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Free at Last …

Happy days! The graduation at Newcastle University on 21 April was an unforgettable experience…. students from faculties various graduating with their degrees, wearing many differently coloured hoods to mark the discipline they belonged to – teachers, scientists and so forth. I was very surprised when I noted the number of us graduating as Masters of Theology. Our hood is sombre, compared to many of the others… black, and lined in ‘pearl’ (really, an off-white. It’s the same, we were told, as those worn by MA graduates at Cambridge. All the graduates also wore their trenchers, or mortar boards.

We were seated in rows. All the M.Th graduates were together  and most appeared to be young women.

Looking like an intoxicated owl

I was told that for those teachers wishing to teach in Roman Catholic schools, it was necessary to have a theological qualification, so many seem to have decided on a senior theological qualification. When it was our turn to be handed our degree by the Chancellor of the University, each row was called up in turn…. out the front, up the stairs onto the stage, wait until name called, walk past the row of Ph.Ds (acknowledge them), take the degree, shake the chancellor’s hand, turn and smile at the camera, depart. Finally, it was all over. Later, Janet. took my photo out in the garden near the dining area. I must have been in a bit of a daze, for I bear a distinct resemblance to a slightly intoxicated owl.

I’ve had only one other graduation and that was from the United Faculty of Theology, St Andrew’s College at  the University of Sydney, in 1969, which qualified me to be ordained the following year as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. In those days, only about twelve of us graduated… a very low key affair. Any other awards I’ve received have been ‘in absentia’ and came to me in time through the mail.

Now that I am free of the study scene, and with an M.Th under my belt, I should be free to be more in contact, unlike the days of old. I feel so much stronger now that I am relieved of the burden of study and reflection on matters deep and theological  – although I am tied into conducting quite a few services around the traps, as far down as St Ives.

Now for some more relaxed news … The other day I mowed the lawn here at “Puddleby Corner”  but didn’t start early enough. It. was a hottish day for autumn,  so by the time I finished I was a 5ft 6in. ball of glistening white lard, staggering about, hanging onto the self-propelled lawnmower, which went wherever its noisy little heart desired. Later, in the cool of the evening, I did the edges with that horrible trimmer thing – yes – the very one that earned me the unfortunate title of “the man of a thousand lashes”. It took ages for the ten thousand lashes up my leg made by the whipper-snipper to fade, after taking about half a second to acquire. That should have taught me to wear long trews, given my unfortunate propensity for ganging about my duties clumsily and with scant attention to what may happen. There’s a mile of difference between mowing lawns and gardening, and doing a bit of solid study. I have a feeling that by nature and build, I’m more suited to the latter. That way we are all safer.

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The Hysteria Meter

The ability I have for irritating people from time to time is best revealed when they want me to do something intelligent. I have a thing in my head that I call my “hysteria meter”. The needle indicates the level of hysteria in people who are trying to help me do something a bit on the techno side – and somehow, nothing clicks.

The other day my Canberra brother, who has a highly developed technological brain, was attempting help me do something on my computer, ‘talking me through’ by phone. I could hear his hysteria levels rising: “On the LEFT side of the screen! Up under the bar that reads FILE! You must be able to see it!”

“Huh? Wha – ? I can’t see it – it’s definitely not there.”

A silence follows. I have a mental picture of my brother on his back on the floor, banging his head on the carpet; or kicking his little legs in the air in despair, or perhaps he’s run outside to scream, or perhaps all of the above…
Finally: “Is Heather there?”

“As a matter of fact, she is. Would you like to talk to  her?”

“Please”. The tone almost qualifies as a prayer. His hysteria level is off the planet.

Our daughter  arrives. Three minutes later, the job is done.

When following directions, nothing seems to happen the way it’s meant to happen. In my childhood, the usual method of dealing with obtuseness was to attempt to beat intelligence into children, so I received many from those teachers who taught technical drawing, woodwork, science and other subjects that required a practical mind. My father too – a very practical farming type, used the same tactic, but none worked, and an incident yesterday in a certain supermarket is indicative. (By the way, the photo in this story was not taken in the store where the incident occurred. It’s for demonstration purposes only).

Janet has a touching belief, despite evidence to the contrary, that her husband is capable of carrying out simple household chores without supervision. Every now and then her belief must be put to the test, but somehow only temporarily…

Her forgettery must have been working overtime yesterday when she sent me to a supermarket to purchase a few items she needed … bread and so forth. Overjoyed at her confidence, and promising faithfully to read the list of what was required, I set off jauntily, feeling very important and grown-up.
At the supermarket I browsed around the aisles until I had all the items on the list. When I approached the check-out lanes I was dismayed to see that all had people queuing, so decided to use one of those self-pay booths popular these days. I told the young attendant I wasn’t sure how the self-pay things work, so he came over to help me. He had a bright, smiling and helpful countenance and appeared eager to make certain my experience was without incident…

“Here we are, sir. Put the bread there … no, no – so the bar code faces the scanner”.

