I can still clearly remember my very first memory of life: I was sitting in warm sunshine with my older brother on the steps of our beautiful, high-set Queenslander-design house in a very stylish suburb of Rockhampton. It was 1950. I was three and we had recently arrived by boat from war-torn England. I learned later that we were the first ever migrant family to settle in Rockhampton.
I’m blessed with a good memory and I can recall many distant events, both good and bad, exciting and mundane, in great detail. There are even those, in my opinion, that seem so at odds with today’s everyday life.
From that sunny spot mentioned above, each morning I witnessed our milkman, driving a horse-driven cart, delivering a large open pail of milk to our front steps. Later in the day the bread man, driving one of the few motor vehicles in town, delivered our daily bread. Each week I would patiently wait for the iceman to deliver a large block of ice. He carried the large dripping block using a pair of metal callipers and left it on our top step whereupon it was my duty to notify my mother immediately so she could place it inside our icebox before it melted any further.
I was on sentry duty most days as it was my self-appointed responsibility to report the arrival of the above items to my mother. You could say I was a timekeeper, except I was too young to be able to tell the time. Sitting on those steps I also created a mental diary of all the comings and goings that occurred on my street. On a good day another motor vehicle might pass by our house.
I witnessed the annual wet season flood waters rising slowly up our street and saw those more unfortunate than us, those living further down the street, having to make preparations to safeguard their household contents. Then the food relief planes would begin their roof-top flyovers trying to figure out where best to drop the town’s flood relief food supplies. After one or two flyovers, large khaki-coloured packages would begin falling out the rear ends of the planes and crash to the ground with a thud. Some broke open not too far from our house. There was never a dull moment in my street.
One day, to my great dismay, I was relieved of my important sentry duties, it was time for me to attend kindergarten. Mum had foreseen this day and had planned well ahead. At that time there were no kindergartens in Rockhampton so she had my father construct about a dozen or so small table and chair sets plus some other small items of furniture. My parents also secretly collected a few crates of assorted toys without my knowing. My mother then hired a nearby church hall and — voila — Rockhampton’s first kindergarten was born, and I was one of its first students.
Like most families at that time, we also didn’t have a car so my mother fashioned a makeshift baby seat out of wood and wire on her bicycle and we rode together to kindergarten in the hot tropical Queensland sun. It was fun as we were the only ones in town with a bicycle with attached baby seat — except I was no longer a baby. I was four years old.
Her kindergarten flourished with more enrolments than she could manage. I was more than happy with my new role and with all the new toys, games and friends. One day she received an official letter from the Queensland Government applauding her for establishing the kindergarten and saying that perhaps her idea might be suitable for the establishment for other kindergartens in Queensland one day.
Now I was all grown up (four), I began to explore my street more deeply. This curiosity led me meet another boy around my age further up the street. We would play in his large backyard. In his yard there was another smaller building where his mother would often be seen entering and exiting. It turns out this building was a sweets (lolly) factory. This was a bonanza discovery because his mother was a very generous person and also invited us inside to watch her making the lollies — mostly liquorice-based ones, and she always sent me home with a bag of sweets.
Since we were the only migrant family in town we were also a source of curiosity with the locals. Mum became a bit of a local social butterfly or celebrity and by extension my brother and I became minor celebrities without ever having to do anything to earn it — and we loved it. When we thought it appropriate, we would purposely speak with our funny Lancashire accents; even exaggerating certain words and phrases, which we knew would either create confusion or hilarity.
Another English family moved into town and we wasted no time visiting them and offering to help them settle in. We all became friends. They had two boys around the same age as my brother and me, which was good even though I had no concept or memory of anything remotely connected to England — other than being a boat person just like them with a funny accent. Somehow the local city council got wind of my Mum’s help in offering the new English family settle in and made Mum an unofficial (perhaps official) migration assistance person. This meant every time a new, mostly English, family arrived we all got to meet them.
A routine activity of this settling in process was to introduce them to the nearby and magnificent Capricorn Coast and in particular the small coastal town of Emu Park.
Cars were still rare but Emu Park was connected to Rockhampton by a weekend steam train.
I vividly remember those wonderful steam train trips to Emu Park as we younger ones would open the windows and put our heads out facing forward for as long as we could tolerate the foul-smelling ash laden smoke in our faces. After several minutes our faces would be blackened by coal ash. We found this so funny — the blacker the face the braver you were.
The train station in Emu Park was within a few hundred yards of the main beach and adjacent to a beautiful park, Bell Park. Here passengers would organise games, athletic activities and picnics. There would sometimes be a hundred or more passengers and around four pm the train’s whistle would sound signalling that everyone has 30 minutes before the train departed for Rockhampton.
Every visit to Emu Park that I would make included a pilgrimage to the nearby hotel just before the train’s departure because under the hotel’s verandah roof hung a giant stuffed crocodile that was caught nearby. A frightful experience.