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Chapter Ten

1968 to 1983 - Back to Australia, West Pymble and Frenchs Forest

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The journey home was five weeks of purgatory. The ship - the Fairsky was grossly overcrowded to the point that if you wanted a deck chair you had to take possession very early in the morning and if you left it at all, someone else would take it over. The children ate at quite ridiculous times and we had to put them into the creche while we ate our meals. Some parents were so sceptical of the quality of the child care that they arranged to have their meals at different sittings so that they could look after then children themselves. They were right as we discovered one day when we went to pick Sarah and Ian up after a meal only to discover that Ian had a gash right across the palm of one hand where he had got tied up in the static bicycle which some other child was pedalling. To add insult to injury, they sent me a bill for the medical attention. I explained to them in pretty down to earth terms why I wasn't going to pay and they withdrew the request. Even the washing hanging out to dry was at risk of being stolen. Some families posted a guard over their laundry. We gave up trying to stop people stealing the nappies off the washing line and stole them all back again before we reached Sydney.

Jean was in one cabin with the two children and I was in another with three other guys. When Jean was seasick in the South Atlantic I took over the baby care. Ian slept in a cot which was very low to the ground and I had to bend right over to tend to him. That, the brown nappy smell and the violent motion of the ship resulted in my second ever bout of seasickness.

Jean and I would have a quiet drink after the children went to sleep. One evening we returned to find that Sarah had not been sound asleep, had woken up, found a new tin of Chanel No 5 talcum powder that Jean had bought for herself, and emptied the contents all over the cabin.

The food was pretty awful, particularly for the kids. Ian was still eating Heinz baby food and the ship ran out of every thing except orange pudding so he survived on that for the best part of ten days while we crossed the Indian Ocean. When we reached Fremantle we took a taxi for a quick look at Perth followed by a meal of steak and vegetables at a restaurant before going to a greengrocer to buy a large box full of fruit. When we returned to the ship, we took the fruit on to the upper deck and stuffed ourselves.

We visited Melbourne and Hobart briefly before arriving in Sydney. It was a scorching hot March day when we arrived in Sydney. We docked at eight or nine o'clock but didn't get off the ship until gone one. Jean and the kids all had thrush and Dad and Rosa had been waiting for us since early morning. Rather than drive to Newcastle, Dad put us all up in a motel in Artarmon.

We stayed at my parents house in Eleebana on the shores of Lake Macquarie for a couple of months while I got a job in Sydney. Jean and Rosa never got on very well and it must have been particularly trying for Jean to have so much aggro when she had been expecting everything to be better in her newly adopted country.

One fascinating thing happened to me while we were staying with my parents. I was sitting in the lounge talking to Dad and Jean while Rosa was making a cake in the kitchen. I heard the cake mixer running and recognised that there was a problem with the synchronization of the two beaters. As they rotated one would touch the other as the blades passed one another. I called out to Rosa asking who had been the last to service the machine because they had not done a good job. She thought a while and then told me that I was the last one to touch the machine and that would have been in 1951, seventeen years earlier. I did repair the machine to correct the error which I had committed when I was a young, inexperienced "engineer". I was amazed that seventeen years later I was an engineer of sufficiently skill and experience that I could diagnose this kind of problem by ear from another room.

I was offered a job at AWA and we moved into a rented house in Mt Colah while we set about buying a house and setting up our own home. I couldn't imagine living anywhere except on the North Shore where I had grown up. We couldn't afford to buy in the posh part so we bought a little three bedroom brick house in West Pymble, not far from North Ryde where I worked. It was OK while we had only two kids but the family grew and Jeans parents came to live with us and it got to be a bit squeezy.

Alain was a Daddy's boy when he was a toddler and would, if he could escape, rush out to greet me when I came home from work. One day he did escape and I didn't see him behind the car. I knocked him down and stopped with the back wheel of the car just touching him. Fortuitously, the Doctor was driving by just at that moment and we flagged him down and had him check the boy out for any injuries. Happily there were none but I was certainly a lot more careful after that.

We had an above ground swimming pool in the big back yard and I had jury rigged a pump in a box to keep it clean. One day, Rachel, just a toddler, climbed up on the box and put her head under the pool cover and fell in. Her sister who was all of six or seven years old at the time, saw this and pulled her out by her ankles before she had a chance to drown.