I turned the bread around several times… bar code… bar code.. that little line of black things…. Can’t find it. He watched me for a while, then with a smile removed the item from my grasp .

“It’s here” he said, pointing. I put it near the scanner, and nothing happened. The young man still kept his cool. He took the bread from me and held it up to the scanner – PING – off it went immediately.

“That wasn’t hard now, was it sir? Now you can try. Put the next one on. Don’t be frightened. It won’t bite.”

I did. Nothing. It refused to ping. I could sense the helpful young man was finding me a bit of a challenge. The hysteria metre needle was starting an upward swing, just like the tachometer in your car, counting the revs.

He took the item and placed it in position: PING – again it it went off obediently.

“Put the next one on sir”. The smile was still there – just a tad uncertain now, and I noted a certain tightness had crept into his voice. (A lady at another machine was trying not to watch but she couldn’t help it.  Glancing over, I saw her sides heaving. Then I realised she was giggling). Nervously I put the next item on the little platform: PING PING PING PING. The one item registered four times. I tell you the truth. The young attendant’s jaw dropped. His eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“What the – I’ve never seen it do that before!” (Hysteria needle now in the red zone). He stepped up to the wretched machine and did various adjustments to remove the excess payments.

Only one more item to go. The young attendant looked at it, then me, and nodded nervously. I held it up to the scanner. Nothing. “Wave it in front of the scanner, sir!” (Hysteria level now well into the red. Engine just short of seizing…). I waved it.. “SLOWER – WAVE IT MORE SLOWLY!” Young attendant’s fingers were making clutching motions – a sure sign of advanced hysteria… Finally: PING! It worked!

Young man tottered to the register. “Put your card in, please – NO – your bank card! Library cards won’t work in this machine!!!” (Hysteria level registering ‘Frantic’)

At last the nightmare was over and I tottered thankfully from the store. Glancing back I noted the lady was shaking her head, chortling. I could almost imagine her thoughts – useless male!

Back home at last, I threw the bag on the table. “Home, Janet. Got the lot!”

“That’s fine dear. Any worries?” I noted the very slight tic in my wife’s left eye. It pops in at hysteria level 01: husband out alone, unsupervised …

“Went like a night- I mean, dream”.
Oh well, that was yesterday’s effort. I’ve promised myself I won’t tell Janet what really happened. Please don’t dob me in. We don’t want to worry her unduly, do we?


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On Heroines and Hero Worship (with apologies to Thomas Carlyle)

At last the pain I have been enduring while typing is gradually subsiding.

I have to confess it was my own fault: The other morning my mind was not on what I was doing. It was somewhere else; probably contemplating the ongoing mystery of the Deuteronomic Concept of Retribution and the necessity of God’s grace. I was making (or attempting to make) a ‘smoothie at the time, with a banana in one paw and one of those stick blenders in the other. Unfortunately, I contemplated a tad too long, and absently fed one finger instead of the banana into the blender …

I never knew one finger contained so much blood! As I looked at the floor, in a state of shock, it appeared a mass murder had been committed in our kitchen, with pools of good ANeg everywhere.

Here’s just one picture to give you an idea.

Thankfully, I heal well and the good news is, being marrie to Janet, who did her time as a registered nurse, has been a blessing. She’s had plenty of extra practice over the years on the ageing and scarred body of her accident-prone hubby.

Speaking of nurses; last Thursday Janet went to a funeral of one of those she trained with all those years ago. Gail was a delightful person, who died unexpectedly, after spending her working lifetime as a registered nurse. The order of service has a photo of her, back in the days when she and Janet and others were all in the same class at Royal Newcastle Hospital, during the four years of their training, when they had to ‘live in’ – a bit like “Call the Midwife”. It brought home to me the fact that the years are flying
. Gail was the youngest in Janet’s group. All were 18 years of age in their first year of training. Here is a photo of them all, including Janet; beautiful young women, commencing their working lives to care for others in the field of nursing. Sadly, Gail wasn’t the first in Janet’s group to pass beyond the veil. Others have died before her.  Quite a few f the surviving classmates attended the service for Gail

The previous Tuesday I’d conducted a funeral service in my old parish of Manly NSW. The deceased lady was Miss Audrey Cummins, the organist during my time there; in fact she spent roughly forty-five years as the organist at St Andrew’s Manly. She was a brilliant organist. Her predecessor was Miss Alice Bryant, who was the organist at St Andrew’s Manly for sixty-three years. The famous Australian artist Tom Roberts painted a por
trait of Alice, seated at the stool of St Andrew’s superb pipe organ. The painting hung in the vestry for years. Between them, those two wonderful ladies clocked up over a hundred years of dedication; playing sacred hymns and music at St Andrew’s and were involved in various church and choral activities; all hatches, matches and despatches as well. Miss Bryant was quite famous as an organist with a world-wide reputation, as was Audrey, and I was pleased when Audrey was awarded an OAM for her contribution to organ music in 2005. I felt greatly honoured to be asked to conduct her funeral service in the church she loved.

