Friday, July 30, 2021

60 in 60 #17 Hitch-Hiking

 60 in 60 #17    Hitch-hiking

I am reflecting on the last 60 years, and writing 60 blog posts in 60 days. 30 about people and 30 about events, places, experiences and entities.

The turn-off outside Port Augusta heading west.


I grew up in the sixties and was a teenager in the seventies. Hitch-hiking was common, accepted, safe and a cheap way to get around. The first time I remember doing it was on Sunday afternoons  from Moolap to go and watch Geelong West play in the old VFA. 

When we moved to Western Australia I regularly hitch-hiked along West Coast Highway to get to and from the beach at Scarborough or to my mate Graham’s place in Duncraig. 

He had a pool table so many Friday and Saturday nights were spent in the pool room with Rod Stewart or Status Quo on the stereo and him smoking rollies. We were both East Perth supporters so Saturday arvos meant going to the footy to watch the Royals play in the WAFL. 

I got my licence on my 17th birthday, my first car was a 1964 Wolseley 24/80 bought for $100 which became our mode of transport but before that I still depended on thumbing lifts. 

I discovered that people were far more likely to pick me up if they felt sorry for me and the best way to garner that sympathy was to carry a 5L petrol tin, creating the impression that I had run out of petrol and was trying to get to a servo. While this invariably worked I then had to decide whether to continue with the ruse or to reveal that it was just a tactic. Sometimes it seemed better to carry on the pretence but a couple of times I admitted the truth. I remember one bloke laughing and saying it certainly worked on him.


I finished school in 1979 and after a brief but failed attempt to go to uni I got a job in a menswear store in the Hay St Mall, followed by a job as a storeman. Sometime around mid 1980 I decided to go travelling and so began my long distance hitch-hiking adventures. I headed out to the Great Eastern Highway  at Midland and stuck out my thumb with the goal of getting to Melbourne, 3,400 kilometres away on the other side of the country, with the Nullarbor in between. My first ride took me to Northam. The next one to Merredin. The third one was with a guy going to Kalgoorlie and the fourth one got me to Norseman which is the last "town" of any size before leaping off into the desert. Over the years I spent many hours waiting for a ride from Norseman. I knew that anyone heading east from there was going a long way, almost certainly to Adelaide or beyond so I knew I would be ignored by most, evaluated by some and eventually picked up by someone willing to offer a ride and share their car for the next couple of days! It was a big ask but I always got a lift, having hitched back and forth across the Nullarbor about eight times. It’s a bloody long way, it’s straight most of the way, it’s hot and dry and dull so sometimes people were glad of a bit of company to relieve the boredom. There is a roadhouse at the T junction in Norseman so there was somewhere to get a drink or some food or go to the dunny during the long waits.


I found that some things either helped or hindered me from getting rides. I always looked drivers in the eyes as they approached and never wore sunnies, sure that they were assessing me and trusted me more if they could see my eyes. Similarly I wore clean clothes and kept myself looking neat and tidy, nobody wants to spend two days in a car with someone they think smells bad. I usually found a suitable spot and stood facing the oncoming cars rather than walking with my back to the traffic. I never gesticulated or abused anyone if they didn’t stop for me, and occasionally someone who didn’t pull up immediately would stop a hundred metres down the road and wait for me. Many times drivers said “I don’t usually pick up hitch-hikers”, inferring that they had made an exception for me. I’m certain my strategies had a lot to do with that.

People often asked if I got many lifts with truckies. The reality is I almost never got picked up by truck drivers. The only time I can remember was with a young bloke delivering a truck, minus the trailer, from Adelaide to Perth. I spent a day and a half with him, he was a decent bloke, but by the time we got to Merredin I’d have gladly gotten out and walked the last 400km, I had been bounced and shaken around so much that my whole body was aching. Truck seats are built for drivers not passengers.

Another time a bloke picked me up at the bottom of Greenmount hill and took me all the way to the Kalgoorlie turn-off in a hotted up Monaro. He really cranked it most of the way and actually blew the speedo up with the needle sitting on 150. He seemed unconcerned which amazed me because he had told me it wasn’t his car, he was just delivering it to someone in Kal! I always wondered what the new owner thought when he saw the busted speedo. Another time I got picked by a bloke in a Mustang who asked me if I had a licence  and would I mind driving some of the way? Is the Pope Catholic?


There’s a counterpoint to Norseman when you’re hitching west; just out of Port Augusta at the Whyalla turn-off where the Eyre Highway leads west. I’ve spent many hours waiting at that turn-off, including one uncomfortable night sleeping on the side of the road and rousing myself to get up whenever a vehicle approached. It was invariably stinking hot and there was no roadhouse to offer any sort of relief. I added my name to the many others graffitied  on the sign saying it was 443km to Ceduna, the last town of any size in South Australia before heading into the Nullarbor.


I was fortunate that in all of my hitched journeys across Australia I had an oasis in the form of my sister Vicki’s farm at Wudinna. It always provided a welcome sojourn and some respite from the heat and the boredom. It was always good to see Vicki, especially in the early days when she was happily married and raising a young family. I even played a game of footy for the Wudinna Magpies on one of my stopovers.


After spending a few months in Melbourne I headed north to Sydney, staying with a friend in Woollahra and working for a few weeks at the Waterworks waterslide park at Mt Druitt. If you know Sydney you know you can’t get a much starker contrast than those two suburbs. 

