Some Things I Sort Of Know About My Father
* He is dead, has been dead almost as long as I have been alive. He died in bed in the early morning hours. My mother was asleep next to him in bed. He woke up with a pain in the chest, briefly spoke to her, then died. Mum called the priest before she called the doctor. That is what Catholics did in those days. Mum made cups of tea for the ambulance men, the priest, the doctor. Who else was there in the kitchen as the sun slowly came up? A sunrise my father never saw. She told these men she was sorry for getting them up. I must have woken up and been crying as she began to nurse me. I was five months old. Her husband was dead in the bedroom. There I was hungrily suckling at her breast in the kitchen. The policeman looked at the doctor. Who had called the policeman, I wonder? The Doctor I suppose; Mum wouldn't have thought to call the police.
It was a heart attack. My father was 38 years old. He was slim. He didn't smoke.
I don't know what happened next, maybe this: The doctor took a breathe, shook his fountain pen lightly to bring ink to the nib, and wrote "war related" on the death certificate, thus ensuring our family had an exceptionally 'generous' pension for the rest of my mother's ongoing life. My mother qualified for a "War-Widows" home loan out of this as well. She has paid $25 a month for the 45 year term of the loan. Our health care was discounted heavily. We had our own hospital in Melbourne if we needed it. My private school education was free. My university study was heavily subsidised, until I flunked out after six months of doing nothing except surf, drink and listen to music.
With the (un-means tested) PMG pension as well, Mum has never had to work to make ends meet. We always had enough, things were always paid for, always would be. We never had to panic from week to week. (The butcher would slip some extra mince into the weekly package with a wink, the grocer would throw in an extra carrot or two and smile. The merry widow, perhaps they thought.) Never much cash though, we had no cash. We were on the lowest socio-economic strata, welfare recipents, but we were comfortable poor. I never felt I missed anything. Even a father.
I wonder if there was an autopsy? I wonder what really killed him? By that I mean what type of heart-attack killed him? This is of crucial and immediate concern to me. Sorry if that sounds selfish. If it was a suddenly worsening valve failure due to some unsuspected, untreated, malarial infections from his time in the war, in the jungles of Borneo, then that is good for me in the sense that such a disease is not hereditary. If instead it was a ruptured plaque and a resultant clot in one or more narrowed coronary arteries causing acute and severe cardiac ischaemia followed by catastrophic heart failure and immediate stoppage, then that is not so good for me. Either way, it wasn't so good for him. I am guessing is was the latter: a massive out-of-the-blue coronary because of a genetic predisposition towards fat-sticky endothelium, something that I probably have as well. Usually with infective cardiac diseases you have a history of fever, a murmur, some recent sickness. He had been well, until he died.
His three brothers, my paternal uncles, all died of heart attacks. 57 is the magic age, the milestone, the hurdle. Uncle Len and Uncle Fred were 57 when they died, Uncle Gil (who may have been gay, we always wondered...) had a triple bypass at 57 and died five years later.
The implication for me is obvious: one morning, in seven years time, I may wake up to find myself dead, just like my father. One difference is that no-one sleeps next to me. There is no-one to call the priest. I have seven years to find someone to be my priest-caller. Or I might just go on forever, like those in my mother's family who you can't kill with a stick.
* He didn't know how to spell my name at first. He wrote a letter to mother just after I was born. He was stationed in Shepparton in North-East Victoria, but she delivered me in the Colac Hospital in the Western District (not far from the 12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road, etc...) She went there to be near to her family for support; her mother, sisters and sisters-in-law. In the letter he asks, "What are you going to call him? Philip seems to be on everyone's tongue." My name turned out to be Phillip, with two "l"s. Don't know why. Close enough, Dad. Can I call you Dad? Or do you prefer Pop?
* He wasn't there at my birth. No father was in those days.
* He was proud I was male baby. In this letter he also says to my mother, his wife, "I love you more than ever now you have produced a man child." That sounds funny now - "man child". It sounds like I was the Messiah or something. It was OK to hope for a boy in those days, OK to make any extra love of your wife conditional upon it.
