ST. ALBANS THEN AND NOW

ST. ALBANS THEN AND NOW



Trip to Australia from war torn Europe in 1950.


In October 1950 a ‘Flying Tiger lines’ Curtiss Wright C-46 Commando designated Aus./163-Sydney/7 took off from Bremen in Germany, carrying a load of DP’s (displaced persons) heading for a new life in Australia. None of these people on board had previously heard of Australia. They were Polish refugees who could not return to Poland as their country had been overrun by the Soviet Red army hordes, and Polish ex-soldiers were being executed by their liberators.
Like my parents most of these people had been in migrant or displaced persons camps in Germany since the Americans arrived in 1945. Everyone was waiting to go to the US but by 1950 some decided to try elsewhere. The only other choices were Brazil and Australia. My parents chose Australia and we were on our way with not much more than the clothes on our backs. My father was sponsored by the Victorian Railways and contracted to work there.
This old plane struggled on the long journey to the end of the world and landed in Colombo Sri Lanka to refuel and make repairs to an engine. I was a five-year-old boy intrigued with everything that was happening around me. Two Sri Lankan baggage handlers noticed me admiring their baggage hauling tractor. They grabbed me, sat me between them and took me for a ride. My parents were shocked and did not know what to do. Twenty minutes later they dropped me back loaded up with coke, chocolates and other snacks. I was beaming from ear to ear. My parents were relieved.
The C-46 took off again heading for Darwin and soon the engine was struggling again. The weather was very rough and apparently my father and I were the only people on board who did not fill their sick bags. We landed in Darwin for more temporary engine repairs. The engine was patched up enough to get to Sydney for major repairs. We flew from Darwin to Sydney at a very low altitude due to the sick engine. As we flew over the outback I had my nose stuck to the window. I saw what looked like a big rat hopping along and not far behind was a naked black man carrying a long stick. I had no idea that I had just seen an Aboriginal hunting a kangaroo. To this day I have not forgotten that iconic vision, which screamed ‘Welcome to Australia’.
We made it to Sydney and were immediately on our way to Bonegilla migrant camp in Victoria. This was an ex Australian army barracks where our first dinner was memorable. We were served mutton and veggies. Europeans hate mutton as it smells of damp wool apparently. As the chunk of fatty mutton wobbled on my mother’s plate she burst into tears. ‘Where have we ended up?’ she wailed inconsolably. My father and I got ‘stuck in’ without any problem. Suddenly something white plopped onto my father’s plate. He looked up and it was a possum that had pooped on his plate. He merely wiped it aside, declaring ‘that animal has just welcomed me to Australia’. My mother was ready to vomit and ran out of the diner. Dad finished off her mutton happily.
A few days later he was taken to Newport Railway workshops in Melbourne, and put in single accommodation, ready to start work at Flinders Street parcels office. My mother was given work picking grapes in Robinvale on the Murray river. The work was hard in the hot sun, something Europeans were not used to. When she received her first months’ pay she was ecstatic, until they deducted almost all of it for accommodation and food. No freebies for migrants in those days. Nevertheless, she soon started to save money and within a year dad had bought a block of land on the outskirts of suburban Melbourne in St. Albans, which was the last train stop heading west. There was no water, no electricity, no anything, but it was cheap ($400.00).
With the help of other migrants, dad soon built our first residence in Australia. It was a one room bungalow, comprising a main bedroom, my bedroom, kitchen, dining room, lounge room and bathroom all in the same room. The framework was clad with packing crates from Ford Motor company in Broadmeadows, insulated with old newspapers and finished in cement sheets with a corrugated iron roof. It was home and it was great. This was my parents first home since they were taken prisoner by the Germans in 1939. When everything was completed I arrived with mum from Bonegilla at St. Albans railway station, but unfortunately the heaviest rains for many years created a flood plain across the paddocks where our bungalow was situated. My parents waded through knee high water with me on dads back, walking about 2.5 km from the station.
A neighbour had a camera and we were soon lined up proudly in front of our palatial residence for a photo that was sent to the family in Poland, to show them how well we were doing in our new homeland, so far away from the rest of the world.
