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Where Did “YOU” Come From?

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On Wednesday the July 14, I received a very excited message on my voice mail service. It was from my father. Two weeks previously, I had helped him send an email, and yes, my dad is of that generation that somehow thought they didn’t have to learn that trick. As I have often bantered with my father about the modern world, “you should have lived a more debauched and lecherous life – you would have died so much earlier and missed all this”.

The email’s subject matter was the 1934 pencil drawing done by the late Cyril H Thomas – his father and my grandfather. The principal object was the legendary Australian Racing horse of 1930’s Australia – Phar Lap. For those American readers, a horse as significant to the Australian public as the fabled Seabiscuit. A self-taught artist, he had recreated a photograph from the leading newspaper “The Age” with the aid of only a pencil. Most people make the mistake that it is a photograph; It was a labour of love. Phar Lap’s many wins had brought hope, and much needed cash to many a family during the depression years.

My father was glad to report that the Museum of Victoria was launching a two-year exhibition featuring Phar Lap and wished to have this family heirloom as part of the display. They loved it, and my dad was ecstatic. My grandfather created very few art pieces and was a vast talent left unexplored – letting WW2, alcohol and divorce take their toll. So to have one of the three or four pieces remaining exhibited in a leading Museum was a special moment for my father. A special moment for me as I had always seen it as a vital part of the family legacy and just a small example of the genetic code that his side of the family brings to the table. I have art from both grandfathers displayed in my home, a constant reminder of who they were – lessons of what to do, what attributes to nurture and what failings to avoid.

As I wrote about in “Brett’s Philosophy”, his favourite one line of my youth – “in a hundred years we will all be dead, and we will be lucky if anyone remembers our name.” This saying is also up there with one of his other more straightforward sayings – “why not paint your bum and go naked.” Our personal history is, for the most part lacking. Most of us know little about our family heritage, and if we have a family member who has spent gruelling hours writing up the family history, there is often very little to enlighten us. There will be such lines as these from my past.

Charlotte Van Maseyk born July 8 1769. Aleppo Married Thomas Vailhen Died 1827 in France.

That’s it – the complete story that we know – nothing else. In reality, Charlotte could be anyone, yet I would not be here without that marriage and life. What would it be like to know more – her joys, sorrows, and talents explored and abandoned? What were the traumas of her life, and was Thomas Vailhen the love of her life or was it more of the arranged type? We will, for the most part, never know. Yet her genes run through and colour my life.

A few years ago, my friend George started a project to interview and record the stories of his aging relatives – to do it before they were gone. The stories are important. It is why I take the time to go to as many funerals of people I know as possible – to gain insights into the person that my experience may have been denied; A part of their life that remains, for me, unexplored. It is impossible to know a person fully; we only know a portion that our life journey allows. So I do love a good funeral.

My aunt, my mother’s sister, is in her last year. She also has dementia – the memory is no more – for the most part, her history will be taken with her. All the family will have left is their fading memories. Memories and written stories are vital; they can change a worldview. Two or Three sentences at a family funeral made the story of my father’s life all make sense to me. I understood his deep needs and continue to value his deep love for me. I was able to forgive his failings and to see his humanity.

I have been encouraging my parents for some time to write a memoir. Perhaps it may be too painful or too big a task. However, my dad was asked recently to do a short bio for a choirs newsletter – I include it below its not long but well worth the read. Given it’s a choir newsletter, there is an emphasis on music, but it’s a start. The palest ink is better than the best memory.

What if you could get your parents to write or record one – it is just a short piece, and yet how useful would it be for those who follow to really know where they came from and their history. And pay attention, remember, as the written word reveals both what it says and what it leaves unsaid…

Aug 2020 – Ronald H. H. Thomas

I entered this world at 6:20 am on September 11, 1932, in the lounge room of my Aunty Mabel – my father’s sister – at number 7 Kelson Street, West Coburg Melbourne, Australia. I have been an early riser ever since.

At 18 months of age, I had a near-death experienced.  I had been left in my wicker basket pram in the shade of an old wattle tree in my grandparents’ back yard.  A nearby incinerator had unfortunately reignited, and the flames caused the wattle tree to catch fire and set fire to the wicker basket pram with me inside.  A neighbour heard my screams, jumped the fence and threw buckets of water over the pram, putting out the flames.  Severely burned, I was rushed to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where I remained for 18 months, aided by the attention of a young doctor who was experimenting with a new form of skin graft.  I owe my life to him and the skin to my mother.

