty five, had smoked rollies all his life and had been sick for a total of five days as far as I could tell, his last five days. I did not grieve Percy, much to my family’s surprise and even mortification. He was dead, and I missed him, but he had lived a good and a long life. His dying was proper.
That duck open was my first duck open and it was my last. I inherited Granddad’s Greener, but I have never used it. I have not been hunting since. I just had other things to do I suppose.
Our train pulled up at Richmond station and Red stood up, said “Come on dad, this is our stop.” And he and I, and the grandfather and the boy, disgorged with the seaming masses onto the platform to join the walk past the statue of Sir Donald and the boys selling ‘The Record’ and up and into the G.
It is a funny thing. There is always a torch bearer in any group. And while it changes from hand to hand, back and forth with the passage of time, we always seem to know who holds the torch at any given moment. Yet, for the life of me, I can never remember a single instance during which the torch actually passed from one to the other, only that it had passed.