I headed further north, taking the train to Newcastle as it follows the beautiful Hawkesbury River. I got a ride with a bloke called Peter in a Holden ute who was heading to Cairns. My intended destination was my old home town of Toowoomba but Peter and I hit it off so well that I decided to join him and keep going all the way to far north Queensland. We had a great trip until we got to Townsville and the car broke down. He decided it was too expensive to fix and abandoned the car and his holiday and flew back to Newcastle. 

Having made it that far I decided to continue hitching to Cairns. This proved to be one of the best decisions of my life but I’ll save that story for another chapter of 60 in 60.

After a few months in Cairns I headed south again to Adelaide for Christmas with my girlfriend and then back to Perth.


I wrote about some of my hitch-hiking travels in the chapter about America so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that on my first trip I hitched 9,900 km from Miami to San Diego, up to San Francisco then back east via the Grand canyon, Denver, St Louis and back to New York in 6 weeks on the road. On my second trip I took Trailways buses from New York to Seattle and then hitched the 2020 km south to San Diego, travelling through 31 of the 50 states of America over the two journeys. I met a lot of interesting people and a few strange ones but most of the time felt safe and welcomed by very hospitable people across the country. More than once sympathetic drivers gave me a bed for the night or a meal. One guy who picked me up in Texas took me to a buffet restaurant and shouted me dinner saying eat as much as you want. Another lady in Washington gave me a huge steak dinner and a place to stay before driving me back out to the highway the next morning. When I was trying to get to Rhode Island for the finale of the 1983 America's Cup I got a ride with a guy in Colorado one night. After a couple of hours he pulled up and parked the car and said "There's a really pretty lake out there" pointing off into the darkness. I couldn't see anything but when I looked over I saw that he had set out a line of coke and was just about to snort it. He offered me a line. I declined. The guy I got a ride with to the Grand Canyon looked out for me when I staggered back to the top and gave me a place to camp the night in his tent. Hitching in America was a little more difficult because it was illegal on the interstate highways but they were the place you had to be for travelling long distances. I never got busted by any cops and nor did I ever have to wait very long for a lift.


My other big hitching trip was from Amsterdam to Madrid for the 1982 World Cup Finals. Hitching through France was more challenging because I didn’t speak any French so the scenery was beautiful but the conversation was extremely limited.


When I  arrived back in Australia after a couple of years overseas and had no money, I took the train to Liverpool and  hitch-hiked south from Sydney  back to Dad and Julie’s place at Maryborough. It chills me a little now to know that around that time serial killer Ivan Milat was picking up hitch-hikers in the same region  and murdering them in the Belanglo Forest! I was always fortunate to get rides with good people and to feel safe and relaxed on my many rides.


These days hitch-hiking has almost disappeared. I understand why but it still saddens me a little. Having said that, my youngest son Paul has done quite a lot of hitch-hiking around the country the last couple of years, often with a companion and carrying a guitar, busking as he went.

I very occasionally see someone thumbing a lift on the Bellarine Hwy and I always stop and pick them up. What goes around comes around.



Monday, July 26, 2021

60 in 60 #16 Gary

 60 in 60 #16    Gary

I am reflecting on the last 60 years, and writing 60 blog posts in 60 days. 30 about people and 30 about events, places, experiences and entities.


1984 when I got home after 2 1/2 years overseas

At Pop's 80th birthday 2016

Pop told me once that a man is fortunate if he has 3-4 really good friends in his life. I have been greatly blessed with many close friendships. Some have come and gone, some have been for a brief season, and some have endured many many years. I sometimes add them up in my mind and each time I do I feel tremendous gratitude and love for my mates. They have added so much to my life and I hope I have added something in return along the way.


My oldest mate, as in the one I have known the longest, is Gary Davies, we have literally known one another our whole lives. In fact we are second generation mates because his Dad, Allan and my Dad, Peter were best mates, having met when they were teenagers knocking around Preston and Northcote in the fifties. 

Like the McQuinns, the Davies were cousins not by blood but by choice. Our Dads grew up together, got their first cars together, went rabbiting together, played footy together, were in Gold Cross Golf Club together and got engaged and married together so naturally, when they started families, we grew up together. 

I’m not sure what my earliest memory of Gary is, he's always been in my life, having been born about a month before me. He recently told me that he remembers playing his first ever game of Snakes and Ladders at our place when we were kids living in Geelong. Family visits, BBQs, footy games and lots of kids all playing happily together typified life in the sixties but it was in our late teenage years that my bond with Gary really developed. 

When I finished school and started travelling, hitch-hiking around the country, I gravitated back to Victoria and stayed with Nan and Pa in Northcote. Gary and I started spending a lot of time together, often at the Northcote Bowling Alley. His mates were amazed that I had hitch-hiked from Perth and I almost had them believing I had roller-skated across the Nullabor! For a couple of months I had a job promoting The Pancake Parlour which involved roller-skating around the city in Melbourne giving out vouchers for free hot chocolate. I gave one to Elton John and Renata one night as they came out of one of Melbourne’s theatres.

I remember giving Gary relationship advice regarding his girlfriend at the time! 

In 1980 and 1981 I saw Geelong lose successive preliminary Finals against Collingwood at Waverley. Gary is a life-long Richmond fan and in 1980 the Tigers played Collingwood in the VFL Grand Final. Gary managed to secure a couple of tickets to the game for us. I flirted with the idea of reselling them for the going rate of $250 but thankfully Gaz talked me out of it and we went to the game, my first Grand Final. It was a great day for the yellow and black as they thumped the hapless Magpies by 81 points and Kevin “Hungry” Bartlett kicked 7 goals. Sharing in the joy of the victory helped cement our friendship and in subsequent years, footy has been a catalyst that further strengthened the bond.

