Monday, November 27, 2006

My Dad, Joe

My Dad, Joe, was an only child. He was born in 1925 in a small private hospital in Campbell Street, Wollongong, less than 600m up the road, and just across Corrimal Street, from where he grew up.

He was a sickly young child – no doubt a result of his father contracting malaria in the Jordan Valley during the Great War. Nana would take Dad on a steam train once a week for quite some months to see a specialist in Sydney, in a effort to make him better. Grandfather’s malaria apparently meant Dad was rare. It may have been the reason he was an only child. Or it may have been that Nana didn't really like sex. She and Grandfather slept in separate rooms.

But Dad got better. And grew. And when he was a strapping teenager-about-town, he met my Mum, Dulcie Irene, and wanted to step out with her.

Mum’s mum said no. She said Dad should make himself scarce until Mum was older, and had a career of her own – which he did. He regularly holidayed in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with other hormone-driven young people, until he was allowed to marry Mum in the early 1950s. Grandma Georgina Bunt, Mum's mum, took no emotional prisoners.

I always remembered the father of my childhood being a forthright man. He didn’t drink, smoke or swear (at home, anyway, around us kids or Mum), but was quick to snap if temper got the better of him. To me as a child, he was a mountain of steely sinew and muscle, to be feared as much as respected. His growing up an only child also meant he had little understanding of a functioning family – although he became better at it as the years rolled by, and my sister, brother and I ceased to be young, helpless individuals. Mum would often sheet things home to his being an only child, with a hint that somehow it had been his fault.

I look at him now, a man in his early 80s, and I remember clearly how frightened I’d be of being disciplined by this man mountain. Now he’s frailer, greyer and not so seemingly tall. He's mellower, and weathered by the years. I look into his eyes, not up at them as I did back then. Like countless other kids of our generation, I well remember the phrase Mum used often: “Just wait until your father gets home . . ." Except that unlike many kids, I genuinely feared his inflicted corporal pain.

Dad didn’t just smack once, or just with his hand on a leg or hand or arm. He’d often hit with a belt. He’d hit to inflict pain. And he’d do it repeatedly. Even his open hand carried the weight, power and pain of a moulded piece of steel. Mum, while disagreeing with his prolonging of punishment, only ever openly complained if Dad struck us around the ears. Dad said that if it was good enough for the Christian Brothers when he was growing up, it should be good enough for him. Mum always bitterly disagreed. She didn't like Christian Brothers. I always imagined them as black, silent and sinister.

When Dad snapped his temper at work, workmates automatically ducked to avoid heavy flying, potentially lethal tools. This measure was apparently well understood by those who worked with Joe. If he snapped, you ducked, for safety's sake, behind the nearest piece of shielding machinery or wall.

I remember well a sense of dread that sometimes descended when I knew Dad would soon be home from work. It wasn't often, but it was enough to bite deep. I would be enjoying Mum's warm company when I'd feel this cold seeping all about me. My heart would brace itself as I heard his purposeful steps coming up the side path to the back of the house. Some afternoons, it would take some time to become used to having Dad at home. It was as though his residual loathing of his job had sullenly followed him from Port Kembla, slouching off the afternoon workers' train at Corrimal station, and shadowing him closely to our back door, nipping at his tired heels. I didn't realise it for years, but Mum also stiffened often when he stepped throughout our back screen door.

Another thing I clearly remember about Dad was his smell. He always smelt of copper when he got home from work. His work overalls and shirts always smelt of copper soaked in lubricants and of metal shavings well past their use-by dates. The smell oozed from him, and no doubt was a result of him working at Metal Manufactures as a maintenance fitter. His leather gladstone work bag also smelt strongly of grease and old oil. But a small frayed side pocket of this bag always held a packet of sweet Juicy Fruit chewing gum. As I'd lever out a tablet of gum, and start chewing, I was instantly aware of the other, sweet smell of my father.

I could be immensely proud and frightened and protected by this man, all through my primary school years.

Everything about my father was big and strong. His hands, his fingernails, his feet, his broad back, his face . . . His teeth were big and white too. But his understanding of young children wasn’t big. Looking back, I have the distinct impression of Mum often gathering us small children under her wing, like a mother duck, any time a Brooding Dad steamed into earshot.

My father was also good with his hands. He made his own cane fishing rods and fishing tackle, and made them better and more lovingly than anything you could buy. While he was steady with his own, though, he was impatient with our hands; he never really had time or patience to show my brother and I how to master the steel tools he’d made himself. It may have been the result of him hating his own hands-on job. It may have been the result of him being alone as a child. One of his workmates told me many years later that while Dad loathed his job, he was good and respected at it. If you wanted something done properly, you always asked Joe Heininger.

But Dad really loved growing things. Vegetables, flowers and shrubs, native ferns in bark-lined wire baskets. And he mowed our lawns and clipped their edges meticulously - always in shorts and singlets. The front yard flowerbeds and back yard veggie patches were his retreat from cold steel, copper and over-used workshop oil. They were always a picture when in full bloom. And when he’d finished cutting the summer grass, and he’d filled our old steel barrow – one with a steel wheel while everyone else in the neighbourhood had rubber wheels – with pungent piles of this steaming green material, he’d gently lift me up, and pop me on top. Then he’d purposefully stride to the nearby vacant block on the corner of Collins and Cross Streets where he’d dump the clippings. I’d hang onto the sides of the barrow, my bare toes curled around the front lip, listening to the front of the barrow scraping against the wheel, Listening to Dad whistling gently behind me.

I wasn’t frightened of him then, on these warm, slow-moving Saturday afternoons, when he was at peace with everything around him. Long before any of us knew about Zen, Dad had his growing things. The smell of freshly clipped grass still equates to peace for me.

Later, when we’d bought a car for the first time, when I was in late primary school, Mum would drive us out to the end of Darcy Road, Port Kembla. We'd hang off the wind-swept, flaking steel gates at the front of Metal Manufactures waiting for Dad to knock off. In those days, when tens of thousands of men worked in Port Kembla industry, and Five Islands Road was a three-shift-every-24-hours traffic jam, it was always hard initially to make his face out in the bobbing crowd of faces heading steadily up the works roadway towards the gate. These men would stream around the side of one of the corrugated industrial buildings half way along the roadway, like blue and white and brown lava, and it was usually only when the flow was less than 100m away from us that we could pick Dad out of the faces. He nearly always smiled broadly, and beamed ‘Hello!’ at us before we all slumped into our large American sedan Mum had parked on the rutted, sandy vacant lot opposite the gates. Dad would always smell of copper . . . And Mum would almost always drive home to Corrimal, through the stop-start traffic, Dad next to her, us kids spread across the large leather back seat. We'd all banter all the way back to Corrimal.

At the end of my last primary school year, as another summer rolled into eastern Australia again, Dad was mowing our front lawn on one of his rostered days off. When I got to the front gate, he stopped to ask how I’d gone at school that day. I told him I had six A passes for my final exams for the year. I felt invincibly happy. And Dad looked so proud and pleased, standing there in his rolled khaki shorts and white singlet, this huge smile splitting his face and perspiration wetting his chest. I told him I was ready for high school.

I’m not sure when Dad stopped punishing me, but I don’t remember anything much past that day, late in 1966.


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