Ian and Blanche




2.2.2 Blanche’s Youth "Hunger is the best sauce."

As was the way in many large farm families, the older Gittens children were assigned to looking after younger ones. Blanche was fortunate to have not just one but two siblings of the right age to amuse her when she small. The twins Bert and John, then ten or eleven years old, made a box sledge for their little sister to ride in, and Blanche’s earliest memories were of the thrills and spills of being hauled around in her "cart" by her two "horses." Blanche loved her father and all her brothers and sisters, but Bert and John always had a special place in her heart.

Blanche’s childhood was generally happy, but it was not easy. The war years and the early twenties were difficult ones for the family. They never actually starved, but at times they had to make do with essentially the same food as the farm animals, such as boiled wheat and molasses. When the children complained of the monotony of their diet their father would tell them they weren’t hungry enough. "Hunger is the best sauce," he said.

It wasn’t just the food that was monotonous. Diversions, too, were rare in those times. The event of the year was the agricultural show at Tambellup. The children looked forward to the show for weeks in advance, and to miss it was the bitterest of misfortunes.

This happened to Blanche when she was ten. It was a punishment for leaving a gate open and letting the sheep get out, a fairly serious misdemeanor. Her father gave her the choice between a spanking on the spot or staying home from the show, then two weeks away. She thought he would forget, so she said she would stay home from the show. He didn’t forget, and Blanche never forgot the pain of waving goodbye to her sisters Mae and Ethel as they set out with the family on their way to Tambellup.

Lacking the glamour of the show, but exciting nonetheless, were family picnic outings in a two-horse wagon with John in the driver’s seat. A happy-go-lucky youth with a passion for speed, John consistently won the battle with his brothers to take the reins, and he loved to send the wagon hurtling through the bush without regard for things and people falling off the back.

On one occasion the oldest girl, Ethel, then about nine years old, fell from the wagon and hurt her back. From about that time, her arms and legs stopped growing, and the family came to believe this must have been a result of her injury. Only much later did they realize that her condition48  was determined genetically. Happily, Ethel’s sunny disposition and physical hardiness won out over adversity, and she went on to a good life despite her disability.

Lacking a school in the neighborhood, the older Gittins children had only a sketchy education. But in 1919 a school was established about three miles from the house. The school was only open for seven or eight years before it closed for lack of the requisite six pupils.49  However, Blanche attended the school for three of those years, and the youngest child, Ron, had a full six years of primary education there.

As a toddler, Ron was seriously injured when he was kicked in the head by a horse, but he recovered in time to start school at age six.50 

Both Blanche and Ron walked to school barefoot on a stony road. This was no fun on a frosty winter morning!

Even less fun, for Blanche, were the teacher’s fits of irrational rage. Apparently the teacher, later Mrs. George Hodby, had not been properly trained and was unsuited to working with children. Her method of individual instruction consisted of screaming the lesson at the top of her voice while whacking the child’s desk with a cane. Frightened, Blanche failed to progress as she should have. She never forgave Mrs. Hodby her incompetence and never spoke to her in the subsequent decades they continued to live practically as neighbors.51 

Yet Blanche came to be able to set down her thoughts in vivid, spontaneous letters marred only by one misspelled word—scarce, which she spelled scarse (that word must have been on the school agenda on a day Mrs. Hodby had one of her fits). She learned to read well enough to find pleasure in books, but there was an odd element of ambivalence in her tastes. She was ashamed of her youthful enthusiasm for works of such authors as Mary Grant Bruce (an entertaining but now-forgotten Australian writer of school stories), Zane Grey, Rider Haggard, and P. J. Wodehouse, feeling that these as well as all other works of fiction were "a lot of silly rot" as she put it, compared to nonfiction, or "true" ones like biographies. "As far as my feet will carry me," by J. M. Bauer, a prison-escape thriller, and "Growing Up," by Russell Baker are examples of biographies that pleased her in later life.

By the time Blanche had finished school, Arthur was back from the war and the farm was prospering after a succession of good years. All five of the older boys continued to work on the farm.

Frank Gittins, about 1940The brothers had a blacksmith shop for making repairs to farm machinery and, on one occasion, for first aid. John choked on a fish bone and was having trouble breathing. Frank lit the forge and used it to fashion a forceps from a length of number 8 (thick) fencing wire. The bone came out without much trouble, and the forceps remained on the kitchen mantlepiece as a reminder to chew carefully before swallowing.

Blanche’s older sister, Ethel, married and went to live with her husband, Mick Miniter, on a farm only two miles from the Gittins homestead.

In the twenties it became clear that the farm was too small to support all five brothers, and Frank and later Bert got outside jobs for extra money with the idea of branching out on their own. To this end Frank had become a good shearer and traveled with a team.

Blanche vividly recalled her astonishment at learning of her brothers’ savings. She and Mae had sneaked into the boys’ rooms and were surreptitiously rummaging in Frank’s locker when they came across the fruits of his labor on the shearing team—a roll of bank notes "big enough to choke a horse." For Blanche this discovery might have been a first inkling of the end of childhood and of life as an independent adult.52 

Her first experience of independence was a two-week vacation in Albany at the home of her aunt Eva.53  This visit coincided with the post-war good-will call by the American naval flotilla called the Great White Fleet. The sight of the ships steaming into Princess Royal Harbour was for Blanche an unforgettable sign of the wealth and power of the United States.

Blanche inherited her mother’s round face and stocky figure, and her stance seemed to illustrate of one of her guiding principles, "You’ve got to stand on your own two feet." Yet she had the freshness and sparkle of youth, prompting an elderly friend of Eva to proclaim that at 16 Blanche was "the prettiest girl in Albany." She didn’t feel very pretty at the time, however, because she had just taken to wearing long stockings and, as she recalled with remembered embarrassment, "the blessed things kept sliding down." She stood 5’4" and weighted about 130 pounds until late in life, when she put on a certain amount of what she termed "condition."

Blanche met Ian at a neighborhood picnic and sports day held near Wansborough.

The occasion itself was embarrassing. Ian came prepared to compete in organized athletic contests like those held regularly on the hard, level surface of the Tambellup showgrounds, but at Wansborough he found himself expected to take part in impromptu races on a rough farm field softened by recent rains. His natty white athletic outfit was soon spattered, his spiked running shoes sank in the mud, and he ended up losing ignominiously to a local farmer who’d had the good sense to wear working boots.54 

Though she saw the funny side of the incident, Blanche did not join in her brothers’ laughter at handsome newcomer’s discomfiture. She had fallen for "the bloke with the eyebrows."

Continue reading: 3. Ian and Blanche (1929-1975) Blanche (-1988)

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48. Achondroplastic dwarfism, characterized by a normal trunk but shortened extremities and a large head.

49. Author’s note: The statements about the school are broadly speaking correct but the details require confirmation. The school site is indicated by a historical marker.

50. Ron’s head was permanently deformed, but he grew up to became a fine athlete. As a swimmer he won every event in the Tambellup regatta, and he went on to perform creditably in State-wide competition in Perth. During WW II he joined the army but was discharged when it was found that because of the odd shape of his head he was unable to wear a standard helmet.

51. The Hodby farm was a few miles to the south-west of Gittins’.

52. For some years Frank invested much of his energy into owning and training race horses, but he eventually took over the McDonald farm in Tambellup. Bert had a dam-sinking business and settled on a farm at Rocky Gully, about 40 miles north-east of Albany.

53. Mabel’s sister’s house was on the west side of Perth Road (Now Albany Highway) about a quarter-mile from the town center.

54. Recollections, probably embellished, of Charlie Gittins.