A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 28: Discharged

Chapter 28: Discharged

Author: Alistair Knox

The Germans finally surrendered in May 1945; but there was still no idea of how long it would take for Japan to capitulate, although our victory now seemed inevitable. As soon as the atomic bombs were dropped, first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki, it was certain that hostilities would cease immediately. The Japanese signed the surrender document on 2 September aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, and the war was over. Between these two great surrenders lay my own somewhat less notable capitulation: I was discharged from the navy under the initials PUNS - Physically Unfit for Naval Service. There had been a hiatus in which I renewed my acquaintance with Jock and Joe at the Williamstown depot, filling in the days down at the mine store or the boat sheds, and slipping out with Norm, my old Martindale mate, to go to the Flying Angels or the Williamstown Town Hall dance on the odd occasions we were on duty at night as we waited for the mills of the Navy Office to start to grind small.

I determined to make my last night aboard memorable in some way or other, so when we came back from the dance I gave the great bell in the drill hall a light stroke. In my exuberance I had hit it much harder than I had intended, so Norm and I fled across the parade ground at full speed, leapt up into our previously-slung hammocks fully dressed, and pulled our blankets over our heads in some genuine consternation. The great time-bell, which was struck every half hour except in the silent hours at night, was the very essence of navy tradition and was fully honoured, especially at Williamstown, at all times. There was a roped-off area at the top of the drill hall that represented the ship's quarter deck. Besides the bell, there was also a great sailing-ship wheel and a compass and binnacle that were polished every day by the quartermaster, who also rang eight bells on the precise moments with sufficient power for it to be heard throughout the entire depot. Our unofficial act of celebration brought an immediate reaction. Lights appeared in the ward room and the officer of the day came running into the drill hall pulling his jacket over his pyjamas, determined to find the perpetrators of this heinous crime. It was quite some time before we felt it safe to sit up and undress ourselves.

The next day, I caught the duty boat across to Port Melbourne to turn in my hammocks and bedding because they were not quite three years old, at which time they would have automatically been mine. I had fallen in love with sleeping in a hammock, so I bought them all back from the store and set them up on hooks fixed into the bedroom wall and slept in them for some years, partly to help a back complaint and partly out of nostalgia. I thought it was a sad day when ratings were eventually deprived of the age-old custom of sleeping in hammocks, swinging in them from the rails set above the mess decks, and then stowing them in bins every time they were wakened for duty.

As we journeyed across Hobsons Bay, I could see Middle Park two miles to the east and the great ocean mail-steamers berthed at Station Pier dead-ahead; it reminded me of the times when my desire to go to sea had been so intense. It was still there, though in another way. My restlessness showed no signs of diminishing, especially since I knew I was expected to report to work at the bank the following day. It was something I simply could not do, so I phoned the only doctor I knew socially and asked him for a medical certificate. As he happened to be a well-known gynaecologist, we arranged to limit my leave to six weeks to prevent any strange questions being asked about whether I was suffering from some embarrassing female complaint.

It was just after the Japanese surrender. I was still on leave when I contacted Freddie Watton, who had joined the NAP on the same day that I had; I proposed to him that we travel together as far from the sea as practicable for a mountain holiday. We decided to take our bicycles, catch the train to Alexandra, and from there set out for the deep interior. The journey into the Victorian highlands was an exhilarating one after what we had both experienced in murky, sweat-filled New Guinea. We quickly rediscovered that there exists no more ethereal sound than that of a magpie call as it echoes through the clear mountain air. Our cycle wheels whirred over the gravel tracks in an atmosphere of promise for our venture as every revolution took us further from our recent ocean past. We sped through Thornton and the old Eildon Weir, where exploratory test holes for foundations for the new Eildon Weir dam wall were being made; it was to be one of the largest dams in the world. The countryside we passed through has now long been submerged by the dam, so these recollective journeys have for many years no longer been possible. Both Freddie and I had suffered minor episodes of malaria the previous day, and we were in a gentle, recuperative mood that nicely suited our journey in the mild, windless, spring weather. Once we arrived at Jamieson a few miles further on, we decided to stay at the Junction Hotel for the night. It proved a good decision, because we never moved again until it was time to return home a week later. Our hotel was a strange collection of pioneering huts connected by footpaths; these paths all led to a bar situated on the extreme corner of the road junction that led in one direction to Licola and in the other to Woods' Point in the mountain vastness. At one time it took a whole week to reach these places from Melbourne by coach.

