CHAPTER 2 – The Green Grass of Home 1955 – 59
Life fell to pieces. Mother was quickly and privately buried. I was to look after Paul. We were to return home: New Zealand. The train ride back over vast, lonely, numb, wintry, Manitoba Canada finally broke into my consciousness and it all hit me. We were leaving and Mum was dead. My father now reached out to me for the first time since shooting rabbits in the middle of the desert: it seemed another lifetime ago.
Edmonton, Alberta, was so cold, 45deg below, the air like dry fire, yet strangely I felt warmer inside. Boyish delights resurfaced: the thrill of flying in a Lockheed Super Constellation from LA to Fiji; refuelling on the hot, tiny atoll of Canton Island; and the humid wait at Nandi for a flight to New Zealand. And finally the long unfamiliar 12-hour drive from Auckland to Napier over the Taupo Road.
A “Yankee” Boy Becomes a Kiwi
The little pieces of life slowly collected together at 181 Georges Drive, Napier, my grandparents humble, homely, weatherboard house, with the standard quarter-acre section, with vegetable garden, fruit trees, shingle drive, and garden shed. All so totally unfamiliar and alien. Here I stood in Canadian fur-collared carcoat, lined jeans, leather slip-ons (with coins in the splits), bouffe blonde hair, speaking in a southern drawl (which I had picked up in Texas and school in Florida) to a group of relatives I had no idea existed, and whose names I had to learn very quickly. There were Grandad William and Grandma Jean; Uncles Bill and George and Auntie Clarice; cousins Betty and Gillian, Margaret and Christine, Marna and Claire. And here we were, Eric’s sons: Michael and 4-year-old Paul.
The next year was tough – how to be a Kiwi. The Roy Rogers shirt had to go, so did the soft leather tasseled frontier jacket, and the cowboy boots and the slip-ons. The fixed gear racing bike was soon stolen, and I accidently blew up the Lionel train set – 220 into 110 volts does not go. It was soon summer and the winter clothes disappeared for good. In provincial New Zealand there were no refrigerators, no coffee, no Coca Cola, and no TV.
I soon learnt not only about about my relations but also about my own father.
Before my father married he was a first-class athlete, the sixth New Zealander to high jump over 6 feet. There were photos of him at discus, at the hurdles, and at body-building. I found out now that he was the prided youngest son of the family, with a hoped-for academic professional future, that he excelled at Rugby and school, and that now I was to follow in his footsteps at Napier Boys’ High School, where not only his own brothers proudly attended but also my older cousins, Bob and John: all athletes and Rugby representatives.
Grandad Phillips was of Staffordshire blacksmith stock, a late 19th Century immigrant gum-digger to Dargaville in the Northland, who married blue-grey eyed Grandma Mortensen, a serving maid, of Danish stock from the Danish immigration to Hawkes Bay and the Wairarapa. Grandad was a labourer all his life, and a proud socialist. Hanging on the living room wall, the iconic photo of Mickey Savage, the famous Labour Party Prime Minister of New Zealand in the 1930s, and copies of the Socialist “Worker’s Weekly” lay invitingly on a side table. Grandad worked part-time through his retirement as a storeman, biking straight-backed with felt hat brim perfectly level, to work on one of those old solid heavy black-framed bicycles which forever needed tube patches and oiling. His life centred round the vegetable garden and the 500 Club where he and grandma would go every Wednesday to play cards and Bingo. Grandad said little. His iron grip and twinkling eyes said enough.
Most working-class parents in the 1920s and 30s sent their children to Napier Tech. Not Grandad and Grandma. They had sacrificed their lives to ensure their children gained a superior, solid academic education. The boys were sent to Napier Boys’ High School and Clarice to Napier Girls. They were justifiably proud to therefore have raised professionals: two teachers and a chemist.
For the next two years, we shared their lives. How I loved playing 500 partnering Dad against my expert grandparents, learning very quickly not to “renege”, and treasuring the sweet joy of the occasional victory. And as we played, how I treasured Rugby talk: of Wales, of 1905, of their singing of Land of My Fathers, of George Nepia and the Brownlie brothers, and of the famous 1928 Hawkes Bay Ranfurly Shield team.
Since radio was our other entertainment, the four of us would sit staring at the varnished, wooden, softly glowing, 5-valve radiogramophone listening to “Portia Faces Life” or “Dossier on Demetrius” or “Dad and Dave”; and especially to BBC comedy: “Take it From Here” with the delightfully predictable Ron and Eth scene (“Oh Ron?..Yes? Eth”), the Goon Show (“He’s fallen in the water.”). I soon learnt to make a crystal radio set, and listen to BBC Sci-Fi adventures of “Worlds in Peril” and “The Red Planet” in bed at night. Soon I discovered “Dan Dare” comics and the evil Mekon, and began my first Biggles books, with forays into war comics like “Commando”: but of course these war comics and the war films were all about British and Commonwealth troops in World War II, and not Americans. Instead of “Die Commie Bastard” it was “Take that, dirty Hun.”
New Zealand’s Sunday Radio Request session determined popular tastes in 1950s music. The “Baby-Boom” generation had not yet arrived, the War Generation still reigned. So, every Sunday we listened to a Scottish favourite, “Donald where’s your troosers”; local country music “Click go the shears, boys, click, click, click”, and “Down the hall on Saturday night”; American pop: “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, and Dean Martin; and classic Harry Lauder standards like “Pedro the Fisherman”. And everyone’s favourite: “The Golden Palomino”.
