The old home town doesn’t look the same. Losing memories in the name of progress.

January 24, 2012

I don’t remember any of these houses. Not one. I’m driving down the first street I lived in. My home town. Where I rode my first bike.

Nothing is familiar. The picture in my mind of Britannia Street is so different. The homes were bigger. More impressive. These images don’t match.

I returned to have a look last week. The house that Dad built so long ago, when the street was bare, is tiny. Almost box-like. My mind had it as big as a castle.

I’ve been back before over the years, and never noticed. Or didn’t want to. Now I do.

I tried to peer over a fence, without getting arrested. Dad’s old garage was mostly intact. But the rest of the yard was unrecognisable.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. We’re going back more than four decades. What was I expecting?

It sent me on a mission, to see what else had changed. And what remains, in the place of my childhood.

A few streets away, I found a lovely brick home. Right where our old fibro rental house use to sit. Where we moved to when Dad’s business collapsed.

That wonderful backyard is gone. No more cricket games. The orange tree, so handy for shade while having a cool drink, is no more.

Somehow, the old laneway behind all those modern homes, has survived the area’s revamp. The short stretch where the Old Man taught me how to steer his beloved Holden. I drove down it again. Slowly.

Across the road, sits the primary school I went to. Now surrounded by a giant, imposing, dark green fence. Keeping the vandals out, and the students in. We never needed a giant fence.

My journey took me a little further up the road. The short stroll I made to catch the bus to high school. It’s all different.

There was a milk bar I used to stop at each afternoon. A strange old man and his wife ran it. There would be extras in the lolly bag. It’s now a real estate agency.

Around the corner, I would spend time in the local bike shop. Nothing like the  smell of new rubber.

The bloke would show me his latest skateboard. Spin the wheels. I’d imagine how cool it would be to own one. But it was too expensive.

The bikes and skateboards are now but a memory. Replaced by a Homewares shop. Whatever that is.

Keep going down that road, take a right, and you’ll find the oval that I did laps of. The place where Dad took charge of the Under 7 soccer side. Even though he’d never seen the world game played.

What made that field stand out from everywhere else, was it’s old, creaking grandstand. About ten rows of solid wood. We’d sit there when it rained. Or when it was too hot. Or when there was a schoolboy secret to be told.

It’s gone now. There’s no-where to sit. The adjacent van park has swallowed it up. Room for one more holiday cabin.

Next stop was my old high school. Which I discovered is no longer a high school.

It’s been re-branded as a Secondary Campus. Whatever that is. But some things don’t change.

I snuck down a driveway, and found two blocks, that are exactly the same as the day I walked out, more than thirty years ago.

They haven’t been touched. Not so much as a lick of paint. The adjacent toilet block, where we fought off being flushed on a daily basis, is exactly the same.

It seemed to be the only place of my childhood that hadn’t disappeared. Even though it was the one that needed change the most. So much for progress.

I wanted to check out one final location. A place that gave us lots of fun, for very little outlay.

Plenty of Sundays were spent on the magic waterways of my home town, riding around in small, wooden hire boats. If we were lucky, we’d get one with a half cabin.

A group of us would carry on a carton of cool drinks and a hot chook, and leave our problems on the shoreline. How we didn’t end up on a beach in Fiji is beyond me. But somehow, we always returned safe and sound.

The homes surrounding the boathouse have all changed. Those little holiday shacks have been replaced by expensive coastal cottages.

But tucked behind them, is my boat hire place. Exactly as I remembered it. And those original boats are still there. Right down to the colour, and the names. I almost danced a jig on the end of that little wharf.

Things change. People, too. I get that. Especially over such a time frame. The price of getting older.

We can’t stop progress. Even if it’s painful sometimes.

But while the buildings might be gone, they can’t demolish my memories. Even if I’ve built on them a little.

That’s the beauty of reminiscing. Things get bigger and better with time. Except when it comes to hire boats. They stay exactly the same. Bless them.

Coco is back! A happy ending to a little dog’s amazing adventure.

January 6, 2012

She was dirty, and even skinnier than normal. More bones than fur.

That lovely white coat was now a shade of brown, and matted. Covered in burrs. Her paws looked like she’d run a marathon. And she couldn’t stop shaking.

But those loving eyes sparkled, and that tongue, still dry and thirsty, had taken up the usual position, hanging from the side of her mouth.

Coco was back.

Ten days after we lost her, our dog had been found.

We took the call late yesterday. The call we’d almost given up on receiving. In the car, again heading to the Gold Coast.

It was the pound. The same girl who showed us so much compassion, when she took our teary story after Boxing Day.

Great news. Someone had reported a small stray dog, wandering the streets of Oxenford. When the catcher brought her in, staff identified Coco from our poster. The microchip confirmed it.