My older sister may not think so much of that idea. She knew I was not the Messiah (and I continue to confirm it for her almost everyday). The Messiah had sad blue eyes, long fair hair, a long but neat beard, and a big juicy red heart wrapped with two strands of thorns and with radiating lightning from all around the exposed heart which sits both on and in his chest at the same time. He looks just like the painting that still rests on the mantel/shelf/ledge above the wood-panelled corridor, visible and at the same time observing, as you enter the front door of my mother's home.
* He was a quiet man. His brother in law, my late Uncle Ed (who lived to 92), was driving along Murray St in Colac and saw my father walking on the footpath. He tooted the horn of his truck and yelled out across the road, "Hey, Harry!" Dad merely nodded slightly and raised a hand to touch the brim of his hat in acknowledgement. He didn't speak it seems, he certainly didn't call back. Uncle Ed thought this unusual enough behaviour in a man in a country town in the 50's to remember it, to tell me about it years later. They way he told it to me, he made it sound like a compliment - he said my father was a real gentleman - but I am not certain that is how he interpreted it himself at the time.
* He was a good cricketer, a good batsman. His top score was 99. I believe he even hit a six, maybe several in this score. My cousin Greg says that when he was a child he watched my father play in Colac on that day, saw him get that 99, saw him carried off the field a hero. Greg would have been 10 or so. My father worked for the PMG (Post Master General) the Government run monopoly that ran both the mail and telephones services in Australia in those days. He was an electrical engineer. He learned his trade in the Royal Australian Air-Force. The Colac PMG and Geelong PMG used to have a social game of cricket annually, one team traveling up one year, the other traveling down the 45 miles road the next, through some of the greenest parts of Australia. They played for The Harry Ramm Memorial Trophy in 1958. There is a photo of my mum, so young, so slim, standing with the captains of those teams, presenting the trophy to the winner. She is smiling. The PMG is a defunct institution. There are no grand clock-tower Post Offices anymore. The last part of the Australian telephone company that was the PMG has been sold to Singapore. The world my father lived in has long past. There is no social match between Geelong and Colac anymore for The Harry Ramm Memorial Trophy. It was a short-lived thing.
Anyway, three cheers for my father the sportsman!
* In the war, he was a radio operator. He served in Borneo. He was with a plane-spotter, isolated, hiding in the dense jungle. He had to wind the radio and signal back information on any plane movements they saw. They were there together several months, hiding together in the tropics, sweaty, mosquito bitten. They couldn't get out and stretch, climb Mt Kota Kinabalu, couldn't run on the beautiful beaches of Borneo, grab a drink with pieces of fruit in it from a beach-side vendor. There was no spray-on insect repellent, only fairly useless powders I believe. The island was overrun with Japanese soldiers, but they were never discovered. They got cabin fever, forced together for so long doing nothing but look to the sky, listen. They hated each other eventually. My father told my mother it was hard to be alone with someone like that for a long time. I don't think he meant it ironically. Maybe he got malaria in Borneo. Maybe that 'weakened' his heart. Maybe it was a war related death.
* As a sonographer in Geelong, I once had to scan a older man who used to live in Colac. He saw the name on my badge. My family name. My father's name. He asked if I was Harry's son. I said "Yes, I am." And I smiled, I listened attentively. He said that he worked in the PMG with my father in Colac. He smiled too, and said that my father was a nice man. I smiled back and said "Well, you'd know better than me because I never got the chance to know him." He said I seemed a nice man too. He said my father would be proud to know I did such an important job. The scan showed that nothing much was wrong with him, no obvious cancer, one of the lucky ones. After I finished his scan I excused myself and went to the bathroom and sat in the cubicle for a while, not smiling. I wondered how it could be that this man that I didn't know, how he could know my father better than I knew him. I couldn't explain it. Well I could explain it, but what it meant, I have no idea.
* My mother says I sit like him when I am reading. One foot up on the other knee. Not in the bathroom though, I don't sit like that on the toilet when I am reading or when I am thinking.
* He was good at his job. The training he had been given in the RAAF came in useful in civilian life. Or maybe he got extra training after the war, I don't really know. I think he might have stayed in the RAAF a long time, because there is a photo of him in uniform with my mother. They married in 1952.
