I was fourteen years old when I realised I had a passion and a natural talent for smashing glass. Long-necked beer bottles, television screens, anything. Light bulbs were a specialty. It was the year The Empire Strikes Back was released and my mates and I found that fluorescent tubes made passable (albeit single use) ‘light’ sabres. Maybe it was the sound of breaking glass that was so attractive. Maybe it was the undeniable permanence of it. It could not be undone. For a fourteen year old, breaking glass was a powerful and remorseless act. Back then, a car windscreen could be turned into a thousand diamonds with a single well-placed blow from my trusty golf club; an old five-iron I’d named Cecil.
I never went to jail. I never did time at a youth detention camp digging holes. My parents knew what we were up to. In fact, it was legal.
All the destruction happened at our local rubbish tip.
My mates and I camped in the wilderness and lit our farts, too. We climbed and fell from pine trees, made ourselves sick with mean port and Stones green ginger wine, caught and ate crayfish, trout and eels but the tip was another world. It was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It was our adventure playground, our mall, BMX track and skate park. You could take whatever you wanted and smash what was left. One time, Lucas found an unopened packet of sherbet cones and ate the lot. They were only a few months out of date and he was really really hungry. Tip tucker. We found bike parts that we cobbled into a whole generation of odd-wheeled Frankenbikes. Our billy-cart (found) became a go-cart when we added a mower engine (found). The engine needed a new set of rings and the thing was on the road for under $6.00. Even the welding rods required to carry out the frame modifications came from the tip. My brother dragged a complete lawn mower from the rubble—with fuel in the fuel tank—and started it first pull. He gave it to some friends and it lasted longer than their relationship. We filled our parent’s sheds and our own bedrooms with broken cassette players, clock radios and more dead calculators and watches than a pawnshop. Broken toys were dismantled, plastic welded and soldered back to life.
Many of the things we dragged home ended up being stripped for parts and eventually made it back to the tip, through a giant arc of useful life that may have spanned years. The billy/go-cart only returned from whence it came a couple of years back. It had lived under Mum and Dad’s place for fifteen years, a relic from another era, but the news of its departure still generated a collective moan of disappointment from those who’d given it life and broken land-speed records on it.
The tip had been smoldering for about three years when we started hanging out there. Burning underground. Layer upon layer of compacted rubbish offered up its combustibles. Every summer the local fire brigade would empty thousands of litres of water into the chimneys that broke through to the surface and the fires just kept burning. They occasionally leapt into the surrounding bush but most of the time they creaked and crackled and belched clouds of toxic smoke from deep beneath the surface. Once, while picking our way through fresh bags of detritus, the earth beneath our gumboots subsided to reveal the Gates of Hell—caverns of glowing embers where years of burning had eaten convoluted tunnels and pits, some of which were three metres deep. We never actually lit a fire at the tip but found no shame in feeding the ones that were already burning. We sacrificed limbless dolls, marveled at how their pink skin blackened then dripped incendiaries that sounded like the laser canons on an X-wing fighter. We fed the beast with aerosol cans and discarded gas bottles. Some things fizzed. Some things popped. Some things rent the soil with sonic booms that lifted rubbish, embers and shrapnel well into next week. We nearly killed the tip lady that way. She drove a rust-pocked Corolla and made the wicked witch of the west look like a Dolly cover model. The air at the tip was reliably fetid and soupy but we could smell her from some distance. She filled her car boot and back seat with things to sell at the Sunday market. Before we knew her very well, Lucas took her advice and left the portable stereo he’d found (working, with batteries and Slim Dusty cassette) beside her car while he finished his ‘shopping’. She waited until our backs were turned and drove off with the boom box. Many glass objects were busted that day.
When she was there, the tip lady owned every newly dropped bag of rubbish until it had been thoroughly ratted. She would meet drivers at their doors and inquire about their loads. She would take anything of value directly to her own vehicle and the treasures would never touch the soil. She growled at us and told us off if we got too close. She got too close one day. Too close to the Gates of Hell just after an armload of aerosol cans had been deposited. If I’d been a responsible adult-type person, I would have shouted to warn her but I was fourteen and I wanted to see the blood. An aerosol blew like a shotgun and the old hag squawked. More explosions followed and a spent cartridge whizzed by her ear and she scurried to her car and left. Many high-fives were exchanged that day.