She was found, streets away from where she went missing. But in the same suburb.

It appears our tiny bundle of fun had been wandering those streets all that time. And the adjoining bushland. Ten days, alone.

We’d searched that same area for days. Called her name endlessly. For whatever reason, she couldn’t get back to us.

The pound people were amazed. This plucky pooch, apparently surviving on scraps, fighting off wild beasts, on the adventure of her life. The Bear Grylls of the Papillon breed.

There were happy tears. Then a much-needed bath, and a giant bowl of top-shelf food that was devoured in record time.

We’re house sitting for the mother-in-law this week, so Coco still hasn’t officially made it home. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s still lapping up all the cuddles.

We’ll never forget the kind soul who found her. Even though you wish to remain anonymous, rest assured you’ve made a family so very happy.

The Gold Coast City pound and the RSPCA were also wonderful throughout. Such caring, compassionate people.

And to all of you out there in the social media world, who offered so much support and advice, heartfelt thanks. Coco’s plight was shared far and wide. I have no doubt your good vibes helped send her in the right direction.

As I write this, she’s sleeping and shedding hair on the Senior Treasurer’s most expensive lounge. Possibly her first proper snooze in days.

As promised, she’s been given permission to pee on any mat she desires. I’ll even line them up for her. And the crazed barking can’t be too far off. Coco is back where she belongs.

A hero, but not in his home town. The Officer who’s missing his family.

August 9, 2011

Meet my new friend Gary. Wide as he is tall.

Gary had been carved out of a decent block of granite. His US Navy dress uniform was sagging under the weight of battle decorations.

We were having lunch, with a few hundred others, on board his ship. He was kind enough to invite me to share his small table.

He may have been concerned that I was about to spill my over-loaded plastic plate onto the shiny deck we were standing on. Like any good officer, solving problems early.

We began chatting. He called me Sir. In every sentence. Such courtesy wasn’t necessary, but I wasn’t game to argue. He had biceps capable of hurling me to the other side of the river.

Gary loves Australia. Told me the drunkest episode of his life took place in Sydney, on his first tour.

His favourite memory of that night is how some Aussies carried him and his buddy back to their ship. I reckon those doing the carrying must have been  weightlifters.

Two junior officers joined us. The Sirs now came in triplicate.

These two were almost as thick-set as Gary. For a brief moment I lost sight of the sun.

They had promotions pending, and were banned from the grog. Gary teased them with an icy cold Australian beer, which he demolished in seconds. They shook their large, bald heads, and smiled. I could tell they looked up to him.

The junior giants moved on, removing themselves from our table of temptation, and Gary started telling me a little about himself.

His career in the Navy started 22 years ago. He’d been around the world several times over. Lots of war zones.

Last year, he’d been at sea for 270 days. About 9 months of the year away from loved ones.

He hasn’t been at home for Christmas Day since 2006. Following orders, in another time zone. I told him my girls get upset if I’m not sitting with them opening presents by 5am.

Gary laughed at that. And he wasn’t complaining. But it was clear that missing such important events was troubling him. The downside of dedicating your life to protecting others.

For just a second, I thought the tough-as-teak Navy man might shed a tear. His daughter had just turned 16. And he wasn’t there. He sent his love, long distance, over the phone.

She understood. Proud of what dad does. But not before she reminded him that it was the sixth consecutive birthday he’d missed. Since she was 10. That’s a lot of cake.

Her phone call had him thinking seriously about the future. We stopped talking, as he gazed across the river. It became clear that under that giant exterior, a heart was aching.

We stood in silence for a while. Then Gary outlined his grand plan, for when he returns to civilian life. He wants to train security officers. Maybe join the office of Homeland Security. Even his local police force.

But to do that, Gary would have to move. His voice lowered, as he told me that there was too much racism where he was raised. Still.

This proud African-American, who had risked life and limb for his country over two decades, wasn’t seen as a hero in his home town. Just another black man. No place to keep a family.

So sad. On his ship, his second home, colour and ethnic origin mean little. As long as you pull your weight, you’re part of the team. Everyone fighting for the same side.

It was time for visitors to go. He flashed a smile, shook my hand with his giant paw, and thanked me for sharing lunch. The pleasure was all mine.

I said that if he had time between fighting wars and soothing daughters, I’d like to keep in touch. He thought that sounded like a fine idea.

Through e-mail, we’ll keep tabs on how life pans out. He’s promised to give me a full description of that birthday party. And how the family settles into their new home, in their new state. They’ll be lucky to have him.

I admire my new friend Gary. So sad that a blind few in his own country can’t see that he’s a hero. His daughter will remember though, when he’s producing giant gusts to blow out those candles next year. I’ll let you know how he goes.