This post is about my amazing Dad, who passed away on the 25th of March 2014, aged 69. These words are an abridged version of the eulogy I helped give, which was in turn an abridged version of a hero post I’d been in the middle of writing. I had wanted Dad to read it but suddenly there wasn’t any more time – but it’s ok – I’d wanted him to read it more for a laugh than anything else. Our family unit has always been close, and openly showing of affection, so he always knew how much we loved him.
I want to tell you about him; chances are even if you knew Dad personally you still don’t know most of what I’m about to tell you… Dad could be a tough nut to crack. Anyway I want to talk about him but writing is much, much easier at the moment. Thanks for listening.
Dad was a fantastic storyteller. Justine and I grew up listening to the stories of his life, and even though many of them were familiar to us over the years we still loved hearing Dad tell them because you never knew when a new detail might come out. His parents were divorced, the rest of his family in England estranged. We only have one photo of Dad before he started starring in photos with Mum, and that was his passport photo taken in 1969. So his past was a bit of a mystery, but the stories helped to fill in the gaps.
Dad didn’t tell many stories about his childhood or his family – probably because when he was 5 he was sent off to boarding school – but one of the first things we learned about him was that he was born on a ship. It might or might not have been somewhere in the English Channel, but we’re pretty sure it was on the 2nd of June 1944, four days before D-Day. His birth was registered in Surrey though, so he was officially English. His father Victor came from French ancestry and possibly designed bombers during the war (all very hush hush) and his mother Betty was white Bornese. They had 4 children, and Dad was the oldest of the 3 boys.
Dad had an adventurous spirit, and a real get up and go restlessness – he always had to be doing something even in retirement so I can only imagine what kind of tearaway kid he must have been. He spent most of his school holidays with his father’s parents in Marseilles, France, and often took off down to the docks to watch the boats… Dad always loved the ocean, being on boats, fishing; anything to do with the water. He nurtured this in us as well, taking us for hours long beachcombing sessions, camping up the coast, and fishing off the One Mile Jetty. Anyway while hanging around with fishermen he picked up what he always called ‘gutter French’. Whenever Justine and I begged him to teach us some he always claimed he couldn’t remember any, but Mum reckons he spoke French in his sleep a fair bit – she always wanted to know who (the hell) ‘ma cherie’ was.
One time he must have been at his parents’ house for the holidays though because he remembered going up the road to throw pieces of slate into trees to knock down conkers. (For the Xbox generation conkers are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, and an old game was to thread one onto a piece of string then bash someone else’s conker until one of them broke. Like marbles, but heaps more destructive, and it didn’t cost anything because you sourced your own conkers.) Anyway, on one throw the slate came back on him and unfortunately embedded itself in his skull. He walked home, and when his mum opened the door and saw blood and the piece of slate sticking out of the top of his head she went down like a sack of potatoes. He still had the scar several decades later. This was only one of many close calls Dad had over the years; Justine and I are many times lucky to even be here!
After he finished school he apprenticed as an aircraft draftsman for several years at the same firm as his father. His dad took him shopping and bought him a good suit, shirt, shoes and tie for work, then said he had to earn everything else himself. He started at the bottom, sharpening pencils and getting coffee, and rode his bike to work even though his dad drove a posh car from the same house to the same office every day. One thing about Dad; he always worked for everything, and if he saw there was a job that needed to be done he just did it. He stuck it out and was all set for a career as a draftsman… but while Dad was very responsible and had a great work ethic he could also apparently be a bit of a hothead in his younger days.
So… there was that time he threw a guy through a plate glass window.
When I first heard that, my jaw hit the floor. My Dad doesn’t do that sort of thing! He was the gentlest, most gentlemanly and loving man I’d ever known. Knowing that about him might have changed my typical childish notion that my parents were always just my parents and didn’t do anything at all before having us, but it didn’t change the kind of person I thought he was. I remember inventing scenarios where the guy who ended up through the window was actually a cad and a bounder and my Dad stepped in to stop him either mugging some nice old lady or kicking kittens. I
bet hope that guy was a real bastard, and took a good long look at himself while he lay there bleeding and picking shards of glass out of his head.
Anyway Dad had a choice; go to gaol or do military service. So he joined the Royal Marines. He saw action in Cyprus and Germany and had some hair raising stories about experiences there; one of the worst was actually a hellish, botched (by the powers-that-be) training expedition in below freezing temperatures in Scotland which he was lucky to survive, though a few of his mates didn’t. That was a story he told us kids only last year – I guess he figured we could handle it now we’re both nearly 40! He left the Royal Marines after only a few years… he was obliged to leave after he broke his back parachuting into a tree in Borneo. (Also not his fault.) He hung there, in the jungle, for three days before being found by members of a local tribe. They thankfully decided rather than kill him to take him to hospital, and eventually he was shipped off to recuperate in Singapore. They operated on his back, leaving an 8 inch scar over his lumbar spine. He wasn’t the sort to let even a broken back slow him down much and even though he had ongoing back troubles, a close call with paralysis and another surgery when we were little, he always liked to stay active.
He seemed to have discovered a taste for adventure, and after a full recovery tried different things including driving an ambulance in London and starting up his own business on the Isle of Wight – hiring out deckchairs on the beach and taking fishing charters. While there he was invited to crew on a boat called the Golden Cockerel, but he passed it up as he had something else on…luckily. He found out from a boatie friend a few years later that partway through the trip the boat had been lost with all hands.
