Why call this blog Chuck a Yonnie? * #
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If anyone asks me where I grew up, my usual response is “Mount Waverley”, or sometimes “Glen Waverley”, but the truth is it was neither. It’s not due to any pretentiousness; it’s just that the inquirer usually is aware of where these prosperous suburbs in Melbourne’s south east are located allowing me to avoid the interrogation that inevitably follows should I reply that I grew up in “Syndal”.
Syndal sits silently between Mount Waverley and Glen Waverley. I don’t know why it doesn’t enjoy the same level of fame as its next door neighbours, but I suspect national shame may be at the root of it. You see, Sydnal apparently derived its name from a long gone farm that was once owned by Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death. If this is the reason for its obscurity, then I guess that practically makes me an accessory to the demise of an Australian icon! I think I will continue to tell people that I grew up in either Mount Waverley or, sometimes, Glen Waverley!
The Australia of my boyhood was a different place to that of today. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Syndal was on the outer edge of suburban Melbourne. Today you must drive a further 15-20 kms to reach the outer fringes of the city. On weekends I would ask Mum and Dad if I could “go down the bush” and I’d set off to explore among the orchards, creeks and paddocks. Back then there was mere a sprinkling of houses; a seeding that would rapidly spread and ultimately overwhelm the farms and bushland. I recall as a little boy standing at the window as Mum and Dad rushed outside to chase away two cows that had wandered into our front garden and were feasting on our garden plants!
The railway bridge over Blackburn Road was a forbidden, yet favourite, place to play. In those days there was a single line with one bridge. (In the mid 1960s a second bridge was built for a second line.) High above the road, the bridge provided a splendid vantage point. We were not allowed to play there of course, but the temptation was simply too great to resist. Trains were infrequent and hearing one coming in the distance would prompt a frenzy of determined activity; here was an opportunity to make rock powder! Let me say right now that the possibility of a train derailment never crossed our minds. Making rock powder was important as everyone knows, not that any of us were ever aware of any practical use for it. It was just that any boy who could produce a small bag of it was regarded with envy. With the sound of the approaching train in our ears we would quickly place yonnies in rows along the steel tracks, (we always referred to stones as “yonnies”), and then we hurriedly scuttled under the bridge and crouched down. With the rails barely a metre above our heads we would put our fingers in our ears and squeeze our eyes tightly shut as the train roared over the top of us. Overhead, the yonnies would explode with an ear-spliting bang under the tremendous weight of the rattling train. Hundreds of tiny fragments would pelt into the ground surrounding us, but being directly under the rails we were shielded. We considered this activity as thrilling and never considered the dangers. On emerging we would find very little trace of the yonnies we had placed upon the tracks. Even so, if we carefully examined the foot of the track where we had placed them, usually a pinch or two of powder could be carefully gathered, especially if we had been generous with the number of yonnies we had placed on the track. Many trains roaring overhead was required to collect a praiseworthy quantity of the precious rock powder.
I do not remember how many times I did this, either with other boys or by myself, but it was many. We reasoned, after some discussion, that our parents likely would not approve of our method of making rock powder, so we made a pact that we would never mention our adrenaline pumping technique to them. Until writing this I have never actually mentioned it, but now that I’ve broken the pact I suspect I will have to face the music with Mum!
The Syndal railway bridge over Blackburn Road today. In the early 1960s there was a single bridge and the top left hand side, opposite the station, is where we would put yonnies on the track. You could see a very long way from the top of the bridge. In those days there was no guard rail.
I do not recall ever feeling in danger at the railway bridge, except once. It was common knowledge in the district that there was an old man who would travel up and down the rail line looking for children playing on the tracks. Any whom he found he would stuff into a sack that he carried over his shoulder and they would never be seen again, or so the tale went. No one knew of any children who had actually disappeared in this way; even so, the story was often told. One day we were on the bridge preoccupied with gathering up yonnies in preparation for our next rock powder venture when we were startled by the crunching of footsteps on stones. We turned towards the sound and were horrified to see an old man walking towards. He was not 15 metres away. He was dressed in a grubby, well worn jacket and flannel shirt. His dirty trousers were secured with a piece of rope around his waist rather than the usual men’s braces of the day, and his toe was protruding through the front of one of his shoes. He was unshaven and I remember his face being very brown, whether from dirt or sun I could not tell, but it was weathered more than any men I knew at the time. He did not speak to us, but what struck horror into our hearts was seeing that over his shoulder hung a large hessian sack. His eyes seemed to fix upon us from under his battered hat. I don’t recall who shrieked, “Run!”, but we all dropped our yonnies and fled. I ran until I thought my chest was going to burst and did not look back until we were far away from the line and the old man with his hessian sack. What this poor man must have thought of us fleeing from him like that I don’t know, but we did not see him again. As for us, we never again went onto the rail bridge without first posting a look out to watch for the old man with his sack!
When we weren’t making rock powder we would stand on the top of the bridge, high over the road, and “chuck a yonnie” or two. Looking at the picture above, it would seem reckless at best, and malicious at worst, to throw stones from a bridge with a four lane road running beneath it. It is hard to imagine now, but back then, on the way to school, we could walk for 15 minutes along a much narrower Blackburn Road, (and I do mean ON the road), and only have to move off for the passing of perhaps 5 or 6 cars. We never even thought to chuck yonnies at cars or anyone (people or animals); we just did it for the fun of it. It was exhilarating to be so high up and see how far you could chuck a yonnie.
Since then Australian language, as well as life, has changed significantly. Globalisation and the digital age have introduced new words into our every day speech. School grounds now ring with obnoxious words like ‘wazzup’, weird handshake rituals and air kisses which drip with as much sincerity as Ms Hilton’s finding God while in jail – all of these imports from the cancerous US popular culture have infiltrated and eaten away at Australian culture. In the early 1960s, in the playground of Syndal Primary School, the air was thick with Australian colloquialisms, most of which are now all but lost from memory. Even Syndal Primary School itself has become a victim of “progress” and has vanished, (although it was Mr Kennett and not US pop culture who was responsible for that). Today I meet few people who know what it means to “chuck a yonnie”.
So there were many reasons why we would “chuck a yonnie”. Doing so was always associated with a challenge. It was a matter of exploration and experimentation. It was an adventure. In this sense I decided to call this blog “Chuck a Yonnie”. Perhaps readers might find something here that is challenging, or something to explore, or to investigate. Whether that occurs or not, the point is that as educators we should continually explore and challenge our pedagogy. Moreover, as 21st century educators it is our obligation to interrogate our epistemology. As professional educators we have all climbed atop a bridge that we believe is important for the successful education of the young people we work with every day. As such, we are in a key position, a powerful position, to “chuck a yonnie” for those who learn from us and with us.
* I investigated the origin of the word “yonnie” believing that is was likely of Irish or cockney origin. However, the Australian Oxford Dictionary, while uncertain, suggests that it may be from a Victorian Aboriginal Language. This bears further investigation!
# The meaning of “yonnie”, as used in this blog, is not associated in any way with the Sanskrit word “yoni”, which has a wider meaning in both profane and spiritual contexts. (This alternative interpretation was pointed out to me by a dear Indian friend who was initailly shocked by my choice blog of names.)