Last Wednesday was a day of violent weather which continued into the night.  Our dear dog Jock normally has a warm and cosy bed in a special room in our shed, which he likes, but on nights like that he gets a bit nervous and prefers to stay in the house with us. He has a special little comfy bed which I put in our bedroom beside me on those occasions. About 2.30am Thursday I was startled into wakefulness by Jock’s urgent nudgings as he pawed at me while making little whimpering sounds that sounded like “Dad – get up! Something’s not right!” He was definitely saying it in dog language. It had never happened before. My first thought was that he wanted to go outside, but it wasn’t. He ran to the stairs and looked up. That’s when I became aware that the fire alarm up there was beeping. I rushed up the stairs, checked everything out, found there was no fire and managed to stop it somehow. Of course by this time we were all awake. Finally we went back to bed.

Next morning Heather told us that after we went to bed, the alarm made a couple of more beeps. When that happened, Jock rushed up the stairs and stayed with her for the rest of the night, sleeping on the floor beside her bed, no doubt ready to wake her if the beeping recommenced.

I’ve thought about it frequently ever since – how quiet, beautiful Jock may well have saved our lives, had the alarm signalled a real fire, for I heard nothing. How many people have died, unable to escape, because they did not know their house was alight until too late?

We look at Jock with increased love and respect these days. This is a dog who at age two had been ill-treated before he came to us, and would probably have been shot – because he didn’t want to chase sheep! Jock is now nine years of age, and our hero – may God bless his brave and faithful little heart.

By the way, I haven’t mentioned this to Tonkie… don’t want to make him jealous!



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Of Tomatoes and things…

The week’s wild weather made it impossible to do too much outside, and I have been fearful for my growing children, in the form of the tomatoes I planted too late in the season. I have been tending like a mother hen and am only sorry that I did not wax enthusiastic a month earlier, for the cooler weather means they are reluctant to turn red. A couple of days ago I found one of Janet’s strawberries had turned a bright red. I plucked it, then took it to each tomato bush in turn and showed it to them; first congratulating them on the many tomato children they are all carrying, then urging them to turn their children into the same lovely rich shade of red as our friend Christine’s tomatoes, for I’ve already shown them the beautiful photos of the rich, red tomatoes that Chris grew. They are beautiful, and the bushes are covered in them! My tomato bushes stared obediently at the photos, although I thought – only thought, you mind, a response I would identify as a touch of jealousy. Anyway, they all nodded in agreement, but when later I told Janet that all the bushes appeared only too willing to cooperate, she suggested that their nodding may be due to the gale that was raging around them at the time. I prefer not to think so negatively and I think I may be right in that, for this afternoon I found three tomatoes that while not exactly red, are pale pink and by this time tomorrow should be a much deeper shade.

I have a reasonably new scanner (scanner only) but upon taking it home discovered it stubbornly refused to work on this Mac, but is most obliging and helpful when put to work on my elderly PC laptop. To scan anything, I had to drag out the old laptop, plug in a memory stick, scan onto it then transfer the memory stick to the Mac.

Heather, upon noting this cumbersome way of doing things, suggested that I download the scanner driver onto the Mac. I didn’t like to tell her that I’d tried it previously and had completely failed.

We had to go out somewhere that day and Heather said she’d have a go at it. I agreed, for I’ve noticed before that she has a natural, intuitive way of working these things out. When we got back, I was delighted to learn that the driver was happily downloading – and when finally it did, Heather showed me how, being originally made for a PC, it could work just as well on the Mac when certain procedures were followed. How she learned that I do not know – but it does, and it’s a brilliant little scanner.

Our clever daughter also discovered that an invitation had arrived at my old Newcastle University online address, inviting me to the attend the graduation ceremony on 21 April at Newcastle University. If she hadn’t found it, I’d have missed out on attending the ceremony and would have received the bit of paper in the mail, which would have been a bit of an anti-climax. I printed the invitation out… it’s not as if they do anything for nothing. I mean, it’s going to cost $218.00 (it has in fact, for I’ve sent in the shekels) which includes attending, having three guests, (only three… I’ve invited Janet, Heather, Laura), hire or purchase of academic gear and supper for all, as well as the privilege of getting the piece of paper pressed into my eager and trembling paw by the Dean or someone of similar rank. The money includes the purchase of the academic Master’s hood and trencher (cap), which are the same as MA graduates of the University of Cambridge, which I found to be very uplifting news and helped make all the study involved worthwhile.

