Once, long ago, I was travelling in Malawi and came to the Zomba Plateau. This rises some 2000 metres above sea level and at the time was reached by a dirt road with numerous hairpin turns. I stayed in a guest house which had a small museum with original photos of early African explorers and even a letter written by David Livingstone to his family after his wife died.
I remember one photo in particular of a group French explorers who drove what appeared to be half-track truck. They were without doubt the best-dressed explorers in the whole of Africa, and judging by their attitude, they knew it!
I went to visit a group of people I had met at another guest house about a kilometre away and stayed there chatting until well after dark before heading back. Within 10 metres of leaving the guest house I was in total darkness, the blackest night I have experienced. I could not see my hand in front of my face. And then I looked up. The sky was ablaze with light and all the glory of the Milky Way was laid out above me. I realised how detached from the world and universe we have become in our well-lit cities. Deep in Africa and at that altitude every star could be seen.
It is no wonder that night seemed a deep and mysterious place to our ancestors. With no light and surrounded by absolute darkeness, the night is a scary place to be. It took me almost an hour to find my way back to where I was staying, mainly because I kept stumbling off the road as I was looking at the sky. It is perhaps fortunate that cavemen didn’t have cats, because they always manage to jump out and scare the bejesus of you when it is dark! Cats that is, not cavemen.
No matter who we are, everyone has a story – their own story or a story of others. This is our story about our Dad.
When we were little, Dad was a force of nature where anything could happen. We were swung high in the air and felt on top of the world as he carried us on his shoulders. He played sword battles against us with rolled-up newspapers, and we would race downstairs, tumbling over each other to be the first to his car when he came home from work.
He taught us many important skills; such as how to pour a beer properly – you tilt the glass just so with a little bit of froth on the top, and any excess was sipped off by the nearest available child.
We discovered that Santa Claus particularly enjoyed cheese sandwiches and a bottle of DB, and we knew this to be true because it was always gone on Christmas morning.
Dad didn’t believe in taking us to playgrounds. Instead we explored boatsheds, played among rowing boats, got grease off the oars on our clothes, and swung on boat trailers.
We thought it was perfectly natural to spend our summer holidays at rowing camps, swimming in the weed at Lake Karapiro or camping up north at Ngunguru Primary School. While Dad was coaching, the three of us roamed the countryside doing whatever we wanted to, and when he got back he took us rally driving on the shingle roads.
“Reach out and grab a plant for your mother, kids,” he’d say as we skimmed the hillside. And when we got back: “Don’t tell you mother.”
Ngunguru, Matapouri and Whale Bay were the beaches of our childhood, where we built sand castles, explored rock pools and went fishing. We went there summer and winter, and the resting place of my brother Michael’s toy tractor remains forever buried beneath the sands of Matapouri, despite Dad’s best efforts to find it.
He was chief rescuer of all things; repainting the outside toilet at the bach after Michael set fire to it, removing the fish hook from the cat’s mouth, buried dead pets and dispatched all rats, mice and creepy crawlies. As we grew older, it was restarting flat car batteries, buying us new tires and checking the oil on our cars.
Dad gave us a love of reading and books. He was a voracious reader, and especially loved science fiction. Because mum wouldn’t go, the three of us would be taken along to obscure science fiction movies. We would sit with baffled expressions on our faces, with no idea whatsoever what was going on. During the car ride home, he would attempt to explain them to us, but to this day I have no idea what the Russian movie Solaris was about, or the meaning of the large stone slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
He had an enormous interest in the world and science, and loved anything about the solar system and space program. He had the knack of conveying complex issues simply and was a very proficient and knowledgeable refrigeration engineer.
As we grew up, we were press-ganged into service as coxswains, speed boat drivers and general hands at the rowing club. We spent most of 1978 painting pontoons and buoys for the World Rowing Championship course at the back of Fisher and Paykel on Carbine Road.
Our parents gave us the quintessential New Zealand childhood. We had the quarter-acre section with fruit trees and space to bash and crash our way around. They introduced us to sport, which buffered us from the hazards of the teenage years, and as we grew older, they widened our horizons.
They took the risk of moving us to Australia so Dad could work as a professional rowing coach. For two years we were Kiwi hillbillies. We would stand there, trying to puzzle out what these fast-talking Aussies were saying to us. Trips across Sydney became major expeditions, with one of us in the front seat acting as navigator following the map and as we tried to find our way across the convoluted Sydney road networks.
As always, rowing regattas were a major holiday destination, and Dad took great joy in the V8 Holden station wagon used to tow the boat trailer across New South Wales, even braving forest fires to get to regattas. We got given new jobs – applying sun screen to the back of his neck and ears, and waving the flies off his back in Penrith.
By that time Fiona and I were both rowing, so we spent the winters rising at 5:30 to go training. The drawback of having your Dad as your coach is that you never get to ring in sick. But he was a great coach, and we achieved so much when he trained us. Although we came to dread it when he said, “‘Turn around and we’ll do it one more time,'” because there was always another “one more time”.
Dad has his own unique vocabulary that we learnt to decipher:
“Who’s that singer, you know Herbert O’Neil.”
You mean Gilbert O’Sullivan?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
If he called someone dear, we knew that he had forgotten their name. If we got hit by our siblings and complained, “Well, you probably deserved it.”
He had many favourite expressions, He coined “Just do it” well before Nike, although he added his own twist – “Just shut up and do it.”