We found grizzly things; bloodstained clothing, bathroom rubbish, anonymous and intimate things, a dead dog. Things that warranted a poke with Cecil and a groan of disgust. Things that made me gag. Things that made me consider the lives of others and the grand story we were part of. There were mice and rats that scrapped in punctured kitchen-tidy bags and feral cats and snakes that fed on the mice and wintered under the car bodies. The farmers dumped dead calves and the biggest goanna in Victoria lived in the stringybark forest behind the dam and gorged itself on the mountains of carrion. We chased it up a tree one day and discovered they can hiss like a compressor hose when frightened.
Car bodies were dumped on the edge of the track. School holidays lent time to the dedicated and dangerous efforts of digging under the car bodies until they teetered and—with an almighty heave—sending them tumbling to their final resting place in the valley below. It was comfortable and out of view down at the car bodies. Pull up a bench seat torn from a deceased Holden and thumb through a ten-year-old copy of Penthouse. We variously stole, swapped and traded nudie magazines and developed an economy independent of our parents. It could have turned all Lord of the Flies but it didn’t. We knew and liked each other too much for that. We learned a lot about the world through the microscope of the tip. We learned a lot about ourselves and took risks together, goaded each other into venting our frustrations on inanimate objects. Smashed things without the slightest concern for retribution. Without the slightest sense of remorse.
Things have changed at the tip. It’s a transfer station now. Chainmesh fences topped with barbed wire, containers for the different coloured glass all guarded by a tip Nazi who takes his job a little too seriously. There are signs that say kids aren’t allowed out of the car, it’s only open on the weekends and we have to pay to visit. They’ve turned it into a theme park. The tip Nazi is a nice enough bloke, but who wouldn’t be? He gets paid, has prime scrounging rites and has set aside part of the tip as his personal op-shop, selling stuff he’s salvaged. He has the same sense of rubbish ownership and domination that the tip lady had. And he has the weight of municipal law on his side. I doubt if I could send him packing with an exploding aerosol and it wouldn’t feel right to me now, anyway. Besides, the tip hasn’t been alight for years. That dragon has been slain.
We lost one of our comrades, Stewie, in a car accident when he was eighteen. It felt like such an ugly waste and it chills me to think he may have been hunting for danger when he died. Hunting for it in ways that put others at risk as well. Hadn’t he learned anything at the tip?
It was a twelve-volt sort of danger at the tip. You could hurt yourself if you were stupid but it wasn’t like sticking a knife into a toaster. Wasn’t like drink driving. I think some young people still hunger for that sort of decaffeinated danger but everywhere they go, the low branches have been cut off. They’ve put studs in the pavement so they can’t grind their skateboards down the stairs. Spraying graffiti on a public graffiti wall would be like scratching through your own rubbish for treasures and there are no good places to smack telly screens with golf clubs. There aren’t many places left to be messy. Kids at the skate park look like zoo-cats to me, cutting the same track again and again and I’m heartened by the sight of young blokes in shopping trolleys and wheelie bins making danger in the half-pipes.
I often wonder, if my upbringing had been urban, whether I would have train-surfed or rode the flooded Yarra on a lilo, burned hedges and derelict houses or smashed glass that was owned by someone else in search of little dangers to make my heart race. I wonder if a sanitised electronic world, a new estate, a world with all its edges sanded off would have invited me to become a criminal in search of a little reckless mess. A bit of disorder that reflected the ‘work in progress’ state of my soul.
We’re spread around the country now, my old tip-scabbing mates and me. For the most part, we’re law-abiding family men. We still have a few of the treasures we collected. Lovers and marriages have come and gone but there’s something perennial about the bonds we forged smashing glass at the Gates of Hell.