A FEW months ago I was in the car with my parents when my Dad started telling me a story from his adolescence that I hadn’t heard before.
I thought I knew all of his stories, but that day I discovered there are some tales not so easily told, even some 50 years after they happened.
Even my Mum, who’s known him her whole life, had only learned about it the year before.
If you flew a helicopter over the landscape of my Dad’s teenage years, it would look a bit like a war zone in the aftermath of a most terrible battle.
Smoke rising from shattered structures once recognisable as buildings. Emptiness. Despair.
He grew up in a corner terrace house facing Windy Hill in Essendon, with his loving grandparents, parents and two siblings. By the time he was 14 years old, nearly everybody was gone. Dead, dying, disappeared, lost.
The disintegration of his family unit was startlingly rapid, most of it vanishing quickly in the space of only two years.
By the summer of 1965, my Dad and his younger brother were alone in that big terrace house once filled with the sounds of familiar voices and adult footsteps on the stairs.
Within a few weeks they would be turned out of this home, but for a short time it was still theirs. An anchor to a simple family life already past, never to return.
Around this time, my Dad remembers a family friend would visit most days, drink beer and chat to him. He was an Army man like my grandfather and Dad began to regard this man as a father figure in the absence of all others who might fit the bill.
Dad told me that his family had a dog then who had become pregnant and had given birth to three tiny pups.
My Dad has a tough exterior but he’s actually a massive softy when it comes to animals. I’ve seen him hand-feeding magpies and worrying over the welfare of their young.
He watched over his little canine family too, taking special care of them. I can see him now, his sweet face hovering over their sleeping spot out the back of the house. He would have treasured them and wanted to make sure they were alright.
But they weren’t going to be alright. Not in this story, pulled from the wreckage of his teenage years. I couldn’t see his face as he told it but there was something in the tone of his voice that made me sit up straight.
I leaned in despite myself. I didn’t want to hear anymore but it wasn’t for me to stop him in the telling.
The family friend was visiting late one night. He went out to use the outdoor loo and came back with a story of his own.
He’d killed the pups, he told my Dad roughly. With the back of an axe. They had distemper, he said.
I’d known something bad was coming but hearing the worst thing is different to merely imagining it. Hearing makes it real and you can’t wash it away no matter how hard you might wish it.
My Dad can still remember reeling in shock and horror as he took in this news. That this man who he’d begun to trust and rely on should commit such an act of senseless violence was shattering.
He didn’t think that his pups were sick at all. Killing them was about something else. Something darker inside the man’s mind.
Looking back, Dad can see that during this period he was trying in small ways to survive the things that were happening to him. Going to school. Playing footy and cricket. Tending to the newborn animals.
But stripped of the protective forces of his family, he was as vulnerable to the impact of an axe-blow as those poor, defenseless pups. Who could he tell anyway? There was no one left to listen.
And we can’t ask the man why he did it, no matter how often my Dad has tried to understand; the dead take their secrets to the grave with them. Let them stay there.
Not for the first time, I wanted to reach across time and rescue that lonely, young boy. Take all of his pain away. I can’t fathom it, what his life must have been like then.
I wish that I’d been there to protect him, to help him somehow. But the past is the past and Dad knows and accepts that better than anyone.
I’ve asked him so many times why he isn’t more sad or angry about this time and he shrugs enigmatically as though the movement could cast off all the hurt he experienced as a boy.
I project my own pain for the boy he was onto the man he is today. But it’s not my story to shape, I’m just passing it on with his blessing.
My Dad is passionate about family history now, collecting and cataloguing hundreds of wonderful ‘lost’ images for all the family to see. They’re a joy to him and a gift to us, so we can remember his people as they were and connect with his life before and after the reckoning of 1963-65.
It’s a more recent project for him, starting only in the last few years. I think he uses the pictures to reconstruct the life he once had and make it whole again.
The happy times, when all of the people he loved were still together and he could just be a boy who loved aeroplanes and playing sport and had his beautiful family wrapped around him, holding him tight.
* For my brave, wonderful Dad, thank you for trusting me to write about your life. I love you.