The joy of sunning ourselves on the bench outside the bar made us feel and look like two old Kentish farmhands drinking warm English ale. Few cars passed by during our stay. The only journey we made was by foot to the river two-hundred yards away to catch trout and have them cooked for dinner.

The real test for me was yet to come. Reporting back to Head Office to resume my peacetime occupation was extremely difficult and far-removed from my idea of what I hoped the 'fruits' of victory would be. I was re-incarcerated in a marble mausoleum where I was required to attend to the simple financial requests of the solid Melbourne bourgeoisie. They were always polite, and my co-workers were always helpful and efficient. There was never a cross word spoken; but the repetitive certainty of each day and the exactitude of one's weekly remuneration were the next-worst thing to solitary confinement, especially as the pay had become less attractive than it had once been, and the work more intense. A new world was dawning all around us: the old values of security and superannuation were being superseded by a new sense of excitement and adventure.

Mernda developed her independent lifestyle by moving into the tiny third bedroom in response to my decision to seek a new means of earning a living. She resumed her dancing activities with some of her erstwhile creative-dance group, which was an early expression of the movement later made famous by Martha Graham and other internationals but which was still in an embryonic stage in Australia in 1946. We lived as a family, though without a normal physical relationship between Mernda and me. I found this very frustrating because my parents' example had been so steadfast and unchanging, and I believed that marriage should be monogamous and terminated either by death or adultery. I was pursued by a multitude of doubts and desires that I tried to integrate with the remnants of my spiritual beliefs, which I knew - if they were to be of any value - must have first priority, a concession I was too self-centred to make. I had gone along easily enough during the Depression because there had been so little to give up. If the First World War had brought about the birth of the Australian nation, the Second was its puberty period. The whole scene had changed from childhood to adolescence very quickly. The most obvious reason for this phenomenon was our survival of both the European and Pacific theatres of war, coupled with the global remoteness that had kept Australia free from enemy action, except for some aerial-bombing episodes in Darwin and other northern reaches. Europe and much of Asia, by comparison, were irreparably damaged. When the Germans left Warsaw the city had been totally destroyed and left without inhabitants, while the atomic bombs in Japan had obliterated large sections of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The plight of the homeless and the stateless was so gargantuan that it was impossible to see any solution to it. It was believed that the removal of debris alone from the cities prior to re-building would take a lifetime, and that the rehabilitation of the displaced millions would never occur. The Australian Commonwealth found itself in a unique position to assist the internationally dispossessed and to make great advances in its own development simultaneously.

Melbourne Technical College circa 1950 Melbourne Technical College circa 1950

It started for me in 1946 when I enrolled at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to study. The Chifley Government provided free tertiary training for every ex-serviceman who would apply for it. If one were under age twenty-one at the time of enlistment, the courses were full-time and supplemented with living allowances for both single and married applicants. Should there be examination failures at the end of the year, the subjects could be repeated in the same way the following year. It meant an enormous change in attitude towards our national lifestyle that became more pronounced each month as waves of European migrants started to come ashore to become 'New Australians' - a name which would later prove a very inadequate description of the people who were to propel us towards national maturity. They were referred to as 'Wogs', 'Dagoes', and 'Chocos' by a majority of Australians, who were still influenced by the whiteness of their own skins and a rather mindless loyalty to King and Queen superimposed on a growing Republicanism opposed to the two societies that co-existed in Britain. The 'tyranny of distance' had kept us insulated and uninformed, while the legal systems protected the crown, the establishment, and the ingrained snobbishness that so frequently accompanied them. Nevertheless, it was a brand-new era with clashes of loyalty and cross-currents of originality of a magnitude and nature we had never before known.

