After about two years in Ipswich, the family moved back to Brisbane but Dad stayed on in the Ipswich job, so he had to commute. He had to walk from our house in Ashgrove Avenue about a kilometre or more to the tram stop on Enoggera Road, take a 20-30 minute trip to Roma St Station, one of the three main stations in Brisbane city, and then go a half-hour or more by train to Ipswich Station; and then back again in the evening. Often he had to work overtime. He kept on doing that for 2 or 3 years during the worst period of the War and the busiest time at Ipswich. His job was very demanding as he was in charge of all the train operations in and out of this Australia’s busiest centre when there was a huge military effort in northern Queensland which had to be supplied. It was said that there were over a million troops in the State in those days, most of them American. The pressure on all the train drivers and guards was intense. They were working regularly 80 hours a week, and often Dad would have to go to their houses to get them out of bed to take the next shift. After several years of this his health was affected, but he kept going. As a result he developed gum disease and, as was the way in those days, they took every one of his teeth out, and he spent months getting used to the new dentures, with all the misery that entailed.
The house at 151 Ashgrove Avenue was a single story bungalow with level front yard with lawn and rose gardens and a downward sloping back yard with a lawn, at the bottom of that a wisteria covered backyard dunny, and beyond that a gravelly chookyard with several orange and mulberry trees. There was a big view from the kitchen at the back of the house, which because of the slope was quite a long way above the ground, with plenty of space underneath. I spent many hours playing in that back yard, making up many games and adventure situations, particularly about cowboys and Indians and war games generally. I had a wooden gun which Dad had shaped for me.and I deployed it to great effect. I was able to use the branches in the mulberry tree as the cockpit of an aircraft or a fortress or any number of like situations. While I spent a lot of time playing on my own I wasn’t without playmates. A couple of doors down lived a girl called Ruth Webley who shared a birthday with me. I didn’t play much with her in the early years-girls??!!, but we used to play pingpong in later years and I was fascinated with her breasts bouncing. Not far further down the Avenue was a boy-whose name I now forget-Ian Campbell?- with whom I used to play a lot of cricket in his yard which had a long side garden, ideal as a cricket pitch.
The house wasn’t a great distance from Nana’s house across Enoggera Creek so I used to go there quite often to see Nana, also Aunty Mary and Uncle Chas, who by then had settled in Brisbane, especially on a Friday night to play euchre and crib. Aunty Mary used to spoil me-she was a great cook , particularly of cakes, and her sponges were famous. The stretches of scattered bush along the Creek were quite wide because the stream, over the years, had scoured out, across wide areas, a couple of metres or more in depth and houses could not be built there. There were some areas of paddock where cattle grazed, but most of it was broken bush land. Now much of that land has now been developed with streets and houses. It was a complete fairy land for me because you could make up any number of games and play them out in the bush and along the creek which of course extended for miles. It made a big curve between us on Ashgrove Avenue and the tramline and at its deepest point was a large concrete bridge, about a hundred metres from Newmarket Road, which was a good place to hide under and use as a fort.
When we first went to Brisbane, Brian was working in a bank which he hated. He wanted to be a journalist but Mum and Dad jacked up, saying it was much too insecure a profession and that the Bank was much better. He was very busy with a youth social club which he set up at the Church which was about a mile away-you had to go up to the tramline and turn right and then walk another few hundred yards. The church, St Ambrose’s, on the corner of Enoggera Road and Davidson St, the street Nana’s house was in, was a very imposing building in red brick built high above and facing Enoggera Road. On its right was the presbytery where lived the rather large, spoilt-looking and forbidding Father Brian Bolton and then behind that was the two story convent primary school. Close by that, on the left, set in gardens, was a grand old Queenslander, the original house, which was the convent. Father Bolton liked Brian because, of course, he was doing something good for the Church, but was wary of Dad and my family generally because he thought they were Communists-and he wasn’t far wrong. I remember in later years he used to give very political sermons and came very close to naming suspects. Brian had a girlfriend, Dawn Crowe, who came from a well known, by local standards rather wealthy, family (in pubs, pretty much the only way Catholics made much money in those days). She was a member and supporter of Brian in the social club and she often used to visit us. She was very happy with me and was a great favourite of mine, and my parents. Of which more later.
Of course I went to the convent, first in the classes that were held downstairs and then we were promoted upstairs. I did well and before long was always topping the monthly exams which were part of the received pedagogic wisdom in those days. A medal on a long cord was the reward (!) and I used to have to wear this jingle-jangling round my neck. I was pretty vain about it but the whole thing became even too much for me and one month I was recorded as saying to my mother, “Oh why can’t someone else come top and have this dingle dangle instead of me’ Of course it never occurred to me ‘to throw’ one some month.
In either late 1942 or early 1943 Brian finally got his wish. He persuaded his parents to let him go for a medical examination to join the Air Force. They finally agreed because they were sure he would be failed: since he was a small child he had what were referred to as ‘bladder problems’-he regularly wet the bed. I don’t remember what the actual diagnosis was but anyway that was the fact. I can long remember the carry-on about changing his sheets. I really don’t know how he got on at boarding school. So he went for the examination and was passed. Mum and Dad were horrified and were certain that the medical had been faked because the government wanted as many recruits as possible. So he joined the RAAF and went off for training early in 1943; Point Cook was one of the places he trained.
