I was 12 when I was sent to spend part of the summer at my uncle and aunt’s house in rural Queensland, Australia. I was a city boy, born and bred and in Brisbane, and my parents were typical of the 1980s progressive Aussie middle class of the time.
As a result, I was allowed a great deal of freedom and self-expression as a child. When it came to discipline, my parents’ touch was very light and seldom had to go beyond a few stern words and maybe a grounding or two. I had been given the odd smacked bottom when I was a very little boy but even those were very rare events.
As is often the case, though, life and attitudes outside the metropolitan areas were somewhat far behind in terms of their thinking, in some cases decades behind. I found this out for myself when Mum fell ill, and Dad decided to park me for a while with my Uncle Darren and Aunt Lindy at their home in Toogoolawah.
Toogoolawah is a typical rural Australian town in the middle of pretty much nowhere. Even today, its population is only around 1,200 and back in the 80s it was probably even less. There was a strong sense of tradition and community – everyone knew everyone, especially my Uncle Darren, who ran a joinery business there.
So you can perhaps imagine the culture shock for a sophisticated city boy like myself confronted with helping with chores, grace before food, earlier bedtimes than I was used to – and corporal punishment. At the heart of this traditional family life was my Aunt Lindy, who was a strong, firm woman who was undisputedly head of the household. My uncle, by contrast, was one for the quiet life and let her get on with things.
They had two children of their own, both boys. Peter was about my age, maybe a few months younger as I recall, while his brother Tom was eight at the time of this story. We gelled pretty well as a unit and spent long days (once chores were complete) playing by the river or in the woods near my uncle and aunt’s place.
I became aware of the possibility of corporal punishment in my temporary home very early on. I had only been there about a day when I clocked a cane hanging on the hooks behind the kitchen door. Naively, I asked Aunt Lindy what it was for. “That’s for smacking naughty boy’s bottoms!’ she shot back. I looked for a glint of humour or jokiness in her eye but there was none – this was obviously something she didn’t jest about.
I was a bit fascinated by this, particularly never having really been spanked in anger for many years, and I tried to drill Peter for details of what was involved but he was obviously very reluctant to talk about it. “Just behave yourself,” was his final word on it.
And we did behave, the two other children probably because they had had enough whackings to be largely obedient and me because of my apprehension and, in fact, general good nature.
Then came the day of the creek.
The creek was a secluded arm off the river which passed through the town. It had been roasting hot for the past week and I was aching to have a swim. Back in Brisbane, I was used to going to the beach several times a week and swimming in the clear blue ocean. But of course, those were relatively safe and restricted conditions, with lifeguards and shark nets.
I wasn’t a country boy, so I wasn’t really aware of the danger that could lurk in that creek. Peter was naturally more cautious, but I basically talked him and Tom into going for a swim but questioning their courage. Eventually I ground them down. We didn’t want to come home in wet clothes (something told me this was something which would not be permitted by parental authority), so all three of us stripped naked and waded in. The water wasn’t as cool as I had expected but it certainly helped on such a hot sweaty day.
“You boys!” We had only been in the water a couple of minutes when we heard a loud, female voice. It was Mrs Danbury, a close neighbour to my uncle and aunt. “For pity’s sake, get out of there at once! Don’t you know there could be a croc about?”
At the mention of a crocodile, Peter started crying and scrambled out of the water, naked as he was, and hastily began putting his clothes back on. Tom and I, more modest in front of a strange woman at that age, stayed put. “Come along, now,” Mrs Danbury. “You think I haven’t seen naked boys before? Get out right away, you are in great danger – or do I have to go and get your dad, Tom?”
At that, we emerged from the water, both of us cupping our privates in a last-gasp attempt at decency. We turned our bare bottoms to Mrs Danbury to dress and she landed a stinging smack on each of our backsides. Then she went over to Peter and smacked his legs.
“Get dressed – I’m taking you boys home.” Tom and Peter never questioned her authority to do so or thought of running off, as I would have done, and as I was in the minority, I felt I had to go along with it. Having restored pants, shorts and T-shirts to their proper positions, we followed like sheep as Mrs Danbury led us home.