My first paying job was cleaning up the local butchers’ shop, scrubbing down the 3-foot square chopping block, sweeping and replenishing the sawdust from the floor and making sausages.  My wages?  A tray of meat offcuts, spare sausages and odd chops.  During the Depression of the 1930s, my Mum and Dad were pleased.  I was seven years old.

Next came the paper round at ten years of age. I rose at 3:15 am, riding my Malvern Star bicycle (3-speed gears – WOW!) to the Newsagents’ shop in Sydney Road, Coburg, to arrive at 3:30 am. I then began folding the Sun newspaper into a boomerang shape, carefully placing each folded paper into hessian bags and splitting the load to straddle the centre bicycle bar.

You had to be careful with the folding.  Sometimes if the paper itself were too brittle, it would split in two.  For every paper that split, we were charged!  The wage – 10 shillings a week.  I kept that paper- round for six years, finally giving up the year I began my apprenticeship at the Newport Railway Workshops as a Fitter and Turner.  I hoped to get a scholarship with the Victoria Railways to become a Draughtsman.  The year was 1949.

I was educated to Grade 10 at Preston Technical School but without enough mathematics and science for the scholarship race. So I returned to night school at Footscray Technical College from 5 until 9, Mondays to Thursdays; there were no breaks between classes. 

It was a demanding schedule, leaving home at 6:20 to arrive at Newport by 7:20 for a full day’s work, leaving Newport at 4:15 to begin night school at 5 pm. However, I soon learned to eat quickly and arrive on time.

I had always been interested in physical fitness, and I played A Grade hockey with the Fairfield Hockey Club. Then, in the summer months, I raced in middle distance competitions for the Coburg Athletic Club.  My best time for the mile distance was 4 minutes and 16 seconds.   Good, but not quite the 4-minute mile.  I competed with some of the Victorian greats, including John Landy.  He was in A grade, and I was B. Landy would go on and be the second man to beat the 4-minute mile.

At 18 years of age, I became interested in philosophy and workplace reform.  I joined the Eureka Youth League, which I suspect was part of the Communist Party.  My father was a member of that party and had a red flag, complete with the hammer and sickle emblem.  It was carefully folded in a cupboard in our lounge room. 

The period’s general social issues included “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”, youth participation in Government, health campaigns, making the world a better place for all, eliminating poverty, and abolishing racial discrimination.

I became interested in religious philosophy, often pondering the big questions: “Is there a god?  How did we get here? Where are we going, if anywhere? And What’s it all about?”

I met a Seventh Day Adventist Christian at the Railway Workshops.  Over three years, we became firm friends, and I began to adopt his overall philosophy of the world. So I decided to throw in my lot with the SDA church and they, in turn, encouraged me to train for their Youth Ministry.

I left the railways, and in January 1955, I went to the SDA College of Avondale in Cooranbong, NSW.  I commenced a four-year study programme for a degree in Theology, majoring in ancient and modern history.

The college attracted people in their late teens from every state in Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Island nations, The Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Ethiopia and the UK.  At its peak, during the post-war period, it had up to 300 students.

The Australian segment had a large group of female and male students who came to the college for one year – sent by their parents – to seek a partner for life.  The gene pool was more significant than in their home churches, and many succeeded in completing the “Matrimonial Course”. 

Musically it was a rich experience for me.  I began voice training, learned the clarinet (playing it but poorly), joined a male ensemble, sain in a 30-voice choir, conducted a male ensemble named “The Island Harmoniers,” which produced its own unique sound.   One of the singers in this same group returned to his native Tonga, eventually becoming Secretary to the King and Queen of Tonga and later appointed a six-year term as the Tongan High Commissioner in London.  His most outstanding achievement was selling the air space over Tonga to the Russian Government when they launched their first space shuttle in the ’90s.  No mean feat.

In my final year, I had the pleasure and the thrill of conducting a 30 piece orchestra and an 80 voice choir in the last rehearsal of the college’s annual production of Handel’s “Messiah”.  The piece was “All we like sheep have gone astray.”

I graduated as President of the Class of 1958.  (110 graduates covering Theology, Education, the Sciences, Music, Administration, Accountancy and Home Economics.)  I was posted to New Zealand. 

