My Pop got his pilot's licence when he was 15 years old.
(Psst... he had actually been flying since he was 12 years old, whenever his Dad needed him to topdress the farm!) Only three years later he was drafted by the RNZAF and sent off to war. He wasn’t actually part of the action as he was stationed in Canada, but a World War affects everybody and he longed for peace and to go home but stuck at it stoically.
Because he was so skilled at flying he had been made a pilot officer – ironically he was younger than almost all of the young men he taught to fly. He said that in the short amount of time he had them he taught them as many safety manoeuvres and tricks as he possibly could in order to save their lives, as after a very brief few weeks they would be whipped away to war and he would have to start the intensive all over again with a new batch of young men. It was heartbreaking work. He was also chagrined to see the primitive, substandard and defective aircraft that 'his boys' went off in – an unfortunate upshot of hurriedly mass-produced wartime machinery. These boys respected and obeyed him – partly through shortage of time and the fact that what he had to teach them could save their lives, but also because he was fiery (a redhead!), intense (a Virgo!) and really clever. He came home heartily disillusioned with war (who wouldn't?) and prayed that there would never be another – and his prayer never abated in intensity.
After the war he was appointed a large tract of land to farm in Te Kowhai (near Whatawhata, in the Waikato Basin). There he lived with Grandma (a nurse who treated returned servicemen) and they raised two young boys, Uncle Colin and Dad.
Several decades later the land was tamed and both sons 'settled down' (is that what marriage is called?) and had their own little mites. They settled their respective families close-by – Uncle Colin 50 metres up the road and Dad on the other side of the hedge – and things were idyllic. Grandma had by that time situated a chicken coop and landscaped her extensive gardens: there were lawns for go-karting, fish ponds, bird baths, imitation flamingos and swans, fountains, lily ponds, troughs with frogs in them, a plum tree, a zen pebble garden with a maple tree feature, a native bush stand, huge camellia bushes, a mandarin tree, rhubarb (that Mum sometimes tried to feed us), a macrocarpa hedge that was cool to climb along the top of, archways and tunnels through the hedge, climbing trees, a bamboo stand and a mysterious greenhouse. Those were the days of games of cricket in the early evening, puppies, fresh eggs, fresh milk from Mary-Anne the Friesian house cow, calves, lambs, and Pop racing the dog up the road in his Daimler (the dog usually took a shortcut and won). Pop would borrow his Te Kowhai friend Max Clear's single-engine plane and top-dress the maize paddocks. He would sometimes ask if my brother or I would like to come but Mum always said, "No," because he was too much of a daredevil! (In retrospect I understand her concern but I wasn't brilliantly happy about it at the time!)
At some point in my childhood Pop lost all his teeth. Not at once – it was a gradual process. As his false teeth were uncomfortable, he just didn't wear them! So I always remember Pop best with no teeth. His gums became so tough that eventually he could munch on dry hard toast with ease. I never thought about it until I got older, then I got all sensitive about it and wondered what my friends would think. I always said, "Would you wear them to my 21st birthday party?" And he always promised to bring them along. And he did. He had them in his pocket to show to anyone who asked.
He, Grandma and Spot the fox terrier retired to Whangamata (on the Coromandel Peninsula) to their beach house. He kept busy mowing people’s lawns, tending gardens, growing veggies and renovating downstairs into a flat so the families could come and stay. They were never lonely. Pop's character (and Grandma was a bit of a character herself!) ensured they had company always – and some were famous even. (I once served a lemonade to Selwyn Toogood, a TV personality, in Pop's lounge!) And Pop loved children. He was lively and smart, and all the kids on Pipi Road gravitated to his place. He played Bobs, spotlight tiggy, table tennis (where he cheated like anything!), went fishing, and played cards (where he also cheated like anything!) and was all-round fun. he served up fried eggs which were poached in butter and his thick white toast dripped with melted slabs of butter – yum! He was popular and loved, could happily argue about anything at all, and the house resounded with laughter, his highly skilled whistling, and shouts (usually when he was discovered cheating!)
There are so many memories of things that happened then. Always something – every day! Like when Pop really really badly wanted to go and see Crocodile Dundee. So I took him – however I don’t think he had been to a movie theatre since the war and he found the cinema screen huge and kept saying, "Good Lord!" Also, he cackled continuously (he had a really hearty chuckle!), even through the quiet bits. I was mortified. Usually, also, when you talk to someone during a movie, you murmur under the sound of the movie – but Pop yelled over it whenever he wanted to tell me something! (As he always gave a running commentary whilst watching TV, this shouldn't have surprised me.) The people around us must have wondered – I expected an usher to tell us to leave at any moment! I can look back now and laugh about it – but it has taken a while. Also, when I finished my Masters degree I dedicated my thesis to my grandparents – and he blew me a kiss! He was so proud of me.
He nursed Grandma until she died, and then he was touched with loneliness. However he was not well himself and died not long afterwards. For several years I was too sad to go to his house in Whangamata, which was now ours. Sometimes I would go, but could not stay for long as I found it painful to remember the happy times that were now over and never to be repeated.
When I joined the Sri Chinmoy Centre I became acquainted with the concept of 'Joy Weekends' – weekends where a group of people from the Centre would go away somewhere and play games, swim, run, meditate and – above all – eat yummy food! We started using Pop's place as a Joy Weekend retreat, and to my relief and joy I again found happiness in the place. These weekends got bigger and bigger and more popular (they really are fun!) so as well as Pop's place (which, with ingenuity, comfortably accommodated 20) we rented baches nearby as well. These weekends changed my perspective, washing away the sadness and replacing it with joy. I can now remember Pop, not with grief, but with happiness as I think of the fun times and laughter we used to have, along with the sheer force of his bubbly and brilliant personality. And he would really like that.