Again following in our fathers’ footsteps we played golf together a bit at Yarra Bend golf course although in later years Gary suffered a severe back injury which put an end to golf for him.

I was around when Gary first met Christine but I was away overseas when they got married.

A couple of years later Gary was at my marriage to Carolyn in Geelong and I remember long talks about life, love and my new-found faith before and after the wedding.

They lived in Melbourne and we were living in Perth so our contact was infrequent over the next thirty years but it was punctuated by my many trips to Melbourne for the footy. I would pick out a round of decent games, hunt down cheap airfares and fly to Melbourne on a Friday, go to 4-5 games and fly home again on a Sunday night. For many of those trips I stayed with Gary at their place in Doreen. We usually ended up talking for hours late into the night. We shared our similar stories and struggles including battles with mental health. He always made me feel at home but I do remember one visit where I felt that twinge of discomfort you get when you sense maybe you’ve overstayed your welcome. I started to tell him how I was feeling and he cut me off and said, “I love it when you come and stay, I love it”. I instantly relaxed. Our friendship has that lovely comfortable sense of being able to pick up where we left off regardless of how long it is since we saw one another.


Allan started a business called Pyramid Chemicals and Gary went to work for him, becoming his right-hand man and eventually his successor when Allan and Jeanette retired to Yarrawonga. Sadly Allan died only a few years later but Jeanette is still there and I’ve had a few lovely visits with her over the years. Gary has maintained and grown the business but it has taken huge amounts of his time and effort and ultimately his health has suffered because of it, both physically and mentally. 


Pop with Gary's Mum Jeanette on our last road trip

When we moved back to Victoria in 2011 it opened the way for us to see one another a lot more and fostered the beginning of a third generation of Holt-Davies mateship through our sons Paul and Nathan. 

I was shocked a few years later when Gaz rang to tell me that he and Christine had broken up. He has had a hard time dealing with his marriage break-up and we have spent many hours on the phone and together talking about it, about his sadness and grief, the impact on his mental health and well-being and the complexities of trying to move on when so much of his life was wrapped up in his marriage and family and the family business. It has taken several years for him to be able to begin moving on with his life. 

One thing that has helped is having him come down and stay with us a for a weekend when we can drag him away from work. He feels a great deal of responsibility to the business and particularly the employees and he’s done a great job working through some major challenges and getting it back into profit.

He gets along really well with Carolyn which makes his time with us even more comfortable and enjoyable. I get him to a movie or for pizza at the beach just to help him de-stress and take some time for himself. Gaz loves to talk and Carolyn is a great listener so they complement each other very well. Each time he comes to stay he tells us it really helps him to relax, to feel cared for and heard and, just as he affirmed my visits back in the day, I tell him that I love it when he comes to stay. 


We don’t get to as many footy games together as I’d like but there is nothing more certain than that I will receive a text saying Go Tigers whenever Richmond are playing a big game. Sure enough the first message I got today before the Geelong v Richmond game was from Gaz, although he was pretty quiet once the Cats got on top. He’s enjoyed the last four years of Tiger dominance but as another mate said, “Don’t be bitter that it’s over, just be glad that it happened”.


I really appreciated having him around when Pop died and I wish I had been around for him when his Dad died. I see so much of Allan in him, especially now as we’ve both gotten older.

He works bloody hard, he’s faithful and loyal, he’s a deep thinker who really wants to understand what’s happening and to nut out his problems and concerns. He’s a loving and supportive dad to his three kids and to his newly arrived grandkids.


We both recently celebrated our 60th birthdays and reaffirmed our friendship and our love for each other. He’s my oldest mate. He’s a fantastic bloke and I love him dearly. 


PS. Go Cats

Thursday, July 22, 2021

60 in 60 #14 America

 60 in 60 #14    America

I am reflecting on the last 60 years, and writing 60 blog posts in 60 days. 30 about people and 30 about events, places, experiences and entities.

A cheap way to get around America

I’ve been to the USA three times, plus two trips to Hawaii. America is a land of strange contrasts but I loved my time tin the States and I have a number of good friends there, including my best friend Paul, who requires his own chapter of 60 in 60. 

After the first summer at Camp Schodack I had six weeks to travel before my flight back to London from New York. This is a brief list of people and places from that first trip.

Camp Schodack, where I spent two fantastic summers, in 1983 and 1984

·      Stayed with Joshua’s family, roller coasters and amusement parks, NY Mets baseball game at Shea Stadium.

·      Stayed with Andy’s family, my first NFL game, NY Giants v Philadelphia Eagles.

·        Washington DC to indulge my interest in US politics, the Lincoln, Washington & Jefferson monuments, the Watergate and Whitehouse. Arlington cemetery and the Aerospace and American history museums in the Smithsonian Institute.

·      Flew to Miami with a couple of the BUNAC campers. Got food poisoning. Met up with a couple of friends I’d met in Holland.

·      Disneyworld at Orlando (one of my teenage goals ticked off).

Some of the contents of the backpack I carried around the world, with mementos collected along the way

·      Hitch-hiked from Florida to California on the I10 highway via New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Yuma and finally to San Diego where Paul lives.

·      After a week in southern California hitch-hiked to San Francisco. Met a couple of Aussies at the BART station and joined them to go to A David Bowie concert at Oakland. Ate at an Ethiopian restaurant and found a grove of gum trees at Stanford university.

·      Hitch-hiked back to Bakersfield then headed east again to Mesa Verde National Park, site of ancient Indian dwellings.

