This is a guest post by Gordon Forth, a fellow student at Armidale Teachers College, who started there in 1962, a year after me. Gordon writes: Please find attached my somewhat scurrilous account of my time at ATC. I really had a lovely time at College, but was immature, a rather lazy student, who just managed to graduate. It may give some of my fellow students a chuckle.
Though I didn’t learn much, the two years I spent in Armidale was the most influential time of my adolescence. I guess the move to this country location at seventeen was my first tentative step to explore the wider world. To an extent, it involved breaking ties with my family and friends and starting a new life. Choices opening up before me had a great deal to do with the fact that I’d be living in a student residence.
The northern regional city of Armidale with its churches, the University of New England, Armidale Teachers’ College and several private schools, promoted itself in my mind as the Athens of the North. Moving there at seventeen marked a turning point in my life. Though tame by today’s standards, my decision to go to college there seemed quite adventurous at the time.
After spending two years in Armidale and three teaching in a remote part of the Snowy Mountains, I spent the next seven years in Sydney. In 1975, my then wife Penny and I moved to Warrnambool in South West Victoria. Over the next thirty years, I taught and undertook research in Ireland, China and the United States. Since my retirement in 2001, Penny and I have undertaken regular overseas trips. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
In March 1963, I caught the overnight train from Hornsby to Armidale. My family, friends and, in tears, my girlfriend Vanessa, lined up on Hornsby station to see me off. On the train I met Paul Coghlan and Andy Miller, also commencing the primary teaching course at Armidale. Paul and I were to remain lifelong friends, while Andy was best man at my first wedding. Another dozen or so Sydney boys and girls on that train were also starting the teacher education course at Armidale. By the time the train arrived at Armidale the next morning, I was confident Paul, Andy and I would be friends. The three of us shared a taxi to Newling House, the men’s student residence. At the entrance we were met by second year students, who carried our suitcases to our rooms. My roommate Dick Clark hailed from the northern New England town of Glen Innes. Tall and well-built, Dick was a star swimmer. We got on as roommates but were never friends.
Another first year student, Dave Martin had been allocated the room next to mine. Tall, dark and good looking, Dave was from the north coast town of Murwillumbah, where his stepfather Stan owned a banana plantation. Supremely self-confident and personable, David was attractive to women and knew it. After Introducing himself, he enquired if I was any good at wrestling. I replied I most assuredly was. Smiling, he challenged me to do battle with him on the grass outside our rooms. Having boasted of my prowess, I could hardly refuse. After a preliminary skirmish, I applied my tried-and-trusted headlock, confident of bulldogging this cocky country bumpkin to the ground. However, Dave, who was extremely strong, bent low and used his hips to throw me over his head…twice!! Eventually, I learnt to lock one leg behind his knee to make this unsportsmanlike tactic less effective. It was an unusual way to begin what became a close friendship.
Most Armidale Teachers College students were from coastal northern NSW and knew each other through inter-school sporting events. There were established cliques, most notably one consisting of former students from Woodlawn, a Catholic boarding school in Lismore. The majority of students had completed the Leaving Certificate at coeducational country high schools. Quite a few hoped to return to teach and settle in their home towns. For these students, it was this prospect as well as being awarded a teachers’ college scholarship that led to their decision to choose teaching as a career.
Students from Sydney were outsiders and tended to group together. We met up on the train travelling to and from Armidale. During the holidays several of us met at Sydney’s Tatts Hotel. One of these was Denis Field the youngest son of a working class Catholic family from the inner western suburb of Enfield. Socially inept, and something of an innocent, Denis was a good natured, likeable character. His two older brothers, Maurice and Lionel, were both high school teachers. Denis’s father was known as “Joe the Header” due to his love of Two Up. As an older teacher, Denis featured in the Sydney press, having regularly sued the NSW Education Department. Working with his solicitor, he sought compensation after being hit by a cricket ball while supervising school sport and later falling down on a school bus. After his wife Kathryn died, Denis posted photos of himself on Facebook with busty young women at the Sydney Crown Casino. Within weeks, Paul, Andy, Dave and I were a close knit “Gang of Four”. Clomping around in riding boots, I was now known as “Hoss” or “Horse”. A flashy table tennis player, Dave was “Ping Pong” or just “Ping”. Andy, with his thin bony face, was less than ecstatic at being referred to as “Skull”. Paul was “Cog”, though after a public performance, his own wild version of the American dance The Hucklebuck, he became “The Rocking Ostrich”.
A cynical hedonist, Ping rejected the conformist attitudes of most college students. Perpetually restless and randy, Ping didn’t appear to take himself or anyone seriously, including our primary teaching course lecturers. Night after night, he went out on the prowl, with mischief, drinking and sex on his mind. Ping convinced Paul, Andy and me that we didn’t need to join the plodders slaving away at their assignments after tea. Rather, he persuaded us to join him on his nocturnal rambles. On one regrettable occasion, this involved frightening old ladies walking through a local park. After one such adventure, Ping returned home in the small hours, knowing a major assignment was due the next day. He set his alarm clock for 5am in order to finish the assignment. However, when the alarm went off, Ping — suffering from a lack of sleep and a hangover — smashed the offending clock against the wall. Rather than turn up for breakfast in the dining hall, Dave preferred to start the day sitting up in bed, smoking and munching Maltesers. Too lazy to be bothered washing his clothes, he simply gave them a jolly good dusting with Johnson’s Baby Powder.
