Miscellany: The Penny Bunger

My father is a great storyteller. Whenever we have a spare moment together he often delves into tales of childhood nostalgia. Like the time he fired a lit bow into his backyard Willow tree while playing cowboys and Indians with a neighbour.

It’s the delivery and the excitement in which he tells it that makes his stories come alive – as if I was there.

Last week I was taking my father to the train station. He’s always ten minutes early because he hates being late for anything – even a train. So, like a good son, I wait with him on the platform until his train arrives. It’s right then he breaks into one of his world famous stories.


In the late 50′s, according to my father, kids entertained themselves by causing mischief – tying rope across the road, blowing up letter boxes with firecrackers, lighting up soda bombs on doorsteps.

Robert Schnide lived in the same street as dad and were both the same age. Across the street from his house lived an elderly man and his wife. Dad was unsure what line of work he did because back in those days that type of knowledge was kept for adults ears only.

“He was always in overalls,” said Dad.” And he was always working on something outside, so he was probably a tradesman of some sort. A carpenter, maybe?”.

Their house was a corner property surrounded by a two-metre high fence and took up almost four blocks.  The challenge for Robert and my father was to scale the enormous fence, steal a handful of peaches from the fruit patch and use the fruit to throw against a brick wall at an abandoned house a few streets away. Its what they did back then.

Television hit the shelves in 1956, so not everyone could afford the soap box when it first came out. Kids back then had to amuse themselves. Most parents were working two jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet. So kids spent entire summers just riding their bikes, building cubby houses and making their own fun or mischief.

The boys arrived at the carpenter’s house and angled their bikes upright along the fence line. This would make it easier for a quick getaway, grinned Dad.

“We jumped the fence and landed right near the fruit patch. Then as we grabbed a handful of fruit, out came the carpenter with a steel rod and we ran for our lives,” he said.

The only way out was to climb the fence. The only gate was on the other side of the property – some blocks away. My dad said he got over pretty quickly. But Robert was having troubles. Dad was perched on his bike ready to go but saw Robert was stuck. A thread on the back of his jumper had caught a rusty nail, so he hung there with his legs kicking and screaming like a madman.  The carpenter, armed with a steel rod, banged the fence a few times. With each hit, Robert’s screams intensified. Dad dropped his bike and helped Robert off the nail and they were away. A little shaken, but away none the less, with echoes of the carpenter’s hoarse voice resonating through the quiet neigbourhood street,” Don’t come back here again!”.

Enter Norman Murphy. He was four years older than Robert and Dad and had a rebellious streak. Once he caught wind of what happened with the carpenter he knew exactly what to do.

“This is revenge,” said Murphy.”I’ll get my penny bunger.”

A penny bunger, or “cracker-gun” as dad called it, is a type of fire-cracker or explosive. The idea is simple: You poke the penny bunger down a bent pipe, which was usually shaped like a gun. You’d then place the wick inside the piping so it meets the cracker. Then poke the marble or ball-bearing down the pipe, light the end and bang! Watch the bullet fly out at amazing speed. Dad said you could blow a decent sized hole through a baked bean tin standing 50 metres away.

They all rode down to the carpenter’s house and parked their bikes across the street some 20 metres away.Without too much fussing, Murphy prepped the piping with the wick and penny bunger.

“Murphy was shooting with marbles, so when he fired off the first shot it put a pretty big hole in the fence,” said Dad.

And it didn’t stop there. Bang! Bang! Bang!Three more hit the fence followed by another three for good measure.

The sign of an experience marksmen is having the knack of knowing when the job is done. It’s the fine line between shooting one too many and being caught or shooting one less and making the perfect escape. Murphy knew when to leave.

With that they headed back to Murphy’s house to gloss over the day’s revenge.


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