·      Spent a couple of days with a couple of blokes from Israel who were desperate to see a bear! We did spot a couple from a safe distance as we crossed a bridge, somewhere in Colorado.

·      Hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in the same day in near record time, and paid dearly for it. Half an hour after I got back to the rim I couldn’t walk! The next three days of hitch-hiking saw me hobbling painfully up to cars to accept my rides.

Words don't do justice, you have to see it to appreciate it

·      Around this time Australia II was staging its amazing comeback in the America’s Cup and I decided to stay on the road and try and get to Rhode Island for the finale. Sadly I didn’t make it that far. I was in Ohio when they won the final race and celebrated with a beer with the guy who picked me up.

·      The only time I rented a motel room on the entire trip was one night in Texas to watch the 1983 VFL Grand Final on ESPN, Hawthorn beat Essendon.

·      Saw the biggest bag of dope I’d ever seen when I stayed the night with some blokes in Denver, a whole garbage bag full!

·      Baseball games in Houston- the Astros, San Diego-the Padres, and Chicago-the Cubs and St Louis- the Cardinals.

·      Climbed the Gateway Arch at St Louis- I love being in high places with a great view.

·      I arrived back in New York the day before my flight after six weeks on the road.  

America Take Two.

When I went back to Camp Schodack the following year I was in transit back home. My UK visa had run out and I had a flight booked from Los Angeles back to Sydney in October.

My mate Malcolm came to camp with me and we travelled together for a couple of weeks before he returned to NY and home to London and I continued on my journey west. 

Highlights of my second trip. For the first part of this trip I had Trailways bus passes, $10 for 24 hours of travel, although I worked out if you added a zero to the ticket it converted to ten day’s worth of travel!!

·      Washington DC for a second time, more political sight-seeing.

·      Philadelphia, a college football game at Penn State and the Liberty Bell.

·      Boston, Bunker Hill monument, the tea party harbour and Fenway Park to see the Red Sox.

·      Montreal where we stayed with Stu and his family from camp.

·      Niagra Falls and the Maid of the Mist then to Toronto.

·      10 days in Chicago staying with Al, one of my camp counsellors, at Psi Upsilon Fraternity House during Rush Week at NorthWestern University. Lots of parties and drinking. Mal and I farewelled one another in Chicago.

Farewell to Malcolm in Chicago. Sidenote, Mal is one of two people I know who can speak false languages in a totally convincing way. He used to make up songs in mock French or Russian and get me to sing the chorus!!

·      Saw the Mets beat the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

·      Minneapolis where I stayed with a couple of girls I had met at Disneyworld the year before. Watched them run their first marathon then watched the 1984 VFL Grand Final on ESPN at about 2 in the morning. The Bombers got revenge on the Hawks.

·      Mt Rushmore, an amazing spectacle created by Gutzon Borglum.

·      Devil’s Tower National Monument, made famous by Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

·      Seattle Washington, the Space Needle, site of World Expo 1962.

·      The spectacular Oregon Coast. Stayed the night with a family who picked me up, and fed me a huge steak dinner.

·      San Francisco, Lombard St, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars and the Bridge.

·      Went to election rallies in Chicago- Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for Vice President, and for Walter Mondale her running mate. The highlight was heckling Ronald Reagan and upsetting his Republican supporters at a rally in San Diego.

·      Arriving in San Diego to stay with Paul after eight weeks on the road. I helped him move into his new place with Vicki. We took a trip to Yosemite National Park and I met his brother Damon. Excursion to Tijuana Mexico and another Padres game.

Paul, packing the truck for our trip to Yosemite

·      After 5 ½ months in America and 2 ½ years away from Australia I flew out of LAX  for home via a 3 day stopover in Tahiti. I flew into Sydney completely out of money so headed straight for the highway and hitch-hiked south to Pop and Julie’s place in Maryborough. I got back to Perth a few weeks later.

America #3

Ten years after my first overseas trip I had another opportunity to travel when I was selected to represent Australia at the Jeanne SauvĂ© International Conference for Young Leaders to be held in Montreal in 1992. I was doing youthwork at the time with Fusion and running the Chip Inn drop-in-centre at Warwick Church of Christ. 


With Jeanne Sauve at the Conference in her name in Montreal. She died less than a year later. NB. That may be a mullet!!!

·      I spent a week in London en route, catching up with friends like Tania and Nick and doing some sight-seeing.  

·      The conference in Canada was great, over 200 young leaders from around the world, sharing ideas and experiences. One young African woman made a lasting impression on me when discussing democracy and the right to vote in America. “I can tell you that if I had the right to vote I would never not use it”. 

·      Good friends Laurie and Sonia Haynes met up with me in Montreal during their own adventures around the world.

·      After the conference I tracked down a friend from Schodack, Kevin and discovered he was getting married in Boston that weekend so he promptly invited me to the wedding, a whole weekend event at a camp style resort. The bride and groom were all out partying until 2am the night before the wedding and somehow made it to the service in good shape at 9.30 the next morning!

·      Stayed with Cindy, the drama counsellor cum getaway driver from Schodack, in NY for a couple of days and went to the top of the World Trade Centre.

·      Stayed with friends from our church, Calvary Chapel, who had returned to live in America, Ron and Kay in Vermont and Keith and Michelle in Illinois.

·      Andy from Schodack picked me up in Chicago and drove me to Illinois.

·      Flew from Chicago to Los Angeles where I was picked up by Skip and another mate Mike from church. The three of us went to a pastors’ conference at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa where I got to meet one of my heroes, Chuck Smith.

Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel

·      Went to Disneyland with Mike and Skip.

I love amusement parks, rides and roller coasters. Space Mountain at Disneyland is awesome.

·      Stayed with Paul and Vicki at Escondido and had a close encounter with a rattlesnake on a hike to scope out fly-fishing spots.

·      Flew back to Perth after a month away from home. On reflection, while it was a great opportunity for me and an awesome trip, the fact that I left Carolyn at home with three kids under 5 to look after was not fair and placed a lot of extra stress on her. 

In all I have been to 31 states in America, hitch-hiked thousands of miles and met heaps of wonderful people. I don’t recall any encounters with loud obnoxious Yanks, rednecks or Trump-style voters although this was thirty years ago and the country has changed. I found the people to be warm, friendly and extremely hospitable. They are proud of their country certainly and have a different attitude to the role of government and civic responsibility than Australians. I love America, it’s a vast and beautiful country and I hope to get back there again and see some more of it.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Group photos

60 in 60 #14 Vocation

 60 in 60 #14  Vocation

I am reflecting on the last 60 years, and writing 60 blog posts in 60 days. 30 about people and 30 about events, places, experiences and entities.

Andy                                                            Jeff and Joshua

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes what seems like an insignificant event can end up being a life changing moment. This is another example. In this instance there were two hugely significant moments. I didn’t realise that at the time but I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would not be where I am today but for the things that happened in the mid-seventies when I was a teenager.


Over the Summer of 1973 we moved from Geelong to Perth. Mum was married to Arthur and for the first year or so we lived in Bayswater, renting a house from Uncle Neil and Aunty Joan. Some time later we moved to a house on West Coast Hwy Watermans, overlooking the marine laboratory. It had sloping concrete roofs which were perfect for skateboarding on although the staff there didn’t approve so a quick leap from the roof into the sand dune beneath was our means of escape when busted.


While living at Watermans we were visited by a young bloke called Jeff who delivered a car we had left behind in Geelong for repairs. He stayed with us for a couple of months before heading back to Victoria. After he departed we received a number of letters for him from the YMCA. I had no idea what was in them but seeing as he had left months before I decided to open one and see what they were about. Inside was an invitation to attend a leadership training weekend being held at the YMCA campsite at Stoneville in the Perth hills. 

It sounded like fun so I rang the number, explained that Jeff wasn’t in Perth anymore and asked if I could come instead. The person on the phone was hesitant because numbers had been finalised but I managed to talk him into it and so the next weekend I had my introduction to YMCA camping. I loved it and signed up for more leadership training and as a volunteer leader for the summer camp program at Rottnest Island. Thus I found myself a few months later looking after groups of 9-10 year old kids, camping in tents at the old YMCA tent campsite on Rotto for a week at a time. It was fantastic and I discovered I had an aptitude for leading and working with kids. Rotto is a wonderful place and I spent two great summers there, playing games, riding bikes, swimming at the Basin, singing songs, enjoying lantern stalks and bakery runs. Looking after the kids was a lot of fun but the other attraction was all the other young people there as leaders. Once the kids were settled we would hang out, play cards, listen to music around a campfire, talk and muck around. 


As a 17 year old it was a perfect way to spend the summer but I did have a serious wake-up call during one camp. After a late night I was so tired the next day that I lay down in a rocky shelter overlooking the beach and fell asleep while my group were playing on the beach and swimming. Thankfully there were other leaders and groups there supervising while I was slacking off.  A couple of the other leaders reported this back to the camp director and he confronted me about it. “Marcus, you need to decide whether you are here for the kids or for yourself. Do you really want to be a leader? Because if not, you’ll be on the first ferry back to the mainland”. I knew he was absolutely right, I had been irresponsible, I was remorseful and  declared I definitely wanted to be a leader and that I would not do anything like it again. Thankfully he gave me a second chance and I knuckled down, took my job seriously, and became a much better leader because of it. Thank God for second chances.


Over a two year period I was a volunteer leader on about a dozen  YMCA camps, at Rottnest, Stoneville and Sorrento, my skills developed along with my attitude and I received a glowing reference from the YMCA prior to heading off to London in 1982.

Stu, a Canadian                                                                 

Whilst working at the Esso office building in Green Park I met a girl, Felicity, who told me about her experience working on a summer camp in the USA with Camp America. It sounded fantastic and I eagerly applied for a job with a similar organisation called BUNAC that recruits young men and women from Britain to work on summer camps in the States.

Thanks largely to my YMCA reference I was offered a job at Camp Schodack in upstate New York, not far from the Capital, Albany. 

In fact I was not recruited as a standard camp counsellor (the entry level position) but was given a job as a Bunk Leader and put in charge of twelve boys aged 8-9 and four counsellors. 


The camp ran for 8 weeks plus several days of set-up before the kids arrived and clean-up after they went home. The program was full on with a busy timetable of regular events, ranging from street hockey and soccer to horse-riding and archery plus a stack of evening programs, activities and special events culminating in Tribals or Colour War where the whole camp of about 300 kids aged from 5 to 15 and 80 leaders were split into two tribes and engaged in all manner of competition over two intensive days. The camp ran for so long that they had a visitors day in the middle where parents and families could come and visit their children. I loved the whole thing and my Osage “Oh Saggy” Boys were great fun. In fact nearly 40 years on I am still in touch with one of them, Joshua, and to my utter shock and amazement, he and his little girl flew out to Australia to surprise me for my 50th birthday! He has not only remained my friend but he and his family have been mutually adopted by my Mum who has stayed with them each time she’s been to America. 

