A whimsical story of childhood in the 1950s inspired by a remark made by an old school friend on Facebook in response to a photograph of a frog.
Everyone says that the presence of a frog is evidence of a good eco-system. I have no reason to doubt that assertion. But, for me, frogs always bring back memories of childhood. They seemed to be everywhere then on the western fringe of 1950s Sydney.
The frogs I remember best are the big green ones. They croaked and chattered and frightened six months’ growth out of me when they emerged from under the toilet seat. Of course, in those days, the toilet was outside and the state-of-the-art white porcelain bowl was above a septic tank.
There were also little brown frogs around our garden. Some of these were speckled with black. Of course, I am no expert in herpetology and these little ones might have been the babies of the big green ones. But I doubt it. Even then I knew that baby frogs were tadpoles.
Like most children in that time of playing outdoors I had first-hand knowledge of tadpoles. Just over our back fence was a vacant block. At some time in the past someone had dug a small dam there. It was a haven for frogs and their offspring.
The dam’s construction had not involved the application of any identifiable advanced technology. Someone had simply dug a large round hole about three feet deep and around fifteen feet across. Metric measurements would have never occurred to the dam’s designer. The clay that had been excavated had been deposited sloppily along the edges of the dam so that its raised perimeter was clearly evident even when it was overgrown with sticky paspalum.
If there was ample rain, the dam was full. A stretch of dry weather sometimes saw it empty and become a stinking muddy pit. In winter the water would respond to a cold night with a thin layer of ice that would crack at the slightest touch of a child’s pointed finger. My grandmother referred to the dam as a waterhole and carried on about the apparently unavoidable dangers of drowning in its imagined depths.
Stands of paspalum covered much of the rest of the vacant block. However, some of the grass must have been of better stock. A nearby household grazed two cows in a shady corner and I would often observe teenage boys milking them. I knew from a school book that one of the cows was a jersey. This was confusing. Across from the vacant block was a rugby field and I was told that footballers wore jerseys.
In another corner of the block was a makeshift horse yard. I think that it was originally a series of chicken pens because it resembled the layout of our next door neighbour’s chook yard (as we called it). To contain the horses there were metal rails and other less elaborate sections of fencing. I only ever saw one horse there and it did not stay long.
Water in the dam was always murky. Occasionally there were fish. I was told by other more worldly children that they were mud gudgeons. It was impossible to catch them by hand. But a kitchen strainer was an effective net. The tiny animals swam in schools between tufts of aquatic green grass and strangely shaped grey weeds. Dragonflies and mosquitoes also seemed to like the environment and hovered above the surface of the water as if they were studying their reflections.
However, the most interesting occupants of the dam were tadpoles. Before they appeared I always observed slimy masses of frogs’ eggs. They looked at first like spoonfuls of froth but, on closer inspection, it was like seeing thousands of little black eyes staring back at you. As soon as they hatched the tadpoles started with their laps of the muddy dam searching for whatever it was that kept them alive and later powered their metamorphosis.
Tadpoles were easy to catch. But keeping them from perishing through starvation and, possibly, terror was a problem. My brother and I would nurture them in an old bucket in the laundry. In those days laundries were not the spick and span places they have become. In our case the dog slept there happily on an old army coat so the room always smelled, well, doggy. He liked the warm corner near the old copper.
My mother would grow tired of the tadpoles’ lethargic presence by the next washing day. They would be summarily evicted and consigned to a highly probable slow death back in the dam. But I suppose some of them survived and became the frogs that startled me when I raised the toilet seat.