I first met my father Jack McIntosh when I was six years old and he was 28. One day a strange man was sitting at the kitchen table. I thought he was a visitor but Mum said, “Give your father a kiss”. I stamped my foot and ran outside, bawling loudly. “No, no, he’s not my father. I won’t kiss him. I won’t.” Mum said later I wouldn’t come inside until she promised to buy me an ice cream. He was always around after that.
Jack had spent five years on the run during World War II because he refused to become a soldier. The military police caught him many times and he even did a stint in Queensland’s infamous Boggo Road Gaol. He lived under a false name in Kings Cross where he eked out a living playing piano in the clubs and dives frequented by US servicemen.
The MPs caught him in a pawn shop one day when he was trying to hock a watch. A counterfeit ID card in the name of John Campbell did not save him and he cheerfully accompanied the MPs to Victoria Barracks. His biggest worry was my mother and his steadily growing band of children.He had bought the phony ID card from Russ Robins, a fierce blue eyed Irishman with a quick temper.
Mum told me later that Russ met her at Central Station when Jack was in the cells, to return two hundred pounds that he had borrowed from my father. Russ sported a flower in his button hole and Mum wore a white dress. She was heavily pregnant with my brother Greg. Mum never forgot his kindness and she always welcomed Russ into our house. He was like an uncle who turned up for Christmas dinner. I remember him, red faced and laughing, beer in hand, telling the story about how he punched a policeman who tried to interfere in a fist fight he was in the middle of. Russ was arrested and the coppers gave him a couple of busted ribs.
My father never talked about his wartime exploits but according to family folklore he was in army uniform marching in a column to board a train from Central up north towards the battlefront in Papua New Guinea, when a mate said to him, “Now’s your chance, Jack”. He broke ranks and bolted, gunshots ringing over his head. Central Station has many exits and Jack dodged into the Hole in the Wall Cafe and hid in the toilet. He got away that time, but he was to be captured and locked up again and again before he was court martialled and dishonourably discharged in 1944.
Jack grew up in pre-war depression Sydney, left school at twelve and sold fruit and vegetables door to door from a horse and cart. There was an upright piano in the parlour and young Jack taught himself to play by ear. At age 20 he could read music and was playing piano in a band. When Jack met my mother Lorna at the Kogarah Tennis Club Sunday Social, it was love at first dance and Jack whisked her off on the back of his motor bike to the beach at Burning Palms. To the shame and chagrin of her parents, Mum got pregnant with me and they married in a registry office six months before Britain declared war on Germany and the world was at war.
While Jack was dodging the MPs, Mum had to live with her parents, who so disapproved of his wandering ways that they would not allow him to sleep in the house when he paid a rare visit even though he and Mum were legally married. The young couple had to sleep on a tiny sofa in the tool shed. Each time he came home, Mum got pregnant again.
Dad was not a clever fugitive but he was determined. Once he was sent to Townsville but he escaped and found a job playing piano in the upmarket Princes Nightclub in Brisbane city, a favourite haunt of US servicemen. He wasn’t at large for long and spent nine months in Boggo Road Gaol. The next time Mum saw him, he took off his uniform, ripped off the stripes and army pockets from the shirts and trousers, tied them up in brown paper and string and hid them in the roof. When the war ended, Dad had a fruit shop in Pitt Street and he and Mum ran out onto the street and danced.
After the war was over, we went to live in the former US Army camp at Herne Bay in Western Sydney and then to a Housing Commission house in Revesby. It was heaven. A front lawn, cypress trees, boronia shrubs, a vegetable garden and a chook pen. The dunny man changed the sanitary pan once a week, running along the side of the house to the shithouse at the bottom of the backyard, with the heavy pan hoisted on a leather shoulder pad.