I had been asked to look after the next door neighbours swimming pool while they were away on holiday. Every few days, I had to mix up a whole lot of pool chlorine compound in a small bucket with some water and pour it into the pool. On one occasion, as I was walking to the pool with the bucket, I tripped and fell with the bucket still in my hand. The bucket hit the ground right in front of my face and the contents splashed straight up into my eyes. I rushed to the pool and put my head under water to wash out the corrosive liquid. When I had recovered enough to go back home, I rang the doctor who asked me to wait half an hour before going to the surgery. It seems that he could do no more than I had already done to prevent any damage and it takes half an hour for any damage to become visible. I had acted quickly enough and all was well but it was a pretty tense half hour.

Sydney Funnel-web spiders, the bites of which are thought by most Australians to be always fatal though most people survive with just a couple of days bad reaction, are a feature of those parts of Sydney which have Hawksbury sandstone geology. There are two areas like this, the Royal National Park in the south and the ridge running from Pymble to West Head in the north. We lived in an area full of these spiders. When we cleared a 30 ft by 300 ft strip of virgin bush to extended the playground of the Kindergarten, we killed hundreds of them. Each rock had several nests underneath and there were rocks everywhere. Strangely, we never had any problem with spiders in the playground, clearly the spiders much prefer to stay in the bush rather than to expose themselves out in the open. In England, Jean had always been scared of moths which might grow as big as the nail on your little finger. I hadn't thought what impact the wildlife of urban Australia would have on her. She adapted very well. One day she in the garden planting out some gladiolus corms when a funnel-web spider crawled out of the box in which she had stored the corms over the winter. She calmly killed the spider with the trowel she was using and carried on with the planting.

Jean's father, Jack, was a tremendously popular grandfather. He was in great demand for walking, playing and even wiping boys bottoms. He built the kids a wonderful cubby house in the back garden which was a great hit.

1971 was a particularly bad year for me. My father died in January, both Rosa and Jack died in August and my first boss at AWA died in a meeting we were both attending in September. I reacted quite badly to this accumulated grief and had to take some leave to get over the stress.

The house was really too small for our extended family and we determined to move to a bigger one. We found a suitable place in Turramurra but the sale of our house in Pymble fell through and we had to wait a year before we could proceed. Jean worked tirelessly to check out all the places the real estate agents had on offer but we couldn't find anything suitable. Finally she convinced me that we should look elsewhere. She suggested Frenchs Forest and I said that Frenchs Forest was the back of beyond but we had to find somewhere so off we went.

We selected a real estate agent at random and I described quite specifically the layout of the house we had planned to buy in Turramurra; it had to have four bedrooms, a large family room and kitchen and a large living dining room, two bathrooms and no space wasted on hallways. The one thing I didn't tell him was that it was a Lend Lease design from the sixties. He showed us all kinds of houses none of which came within a bulls roar of meeting our requirements. By chance we stopped to do a u-turn right outside a Lend Lease house of the same design and I told him that that was what we were looking for. He said he had one just like it and took us to see it. It must have been obvious to the owner that we would make a offer. When we had viewed it, he had just started taking the wallpaper off the bedroom walls and when we moved in it was exactly as we had seen it. He hadn't even bothered to finish the job but must have stopped work as soon as we left. We moved in just before Christmas 1972 and when we put the house on the market 28 years later one of the children reminded us that we were selling "The Family Home". They had lived there virtually all their lives and felt really attached to it. I had never lived anywhere for more than two or three years before but to me it was just another house.

We had some really good times there but life goes on and a pair of grey nomads didn't need twenty five squares of house to keep clean and maintained nor a big garden with lots of grass that always needs mowing.

When Sarah first went to school, I went to the first P&C meeting of the year and found myself elected Secretary. In the next seven years I served 11 years as an executive member of the school P&C and the District Council of P&Cs. Every year I attended the Annual meeting of the Federation of P&Cs. I developed a reputation for raising issues which were immediately important and generally enjoyed the support of the majority of delegates. The rules of the Annual meeting required remits to be put on notice many months prior to the meeting so many topical issues were not formally raised. I developed a technique of moving amendments from the floor to remits which were on the agenda to make them more relevant. I decided to terminate my career as a delegate when I realised that I was exercising more power than I was authorized to and that perhaps I was enjoying this too much. I still harbour the suspicion that people in public life generally serve for the feeling of power it gives them rather than out of any altruistic motive.

