Reminiscences by Donald Lang
What is the earliest event of your life that you can distinctly remember, and assign an approximate date? The subject can be a useful conversation starter, or stopper, with a new acquaintance. Over a string of occasions numerous events from my own life have surfaced, unsorted. Placing them on a time line is not as easy as calling them forth. For some people, “It was when we were living in…” does that. Our family lived for more than a quarter century in the same house, starting before my next elder sibling was born. It did not change its structure in the first decade of my life. It is not a source for time markers. For some, people are the markers. I do remember encountering my “Aunt Esther”, Aunt to Mum’s aunts. I don’t remember her at all, and I must have been nearly school age. I think I remember a dog called Ring, belonging to Dad. I know he was a collie and had a shortish tan coat. I certainly remember a much more woolly and darker collie named Pongo, belonging to another of Mum’s aunts. I think I was three when I was told on a visit there that Pongo had gone to live with some friends and would not be coming back.
There are events that I know about but do not remember, like “The Great Flood”. It too is not a marker source, for me. I was a toddler, and I have been told I found some of it exciting, but I have nothing in first hand memory. I have no memories ‘before the great flood’. This deluge is not the Genesis disaster. It was still a disaster for many. Our next door neighbour, who had bought the farm alongside us comparatively recently then, told Dad that on the morning after he had looked over his hillsides and felt willing to “sell the lot for a fiver”. That was five pounds, or would now be ten dollars. There has been a lot of inflation, but farms did not change ownership for that sort of sum. The disaster had history on its side. Our area had been systematically cleared of major forest to make way for green hillsides, as was considered important to farms with sheep and cattle. Any roots left behind were sometimes burnt and sometimes left to rot. They had had decades to do so.
One evening in April – I think I have been told – 1934 a storm arrived. According to report there had been a long dry summer and the ground was quite cracked here and there. Over a few hours the rain came steadily. The direction swung steadily through a full circle and on through half of it again. One of the neighbours had left a ‘kerosene tin’ out as a collector. It is decades since I saw one of these containers and longer since I saw one holding kerosene. There could be a footnote translating the content to “paraffin”. Once the original content was gone these ‘tins’ often had their tops removed, and makeshift handles of ”number eight fencing wire” installed, and were much used for carrying water, or anything else that flowed. They had a squarish cross section and stood a bit under half a metre on their base. The particular tin left outside was full to overflowing by morning.
The oldest roads in our area were less than a century in age. The bridges were mostly comparatively new wooden structures. One that survived had been deliberately placed high enough so that no predicted flood would rise high enough to stack debris against it. It survived despite the planners. The flood had risen so quickly that all the debris had floated serenely over the bridge. One other was reported to have floated off its supports and had been spotted, almost intact, well out to sea. The hillsides that were green or late summer brown a day or two earlier almost all grew ‘slips’ on them overnight. And that is how they look in the photographs etched at the back of my mind by my early memories.
I do remember some of my elders venting about ‘experts’ who blamed the pioneers in the area for the slips. The experts never mentioned the special weather, on a single date and confined to an area with a radius of a few kilometres on that date. There were slips from much older rainstorms and in undisturbed forest, as was pointed out to me. Much later it occurred to me that there were undisturbed hillsides that had been left that way as being too steep to clear. Very few slips were to be seen to have started there. Three quarters of a century later, nearly, the scars are almost all healed. Neither the ‘experts’ nor their critics had a monopoly of truth. If I had paid attention at the time, I could probably have an excellent landmark memory to work with later, illustrating the way public discussion is conducted by people with barrows to push.
“The Great Flood” is not then in memory, but is a backdrop of many other memories. It is of course a memory divider for others. I have several memories that could be dated, but some only if I had had the presence of mind to get somebody to write down the event in a diary at the time. I think the earliest happened when I was in a car with my mother and her sister. They were commenting on a car in front with very dirty windows. The catty comment went something like, “Perhaps it is The Prince of Wales”. An amused query came back. That personage was almost certainly on the other side the Equator at the time. It was explained that he often rode around in a car with windows that let him see out and prevented others seeing in. I am sure he was not in that car then, but not whether he was King or even Duke of Windsor by that stage. I think therefore that my next candidate of memory is later. My siblings came home from school early and told me that they had a holiday because of the ‘Coronation’. It was just a word to me, but I can remember feeling aggrieved when they were a bit lofty in telling me that I would not get that sort of holiday when I went to school. Before we leave royalty I know I once said audibly in the wrong company and to mixed amusement and horror, “Teddy was a bad King!” It just proves that the big ears on the little pigs are most dangerous when they are accompanied by repeater microphones.
Still in that same car I went on an excursion with the same pair to pick black berries. Here I have a ‘fuzzy’ time marker. There was a baby basket in the back seat with me. I think I would have been just past my fourth birthday when my elder first cousin on that side got too big for that mode of transport. I think he may have been left with his father on the day of my final memory in that group. We were on our way home from a market excursion when Mum said in a surprised tone, “That looked like Bill in the front seat of that truck.”. It distracted her a bit in the remaining miles before we got home – and found that it had been Dad as a passenger in the truck – on his way hospital. That was the day when he lost the tips of two fingers through a misjudgment involving a circular saw.
Dad figures in a tidal memory with a variation of perspective. Because we lived by the sea we were conscious of water safety. In fact as I write, I realise that I do have a datable memory of the only drowning at that beach in several decades, and that despite it being commonly possessed of several rip currents. That date will be in accessible public records. About that time Dad wanted to impress on me the dangers of big waves to small persons. When the family went for a swim together he picked me up and went out to where the waves were breaking. He supported me into a large wave that did not quite break over us. He then brought me to shore. I had been terrified but I figured that if Dad took me there it must be OK, so I volunteered apparently happily for another try. The message that the parents got was that frightening me that way had no hope of success. They were even more frightened of me venturing into deep water than I was. I did not get my second try.
Events away from home obviously have better markers for dating. There is a family outing to visit people I can still identify, though several have been dead for many years. I have a visual memory of mudflats inside a harbour and of a group taking a stroll before lunch. There was a smoker who lit up and flicked his match to dispose of the flame. The head, still hot, landed in the junction between the index and the next finger of my right hand. I am probably the only person still around who remembers the event and the fuss I made about it. But I can find and show the scar, which is older than the biblical lifespan.
There is a final early memory that sits on the dividing line relating to the heading of transport. The car was Sylvia, of whom more later. The place was called Oakleigh. I have driven over the place many times. I do mean over: the road now goes up and over a flat railway line. It did not always do so. There was a level crossing on the main road, and I think there were no gates or warning lights. We had been on a shopping excursion to Whangarei, as happened about monthly. There were four of us in Sylvia, including Mum’s sister. We approached the level crossing with care, as you do, and Dad managed to stall the car actually on the crossing. About a hundred metres away was Oakleigh Station and there was a train coming towards us. Memory is clouded. I think they stopped for us. The same cloudy memory suggests that we would have had time to escape if the adults had decided that Sylvia was really going to become a statistic. I do remember voices. I was fortunately not attuned then to any dictionary of inappropriate phrases. Dad got the car started in a hurry and we made a relieved departure. I believe I may have shared that memory in the wrong company a few days later.