My aunt was coming out of the house to hang up some washing as our little band approached. “What’s all this?” she asked in that direct manner of hers. Mrs Danbury, of course, was all too willing to tell my aunt what she had witnessed. Her face was furious. “You complete idiots!” she shouted. Then: “Get upstairs and wait in Peter’s room, all three of you. I’ll be up to deal with you in a minute.” We scuttled as Aunt Lindy stood there talking with her neighbour for a while longer.
Up in the room I had been sharing with Peter, three frightened boys awaited their fate. Of course, my first question to my cousin was: “Are we going to get the cane?” It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. “Oh yeah, she’ll cane us for sure.” “Will it hurt a lot?” “Just wait and see.”
After what seemed like a hour, although it was only a few minutes, we heard Aunt Lindy coming up the stairs. The door opened, and sure enough she was carrying the cane. Peter began to cry. “Shut your noise until you’re given something to cry about,” Aunt Lindy told him shortly.
She then delivered a brief lecture about the dangers of creek swimming, all the nasties that lurked therein (crocs included) and to be fair, I began to see why the adults had been so freaked out about finding three naked little boys splashing around in there.
Then it was punishment time. “Peter, take your shorts and underpants down.” Peter did as he was told. “Now lie over the edge of the bed, here.” She tapped the place indicated with the cane and Peter lay down, his small bare bottom upturned.
I thought Aunt Lindy was going to cane him there and then but instead she turned to me. “Adam, trousers and pants down, please.” I was really embarrassed at my aunt seeing my willy and tried to cover it up as I slid down my clothes but she laid a light stroke of the cane on the side of my thigh. “Hands by your sides. Nothing I’ve not see before, child.”
She tapped the bed. “Lie down next to Peter. Closer!” I shuffled to my left and now could feel my young cousin’s bare bottom against mine.
“Tom – you know what to do.” I heard my older cousin shuffling down his trousers and pants and then his face was next to mine on the bed, his bare bottom also touching my right buttock.
“Right, boys – brace yourselves! Stay in position or it’ll be a whole lot worse for you all!”
At that, Aunt Lindy began whipping us. The cane came down across three bare bottoms at various angles and degrees of sting. It was a proper whipping – the worst corporal punishment I had ever experienced. It felt like my bottom was on fire. At some point, I must have instinctively gone to reach back with my hand but Tom grabbed it and held on to it tightly as we were all punished.
I had my head turned to my right, and could look into Tom’s eyes as we both wept and cried at every stroke of the cane. Peter was just a bawling mess. It seemed to go on forever but it was probably only a minute or so. Eventually it just stopped. Aunt Lindy grabbed Peter and led him, bum striped and howling, to his own room. “Straight to bed!” was heard when they got there.
Tom and I just lay there, still hand in hand, weeping bitterly. Aunt Lindy came back in the room. “Straight to bed. Don’t let me hear a peep until morning!” were her only words.
With difficulty, we both stood up. I gazed at Tom’s bum in horror – it was striped top to bottom with cane marks, with some early evidence of bruising setting in. I turned my back to the dressing table mirror and looked over my shoulder at my own backside. In the middle position I had been spared some of the wrapping around the thighs that Tom and Peter and suffered but my buttocks was still a mess of bright red tramlines. The sting just would not go away, no matter how much I rubbed myself.
We managed to take our clothes off and get into pyjamas and climb into the big double bed we were sharing. I eventually persuaded Tom to take down his pyjama bottoms and take a closer look at his bum. I couldn’t believe how sore it was. With that sense of fairness inherent in boys, I bared my own bum at him for a look. “She did you really well,” he said. “Does she always cane that hard?” Tom nodded. “Always. That’s why we’re usually good boys.”
I decided I was going to be a good boy for Aunt Lindy from now on, too. Looking back, it was a harsh punishment but it served its purpose – we never so much as went near that creek again.