During my time as Secretary of the P&C, we had a new Principal wished on us. She was so out of touch with both the staff and the parents that 3 out of 4 of the teachers had applied for transfers to other schools and some of the parents were letter bombing the Director General of Primary Education who lived locally. I received a telephone call from him demanding that I do something about the invasion of his privacy. I said that I had no authority over the parents and that he should recognise that the letter bombing was happening because the parents were extremely upset at the situation at the school. I suggested that I might be able to persuade them to stop if I could give them some reason to hope and that perhaps we should meet to discuss the situation. He gave me an interview but prefaced the conversation by saying that the Department could not be seen to be giving in to pressure from a group of parents. I made him aware of all the issues that were upsetting the parents. He conceded that the Principal was not achieving the desired outcomes at the school and that we should leave it to him to sort the situation out. In the event, the Principal was transferred to the Correspondence School and we got a new Principal who turned out to be a really good guy who solved all the problems at the school in a few months. I had promised the DG that I would not reveal the content of our conversation but I think the statute of limitations should apply to this promise which is how is justify the inclusion of the story here.

I was invited to do a TV interview with a colleague from the District Council for one of the local current affairs programs. I was pretty happy with the interview at the time but was horrified with what went to air because the editing changed the message we had been trying to get across to one which neither of us had expressed or intended. I consider myself lucky to have learned the dangers of TV interviews before I suffered real public humiliation. Now, I would never consent to being interviewed for TV on any serious issue unless I have the right to review the piece before it is broadcast.

The last District Council meeting I chaired was the Annual General Meeting at which the executive elections took place. I was not standing for re-election and I knew that all the candidates for election were people with no experience of executive office on the District Council. I asked the meeting if they wished to vary the normal procedure, where the outgoing Chairman surrender to the incoming Chairman upon conclusion of the election, and allow me to remain in the chair until the end of the meeting. A motion to that effect was put to the meeting but failed to get the support of the meeting so when I had declared the result of the election I got up and left the meeting. Somebody came after me and asked why I had left and I explained that I was merely deferring to the wishes of the meeting. Apparently, despite my best efforts to ensure that everyone knew what they were voting for, a majority of the delegates had misunderstood and thought they were voting to have me stay when in fact they voted to have me leave. This was a salutary lesson that even with the best will in the world, one cannot always do the right thing.

When we moved to Frenchs Forest I participated in the Primary School P&C. When the time came for Sarah to go to the High School, I attended one meeting of the High School P&C and felt that my efforts to contribute to the debate were not kindly received because, I guess, I was a newcomer. I decided not to continue my participation in P&C activities which was probably a good thing.

When Sarah was in Year 9, the school introduced a Personal Development course. A meeting was called to explain the course to the parents which Jean and I both attended. The teacher who was going to take the course explained that he wasn't going to follow the provided course material exactly because it omitted any reference to the spiritual aspect of life. Knowing that he was the teacher who ran the School Christian Fellowship, I asked that he remember that not all his pupils had christian parents and that some already had some problems because one of their parents was a practising Christian and the other not. The next day at school, Sarah got ragged a lot because "her father had a go at Mr Lindsay".

Three of the children did sailing as a summer sport and Iain built a dinghy as a Year 10 woodwork project so the family spent much time doing sailing stuff. On one occasion, the children were trying to launch their boat from the beach when a guy came sailing straight into the beach at considerable speed and ran into them. He shouted at them, accusing them of causing the situation. I went down to the scene and took issue with him, pointing out that it was he that was responsible and that he should take more care. He debated the issue with me and I got a bit angry with him and suggested, with much heat and arm waving, that I hoped the next vessel he'd run into would be "a bloody ocean liner" rather than my children. This caused all the children to collapse in absolutely uncontrollable laughter which brought the incident to a sudden and hilarious end.

One day I got a telephone call from Sarah who had been out sailing with a friend. She told me that she couldn't get her boat back to the beach where we had launched it because it had taken on too much water. The boat was beached across the harbour and I had to drive to the beach where we had launched the boat, pick up the trailer, drive round to the other beach, manoeuvre onto the sand, empty the boat of the water, load it onto the trailer, and drive off the beach and home. All this caused me to wonder, yet again, why we ever have children.

