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One hundred years ago, in August 1917, my father was born.
Born in the First World War at a time his uncle was about to become involved in the battle of Polygon Wood. He was a teenager during the Great Depression and fought in the New Guinea islands in the Second World War. He died a few months short of his 65th birthday from emphysema – passive smoking did it because he never smoked. This is the eulogy I should have given at his funeral, but was too young to give – maybe a little shorter. You do not have to read 😛
Born near Ballarat, my father was the fifth in the family with four older sisters and one much younger (90 years old at the time of writing). His parents were unusual for the time; third and second generation Australian born. His Great Grandfather migrated from London where he was a law clerk to the Ballarat goldfields in 1851 where he made money and setup a shop located near the site of the Eureka Stockade. His Mother had a very colourful family tree with German, New Zealand, Irish and English in the mix. In the days of the White Australia Policy any links with Maori ancestry was “not to be discussed”, however I am proud if there is truth to the family stories.
My father was born in Smythsdale, near Ballarat and not far from the Italian Gully Mine where his father was mine manager as was his father before. For three generations the Guy family had been gold mine managers and quite successful at it. The cemeteries around the area have headstones of many dozens of ancestors buried there. As well as the grave sites, there are cricket ovals that act as lasting memorials to the Guy clan in the area. An estimate suggests that I may have some 360 cousins in and around Ballarat. Large families for 5 generations can do that!
As a child growing up post WW I, there were the common sights of ex soldiers with limbs missing, blindness and much worse. PTSD was known then as Shell Shock – a nod to the fact that human beings had “survived” 100 pounds or more of high explosive falling around them for hours on end, day and night for weeks before a few days rest outside artillery range. The stress and boredom interrupted by the opportunity to charge machine guns over open ground. Ballarat and the surrounding towns were typical of regional Australia at the time. The population was rural and its young men worked in primary industry: Agriculture, mining and services such as shearing.
Before the Great Depression, his family moved to a central location in Ballarat, ran a shop in Skipton St. (now rebuilt) and lived around the corner in Doveton St. As the Depression hit, times became tough for everyone. My grandparents extended credit to families in need of basic food and necessities. As the Depression went on, they had to sell the shop and my grandfather worked as manager of the Eureka Tile and Terracotta Company. I remember the stories told by my grandmother (in the 1960s) of how hard it was for the family to turn away families who had literally starving children at home and that there were no regrets for extending credit when it could not be repaid. My grandfather was tall at 6′ 2″ and a noted sportsman. He played against the English in the Bodyline series for Country Victoria during their tour in 1930-31. Apparently he knew Don Bradman.
With the move to manager of the brick and tile manufacturer, a house next to the factory (Stawell St) was part of the deal. Not just the house but a kitchen garden and a dairy cow paddock. This provided the family with a large portion of its food. The house was located close to an orphanage backing on to the factory. It must have been a frightening place for young children because the most severe threat to me when I was a child was to send me to an orphanage… My aunt tells me that once or twice a week when the cow was producing milk and the garden vegetables, some of the orphans were invited to lunch and all the women (the eldest of my aunts would have been in her early 20s) baked bread and fed as many as they could – what might be their one good meal for the week. Ballarat suffered badly in the Depression and many children were orphaned when parents died from cold and starvation – sometimes suicides.
The hard times that forced the sale of the Skipton St shop eased by 1934 and my grandfather was able to afford surgery on his sinuses (dust from mining and allergies the cause). Unfortunately, infection set in during recovery and he died, leaving 4 children and my grandmother without a house (it was given to the replacement manager) and not much money. My father stayed at school until he was 13 and the family needed money from the paper rounds and other things he could do to earn extra for the family. Most children leaving school at grade 6 and the extra years at school meant my father was good at arithmetic and could read and write well. As a 17 year old he had to earn money to support the whole family, when his father died.
The family moved into a house on Victoria St, still in Ballarat East. My father eventually started work at the same factory his father had been manager at, as an accountant. He studied accountancy at night school and got his qualification For 6 years he supported his mother and his sisters still at home, unmarried. He had a girlfriend and life was looking better as the Depression eased and money was available to afford little luxuries. From whay my surviving aunt says he tried his best to spoil his little sister with treats. One lasting effect of the Depression was a complete intolerance of wasting any food – remember the orphans. Remember the rags they had for clothes. Remember the Dickensian gruel they had to eat. Remember them looking through the fence at you begging with their eyes for something to eat. When I was a child, his promise to us was that we would never “go without”. It shaped his life – for the betterment of us all.