Dad became a postman and worked in the local market garden in his midday break. At home he grew gigantic silver beet, peas, beans, potatoes and pumpkins. When he had to kill the chooks for Christmas dinner he started the task full of confidence. A bloke at the pub had told him exactly how to do it. “Quick and painless,” he said it was. “First, you catch them,” he told me and my siblings, demonstrating with a tea towel, “and then you wring their neck till it cracks”. Each time he grabbed a chook and tried to wring its neck, it broke free and ran around the backyard. The lady from next door came in, took pity on Dad, returned with an axe and chopped off their heads. Dad turned pale. Mum steamed the chickens in the pressure cooker but they were so tough we could hardly eat them. Uncle Russ said it was because they were old enough to vote.
Dad never could belt us. One day Mum got really mad at us because we used blankets from the beds to polish the wooden floor. We put the wax on first and then used the blankets to buff it with. The floor came up like a mirror. We thought she would be pleased, but instead she locked us up in a bedroom until Dad came home to punish us. When he arrived he refused because he could not be mad at us, he said, just because she was. We were not allowed to play with guns, even water pistols were prohibited. We came to know that ours was an antiwar household.
Sometimes Mum and Dad argued so loudly that we hid under the beds. But most of the violence came from Mum. Dad shouted at her and she yelled back at him and threw plates. Crash. Crash. After a half hour they made up and we all had tea. Mum said later that she only broke the plates that were already chipped.
Dad always had work on Saturday nights at pubs. He would play a few numbers and then the drinkers would yell out requests: “Jack! Play ‘On Top of Old Smokey’ or ‘Blue Moon’.” He was expected to know all the popular tunes on the hit parade. Dad heard me singing them around the house. I knew them by heart, every word. Dad had a beautiful black, gold and ivory Settimio Soprani piano accordion. To save the cost of sheet music, he used to sit me down on the bed in my room and get me to sing the latest hits and he would work out the chords on the accordion by ear and write them down in a book. Songs like “The Little White Cloud that Cried” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”.
Income from music was unpredictable, so Dad and a red-haired guitarist called Bluey decided to venture into the fruit and vegetable business. They bought a table-top truck with a tall metal frame and canvas awning stretched across the roof and around the sides. I called it the Spanish galleon. When it rounded the corner at the bottom of our street and came towards the house with the wind in its awnings it looked like a sailing ship. They would go from door to door, crying out, “Get your fruit and vegetables”. The housewives would come out and buy from the back of the truck. There was a nice set of brass scales with weights in pounds and ounces. At the crack of dawn Dad or Bluey would drive to Paddy’s Markets at Haymarket, Sydney, to buy stock. I went once. Calabrian and Sicilian growers called out the prices and Dad ran around buying boxes of tomatoes and bags of potatoes as the first rays of the sun cast stripes of light through the steam rising from piles of freshly harvested cabbages and lettuces.
The fruit run was doing pretty well but soon Dad had another idea which did not involve going to the market every morning. Fish and chips. He bought a bus, took out the seats and painted it white with Fish and Chips in red letters along the sides. It was hard work but soon we were making real money. One New Year’s Eve we parked the bus at the top of William Street, Kings Cross. A queue formed. It got longer and longer, as far as the eye could see. I cut up the potatoes and Mum and Dad fried the fish and chips while Bluey took the money. The venture was so successful that we soon had another partner. They called him the third man after the film by the same name. “Harry Lime” disappeared one day with all the money from the day’s takings and the fish and chip business went bust.
Undaunted, Jack took his remaining pounds to the race track, where he lost the money, but he met an illegal bookmaker who was to change our lives forever. Off-course bookmakers or starting price SP bookies were operating outside the law, but they were attractive to punters. Bets were placed by phone and the bookie paid out the winnings after the last race. To avoid the long arm of the law the bookmakers used other people’s phones. Dad got paid ten pounds a week – pretty good money when the basic weekly wage was about five pounds – for use of his phone for a few hours on Saturday afternoons.
The bookmaker wore a black suit, waistcoat, tie and a felt fedora. He was a short man, with good manners, a pleasant faced wife and a little girl of my age. We played in the garden during the races and afterwards there was afternoon tea and scones inside. I hate to think now what would have happened if we had been raided by the police. The neighbours gossiped but they never dobbed us in. One Saturday the bookie gave Jack a tip from a crooked horse trainer and he won three thousand pounds on a grey mare in the last race.
