My smart father and his cheeky trick 21



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My father was born in 1910. He left school at 14; times were tough and he never had a trade so when the depression hit, just like hundreds of others, he went looking for work on “The Track”. He got a bit of farm work here and there, mostly paid with bed and meals so at the age of 17 he decided to join the Merchant Navy. He was small – barely 5 feet tall and could not swim a stroke – but he was accepted and given the title of a greaser. He worked in the engine rooms of the S.S. Fiona and the S.S. Rona; both ships were owned by the Colonial Sugar Refinery and both ships carried sugar cane and molasses to Fiji, Suva and the Solomon Islands.

Some American servicemen were stationed in the Solomon’s and Australian men often visited the Americans’ canteen because it was there they were able to buy items we did not have. Cigarettes and alcohol were readily available but were not allowed to be brought ashore in Sydney. One of Dad’s shipmates bought two bottles of the finest whiskey and he devised a clever way to bring it ashore. When the ship docked in Sydney, he hid his two bottles of whiskey behind a crate on the wharf. He then snatched one of the many cats that roamed the wharves. He put the cat into his Gladstone Bag and proceeded along the wharf to the gate where of course he had to open the bag and declare the contents. He vigorously objected. He told the gatekeeper he had a cat in the bag because he wanted to surprise his kids and the gatekeeper didn’t believe him and ordered him to open the bag. He did and the cat shot out of the bag and ran back along the wharf with Dad’s mate running after it. He reached the crate and slipped the two bottles of whiskey in his bag tucked it up under his arm and made his way back to the gate, smiling at the gatekeeper he said “I’ve got the little bastard this time” and went home with a smile on his face.

During the second world war, cannons and the personnel needed to man them were put on both ships. On two occasions Dad’s ship was followed by Japanese submarines, once into Brisbane harbour and the other into Newcastle harbour; scary considering Dad was down in the engine rooms trying to keep everything well greased so the motors kept going trying to outrun the Japanese.

When they were in a convoy (in the company of bigger ships) and suddenly found themselves in danger, the big ships would be full steam ahead and the smaller ships were left to struggle on and hope for the best. Thankfully the Rona and the Fiona were never hit.

Mum and Dad met through mutual friends when he was 33 and Mum was 19. They married in 1945 and Dad left the sea soon after. He suffered panic attacks but nowadays he would have be diagnosed with PTSD and treated properly. Back then doctors told him to take up smoking to calm his nerves and he became a very heavy smoker. Dad died in his 70s of an asbestos/nicotine related tumour on the lung – RIP.

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Christine Massey

I am a 61-year-old dysfunctional child of a problem mother. I tend to look at the world with the philosophy "Laugh hard, you could be dead tomorrow!"

  1. I remember my father saying he took up smoking during World War II. He never gave up smoking & died in bed with his cigarette dropping to the floor. Thank goodness it just went out & didn’t burn the house down.

  2. Thanks for your memories of your father Christine; the merchant navy were very important during WWII and it’s good to see them represented in Anzac Day marches.

  3. My Dad had a light beard, shaved when he needed to, every two days or so, that is until the SM ordered him to shave daily or go on report. Lost his voice shouting drill orders to get his Lance Corporal stripes, then got bumped up to WO1 as a qualified tradesman, refused a commission (didn’t want to pay for his uniform). My mother very disappointed that the crown on his sleeve wasn’t stripes! He printed toilet paper (propaganda).

  4. yes no hand outs in those days, people had to work hard for what they got and be happy with that… They were eternally grateful for anything that came their way….. We need to teach all of this history in our schools again… WE did when I was growing up and it helped up to be grateful to be where we were then and to respect those that had really had it tough.. but held out hope.

    2 REPLY
    • I totally agree Jennifer Anderson about history of our war years being taught in schools.. I remember when in primary school being picked to place flowers for the fallen I was oh so very proud and had an extra flower with a note I had written to my Dad telling him I have not forgotten him (even though I was 5 when he passed) that was many years ago when I was in primary school in Geelong… and yesterday I said a prayer to all the men and women thanking them for making this a better country for us to live in.. I was also a Legacy girl… and Mum used to tell me about the women working in the amunitions factory and looking after farms and growing vegetables and milking cows.. their part for the war effort

    • yes my dad passed away on Anzac day 38 yrs ago, and was born 100 yrs ago but in October (still the year of the Anzac) so it has double meaningfor me even now..

  5. I remember reading about a class action Probably American) regarding sailors and the asbestos in ships. Thanks for writing that. We’ll all know how to smuggle something off a ship now 🙂

  6. I read Your story and found it was similar to My MUM & DADS. My DAD didn’t leave Australia but was stationed at North/South Head ? He was a Motorcycle rider who delivered despatches from the War Office different Commands in the City (Sydney). I don’t know much more than this except for the fact that one of My Uncles RIP. Told me My DAD was shot in the leg while cleaning his gun, He latter told me he was joking. Both My MUM RIP. and My Aunt (MUMS sister) were also Motorcyle riders as well. They would dash all over the city with another Person in the sidecar. Then very quickly rush in and deliver and/or wait for a reply. As all was top secret, their work was very important. Following WW11 Both My Parents still drove motorcycles with sidecars, this time they delivered canisters of FILM to pictures most of the Cities Theaters Shows. As there was a shortage of film as well as everything else !!! they had to rush a reel to the next and swap and on to the next and so on. Later We all mover from Balmain, New South Wales, Australia to Dural in the Hills District and became Flower growers.

  7. Thank you, Christine. Love the story of your Dad’s resourcefulness! He and all like him served Australia well and he deserved his little ‘win’ over the bureaucracy.

  8. My dad in the middle east making the best of it, sorry if it offends, My dad wrote a long letter to be read at my daughteres high school year 12 about his times in the middle east and PNG, I have had it for a long time, one day wehn I get to it I am going to type it up, just now going through all his slide, so many from th war

    2 REPLY
    • Barbara you are so lucky to have those stories. My Dad wouldn’t speak of them, only said a couple of things which were horrific on the evening he died.

    • yeah dad used to hate going out to his garage at night, said the ones he shot are haunting him, some of the things he said, I only have to look at all his photos to know what it was like, I looked after him after mum died and he never slept well, spent many months here and there at concord hospital

  9. Wonderful memories of such brave men, the Merchant Navy were a lifeline to many countries during World War 2.

  10. My Father was in the VDC @ Whyalla & along with many others Stopped the Japanese getting to the Shipyard & many other places

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