The Anzacs I remember

It’s Anzac Day today, which I’m sure I’ve written of many times before, though mostly in relation to the big footy match that takes place on this day – though once I also wrote on my visit to the place where it all started, Gallipoli. Today, I want to write about something different.

Both my grandfathers served in WW2. My father’s dad was posted to Darwin, in the north of Australia. My mum’s dad fought in New Guinea and Borneo with the 7th division. Both my grandfathers died in the early eighties.

I have strong memories of both my grandfathers, who were quite different from each other and who – it seemed – had a different relationship to the time they served.

My father’s dad was a gentle, kind, reflective man who loved books and reading. I sometimes wonder how my father came from him – a hard-edged, aggressive type, and even myself, just as hard-edged but a lot more progressive. But then, I inherited from my grandfather his love for learning and literature.

He worked as an accountant for over 50 years at the PMG (Postmaster-General – now Australia Post). He probably got a gold watch out of it. He was always immaculately dressed in the manner of his more genteel generation. As a young boy, I remember a few times being by his side as he shopped at Henry Bucks.

I would also go with him to the cricket, which he loved. I remember, we were there on what I remember as the greatest single day of Test cricket I’ve witnessed – the 1981 Boxing Day test against the West Indies. We saw Kim Hughes score a dashing, wonderful century as the team collapsed around him, then the West Indies four down for not many, with the great DK bowling the equally great Viv Richards on the last ball of the day.

I spent many of my school holidays with them in their Strathmore home. They were quiet, easy days. They had a border collie called Lassie we would walk. In the backyard, my grandfather, a very clever amateur botanist, had grafted one fruit tree on another. There were several types of apple, a pear tree, and a quince – we always had jars of homemade quince jelly. In the corner of the yard was an almond tree.

He was also a keen and handy carpenter. He made me a bookcase once and I still have a scrapbook of his containing designs and handyman articles clipped from newspapers in the fifties and sixties. I remember him measuring me when I was about 16 on a home-made ruker and proclaiming I was ‘six foot and three quarters of an inch’ tall.

Inside the house, I would scour Grandpa’s extensive bookshelves for something new to read. (Sadly, when he died, my grandma sold all his books as a job lot, including an original The Art of Cricket by Don Bradman. I wish I could have kept some of those books). In the evening, when my grandparents would sit down for a drink (brandy and soda?), They would mix me a Claytons and dry.

I don’t recall my grandpa ever talking about his service in the war. I’m surprised I never asked him. I was quite the war buff in those days, as many of my generation were. Had he survived longer, I’m sure I would have asked him more. I remember his last days in the old Prince Henry hospital but recall nothing of his funeral.

My mum’s dad – gramps – was quite a different character. He’d been a master brickie all his life, and I remember well how he would claim to have laid the first ever brick at La Trobe University.

He was a rascal-ish, cheeky character. While I would often spend school holidays with my dad’s parents, it was my mum’s parents who would babysit us often when my parents were out together. They lived in a compact house in Reservoir, built in the large backyard of my great-aunt/uncles (Elsie and Bill) home.

I remember how gramps would call ‘Brown’ – my nanny’s maiden name – when he wanted her. He called me ‘Tiger’, or ‘Tige’. He had a gimpy leg from some injury incurred during the war, the details of which I’ve forgotten. He would read Parade and share it with me and occasionally take me to the movies. I remember seeing The Crimson Pirate with him and, another time, Young Winston.

He adored me. He would say how I was ‘as heavy as a brick’ when I was born. I adored him too for his garrulous, irrepressible nature. He was much more forthcoming about his service in WW2.

He was a sapper with the 7th divvy and fought in New Guinea and Borneo. His great mate was a bloke he called ‘Popey’ (Pope), and he returned from the war with an insatiable taste for rice. Nanny was very adept at concocting rice based desserts – rice custard, rice pudding, rice cream, and so on.

There was one story he told me that I later used in a story I wrote about how a sentry one night in New Guinea had shot one of his comrades who’d gone out into the jungle to take a dump. He would laugh as he told the tale, but the smile would fade from his face as he remembered.

I don’t know that gramps was terribly reputable, but he was lots of fun. They were quite different characters my two grandfathers, but I loved them both, and both were very good to me.

I wish they had lived longer and that I had got to know them as an adult. There’s so much I’d like to have asked them.

They’re just two of the many thousands of Anzacs we celebrate on this day. It’s good to remember them.

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