Once the telephones went down in central Colac. My father was the man who performed the calculations to determine the site for the break. He said it was an underground cable, one that ran right under the main street, Murray St. He measured the resistance on either side of the road, climbing down into a manhole, attaching wires. He used a slide rule to calculate. Using those readings of resistance he could determine the exact length of intact cable. He measured across the road, someone slowed the traffic for him perhaps. "The break is just here," he said, pointing to a spot slap bang in the middle of the road. His boss said "You'd better be bloody right, Harry." They diverted the traffic and dug a hole in the busy central street of Colac. What a stir! But they found the break just where my father had predicted. He would have shrugged, he was humble, quiet, nice. He would have raised the slide-rule as a silent explanation. Mathematics doesn't lie.
Three cheers for my father the engineer!
* He used to drive to work every day. I belive they had a Humber (badged as a Hillman Hunter) or maybe that was Mum's car and Dad had something else. My sister was four, and remembers waving good-bye to him at the gate of the house in Shepparton. She thought when my mother said he was going to work, that she actually said he was going to war.
* His middle name was Victor. He was born in 1919, just after the First World War. I don't know if my grandfather fought in that war. Maybe he came back from the war (if he went to the war?) and got my grandmother (a dour, solid Radnell) pregnant straight away. Maybe they just celebrated in the traditional way, like so many others. Names like Victor were very popular in those days, not because of the famous dead queen but because we had just won the war - the good guys had earned a tough victory.
* My son has all my father's war records. My sister researched all this last year and had copies sent from the authorities. I have not seen them yet.
* It was only 12 years after the war that he died. 12 years after the world had been insane and had come back to normal. 12 years is a really short time. 12 years is nothing when you are 50. When you were 38 it might have meant something, but what it might have meant, I have no idea.
April 25. ANZAC DAY. Lest We Forget.
p.s. I am waiting for some scanned photos of my father in his uniform.
[p.p.s. my sister emailed the photos but still they haven't arrived four hours later? WTF? Is it something on her side or the Sing Gahmen patrolling my side?]
OTHER MONKEYS SAID
This is without a doubt one of the best posts you have ever written.
One of my favourite posts.
My eyes went misty when i read it. My dad had a heart attack and it happened right before my eyes. He survived, but he passed away 2 months later from complications.
The only regret i had was that he wanted to eat my homemade jelly 2 days before he left. But he never got to eat it.
Dammit, Phil. This post brought tears to my eyes. Lest we forget, indeed.
Im saving this post. muack
Its nice to remember when there are good things to remember.
Im sure your son appreciates you just like you rememeber your dad. :)
Thanks guys. Something I have been sitting on for a while. ANZAC day seemed appropriate.
The bit about Mum apologising for getting everyone up, I could have gone on more about that - talking about it a few years ago she said for some reason felt very guilty. The victim blames herself - such a 50's non-feminist attitude. We joked and teased her, asked her if she hadn't poisoned him, if she wasn't really a murderer! She wasn't.
Having second remembrances about the car though; maybe Dad had a Morris. I wouldn't have seen it, but I think Mum once said that. We had the Hillman, a blue wagon - I even remember the registration number: HAJ 310 - when I was three, came to Geelong in it. I remember us turning into our new street, the car loaded with bags. I see the car take the corner from a distance, like a movie. Weird.
I could go on.
Memory is perverse: the person you just introduced me to, I can't remember their name a second later, rego of the car we had when I was three, no problem.
Very sad that you never got to know your Dad. I'll bet he would have been so proud of you, and been very loving as well! Don't know if he'd have approved of some of the stuff you write on your blogsite though!? Reckon he'd have pulled you into line a bit there occasionally!
Hey Phil, you may not be the Mesiah, but lots of Asians think that you are Buddha.
Remembering and sharing is good.
Respect the past but live for now and the future.
Mariah & Nick: what you both say may indeed be true. Rub my belly for good luck!
what a lovely post, sugar...to know your father so well and yet, not at all...*hugs* you make me smile..so, can i rub your belly, too?
Sav: I *know* nothing about my father except what I portray through these words... Of the flesh and blood man himself, I know nothing... yet I never missed him the way my sister does, I don't have a father shaped hole as they say... Even this post was an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. Is that bad? I feel complete enough (modified absolute!) without him, or is that merely a lack of understanding of myself?
Belly rubbing, see the queue?