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Road trip to northern New South and the south of France

After three false starts the car finally packed and our eldest daughter begging us to go (she’s staying) we leave. A thin trickle of sweat dribbles into my eye and catches the morning sun.

“Watch out………you nearly hit that car”
“Did not.”
“Did so.”

In the back the two youngest teenagers are plugged into oblivion. With cords dangling from ears and connected to multiple devices, they don’t make a sound.

We bicker and argue for not much longer. The game breaker is when the passenger likens me to Damir Dokic on a bad day at Roland Garros. We laugh. Occasionally we hear random giggles from the back seat. The passenger smiles.

We cross the border into New South Wales. The Tweed River is looking ‘still as a dill’s pickle’, which in surfing parlance is a good thing – no wind….. rain beckons. The flat land of cane fields is backed in the distance by Mt Warning – a beacon to first light on the east coast of this dam fine land. I love NSW, just not particularly on Wednesday nights in the middle of Winter.

We stop at a hamlet beside a river. Some idiot has forgotten to transfer money so in what is now a filthy backwater that only takes cash, the best the ashtray can produce is two small coffees and two party pies for the natives. Thank god for small mercies! Gratitude is conveyed by vociferous invective and award winning scowls.

We move out and I announce in my best southern drawl, “I do declare. I will paddle down this goddamn river to some metropolis that will be as so kind to do us business on the plastic card.” No one is listening.

We arrive at the Inn which is some of the cheapest accommodation money can buy. I test the bed. Not bad. TV looks tricky, bits missing, might leave it to the technocrats. Then straight across the road to the beach and surf break which will be the competition venue for the comp that starts in the morning which by the way happens to be called the…. ‘Be the influence Pro Junior say No to Binge Drinking’. Highly commendable but allows idle minds to think of next year’s event which may well be, ‘The 2014 don’t have any Bad Thoughts Pro Junior Fight against Mood Swings Be Level Headed’ or the more powerful ‘Say No to Salt on Chips Pro Junior’.

The night has taken the rain out to sea. Beautiful cool mid coast winter weather summons the best male and female under twenty surfers in the country. It’s the sort of weather that sends southerners into a sunbaking frenzy. The wind is blowing gently from the land and air brushes the 3-4 foot waves. It looks awesome but to the trained eye is a little tricky…so I am told.

The heats come and go and is tainted with mixed emotion. The last man standing in our tribe is gonski so we prepare to leave on the morning tide.

I say, “well done guys which is code for well done guys.” Not just … ‘wait until we get home and I’ll beat you with a rubber hose sort of sporting parent well done’ .

We begin the long drive home and the phone rings. The passenger answers.

“No No …What France….France no we’re not in France. Of course we would have told you. No we haven’t been at home. Look I am sure…Biarritz…. no we’re at Coffs Harbour, just leaving Diggers Beach.”

The passenger looks at me and the smile turns to hysterical laughter…….

Apparently there has been a mix up. Lucy is on the score board at the world tour event in France. The passenger can’t help herself and before she hangs up says, “You better go this call will be costing you a fortune…..Au revoir.”

Australia Day…all things for all people?

Australia Day like Vegemite…love it, hate it or is there a sense of ambivalence?

Cars previously adorned with the occasional and solitary flags are now mobile wind farms flapping in the nationalistic breeze. The Southern Cross, the adopted coat of arms, is proudly tattooed to brown skinned-white skinned arms that laze on beaches in the classic Max Dupain pose  or can be seen protruding from car windows- stopped at the lights. Eskies full they head to the beach or bush to celebrate our national day.

For others they couldn’t give a tinkers cuss or put more colloquially a rats … You can shove the flag up your jumper. The detritus, flotsam from a rum fuelled criminal past.  An excess of Austrain, yob for yob, pound for pound of alcohol fuelled madness. I can almost hear them!

Sitting proudly above the polarized opinion makers, and sometimes right
amongst them, are the more reserved and somber elder statesmen – many of them women. Those whose lives and actions have been intersected with dire consequences and have left an indelible mark on a nation and some hallowed foreign blood soaked scrap of dirt.

Exiting new conflicts and adding to their numbers are the younger breed who have fought under the same flag. And with or without flags fluttering display an undying and fierce loyalty.

Stirring the pot we come to the dinky di, brand new no miles, new Aussie …oy oy oy. Welcome ashore cobber!  Pull up a bit of coastal fringed desert and make yourself at home bro!

So when we wake up on Australia Day and set off for the beach or roll over and go back to bed, inextricably we are all heading to our destiny. It’s a wonderful time to celebrate who we are! It’s a great time to reflect on the stories of a nation.

By nature the ‘frothers’ will enthusiastically grab their flags and celebrate and good on them! While others not so enthusiastic and jingoistic will look for meaning in a different direction if not at all.

For most of us we live in the real- yet rapidly changing world where for the time being we can do and say what we feel without ridiculous petty scrutiny. We can share opinions and views. We can shape our future. We work with these people and our kids go to school with their children. We don’t have to all agree we should have robust debate. We can fight and argue, fall out, make up and move on.