Mum said: “Jack, are you gonna buy a house?”
“No,” he said, “I’m gonna do better than that. I’m gonna buy some land and become a farmer.” He used his winnings to buy seven rocky acres of bushland on the banks of the Georges River at Macquarie Fields. Giant gum trees arched above ferny gullies dense with wild flowers, tree ferns, acacias and Christmas bush. In the sandstone cliffs bordering the river we found ancient caves, the walls hand painted by long disappeared Aborigines. From the clifftop near the house you could see the river twist and glisten like a shiny ribbon. The undergrowth was lacy and luxuriant especially in spring when bacon and egg bushes and flannel flowers grew across the escarpment.
You daren’t look at the horizon for fear of falling as you slithered and clambered down the last steep part of the track to the soft white sand and leaf mould beside the river’s edge. In dry months it was still and black with a thick layer of leaves on its bottom. If you stirred the water with your foot the leaves would rise to the top in a cloud and reveal the pale floor of the river. A large tree trunk washed white by the high waters that came after the rains lay across the sand. A place to sit. I still have black and white faded photos of Mum in a seersucker swimsuit and Dad, looking rakish and handsome on that log. But perhaps what most sticks in my memory is the screeching of the birds and the echo of voices around the bend, bouncing against the tall cliffs and back again. We learned to call to each other from strategic spots and delighted in hearing our voices echoing back. One day I went for a swim and saw a brightly coloured kingfisher sitting on a log on the riverbank.
Jack had put all the money from his win at the races on the land so there was no money left over to build a proper house. That didn’t stop Dad. He bought a goods train wagon, the kind that was used for transporting meat. It had heavy wooden doors which swung outwards so they could be closed from the outside with long metal levers. In summer we slept with the doors open and closed them in winter. My little sister screamed when huge daddy longlegs spiders emerged from the walls at night and sat on their webs high up in the corners, their hairy legs casting spooky shadows in the candlelight. We had candles and kerosene lamps until we got the electricity on. We carried water in buckets from a neighbour’s house until they let us run a water pipe over the ground from their front tap to our house.
On weekends Dad’s mates came out and pretty soon they built a big wood and fibro extension onto the wagon. We painted the interior in shiny canary yellow oil paint. A black fuel stove took pride of place beside the kitchen door and big comfy lounge chairs at the other end of the room sat around a radio gramophone and an upright piano. On Sundays Mum cooked roast lamb and potatoes, pumpkin and peas. The adults drank beer by the bottle and then we all hiked down to the river for a wash and a swim. It was the best ten-minute walk in the world. Walking sticks in hand we descended, treading carefully on the sandstone rocks of the track, the gums towering overhead. The occasional goanna froze where it stood, staring at us, petrified, and we stared back, just as frightened. We quickly realised they were harmless. The trick was to eyeball them as long as possible. As long as you did that they would not move. If you blinked they were gone.
On winter mornings the surface of the puddles left by overnight rain turned to ice. Spider webs of white icy lace hung between the low bushes beside the track to the front gate. We could not afford gloves or warm woollen socks, just old hand-me-down overcoats from my cousins. The coats doubled up as blankets on our beds at night.
With four kids – sorry five – another one was on the way, the house was too small, so Jack decided to buy a tram carriage. It cost twenty-five pounds and much more, he said, to transport it. It had a splendid running board along both sides. We played at being conductor and passengers, pulling the bell and collecting fares. A driver’s cabin at each end, brass fittings, frosted glass windows and separate compartments, fitted with original wooden curved benches for passengers.
Sadly, necessity dictated alterations. The compartments were converted into bedrooms and a bathroom. Mum refused to wash in the river any more and we acquired an outside copper for boiling sheets and bath water. Dad had a four legged bath installed in the tram and we had regular if not frequent baths. It was a functional house with a corrugated iron roof and laid out in an elegant L shape.