Saturday was bath night. From the general store we bought a tin bath tub about half a metre in size. Armed with buckets my parents walked the 2.5km to the St. Albans station for the only water available.
After several trips we had enough water and the Primus kerosene cooker was fired up to heat the water. I went first; mum was next, and then dad.
That evening we invited friends, who were so helpful, over for tea. There was Mr Dynak who lent my father 25 pounds ($50.00) to build the bungalow. There was Mr Roszak (a Polish professional soccer player I discovered later), and Mr Turok, the strongest man on earth who helped build the bungalow. I was in awe of these people as I sat in the corner quietly reading torn reject comics that my father collected for me from the parcel office, where he worked at Flinders Street Station Melbourne.
I was now six years old and went straight to the local primary school which was at the other end of St. Albans and five kilometres from home. I had to ‘go by walk’ as my parents put it and that was no problem. But, on my first day I discovered that none of the teachers spoke Polish, so I ran away and returned home waiting on the doorstep for Mum to arrive from work. Despite this trauma I soon settled in and within a fortnight I learned enough to get by and discovered that we ‘wogs’ outnumbered the locals by 50 to one. We assimilated in no time.
St. Albans consisted of grass plains, gum trees and a huge quarry. This place was real ’cowboys & Indians’ stuff. It was full of tiger snakes, but we spent our weekends there playing. No one I knew was ever bitten: lack of fear born of ignorance works every time. A bit of luck was probably involved also.
The baker and milkman who delivered by horse and cart, collected cash money left out for them the night before. Not once was any stolen. It was a different world then, and we all knew each other. My parents went to Self Bros & Goddard general store, but could not explain what they wanted. They were taken behind the counter to pick what they wanted, and then they paid. No one was ever cheated. That’s the way it was.
John Penlerick delivered soil and building materials, no deposit, just pay when you can. You now pay in advance for everything, plus delivery fee, and often a metre of soil looks like half a metre.
From being a bug-eyed five-year-old arriving in St. Albans, I am now one of the old-boys. With mates we sometimes reminisce about the good old days over a red wine and cheese. I now live in an average 30 square house like everyone else spending half my weekend cleaning and gardening. As I do this cleaning, I can’t help thinking about our one room bungalow. How good was that? Cleaning took my mother one hour back then. There were no lawns to mow; our front yard was a potato patch. Other vegetables grew in the backyard, next to the chook, duck and goose enclosures. The empty unfenced blocks all around served as free range pastures for our birds. Their eggs had yolks the colour of the setting sun.
St. Albans does have one claim to fame these days. It has the worst and most congested intersection in Melbourne (last three RACV surveys and nothing has ever been done. The reason is obvious. St. Albans is an 80% Labor, working class electorate. Consequently, a Labor state government does not need to fix this, and Liberal governments have no reason to do so.
I sometimes stand on the corner and picture the crossing as it once was, when I knew who owned every car that I saw. Try driving past a school at pick up time and see the horrific traffic jams as the mummies create havoc picking up their precious cargo. No ‘go by walk’ for today’s kids, although some look like they could do with some 1950’s treatment.
I prefer the old St. Albans but have a feeling it will never return. Recently I heard Mr Turok (strongest man on earth) was in hospital having suffered a stroke, so I rushed over to see him. Superman was now just a frail little man, and the tears welled up in his eyes as he tried to talk to me about the good old days, no doubt, but I could understand nary a word. Somehow I knew exactly what he was trying so hard to say, and I nodded in agreement. I’m sure he was telling me the same jokes he used to regale us kids with from morning to night non-stop, primed with a bottle or two of Vodka. He died two days later.
Most of my heroes from those days are long gone as is the St. Albans I once knew. One would also be hard pressed to see an Aboriginal hunting a kangaroo any more. The new world is for living, the old is for reminiscing and maybe learning lessons from the past. It is nice however, to switch off the computer for a while and dream about the past. Whoever invents the time machine will make a fortune, charging $$$$ to take you back in time for an hour. I’d pay plenty to see St. Albans circa 1950 and listen to Mr. Turok’s stories again.