In 1969 Dad decided to emigrate Down Under because it was looking good for Pommies at the time, and flew to Perth in Western Australia because his sister Christine was living there. He bullshitted his way into a job on a building site, then after a while he decided to go halves in buying a prawning trawler with a mate. That went fine, until it was hit by a cyclone while anchored in Shark Bay and sank. They weren’t insured, so he continued on to the nearby town of Carnarvon to find a job. First he tried the prawning trawlers because he still loved boats, but after getting ripped off by a skipper told him to jam it and left to work in the processing factory, then called Nor West Whaling. He also had a stint up further north driving the massive haul pack salt mover trucks at Dampier Salt, until he had an accident with one. It was at a notorious intersection of the salt haul road with a public road, and in avoiding a collision with the car of some idiot tourist who’d stopped to take photos, Dad jackknifed the 240 tonne truck and trailers, amazingly only breaking his leg. He couldn’t drive with his leg in plaster so headed back to Carnarvon, and was asked to come back to Nor West Whaling. He did, and was a leading hand by the time Paula, the love of his life, arrived a few months later in May 1972.
Paula had road tripped across Australia from Ballarat in Victoria with her sister Therese and a friend, and were working as factory hands at Nor West, grading and packing prawns. Possibly not the most romantic of settings as I imagine their first encounter; Mum and Dad’s eyes meet across a noisy factory floor, there’s the smell of raw seafood, and the squelch of prawns as they’re de-headed and sorted into crates…
Mmm, romance! Still, it didn’t take long for them to get together.
Mum was dating some nice fellows but none of them really did anything for her. One Saturday she had an unexpected visitor – a guy she wasn’t really interested in but who’d come all the way from Perth to see her. He was at the prawning factory gate with a hire car when Mum and Auntie Therese knocked off. Mum explained to the pilot she’d gone dancing with the previous Saturday that she couldn’t go out with him that night, and went dancing at the Gascoyne Hotel with the visiting guy. The next morning she took him sightseeing, but he was a little blasé about getting himself to the airport in time for his flight back to Perth and missed his flight.
Mum promptly dropped him at the truck stop out of town so he could catch a lift. Then she went back to the Camp and chatted up Dad while he put the wheels back on his car. By the Sunday evening session Mum was at the Gascoyne Hotel again but having a drink with Dad. A few of their friends were all so who’s Paula dating then? But it was Dad she was meant to be with.
Both of them had travelled so far from their homes, and each found their soul mate. Mum always said they were drawn to each other, though she couldn’t explain why, and they spent all of their spare time together. They met in May, started dating in June, were engaged by July and married by February the next year. Apparently when Mum rang her mum to tell her the good news Oma was a little concerned and suspicious at the hurried timeline. But it was for a typically practical reason; to fit in the wedding before the start of the fishing season!
Dad met Mum’s enormous Dutch immigrant family on his way to Cairns for a stint of work and was accepted with open arms. He found love and a sense of family with Mum and her family, which I don’t think he’d ever really had with his own, and I am so thankful for that.
They never had a proper honeymoon; after the wedding they had 6 days to drive the 3000kms from Ballarat to Cairns and the roads were dirt and it was pissing rain (it was Queensland; there were probably cyclones around) plus they also had to find somewhere to live. But they lived like newlyweds their whole lives together and were still deeply in love when they celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary two months ago.
Some of my earliest memories are of Mum and Dad mucking around together, laughing and having fun. Lots of affection. Dad was a true gentleman; he still helped Mum down steps where he could, held her hand when they walked down the street, remembered anniversaries. Justine says they showed us what a marriage should be and she is so right. Mum said that just the week before he left us, he came up behind her, hugged her, and said “I do love you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” He always did stuff like that.
He was the best kind of partner and the best kind of dad. He coached my soccer team in primary school, passed on to us a love of the outdoors, camping and fishing, and was active helping out in our Naval Cadet unit in high school. He was prominent in our small town; a member of APEX, a volunteer with SES for over 10 years where he trained recruits, skippered rescue boats when the Gascoyne River flooded, and went out in planes to help with search and rescue missions over land and sea, among other adventures. He knew everyone and everyone knew Dad, and he was deeply respected in our community.
The thing that makes me most proud though when I think about him, about both him and Mum, is how, in 1997 when he was let go by the new owner of the company he’d worked loyally for since 1969, he upped stakes with Mum, moved back to Ballarat, and bought a cake shop. Just got on with life after a massive change, and like everything else, they did it together, as a team. Chief Decorator Mum’s previous experience consisted of making Woman’s Weekly Birthday Cakes for Justine and I, and as for the Head Of The Baking Department Dad, his experience with an oven was limited to the Sunday roast. But they figured it out, and ran a successful business for 13 years.
In retirement Dad loved pottering around the garden, and especially loved his flowers; hopefully we can finish off the garden for him. He loved reading spy thrillers and books by ex-soldiers, and watching old school movies like The Great Escape and Kelly’s Heroes. I remember enjoying quite a few Clint Eastwood flicks with him, and I could see a lot of the qualities of the characters he played in Dad. Not Dirty Harry of course, despite the plate glass window incident!
Dad enjoyed newer stuff too, though I don’t think he really ‘got’ horror movies; one memory that always cracks me up was when we were having a sleepover at our place and watching Warlock. He watched it with us for a while, then at the scene where Julian Sands bites out the tongue of some poor schmuck Dad goes, “What, did he kiss him to death?”
He loved music too, especially operas – big voices. Whenever he had the house to himself it was always Pavarotti, Bocelli, Brightman and the like blaring out of the sound system. We played their music at his farewell, but the final piece was both a homage to his experiences in the military and also because he just loved bagpipes. It’s called ‘The Black Bear’ and is traditionally played for marching off the parade ground after a route march or at the end of a day’s manoeuvres – when the soldiers return to their barracks. It’s fast, and the one time they don’t have to march in step, as they head for home. It’s also a happy tune, which will hopefully help us remember all the good times we had with Dad, and that we’re thankful to have had as long as we did with him.