There is a somewhat surreal quality about all that; in fact I really wish some of my former school teachers, half of whom regarded me as “a stupid boy”; vague and dull of intellect while the other half believed me to be a devious and cunning child … whatever, they all sought to cane either intelligence or honesty into me. I still remember old Wotisname, the science master, after I’d sinfully erred, glaring at me redly through his tiny little eyes: “Repeat after me, Lang: “Loch Ness has one – I AM one!”

“Loch Ness has one – you ARE one!”

Of course  that resulted in extra beatings which was a bit tough, for I had not idea at the time of the connection with the monster and was trying to appease the enraged scientist. I never did pass science as a subject. Oh well, if they (the beatings) did me nae good, they didnae do me any harrrm, as my old Scots granny would say…

The other news received on Friday was from the lady who is painting my portrait for the Newcastle Portrait Artists’ annual exhibition. The portrait is now complete and will be on show, with many others, in the Uniting Church hall at Adamstown, cnr Brunker Road and Glebe Road this coming weekend, 9.00am – 4.00pm. She told me this while putting the finishing touches to the portrait and in fact that very day there was an invitation in the mail. I am a bit concerned what the painting will look like, in view of the fact that this year’s theme is: “Let’s Face It – When Nature gets it wrong” (Let’s Face It – rather clever, for a portrait artists’ Association).

My brother Bill and wife Jenny from Canberra departed from here for sunny Qld on Tuesday. Bill did some work on my Mac before he left which made it run a lot better. I am so fortunate to have such hi-tech family members in Bill, Heather, Pat and also among friends, as in George. It is particularly in the hi-tech area that I am indeed a stupid boy. In fact I was thinking of George because on Friday I was fiddling around among the wires and things under the desk and somehow pulled the plug out of the modem, which immediately stopped. I could not get it to work, even after I plugged it back in again. Finally I had to call George. He took one look and said “It’s probably not working because you haven’t replaced the phone line back into the modem.” He found the loose phone line and plugged it in.. “It should work now” said George confidently. It should have – but it didn’t. He did everything except dismantle the modem. With bits and pieces and wires and things scattered around him, I was rather reminded of a sausage surrounded by chips. He adamantly refused to let me help him, apart from prayer, for in the past, as he knows only too well, my ‘help’ has added hours to his work. He was  the science teacher at Coonamble in 1970, so we’ve known each other for a long time. He came to our Church in Coonamble, and has retired at Buttaba here on the lake. He attends St Andrew’s Newcastle. Finally he shook his head, completely baffled. “I can’t understand it! It should work! The modem seems to be searching and searching but can’t seem to find the password… er, you didn’t change the password recently, did you?”
“Yep– I changed it yesterday.”

George is good at hiding his feelings, although I noted his fingers making clutching motions, as if holding a cane. I could tell he wasn’t happy by the level of hysteria in his voice, and his complaint that it would have helped if I’d passed on that critical piece of information an hour before.

He put everything back and went into the computer’s settlings, I think he called it, and finally, after I gave him the password, the computer resumed it usual workings. It was five minutes to midnight. Hooray!

Reflecting on that has  happened these past couple of years or so, with the ill-deserved OAM awarded a couple of years ago (but which I regard as a great honour), it occurred to me that the real person who should be receiving accolades is Janet. She has been quietly (or mainly quietly) and with remarkable efficiency, running the home, as she has these past 55 years come next September, and all the time, quite unfairly it seems to me, yrs trly has been getting the kudos. – Without the life’s partner, not much of it would have happened, when one thinks of times when I’ve been away, or involved all sorts of activities associated with work in which she could not participate, back home running the daily activities, seeing to the childer’s many needs. It seems rather unfair to me, but it’s the way it’s been … The walls of this study are covered with plaques; detailing a busy life – but not Janet’s busy life. Maybe hers are seen in the lives of our five (reasonably) well-adjusted childer. Any mal-adjustment would be down to my chasing them around the house, snip-snipping with the salad tongs, or with a large and hairy spider on the end of a broom etc; finding other useful ways to terrorize them.

Of course we’ve had some wonderful times together in places such as Scotland and the North Isles of Shetland.

In the meantime, I will reflect on all that I have written, as a stupid boy, or cunning and devious… I dinnae think it matters much. Those teachers are dead these past years anyway, leaving me to enjoy the latter years of family life with Janet, and Tonkie and Jock our gorgeous four-footed children, and two-legged children grown and falling loosely within the guidelines of what is generally regarded as sanity, and the company of the wee birds I feed daily, and those tomatoes….

I thank God for the many ways in which He has blessed, and continues to bless, His bumbling servant …

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On cars I’ve had and other strange memories

The other day someone sent me an e-mail story with photos of an amazing car: a 1907 Rolls Royce.. so elegant! So old-world! Such a luxurious interior! Anyway, it sold at auction for over four million dollars.