I left Australia in December 1958, ten days after my marriage to my wife, Noreen, on 24.11.1958 and arrived in Christchurch on 14.12.1958 with two suitcases, my briefcase and the top tier of our wedding cake. And a memory of a rained out honeymoon spent in a borrowed caravan.

I worked in South New Zealand for three years in Omaru, Timaru and Nelson, specialising in Youth work to the extent that the church powers saw my potential. After that, I was transferred to Brisbane, Queensland, as an Assistant Youth Director for the South Queensland churches.

We arrived in Brisbane in March of 1962 with three suitcases, a briefcase and our son, Owen, aged seven months and a Morris two-door sedan.

During my stint in Nelson, New Zealand, I joined the Nelson Male Voice Choir and sang with them for two years, occasionally singing solo. In addition, I studied voice training under the direction of Len Barnes, a distinguished voice judge in New Zealand’s musical circles.

I stayed in Brisbane for three years.  The area I covered was from the NSW border to Rockhampton and South-West Queensland as far as Roma and took a church service there when someone rushed into the meeting announcing that President Kennedy was assassinated. So we always remember where we were and what we were doing at these moments.

My prominent roles were promoting healthy living, assisting the Youth Director in all youth activities, promoting a non-smoking, non-drinking, vegetarian lifestyle, all of which I had adopted in my early teenage years.

I had the privilege of conducting the first “stop smoking campaign” in Australia promoted by the Seventh Day Adventist church called “The Five-Day Plan”.    It was an immediate success and continued throughout Australia until the birth of the Anti-Cancer Council of Australia who has run stop smoking programmes for over 40 years.

In 1965 the church administration transferred the family and me to Tasmania.  We arrived mid-year with four suitcases, my briefcase, our son Owen and daughter Corinne. A furniture van and a Fiat 1800 wagon. 

I worked with the church youth of Tasmania and administered a new portfolio, Health, Education, Radio & Television Ministry for the Public Relations Dept of the SDA church. 

Public Relations was a new field in Australia, and nobody had any idea of its practice.   However, having been given the role, I embraced it with all the enthusiasm I could muster.  I joined the Tasmanian Institute of Public Relations (we had seven members) and became its first secretary, which I held for the six years I was stationed there.

Whilst working in Tasmania, I joined the Hobart Orpheus Choir, a male group with a long history, primarily associated with the Hobart Masonic Lodge and the Church of England.    Our patron was the Bishop of Tasmania.  I was Secretary, and I was rebuked for not addressing him as “My Lord Bishop”.  My reply had been, “You are not my Lord sir, neither are you my Bishop. “oh”, was his reply, “we have a non-conformist in our midst.”    

In 1970 I was transferred to Melbourne, Victoria, to administer the all-age Sabbath School (aka Sunday school) and the Radio & Television Public Relations Department. 

I joined the Victoria Public Relations Institute (much larger than the Tasmanian branch) and became Secretary holding the position for six years before being transferred to WA.

Public Relations was still a new occupation in the Australian landscape with no standard educational pathways. So I helped initiate the formal approaches to the Educational Department of Victoria to start a training program for aspiring public relations officers.  It began with three years, two night per week post-graduate diploma in Business Studies at Melbourne’s RMIT.

The diploma attracted 130 applicants.  Some 85% were women seeing the course as offering something glamourous and showy. However, as the course progressed with journalism skills forming the foundation of the role, many of the 130 dropped out.  By the course end, only 34 graduated, eight were women, and I was one of the male graduates.

My next appointment was to Perth, WA, in 1976 to administer the church’s Radio & Television, Health Education and Public Relations Departments.  We arrived in Perth with six suitcases, one briefcase, a furniture van, a Honda Accord, a 300C Mercedes-Benz 1957 and Owen, Corinne and Ron, our second son, aged seven months.

Our daughter Corinne was in a girls choir, but it would close as the choir’s conductor was transferred to NSW.  The accompanist, an old friend from my college days, approached me and said, “this choir will close unless someone takes it on – you have the experience but have you got the time?” I spoke with my daughter about the closure.  There were tears in her eyes as she was having difficulty adjusting to her new life in WA.  That did it.  I said yes and thus began a six-year association with a girls choir that was a great pleasure.  We toured most of the Southern areas of WA, presenting sacred and classical choral music arranged for female voices.

By this time, I realised I had become a different person.  My mind had broadened, and I was no longer the rigid 18-year-old who had thrown in his lot with the very strict SDA church.  Whilst not indeed an atheist, I was at least becoming agnostic. 

