I’ve often wondered if the thorough gentleman, the always obliging but ill-fated nice guy, my Uncle Jack, ever thought that by marrying into the Martins, had he, to use the vernacular of the day, ‘married-down’? Impertinent and uncomfortable as the posed question might be, I’ll lay down the few childhood incidents that prompted its asking and try to fit answers. Filled with new-found optimism and with youth on his side, failure at any task too remote for words. But life has surprises.
Nowadays, most war returnees were drug and alcohol ‘free spirits’ before their ‘tour of duty’ and are established, brain-fucked, dependent users by their return. They will blame everyone bar themselves and expect public adoration for their drug affliction. Jack eschewed reliance on nicotine and grog and it’s hard to imagine his set being familiar with illegal drugs.
There is no set template for a physically active returned serviceman, full of optimism and ready to re-enter civilian life. I thought Jack was tops but as far as I was concerned, Jess couldn’t do any wrong either. Taking one side over the other wouldn’t have even been thought about and wouldn’t have got consideration. Aunt Jess’s indiscretions dawned on me slowly, overheard scraps of family gossip join up to become hard gen; the vehement denials of aunts and uncles meant something was afoot and that amounted to a massive, sustained cover-up.
Clan adults having deep meaningful swoons, truly affected by the non-combatant Jess’s libertine lifestyle. It would have been blamed on the war, “bringing out the worst” in people, or “the best,” depending on circumstances. The shame-game came in dribbles, took some time, years I’d say, and every new revelation added to my adoration of my Aunt Jess. She was doing what she had to, obeying a compulsion.
My well-attuned juvenile ears picked-up her elder sister’s snippets as she related them in hushed tone to grandma and mother over cake and tea. Elsie was the Queen Bee of Buzz, the repository and possibly the generator of some of the goss at these afternoon soirees with Grandma and Mother and whoever else was there, the very best juicy bits gleaned simply because I learned early on to quietly secrete my intrusive ears near where preparation for tea and cake took place.
Front yard, Hunter St. Traditional posing spot, facing west, early fifties.
I have no idea why the hand text, starting “miserable bunch…” is there. Meant to be on Johns note who were truly, absolutely miserable pricks. The Martins, as can be ascertained by their countenances were pleasant people and nice to know.
Around at Grandmas, her Queenslander with its nooks and crannies and old house hidey spots managed to come with info so hot as to arouse disbelief when I hesitatingly related it to parents. One bit was a world-beater, and rather than winning accolades for coming into possession of such a gem, I got in the shit for its mere mention. It became par for the course to be derided for invention and atonement was wrought on one occasion by an obligatory Wednesday post-school introduction to a grainy Pilgrim Progress slide-show over too many weeks.
That led, more recently, to a rare moment of brotherhood conviviality. I attempted to talk childhood reminisces with a practicing votary sibling who quickly jerked me back to reality by his declaring how fortunate that I was blessed so early in life, by such great wisdom and Christian charity as was contained between the covers of the Pilgrim’s Progress. End of a rare mood and the conversation, a story for later.
Whenever the magic place-name, Mundubbera, was uttered in my school-boy home, a long-distance steam train trip was planned, leading to a holiday at Ventnor, Uncle Bill and Mill’s small crop and dairy farm on the banks of the Burnett River. This river was where I became acquainted with the lungfish, Ceratodus and with the nearby Mary River, were their only known Australian habitation. The stop-over at Mungar Junction, west of Maryborough, brought shunting in the late night as our section of the train was split for the Monto line. Mill the elder sister of father, Arthur and Bill had had the farm since year one.
Ceratodus in this file
Circa 1935. Bill, Ernie, elder brother Viv, Arthur.
Bill was the local show’s Ringmaster. He relished the role, reliving his WW1 cavalryman days. Ernie was Bill’s unpaid labourer. He got a bunk in a barn, free tobacco and ate with the childless Mill and Bill and played cards after dinner. Very generous! Bill’s adherents, to this day, are small-time bush employers of the Wright division, paying dim employees as little as possible.
The dairying community of Mundubbera had its innocence shaken a good deal when Jack’s work commitments brought he and his family, and perhaps the devil, to town. By the time they left, the staidness had been knocked out of the small dairying community west of Gayndah, replaced by scandal. For me, this dreadful shame was a plus, a mere peccadillo and I developed a special affection and new-found respect for my Aunt Jess, someone with spirit within the family clique had finally broken the goody-goody duck that seemed our drab destiny.
By dint of a Martin wife and a comfortable, almost too ordered, family home reasonably close to the Greenslopes matriarch, for Jack there was no escape; he was trapped in the web. Being obliged, or more than likely, being emotionally blackmailed into giving shelter to the Johns in-laws with four kids still at home after the sale of their rented house, I wondered, knowing with after-thought, what was in store for Jack, his thoughts on the old Wilde cliché, “No good deed should ever go unpunished,” coming home to roost.
A few years earlier, soon after our necessary shift to Graceville, Jack paid me ten shillings ($1) ostensibly for a bit of work, but more than likely his generous heart at work. Ten bob was a vast sum for a kid who had just started an apprenticeship on about two pounds ten a week. Wanting a taste of the fast lane, I wasted no time buying a first class return ticket to Roma Street, a short commuter trip of about 15 kilometres. His look of utter astonishment when I told him what I’d done remains. I was well and truly up myself even then.
Grandmother’s first-born, Rob, always a crude, rough-as-guts character, his waterside-worker vocation, colloquially known as a wharfie and unmarried, continued life at Hunter Street after Granddad died with his two war-torn and weary brothers. Rob liked the piss and often stood by and watched, without demur, as his Mum poured badly hidden grog down the sink. Rob took his home-made wooden lunch-box/port where-ever he went, just as his mum became renown for never parting with her handbag.
Harold and Les, the next two sons returned from the New Guinea campaign with malaria. The place stunk of sulfur which they used to treat the disease. The revulsion and uselessness of GPs strong even then. Harold returned to managing Poppy Custard/Anglo Sauce at the Gabba which seemed to drop from the scene after his death. Les went on to have a Golden Casket kiosk in George Street. Jean and husband grew mangoes in Bowen. Rarely saw them. Farming and livestock has disadvantages.
Without a doubt, Bob’s port would have had an emergency hit or two in it. Doubling as a seat, it was strong enough to withstand his huge idiot arse at work lunch. They used such quaint terminology as crib, like their boofhead forebears, Welsh coal-miners were prone to. The arse-hole often bailed me up as I legged it home after school and insisted I accept his forced gift of football boots. I was resolute about this. My half-pint nickname evidence that I became pissed-off with being sport kicking boy.
Jack appeared to be aloof and distant, seemed uncomfortable in the company of we common types and I attributed the attitude to his being a former fighter pilot. Well, that’s what I was brought up believing. If it’s bull-shit, then it’s family lore; a sad piece of shit won a younger, naval oriented, sibling’s affection by inflating his war exploits. I would like to have known Jack’s war history, but curiosity couldn’t have been intense enough to find out.
It was at about this time that my family had no option but to accept his gracious charity of a roof above our dispossessed heads and become residents of Verney Road East. His largesse no doubt tempered somewhat by his wife’s relationship to my Mother.