War Years

Memories For Kylie

Frances Mackay

Copyright 2002 by Frances Mackay

My daughter has been asking me to start writing down my 
memories for her.  Here is the first part of the continuing 
saga.  The photo is at the end of the war.


Photo of Frances taken during World War II.
Photo of Frances taken during
World War II.

Memories are funny things. When comparing memories with my sister, for instance, the core of the memory can be similar but the colour or the slant of the person remembering those moments can be very different. Just as some things I remember as being important my sister has no memory of the incident at all. But these are my memories, not hers, nor my brother’s although we shared some of them.

I was born in the Seymour hospital in 1941 when Australia had been involved in the 2nd World War for some time. I believe Mum pleaded with the nurses not to tell Dad I was a girl as he was hoping for a boy. It must have been a difficult birth as Mum was suffering from acute appendicitis and had to have it out immediately after I was born. Maybe that is why I was such a problem child - who knows?

At that time my father and all my fit uncles were mobilised and Sandra, my sister and Mum shifted from the farm in Avenel to await my birth. They were living with Aunty Glad, Geoff and Billie, our cousins. It was safer and more convenient for them both as the farm was so isolated.

Mum revelled in being back with the family again. She never got on with the Smiths. Apparently Jack, Dad’s older brother, wanted him to marry his wife’s sister so that they could get the old man’s farm. That’s what Mum said…

The Americans had arrived to ‘save’ us and, while they were popular with the women and children, the men were not impressed. You may have read about the fight between the Aussies and the Yanks when their troop trains were stopped along side each other up in the northern states, it was in all the newspapers. There was quite a bit of jealousy as the Americans had more goods to flash around, and they got the girls. Not good for the Australian male ego!

Dad, your grandpa, was as jealous as the next guy, probably with some justification. I don’t think the (?) girls suffered from social isolation during that time. They were all good looking and were fun people who loved dancing. Dances were held at the Institute every Saturday and the mums took turn to baby sit. I don’t think they were unfaithful but I am sure they flirted. Aunty Jean had joined the Army but Lynn, Mum and Glad were all married and living in Seymour.

The ‘Yanks’ were lonely and loved little kids. As we grew we recognised that we could get sweets from them and I for one would look appealingly at them, knowing I would get a chocolate. I can remember their smart uniforms - I don’t know how old I was but their polished boots absolutely fascinated me.

Geoff and Billie were somewhat older than my sister and went to primary school. Aunty Glad was furious when Geoff came home drunk one afternoon. Some American soldiers had been drinking outside the pub he passed on the way home from school and gave him a drink (or two). He was a really cute kid and conned his way into everyone’s hearts because he was so cheeky. I only have a vague recollection of this, as I must have been very young.

I don’t remember Billie at all but both Mum and Aunty Glad often told me about the time she came home to find them both having a "cupper" while I was crying in the next room. "She stormed into the kitchen, flung down her school bag saying ‘Can’t you hear that baby scweeming?’ And went in and picked you up." Glad laughed. Billie died of Whooping Cough not long after that. Glad never did get over that.

As the war dragged on into its 4th year Mum found a house to rent around the corner from Aunty Glad’s. She rented part of it to another couple who remained there until the war ended. I don’t know what he did, probably something on the railway, as that was town’s the biggest employer at that time. I do know he used to tease me unmercifully. He would toss me up in the air and often leave me stranded up the large Mulberry tree that grew in the yard. I suppose I used to annoy him by asking questions all the time.

They remained friends with Mum and Dad and I remember visiting their dairy farm about 10 years later and I still kept my distance, even though I was much to large to throw any where. I thought they deserved to have a dairy farm.

I don’t really remember seeing Dad until I was crawling. He had been transferred up to Darwin and then to New Guinea. I remember him in his uniform when he came home on leave and I can remember gazing at him in awe. That was MY DAD! I guess I was a sucker for uniforms. He didn’t know who I was and suggested to Mum that it was time that "that little red haired brat went home?" Mum was hurt that he didn’t recognise his own daughter. I guess the fact that my hair was red never sank in until he actually saw it.

Life during the war was rather good for us. As I said, we all lived in Seymour with cousins and extended family from both sides. I am afraid that I never warmed to the Smith contingent, except my cousin Brian. I think I was very much influenced by Mum’s negativity towards them. You have that photo of Noella and me fighting over a doll. Well, that was the way it was. Bare tolerance at the best of times and daggers drawn at others. She had a lot more interesting toys than I did and wouldn’t share. I remember pushing her off her tricycle one day and she got a bloody knee. She howled but I got to ride the tricycle. I don’t remember feeling sorry either. I thought that she was a cry-baby. Anyway that was our relationship.

