"Eat your veges - they'll make your teeth grow curly."
The above sentence was one that my Dad uttered regularly to us three kids at the dinner table. It was his silly way of using humour to keep us entertained and willing to listen to his warm-hearted health lectures.
Of course, any authority he might have had was always immediately dispelled by his own behaviour. He'd lean over to Dave and yell out, "Hey, look at that spider in the corner!" and swipe his potatoes, cramming them all at once into his mouth, grinning gleefully. Or he'd create a helluva mess on the tablecloth as he tried to throw peas and pumpkin pieces up into the air and catch them in his mouth. Mum would watch tiredly-but-indulgently on as we kids tried the same trick but much less successfully; beans and carrot rounds bouncing off our noses and onto the carpet. No wonder she chose such luridly-patterned tablecloths.
Our family fitted the country, 1970s traditional mold - mother, father, three children. Mother mostly staying at home, kids at school (two years apart in age) and father the monetary provider and 'real' disciplinarian. In theory at least.
Looking back, I realise now that coming home from work to "Smack a few bums and give my wife a few minutes' rest" would have killed him. He tried every tactic before resorting to a sharp slap on the thigh before bath time - it never hurt, but left a bright red mark that served as a powerful visual reminder of my wrong doings that I would sob over whilst slumped in the tepid bubbles. Instead, he would put on his huge, scary, booming Monster Voice to scare us into learning our lessons. "I'm coming to get you....I'm coming to give you a great, big RUFFFGHHH!" Dave'd nearly wet his jocks with the weird combination of fear and thrill. I, on the other hand, was more terrified of him lurching toward me like a modern day Igor, roaring loudly with his huge bear like hands semi-curled over my head. It was a pretty successful method and one that he really didn't have to use on us very often.
Dad was a high school teacher and often commented to me that he enjoyed his job, especially the friends he made there amongst the staff. He compared it to being back at university surrounded by mates with the same sense of humour and contempt for the office-bound bureaucrats that set the rules without setting foot in the classroom. Many times I accompanied him into the staff room on a Sunday for him to put in place some silly trick or other. Dyeing one jug of milk blue and one red after Norwood won the premiership; writing 'Always Plan Ahea' on one line and the 'd' on the second; spray painting his mate Ken's green tomatoes red; and rigging the communal billiard table.
He also showed me how to view the eclipse in 1974. The day was eerily dark and he opened up the school's lab in order to put together a device that showed us kids how to get a look directly at the phenomenon. He brought me a 50 kilogram bag of wet clay home one night in order to encourage me to continue with my pottery genius as he saw it. I waffled on and on about the wooden stilts that the Wilden kids next door had to play with and he welded me up some metal ones. They worked - sort of - by wedging themselves firmly into the grass and allowing me to stand up on them without holding the bars - even at the age of ten I loved and appreciated his efforts.
Netball was something I had a love-hate relationship with, and he recognised that. As the tall one, I was always goal-keeper, and rather good at it. However no girl likes to be the ever-reaching guard dog all of the time, so he made me my own goal ring to practise on at home. With portability in mind, he set it in an empty wheel-rim filled in with cement. Every time I scored a goal the ball would bounce right off the cement and sproing over the garden fence into the orange tree: I would have made a good soccer goalie.
Despite being a father of three, teaching high school kids, coaching basketball and cricket teams, playing golf, volleyball, tennis, cricket, basketball, fishing, windsurfing and bowls, he still had an active interest in pursuing all kinds of things. He studied Arts (English) and dabbled in some Park Ranger courses; got into bird-watching (the feathered kind, he couldn't have been a lecher if he tried) and went to 'Remedial Art' classes run by a friend after school.
By her own admission, Mum wasn't the keenest of cooks and certainly not willing to spend too much time on preparing anything beyond the solid goal of ensuring we were all fed. Therefore, if my father wished to eat squid, crumbed brains, home-pickled onions, salted fish or pureed dried plum, he had to do it himself. Which he did, with a noticeably larger amount of enthusiasm to expertise. His quick-fried squid was a triumph but the brains, soggy onions and saliva-sucking fish were not. The plum slice languished on top of the fridge for several years until we contemplated using it to replace the back door mat. Still, at least he gave it a go.
Love of food was nearly the death of him, and I don't mean his penchant for spreading butter as thick as bread on his bread, or cheese as thick as three of his chunky fingers. He was highly allergic to Vegemite which was unknown to me when I was a fifteen year old trialling a Chinese/Aussie nightmare One Pot concoction that substituted soy sauce for this spread. His throat closed quicker than a pub door after happy hour yet he wheezed out, "This is really delicious, love" in order to keep my pathetic culinary explorations alive.
He made his own bee hives and set them amongst the gorgeous purple Salvation Jane weeds in local farmers' paddocks and brought home chunks of fresh honeycomb for us to chew endlessly on, the honey long gone from the wax. The honey was the best I've ever tasted, especially smeared on a slice of fresh bread with cream drizzled on top. His landrover smelled permanently of smoke from his bee-hive smoker, and dead bee carcasses decorated his dashboard like sad little sequins. I used to tease him whenever his 'Australasian BeeKeeper' magazine would arrive, "Wow Dad, it's here, it's finally here - why oh why is it only out every two months?"
By the mid eighties, my folks realised that all three of us were likely to go the the Big Bad City of Adelaide to live and study and a teacher and part-time secretary's salary wasn't likely to stretch that far. Renting some disused glass houses, he partnered with another teacher to grow cucumbers for extra income. Market gardening also gave Dad an opportunity to educate his teenaged kids about marijuana. Sadly we didn't get to sample any, but sure got to witness a few visits from the police when our neighbouring growers couldn't resist slotting in a few "Electric Spinaches" (Dad's words) amongst their tomato plants. Dad insisted that the police threw old car tyres on the fires when they destroyed the crop to prevent any local Bong-dongs from standing downwind and inhaling the fumes.
When Dad decided to take his long service leave, he really took it. We spent the entire winter in Queensland, caravanning our little hearts out. A year was spent in Aberdeen, Scotland, freezing our butts off and delighting in their indecipherable accents, summer fashion choices and love of offal. Our holiday to Ayers Rock and the Northern Territory wasn't quite as successful: he made me complete my year twelve biology assignment on a card table in the tent and made me pose under a sign out in the middle of nowhere that had been painted over with 'Lesbians Are Everywhere.'
Now he's retired, and is 'only' involved in Probus (I'm too afraid to ask for more details), golf, bowls, various social groups, wood turning, computing, photography, travelling to the Flinders whenever he can, caravanning, writing letters to the Editor and being a good grandpa. So, is it surprising that, a man who regularly chooses to wake up before 6am for a round of golf, is likely to be found snoozing before 6pm? And yet, if I dared sneak in and change the channel from cricket to something - anything - more interesting, he'd stir and say, "Hey! I was watching that!"
"How were you watching that if you were asleep?"
"I wasn't asleep, just resting my eyelids."
Can't argue with that. If I've inherited one percent of his spirit, I'll be stoked. I love you Dad. Happy 70th birthday.