At Sparrow Fart
The Water Joey
A bald headed cook, his grubby white apron smudged with flour, poked his flushed face out the galley door. “Where’s that god-damned ‘Water Joey’, he bellowed.
In this story, I try to portray my impression of the ‘Water Joey’, particularly to those who may remember the era of the traction engine and threshing mills.
During the latter part of the 1800s, lasting well into the 1940s, without a doubt the Water Joey was an essential worker attached to the threshing mills. He also became the most abused. Hey! …. Whoa! …. Hang on there! …. Don’t you go jumping to conclusions now! I meant verbally abused.
It was the Water Joey’s sole responsibility to maintain a regular water supply to the traction engine boiler, and the cook’s galley. In most cases, the water cart was a dray, suitably converted to hold a two hundred gallon [nine hundred litres] square galvanised water tank.
In the dead of night, well before dawn, a freckle face boy as young as twelve, or thirteen years, or even a man advanced in his years, could be found, with the aid of a lantern, harnessing a draft horse to the water cart.
By the time those first sparrows had passed wind and rubbed the sleepy dust from their eyes, the Joey had returned with a handful of blisters and an aching back, from his first excursion down to the creek. He would likely have been away for an hour or maybe three, in which time; with the aid of a hand pump he had filled the tank full of water, ready for the mill engine at the crack of dawn.
The ease with which the working day passed for the Joey depended on several factors. For one, the mood and skill of the engineer, as he either flogged the engine for more power or coaxed the boiler and conserved steam.
Several times each day the driver’s yell could be heard above the womp, womp, womp, as the sheaves slid down the canvas conveyor belt and into the drums. Or the slap of the long flat belt, as it flashed between the mill pulley and the traction engine flywheel.
Like a deranged Brahma bull, he roared. “Where’s the bloody Water Joey”?
Of course, there was the mill boss, bless him. Each time the Joey went to dose off while waiting for his water tank to empty, the boss would tell him to help the straw walloper, or the stacker, or the band cutter.
To rub salt into the wound, while the boss, the engineer, along with everyone else had their meals, the Joey was expected to climb aboard traction engine in order to keep an eye on the steam gauge. If he fell asleep from the long hours, they considered him lazy, if he got blisters on his hands he was soft, if he discussed his work with anyone, he became a know all, if he didn’t, he had no interest in the job. Whatever the Joey did, he would invariably be wrong, even if he did not do it; he was a soft target for everyone to lay blame.
The mill boss found it difficult to judge between the young Joey and the old one, as to who was the most reliable. The older Joeys tended to be, more often than not, sly drinkers. They did work well if sober; however, struck with a bout of the dry horrors, like a homing pigeon, they headed in the direction of the nearest pub.
Mill boss’s in general, knew exactly where to locate the old Joey if he failed to return with a full tank. When found, he usually had his elbows, firmly attached to the bar of the local pub and would invariably reply to the boss’s bark, “Aw boss, I’m just lubricatin’ the cracks in me skin.” He would swear black and blue that the horse had lost its way and he had only arrived a few minutes ago to get directions from the publican. Yet the horse and dray had been standing idle outside the pub for several hours.
Some of the young Joeys, on the other hand, they were totally irresponsible and couldn’t care less, while others were tired and always asleep under a stook in the shade. Some fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, developing a symptom; likened to the flue, a condition, which for some hung on all season. They continually lost track of time and direction, as well as bearing the brunt of numerous mill jokes.
I recall one story of a Joey that had recently been hired. The mill boss, as he did with all Joeys before they hit the sack each night, gave the young bloke a lecture on his chores for the following morning.
Finally, he said to the young bloke. “You got all that, boy”?
“Yeah, Yeah”, drawled the young Joey, chewing on a wheat stalk.
The mill boss, wanting to reassure himself he had issued the correct instructions, demanded. “Right, young fella, tell me what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get up in the morning”?
“Dunno” drawled the young Joey, kicking at some wheat stubble with his hobnailed boot. “S’pose, I’ll have a leak up against the dray wheel”!