Enrollment day at the RMIT saw about two hundred applicants crowding into the Architecture School to be assigned to their study groups. I had done part of Year 1 Building Construction Practice and Theory in the navy, by correspondence. Because of the great number of first-year students - and as my drawing looked adequate - I was placed in Year 2 of the architectural course for those all-important subjects. The reason I was choosing building and design as a vocation was that I was naturally drawn to it as an art, a philosophy, and a science. The sets of chisels, saws, and hammers with their beautifully polished handles that I had learned to use in Uncle Jim's workroom as a child - these made the mechanics of construction appear very simple. I saw it merely as a matter of putting one thing on top of another. Design methods were related to the comprehensive principles I had learned from my father and the instinctive practical skills I had inherited from my mother. It is impossible to overstate the great advantage of having been born into a true Christian family 'where there is no sense of fear but of power and of love and of sound mind'. As with the early Greeks, it enabled our family and those we knew to see things whole and to see them clearly. The hiatus of practical opportunities we endured during the Depression and the war disappeared overnight.

Matcham Skipper in the early 1940s
Photo: Albert Tucker State Library of Victoria

On the first evening at our course I met Matcham Skipper, one of the original members of the Montsalvat Artists' Colony. I had missed meeting him during my earlier visits in 1940. It was the commencement of my long association with and admiration for this extraordinary man, who could do more things of a creative nature better than anyone else I ever knew could do any one thing. He was seven years younger than I was, and we seemed to appreciate each other instinctively. The other formative factor of that first class was the instructor, a Mr Muir, who had the ability to make his subject come alive. He was one of the great architectural influences of my life. The others were Frank Lloyd Wright, Burley Griffin, Frances Greenway's outline of European architecture, and Capability Brown. In 1946, I had practically no knowledge of architecture of any kind. I did not know where or what the Parthenon was, and Gropius, Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe were still knocking at the door to my mind and asking to be let in. Our group numbered about sixty. Some were full-time architectural students and others were part-time or involved in the building trade. There had been little development of ideas during my lifetime. Building methods were still, almost without exception, the same as those I had known in my childhood. Lather-and-plaster internal walls and ceilings, though, had given way to continuous plastic sheeting laid over stud walling. Brick veneer was one new idea that had originated in Victoria. I believe the State Savings Bank Credit Foncier and Building Departments were the prime innovators of this process, which was to sweep to much before it in the next two decades. Melbourne was the ideal home for this notion. That it enabled the conservative home-owners in this most 'home-owning' of states to produce buildings with brick exterior shells covering stud-framed walls at a price halfway between brick and timber prices was what fed the demand. Most of the State has a moderate climate that is not subject to earthquakes or cyclones and - especially in the eastern section of Melbourne - good sandy loam foundations that make for easy building and the best location simultaneously. In the previous century when Victoria had been the richest colony in the world because of its enormous gold deposits, its buildings included the world's first 'skyscraper' in Elizabeth Street and the world's first reinforced-concrete building at the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets.

The year 1946 was to make for new challenges in all forms of human endeavour. There was the inherent realisation that a meteoric future lay ahead of us. The emergency war-time measures that would remain in effect for another two years would permit the Commonwealth government to undertake schemes of national significance free from petty State jealousies. The prime minister, Ben Chifley, a very capable and homely republican with a majority in both houses, brought the great Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme into reality with six months to spare. His apparently secure majority was lost, however, when he decided to nationalise the banks; this was always a prime objective of Labour policy. It was decided by the Privy Council that it lacked the constitutional power to compel all government instrumentalities to operate through the Commonwealth Bank. Mr Menzies would become Chifley's successor and drive reforms into the wilderness until the 1970s.

None of these problems worried us in the first postwar years. It was all stops out and go! Our evening classes at the RMIT were galvanic. The instructor's understanding was as practical as it was informative, and we wrestled with excavation design, brick-bonding, and reinforced concreting as if these subjects had just been discovered. We were limited only by the almost complete lack of necessary materials. Earth-moving machinery and power tools also were still in their infancy. The carpenter's bag carried at least two handsaws, chisels, hammers, augers, and drills, just as it had since the beginning of traditional building. The spirit of the new age was on the march, but those who were following were mainly from the black markets.

< Previous Book
< Previous Chapter  :  Next Chapter >
Next Book >

©Mietta's 2024