I have not been around much lately due to my Father’s failing health. He finally passed away last Friday aged 82 and I know that he is now in a better place.
I will be delivering the eulogy at his funeral and as such been busy gathering up facts, stories and history of my father’s life. Pretty well all of them I already knew because I have always been close to Dad. Even though we lived in different states I have always tried to ensure my children had as much contact with their grandparents as possible because life is fleeting and regret is lifelong.
During this time I have been driving around making arrangements for the funeral next week and listening to the ABC. With Australia day coming up they have been interviewing people about what makes us Australian. Various politicians, community leaders and media personalities have all given their thoughts and opinions as to what makes us Australian and predicably most comments were about mateship, egalitarianism, and a fair go. Fair enough. I guess for those who life experience in Australia has only been shaped by our history rather than the values and beliefs that underpin those historical facts.
I thought deeply about this question in the context of my father’s life, what he had contributed to this nation, and what he instilled in me to make me the person I am today.
With your indulgence I would like to share some of his amazing life, his footprint on my life, and numerous other people he met along the way on his life journey.
Born in Riga Latvia in 1931. When his father joined the Latvian Legion he moved to Dresden during the German occupation of the Baltic States in WWII. It was expected of him to join the Hitler Youth which he did and carried out fire watching duties and acted as a runner between anti-aircraft batteries. He was there during the infamous February 1945 air raids and lost his Grandmother when separated during the confusion. They were literally digging through cellar walls to escape from the burning buildings above. At the end of the War his mother, who could speak English, was employed by the Americans to do translating. Coming under the suspicions of the Russians she was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly counting troop and train movements.
Separated from his sister and not knowing if his father was still alive he moved into a displaced persons camp where he moved around for a number of years. He eventually found passage on a refugee ship that left Naples in 1949. He had been fed propaganda during the war that the British were evil and murderers and after being told he was being sent to Canada wept when the ship docked in Australia when the first sight he saw was the Union Jack! He thought “My God they have taken me half way around the world to kill me.”
After a short stint in the Bathurst migrant camp and armed with only with a German book titled “How to read an American newspaper” he set about building a new life. Marriage and children quickly followed and he struggled to make ends meet doing menial jobs. After living in a rented garage for a number of years my parents managed to save enough money to buy a plot and started building as and when they could afford to buy the materials. Self-taught and with rudimentary tools he single handedly created the home that they lived in for almost 30 years.
Always striving to assimilate and contribute to his newly adopted country he hardly ever spoke about his place of birth or participated in Latvian and German social activities. He was reunited briefly with his mother in the early 60’s when she came out to Australia but found this country not to her liking and promptly returned to Germany. Some photographs and letters were sent to him in the late 60’s purporting to be from his father in Latvia. Given the times with the cold war raging he never talked about returning to find his father. To him this was Australia, and a far better life than that which he had previously experienced. Why “Look back to Egypt” he would often say quoting the Bible.
He joined the NSW Public Service as a clerk and retired 23 years later as a branch head in the Department of Education. During this time he enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces ostensibly for the extra income, but this was to be the beginning of his long road of service to his family, his community, and his country.
Between 1964 and when he first retired in 1987 he attained the rank of Warrant Officer Class 2, was awarded an OAM for service to the Army Reserve; and was a director of a Credit Union for over 9 years.
On retiring to Coffs Harbour he could not sit still so he applied for a storeman’s job at the local TAFE College, during which time he took up a temporary position as the College Registrar when the Registrar went on extended leave. There he clocked up about 15 years service and if it hadn’t been for a restructure and forced redundancy he would probably have continued on sweeping floors and handing out tools to this day.
He joined the local rifle club and the NSW Marine Rescue Service as a volunteer. He served well over 20 years in both organisations and was honoured by receiving a 20 year long service medal from the Marine Rescue Service. Whether it was mowing the mounds at the range prior to a shoot or sitting in the harbour lookout during the wee hours of the morning on radio duty he was there.
On and off over many years he studied for a Law degree until he could no longer keep up with the course requirements due to the early stages of dementia. Not to be disheartened he set about to achieve a lifelong dream to complete a trade certificate and proudly completed this feat at 78 with visions of putting out a shingle and working as a fully qualified carpenter.
His politics were largely conservative and in some ways libertarian. He was appalled when Whitlam recognised the USSR’s illegal occupation of the Baltic States. He considered returning his OAM when the Keating government decided to award an Order of Australia to Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. Equally he was at odds with the Howard government’s introduction of the gun laws following the Port Arthur Massacre. It was then he decided that there was no point in whinging without action so he stood as an independent candidate in a number of New South Wales state and Federal elections. Although unsuccessful on all occasions he maintained it was something he had to do to be true to his beliefs. Undaunted by defeat and in his eccentric way he led the way with environmentally sustainable ballot papers by meticulously painting his How to Vote details on river pebbles. The part of campaigning he most enjoyed was when the Libs and Labor phoned him up and grovelled for his preferences. With his steely determination towards the comic I have no doubt that had he stood for the Senate last year he would have gamed his way to the top of the pile!
His philosophy was simple. If you have experience or a qualification you can be useful to someone. Whether this was borne out of his experiences in the War where if you had nothing to offer you were expendable or a deeper sense of responsibility to not just his family but the community and nation at large I can only ponder.
Growing up as a child I was occasionally resentful of his absences with his work, the Army Reserve and working second jobs. With age grew wisdom and I came to understand that in his way he was sacrificing some of his family life to make mine a better life. He was a great Dad to five children, an even better grandfather to twelve grandchildren, and an intensely proud great grandfather to ten great grandchildren. Handmade toys for his children led to help during the building our own homes and a host of other selfless activities in support of his brood. These are to my mind his crowning glory. No generational welfare in this family. No sense of entitlement to free stuff from the government, and none of us have ever been in trouble with the law or in his words “Had our collar’s felt”. He used to say with each generation there will be more success than the one before. This prophecy has come to pass in abundance where all his children are well educated, have happy homes, and are productive members of the community.
I posted a comment that came to me some time back that went: We all tend to cast our values and beliefs through a prism to our children hoping that the right light is reflected in their eyes. He taught me the values of loyalty, duty, honour, and self-sacrifice. Above all he passed on to me the Christian belief of unconditional love. These will be the values and beliefs that will be reflecting from my eyes when I speak about my dad next week.
This Australia day the scholars can pontificate about what it means to be Australian drawing analogies of mateship in times of adversity or bemoaning the decline of “the fair go” however I know looking back at my father’s life what being an Australian really means.