That has two meanings. Before the War my father played cricket, lacrosse and tennis. I think he also played badminton then too. He was good, very good. He played for his state in under age competitions and also trialled for national representation, interrupted by the War. Lacrosse was big in Australia before the war and especially in the Goldfields, where it was introduced in 1853. As far as I can tell his father and grandfather played as well. They were certainly involved in cricket. My father, with his tree trunk legs and total focus would have been a formidable opponent. His prime years were given to war in the Pacific Islands.
War in Europe was declared when my father was 21 years old. The Pacific war started when he was 24. His job was considered vital to the war effort and this meant that he and many friends joined the Citizens Military Force (CMF) to train in case they were needed to defend home territory. At the beginning, there was a sense that WW II would be like the first, and fought on European soil but there was some fear of a Japan seeking to expand its territory. The Australian Infantry Force served overseas and was initially sent to the Mediterranean and North Africa to fight there.
Military mobilisation started well before Pearl Harbor so my father and the 8th Battalion (Ballarat Regiment) trained part time until it became clear that the north of Australia needed to be defended by the militia rathe than regular soldiers who were needed elsewhere. When the fall of Singapore and rapid expansion of Japanese army forces through the Solomon Islands through to Papua in 1942, the legend of the defence of Kokoda started. Before that, however Darwin was bombed and my father was there at the time. He was in the 8th Battalion Intelligence unit and wrote many of the entries in the War Diary. I was surprised to see his handwriting when doing research in the Australian War Memorial.
For those interested, a more detailed account of these years may be found here
One thing I can mention now that all or most of the people who would have been involved have passed away. I will leave that until the end of this post.
My father returned to Australia some 18 months after the war ended. He had spent his adult life at war. His girlfriend found someone else wile he was away. His sisters had nearly all married. His younger sister had her teen years while he was away for all but for two brief visits in five years. He came back to the family he loved and was given his old job back at Eureka Tile. Until 1959, he worked there and was an integral part of the Ballarat community.
Continuing with tennis and badminton mainly, he was continually one of the best players and travelled to tournaments around Victoria and NSW. He bought a car and some land down at Port Roadnight near Anglesea just off the Great Ocean Road. There was a cottage and a block of land bought for 50 pounds in the 1940s. My father did not smoke or drink. He says he never developed the taste for each because they could not afford to buy any when he was young. That meant he saved his pay while in the Army and sold or gave away his cigarette and beer rations. He was popular. Returned soldiers had an additional amount of social respect and I am told he had many female admirers. Certainly there were many amongst the tennis and badminton players. 8 years after returning to Ballarat he and my mother met and started going out. A shared love of sport meant they had some things in common but age was not one of them. My mother was 20 and he was in his late 30s. They married in 1955 with the Melbourne Olympics only a year away. They bought a house just a block away from where he had been living with his mother and remaining sisters and settled in.
I have a large collection of trophies and gifts that my father won or was presented with. He had life membership with several clubs and associations. He organised large regional events and tournaments. I have small black and white photographs with just a few of this time. There once were many but they have been destroyed or lost. You don’t know what you have lost until it is gone. I am grateful to my aunt for her stories of the time, however one sticks in my mind always. It is when my father announced his engagement to my mother.
His sisters were crying. Not for joy.
My mother was spectacularly beautiful at a time when this mattered for women. She had matriculated and could have gone on to university in Melbourne if her parents had allowed. They did not think it was proper for a young woman to have an education and saved money for her brothers’ education. Ironically, one of the three progressed past the Intermediate certificate and that was one year more. She looked to have everything. Yet, his sisters cried because they wanted better for him. Unfortunately my mother was an alcoholic and chain smoker. Socially acceptable at the time but it would have consequences.