Mind you, I was the one that always cried BEFORE I hit the ground. Just in case I drew blood. I was a clumsy child and this happened often. There are many photos of me with a handkerchief tied around my knee.

Mum liked to tell me how she despaired of me. She would dress us up to take out and then get herself ready only to find me playing in the gutter in my finery. I remember she had made us both lovely fur fabric coats and mine was white – not the best colour for me, obviously.

I digress. Because of this lack of interest in any of the Smith contingent most of my early memories are tied into the Patford experiences. Right through school up until the time I went into hospital with polio, we spent our holidays together and were in and out of each other’s houses. Mainly following Geoff into mischief.

He was the leader and we followed blindly. There was so much more space and freedom in those days. I guess we were let to run a little wild. I know that when I look back at things which we got into, both on the farm near Avenel and in town, I know I would never have allowed you or Ken to do anything like it at that age. We would explore creeks, climb hills and often be gone for the whole day. When we found a new site or feature Geoff would ‘christen’ it. Much to my undying admiration.

We had fertile imaginations and we used them. Often our games were continuations of the movie serial we used to see at the Saturday matinees or one of the radio serials that were very popular then. We would dig pits to trap ‘the enemy’, (usually the children from up the street), play cowboys and Indians – with real bows and arrows. I was the one who was generally tied at the stake. I wonder why?

Our Nan was the station mistress for the Trawool Railway Station at that time. Pop was a "Ganger" on the Trawool to Talarook rail link. It was a busy spot then with troop trains coming and going. We used to watch the departure and arrivals, fascinated by all the different uniforms and voices. Generally looking for a hand-out. We were real opportunists and knew which uniforms had the best goodies.

The road ran parallel with the railway line and it was just as busy as the rail. Troop movements from the camps further out of town brought all the heavy traffic past our front gate. Great tanks used to rumble past as we gazed at them. Often we would see one of the boys we recognised, who had visited home. Somehow they didn’t seem like the same people sitting up on those frightening, noisy monsters. Even those who travelled in the trucks made me feel uneasy. Sometimes I still have dreams about them. I imagine most of them ended up fighting in the Pacific. They really were lovely guys.

There always appeared to be "open house" at the Station house. Nan had a large young family and always had someone being brought home for a meal or a sleep over. There was a lot of singing and piano music, and people coming and going. Often she would invite the American "boys" to share in our home life. She said they were homesick and hoped someone would do the same for "our boys". (She had a son over in Tubruk at the time.) I remember wondering how she managed to feed all the visitors with rationing on at the time. I found out later that the visitors always brought something with them to help out with the rationing.

Nan and Pop had a sulphur crested cockatoo on a perch just outside the back steps. It was a nasty, bad tempered bird but had the best vocabulary I have ever heard – all foul of course! The troops used to make a point of trying to improve its language – when the lady of the house wasn’t home. That bird lived for a very long time and was eventually sold. It was considered to be a bad influence on us children. I certainly did get into some trouble later when I went to school because of my language but I believe it came from another source. The bird ended up in Port Fairy at a pub near the football ground. Its vocabulary was awesome.

Rationing was the major domestic problem. I remember the women in the family being really worried when rice was becoming scarce. It was a great drama. I hated rice – especially the way Nan cooked it – and was so pleased that we wouldn’t be able to have it as often.

The women became very good at overcoming shortages. Underwear was a problem so Mum, who was a good dressmaker, used to make ours. Sometimes out of flour bags, still with the Mammy logo on them, sometimes out the same material of our dresses and sometimes out of a harsh cotton called ‘headcloth’. The flour bags were preferable – at least they were quite soft.

One of my earliest embarrassing moments was when Sandra and Geoff Patford, had to take me with them when they went ‘yabbying’ at a nearby dam. I was only a toddler of about 3 years and, naturally, fell in from the slippery bank. Luckily Mum came down to check and found me floundering in the cold muddy water. Sandra and Geoff were disgusted with me because they got told off for not looking after me.

That was bad enough, but Mum stripped off my undies and marched me home. On the way back one of her friends called out to ask if I’d caught anything and Mum held up my underpants – Mammy Logo and all. I don’t know what I was more embarrassed about, the logo underpants or my bare bottom. The war eventually drew to a close. I remember going the ‘pictures’ to watch the celebrations when the war in Europe was over. I can’t remember if there were celebrations at home, probably there were but all our men were still involved in the Pacific so it would have been a subdued celebration.