On another occasion I was driving to Clontarf to pick up Iain and one of his mates who had been out sailing. I noticed a helicopter circling in the harbour and felt a touch of sympathy for the parents of the kids who were being saved. I waited patiently for the boys to return to Clontarf. When they returned , it was in a Volunteer Coastal Patrol boat. Their boat had failed and taken on so much water that they couldn't sail it. The VCP guys had had to stop them trying to recover their boat and pull them from the water because they were beginning to suffer from hypothermia from being in the water so long.

All the children were members of the youth group at the local Anglican church and we established a routine with many of the other members coming back to our house after the meetings. These evenings were very pleasant and had the added advantage that we knew where our kids were. Some of these children had somewhat deprived family circumstances either because their parents lived elsewhere or were so wrapped up in their own affairs that they neglected their children. We found ourselves in loco parentis to more than one such young person. On the occasion of the 21st birthday of one of these, we were asked by the out of town parents to organise a suitable party. The parents contributed a pig which we had spit roasted and, once again, everyone had a very pleasant and memorable night and we earned the undying thanks of the parents.

When Sarah was in senior high school, she came home early one afternoon in something of a state. She had been teased and bullied once too often by a girl in her class and had knocked her down with a wild punch. We were called to the school to a meeting with the Headmaster and the Girls Mistress. It was clear that they were formally telling us that such behaviour was unacceptable, particularly in girls, but it was clear that they understood that it was really the other girl's fault and they rather admired Sarah's effort. The other girl left the school shortly afterwards and no more was said.

When Sarah turned 21 in 1986, she opted for a party at home with all the young people from the youth group. We laid on a spit roast dinner and lots of booze and everyone had a marvellous time. This event has apparently gone down in the history of the youth group because I spent the whole evening with a bottle of champagne, well many bottles actually, topping up everyone's glass as well as my own. I gather that such parental behaviour was unusual if not unheard of.

In April 1993 I calculated that we had just clocked up 100 years of parenthood which seemed a pretty good reason to have a celebration. We always celebrated in early March because it was our wedding anniversary and also our first born's birthday but this year was going to be special. I booked a table at Il Piedmonte, one of our favourite restaurants. The whole family were there. We decided that each of the 100 years of parenthood and each of the 32 years of marriage needed a toast so we bought many, many bottles of wine and spent the whole evening being increasingly happy and increasingly loud. I can't imaging what the other patrons of the restaurant thought and I seriously doubted that we would be welcome there again but next time we went there we welcomed as warmly as ever.

One day at the local shopping centre, the Apex Club was selling gum tree saplings so I bought a couple to plant in the front garden to replace some trees which had died. One was a Sydney Bluegum which was pretty appropriate given that we lived in Bluegum Crescent. Many years later this had grown to be a fine specimen. One of the children remarked that, from across the valley to the north, my bluegum actually dominated the skyline on our side of the valley. The tree was so successful that it was many metres taller than any of the other trees nearby. When I sold the house I asked the buyer to look after the tree and this he promised to do. I didn't mention the Banksia serrata which was probably an original tree from before the site was cleared in the mid fifties making it over forty years old. Sadly, this beautiful remnant of the native bush has now been cut down.

When we moved into the house at Bluegum Crescent, it had a septic tank. The real estate agent had told us the sewer would be laid on "in a couple of years". It actually took about 15 years and for all that time I had to cope with a system that was compromised by both the size of the family and the local topography as the soil was not very deep over the underlying rock. I had to manage the gradual deterioration of the soakaways and, rather than pay a contractor for pumping the tanks out, I developed a technique which used a little electric pump which wasn't self priming but which used a non-return valve on the inlet to pump the water out of the secondary settling tank. One day the valve dropped off the hose and I couldn't recover it with the rake. Needing the valve to keep the system functional, I climbed head first into the tank which was only just wide enough for my shoulders to use my hands to find the valve. When I came to climb out again I found I couldn't get any purchase. I called for assistance but no-one heard and I wondered how long I would be before I was rescued - or not. My desperation added some untapped physical abilities to my efforts and I managed to get out. When I went back into the house and related my experience, all I got was the whole family falling about the floor laughing.

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