There always had been a love-hate relationship between Laguna and Wollombi. Laguna claims to be older with Laguna House built in 1834 on 1,000 acres of land granted to Heneage Finch, surveyor, then later sold to Richard Wiseman. The house is a beautiful and smart example of Georgian architecture, basically a stone box with gable roof.
It is smart because there is a gap of two or three feet between the top of the outside walls and the roof. It is a ‘box inside a tent’ with total ceiling ventilation, the gap protected from vermin and birds by fine wire mesh.
That building is the coolest summer house I have ever been in. The kitchen of course, is separate but unlike many, has never been burnt out. Doorways are all about five feet six inches, so the average twentieth century Australian must do a limbo entry.
It is only one of two or three stone structure in Laguna whereas Wollombi, built later and having the advantage of being at the junction of two main roads, one to Newcastle and Maitland, the other to Singleton, grew quickly and now boasts at least a half dozen substantial stone buildings including two churches and more if you include houses on the outskirts of town, like the Andrews and Thompson homes and of course Mulla Villa further east..
When Frank Legge bought the Laguna Tavern, built in 1927, he reclaimed its original name; 'Ye Olde Horse Wagon Trading Post'. He then decided it needed an iconic beverage to compete with Wollombi’s Dr Jurd’s Jungle Juice. So he produced a similar drop, with his own bearded likeness on the label and marketed it in similar half gallon jars. The Trading Post did have a few advantages. It sold basic groceries, had a petrol bowser and an old slab shed where dances were held occasionally, and it had Frank.
Frank was a delightfully social old bugger and worked tirelessly for his community, but he did like a drink, so although I never saw Frank Legge legless, he did attract a few drinking regulars and, I suspect, his gregarious sharing of a glass or ten did cloud his judgment at times. Maybe that would not have mattered had he not accepted the job of District Controller for the Rural Fire Brigade, headquartered in Cessnock. So Frank was my boss, and I am loyal to a fault, or I was then.
Floods occasionally overflow bridges out along the Watagan road, so the old locals behead a chook, bake bread and stay on their side of the water until it subsides, usually within a few days. But on this Friday evening I got a call from Frank to bring the fire tanker to Laguna. When I arrived there were maybe eight or nine disappointed people, weekenders, who had driven up from Sydney but could not get through the flood.
So Frank decided I should take them home on the fire truck. I was not at all happy about that. I told them it was too dangerous and they should all high tail it back to Sydney while they could. Old Frank accused me of being gutless, loaded them all aboard and with the cab full and another half dozen clinging to the tank, prepared to take them across the flooded bridge.
Although the bridge was still there, as evidenced by the handrail just visible above the water, I could imagine a plank or two missing and the tanker front wheels dropping into a hole. If that happened we had a potential disaster, with people trying to get themselves and their children back through rushing brown water in the dark. I tried to reason with them but I suspect they didn’t want to disappoint Old Frank either and most made the decision to go. However, I was conceded one wish and attached the Fire Brigade Jeep to the truck by a long rope so I could tow it off the bridge if it stalled and to provide a life line should the truck have to be abandoned.
The truck got through so I unhitched the rope, watched it disappear into the rain and drove the jeep home cursing myself all the way for not confiscating both sets of keys. Luck was with them that time and of course they now had a new adventure to talk about.
‘Who dares wins’.
Old Frank dared and I lost credibility. That hurt. But in hindsight, to have been vindicated, lives might have been lost. So, in retrospect, if the only thing lost was a bit of 'face', that's OK by me.