Saturday, 27 April 2013

ANZAC DAY... every year

ANZAC DAY can mean... 
- a day off school or a national celebration 
- a difficult morning taking elderly people to the march or a day without normal TV 
- a cranky family after the dawn service or a drunk Dad after the RSL
- a day of nostalgia or a day of discomfort if your family are German or Japanese
- time to visit the family or visit the cemetery 
- or a bit of a mystery

On Anzac Day I think of my Dad. His birthday is also in April, but I usually forget the actual day. Anzac Day represents the massive change in the lives of my parents, that influenced my upbringing. While we live in a country sheltered by it's geography we were not untouched by the events that came under the Anzac banner.

So much of my early life was in the shadow of World War ll.  Growing up in the 1950s in Sydney was life in the 'Post War era'. Every family had someone who had 'been in the war'. This often  mysterious event, that happened far away, was very much in our daily lives. So many men came home with permanent reminders. Uncle Bruce limped on a wooden leg, a result of his plane being shot down and Uncle Don's arm was permanently bent.  Mr Wilson down the road had flashbacks to Changi prison and locked his wife and children out of the house. The neighbours always took them in.  The man who swept the railway platform turned his face away to hide his burn scars and missing eye, and we knew of men who lived in 'rehab' hospitals. There were other wounds that didn't show, the wounds that led to too many beers and too many arguments.

Both my parents and their siblings were in the services, as were family from the generation before - my grandparents and their siblings and cousins struggled through The Great War in different ways.  We now remember it as WWl - now that we have had other wars equally frightful.

My grandmother, Eva, who was a trained nurse, married in 1914.  As a married woman in those days she didn't work but during the Great War she was busy raising money for hospitals and organising groups to roll bandages and knit socks for soldiers. She and her husband promoted the planting of vegetable gardens instead of lawns, in their area of Sydney. They also collected food from family in the country, to help the families of men serving overseas - there were very few social services in those days and people, especially children, actually died of starvation. 

Two of my grandmother's sisters went to France, Claire as a nurse and Ada to drive ambulances. They brought home many souvenirs of the war which were stored in a glass cabinet in the living room of their mother's house and entertained all the younger family members for years. Then they opened a small hospital in Harris Street, Sydney, specialising in rehabilitation of war injuries. The building had been donated by a family friend.  My great Aunt Claire married one of the patients and he took her away to South Africa. 

Then came WWll. Mum's sister, Joan continued in the footsteps of her aunts as an Army nurse in Port Moresby. Her future husband staggered down the Kokoda track, one arm almost blown away. 

1943 Mum on the rifle range
Mum was a Sergeant in the Army and spent her war in Qld, supervising on the rifle range or in the office. Before the war she had aspired to be a fashion model but as men joined up to fight working women were expected to take on their civilian job. Mum was 18 and forced to work in a bank. She hated it but waited until she was 21 to join the army. In all life situations we all have different experiences and not everyone had the same war. She had friends who joined the Land Army and worked on farms in place of the men who were away.

For some young men it was a chance to escape from home, or boring jobs, to see the world and learn new skills.  All the services had cooks and drivers, admin staff, mechanics and nurses and the list goes on. Not everyone is exposed to horrors on the front line. Dad did not talk about his war but Mum did and made her years in the Army sound like an exciting school camp. War time in Brisbane was parties and picnics to help people relax and Mum met my father at a dance for serving officers.

1943 aged 22
Dad was at university when he joined the Navy in 1942. As a sub Lieutenant he served on ships as assistant navigator, saw action at sea and spent time on an enemy occupied island near Borneo, hiding in the jungle at night and in holes in the sand by day, waiting to be picked up . It's a shock to think he was only about 22 then, much younger than my children are now, in fact only four years older than my granddaughter!  Dad's only brother was in the army, and from photos I think he may have been in North Africa. I have a photo of Dad's father in army uniform too. Dad always had nightmares which caused him to shout in his sleep.  He said he had leg cramps. 

On Anzac Day Dad disappeared in the early hours to catch a train from our outer Sydney suburb of Caringbah into the city. He marched every year, until he died at 65, no matter where he was living.  After the March he went to his club, with navy friends. Two of them had remained in the service.  I think Dad always regretted leaving the navy. He got out to get married, as most of the young people did at the  time.  He continued in the reserve, RANR, went to sea for a couple of weeks once or twice a year, and gave weekly classes in navigation at Rushcutters Bay. I loved seeing him arrive home late on Thursday nights in his uniform. I especially loved him in the summer whites that showed off his tanned face. For a short time in my teens I went out with a navy dental assistant, stationed at Garden Island.  He walked me to the door one Thursday night and we ran into Dad in the driveway - Dad in full uniform - sailor, whose name I have forgotten, also in uniform that night and snapping to attention.  I was taken by surprise, but it was fun and I was proud of my Dad.