One Saturday afternoon, after turning out for a College rugby team, I showered and pressed my best shirt, trousers and sports coat before setting off for the pub. I laid my clothes out on my bed, intending to change into them for the dance that evening. Alas, when I returned from discussing philosophy in the pub, my clothing had vanished. I managed to borrow a sports coat and an ill-fitting pair of strides, and just made the 9pm deadline for admittance to the dance. There, amongst the waltzing throng was a smirking Ping ,looking resplendent in my clothes lining up yet another conquest. When I remonstrated with him about his evil deed, he merely laughed and said I should be grateful that he deemed to wear my crappy clothes.
Ping was careless about money, his own and other people’s which he had no hesitation in borrowing. His strategies for raising extra cash included auctioning his clothes and hustling in pubs. His chosen venue was Armidale’s down-market Club Hotel, which boasted a table tennis table in the main bar. With a half smoked cigarette and a glass of beer on the table, Ping and I played a set with several patrons looking on. As the straight guy, my role was to defeat him with ease. A seemingly drunk Ping then challenged any one of the onlookers to play him for a couple of quid. Once his challenge was accepted, he instantly sobered up and proceeded to demolish his opponent.
Another time, Ping placed money on the bar, then challenged anyone present to a “best of three” arm wrestling contest. Though lightly built, he had extremely strong forearms and won easily. On one occasion he defeated a surprised older opponent. It was obvious that the man’s tough-looking mates were intent on exacting retribution on this youthful conman and his accomplice (me). We fled the scene and thought it best to give the Club a miss in future. Ping was aware that his “opportunistic” ways were not always appreciated by his friends. In order to find out what they really thought of him, he hid amongst the college hockey equipment stored in the top of his wardrobe. My role was to gather his friends to his room and encourage them to air their grievances regarding his character flaws. They all, including his roommate Andy Miller, enthusiastically embraced this opportunity. To a man, they agreed that Ping was a dirty rotten scoundrel. This was too much for Ping, who jumped down from his hiding place and started semi-playfully strangling a shocked Skull. In fairness, Ping was loyal to his friends when it really counted. When an eighteen plus stone Goliath “Bill Constable” threatened Andy, Ping unhesitatingly confronted the Bull from Bellingen. Twice he managed to throw Bill over his shoulder onto the floor, smashing a bed in the process. However, on his third attempt, Ping slipped and ended up with an enraged Constable choking him. I grabbed a hockey stick and threatened to rearrange Bill’s bovine head if he didn’t release his choke hold. He did.
Though clever, Ping went out of his way to ensure that he failed. He was at least partly responsible for Paul and Andy having to repeat second year at their own expense. I’ve no doubt that, had they not been under Ping’s influence, both would have passed. Paul and Andy really wanted to graduate, while Ping didn’t care. At the start of one annual exam, Ping filled in the cover sheet, stood up and walked out smiling.
After leaving College, I caught up with Ping in the mid-sixties, when I was teaching at a rural school in the Snowy Mountains. I was playing rugby for Cooma, which meant travelling to Canberra every second weekend. At that time, Ping was employed at the Commonwealth Department of Statistics in Canberra. I was best man at his wedding, when Ping, recently voted “Mr. Statistics”, married Barbara, “Miss Statistics”. She was conventionally attractive, but boring and vain. Understandably, Barbara didn’t appreciate Ping and I mocking her. Their hasty marriage only lasted a few months. Over the next few years, I met several of Ping’s girlfriends. I remember one telling me that she knew the relationship with David wouldn’t last, but was happy to make the most of it while it did.
In the early 1970s, after I had moved in with Penny at Rose Bay, Ping turned up driving a new Datsun 240z sports car. It turned out he had won quite a large sum in the lottery. That evening, while having a beer with him at a Kings Cross pub, he pointed out two attractive mini-skirted women sitting across the room. He explained that he had paid for them to have a twosome with me. I thanked him, but politely declined. After I moved to Warrnambool, I lost contact with Ping, but often wondered what had happened to this personable, flawed human being.
Like Ping, I did the minimum amount of work at College, preferring to spend my time playing billiards, table tennis at the pub and courting. Apart from Paul, I lost track of my college friends after we moved to Warrnambool in January 1975. I was surprised and a little hurt that Andy didn’t invite Paul, Ping or me to his wedding. Doubtless, he was concerned, and with good reason, that one of us, probably Ping, would get drunk and start calling out “Skull” or something worse at the reception. Andy had been an easy target for Ping’s cruel mockery. In our post college careers, Paul and I had much in common, having completed postgraduate degrees and moved onto secondary and tertiary teaching.
When Penny and I are in Sydney, we generally meet with Paul and his wife Nola for a meal and reminisce about our Armidale days.
Author’s Note: Born July 1944, Gordon attended Beecroft Primary, St Andrews Cathedral Choir School and Epping Boys High. Having graduated from Armidale Teachers College, Gordon was a primary then secondary teacher, before taking up academic appointments at UNSW and then Deakin University. Gordon holds a B.A and M.Litt (UNE), M.Ed UNSW, and a Ph. D (Monash). He has been a visiting scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, Nanjing and Kansas State universities. Since retirement, Gordon has worked as a consultant, and authored a number of commissioned histories. He and wife Penny, with their two whippet dogs, live in Warrnambool.
Photo: Andy, David (Bing) and Gordon with an unnamed female student at the Farewell Dance in 1963. The 4th member of the gang, Paul Coghlan, is not in the photo.
BE THE FIRST TO COMMENT ON THIS POST