A Jolly jumbuck mired in memory

It’s been said that an eclectic education is, perhaps, the best kind of education one can have – varied, broad-ranging and spiced with bits of arcane information that may someday prove essential to a fulfilling life.

I tend to agree with this philosophy of education, although I’m not always sure why.

Only last week I was half-heartedly listening to the radio when one of the on-air personalities (don’t ya just love that term?) quizzed a listener about the Australian term jumbuck. Did jumbuck refer to a kangaroo, a sheep, a cow or a wombat? asked the radio talk show host.

Stumped, the befuddled contestant eventually launched a frantic computer search for the answer via the Internet. I, on the other hand, instinctively knew the correct answer: Jumbuck is the Australian term for sheep.

I was enthusiastically patting myself on the back for being a fine fellow with a mind like a razor when a disconcerting little cloud of uncertainty slowly drifted over my celebration.

Sure, I knew what a jumbuck was, but why did I know what a jumbuck was?

I’ve never visited Australia, served in its armed forces or even spent a lot of time in the Outback Steak House. Yet the jumbuck-sheep connection seemed crystal clear.

Even I have to admit that’s a little weird.

Then it came to me – I blinked and suddenly it was a bright, sunny morning in the strategically unimportant California community of Los Gatos in 1959 and 20 fourth-graders were gamely trying to sing the unofficial Australian national anthem “Waltzing Mathilda.”

I was one of those fourth-graders and learning the tune was no easy task, even for a group of imaginative 9-year-olds.

The “waltzing” in this song has nothing to do with dancing, “Mathilda” is not a woman, and the rest of this 1895 ditty is full of tuckerbags, billabongs and, of course, the aforementioned jumbuck. Not just any jumbuck, either – a jolly jumbuck.

Despite the difficulty of musically juggling swagmen and coulibah trees, we eventually mastered that song about an ill-fated hobo and an inappropriately acquired sheep. A handful of us even managed to compose some rather vulgar alternative verses with which to torture our fourth-grade teacher.

We learned the meaning of billabong (water hole) and tuckerbag (primitive Australian food storage container quite unlike Tupperware) and Matilda (a heavy coat or blanket). We sang it loudly and we sang it proudly. But to this day, I can’t really tell you why we sang it at all.

What, exactly, was the real agenda? Was the United States contemplating war with New Zealand? Was this musical interlude a subtle warning about the evils of sheep rustling? Was our elementary school about to adopt the kangaroo as a mascot?

I suppose I’ll never really know the answer, but I can’t help but wonder how many other 50-somethings are wandering around out there sporadically humming the dulcet strains of “Waltzing Matilda” for no apparent reason and wondering why…

Originally published 3/9/2002