After retirement age, which I think was 60, Dad remained with the volunteer reserve, RANVR, until he left Sydney for is dream hobby farm near Taree. Dad's civilian career had been 30 years in banking. He was a serious person who understood commitment and respect.  
Always a country boy at heart he loved animals and children and the sea. His hobbies were growing vegetables, reading, swimming, sailing and classical music. He donated blood, as often as they let him, for his whole working life - because he'd seen men die without it.  In 1964 the HMAS Voyager sank off Jervis Bay, after colliding with HMAS Melbourne and 82 men died. While in grief for them all Dad lost more friends. For Dad, Anzac Day was a tribute to all those who were lost, and a show of respect for those who had survived.  He was anti war and anti violence. 

My mother's reaction to the post war years was to embrace the immigrants who poured into Australia from Europe. She loved meeting new and interesting people, especially from the 'Continent'. She like all things continental -  and she soon learnt to cook spaghetti bolognaise (using tomato soup) and to say welcome in Dutch. Her new friends came from Austria and Holland and Russia and Germany.  Mum loved this variety of people and backgrounds and also the fact that Australia could offer them a home. We children learned the difficult to pronounce names and ate food cooked with garlic and the children from Europe learnt to speak English in a few weeks.

When stories of Vietnam began appearing in newspapers I asked Dad where it was. I had heard of Indo-China but place names like Vietnam, Cambodia and even Thailand were new to us.  Dad said it was not worth discussing and stopped bringing the newspaper home.  He was hoping it would be over quickly, but before long my sister and I were waving goodbye to friends, some who didn't come back and some who came back changed. I attended anti war demonstrations but also met American sailors at parties. Young Australians were marching in the streets of Sydney and it seemed like a lot of fun. This was the first televised war and we saw it on TV every night.  When horror stories of the behaviour of soldiers on both sides led to the abuse of returning servicemen, Dad did talk about it. He told me to separate the men from the politics - to remember that the boys we knew who were in the fighting were people just like us and that hadn't changed.  The Anzac Day marches, which had been growing shorter as WWl veterans dropped out, became longer with the addition of the Vietnam Vets.

Years later my parents divorced. Mum married a man she'd known for years, a German who had served in the German airforce in WWll.  That was a situation we lived with and all handled in our own way.  Of course it was very difficult for Dad and there were many emotional years for everyone - it's almost impossible to explain.  Dad married again too, eventually, but that's another story.

My father's navy sea chest, with his name stencilled on the sides, was my toy box as a child, and we played with a white canvas bag that was probably his laundry bag.  Now I sew laundry bags for Australian Defence Force personnel deployed overseas. Working in a school for over 20 years I've known a number of students who went on to the Army or Air Force, including children of staff members and friends.  Our Prep teacher's son, Michael, who I first met when he was two weeks old, served with the army in Afghanistan in 2010/11. His mother put a link on facebook to the blog for Aussie Hero Quilts and Laundry bags, and as I loved sewing I had a look. Not only did they make patchwork quilts, and I love patchwork, they also made bright coloured laundry bags to help the service men and women keep track of their laundry. I knew this was something I could do. Every laundry bag or quilt block I sew now holds my thoughts of Dad and his war service.  I am pleased to be part of this group of dedicated ladies who are all about helping our defence force personnel feel closer to home but my continual prayer is that fewer and fewer people will have the need.

In 1945, Dad wrote in his diary;  Dear God, guide me, may my choice be right...Easter is now past, went to church and communion.  I prayed that you might lead me Lord, in the job ahead, be it what it will, that I shall be able to do my job, to the best of my ability, and if I'm called upon to die, may it be faced with courage.  I'm prepared for that, if it will help to bring peace and happiness to the country that I love and to the world!  To those that I love I'm not afraid...I'll do my job.  Padre Eyers is a fine man, a man that I can follow, if I follow his teaching well I can't go far wrong.  He is a fine inspiring Padre, well loved by his men.

Anzac Day is for my Dad. I have his service medals mounted and framed with a photo of him in uniform, at the incredibly young age of 22. While my husband takes his father to the dawn service and the Anzac March I turn on the TV.  In my mind Dad is still marching alongside all those men and women who understand the high price of commitment.

1945 Mum and Dad in Sydney, on the way to tell her family that they were engaged.


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  1. from my sister, Sonja - This is great Janine, really enjoyed it! Will encourage the kids to read it.

  2. Very nicely crafted. A lovely heartfelt expression of one of the many ways that different people are affected by Anzac Day.


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