It was unsettling and became, in the end, untenable. So I left the employment of the SDA church at the age of 53 and began a new kind of life in Melbourne.

For the next three years, I worked in “Salamanda Fashion” a company owned by a close friend.  I wrote articles, photographed models in the garments Salamanda produced and became an insider who saw that cheap imports from Asia would soon take over.

I returned to night school at Deakin University, three nights per week for three years studying Health Education. I graduated with a post-graduate diploma in Health Education, enabling me to apply for a position at Box Hill Hospital utilising both Health and Public Relations diplomas.  I held that position for five years but left when I was asked to take on a fundraising role.  It sounded like church work all over again.

During this period, I joined the Melbourne Singers, the choir that formed the nucleus of the Carols By Candlelight choir at the world-famous Sydney Myer Music Bowl. Again, it was a beautiful period entertaining sell-out audiences in and around Melbourne and its suburbs.

Leaving Box Hill Hospital, I saw an advertisement for an assistant manager for a newly formed funeral company, The Milne Group, situated in Box Hill. So I applied for the position and got it.  It was a roller coaster ride from day one.  Assisting the manager meant producing public relations articles for weekly newspapers in most suburbs, leaflets on handling grief and after-effects of death, including suicide and traffic accidents.

I was training new staff in the subtleties of the funeral industry, occasionally collecting the dead from hospitals, aged care homes and private homes, driving hearses and company cars when the usual drivers were ill.    It was full-on.  I also ran a weekly radio program in Mornington, which produced volumes of mail that had to be answered.  I was busy.  There was always after-hours counselling (free of charge) for up to four weeks after a funeral service.

Psychologists were entering the grief counselling world and taking over from grief counsellors.  The company decided they did not need my services, mainly as I had put into the company so much of its foundation I became redundant.

Musically I joined the barber ship singing group called The Harmonairs as a baritone.  After four years, I realised that we were singing the same songs, striving for perfection that produced an overtone that said we had the perfect pitch.  Interesting musically speaking but not my cup of tea.

So December 23 1988, I was unemployed, and just before I left my office, I received a call from a Salvation Army Officer in Sunshine. I had worked with him on several occasions as a support speaker in a programme to assist unemployed people.  He was looking for someone to help him in a new government programme to help people return to work.  It was called SkillShare and ran for 14 weeks, three times per year.

I said “Yes”.  He replied, “so what are you doing for the next four weeks? This programme does not begin until February.” I said, “Nothing. I’ve just lost my job.”

He then told me of a position as the Salvation Army Men’s Hostel’s night manager in Abeckett Street called The Gill. It accommodated 255 men each evening. Naturally, of course, I said yes, and the rest is history.  I worked for the Salvation Army for the next 14 years, 3:30 – 11:30 pm Monday to Friday, managing the hostel.  It began in 1948 and still operates a service but considerably l reduced from 255 beds to just 64. 

The week I retired, 11.9.2002, I rang what I thought was the choir that sang at intervals during the yearly screening of “How Green was my Valley” at the Astor Theatre in St Kilda.  I did not know there were three male Welsh choirs.  It was a mistake I have never once regretted.

For 25 years, I  was a registered Civil Marriage Celebrant conducting wedding, funerals and naming ceremony services in Victoria.  I was a foundational member of the Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants.  Our membership in 1993 was 34.  We now have a membership of over 2500 across Australia.  I am honoured to be their Number 1 patron and a Life Member.

In my spare time, I operated a garden maintenance business, RT Gardening. I’ve done this for 30 years, mainly for those associated with the TAC.  I now have three clients, two of whom I have gardened for over 20 years. 

I play tennis on Wednesday mornings to keep up the physical fitness for this aging body.

I need a rest after writing this!

Cheers.

RT.

So, there you have it, a template of sorts to encourage your own family or yourself to write a brief life history. Remember, “in a hundred years, we will all be dead, and we will be lucky if anyone remembers our name.” So, take the time – write the good and the bad. Seal it up till after your death if needs be – but your family will thank you for it. For time and life are indeed short, who knows when that faulty gene rears its ugly head, or the crazy driver runs one red light too many and finds your car.

“Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capability to do it. The skill to mould the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.”

― Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Wouldn’t it be lovely to know the stories of what your past ancestors have made of their raw materials? Think how valuable your life’s account will be for those who follow you.

Till next time…

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Written By Owen Thomas

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