It was from that era, circa 1907, that Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger and all the rest of the dwellers on the riverbank were brought to our attention in Kenneth Graham’s beautiful book, The Wind in the Willows – still my favourite novel. Toad, who lived in the palatial Toad Hall, was (briefly) the celebrated and famous car thief, would love to have stolen something like that 1907 Roller and taken it for  joyride but the very thought of seeing it destroyed through the Toad’s reckless driving, is horrifying. All  the same, I sometimes tell Janet that I am going back to the riverbank to live – bunk in with Ratty and Mole, or grab one of Toad’s rooms, or even ‘Mole End’, as far away as possible from this sad and sordid world which depresses me deeply from time to time.

On a cheerier note, cars are always connected with memories that belong to them.  Think of a car you’ve had, or a car that was part of your childhood and immediately the memories stir… (Not now, Toady! We know all about YOUR exploits! Your parents would be utterly shocked!)

I have always loved cars. To my better half, they are simply a means of getting from A to S (ALDI to Spotlight).

The other day on our way into Toronto, Janet was chatting away when suddenly I interrupted her. ‘Did you see that?’

‘See what?’ asked Janet, looking nervously about her.

‘The car that just passed us, going the other way!’

‘No. What about it?’

‘It was a Morgan! British racing green! Surely you saw it?’

‘How spiffing! Sorry – no, I didn’t see it’.

Even if Janet had seen it, there was no way it would have set her heart going pitter-patter, as it did mine.

Reflecting, as I am now, I must say that not all cars bring happy memories – especially a particular Austin A70 that the local Catholic priest in Leeton was driving, the evening he ran over me. I was aged 16, riding my pushbike on the way to Church. He put me in hospital for a month. I was very fortunate. I lived. Amazingly, a couple of years ago I had an X-ray that revealed a compressed fracture of the vertebrae, up high on the back. ‘An old injury,’ I was told. I never knew I had it, but suspect it was the result of instantly travelling from about 8kmph to 110kph, thrown into the air and glued to the windscreen of Fr Wright’s A70 before being thrown off onto the side of the road… bit of a shock for Fr Wright!

Other memories are happier. Back in the old days, just after WW2 when it was almost impossible to buy cars, my father had a T Model Ford, which we used to drive into town from the farm. I can still hear the old folk, and us kids, singing ‘O good Lord, how we roared, in that old fashioned Ford, along the road to Leeton town!’

Dad tried vainly to teach mum to drive. I once saw mum behind the wheel, with dad beside her, as the old Ford rocketed around a corner on two wheels. Finally dad gave up, to the relief of every one of us – none more so than mum.

After my motorbike passion (still lurking) a friend and I bought a 1926 Chevrolet (big wooden wheels. The wipers were hand-worked). It was the ‘Archie and Jughead’ era and we emulated Archie by painting up the Chev and writing messages on it such as “Don’t laugh Mother – your daughter might be in here!” Mother need not have worried. No girl would have been seen dead in it. The Chev was followed by a lovely little 1948 Morris 8 soft-top.

I was between vehicles when Janet and I first began ‘stepping out’ as they used to say, so borrowed a friend’s ancient Austin A40 ute to go anywhere. The pistons slapped around loosely in the bores and there were holes in the cabin floor around which one had to  manoeuvre to avoid going through. Wherever we went the road ahead was obscured by volumes of blue smoke that blew up into the cabin through holes in the rusted manifold.

My first  new car was a little Renault Dauphine – so French! So chic! Unfortunately, it was not made for Australian conditions and the engine, mounted in the rear, regularly overheated. It was only 800cc which, tied to an ineffectual three-speed gearbox, made going up hills a nightmare. Memories of our parting are not painful.

After Janet and I married we went off to Dorrigo in an elderly Morris Major. I was a young Presbyterian minister, still in my twenties. The Morris was a good little car, and as we were childless at the time, space was not an issue.  It was a tough little car – but the accelerator had a nasty habit on occasion of sticking. One evening, on my way down the notorious Dorrigo Mountain road to Bellingen to conduct a church service, the accelerator stuck just before an S bend. In less than a breath the S bend claimed me. I can recall every fraction of a second of that two-hundred-foot plunge. The Morris plummeted fifty feet before it hit a ledge and bounced off into space again. I know it was two hundred feet because the firm that retrieved the destroyed Morris used that length of cable. Unlike today’s cars, it was made of steel, and I think went a long way toward saving my life. For a long time afterwards there was a sign on the S bend that read ‘Lang’s Leap’.  I still have a clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Minister in Mountain Gap Plunge’ and a cartoon in the local Bellingen paper: a fellow with wings holding a steering wheel and saying to the editor, ‘Guess what? I just discovered a short cut down the Dorrigo Mountain!’

