Milk, marvellous milk

While we all contemplate how life is changing around us, Dianne Motton again seeks solace in memory, a time when being a milk monitor was a sure sign you’d ‘made it’.

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Every morning at our primary school, as no doubt it was at all schools across the state of Victoria, the rattle and clink of milk bottles could be heard. Crates of small half-pint glass bottles were unloaded off trucks and placed near the school entrance. The milk for schoolchildren scheme was a response by government to the post-war baby boomers’ nutritional needs and, for many, was the only source of calcium and, maybe even, milk at all. It was still a time of poverty for many and certainly not a time of excess or waste.

To be a primary school milk monitor was a glorious job. You were able to leave the classroom early and hurtle down the corridor to collect your class’s allocation. Two monitors were needed to lug the crate, and only the best behaved in the class would be afforded the honour. I remember struggling with the weight of the bottles, the crate banging against our thin legs, but never daring to complain.

Recess was when we were expected to line up, grab our bottle and down the milk. Each bottle had a silver aluminium cap that had to be twisted off. At our school, the caps were then saved and put into a huge hessian bag to go to the recyclers. Clearly, aluminium was expensive then. The money made would then go back into the school’s revenue to pay for some other shortfall in the budget.

Among the jostling and shoving, there was a ritual to observe. The girls would take their time, sipping in small mouthfuls or even sniffily rejecting the drink. The boys would glug the contents down in one or two huge gulps and beat their chests afterwards. Loud ahhs were often heard. A ring of white froth would form around their mouths, a white moustache, sometimes to be wiped away, sometimes not. Some of us would go back for seconds, the bottles that others had rejected. We knew there was no milk at home for hungry mouths and this was a godsend, though we had neither the vocabulary nor the theology to explain it in so many words.

In winter, it was a joy, the milk icy cold, the yellow, buttery cream floating on the top of the bottles. No such thing as homogenisation then. Sometimes there was even a thin layer of frost on the surface of the aluminium tops, silvery, thin and quick to wipe off, leaving our fingers wet. But in summer, the milk left out in the hot sun was a challenge to drink. Even the hardiest of us would sometimes gag at the warm liquid, left out in the heat of a near 40-degree day.

As we struggled with learning to write with pens dipped in inkwells, some of our clothes often had splotches of blue ink dribbled down them, our stained clothes the evidence of the poor coordination of our young hands. The naughty boys in class also happily squirted as much ink at us as they could get away with. The solution, to not allow the ink to set, was to pour any left-over milk on the offending stain. To this day I do not know if it was effective, but I do remember the sour smell of stale milk on my school dress, following me around all day, a reminder of my clumsiness or the boys’ malice.

The smell takes me back to being six or seven, small, thin and thankful for a government initiative.

Did your school receive milk deliveries to be handed out to children for free? Were there other similar government initiatives?

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Written by Dianne Motton

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