“Axemen….Stand by your logs……..”
The booming voice of Jack O’Toole, was the signal to temporarily down the knife and fork and abandon your half-eaten roast lunch………. The latest edition of the World of Sport Championship Woodchop was underway.
“Ready……Go……1, 2, 3……”
And henceforth, some of the best-known names in one of the most physically-taxing of all sports, would furiously hack their way through a 350mm log on Channel 7’s iconic program during the seventies and eighties.
Ron Harding was just one among the host of Axemen – like David Foster, Gary Smith, Laurence and Martin O’Toole, Len Bennett, Gary Hewitt, Tommy Bartel and Jason Wynyard, who entered our lounge-rooms on a wintry Sunday afternoon .
Like most of them, Ron owned a huge personality, a huge physique….and a huge thirst.
They were the days when they would compete in deadly earnest in blue-ribbon events at the Melbourne Show, drink together all night and resume hostilities the next morning – thankfully without the necessity to be put on a breathalyser.
It was sporting camaraderie in its purest form…….
This legend of the bush wasn’t exactly born with the smell of gum-leaves in his nostrils.
His father, Ted, was a policeman and the family moved around the state a fair bit. His brother Bryan recalled the day Ted and the boys were doing some gardening at the Wycheproof police residence, when toddler Ron fell flat on his face – unable to move.
He was a victim of infantile paralysis (Polio).
After twelve months in Bendigo Hospital, and some tender care from the family, he recovered, but one leg was still affected .
” As a young bloke, Ron was a fine left-arm bowler. He had a wonderful, rhythmic action, swung the ball and bowled with pace, ” Bryan said. “But his crook leg was a problem, and he gave cricket away”.
His mum dreamt of the day Ron would attend Assumption College. Luckily, Ted received a posting to Kilmore and her prayers were answered.
The only trouble was that he hated school with a passion and didn’t get on all that well with the brothers. One of them, in despair, was moved to utter: ” You and rabbits will be the ruination of this country.”
Nevertheless, they invited him to train to be a Marist Brother. He lasted twelve months before bowing to the inevitable – it wasn’t his caper.
Instead, he started a woolclassing course, deviated to be a rouseabout (picking up for the shearers), then shore sheep for a few years.
He thrived on all of the hard work, but still, life was a bundle of laughs for this bloke with the superbly-honed sense of humour.
He was inspired by his grandfather, Bill McMahon, a tough old hombre with an incredible work-ethic, who used to test himself by throwing large redgum sleepers on his broad shoulders – a task usually carried out by two men.
For a while, Ron and his sweetheart Margaret took over the running of the Kilmore East pub, which had been operated by his father after he retired from the police force.
Known as ‘The Middle East’ because of its rowdiness, it was a popular meeting-point, mainly because of the ‘Mine Host’s’ conviviality and his bride’s catering skills.
Ron and Margaret moved to Wangaratta in about 1968 when good friend Tommy Bartel suggested he give him a hand with his sawmill contract at Stanley.
And the rest was history. They raised five kids ( Alison, Brendan, Dan, Ronnie and Fabian) and Ron got on familiar terms with just about every bit of bush land in the vicinity, felling all sorts of timbers with axe and chainsaw.
But it wasn’t all plain-sailing.
“For a bloke who knew the bush backwards, he was an accident waiting to happen,” joked Brendan, who in later years, taught youngsters about the care that was needed in operating timber machinery. ” I used the old man as an example of what not to do.”
“The trouble was, he was left-handed, and all the machinery was designed for right-handers. The wonky leg didn’t help, and he got himself into all sorts of strife over the years.”
The most notable came when he was picking up tree-heads. A limb swung back, hit his tractor – and ‘scalped’ him, as well as damaging a neck vertebrae.
He sat in his ute, holding his neck and head up while his barely teen-aged son Ron drove to the nearest telephone box and rang for an ambulance to meet them at Tarrawingee. On the way, he kept reminding Ronnie : “Go easy over the bumps, boy.”
He lay flat on his back at the Austin Hospital for about six weeks, with his head stitched up and tongs in place to keep his head still. His surgeon shook his head, as he gave the prognosis : “Ron, how you weren’t killed, I do not know.”
But the rapier-like Harding wit always stood him in good stead.
He was having a cleansing ale in the Pinsent Hotel one day, when an old girl spotted him and offered an uncomplimentary jibe : “Goodness you’re getting a gut on you, Ron. If that was on a woman, I’d say she was pregnant.”
“It was…and she is,” was the lightning retort.
He once asked the barman in a Beechworth pub if he could bring in a friend. “No worries”, said the barman, barely lifting his head, as he washed some glasses.
The next thing, the door of the Empire Hotel swung open, and Ron led a horse into the tiny bar, much to the mirth of the clientele.
He was one of a gaggle of local poachers, who kept the ‘Fisheries and Wildlife’ representatives of the day on their toes. He managed to stay one step ahead, until he was spotted carrying a couple of birds into his Hallett Crescent backyard.
“I’ve got you this time, Harding,” the inspector blurted. Calmly, Ron pointed to the aviary that, he explained, was a haven for injured birds that he had rescued and would nurture back to full-health before re-releasing into the environment.
Despite the suspicions of the inspector, Ron had survived again.
After a strenuous day at an Everton block, he stopped in at the Plough Inn for a quiet one or two and had hardly slaked his thirst when a couple of local detectives walked in the door and proceeded to have a bit of a chin-wag.
“Just noticed your truck out the front, Ron. How ya going.”
“Buggered, Get the boys a beer, thanks Pete.”
“Nah, nah, it’s right. Not while we’re on the job.”
Ron disappeared and returned minutes later. “Sure you won’t have one ?”
“No we’ll keep on the move. See ya .” They were back in no time. “Harding, you bastard. Get that blue heeler out of the police car, or we’ll shoot the bloody thing.”
“Not until you drink that beer I’ve bought you………….”
Ron’s kids thought it was Christmas when he’d take them down to World of Sport. In the company of legends of all sports and munching on complimentary Herbert Adams pies, they’d be fussed over by everyone, including their dad’s great mate, Jack O’Toole.
It was no wonder that the boys all became Axemen and strove to emulate the feats of their old man, who, in his day, numbered nine North-East aggregate championships among his achievements.
A hell of a character, was Ron Harding, who passed away a couple of weeks ago and left behind 1001 stories of a colorful life.