The replacement of the Morris was bought at the local garage in Dorrigo. Ray Cork, the proprietor and shire clerk, was a great bloke – honest as the day, whose thoughts were concentrated largely on cars. When we arrived in Dorrigo people were still laughing about a visit some time before by the State Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, the Right Rev. Robert Cruikshank. Ray thought that a visit by such an important person required a civic reception, which was arranged and went beautifully – except for the fact that Ray, his mind never far from his cars, referred to Mr Cruikshank throughout the ceremony as ‘the Right Reverend Robert Crankshaft’.

Anyway, Ray sold me a brand new, indescribably beautiful, sporty Hillman Gazelle. It was lovely: dark green, grey comfortable bucket seats with a real walnut veneer dash. I loved that car.

Beloved Hillman Gazelle

There was the occasional church car over the years but the next one we owned was a 1972 Holden HQ. It was silver, with mags and looked a million dollars – but it had a bench seat and ‘three on the tree’ (gearstick on steering column). As well, the one of our five children who sat in the front middle had no air vent, and the quarter vents had been removed from that model, on. There was no air-conditioning. In all, it was a mundane vehicle – but as I got into it once, wearing a clerical collar, I heard a couple of kids remark, ‘What’s HE doing in a car like that? As I said, it looked a million dollars – on the outside.

Then there was a superb, if elderly, Audi Super 90, but as it had five seats and we had seven backsides it was not practical.

Common sense prevailed, and the vehicle that remains in our memories is the new VW Microbus I bought in Deniliquin when we lived in Finley. It cost $4,000 on the road. ‘Everybody lean forward!’ I’d call as the VW’s underpowered 1600cc air-cooled engine gasped its way up over some hill … and I can still hear us, singing as we drove, ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday …’

Years passed and we still had the VW. I was in the Regular Army as a chaplain and away a lot. Janet needed a little car, for she’d gone back to some part-time nursing. One day corporal English told me she was going to sell her 1974 Mazda RX4, which had a new 13B rotary engine, and she wanted $1200 for it. I grabbed it! The German company NSU had produced the first mass produced rotary engined car, the Ro80. NSU was short for Neckarsulm, a  town in Germany where the car was manufactured.

They were beautiful to look at and really performed, and I’d admired a few in Australia. Now Mazda was the only company producing rotary engined cars. The RX4 was a delight to drive and I loved driving it – but I never forgot the original NSU.

One day I was counselling a soldier – a real problem soldier who kept leaving his wife and going off with other women, but she kept having him back.

‘Last month,’ he told me glumly, ‘I gave my wife my NSU’.

My ears pricked up at that.‘She’d love that,’ I commented. ‘Is it in good condition? I’d love an NSU myself. What colour is it? I rather fancy red.’

The soldier regarded me oddly. Finally he said, ‘It’s the pox, padre. NSU is pox. I gave my wife the pox and no, I can’t say she’s at all happy about it. In fact she’s thrown me out again…’

Later I learned that in medical health terms NSU stands for ‘non-specific urethritis’.

Funny – how car lovers can have one-track minds. I’d like to talk to dear old Ray Cork in Dorrigo about that …

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Playing Possum And Other Strange Stories

This past days have been one of those periods in one’s existence when lots of things have happened… most of them everyday matters, like winning Lotto, the details of which I won’t bore you… (Only joking – no Lotto wins, no rich uncles or aunts appearing out of the woodwork or from anywhere, come to think of it. No wealthy benefactors/resses smiling fondly upon me – no.. just … other things that one could list as the good and the not so good, but mainly good, for which I thank our God each and every day in our morning devotions. There are showers of blessings and the odd corrections and disciplines, which we all need.

As you know, we have all been enduring exhausting heat, and our hope and prayer is that the very hot weather is on its way out. We’ve had the odd adventure that I’d like to record in this blog before my notorious memory wipes if off the slate forever… Thank heavens for daily journals!

Now lessee… we went to Glendale the other morning where we had morning tea with Ian Stewart and wife Robyn at Arobella caff , which was without incident, apart from my becoming temporarily lost in Kmart which is near the café. There are books for sale in Kmart. As I browsed among them, I picked up one by a Dr Xand Van Tulleken and upon flicking open the pages found a little comment that was almost enough for me to purchase the book. The line I found was a comment on cats: The only ones who look as good in real life as they do on the internet are cats. ‘Bravo!’ I exclaimed, noisily enough to start at least one small infant crying…

When I went to leave I couldn’t quite remember where I came in. I would have found it eventually you mind, for there is only one door in and out, but a helpful little old lady pointed to the exit.


OAM Lunch

We (Janet and I) went to the annual OAM luncheon at Cardiff RSL the other day.  The lunch was fine. I had been asked a couple of weeks ago to say grace, so instead of having your usual type grace, I astonished them all by writing my own to metre and singing it – and didn’t that take them by surprise! Unfortunately, I was a bit nervous to start with and started one octave too high, which ruined it a bit. Here it is, sung to a 9th century hymn. The tune is  Veni Creator which you will hear sung on our answering machine – not the grace of course but the same tune, which I love. Not only is it a lovely tune, but having it on my answering machine deters the tele-marketers, who usually give up during the fourth verse …

Here’s the grace:

Lord God our Father, all righteousness,
We ask you humbly this good food to bless;
Help us to remember, also we pray,
Those who go hungry every day.

