Saturday, February 1, 2014

My childhood Eden

As a boy on the rural outskirts of South Grafton, I lived just a stone’s throw away from a pristine paradise: Susan Island, a luxuriant rain-forest Garden of Eden in the middle of the broad and fast-flowing Clarence River.

I was reminded of my childhood Eden by this image displayed by the wonderful Gallica website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Click to enlarge

Susan Island was the ancient home place of a gigantic colony of fruit bats, whose daily excursions (from where to where, I never knew, nor for what reasons?) filled the twilight sky over Waterview with a dark moving cloud. The zoologist Richard Dawkins would have been enchanted—as was I—by this mass movement in the sky.

The Big River flowed just a few hundred yards behind our house in Waterview. Here’s a photo of a family fishing excursion in 1951:

That’s Don on the left, I’m in the middle, Dad’s in the background and Anne and Susan are on the right. I think we were aware that we were being photographed, because we’ve more-or-less struck up poses. We used earthworms as bait. Don and Anne, with bamboo rods, fished for slender Southern Garfish [Hyporhamphus melanochir], which were full of bones but very tasty.

Dad and I, using hand-held lines, were hoping to catch a big Spangled Perch [Leiopotherapon unicolor].

You can see Susan Island—the sleeping ground of the fruit bats—in the background of the fishing photo. But we local residents rarely went there (even though it was easy to find rowing boats), because our island paradise was in fact cursed by a terrible event that had occurred in its vicinity (on the Grafton side) just before Christmas 1943: the drowning of 13 kids who were Cub members of the local Boy Scouts. Not long after this tragedy, I myself would become an active member of this youth organization, and I would never think twice about my drowned forebears. That’s the terrible thing about explicit historical tales. They persuade the living that they belong to the past, and that nothing of their likes will ever reoccur. For me, as a child, the Cubs were drowned… and that’s all I knew about this ancient affair, which ended up irritating me, like a constantly reoccurring news film (without images).

Of the 13 victims, 9 were buried side by side in the South Grafton cemetery.

Today, we have images of their ugly concrete and tiled graves.

Meanwhile, we never see pictures of the tombs of their 4 comrades in Grafton. So much the better. It’s all so sadly desolate, like the memorial on the banks of the Clarence in Grafton, erected through the efforts of a sympathetic police constable named Alan Dahl, mayor of Grafton: a family friend who once taught me the elements of photography.

There’s a recent article on this tragedy in The Daily Examiner [display].

Today, jolted into a state of reminiscences and meditation by the French image of fruit bats, I simply wish to list, once again, in alphabetical order—in the admirable Israeli style that consists of naming out loud their hallowed victims—the drowned Cubs of December 1943. [A precise name is enough, as it were. In Jewish mysticism, a name is often considered to be no less significant than the entity it designates. Many Jews refer to God, for example, as ha Shem : "the name".] In fact, half-a-dozen surnames are those of young siblings or cousins of the victims who went to school with me in South Grafton.

Graeme John Corbett (8), son of John Corbett of 32 Bent Street, South Grafton.

William Robert Dillon (8), son of Frederick R. Dillon of 104 Ryan Street, South Grafton. William was the only son.

Cecil George Lambert (8), son of George Lambert of 90 Hoof Street, Grafton. Cecil’s father was on active service.

Raymond Arthur Morris (8), son of Keith Morris of 127 Ryan Street, South Grafton.

Brian Leonard Munns (9), son of Leonard Munns of 43 Bright Street, Street, South Grafton. Brian’s father was the Deputy Mayor of South Grafton.

Keith James Rennie (8), son of William Rennie of 130 Hoof Street, Grafton. Keith’s father was a munitions worker.

Robert Alexander Rennie (10), brother of the above-mentioned victim.

Edmund James Retchford (8), son of George Retchford of 16 Mary Street, Grafton. Edmund was their only child.

Alvin Adrian Leo Spicer (10), son of Bert Spicer of 193 Ryan Street, South Grafton. When the tragedy occurred, Alvin’s father was apparently on his way home from the AWC in the Northern Territory.

Richard John Steinhour (8), son of George Henry Steinhour and Lillian Margaret of 29 Abbott Street, South Grafton. Richard’s father was a returned digger of World War II.

Dale William Thorsborne (10), son of William August Thorsborne and Iris Sylvia Doris of 106 Ryan Street, South Grafton. Dale was the only child.

Allan Crawford Tobin (9), son of Raymond Tobin of 27 Abbott Street, South Grafton. His father was on active service in New Guinea. Allan had joined the cubs on 8 October 1943.

Robert Walter Wilkes (10), son of Reginald Wilkes of Kelly Street, South Grafton.

There’s no point in mentioning the names of the older fellows who were supposed to be taking care of the Cubs. Meanwhile, the paradise of Susan Island continues to raise its ominous head above the mighty waters of the Clarence. And the squeals of the fruit bats are the music of Eden.

The tragic outing of the Cubs, although totally elucidated, remains in my mind as a kind of mysterious Big River Picnic at Hanging Rock.

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