As the decade rolled on, through my adolescence, we boys imitated Elvis, watched American R & R movies, and we listened to short-wave Australian pop radio to pick up the latest songs on the hit parade. The American influence was unstoppable. Soon I would be wearing a flat-top haircut, and wear bright fluorescent socks and ties. I chanced my singing and playing with a beaten-up warped guitar, and made a garage recording on reel tape mimicking Pat Boone’s “Remember you’re mine”. One music teacher taught us about the musical “My Fair Lady” on an American LP record player, no-one had ever seen before. But we still learnt to sing at school: “Valerie”, “Men of Harlech”, “Forty Years On” and “Gaudeamus”.
The Hushed Subject of Religion
Two other boys my age lived close by: one a Jewish boy, Robert Neufeld, who went to school with me; the other, a Catholic, Michael Parker, who went to the Catholic college in Hastings. [St John’s College, a college in which I would in the future teach for 30 years]. The subject of religion occasionally entered conversation when we played cricket on Georges Drive. As Robert was entering his Bar Mitvah year, he would test us both about the nature of God. He believed I worshipped three gods, and Michael four, the added god being Mary. I was totally unfamiliar with any kind of intelligent discussion to give him any answers whatsoever. Because I had been a choirboy in Toronto, I tried the Church of England choir at Napier Cathedral but us few boys were not encouraged in descant singing, the strong Hikurere Maori Girl’s College choir had pride of place, and, anyway, going to any kind of church or religion was out of place with both father and grandparents. Religion was not to be talked about, but hushed silence shouted when Uncle Bill and his wife, Rene, came over for Sunday afternoon tea. You see, Bill had married one of “those” – a Catholic (even the word itself was not mentioned), and his children were brought up in “that” religion. Even as a 12-year-old I heard it said under Grandma’s breath, that they had too many children – all four(!) of them. It seemed that the only scandal in our family was that one: marrying a Catholic. Uncle George married into a staunch Church of England farmer’s family and although this seemed to break ranks with his working-class origins, Bill’s connections were somehow a threat, although Bill ensured that his three eldest attend State and not Catholic schools: cousin Claire, the exception, attending Sacred Heart College in Napier.
The Springbok 1956 Tour
But New Zealand’s religion, Rugby, dominated 1956. The Big Event of 1956 was the Springbok Rugby tour. Everyone was excited. Grandad would suggest quietly that it was time the South Africans were taught a lesson. It was going to be hard. But we, the All Blacks, might win a test series. They beat us in 1937 and they beat us even more soundly in 1949, but only because of the referees. There was even talk about them being the best Rugby players in the world?! Their forward pack was said to be the biggest and toughest. They would bully our men into submission. Expectations built. They were to play lowly Waikato as a warm up first game.
Unbelievably, Waikato won by “up-and-unders”! Then came the first Test match. A dour bruising struggle between the forwards led to a victory for New Zealand BUT danger signs were ahead. We would not be able to outmatch them now that they had felt our strength, and they won the second test. The third test the All Blacks won, but with injuries to key New Zealand players. Everyone knew that we would be lucky to win the fourth deciding test at Auckland. All New Zealand listened to the radio that famous Saturday afternoon of the fourth Test Match. “… Jones has the ball at the end of the lineout. He is running for the line … they can’t catch him .. a TRY.” And so to the end-of-match interview with 6ft 3in, 16 stone, Peter Jones: “How do you feel now after winning the game for the All Blacks?” Then came the Immortal Words never heard before on New Zealand public radio, words which made my grandma’s ears burn with shame – “I’m Buggered!”
The NZBC did not make sports films. But Caltex Oil, major sponsors of sport, did. Caltex released private photograph clips of what really happened in that game, photos of men being carried off the field, of Springbok front-row forwards with noses and faces bludgeoned. And there were sniggering murmurings about Kevin Skinner, ex-boxer, being specially brought into the All Blacks front row, to teach the Springboks a lesson. Historical events prevented the Springboks from playing in New Zealand again until 1981.
That other sporting religion of cricket, I was not to enjoy for many, many years. In March of 1955, I had my first introduction to Test Cricket, listening on the radio with Robert to New Zealand playing England. With embarrassment Robert explained to me that New Zealand were all out for 26 runs, the lowest score in the history of test cricket. That result and the influence of my working-class grand-parents – cricket was a sport of the rich – discouraged any further youthful interest in this most gracious of sports.
“The Boy with the Green Hair”
In the summer of 1956-57, I found freedom swimming and sun bathing at the old Napier Baths on Marine Parade. My hair turned chlorine green and my body brown. Such pleasure it was to watch the more skilful divers, hitting the water in a flip, making huge splashes rise in the air aimed to hit the lone lamp swinging above the middle of the baths.
It was expected that I would be an athlete just like Dad. So I was entered in a range of athletic events all summer at McLean Park. There I was, “the boy with green hair”, the loud-speakers announced, in a 100 yards race on a 20 yard handicap – so slow was I. Hmm … maybe he could be a middle distance runner. Or maybe long distance… Finally autumn came. Athletics ended and I had the pleasure of never having to be an athlete again.