As we grew up, we all set off overseas. At one stage I lived in Johannesburg, Fiona in London and Michael was in Port Moresby. Over time, we married, had children, and came home. Dad had no hesitation in roping us in to rowing whenever he needed us. We took gym sessions for the school kids, jumped into master’s crews if he needed a spare, and were once again speed-boat drivers whenever he needed one. I remember complaining bitterly when he forced me to cox, even though I had long outgrown the space and had to perch on the gunwales.
He took up indoor rowing and quickly worked out the best strategy for winning. His technique for just not quite jumping the gun remains safe with me.
He loved having grandchildren, and was proud of all them, and to be their poppy. I think he was secretly chuffed that it was a small tribe of red-headed grand kids. Family dinners were always noisy, with dad at the head of the table, making silly jokes, and Frank Sinatra playing in the background. Dad loved Frank, as we all called him, and his grandchildren call them “poppy’s songs”.
He enjoyed writing for his grandchildren and for himself, and he had a wonderful imagination. He wrote several stories and was trying to finish a story before illness overtook him.
I think from an early age, we had no illusions about Dad. He could be difficult, stubborn and his temper is legendary. It would be disingenuous of me to say life was always rosy and cheery. Like every family, we had ups and downs, quarrels and disagreements, falling outs and lots of noise. There was the occasional explosion, several car crashes and a surprising number of fires.
One unfortunate incident stands out, when much to Mum’s horror, Dad trimmed the shrubbery to ground level with the lawn mower. As Mike told her at the time, “It’s all your fault, you should know better than to go shopping when Dad is working on the garden.”
But he also had a wicked sense of humour, and would do anything to make us laugh. I remember him giggling uncontrollably when his mother, our Nana, came to lunch. Because she was very deaf towards the end of her life, lunch involved a lot of shouting and Dad would invariably start us all giggling when Nana May said something daffy.
“Would you like a cup of tea, mum?” he’d yell. “A cup of tea?”
“No thanks dear, but I would love a cup of tea,” she’d reply.
Life is fleeting; storms destroy, houses rot, and financial markets crash. Relationships are the only thing that endure throughout our lives. We need each other. Although Dad was the iconic hard man, he was also the father who protected his family and who had “something in his eye” whenever we watched a sad movie. The people in his life were what mattered most to him.
Dad truly loved Mum. I have enduring memories of hugs and kisses in the kitchen, and dad’s never-ending quest to find an appropriate birthday present. When Mum and I first saw dad in ICU in March, one of the first things he did was to signal for something to draw on. He then drew a big heart and an arrow pointing at mum.
The universe becomes a very small place when you are sitting with your dad in a hospital unit, and although no-one realised it, we were given a grace period in which to reconcile past disagreements, and to say goodbye to him. It gave him the freedom to express the love that was in his heart that he couldn’t say before. I think the child in us believes that our parents will live forever, and I certainly never thought that my dad would leave us so soon. But all the onslaughts of the last few months were too much even with someone with such a big heart as dad. So goodbye Dad, we always knew that no matter what we trouble we got in, you would be there to rescue us, and no child could ask for more. We love you and miss you.
Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color
One of the most delightful books of the last two centuries has to be Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome published in 1889. It is nothing more that the title suggests, three lads on a rowing holiday on the Thames, but in Jerome’s hands, every interlude comes to life and shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. One of my favourites is the tale of the tin can.
A Fearful Battle To return to our present trip: nothing exciting happened, and we tugged steadily on to a little below Monkey Island, where we drew up and lunched. We tackled the cold beef for lunch, and then we found that we had forgotten to bring any mustard. I don’t think I ever in my life, before or since, felt I wanted mustard as badly as I felt I wanted it then. I don’t care for mustard as a rule, and it is very seldom that I take it at all, but I would have given worlds for it then.
I don’t know how many worlds there may be in the universe, but anyone who had brought me a spoonful of mustard at that precise moment could have had them all. I grow reckless like that when I want a thing and can’t get it.
Harris said he would have given worlds for mustard too. It would have been a good thing for anybody who had come up to that spot with a can of mustard, then: he would have been set up in worlds for the rest of his life.
But there! I daresay both Harris and I would have tried to back out of the bargain after we had got the mustard. One makes these extravagant offers in moments of excitement, but, of course, when one comes to think of it, one sees how absurdly out of proportion they are with the value of the required article. I heard a man, going up a mountain in Switzerland, once say he would give worlds for a glass of beer, and, when he came to a little shanty where they kept it, he kicked up a most fearful row because they charged him five francs for a bottle of Bass. He said it was a scandalous imposition, and he wrote to The Times about it.
It cast a gloom over the boat, there being no mustard. We ate our beef in silence. Existence seemed hollow and uninteresting. We thought of the happy days of childhood, and sighed. We brightened up a bit, however, over the apple-tart, and, when George drew out a tin of pine-apple from the bottom of the hamper, and rolled it into the middle of the boat, we felt that life was worth living after all.
We are very fond of pine-apple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready.
Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.
Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.
Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.
It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day. He keeps that hat now (what is left of it), and, of a winter’s evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time.
Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.
After that, I took the tin off myself, and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart, whereupon Harris took it in hand.
We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry – but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast. Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it.
There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused till we reached Maidenhead.
The opposite of love is not hate,
The opposite of art is not ugliness,
The opposite of faith is not heresy,
And the opposite of life is not death,