It’s a good time to reflect on the stories of a nation, build a patchwork quilt out of the pieces of the past. Some will be bigger than others and others will struggle to find a place. The colours and texture will be different and hold deep meaning but with each piece added comes a work of exceptional and intricate beauty. Gallipoli, Ned Kelly, Reconciliation, Vegemite- will be small pieces that unite us, divide us and define who we are.

I’ve run out of time to get the monikered apron, stubby holder, apron or towel. I should have got a small marsupial tattooed on my arse. Instead I think I’ll get a texta out and go for a line or two of Dorothea Mackellar. That way I am not up the proverbial- if I change my mind ! “Core of my heart, my country! Land of rainbow Gold..” (Dorethea oy oy  Mackellar) Of course it is!! Same poem.. different stanza, have a bonza day.

See you in the surf and give you a wave!


Voices from the past

I never knew my grandfather. Now in some ways I feel I know him intimately and in other ways not at all. It has been the most remarkable journey. The thing that has driven me beyond anything else are the voices that have come to life through the letters and memoirs of a different generation. My favorite lines are not mine but those of my grandfather and uncle. The description, eloquence and simple poetry in some of the words has motivated and inspired me and to be honest, also intimidated me. I’ve found some astonishing pieces of information. At times I have been absolutely euphoric and other times totally gutted. But I have found what is a truly remarkable story.
One thing that resonates quite clearly is that it is as much your story as it is mine. For many of us we’ve grown up with the plastic cheese in the blue box and the vegemite in the pantry. And remember the little pathetic vegemite glass in the cupboard.
It wasn’t always the way though….. In the beginning I had to convince myself there was a story worth telling…….
I grew up in Melbourne in the sixties. We lived opposite Anderson Park in Hawthorn. I have fond memories of freshly raked autumn leaves smoldering in the gutter on bitterly cold, still, Autumn afternoons. And in a throw back to another era the clip clop of the horse and cart as the milko made his way back to the dairy at the top of our street at dawn. The only concession to the modern world was the pneumatic tires and modern cart. It wasn’t long and the dairy and the horses were gone. Taronga Village was ceremoniously opened and one of the first supermarkets had arrived.
My mother had previously married and essentially we were a ‘Brady Bunch’ type of family. As the second youngest I struggled to get a word in and took my place on the floor or arms of couches and became a good observer and listener.
My parents spoke of a not too distant war. My dad had gone to war and by his own admission had a good one and seen little or no action. My parents’ friends had been soldiers, sailors and airman – even prisoners of war. Some said very little and I dismissed them as being boring and dull. Nearly half a century later I realized I was wrong. But it was the talkers that captivated me and fired my imagination. The only women I knew who had a tattoo would swim at a neighbor’s pool in Summer. I would stare at the serial number tattooed on the inside of her wrist. And if I stole a glance in my mother’s direction she would be furiously shaking her head.
Sometimes we would go to Dad’s sister Jean’s house and catch up with relatives. It wouldn’t take long to get bored and I’d pester my cousin Anne to take me over the road to see Judith Durham of Seekers fame.
“Judy’s not here,” was the inevitable, disappointing reply. I’d clutch another signed autograph and walk away.
Back at my Aunty’s I would look at the same identical photo of my uncle Ian that hung in our study. He was about 19 and even as a boy I thought he looked young. Chronically bored I’d be accosted by older aunties and uncles. Dad and Jean would talk about their Mum and Dad and Brighton and Kew. Auntie Jean would talk of overseas travel with her parents in Europe, the UK and USA. She fondly talked of her mother’s home town of Annan in Scotland. I knew my grandmother was Scottish and had lived on the shores of the mystical Solway Firth. Like my grandfather, I never knew her. They never talked about Vegemite, or if they did I was too young or it failed to excite me.
At some point sandwiched between the Beatles leaving Melbourne and the moon landing Dad informed us that his father had invented Vegemite and had a hand in processed cheese. We were all suitably impressed, but didn’t dwell on it and if anything it only explained his enormous appetite for the black stuff which always made us ….and him laugh.
The Beatles came and went. I didn’t really understand or care. I was given a black Beatles wig that at best resembled a plastic football. My older brothers made me put it on and would make me sing “She loves you yeah yeah yeah!”
The Vietnam war raged distantly overseas. I remember one of my brothers arguing furiously with mum about whether he would go if his number came up.
I was at home when the news came through that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The only Kennedy I vaguely knew was Graham Kennedy. In between tears mum said, ‘no not him’.
It was about this time that my maternal grandmother came to live with us and all the old junk ended up in my room which I shared with my older brother. Rummaging through it we came across some old clothes that we thought were pretty cool and we might attempt to bring back into fashion. Next was a chest that contained a pilot’s log book, kit bag, flying gloves and at the very bottom two plain brown folders marked, Ian’s press clippings and letters. We pored over them. I couldn’t read the letters very well and my brother tried to explain, but as an avid stamp collector, they became my own penny black. I loved the different logos at the top of each page – American Red Cross, Australian Comforts Fund. I never really got past ‘Dear Dad’ or ‘Nip’ as my uncle had called my own father.
I took the letters and everything else while my brother took the log book and service diary.
Revisiting them almost forty years later has been a life changing experience.