The BUNACs at Camp Schodack 1984

Again, one of the best things about the camp was the other leaders and on nights when we weren’t on duty we headed for the local bar to play pool, feed the jukebox and drink American beer like Budweiser and Schlitz. I had learnt my lesson though and was always fit and ready for work with the kids each day. We got one and a half days off each week and used those days to visit New York City or go and stay at people’s cabins on the lake etc. 


There were many memorable moments at Camp Schodack but the one that has remained most vivid and important happened before the kids arrived. Taking a look at my list of campers, several experienced leaders said “Oh, you’ve got Andy Levy!” in a tone that suggested that was not a good thing. By tradition the kids, mostly from well-off Jewish families from NY and Long Island, came to the same camp every year and then when old enough graduated to become CITs (counsellors in training) and eventually counsellors in their own right. I had no idea who Andy was but he clearly had a reputation as a difficult kid. I decided that I would ignore all the warnings and prophets of doom. I would take Andy on face value and treat him exactly the same as every other kid in my bunk, with as much love and care  as I could. Lo and behold! It worked. Andy and I got along brilliantly and he had a fantastic summer without the slightest hint of a problem. 


I had such a good experience at Schodack that I signed up to come back the following year, 1984, and was put in charge of a larger group and more counsellors. Having blazed a trail as the first BUNAC to be a Bunk Leader the previous year, the camp employed several more BUNACs and made two more of them Bunk Leaders which added another level of enjoyment to the experience. The highlight for me was getting my mate Malcolm a job at the same camp. He is a very charismatic bloke and when the Americans dubbed him X after Malcolm X he quickly assumed the status of cult figure around camp. 


Mike and Malcolm in NY
Mike, one of my camp counsellor team.            Malcolm X


I had Joshua and Andy in my group again, along with 22 other kids and 5 counsellors. Comprising the Seminole boys.  I knew the ropes and what to expect second time around and we started to plan and run some of our own activities with the kids, during the day time and after hours. 


The night time adventures started with simple things like moving the kids’ bunks while they were asleep before escalating into a daring escapade at two in the morning. Having teed it up with the night watchman we woke all the kids up with the dreadful news that someone had stolen all their shoes and we had to go and find them! Once we got all the sleepy kids dressed  we sneaked out of the bunk and crept our way through the camp and headed for “Siberia” the playing area farthest away from the bunks. By then the kids were fully into it and both excited and mystified why someone would steal their shoes in the middle of the night! Then one by one they started finding their sneakers scattered around the oval, celebrating as if they had found buried treasure. Once all the shoes were retrieved we headed back to camp, only to be “discovered” by the patrolling night watchman. “Run” I yelled and 24 breathless kids charged back to the bunk ahead of the torch-bearing pursuer. 

As we hurtled through the door I instructed them ”Straight into bed, pretend you’re asleep, don’t make a noise!”. A minute later, the watchman, playing his part brilliantly, came storming in looking for the culprits who were out of their bunk after lights out! “There better not be any kids outside this bunk” he threatened. The kids didn’t dare move or breathe a word and he departed, satisfied with his night’s work. For the next two days it was the only thing the kids could talk about.


One of the special events each year was the counsellor hunt. With barely a minute’s head start after lunch, all the counsellors ran and hid around the camp while eager groups of kids hunted them down and delivered them to the office to win points. Different people were worth more or less, with the ultimate insult being if the price on your head was zero or even negative points! A week or so beforehand there was an auction where each bunk could offer up a service of some kind for other groups to bid on with camp cash. Typical offerings were washing dishes, making beds, etc. I suggested we offer a “kidnapping” with all the trimmings. At the auction a group of eight year old boys successfully bid for our services then really surprised us by asking us to kidnap Warren, a very quiet and unassuming counsellor. We had expected the target to be more high profile but that’s who they wanted abducted so we set the wheels in motion. I used a session of arts and crafts to construct the traditional ransom note, letters cut out from magazines and newspapers. We stole Warren’s baseball glove and gave it to the head counsellor, asking him to announce the found glove at the lunch time assembly around the flag pole. A bemused Warren recognised it was his and walked out the front to collect it. At that moment my accomplices and I burst out of the mess hall, faces covered by masks and grabbed Warren, wrapping him up in a net and rope and bundling him into the car that had come flying through the camp gate, horn blasting. Cindy, the camp drama counsellor was the driver, so she had a flare for the dramatic. As she spun the wheels and sped out the gate the head counsellor read out the ransom note to the stunned campers. “If you want Warren back we demand ice cream for everyone”. Needless to say the atmosphere at lunchtime was pretty excited, all the more so because we had staged the kidnapping on the day of the counsellor hunt. Meanwhile, warren, who had had no idea about any of it, was secreted in the basement under the stage of the hall and provided with a meal and a request to lay low until he was found. In the final piece of the plan, I had placed the leg and buttocks of a broken store mannequin (a prop from the drama dept) in the fork of a tree in Siberia with another note saying “If you want the rest of Warren you’d better meet our demands”. The discovery of the leg was announced with great drama over the camp PA and sent the campers into a Warren-hunting frenzy! About an hour later Warren was found and led to freedom by a triumphant group of boys and girls. The whole stunt went off perfectly and became one of the stand-out memories of the summer. I had arranged for the kidnapping to be videoed and we enjoyed watching it later. Unfortunately it was filmed on a US video system and wouldn’t work on Australian video players when I returned home. 


