“Life is what happens to you while you‘re busy making other plans.”
To the untrained eye, my thinking’s seemed pretty random of late…a mush of pea and ham soup with a few recognizable objects thrown in. Indeed, even I’ve been starting to wonder if there are any threads of logic tying my ramblings together. After all, there’s been no sign of a train of thought methodically stopping all stations on the way to its advertised destination. However, after much consideration, I was relieved to find a noticeable thread running through it all, even if I did have to search for it.
Yet, as much as I love darting from light bulb moment to light bulb moment, I’ve also been feeling overwhelmed and wondering whether a more focused approach would be more productive. After all, I’ve almost blown a circuit when all my light bulbs switched on at once. As much as that sounds fantastic from a creative point of view, I do have practical responsibilities. Indeed, clearly driving a car with a blown circuit is a liability. Moreover, members of the family need to eat, go places and live their lives. Yet, I also want to fulfil my own destiny. Walk in my own shoes.
So, today I thought I’d share some of this journey with you. I’m not even going to try to put a heading on it. I’m just going to grab my keys and go. That said, you ought to know we’re in Australia. I don’t want you to get lost before the journey’s begun.
First Stop: Henry Lawson.
This journey began almost a month ago when I bought Colin Roderick’s: Companion to Henry Lawson’s Fifteen Stories at a garage sale in Pearl Beach. Fortunately, thanks to good luck or fiendish book hoarding tendencies, I already had its other half: Henry Lawson Fifteen Stories. Keen to write more short stories myself, I decided to get stuck into them. They’re designed for a high school audience and seemed quite thought provoking. I also wanted to immerse myself in my Australian cultural heritage. I stridently believe that everyone needs to know their own culture and step beyond the one-size doesn’t fit anybody global culture. So, I started reading more about Henry Lawson’s bio and was struck to find out he had a Norwegian father, Nils Larsen. I sort of knew that but that meant a lot more to me now. That you can’t just change a few letters in your name, and change who you are.
Second Stop: Bridget Donovan, Irish Famine Orphan Girl.
As it turned out, Henry Lawson and his family were living in Mudgee in Western NSW where my 4th Great Grandmother, Bridget Merritt (Donovan) and husband George were living for several years. Bridget was an Irish Famine Orphan who came out to Australia onboard the John Knox as part of the Earl Grey Scheme. These Irish Famine Orphan Girls have been commemorated at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks as well as through historic research. As much as I’ve always loved an related to Henry Lawson’s works as an Australian, they suddenly meant a whole lot more to me now that they provided gained insights into how my family lived and the sorts of challenges they faced. Indeed, George and Bridget and their children could well have resembled one of Lawson’s characters and lived his short stories.
Third Stop: Bourke, NSW.
However, the connections didn’t end there. I also found out that The Bulletin magazine had sent Henry Lawson out to Bourke in 1893 to write stories about life in the outback. As it turned out, my grandmother’s uncle did a stint out in Bourke back in the 1960s. Moreover, Mum’s always told me this story about she was desperately looking forward to going to the Peter, Paul and Mary Concert, but was forced to go on a family holiday to Bourke instead. Although Mum was twenty and a student living out of home, there was no way she could get out of it. Even then, she was expected to do what she was told. No questions asked. So, I start picturing the family squished into the FJ Holden heading from Wollongong up over the Blue Mountains, through Dubbo and onto Bourke not quite following in Henry Lawson’s footsteps but I could sense a story in there somewhere.
Before I pursued this story any further, it was time to hit the research trail and see what I could dig up about Bourke in the old newspapers. Wow! Was I in for a surprise! While I knew Uncle Herb was into singing and I’ve at least seen an old black & white photo of him working on a musical production, I had no idea Uncle Herb was the Producer of the Bourke Musical & Dramatic Society. As a town with a population scratching to reach two thousand souls, this was hardly the big time. However, he approached these productions with such professionalism, gusto and passion that he truly belonged on Broadway. From what I gather, they put on numerous productions including: Oklahoma, Cleopatra and South Pacific. Yet, given Bourke’s remote location, it was a battle for the show to go on. There were numerous efforts to recruit new members in the newspapers and he even offered free voice training. However, the appeal which really struck home was his quest to find a pianist, which must’ve hurt because my mother was not only a piano student at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. At this time, she was learning from Linley Evans who’d accompanied the great Australian opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba. However, mum was in Sydney and almost a thousand kilometres away. Of course, Uncle Herb did approach my grandparents, but they decided she was far too young (Phew!!)
By this stage, the whiff of another story was almost knocking me out. However, the excitement didn’t end there. While I was scouring the old newspapers online, I stumbled across something like twenty poems Uncle Herb had had published in the newspaper. I didn’t even know he wrote poetry and as a poet myself, that was important. I’d found someone like me, and that’s not to be overlooked lightly. Indeed, I immediately wanted to drop everything and compile his poems into an anthology. However, than idea had a quick demise when I remembered that my own poems need a lot of sorting out and I’d better get my own poems in order first
Fourth Stop: Honi Soit, Sydney University’s Student Newspaper.
Last week, while I was down in Sydney for the Carer’s Day Out, I detoured home via my former stomping ground, the University of Sydney. Quite aside from photographing the old buildings and retracing my footsteps, I found out that past issues of the university’s newspaper, Honi Soit, were available online. Needless to say, that proved quite a distraction.
Hoit Soit was first published in 1929. As it turned out, my grandfather was studying dentistry at the time. So, that’s where my investigations began and I soon got caught up in all sorts of tales about students struggling to meet people on campus, which were exacerbated by the ruling that women couldn’t attend a dance unaccompanied by a man. Naturally, this ruling affected those who needed to meet new people most…the freshers.
