During our numerous visits to 10 Redpath Street, I overheard bits and pieces of conversations, none of which I understood. On one such occasion, it would take a few years before the meaning of the words became clear.
Dad leaned against the thickness of the timber stump that supported the outer wall of his Grandmother’s old Queenslander. As he casually chatted to his Uncle, his eyes surveyed the nether regions of the house. Nothing had changed since the many weekends and holidays he had spent there during his childhood. He peered across the compacted earth floor around Uncle Bill’s blue Morris car, the old cracked paint that twisted and curled on the rippled iron laundry walls, and as his attention wove in and out of the gaps between stumps, suddenly, his gaze fell upon something that sat in the far reaching shadows. Although he couldn’t clearly define the object from where he stood, there was no need for a closer inspection. Memories of his Childhood flashed before his eyes; of the times he and his cousins had spent exploring; of the great discoveries they had made. Turning to face his Uncle, Dad spoke with an urgency to his tone.
“Hey Bill, you need to do something about that ice chest!”
Uncle Bill didn’t answer straight away, then in his usual unperturbed way, he nodded.
“Yeah… I should one day.”
Dad shook his head and grinned sideways at his uncle, knowing that day wouldn’t come soon, if at all. Uncle Bill wasn’t one to make quick decisions, even if it was a matter of life or death.
Nothing more was said about Uncle Bill’s ice chest until a few years later, in 1979. In December of the previous year, Uncle Bill suffered a severe stroke which resulted in the permanent loss of speech and paralysis down one side. Initially, following treatment in hospital, he lived with my Grandfather on the farm. It was during this period that I overheard a conversation between my parents which aroused my curiosity. All I understood from the fragments I had heard was that there had been an announcement on the radio involving the Army. And that it also concerned that old ice chest that stood beneath Uncle Bill’s house.
“So Dad, what’s in that old ice chest?” I had to ask, my curiosity got the better of me.
“It’s full of ammunition,” Dad replied. “Old wartime shells.”
“Really” I asked incredulously, “So, it is full of bullets?”
“No, shells…all are about yay big,” Dad held his hands about a foot apart.
“One, in particular, would be at least double that in size.” he adds.
By now my attention clung to Dad’s every word as the story grew in magnitude.
“My Grandfather souvenired them from either the Boer War or World War One…not sure which.”
“So, your Grandfather was a soldier?” I was now intrigued. I knew nothing about the man. This was the first I had even heard of his existence.
“Yes, he was a Military Man.” Dad said. “Apparently, after world war one, the family were hoping for another war, so they could send him away again.”
Dad grinned as he read my puzzled face and explained.
“Well, he wasn’t much of a farmer. He was a soldier,”
So, that was my introduction to my Great Grandfather. Up until then, he never had a reason to be in my thoughts. After-all, he didn’t exist. According to my mind, the Redpath Street house was Grandma’s home alone. Discovering one’s ancestors is usually an organic process. As we follow our roots, we often find them gently sprouting from the many tangled branches of the family tree. Not my Great Grandfather! Even Hollywood couldn’t invent an entrance as grand as his. He came crashing into my life on the wings of a bombshell! I was certainly impressed.
The Army, as it turned out, were calling for anyone who possessed old wartime explosives to contact them. They would dispose of the goods, no questions asked. So, Mum arranged for the disposal experts to meet Dad at the Redpath Street house. When they arrived in an Army green Datsun Bluebird station wagon, instead of the specialized bomb disposal vehicle that he expected, Dad was shocked. Although he wasn’t as shocked as the experts when they opened the ice chest door.
“You should’ve seen the face of the disposal guy when he opened the door.” Dad laughed. “His eyes lit up like a night owl’s when he took a look inside!”
“As he loaded the stash into the back of the car, he said I hope no-one drives up my behind!”
“I asked him, ‘what would happen if they did?” Dad continued the story. “To that he replied, ‘Well if that load gets a big enough bump, it could blow up the entire block!”
In all of my eight years of Sundays, I had no idea what sat beneath the house. Near my precious old cart, beneath that gloomy room where we celebrated Grandma’s ninetieth Birthday, beneath the dining room table where we enjoyed scones and tea; and beneath me as I sat with Grandma on her beautiful old brass bed! Had a fire ignited “The Military Man’s” wartime souvenirs, many of these precious memories would not be. History, my very own history, would have vaporized before it could even be discovered. I would be sitting here at my computer, speechless, with no story to tell. I am forever thankful that fate saw things differently to what might have been.
Now, despite being nameless and without a face, he became known as “The Military Man”. The Army may not have asked any questions when they disposed of the contents of the ice chest, however, I am left with many of my own. What sort of man stores old wartime shells under his house for 60 years? What sort of man exposes his children, his grandchildren and then his great grandchildren to such danger? And why would he want to bring all that stuff home with him anyway– reminders of events that he would best want to forget?” The questions go on and on, to which the only answer has been, “He was a Military Man.”
“The Military Man” is like a title of an empty book. The pages, his life story, have torn and crumbled, and the words faded with time. His is a story that is worthy of telling. I tell myself that patience is the key, as I await that tap on the shoulder; that whisper in my ear saying “come with me” as a weathered old hand takes my own. He will then lead me through the door and together we will explore his past battlefields and more.