(When sung, the metre is spot on) It left them rather open-mouthed I must say!

The guest speaker, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie was amazing – among the best I’ve ever heard. He and his wife came up from Sinney. (Wangi speak. Means Sydney). He introduced something I’ve never heard in a talk like that: the spiritual aspect. He’s been present when mass graves of soldiers of all nations have been found in various parts of Europe and when possible, identified by DNA and given a proper burial in a war cemetery somewhere. There’ve been German, Italian, French, English, American and soldiers of many other nations. In one, he was present when five Australians who had been identified by DNA were to be re-interred in a war cemetery at a fitting ceremony. He said the five coffins were arranged above the graves. One of the relatives came forward with five sprigs of Australian wattle and placed a sprig on each coffin before moving back to join the families. Just then, a blue butterfly appeared and landed briefly on each coffin, before flying away. All present saw it.  I tell you, ten thousand goose-bumps ran up and down my spine. He said on another occasion, on a funeral parade, with soldiers marching each side of the gun carriage on which a coffin rested, rain fell out of a clear sky. Amazingly, I too had that exact experience of a young soldier killed in Vietnam at whose funeral I officiated. It was sort of eerie, but yet comforting, in the strange, mysterious ways of our God. Who can describe it; when something like that happens? I firmly believe, from my own experience and those described here, that between us and heaven there is an unseen world all around us. We, who are finite, get only occasional glimpses of the in-finite.

Anyway, after the lunch finished I went forward to have a short word to the general. In fact, I was the first there, but ended up being more or less shouldered aside by others (male and female) who apparently had a greater need to speak to him. In the end I gave up, because I could see he was starting to tire of it all and he and his wife had a drive back to Sydney to face. I’ll never be able to have that brief chat. I’d love to tell him how I suspect God foiled the PM of the day at Gallipoli in 1990, at the75th anniversary of Anzac, at Anzac Cove, that I conducted !!


It was latish when we got home. We were both tired, but I had accepted an invitation to an old Leetonian’s 80th birthday party. Adrian Cooper is a week older than I am but settled on a later day for his birthday party at Valentine Bowling Club. If ever you get a chance, go to that club for a meal or a cuppa or a glass of sandwiches or something. It is situated right on the very shores of the lake, at Valentine, which if you don’t know it is half way between Warners Bay and Belmont. It’s on Valentine Crescent, in a beautifully picturesque location.

Anyway, Adrian and I and his brothers and sister all grew up together in Leeton – centre of the centre of the Riverina; heart of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

Janet was exhausted and as she was invited but didn’t have to go, I went alone. Adrian’s brother Rex was there too. He was  the bloke who was riding my Norton ‘Dominator’ once, and crashed it. I was on the back as a pillion because I’d had my licence less than a year which means I was not permitted to have someone on the back. Anyway, Rex was chatting away, one hand on the throttle, as he half-turned toward me… very dangerous thing to do, up Pine Avenue Leeton, with cars angle parked front in. Sure enough, someone backed out in front of us. He didn’t see it and – bang! We hit. Next thing he and I are straight over the handle bars onto the bitumen. I can still see his feet pointing directly skywards during his  upward trajectory. I suppose mine were too, half-way through our loop. Amazingly, neither he nor I was injured; nor was the bike, nor was the car! Don’t know how that happened. I reminded Rex of it last night, and he laughed. He had a Dominator too…Ohhhhh – what lovely bikes they were! 500cc twin potters. How I’d love one today, for I’m still 18 from the neck up, ye mind.

There were lots of people at the party, ranging from the 80’s down to kids in strollers and lots in between. Adrian had hired the upstairs room. I found myself sitting next to a nice couple. I’d just finished my meal when some people walked in, bearing electric guitars, big amplifiers and other implements of utter torture, and my little heart sank. My worst fears were realised when the band sprang into action … THE NOISE!   “Ooh – is that really the time?” I screamed to the person beside me. I doubt he heard me but I pointed to my watch and he nodded. I farewelled Adrian and will catch up with him later.

I did my chaplaincy rounds on Thursday. No worries around the traps I am happy to say. They always seem happy to see me, as I them. One lady who bought a copy of my Space Ships book, told me her little two-and-a-half-year-old son absolutely loves it, and can now read it all by himself! I was amused and delighted. It’s quite a thrill to be able to bring that sort of pleasure to a little life which is also encouraging him to read.