Around nine months after the Melbourne Olympics, I was born. As a baby, I spent a lot of time in a basket at badminton and tennis tournaments. This continued as I got older but without the basket. In late 1959 we moved to Melbourne. My father took Long Service Leave and started a job as accountant for ASEA in their factory in Tottenham on the outskirts of Melbourne (then). We lived in Sunshine then Murrumbeena before moving to South Camberwell. I remember horse drawn carts for ice, milk, bread and meat deliveries. Also watching as the roads were sealed with bitumen.
Every weekday my father left before 6 AM to catch the 6:15 to the city and on to Tottenham station. He would get back just before 6 and cook dinner. On the weekends, we would go to the Camberwell Markets to buy food for the week (we had a refrigerator by then) and it was a highlight to have him to myself for two hours. We loaded everything into the car, back home and prepared for tennis in the afternoon. I used to watch my parents play all afternoon and pinch any unguarded afternoon tea. As a couple my parents were very good players for both tennis and badminton. There were lots of spoons and other trophies around the house. My brother came along in 1966.
Through the 1960s, Summers were spent at the block of land near Anglesea, living in a caravan my father built by hand and a tent for me when I was older. There were spiders. Also, there had been a snake once. On the weekends my father would come down to the beach with us and we would go for long walks to Aireys Inlet or the main Anglesea beach. We would often go to the Four Kings Chinese restaurant. I also remember the kiosk and shop at Pt Roadnight. I remember being held by the hand walking along rock pools so I would be safe – from waves, crabs and imagined things that might jump out. I remember learning to swim in the gentle waves of the bay and learning to body surf on the rougher ocean beach.
In Melbourne we lived in a street with vacant land behind and a tennis court. It was an active life and my father was there a lot of the time. I was an only child until I was nearly 9 and the street had almost no other children. I travelled far to find friends to play with so I needed dad to play with me whenever I wanted to do something active. The same thing repeated when my brother Mark was older and needed someone to play with while I was far away (like a block or two away).
I was 13 when he had a heart attack just before the end of year in my first year in secondary school. That morning my father was at home and standing in his work suit, looking strange. My mother had called an ambulance. He had chest pains. They told me to go off to school and choir practice for the upcoming concert. I was worried because they were worried. I was late for practice and got into trouble for that. I did not care. There were more important things. When I got home we went into the hospital and I saw him grey and connected to machines and drips. A man who was super fit and impossibly strong had suddenly stopped being either.
Because he was fit and otherwise healthy recovery was fast. It had been a severe heart attack, however a return to tennis and badminton was possible within 3 months. He was back playing A Grade within a year. The cause was put down to overwork. The next few years, were ones my father devoted to all of us, he made sure there was money available in case he was not around.
Those years must have been difficult. I was a teenager and there were arguments. I left home 6 weeks before my HSC exams after a fight with my mother – words can hurt more than anything physical. It must have been difficult. My brother was in grade 4 at the time. He was a pest. He was a little brother.
In the 60s and 70s, my father and some of his friends renovated a 1930s house and built an extention. He did this on weekends and leave time. He still found time to help the elderly residents in the street with their maintenance tasks. He was known by everyone and would help anyone any time. In the early 70s my parents sold the property at Anglesea and we went on several trips to Queensland and along the Murray River. With a teenager and a young child in a car. Following that they bought a beach house (fibro shack with an indoor toilet) on Port Phillip Bay. We spent Summers there and my father used it as a kind of retreat. My mother had stopped drinking for around 8 years but started again when I was 15 and my brother 6.
In the late 70s my father had another heart attack. This time he was hospitalised for a long time. His doctors thought he was going to die. I knew one of the doctors and he told me not to hold onto false hope. His feet were gangrenous and my father had seemingly given up hope. The doctors suggested stopping the medication. We tearfully agreed. Thankfully. Because a day later he looked up at a mirror in his room and saw himself. After that he determined that he would get better – and did. It appears that the drugs he was on made him unaware he was seriously ill and once he was clear headed, could influence his recovery. He told the doctors that the gangrene was “just a shell” and it was almost completely true. He lost several toes but not his feet. There was a long recovery this time but he got back on his feet. He took an ill health retirement and waited for his superannuation due when he turned 65.