At the end of my second summer the camp owner, Paul Krouner, wrote me a glowing reference that enabled me to get a job back at the YMCA in Perth in 1985. He noted that our bunk had had the best morale of any group in camp and that I had worked so effectively with a challenging camper (Andy) that he had had his best ever summer that year.


I will tell more stories of my time in America after the camps ended in a future chapter of 60 in 60 but I need to qualify my opening claims about the life-changing nature of these events.


If I hadn’t opened Jeff’s letter I would probably never have gotten involved with the YMCA camping program.

If I hadn’t been challenged by the camp director about my behaviour and attitude I wouldn’t have knuckled down and become a good leader.

If I hadn’t become a better leader I wouldn’t have gotten the job at Camp Schodack.

If I hadn’t done all those things I wouldn’t have realised how much I liked working with kids or that I was good at it.

The end result was that when I returned home to Australia I got a job at the Y – where, as you’ve heard, I met the man who led me to Christ, and my future wife, Carolyn.

I then got a job on a project called Buster the Fun Bus in Fremantle during the America’s Cup defence, as play leader.

My next job was as a drop-in-centre coordinator with teenagers in Warwick, followed by the best and longest job I’ve had, as a school chaplain at Carine and Busselton high schools.

And finally, in a deliberate move to return to my roots and work with primary school kids, I went to uni and got a teaching degree in my mid fifties so that now I am a year 3-4 teacher at Natimuk Primary School in western Victoria. 

Discovering and fulfilling my vocation has been a long and satisfying journey  and it all started with opening that letter from the YMCA.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

60 in 60 #13 My Grandparents

60 in 60 #13
  My Grandparents

I am reflecting on the last 60 years, and writing 60 blog posts in 60 days. 30 about people and 30 about events, places, experiences and entities.

I love multi-generational pictures. Four generations of Holt men, 2000.


I was fortunate as a kid to have wonderful grandparents. Mum’s parents, Nan and Pa,(Alec and Elsie Burmeister) known as Nanny and Pa Northcote, and Dad’s parents, who were divorced, Nanny Falia and Big Pa. 

We spent many weekends at Nan and Pa’s place on Clarke St Northcote. It’s a house filled with memories and I still like to drive past it and reminisce even though it is over 30 years since they lived there. Dennis train station was just around the corner, the shops at Vicki Rd where we were sent to buy things for Nan, the newsagent opposite the railway station where we would go and buy the Saturday night Herald for Pa and Westgarth State School was up the street, another place to play and ride the bikes. 

The house was cosy and warm and constantly filled with family and fun. There was always lots of yummy food: trays of Cornish pasties, Lamingtons, yoyo biscuits, home baked bread and roast dinners. The crowning glory was Nan’s Christmas pudding, complete with threepences and sixpences. There was a sleepout in the backyard  (which had been built for Uncle Clarrie and Auntie Emmy to live in before they could get a house of their own) and it was more than a place to sleep, it was a playroom, a cubby house, a games room and a place to read on a cold winter afternoon. The park at the end of the street was a great place to play or ride the bikes that Pa had fixed up for the grandkids to ride. 

One of my outstanding memories is the day that someone said, “If you swapped the main bedroom for the (rarely used) formal lounge, and knocked down this wall you’d have twice as much living space”. Less than an hour later, armed with hammer and saw, Pa was cutting a hole in the wall and shortly after a wide doorway had been created and voila, the house was indeed transformed. Many Saturday nights were spent in the lounge room, watching the footy replay and eating soup and toasted sandwiches in front of the heater. Pa had a “clicker machine”, with a lever that turned over numbers on some sort of odometer. We loved playing with it and seeing how high we could get the number.


Nan and Pa Northcote on their golden wedding anniversary

Local newspaper story

Nan was quite deaf so you had to speak loudly for her to hear you. When I visited with a couple of mates one day, one forewarned the other, “Don’t be surprised if Marcus starts yelling at his grandmother”. She was mischievous and funny and if you said something cheeky she would raise both her fists as if to give you a hiding. If she wasn’t cooking she was always knitting something. Pa had been a bricklayer and was handy with the tools. He would do whatever he could to help and support his family. Unfortunately, Pa was a terrible driver and a trip in the car with him was a perilous adventure, although it was always the other drivers who were at fault apparently!

When we moved to Moolap Pa helped build our new house. He loved Nan dearly and Carolyn and I were able to go to Melbourne for their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1985. Sadly Pa died just a few months later and Nan couldn’t bear to live in the house without him so she moved to a retirement village in Wantirna, far removed from the life we all knew in inner suburban Melbourne. We were fortunate to have a few visits with Nan in her final years, our kids knew her as ‘Old Nan’ and I had the great privilege of conducting her funeral service when she died at the age of 91.


We called Dad’s mum (Elizabeth Holt) Nanny Falia because she lived in a small town in northern Victoria called Nathalia and when we were little we pronounced it Falia. The name stuck but it was a misnomer homonym, Nanny was anything but a failure. Nan’s first husband Jack died as a result of the first world war- I have his medals- and they had a son Jack who also died, of tuberculosis when he was a teenager. Nan and Pa had two children, my Dad Peter and his big sister, my Auntie Merle but they had divorced before I was born. In fact it wasn’t until I was a fair bit older that I realised Nany Falia and Big Pa had been married. And, many many years later I discovered that they hadn’t actually been married but Pa had taken on Nan’s surname, Holt, in favour of his own surname, Flint. 


