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It’s funny how things seem to hide in the deep dark recesses of memory to be triggered long afterward by a ‘happening now’ event. Now I’m aware the further you get from early childhood events the recalled scene is sugar coated with an added element of mythology. However there are things which are so seminal in one’s experience they tend to retain their truth.
Such an event happened in the year 1942 or 1943. The Second World War was still in progress and everything was rationed. Fuel was in short supply being reserved for the war effort, so substitute propulsion sources were being used for transportation. We had a bulky ‘gas producer’ on the rear of our 39 Chevy which burned charcoal and produced gas when switched over once the real stuff had done it’s start up job. Petroleum was a precious commodity then and needed a ration card to purchase at the gas pump.
Having survived the 1,300 kilometer trip to Sydney to purchase supplies for my Father Eric’s motor supply business under wartime constraints, Eric ruled out another similar long distance trip north to visit my Uncle. My Uncle was employed by the government in the city of Mackay, Australia. This time Eric decided to take his family of four by train rather than endure cramped conditions on that long haul and continually hunt for fuel on the way. So after a long wait for tickets and a place on the train north we were on our way.
I have no recollection of any of the scenery along the way. My total attention was taken up with the soldiers who seemed to occupy most of the train. I do remember a large collection of uniformed men who were in constant motion during the journey and seemed to be having a good time doing so. My Mother told me they were from America. That didn’t mean a lot to me at the time, and it was only as I was much older and heard stories of the war in the Pacific from Uncles Arthur and Wally I understood these American soldiers were fighting alongside our Australian troops to save this country from an invasion.
I was old enough to sense fear though. You could feel it on the streets of Gympie as people walked around with newspapers scanning headlines. You could sense it as you visited a neighbor’s house and saw women digging holes in their backyards, which they hoped would provide them shelter if bombed. Their husbands were on the front line, and they spent considerable time at the radio listening for news.
Darwin to the north did eventually experience bombing and my Uncle Arthur was in Darwin when it happened. Even Sydney Harbor to the south experienced fear with attack by midget submarines. I can remember air raid sirens and Father donning his gas mask before heading for the centre where he was supposed to help direct bombing response. Fear was in the eyes of settlers on the Atherton Tableland as they stood on vantage points facing the ocean and watched flashes of battleship guns over the horizon in the Coral Sea. The war was within sight and too close for their comfort.
But here on the train I remember camaraderie and humor. That is until a black soldier entered the carriage where we were seated. He worked his way around the carriage and I watched him as he went. I’d seen aboriginal people in the Gympie area, but this man was different. He walked with pride, but at the same time uncertainty. He stopped frequently to offer a cigarette to other soldiers, but was either ignored or sent on his way with impatient gesture. Then he approached my Father Eric and offered him a cigarette.
Now my Father had experienced an unhappy upbringing, and apparently drinking and smoking were packed in with those unhappy memories. That would probably explain why my Father never drank or smoked. He was passionate in his rejection of these habits. But he was also a gentle man, and explained to this black man these habits had never been formed, and after exchanging pleasantries the man moved on.
My Father watched as this man moved from group to group trying to fit in. After all he was going to risk his life along with the rest of them and it was logical he should be part of the camaraderie of the group. I noticed my Father’s face as he watched and saw the set look of determination on his face. He shifted me onto Mother’s lap and made his way down the carriage to where this uncertain black man was standing. Gently taking him by the elbow he said in a loud voice. “I’ll take one of those cigarettes thank you!” Then pulled the man back to my seat and sat him down. The soldiers paused to survey my Father momentarily then went back about their business.
My Father took the one and only cigarette he smoked in his life and sat there talking with the black man. I do not remember his reaction, but am sure he must have been grateful for my Father’s acceptance. I do remember having a lot of fun with this man who claimed to be a magician and kept me entertained for a time finding coins in unpredictable places. One American coin appeared behind my ear, and I was permitted to keep that coin.
I don’t remember the man leaving my seat, or for that matter the long anticipated meeting in Mackay with my Mother’s brother. But I’ll never forget the act of kindness and acceptance my Father demonstrated that day on a troop train north. It taught me all humankind should be treated as equal and we’re expected to show respect to those around us no matter their race or creed. I still believe that today.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2011. All rights reserved”