But unlike Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, I couldn’t blame my growth on a cake labelled EAT ME.
Seemingly overnight, I became one of the tallest in my grade. My arms were like tentacles and my legs were like stilts. Have a look at that tentacle wrapped around my dad’s shoulders →
It’s not unusual for pre-adolescents to have a growth spurt and it’s only now, when I look back at the photos, that I realize how much my physique changed. I went from a round ball to a lanky tarantula.
With the foray into this blog I’ve had the opportunity to ponder the photos of my forebears and I’ve got an idea as to which gene pool my limbs may have sprung from.
I recognized my limbs in the photo of Alan LEE, Dad’s cousin, that I posted in my blog post Back to the Main Drain-Cora Lynn, Vervale and Iona. At a similar age to me, Alan appears to have had arms like mine; long with slightly sloping shoulders.
Or did they just look like that because his blazer was too small?
I had a problem with blazers too. On starting secondary school Mum bought me a blazer that was perfect in sleeve length but swam on me.
‘It’s too big,’ I said to her.
‘You’ll grow into it,’ she said and before long I did.
And that was the way with most of my wardrobe…perfectly fitting sleeves but voluminous everywhere else.
Buying shoes was a nightmare. I wasn’t able to keep on the fashionable shoes of the day, court shoes, due to lack of foot fat. If my toes were webbed my feet would have made great flippers. So, with a AA fitting my only choices were T bars or lace ups. I wasn’t happy.
After one particular purchase in the city, I walked behind Mum all the way back to Flinders St station. I thought the shoes we’d bought were really daggy—cream and mustard T bars. I didn’t want to be seen in them. But it was wear them or go barefoot. Under sufferance I wore them.
Fortunately, I didn’t reach the giddy heights of 9 feet like Alice, instead, I stopped at 5 foot 6 inches. Not excessively tall but it was at the age of 11.
Following the growth spurt and the accompanying loss of baby fat Mum noticed that one of my shoulder blades stuck out more than the other. X-rays revealed I had a curved spine—scoliosis. I hadn’t noticed and neither had anyone else but the evidence on the X ray was pretty dramatic. My spine was like a snake slithering up my back, curving to the left in the lumbar region and to the right in the thoracic region.
The GP blamed my school bag. I was renowned for carrying heavy tomes backwards and forwards to school without even opening them. The cause seemed feasible. (It was later disproved as a cause of scoliosis). He referred me to a specialist. Not something our GP did very easily. He was fairly cynical about specialists, referring to them as the ‘big boys’. I think Mum would have insisted on a referral anyway if he didn’t suggest it as she was annoyed now recalling that as a baby he had told her not to worry after she showed him a protruding rib cage on my left side. As it turned out I was probably born with scoliosis.
I was referred to Mr Doig, an orthopaedic surgeon. I have vivid memories of sitting in his rooms. Mr Doig was a gentle man with an unhurried manner. He measured my legs and found that my left leg was 5/8ths of an inch (1.5 cm) shorter than the right. Not noticeable. It was a bit of the chicken and the egg. Did the discrepancy in my leg length cause the scoliosis or did the curve in my lumbar spine put pressure on my left leg and retard its growth? No one knew.
Our visit to Mr Doig was timely as he’d just returned from a conference in America and the thinking was that scoliosis was caused by ‘a recessive gene’. Despite my youth he explained inheritance to me in simple terms. I marvelled at the idea that little bits of DNA could determine how you looked just by the luck of two people ‘getting together’. I was fascinated and decided on the spot—I was going to be a geneticist.
It was evident from the initial X-rays that I had finished growing but he recommended I have X-rays every 6 months for the next couple of years to see if the curve worsened. Fortunately, it didn’t and the only ‘treatment’ was to build up my left heel 5/8ths of an inch. It was a good outcome and the scoliosis didn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do.
Further along in my teenage years cork platforms shoes were the go. There was no way I was getting them built up. They sent me further up into the heavens. So much so my ‘funny’ Dad looked at me and said, ‘Is it snowing up there?’
I must admit the long arms came in handy; I could reach higher than most people my height and I could put sunscreen on the middle of my back with ease. I could also get my skinny hands into glass bottles to arrange the halved apricots during the famous yearly bottling season in our house.
And with those limbs you’d think I’d be good at sport but no, sport and I didn’t mix.
But I tried.
In primary school I took up running.
My best friend, who was half my size, ran like a bullet. In my attempts to keep up with her I’d overbalance as my upper torso overtook my lower half resulting in an unsustainable angle. I’d hit the asphalt at an embarrassingly long distance from the finish line. Then I’d pick myself up and quickly hobble off trying not to tear up at the grazes that were now stinging.