Our neighbours were all battlers like us and no one looked down on us for having such an unorthodox house. Our nearest neighbours, the Pickerings, lived in a lean-to shack. The inside walls were lined with hessian bags and back issues of the Women’s Weekly. One day old Mrs Pickering called me in to help her find her glass eye which had fallen into the washing. I found it. She popped it back into place as I watched in astonishment.
The land at Macquarie Fields was not farming country. The peach trees we planted in rows in the stony land beside the train carriage all died. But then Dad had a better idea. He bought a hundred day-old chicks and a kerosene-heated incubator to keep them warm so they wouldn’t even miss their mothers. It worked like a charm, too, until it blew up and there were barbequed chickens all over the place. Dad was devastated. He didn’t talk to anybody for two days. So much of his hard earned money gone up in smoke.
After that, he lost all interest in becoming a chook farmer. Not all the chickens were cooked, however. Some of them escaped into the bush and survived by eating wild grasses and seeds. We never cut their wings and they grew strong and fat and were able to fly up to roost on the tops of the tallest gums. We hunted through the undergrowth and sometimes found their eggs, which finished up on the dinner table.
Dad said it was going to take some time to set up a farm. In the meantime he was teaching piano at a rented studio opposite Liverpool Station and I was learning to touch type at Liverpool College on Tuesday nights. After class he picked me up on his motorbike. There were no street lights to show us the way, as we rode on dirt roads through gum forests in the army land and over the ford at Casula and finally to Macquarie Fields. Our house lay at the end of the road. I sat on the back of the bike, hanging on to Dad and bumping along. The house had no front fence or front gate but when the beam from the head light lit up the white fowls perched high up on the tree tops we knew we were home.
Then Dad came up with a new idea – pig farming. “Lot of money in pigs,” he told Mum. The idea was to buy a young female, fatten her up and then breed from her. Our first pig was a black stumpy hairy sow. I christened her Rosita. She was always hungry and ate all the time. Anything at all really. That was the beauty of a pig, Dad said. You didn’t have to buy expensive food from the produce store, or provide heating or buy seed. In no time at all, as everybody knew, pigs bred like crazy – you would have a pig farm and you could just sit back and watch them grow fat and have piglets. Ham, Dad told us, was expensive meat, a lot dearer to buy in the shop than eggs or chickens.
One night I was drifting off to sleep when I heard a grunting sound outside the house. I leapt out of bed and ran to the back door, in time to see Rosita blunder across the steps. “Dad,” I yelled, “Rosita’s got out.” Like greased lightning he shot out of the bedroom. I should mention in brackets here that my father hated wearing pyjamas and was in the habit of wearing my mother’s nightgown to bed. Quick as a flash he hitched up the nightgown, jumped on my bicycle and pedalled furiously up the track, the full moon shining brightly on that white gown as the pig disappeared from sight. I waited a long time until he came back, crestfallen and tired – and without Rosita. A few days later an angry farmer knocked on the back door, demanding a hundred pounds compensation for the damage caused by our pig to his lucerne patch. “I haven’t got the money, but you can keep the pig,” Dad said, and so ended his dream of becoming a pig farmer.
Shortly afterwards he came home with six months’ back issues of the Saturday newspapers. A mate had given him a winning formula to make money at the races. It had to do with the horses’ names as I recall. He gave us an imaginary one thousand pounds and we had to apply the system to the race results. At the end of the trial, which took me and my brother Denis quite a few weeks to complete, we had lost several hundred imaginary pounds, and so Dad dropped that idea too.
Dad used to play piano at the pub at Liverpool on Friday and Saturday nights. He was nice looking and fussy about his clothes, plastering his dark hair down with olive oil to make it look shiny. One morning Mum discovered lipstick on his shirt and after that she used to go to the pub as well. I suspect Dad never really played up with other women. It was just that ladies seem to like musicians and throw themselves at them all the time.