Nearly every school holidays we took the long trip to Nathalia, playing Spotto and trying to be the first to spot the water tower in the main street, the sign that we were almost there. Our cousins the Gallaghers lived next door to Nan which made our holidays there all the more memorable and fun. John, Geoff, Julie and Kathy were all around the same age as us and we all got along wonderfully, playing from dawn til dusk. 

Cousins, the Holts and the Gallaghers with Nanny Falia. John is missing.

A Holt Gallagher reunion in Geelong, the first time in nearly 40 years!!!

One summer we got into digging holes as forts for our games of cowboys and Indians which then graduated to digging a tunnel between the forts. We succeeded in joining the two and crawling back and forth between them but I shudder when I think about it now and the risk of it collapsing and trapping one of us. The clay soil probably was our saving grace.


Nan cooked on a wood stove and had an outside dunny up past the woodshed. It was a great break through when she got an inside toilet, the bathroom was decorated in mauve, her favourite colour. Alan and Bruce slept in the sleepout off the kitchen, Vicki slept in the spare bedroom with Mum and I slept in Nan’s room on a bed by the window. Nan’s pantry always had jars and jars of preserved fruit on the shelves and no sooner had we finished lunch than she would start preparing dinner. 

The radio on the mantel piece played the local Shepparton radio station and each morning they announced the deaths of people around the Goulbourn Valley. Years later when Nan died I immediately thought of her name being announced in the same way. Nan loved cricket and when a test match was on she would spend the day in the darkened lounge room watching every ball. 

Nan had a beautiful garden and a shaded veranda and we spent hours playing chasey, hide and seek and releaso around the house. One afternoon Mum and Nan were lying on a rug in the garden and we delighted in leaping over them as we ran around the house chasing one another. 

During my time in Queensland Nan came to stay with us twice and she and I spent hours lying on her bed and talking. I loved her very much and I treasure those memories because only a few months later Nan died. She was 76. 

With my beloved Nanny Falia, late 60s.

The Gallaghers at their Mum, Aunty Merle's funeral, 2013


Pop’s Dad (Mervyn Holt) was known to us as Big Pa and he lived in Queensland with his second wife, Auntie Ada. We didn’t see him very often but whenever he did come down to Victoria for a visit we knew what to expect: a Jelly Bean scramble! The four of us kids would gather in the lounge room as Pa opened a bag of jelly beans then he would suddenly upend them and they would scatter all over the floor as we would launch ourselves in a frenzy to try and grab as many as we could. Next came the tallying and comparing our hauls before the inevitable “demand” from Dad to hand over any of the green ones which were his favourite.

Pa loved Australian bush poetry and could recite many Of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson’s poems from memory as well as some of his own. I have recordings of Pa reciting The Bush Christening, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle and one of his own, Tin Lizzie. Pa had been a bus conductor and a used car salesman among other things but whatever he did he had a knack for making money and he became a very wealthy man. 

When he retired he took up training racehorses at their property  in Amberley, “Mervada” and many of his horses were named “Mervada _____”  He won many races at the country race tracks around southern Queensland and I remember going to the races with him at Ipswich one day when Mervada Sam won a race. 

Pa wasn’t flashy with his money but he did like to drive quality cars and I remember him having a Landau, a special edition Statesman and then a succession of Mercedes, one of which he gave to Dad and Julie on the condition that they drive him home to Queensland (from Maryborough in Victoria) in it first. 


In the time I lived in Queensland I saw more of Pa but it took me a long time to learn the lesson about how to shake hands. He would squeeze my hand tightly which I thought was a game. It was only when a kid at school shook my hand and told me to use a firm grasp not a limp grip that I twigged. The next time I saw Pa I gave a decent handshake and he was so impressed that he shook my hand three times while I was there. I don’t know why he didn’t tell me what to do, I guess he thought I’d work it out eventually.

Pa was a very good pool player and taught me that it wasn’t about hitting the balls hard, it was about touch and finesse. 

Pa was a mate of Ambrose Palmer who trained boxer Johnny Famechon who won the World Featherweight championship. Pa got this signed photo for me when I was 8.


Many years later when we were married and just had Zachariah we went to visit Pa and Auntie Ada in Rosewood but the trip was a disaster. We drove up to Toowoomba for lunch only to find the restaurant we were supposed to go to had just closed and with nothing else open we ended up at McDonalds! They had never been to McDonalds before. Suffice to say, when they ordered a hamburger they were underwhelmed with what they received! It got worse. On the return journey Pa got booked for speeding and declared it was the only ticket he had ever received. We then stopped to buy a hot BBQ chicken for dinner, hoping that would make up for the disappointment of lunch. Unfortunately the juice in the bottom of the bag caused it to become soggy and the chicken dropped out onto the floor. To finish off the calamities, Auntie Ada slipped on the grease and fell heavily on the hard kitchen floor hurting herself in the process. We didn’t stay around long, fearing things could only get worse.

In late 2001 Pa got sick and we knew the end was coming soon. Alan Vicki and Bruce flew up to Queensland to see him before he died. I couldn’t go due to prior commitments but once they were finished I flew to Queensland and Dad picked me up at the airport. We went straight to the hospital and I arrived in time to see him. Although he was close to the end he looked up and recognised me and said “hello there”. Those were the last words he spoke because about an hour later he passed away with us at his bedside, Dad gently mopping his brow and stroking his head. I again had the honour of conducting one of my grandparent’s funerals and apparently I did a good job because after the service one of his old friends congratulated me and said “You did a great job, I wouldn’t mind you doing my funeral”. He wasn’t quite so keen when I joked “I’ve got my diary if you want to book in a date!”.

Auntie Ada died less than a year after Pa.