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My father

My father was, is, my hero; largely because of who he was, but also because his life read like an adventure story.

Zlatko Predavec was born on the 4th of May 1923. He was the sole product of each of his parents’ second marriages and as such was the much-loved baby of the family looked after by his older half-siblings. He grew up with his politician father often absent but always at the centre of political events in Croatia. His father’s prominence as a Croatian politician formed the backdrop for much of my father’s early life even though my grandfather was murdered when my father was 10 years old.

When war broke out my father was still at school but he quickly became involved in the resistance and joined the Partisans, along with other members of his family.  He was heavily involved in the Partisan Youth movement and knew Josip Broz Tito. He took part in many actions against the Germans – particularly involving the disruption of transport by de-railing trains. He was captured twice. The first time, he was interrogated in a way which left him with a life-long hatred of the smell of old water in flower vases. Almost everyone he was with when captured was killed or seriously injured through torture – he probably escaped the worst of it because of his father. Certainly my father was of the view that his escape from custody was aided by some deliberate inattention from a Croatian-nationalist guard. The second time he was captured his brother, Milan, bought his freedom with a load of black-market soap.

Zlatko had been fascinated by flying while still at school and was an active member of a flying club that flew gliders. When the opportunity came for the Partisans to send people to be trained as pilots he jumped at it. So he went to the Soviet Union and joined the Yugoslav wing of the Soviet Air force. He flew fighter-bombers for the remainder of the war through the South of the Soviet Union and eventually back into Yugoslavia.

After the War he stayed with the Air force, rising quickly to become a very senior officer. In fact his rise was so quick that his formal rank always trailed his position and he would tell a story of one of his subordinates using that against him when they had a disagreement over a girl outside of the base he commanded – outside the base he was technically junior in rank to the subordinate.

Zlatko married quite young and quickly had a son, Zoran. The marriage failed – the problem seemed to lie with his wife. He was fairly soon married again though.

He started having political problems with the air force which ostensibly came to a head over his reading Western books on warfare. I have always wondered if there wasn’t an element of restlessness in what happened that was not directly tied to the politics at all. A decision was reached to transfer my father from active duty to head of the military training academy – and he made the pivotal decision to defect.

Like many plans, what started off as simple went wrong in the details. The plan was for him to take a plane – stealing a plane is accurate but he didn’t have to do much to take off in the plane, simply saying he was taking it on a training flight. He would then pick up his wife, who was pregnant at the time and would wait for him on a deserted stretch of road in the countryside, and fly to the American occupied zone of Austria. Getting the plane did not prove to be a problem. But, while his wife was waiting in the dark, a car passed and she jumped into the road-side ditch to hide – soaking her clothes in the process. Zlatko landed the plane and picked her up soon afterwards, but as they flew over the Alps in the small plane his wife started to freeze and he was forced to land earlier than planned – which meant he landed in the British zone.

Soldiers soon surrounded the plane, and once he persuaded them who he was he was taken into custody and hidden for months while being debriefed – my sister, Nagar, was born in this period and her birth was registered under a false name. It was once the debriefing was over that things took a turn for the worse. Rather than resettling him as the Americans would have done, the British put him and his family into a displaced persons camp in Bremen.

From Bremen they made their way to Australia arriving as refugees in the resettlement camp at Bonegilla. My father had an awful time in the camp. The people in charge were all from the other side in the War and his connections and past worked against him. He was given awful, tough jobs and his marriage started to disintegrate. All of this it seems to me was probably made starker by what he had left behind. But if there was anything that defined my father it was his toughness and his capacity to deal with hard work.