The other day the old Stetson style hat I wear around the yard blew off the hat peg on the back verandah wall, unnoticed by me but not by Bert, Rolf’s and Heather’s dog, which we are presently minding …  Later, Janet discovered the mangled remains of the hat, chewed to shreds, which she deposited straight into the wheelie bin.

Later that same day my thoughts returned to my mangled hat as I ruefully examined my own mangled body. It happened thus: we were having morning tea when suddenly the Australian miner birds outside went crazy, squawking their little heads off. They were on the back verandah, and miner birds always hit the noise button when there’s an intruder in their territory.

We hurried outside to see what the trouble was – and there, seemingly caught between the slats, was a possum. The slats form a sort of wall on one end of the verandah but are far enough apart to let air through while offering privacy, and it seems the possum had misjudged the distance and was caught. The miners were giving it hell.

Janet got me a towel with which to hold over the possum and save my skin from being ripped by sharp claws. I tried it, but possums have fur like silk – it’s so slippery! It’s beautiful to touch, ye mind, but in normal situations to pat a possum is frequently followed by a visit to the hospital, so I was a tad wary. Finally, however, bit by bite (how apt!) I grabbed the nervous beastie and pulled – and pulled. I managed to free it – but then it grabbed the slats and wouldn’t let go! Without going into a painful blow by scream by scratch description, I finally freed it, and it disappeared up the mango tree. If it really wanted to harm me, I’d have been badly bitten; in fact it didn’t bite me at all, but clung to my arm with the same tenacity it had clung to the slat… all claws out and working.

I took my mangled and bleeding body in its torn shirt inside, where Janet patched me up and administered a Bex or two and lots of cotton wool soaked in Dettol. Later, while we were having cool drink on the verandah, Janet exclaimed ‘I can see the possum!’ They’re nocturnal creatures as ye know, and sure enough, there it was, asleep in a fork in the mango tree. It stayed there all day. After dark I took a torch out, but our little friend had gone.

I had to smile when I thought of an encounter my father had with a possum back in the days on the old farm in Leeton. Somehow a possum got into the house and into one of the bedrooms. My father was very nervous of possums, having been bitten before, as had his father, so went down to see one of our neighbours to enlist his help in removing it. I forget who it was but this bloke said “No worries Bill! There’s only one way to deal with a trapped possum – kill it!” This neighbour grabbed his (of all things) shotgun and back they came to get the possum. Thinking back, it was probably a .410 shotgun, but all the same, not made for indoor use! We kids and our mother were ordered outside while our brave farmer boys went in to deal with the man-eating possum…

A couple of minutes later there was an enormous crash… not of a firearm being discharged but the back screen door being violently thrown open. Our two brave  farmer lads came charging out of the house, faces white with terror… once out, one went flying off to the left, one to the right and immediately behind them the possum, which went flying off into the distance, and disappeared. It did what most animals do when cornered: it attacked.

How we laughed! (Later, out of sight and hearing). How we rolled about, holding our sides, remembering the comic scene of that day. In the old chap’s hearing, the matter never came up again…

Did I say  that to touch a possum can end up in a trip to the hospital? I was telling my old Army mate Stan, my possum story and was surprised when he told me he had a story too. A couple of weeks ago he found a possum that was trapped under his verandah roof. He managed to free it – then discovered it (she) had a baby!  His granddaughter made a lovely big box for the possum and baby, where they live to this day. Stan feeds the possum daily with fresh fruit, and has won her trust, and she allows him to stroke her. He said he is not brave enough at this stage to touch her child, but hopes to one day.

Stan’s Possum

Can you stand one more possum story? In my time in the Army we had an army married quarter with a lot of bush around it, which we shared with a lot of possums, short-tempered funnel web spiders and other creatures, ranging from shy to the insanely aggressive. The back door was never latched properly and we never worried, for no one in their right minds would wander around that area at night. The local possums found this arrangement entirely to their satisfaction. They lived in the walls, in the ceiling, under the floor… they lived everywhere. We had one cheeky regular called Percy. One night I was awakened by a loud banging sound, so rushed to investigate. In the kitchen was Percy. The banging was caused by the little thief’s attempts to remove the lid from the large bread tin which had stuck (with five children, we went through a lot of bread) and Percy’s strenuous efforts to remove it and plunder the contents were in vain. As I approached he scurried off outside. I took the lid off, took out a slice of bread, and called “Come on, Percy! You can have this one!” There was silence – then the back door was pushed open and a cheeky little face peered at me … Seeing the bread being proffered, and not sensing danger, Percy marched across the kitchen floor, impudently grabbed the bread out of my hand and made his way outside…

How I love the wonderful world of nature, and each beautiful creature in it, all of which can bring so much joy to any jaded soul!

Oh well, the hour of midnight approaches, but time for us to join in a lovely hymn:

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings, the music of the spheres.

(Traditional English melody. Words by Maltbie D. Babcock). It’s beautiful.

Let us sing … Altogether now …