When Mum said, ‘Your legs just don’t seem to want to go’, I got the message. I gave up running.
I played netball for a while, usually in first, or second defence. My long reach was an advantage. I deflected many of the opposition’s attempts for goal but more often than not the impact of the ball on my spindly fingers sent them backwards resulting in puffy black and blue digits for the rest of the week.
The diagnosis of scoliosis did come in handy at school though, it got me out of doing somersaults and such like when the school hall was turned into a gym.
Where were my grandfather’s genes? My mother’s father, William Thomas Rupert WINTER.
In 1893, at the age of 17, he won a silver cup for running at the Sunbury Annual Picnic.
This cup moved around with my grandmother as she stayed with various members of the family in her latter years. She eventually gave it to Mum for safe keeping before she died in 1960.
Since then, it’s moved from house to house and from cupboard to cupboard, just part of the furniture and it was only when I started this blog and did a bit of research that the cup came to life. And, literally too, with a bit of brasso.
The winning of the cup was a big deal in Sunbury in 1893. The cup, worth 4 guineas at the time, was donated by Robert EVANS, of the EVANS family of Emu Bottom, Sunbury, fame.
There was a great build up to the picnic in the papers and there were descriptive reports of celebrations afterwards—even the beautiful weather was commented on.
There was entertainment at the picnic too: a merry-go-round, a Punch and Judy show, performing dogs, Siamese races and ‘Professor Tindall on the trapeze’. I would have liked to have seen that!
There was a tug of war contest where the ‘Asylum warders’ couldn’t compete in the last leg of the competition because they had to be ‘on duty at 430’ pm.
The contestants in the competition for the cup had to run 3 races: 100, 200 and 300 yards. Points were given for each placing. The one with the most total points won the cup. ‘Winter’ scored 11 points, only 1 point ahead of second.
There was much celebrating after the picnic at the Royal Hotel, Sunbury, owned by ‘Mrs WILLIAMS’, WTR WINTER’s mother, my great-grandmother (see below).
A bit of family history re ‘Mrs WILLIAMS’, maiden name, Mary Anne MILLETT (1849-1920).
Mary Anne married William WINTER (1845-1883) in 1870. They had 5 children:
Edward George (1871-?1871),
Florence Caroline Lydia (1873-1894)
William Thomas Rupert (1875-1939)
Percy Albert (1878-1878)
Mary Anne remarried after the death of her husband, William WINTER, to Edward WILLIAMS. She had 2 more children: Irene Mary and Edward WILLIAMS.
I was delighted to find a story about the cup. As I say the cup was part of the furniture; a piece of memorabilia from times past. Thanks to the wonderful work of the National Library of Australia for digitising the Australian newspapers, stories like this one can be fleshed out. Other resources can be accessed on the website too:
Australian and online resources: books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more.
The site is called Trove and can be accessed here.
Well worth a look!
I had the option of weight lifting to build up my scrawny physique. In the backyard of our Box Hill home my brothers concocted some dumbbells out of various scraps (see photo below).
According to my brother Geoff this is what the dumbbells were made of:
Starting from the left, the weights were: 1) a lump of concrete, 2) 2 x metal car wheel rims, 3) Another wheel rim, 4) A mortar shell (no high explosive inside), from an old WW2 army dump in Junee, NSW – retrieved by Peter and I when we stayed at the Lobban’s house one Christmas! All the above is mounted on water pipe.
The construction was ingenious but I wasn’t a fan…too hard. The only time I lifted them was for this photo.
Besides, I didn’t want to end up like Professor Kelp (Jerry Lewis) in The Nutty Professor .
On studying photos of Dad I see the same sloping shoulders and long arms as Alan LEE, his cousin, and myself.
Here he is in his ‘Summer’ RAAF uniform in 1941.
Dad’s mother was a LEE.
So, the common gene pool for long arms with slightly sloping shoulders seems to be LEE.
I find heredity really interesting. So many possible combinations. How often do we look for likenesses in babies and children to living or no longer living relatives?
As for becoming a geneticist I came close. What put me off? Statistics and flies! Genetic experiments at Uni involved the Drosophila fly and lots of counting. The fly was easy to study because of its short life cycle and clear cut characteristics making mutations easy to identify.
I turned instead to biochemistry and pharmacology. Experiments in these subjects involved cane toads, mice and little bits of pulsating rat intestine in saline baths. Not great but better than flies.
And for ten years after Uni I was a white coated scientist like Professor Kelp but that’s where the similarities ended!
ADDIT: For those who don’t know me my physical proportions eventually sorted themselves out but I still can’t wear court shoes.