I loved music too and I even fancied myself as a singer. I loved to accompany Dad on music jobs and I was busting to get up and sing in front of a band. He was playing piano in a band called the Jungle Jivers at Ashfield Town Hall on Saturday nights. Sometimes he would let me get up in front of the microphone and sing when they were testing the sound levels. I wanted to be like my cousin Joy who was the lead vocalist for a 12 piece orchestra at Rockdale Town Hall. But Dad told me I couldn’t sing in tune, that I was always flat and that I should not entertain any dreams of becoming a singer. Anyway it was a terrible life, he said. Always on the road. Better to get a job in an office.
When I turned fourteen Dad decided it was time I left school. I argued with him for five days and nights. “Why do you want to stay at school?” he said. Hadn’t he finished school at twelve? Hadn’t my mother finished school at the same age? I pleaded with him but he was adamant. I found a job at the Water Board as a junior clerk. My job consisted of filing and delivering internal mail. Dad could not have been more impressed if I had become the managing director. No matter that he could play the piano like Art Tatum, he thought working in an office was the pinnacle of success. He saw himself as a failure because he had to put up with little boys wetting their pants during piano lessons. I never thought of him like that.
Music wasn’t always lucrative and so for a while he became a fettler on the railways. That didn’t last long and he took a job as a builder’s labourer. One day he came home early from a job on a construction site, pushing wet cement in a wheelbarrow up several floors and back down again all day. The foreman kept picking on Dad for going too slow. He put up with it for hours until he could take it no longer. He pushed the wheelbarrow of cement to the top and let it go, right down to the bottom. He didn’t wait around to get fired.
He had a navy blue T model Ford truck that I named Violet. It was cold in the mornings at Macquarie Fields, so cold that the water in Violet’s radiator often froze. Mum would grab the hot teapot and pour the brew into the frozen radiator. It was my job to sit behind the steering wheel with my foot on the accelerator and push it down at just the right moment as Dad cranked the handle at the front of the engine. We all went off to work or to school leaving Mum alone in the house with my little brother Mark. It was a hard and lonely life for her in that little house in the bush.
One summer the bushfires came within a mile of the house. The sky was dark with smoke and the sun was blood red. Mum lost it that day. She ran around in circles aiming the hose like a fountain at the sky. Suddenly it started to rain. Big hailstones at first and then huge drops. We ran around in it laughing. After the rain stopped, the ground gave off an aroma of eucalyptus and native pine. Wet leaves, moist earth, glistening pebbles on the track. The chooks hunched up in the trees trying to keep their feathers dry. We sat inside around the fuel stove in the kitchen waiting for the tea to boil and Mum made pancakes. Dad sat down at the upright piano and played “Tea for Two” and “As Time Goes By”.
Mum spat the dummy one day when she came inside with the washing and saw a brown snake curled up under the table. “That’s it, Jack. We’re moving”. So we went back to the suburbs to a tiny house in East Hills and Dad stopped dreaming of becoming a farmer and went back to the music game – playing in pubs and clubs and teaching snotty nosed kids to play the piano.
Time moved on, and we all grew up and left home. A couple of years ago I was in Melbourne helping a friend to paint a tram for the Moomba Festival. Big trams, steam trams, horse-drawn trams, electric trams were all there in the tram museum. The curator asked me who I was and what I did. “Well”, I said, “I used to be a reporter and I am writing a book about a murder and, oh yes, I used to live in a tram.” He was all ears. “What sort of tram?” I described it down to the last detail; the frosted windows, the running boards, the brass fittings. He listened in rapt attention. “Where is it now?” I told him the people who bought the property had pushed it over the cliff into the gully below. “Pity”, he said, shaking his head sadly. “It would be worth at least two million dollars now.”
Before he died at 92, Dad contracted Parkinson’s, had several strokes, epilepsy, dementia and arthritis but he still played the piano. The melody line was correct, the chords were all there and even the technique but each time I went to see him more and more of the notes were missing. I would love to know why he went AWOL during the war and what he did during those years on the run. What was it like in Boggo Road Gaol and what was it like sharing a cell at Long Bay Gaol with millionaire white-collar criminal John Woolcott Forbes who was convicted in 1944 of forging share certificates? I would like to know about the jazz sessions with the American Negro musicians at the Cross and where did he live and could he tell me about the father I never met till I was six years old?