In my father’s day, I also found a very entertaining article advising freshers on “How to succeed at University by Really Trying”. May favourite was Graham Sawyer’s advice to college residents:
“Although a book could be written on entry into college the following hints may be of assistance.
- Be gracious, even when yelled at to answer the phone.
- Be mysterious, never take anyone (at all) into confidence.
- Get long distance phone calls, exciting letters . . . arrange these yourself,
- Rent a good painting for your room, when you have to return it say the artist was having a show, Australian art only of course.
- Buy from a junkyard a smashed up TR3 grille and inscribe it “September 1961, Sandra”. Put it in an obvious position.
- Have an affair with a girl in Sydney, and one in the old home town. Talk about it with passion, let whole college advise. Break one of the girl’s hearts, and plead guilty to the whole college.”
After browsing through a few back issues from my own time, I headed to 1969 the year of my birth. I was due to be born on the 20th July the day man landed on the moon and I wanted to read student coverage of the event. After all, the moon landing has become part of my personal narrative.
That was two weeks ago. However, in typical Rowie fashion, I still haven’t reached the moon landing. Instead, I stumbled into the Vietnam protest movement and my journey veered off in an entirely new direction. You see, my Dad had been called up to go to Vietnam and I almost felt a sense of duty to delve into it further.
Stop Five: Conscription & the Vietnam War.
In 1964, the Australian Government introduced conscription. On the 10th March, 1965 the first ballot or “death lottery” was held, which covered men who turned 20 from January 1st 1965 to the 30th June. That included my Dad who was in the third year of his economics degree. It was pure chance, but Dad’s birthday came up. It was like playing pin the tail on the donkey, and suddenly the thumb tack went straight through Dad’s nose. He was in. That was that.
However, Dad still had a bit of time up his sleeve. He could defer until he’d finished his degree, but that would only buy him a year.
By now, you’ve probably gathered Dad got off. That’s a story in itself, involving what Dad called: “An Act of God” and once again brought into question that delicate fusion of destiny and chance. Not being a lawyer myself, I’m not exactly sure how this loophole stands up in court. However, you might recall that Billy Connolly referred to it in: The Man Who Sued God.
Anyway, Dad was driving home from a party in the rain when his car skidded and careered across from one side of the Pacific Highway to the other into the path of an oncoming Mercedes Benz. Needless to say, Dad was lucky to survive. However, he ended up with multiple fractures in his pelvis and a few broken ribs. When the police came to interview him, he managed to gloss over the bald state of his tyres and claimed: “it was an act of God”. Naturally, the Police were sceptical. However, what really mattered, was that his injuries rendered him medically unfit to go to Vietnam. So, it appears that even the army couldn’t argue with an “Act of God”. By the way, in case you’re doubting the legitimacy of of divine intervention, the couple in the Mercedes had been having an affair and the accident opened the lid on that too. So, even if you don’t believe in the man upstairs, perhaps you’ll now believe in miracles.
Researching conscription and the early days of the Vietnam War has been fascinating, especially given my father’s involvement. I’m particularly keen to find out how these young men handled the waiting game. Although the birthdays had been drawn on the 10th March, the dates had been kept secret. The chosen ones would be notified by mail within a month and asked to report for a medical. Of course, there was no email notification back then and I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for all those young men waiting to know their fate. Did they just get on with it and hope for the best? Or, was there an overarching sense of dread? I need to get my father relaxed and get him talking. He hasn’t said a lot. Although it’s over 50 years ago, it still feels relevant and must’ve been a significant stepping stone on his journey.
Last Stop: Bien Hoa Airbase… Marigolds in Vietnam.
Although Dad didn’t go to Vietnam, all this research highlighted how little I knew about the Vietnam War and that I really ought to know more. In the past, I’ve found it rather intimidating with places names which weren’t familiar, and there’s always been a hostility to Australia’s involvement there. However, by starting to read about the war as it happened, it began to make more sense.
I’m not going to go into the battlefield side of things. However, I stumbled across an article by by Dorothy Drain who’d visited Vietnam in 1965 as a war correspondent for Australian Women’s Weekly. There was one snippet within this story which really caught my eye. Indeed, my heart was glowing. Dorothy was near Bien Hoa Airbase, when she met up with B Company’s Sergeant Major, Eric Smith, “who was showing us with pride the marigolds blooming outside his tent”. He said:
“The wife sent the seeds. She sent me a Cootamundra Wattle, too, and someone swiped it with his big feet”.
I went on to find a photograph of the very same Sergeant Major, Eric Smith recording a tape to send back to his wife for Christmas. I don’t want to idealise this marriage of people I’ve never met. Yet, it warmed my heart.
Where To From Here…
So, here I am at the end of another week wanting to consolidate all these fine beginnings. Write short stories galore. Yet, another week lies just around the corner with its own extraordinary moments. Indeed, on Wednesday, I’m planning a trip to the Art Gallery of NSW followed by a concert at the Conservatorium of Music where my grandmother Eunice Gardiner taught the piano and my mother was her pupil.
So, as much as I would like to slow life down for my pen to catch up, I still want to live. Keep my eyes open and absorb everything around me right down to the intimate, detailed minutae of things. I don’t want these light bulb moments to stop.
However, if you see me looking rather lost or woozy, could you please get me a chair or perhaps a glass of water. You could even give me a lift home.
After all, all this thinking, can wear you out. It’s surprisingly hard work.
I would love to hear any reflections you might have of any of the abiove. Clearly, it’s covered quite a lot of ground and it took quite a few days for me to gather my thoughts.
 Honi Soit, March 5, 1963 Supplement.
 The Australian Women’s Weekly, December 8, 1965 p 7.