Until I went to high school, I never wore shoes unless it was absolutely necessary and there were two. Church and trips to town on the train. Town was either Parramatta or Sydney, now categorised as the CBD. So while splitting wood for the stove at about eleven years old, when the axe glanced off the wood and came down on my big toe. It hit bone and I was taken to Liverpool Hospital for stitches.
After a few tries at pushing the needle through, the doctor left and returned with a pair of engineers’ pliers, then after bending a few needles he eventually got the job done. No anaesthetic those days, so it hurt. Of course back at our chook farm it soon became infected and was a problem for months, treatment being to pour raw Dettol over it every morning and night, burning the skin and delaying healing. Apparently there was no fear if tetanus so one trip to a professional was considered sufficient. Despite that setback I always hated shoes and still prefer to go barefoot.
So it was that I had sympathy for Brother Francis. Don’t ask. It is his real name, so I can only guess that his parents had such poor imaginations they used their only name on Frank, so Frank’s Brother was named Brother.
Since he left school at fourteen, Brother worked in the forests, starting when they used bullocks to haul logs out of the Watagan forests. Up until a few years ago when he retired, he still harvested pit props but when I first met him, he worked at the last timber mill in the bush. Brother knew timber like few others and was a great asset to any employer in the industry. But about twenty years ago he was sacked on the spot and sent home in the middle of the day.
A Health and Safety Officer, probably lost, wandered into the sawmill in his yellow high visibility hat to inspect the mill safety record. The boss was caught off guard or he would have told Brother to stay home that day, but this bloke was a stickler and turned up unannounced.
He must have thought at first that Brother had taken his shoes off for a rest because he said nothing while the boys were having a tea break, boiling hot, four sugars and no milk. You can’t have milk without refrigeration and this camp didn’t even have a dunny. A long handled shovel with a roll of Sorbent threaded onto the handle was the toilet and a roadside soak was the washing facility.
When they walked out to get back to work he asked brother where his shoes were.
“Where are your shoes?”
“Shoes? Ain’t got no shoes!”
“But you don’t work like that?"
“Never worn ‘em. Don’t like em.”
Mr Hard Hat called the boss over.
“Are you aware this man works without shoes?’
“A course. Why?”
“He can’t work without shoes, it’s dangerous.”
“He can’t work in ‘em and he’s never had a problem in fifty years.”
“What if he falls and his feet come into contact with a saw? He could be severely injured.”
“Mate,” the boss laughed. “I wouldn’t be worried about Brother’s feet. I’d be worried about the bloody saw!”