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U3A Writing: The Swinging Sixties

Ruth Werner recalls the Swinging Sixties - and how she lost her fear of naked bodies while a trainee nurse.

For more memories visit www.u3answ.org.au/ Click on Remember When.

We of more senior years lived the experience of the 'swinging sixties' and look back with nostalgia. It was a decade of many happenings. Decimal currency was introduced, along with the problem of vertical hold (on our brand new TV screens.) The Beatles, Brian Henderson’s Bandstand and Johnny Young’s Young Talent Time played an important role. The assassination of President Kennedy shocked the world and men walked on the moon. The contraceptive pill became readily available and our young conscripts were sent off to Vietnam. The phrase 'make love not war' was coined. The sixties became known as the decade of 'sex, drugs and Rock’n Roll'. Those of younger generations have heard the stories and believe they know all about those years of extremes. Only we, who lived through the sixties, appreciate them for what they were.

One 'happening' – and the most important, to me anyway – was that I moved out of the family home into the nurses’ home and began life as a trainee nurse at the local hospital. In retrospect I suppose we were meant to be safer, living in the nurses’ home under the eagle eye of Matron Bartlett. If anyone had thought to ask me I’d have told him or her that I’d much prefer to remain firmly tied to Mum’s apron strings, thank you very much. But it never occurred to anyone to ask my opinion. So there I was, a mere fledgling forced out of the nest. I didn’t even know what 'shift work' meant. If I were a betting person, I’d wager that never before (or since for that matter) had a more naďve, wet-behind-the-ears, green-as-grass young girl entered the portals of the Bellingen River District Hospital.

After a sleepless night in a hard bed on the closed-in verandah along with five other trainees, the junior night nurse roused us. Hurriedly we donned the unfamiliar grey dress and starched white apron, the even more stiffly starched, six-inch wide belt, screwed our hair up on top of our heads and covered it with a starched white cap, held in place with safety-pins. Lest you think we went to work barefoot, need I mention the unseemly struggle with strongly elasticised knickers, mis-named 'step-ins' from which our stockings were suspended, and ugly lace-up brown shoes.

Anyway, finally, as the first rays of sunlight graced the tree-tops, we straggled down the path to the hospital and into the dining room, where we helped ourselves to tea or coffee. I had never partaken of either, having been a Milo drinker till then. However, I helped myself to a cup of weak tea and a biscuit. We had barely finished our hot drink when the night sister breezed in. 'Come along girls.' she said. 'This morning you will be shown how to sponge bath a bedridden patient.' Our education had begun. None of us had ever seen a naked adult male or female before and felt embarrassed for the elderly lady whose bed we clustered around. Worse was to come.

A few mornings later I was assigned to assist a senior nurse sponge bath an elderly gentleman. It so happened that he used to be one of the two local dentists. Before suffering a stroke he had examined the mouth of pretty near all of us. Now, he was completely paralysed down one side of his body. This once proud, elegant old man now spent his days rubbing at a tuft of hair on the back of his head with his one good hand, flailing his one good foot around in the air and calling loudly for help, as well he might. I was in awe of him because he was Mr Grey the Dentist, and very rich.

The other nurse was called away and I carried on alone. Having washed, dried and powdered the upper part of his body, I covered that area with a towel and lowered the blanket, only to be confronted by a most remarkable sight. Horrified, I gasped audibly. 'Spose….think it’s funny.' said Mr Grey, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He seemed quite pleased about something that I could only imagine was fatal. I fled. Fortunately I met the senior nurse before making it to the Sister’s Station. She took me into the pan room and explained one of the facts of life, in detail. That story made the rounds of the hospital long after the unfortunate My Grey’s demise.

Despite the inauspicious beginning I and the other fledglings soon settled into hospital life. The hours were long and the work hard but we found our reward in returning sick patients to their families with health restored, and in caring for those who were destined to leave this life. We lost our fear of naked bodies, sponge baths and death. We all grew in mind and body and matured into self-confident young women.

Oh, and we also learned to appreciate a good shot of caffeine, our drug of choice.


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