In the middle of 1981, my father’s car broke down. He had another heart attach while pushing it and never recovered fully. There was a long time in and out of hospital, home nursing and nursing homes. He died the day after ANZAC day 1982 – the day of the public holiday. I had been visiting him in hospital on my way home from Melbourne University where I was studying and he was up and down a lot. This day was different. I could not find him.
A Jar of Barley Sugar
Written in 1997. I was still angry about some things. I was grieving. I was young. It was my memory of all that.
He loved barley sugar. Molly Bushell’s was the best.
As I entered the front door of the hospital. I knew that I had enough money to buy a jar today, at the shop (just enough and more for petrol too). He would like that on ANZAC Day!
Its good to be finished my last major Physics project for the semester. Tonight I can celebrate with a bottle of decent red!
Won’t be near the Hospital for a few days while I do a job for a builder in Fairfield. Good pay at $50 a day! It will at least pay for petrol and food for a few weeks.
Its all a bit slow here tonight and visiting hours are over soon. Oh well, the staff know me well enough by now. It has been nearly three months.
I must remember to tell him about the ANZAC day march . Some of his old mates from Ballarat were there marching and probably “remembering” how they won the war single-handedly.
They all knew him as the one who gave everyone a hand in need. Generous to a fault.
That was him all right – except where I was concerned.
It was hard to live up to expectations. Dad was always the best at any sport he played and everyone expected me to follow.
I couldn’t do it. I was not good enough.
Every time I was not good enough I knew it!
My mother wanted me to go into law. Then she could show the other women at church a thing or two! Between the cigarettes and beer.
So I wouldn’t do it. I did not want to.
Dad played top level sport until he was 53 and was only stopped by a massive heart attack.
He was out of hospital in 6 weeks and playing competitive sport not long after. He had to cut the work hours down a bit.
At last, my turn. “No. Not flowers, thanks, Dad’s allergic to them. Just a jar of Molly Bushell barley sugar. Yes his parents sold it in their shop during the Depression.”.
“Yes, he likes them and false teeth don’t get holes”. Have to tell him that one – he was always at me to clean my teeth as a kid.
The corridors are quiet for a Monday night. Probably because of the Public Holiday. Everyone would have visited earlier.
Hope the old fellow in the bed next to Dad has stopped coughing. Couldn’t hear myself think last Friday.
There it is – ward 23E.
Damn, he’s been shifted again! Why can’t they leave him in the same ward. Two empty beds in the ward too!
I’ll find out where he’s been put.
No staff anywhere tonight to ask.
… I realise that the men in the other beds are avoiding eye contact,
They look away courage drained from their shamed faces.
I choke back denial.
It must be wrong! He is too strong willed …
A nurse whisks by. He stops and says “Are you looking for your father? Come with me”.
The nurse and I recognised each other from my many previous visits. Relief. I knew It was a mistake!
“Here are his belongings. Your mother left them behind this afternoon”
It was a small bag. Brown paper, disinfected … You can’t be too careful with things belonging to a dead man.
Just room enough for a jar of Molly Bushell.
The funeral was supposed to be a small affair. Held in a suburban church and with a week’s notice for relatives and friends living far away. The local church held about 300 people when full. This day the church was overflowing. My father had no time for religion and the priest pretended to know him but had no idea. It was terrible. The people who came to the funeral were another thing. I was overwhelmed by the stories they told about what he had doe to help them. Some told of how his mother had offered food to their parents during the Depression and they were there out of gratitude. A factory worker told me about how my father used to help migrant workers to do tax returns at lunch time in the staff canteen because they could not understand the forms. Others passed on personal stories in a similar vein or recounted his feats on the sporting field. One story stood out, told to me by those who served with him.
In the late stages of WW II in Bougainville, my father was pathfinding for a battalion near a large number of Japanese defending mountainous jungle. As it was told to me the battalion had been sent into danger for a reason I will not repeat because I cannot verify it. They told me that my father safely took the battalion to a secure location away from a vastly superior enemy, knowing that leading them into battle would be futile because of the impending peace following Hiroshima. I was told it saved many lives. At the time it would have been seen as disobeying orders and a serious thing in the military. Some of those who were potentially saved were at his funeral. The PNG locals who were the majority of the battalion were unable to attend.