Eventually he worked his way out of the camp. There was a time of working in France at a company that specialised in aerial photography. And then, upon returning to Sydney, he finagled a job as a draughtsman – based almost entirely from what I can understand on a combination of native skill and a great deal of front; it certainly wasn’t based on training. That job eventually led to his forming a company with colleagues. The company got the contract to create a map of Portuguese Timor and my father set off in spite of the fact he had no training as a surveyor, let alone a jungle explorer. The contract would have been a failure were it not for the fact they stumbled upon aerial photographs of the island and his prior experience allowed him to use those to expedite the mapping. While he was in the jungles his partner had made some poor business decisions and the partnership dissolved. Zlatko went out on his own and had a successful business making maps and models.

During this time his marriage broke down completely. He met Marion, my mother, and eventually they were married – living and working at Dowling St in Sydney. My own birth followed a few years later. It was homesickness that led to them leaving this all behind and moving back to Europe. They initially moved to Malta, but hated the corruption and the approach to life and so finally settled in Blairmore in Scotland – my mother’s home – where my brother Martin was born.

Now my father became a potter – again based on native skill rather than training. As my mother put it, my father was “somewhat overwhelmed’ by her family and retreated to the garage. There he sculpted a pair of fighting bulls. He then wanted to make moulds of them and there were a couple of potters working in Dunoon, “so he went there got talking and next thing we had bought into it. We thought they would run it and we would get the profits well that was wishful thinking especially when we found one of them drunk and asleep. So there we were with a pottery. There was a big kiln that took over 600 pieces and the first firing we did was a disaster. Then the church at Kilmun came up for sale and we bought it for 100 pounds! Transferred pottery there and bought three small kilns thus hopefully cutting down on disasters and Dad learnt the hard way.” It became something of a family legend that Dad had moved those new kilns into the pottery with only my help – I must have been five or six at that point and remember it vividly.

Eventually the pottery became a profitable going concern – Holy Loch Studios. It was still a pottery though and there was never a lot of money to go around. My father was always working – whether it was at the pottery, at the house, in the garden, or on a project – he was incapable of relaxing. My parents bought a huge, dilapidated house – Cregandarroch – which my father loved dearly. He worked on that house doing everything from bricklaying, to roofing, to any other thing you could think of; all with great skill and a seemingly tireless willingness if not enthusiasm.

In the late 70s his brother Vlado offered him a job managing a factory on the Isle of Man and so the pottery was sold and we moved to Derbyhaven. After a few years we moved back to Australia while Dad worked in Saudi Arabia setting up another similar factory. Sadly this all became messy after the company was ripped-off by a local business partner and bills, including my fathers wages, went unpaid. Eventually Dad came back to Australia and established another pottery – Decor Ceramics. The pottery was never a significant success, if there was one skill my father did not turn his hand to well it was sales and marketing.

He always had projects on the side. Whether it was a survival suit for aircraft passengers, a new boat, or a solar still. He was constantly drawing and thinking. The solar still absorbed much of his time and thinking in his last few years, but he could turn his hand to almost anything. He was in many ways Da Vinci -like in his capacity to make things of utility and beauty and then turn and competently undertake a job of carpentry, fix a clock, lay bricks, or write a book.

My father was strong and tough in ways that I find hard to contemplate. His work ethic was absolute. His mind was constantly restless and inquisitive. He was, it must be said, stubborn and argumentative; his roving thoughts led to him having a position on any subject and his approach to questioning that position was to argue about it. He was also loving – seeing him with his grandsons was a joy – and, when he wanted to be, very charming. He was deeply proud of the Predavec name and disproportionately pleased when his grandsons came along to carry it on.

Dad had prostate and throat cancer at differing points. He was steely-eyed about what treatments he would countenance but as it turned out he survived both within those parameters. It was a series of strokes and their aftermath that eventually killed him. He was hospitalised with the strokes, and was too ill to come home for Christmas dinner as we had been planning. It was then he clearly knew he was dyeing and the last words I remember him saying to me were “It’s been a good life.” He slipped into a coma, but still he hung on with his usual tenacity for longer than expected until finally he died with my hand on his shoulder in the small hours of the morning on 27 December 2006.

 

Evan, September 2018

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