I grew up in a small country town called Donald in central Victoria. Donald’s claim to fame, apart from a kick-arse AFL footy team, was a dead tree trunk in the river that spawned a growth that looked like a bullock’s head. It was the town’s main tourist attraction. When the river flooded, the water would rise and the bullock would have a well-deserved drink. The bullock’s head was so famous that it was turned into a series of souvenirs and printed onto tea towels and spoons.
Mum and Dad were teachers, so we moved around a lot. When in we live in Donald, our family of six lived in a simple 1950’s three-bedroom Education Department house. It had a striking cream brick veneer, and was home to many passing families. Our house sat right on the edge of town. From the front door all you could see was a single row of houses and beyond that nothing but wheat fields.
Like most kids, we would constantly compare our lives to everyone else’s. Our poor parents had to listen to us constant bleating: ‘Why do we have to live in the country? Why can’t we have a new Datsun 180B like the Murrays have parked in their driveway? Why is our TV black and white and not colour like in the Harris household?’
But we had something else that was pretty special. My folks had big dreams, and occasionally crazy schemes about how to live that belied their respectable ‘teacher’ ways. For this I will always be thankful. When I think about my childhood, this is what I remember mostly fondly.
Mum and Dad had unconventional ideas about how they wanted to live. In the late ‘70s Mum and Dad concocted a plan to build a family home made of recycled materials and mud brick. I’m pretty sure they were secret hippies wearing conservative clothes, but they hid it well.
On weekends, the family would trek to long abandoned farmhouses on the outskirts of town. All that was left of these once grand homes from the gold mining era was the chimney. With the blessings of the landowner, we’d pull the chimney down with a rope and a truck. We would then collect each and every magnificent old brick, one by one. Those bricks were eventually used to make a grand fireplace in the mud brick dream home that our family made with our bare hands.
Mum and Dad were edging closer to building the dream house, brick by secondhand brick, but they needed more cash than a teacher’s wage could provide. They decided to purchase a property on the Darling River (NSW) amongst sand dunes and scrubby bush, it was somewhere on the road toward Broken Hill. We would spend school holidays working the fruit crops, and any money gleaned would help fund the dream.
Accommodation was basic on ‘The Block’, which is what we affectionately called our plot. We all slept in a tin shed. After a particularly rough night spent with a resident black snake that casually slithered around on the dirt floor while we snored, it was decided an upgrade was in order.
Mum saw an article in a magazine about an artist who had transformed an old tram into a studio. Coincidentally, Melbourne City Council was selling off their fleet of old W Class trams. These green beasts with their glorious woodwork interiors were sitting idle in a shed somewhere collecting dust. My parents snapped one up for the bargain price of $400. Our tram, a green beast with the number 477, was transported over 600kms on the back of a truck to The Block.
The day 477 was delivered and lowered by crane on to besser bricks, locals gathered to watch and express their mild confusion. Most people had never seen a tram in action in our country town, let alone thought about living in one. There was lots of mumbling among the naysayers about how odd the whole thing was. Mum and Dad weren’t at all perturbed by the locals’ tut-tutting ways.
The tram was eventually converted into accommodation, with bedrooms at both end and the kitchen in the middle. Every day I would spend hours sitting in the driver’s booth at the front, dinging the bell and pretending to drive passengers around a city I’d never seen. I soaked in the craftsmanship of the wood work that surrounded me: the sliding doors with their curved frames; the practical but beautiful wooden seats; the leather hand holders still hanging for long gone passengers; and the stickers that still adorned the windows, with their long outdated fonts.
My fondest memory of the tram days was when Dad would heat me up a can of Tom Piper vegetables and sausages for dinner after I’d had another hard day driving the tram around an imaginary city. It was all served on a plastic camping plate in the kitchen that he had built. At the time this seemed like the greatest luxury ever.
The tram taught me that as much as a home should be functional, there is also lots of fun to be had in expressing yourself through the way you live. That is something I’ve carried into adulthood. The road less travelled has far fonder memories than those experiences gleaned travelling down the main drag.
Today our tram still stands, completely intact, on its besser brick perch, somewhere down a dirt track next to the Darling River in NSW. It’s not ours anymore. It was sold when Mum and Dad finally got enough money to move from Donald to a new town and start on the dream house.
I drove back a few years ago to see how old 477 was faring. No-one was around, but the door was unlocked. Of course I peered in. Dad’s kitchen was still completely intact, and the stickers warning old passengers to keep their feet off the seats were still stuck to the windows. Before I left I checked the driver’s compartment and rang the bell one last time.
I walked away from our beloved tram happy in the knowledge that a time capsule exists that documents our funny little family and the big dreams that were had. A document to a life well lived.
Myf Warhurst is a broadcaster, television personality and columnist.
Jeffrey Phillips is an editorial and commercial illustrator based in Melbourne.