I have to introduce another key character, who in fact had been in and out of my life since I was a baby-Beverley. Mum’s eldest brother was Lawrence, known as Larry. I will speak more of him later; he had a married Anne, who was a distant relative. From her photos she was very beautiful and was much admired and loved by both my mother and Aunty Mary. Her first child was Beverley, about 4 years older than Brian, and then a few years later she had Jackie, who, tragically, was what today we would call ‘a hole in the heart baby’. He was beloved by his father who was making a successful career in engineering works, especially the use of the various types of engines that they had at that time. After much distress and medical attention, Jackie died, aged five.
About a year earlier Brian had been born while Mum and Dad were still in Rocky. Mum wasn’t well after the birth and was put in the sanatorium in North Rockhampton. Anne and Aunty Mary used to visit daily, taking the baby to see her. One day they were coming back from the sanatorium on one of the trams, which were steam driven. Suddenly it gave a terrific snort and belched out a lot of steam. Annie thought the vehicle had caught on fire and, panicking, and with the baby in her arms, jumped from the moving tram. Holding the baby aloft she hit her head on the pavement and apparently died almost instantaneously.
Larry was devastated-he had lost both his son and wife in about a year. He left Beverley in the care of Mum and Dad and went north to work in the Normanby area where he had had a gold mine-indeed he had had Annie’s wedding ring made from gold from that mine. He virtually disappeared and for years was rarely in touch with Mum and Dad, let alone his daughter. So Beverley remained with us and was about fourteen when I arrived. I still feel that I have memories of her walking me in a pram, which she certainly did, and my mother often said how much she had helped her when I was a baby. She was in fact my ‘little mother’, because, of course, Mum was often unwell.
Somewhere there is a photo of her and Brian and me, when I was about two years old: Beverley is in her All Hallows uniform-All Hallows was the Sisters of Mercy school in Fortitude Valley in Brisbane which was the leading Catholic girls school; Brian, then about twelve, is in his Gregory Terrace uniform- the Christian Brothers’ St Joseph’s College on Gregory Terrace was the leading Catholic school in Brisbane city; and me, the original little spoilt boy, in a white, short-sleeved shirt, brown pants and with what my mother used to call ‘golden curls’ down to below my ears and all primped up. My mother actually had wanted a girl, which she was going to call Carmel, and she regarded my curls as a heaven-sent opportunity to have something girlie.
Beverley was a beautiful brunette, in a rather Spanish kind of way, and always in my memory from early years was happy and smiling-and musical. In addition to the good schooling my parents had arranged for her she was also musically trained-not to a high degree, but she was good on the piano, playing all the new songs and singing. By the time I was old enough to remember things she had gone away to train to be a nurse, so I rarely saw her when we were in Roma. She lived part of the time with us when we were in Ipswich and stayed on in Ipswich when we moved to Brisbane
During those war years Brisbane was full of military, especially Americans. They had plenty of money and an easy going way and were much admired by the fair girls of Brisbane, which until then had been a very conservative, colonial town. At that time the population of Queensland’s capital was only 3-400,000. Sometime around about 1942 Beverley met a very handsome and courteous US officer, a Southern boy by the name of Sherwood Burgess. He came home at least once and I remember how impressed I was. They looked pretty smart and exotic in their beautifully tailored uniforms. Anyway, nothing came of that, but by early 1943 she was engaged to Norman Robinson. Norm(an) was the elder son of Proctor and Elizabeth Robinson who owned a 5000 acre property, ‘Walton Downs’, in southwestern Queensland, about 100 miles west of Goondiwindi, on the McIntyre River, which forms the NSW/Queensland border along there. They had a younger son named Doug(las).The wedding was held at about Easter in 1943.
Brian arranged to get leave for the wedding but, to everyone’s consternation, shortly after he was told that he was to be posted overseas. He had been trained as a wireless operator/gunner. In about the middle of the year he left and I have clear memories of his letters arriving and the excitement as we read them and passed them around. He had wanted to be a journalist and his writing was very fluent. (Many years later, when Dad was packing up after Mum had died, he burnt all the letters. What a pity!). The last person from the whole family of Breens and McDonells and their friends and connections who had gone overseas was Dad in the First World War. How different today!
Brian’s travel, which included New York, was part of an Allied air training scheme and he spent some time having final training in Canada. That completed he went to England and was posted to the Australian squadron, No 10, of Sunderland flying boats in Coastal Command. I don’t remember exactly how long he was there , no more than a couple of months, during which time he had his 21st birthday, on September 22-I remember the letter he sent describing the party his mates gave him). Then, on October 2, his aircraft, ‘M for Mary’, was lost on U-boat patrol over the Bay of Biscay. It was known that German Junker 88s, which had rockets and greatly outgunned the Sunderlands, which were only equipped with .303 machineguns, were in the area.
The war had a terrible impact on what was then a small Australian population, and at the family level it was intense. Brian’s cousin, Billy Toohey, son of Aunty Grace, Dad’s eldest sister, was lost in Bomber Command over Europe. All of Brian’s close friends, about 4 or 5 of them, never came back. I have the clearest memories of the notices in the Courier Mail every day of those who were missing or lost in action.