A WONDERFUL short essay called Elephant Hunting in Wonthaggi was featured in the local history section of the Bass Coast Post on May 9 2015. It was written by Kit Sleeman and caught my attention.
I am the editor of the PLOD, the monthly newsletter of the Wonthaggi and District Historical Society. I was pretty sure that the author of this story was the son of Beau and Nell Sleeman. Beau was famous for his clever and wonderful poetry that thrilled miners, unionists, and political thinkers in the 30s, 40s and 50s when political fervour was at its height in Wonthaggi. He and Joe Chambers would team up and sing Beau’s poems to Joe’s music to the great amusement of people everywhere. Nell was less “showy” than Beau, but she had a wry wit and was very clever with language. Her short memoir of Wonthaggi in the 1920s when she was a little girl was exquisite. I also knew that Kit’s brother was Jon, a mine engineer who had written The State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi, 1909-1968, published posthumously about nine years ago by the Historical Society. He was a prolific writer, too.
The story I had seen about Circus Elephants in Wonthaggi by the youngest Sleeman, the only one still alive, was a treasure. I asked Catherine Watson, editor of the Post, if she would she put me in touch with Kit Sleeman. I wanted to ask him for permission to use his story in the PLOD, since many of the older members of the Historical Society were not computer literate and would not see it otherwise. Catherine happily obliged on both counts.
I wrote to Kit and got his permission to publish his story and any others he might have. He answered: “I am flattered by your request. Please feel free to use the story. I think that my late mother, Nell, was a contributor to your publication in the past, so this story will continue that tradition.” It was the right answer.
Thus began a relationship via email between Kit and me that lasted almost two years. Altogether, he has sent me about twenty-two stories, but so far only eleven have been published. My job was to edit each story so it would fit in the two pages reserved for the monthly essay in the PLOD.
At the beginning of our on-line friendship, he wrote to me about his the origin of his stories: “Mum had a very good memory of the past. As she got older the memories of particular times in her youth seemed to become stronger and clearer.
“I'm going a bit the same. My current partner, who was raised in the city, was fascinated by some stories I told her about growing up in the country in the 1950s and 60s: my experiences were totally foreign to her own.
“Subsequently, I began putting some of these stories on paper. It also occurred to me that it might be useful to record these memories for whenever any of my six grandkids inventively ask me about the 'olden days' of my youth (just recently I've had to dig out family military histories for one of their Anzac Day school projects).
“The stories are quite random recollections of events or things - I write a story when both the mood takes me and when a particular memory comes to mind. I am quite happy to share most of these: only a couple so far are possibly libellous.
“The stories are a history from a personal perspective: as far as I'm concerned, they are all gospel true, but if compared to official history, the stories have probably been bent by my perceptions at the time and my memory.”
Three weeks ago David Sims and I got together to record stories that Kit Sleeman had written. David and I knew there was some urgency to get the ones already in the public arena recorded and printed because Kit had recently told me what he had never made clear before, that he’d had the last of his Chemo sessions and now it was just a waiting game. David finished reading the last story, which was actually one of the first we published, the exquisite Sounds of Silence, last Tuesday, March 21, the day Kit died.
We know from Kit’s stories what kind of a child he was: inquisitive, clever, adoring of his father and never tired of tagging along with his older brother, whom he deeply admired. One of his best stories, the one that David could hardly read, it brought back so many memories for him, was Gravity, where Kit describes building a billy cart with Jon:
“Billy-cart construction was a rite of passage: every boy built and drove one. There was no financial cost involved: old pram wheels and wood could be found at the rubbish dump and the only extras needed were some rope and some nails gotten from any Dad’s shed. Cart design was flexible and allowed one’s originality to show. Jon and I built one. He was the budding engineer, so he did most of the building, but I scrounged for stuff to build it with as well as he did. As the older brother, he was going to get first dibs on its use, so his doing most of the work was only fair anyway. Jon had first goes from part-way up the hill and had a few write-offs, but none were serious. I had similar experiences. We then tried from further up the hill and had even better write-offs.”
Later, when Kit writes about his daily chore at home, which was to keep the fire up to the hot water heater in The Copper and the Donkey, we see the budding scientist, rather than the budding engineer:
“One night when the donkey was in its night-time slow combustion mode, I went out to feed a final load of coal for the night to keep the fire going until morning. To my shock and great interest, when I opened the firebox feed door, a huge flame exploded several feet outwards and singed off all of my hair. Whatever the conditions in the firebox were, firedamp had pooled, and when I opened the door, the inrush of oxygen-rich air had created an explosive mix, which ignited. After I had recovered from my surprise, I decided that this phenomenon required a bit of investigation and experiment. For the next few weeks when lighting the donkey I experimented by changing all the variables: fuel load, wetness, particle size and degree of air intake openness or closure. Eventually I had it mastered and had my three main tricks …”
In a later story about his days at the Wonthaggi Tech, which has not yet been published, Kit tells us about his favourite teacher:
“In fourth form, I became a paid employee of The Tech, a job I retained until the move to the new school. I was employed to work a couple of hours after school each night as a laboratory assistant to clean up. My job was to clear up each of the three science rooms, clean and store equipment used during the day, sometime put out equipment for the next day and keep the chemicals tidy and in order. Some chemicals were easy – I put elements and salts in alphabetical order, but organic chemicals were a mystery to me until one teacher, maybe Mr Henry, introduced me to how organic chemistry worked: ‘Look at the suffix of the name – put all of the ‘-ones’ together, all of the ‘-enes’ together, all of the ‘-dehydes’ together and so on. I later majored in organic chemistry at University – thanks, Mr Henry for that first lesson.”
As we now know, Kit Sleeman, grew up to be a biochemist. “He was a stalwart of Animal Health Research, manufacturing, operations and throughout this 34-year career with CSL and then Pfizer, his work and contribution to the health and well-being of companion and livestock animals was exemplary … He had a strong work ethic and passion for his field.” (Commemorative post on Facebook by Paul Haliday, GMS Site Leader)
Kit’s funeral was in Melbourne on Thursday, March 30. It had become clear to me that many readers and many friends will miss Kit Sleeman deeply. But, his memory will live on in his stories. There are many more to be published.
Read more of Kit Sleeman's essays.