My dad finally came home. He had been one of the lucky ones. He had been slightly injured once when he was in Darwin but recovered and was soon back at the front. He was in Bougainville when the war ended.

As soon as we girls heard that he was coming home we told everyone that we were going to have a baby sister or a baby brother. We’d often asked Mum why we couldn’t have another baby and her stock phrase was "When your father comes home…" She had some fast talking to do for awhile, so she told me.

He arrived home to a house full of measles. Sandra had just got over them and I was just developing them. I was isolated and was not allowed to see him, nor go near, him until my spots had all gone. I spent a miserable few days in a dark room while all the other children were running in and out, yelling loudly about their fathers who were either home or would be home soon, and even now I can remember the anticlimax I felt when we finally became a family. Bonding is a strange thing.

I think I missed the excitement of the troops passing through. The town was so much quieter now that they had mainly gone home. Our childhood freedom was curtailed also. No more playing out in the dusk of the summer daylight- savings evenings, meals had to be more regulated now the men were home. We had to remember the proper times and not be late.

I know the women had a difficult time giving the reins back to their men, they had made all the decisions for so long. The men would have felt a sense of loss also. Loss of the companionship that they had had for all those years they were fighting and probably now a change in values from when they first joined up. They had seen so much more than their previous rather narrow lifestyle permitted. Both partners had changed since the war began.There were often arguments as we settled back to the pre war existence. It wasn’t easy for any of us.

Not long after that we moved back to Avenel. Dad and Lindsay, his brother, began share farming up on the family farm. We lived on the farm until my brother Craig was born in 1946 then we shifted into town so that Sandra and I could attend the primary school there.

Addendum--Letter from Roy Oram:

Dear Frances,
I enjoyed your story of your growing up during the War.  Isn't it strange
how some of us remember such details of our childhood while others remember
very little.  I have written many little stories of my growing up during the
War and, finally, decided to see if I could find any of those childhood
friends. During the War, my two teenage brothers were fighting in Europe and
my father, who was over fifty years old, and was not allowed to go overseas,
joined the Veteran's Guard of Canada.  He was sent to Northern Ontario to
guard German prisoners of war.  My mother worked in a munitions plant near
Montreal and left me, a boy of nine years old, all alone.  My mother sent me
to a boarding house where she was sure I'd be taken care of.  I stayed with
a family of four girls whose parents rented a lovely house on a lake, during
the summers, about sixty-five miles from my home. This family became my
second family but I was always happy when I found a letter from my mother at
the Post Office in the little village on the lake.  I lost all contact with
my second family after the War.  Later, I married and moved to the other
side of Canada, three thousand miles away.  It had been fifty-four years
later that I returned for a visit to Eastern Canada.  I made a side trip to
the little village to search for clues as to the whereabouts of my second
family which I had lost.  I retraced my childhood footsteps around that
village asking at almost every door if they knew where any of the family now
lived. I found no clues. Girls marry and change their names making searches
nearly impossible.  I visited the cemetery where we quickly walked by during
the daytime and ran past after dark, checked out the place from which we
dived into the lake from the tops of the boathouses, sat on the wharf where
we dangles our feet in the lake to keep cool on very hot days.  It was as
though I was living back in the early forties. When I arrived back in my
home, I wrote a story about my visit and sent it to a newspaper in the
county where my old village is located.  They printed the story.  Then a
small miracle happened.  A woman who was on her way to visit a friend who
lived a hundred miles away from the little village, picked up the newspaper
and read my story as her husband drove the hundred mile trip.  When she
arrived at her friend's house, she pointed out the article, saying, "Olive,
didn't you spend some the War years in this village?  This man writes about
the Ashen family. Did you know them?"  Olive snatched the paper from her
hands as she said, "Ashen family?  Yes,  I knew them very well.  My maided
name was Ashen."  Olive called the newspaper to get my address and we were
in touch again after all those years.  Last August, Olive and her husband
made the three thousand mile trip to see me and my wife.  It was a wonderful
reunion. Olive also has very good recollection of our childhood and brought
the family photo album which had pictures of me wearing wire-rimmed glasses
and blond bangs hanging down on my forehead.  I've changed a little.  I
still have the wire-rimmed glasses but the hair has moved back further on my
head and is now grayish-blond!  I just thought you'd like to hear about my
successful search for a friend.
Roy Oram
Pender Island
British Columbia,

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