Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My father's father, Ted

My Grandfather, Ted, my father’s father, was something of a formal man, a quiet individual from another era. He didn’t drive a car, relying, instead, on a dark, gearless pushbike with racing handlebars turned upwards to effortlessly and slowly peddle around Wollongong. He pinned his cuffed trouser legs backwith metal clips to avoid the greasy chain, and always wore an old Akubra hat that may have – at one time in the past 30 years – have been a dress hat.

Grandfather wore collarless white shirts and braces, his laced-up ankle-high boots were always a shiny black, and he smelt richly of plain soap and a lifetime’s experience. He died when I was young, and I valguely remember whispy white hair, a kind face and wrinkled, blotched softness of the back of his hands.

The only word I remember his saying was ‘Lizzie’ the name he gave his wife, Elizabeth Sandon – my father’s mother and our Nana. Grandfather would say ‘Lizzie’ richly and affectionately.

I was constantly fascinated by Grandfather’s small hall table hugging the wall of the narrow sunroom tacked on the back of the house in which my father grew up in the years before the Second War, and which he now shared with our Nana. In the drawer I could always find short lengths of sharp pencils I later realised Grandfather used to write down winners in whatever horse or dog races he was listening to on the wireless. In this drawer he also kept an old hair brush, scraps of form guides, ancient cigarette and tobacco tins, erasers, small notebooks filled with scribblings, boot laces and marbles. These contents always smelt musty, and genteelly old, like him. The walls above the table were lined with several familiar black and white frames pictures – several of prize-winning chickens Grandfather had reared and exhibited many years before, one of an anonymous race horse bedecked with show ribbons, and another frame containing pictures of two steam ships I was to discover had transported him to and from his War.

Grandfather had been a butcher, and had played rugby league for the Illawarra Diggers, the local team of returned servicemen, in the early 20s. While his football exploits earned him praise in the badly yellowed Illawarra Mercury articles I still retain, he’d gone on to play somewhat mysterious roles as an alderman on Wollongong Council and as a steward at Wollongong Dogs. He’d also been active in local rugby league circles. As a local government representative, he worked alongside Francis Xavier ‘Rex’ Connor, himself destined to become a Labour Minister in the ill-fated Whitlam Labor Government of the early 1970s. The lead-lettered names of Ted Heininger and Rex Connor still beam down from the white marble plaque affixed to the North Wollongong Beach changing rooms, as they have every day since the days before World War II.

One story has it that Grandfather and another butcher had built a thriving business before the Great Depression struck at the very vitals of the Illawarra. While Grandfather continued to give meat to those he knew would go hungry if he didn’t, his partner begged him to sell his half of the business before they both went under. In one of life’s strange ironies, Grandfather sold out, never having to work again, leaving my father – an only child – to grow in circumstances far less grinding than those of many around him.

Grandfather Ted had an older brother, Cyril Patrick, who was registered as a grocer from Woonona when he enlisted in 1916 to play his small part in the Great War. Ironically, having survived years of harrowing trench warfare in France and Belgium, Cyril was to die cruelly young – the victim of a collapsed drainage trench somewhere near Helensburgh – in 1923. He may not have been the same, apparently having seen too many things half way round the world to talk about.

Grandfather, on the other hand, joined the 12th Light Horse Regiment of the Illawarra, and steamed off to Egypt by 1917 to encounter the Turks in the Middle East. His war exploits are sketchy, as he spoke very little of them – especially to us children. All I knew was that he’d missed going to Gallipoli, but instead found himself doing time and patrols in the so-called Holy Land (Palestine, he always called it). Grandfather’s one great wish had been to reach Damascus, but never did. The war ended abruptly before his regiment could get there. Instead, he picked up a dose of Malaria in the Jordan Valley, something that took his years to fully recover from, and may have contributed to my father’s sickly young years.

I can only imagine how Grandfather and his fellow Australians viewed the exotic Middle East pre-oil wealth, pre-Israel and pre-routine international travel. They must have imagined at times that they were riding across the surface of another dusty alien planet. Grandfather always a softly spoken man, quietly and dispassionately described the Arabs as the dirtiest people he'd ever seen. But never to us children. He must have already realised that he didn’t want any prejudices rubbing off.

His crowning war regret - along with thousands of other yound Australian troopers - was that he had to kill his faithful horse before steaming back to civilian life. Having carried him from one end of the Hold Land to the other, there was no room for the horse in the New Australia.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Grandfather never went to Mass again, calmly saying there couldn’t possibly be a God after the things he and Cyril and thousands of other unworldly Australian youth had witnessed in warfare. But as a young child in a strictly Catholic family I forgave him this because of the superb baked lunches – beef or lamb and an assortment of plump, juicy vegetables and scratch-made gravy – he produced from the small Kookaburra gas stove and oven in the kitchen of the house he and Nana shared. Sunday traditional baked lunches in this neat, but Spartan, weatherboard house in Campbell Street became as ritualised as the Mass we always attended earlier that morning in Corrimal. We’d alight the orange and cream Hills Bus Service bus on the corner of Flinders and walk down Campbell Street, towards the boat harbour. We’d pass the Salvation Army Citadel on the corner of Campbell and Keira – always to the strains of strange hymns these people in dark military uniforms sang. I never saw them coming or going, but always felt sad that they’d never get to heaven like us real Catholics. And what always made me feel sadder was they always sang so well – and fervently. I had reached these conclusions independently, aided by side comments from the pig-ignorant, bog-paddy Irish nuns who taught us in primary school. I never discussed this with my parents.

As lunch was baking, Grandfather would whisk us small kids down to the park at the end of the street, or to the sheltered Brighton Beach on Wollongong Harbour on the other side of Cliff Road, and keep us there – all to his gentle self – until lunch could wait no longer. And after lunch we’d almost always retreat with him to the top yard, near the sheds with their secret photo albums, and rake leave into eucalyptus reeking bonfires. It was the very early 1960s. Another, simpler era that required bonding and the sharing of family pleasures, and generated no neighbourly complaints about smoky fires.


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