My earliest memory of swimming is at a school outing to a nearby river (there were no swimming pools in Maungaturoto in the 1950s). The picture on the right was taken at a family picnic around that time and shows my sister Lynne, Mum, Dad, brother Max (lying on Dad’s lap), and Grandad Dale.
For some strange reason, I was never taught to swim properly. But I loved being in the water and eventually taught myself how to dog paddle and breaststroke. As a teenager, I became a lifesaver at Waipu Cove (the beach we went to each summer) and at Whangarei Boys High School qualified as a junior instructor in the Royal Lifesaving Society.
Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation wasn’t widely used in New Zealand until the 1960s. In the 1950s we used the Holger-Nielsen method. The picture on the right shows Grandad Dale demonstrating the method at age 16 (in 1958). The idea was to get the drowned person’s chest to expand and contract by pulling their arms up and down. The method needed quite a bit of training and wasn’t nearly as effective as mouth-to-mouth.
The demonstration was at the Whau Valley School in Whangarei and I think it was part of an effort to raise funds for lifesaving organisations.
By the way, did you notice Grandad Dale’s very cool “flat top” haircut. It was all the rage at the time. Flat on the top, swished back at the sides, and a DA crease at the back (see Ducks ass).
Some aspects of surf lifesaving were very different in those days. The basics were the same; we put out flags marking safe areas to swim in, we watched out for people in trouble in the water, and we rescued them when they got in trouble. But our “tools” were very rudimentary; no motorised inflatables, no jet boats, not even wetsuits.
The main weapon we had was the old fashioned belt-and-reel (see the picture). One member of the rescue team (the strongest swimmer) put the belt on and swam out to the drowning person. A rope connected the belt to the reel. Another member of the team controlled the reel, letting the rope unwind without getting tangled. When the belt man reached the victim, the other members of the team helped pull on the rope to get them back into shore.
It was really hard work, for all members of the team, mainly because the weight of the wet rope added to the “drag”.
I actually swam during a rescue only once and it was quite funny really.
Me and a younger mate were watching the swimmers at Waipu Cove, but the rest of our team weren’t close by (they were at a nearby meeting). Anyway, we noticed these drongos swimming in a really dangerous area “outside the flags”. There was a really bad rip and, sure enough, next moment they all started getting dragged out to sea. This was really dangerous and we could have half a dozen deaths very shortly!!!
Well, my mate and I had a bit of a problem, because you can’t operate a belt-and-reel with only two people. So we set the alarm going to attract the attention of the rest of the team and headed down to the beach.
Now, even a super strong swimmer wouldn’t have been able to swim against that rip, and I’m hopeless at overarm. But I was strong and fit and could keep above water “forever”, so I decided to go in and hold someone afloat until the team arrived.
When I got in, the rip whooshed me straight out to the struggling swimmers and I picked the weakest looking one and kept her afloat. Meanwhile, the rest of the team arrived, set up the reel, and the belt man joined me in the water. He rescued the swimmer I was holding and then came back for me (the other idiots were all very frightened, but were keeping afloat by themselves).
Back on the beach, I joined the others on the rope and eventually everyone was rescued. The rip was so strong that day that we had six or seven people pulling the rope instead of the usual three of four. It was amazing that no one drowned.
But the funniest thing was that, the only time I went into the water during a rescue, I had to be rescued myself!!!
Surfing was very different in the 1950s, mainly because our boards weren’t buoyant enough to carry your weight when you stood on them. They were made of a very light wood and were long and narrow (see the pictures on the right). They floated, but only just enough to support your body a tiny bit.
So, in those days, when a good wave came in, you paddled like mad (with the upper half of your body lying on the surfboard) and, if you managed to catch the wave, you surfed in to the beach lying face down on the board.
Apparently it’s called “belly board surfing” nowadays. Here’s a lighthearted video from the World Bellyboard Championships in England: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hChI5TzKSrU
Probably the worst thing that could happen was catching a “dumper”. A dumper is a wave that has such vertical force that you can be thrown deep enough to hit the bottom, which is really dangerous, of course (you could be knocked out and drown).
But a dumper is even more dangerous with an old fashioned wooden surfboard, because the board can dive down, too. If the tip of the board hit the sand, you could just about be cut in half.
We also did “body surfing” (which is still done today). With body surfing, you don’t have a board at all. You swim like mad and, if you can get far enough forward in the wave and “nose down”, it can carry you all the way into shore. Here’s a video with instructions on how to body surf: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcipN_n4cJY, and here’s another one showing real experts doing it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=EblpNV_13Jc.
By the way, no wetsuits in those days, and we didn’t use flippers (although they were starting to become available at that time).
Every summer, our family spent a month holidaying at nearby Waipu Cove.
The Cove was a terrific place for us children. It’s a great swimming beach (if you like surf) with beautiful golden sand. In one direction, it sweeps away in a great curve towards the majestic Whangarei Heads (which you can see in the photo on the right).
In the other direction, there are rocks to fish from and farmland to walk over and, on the beach itself, there’s surfing and sunbathing and digging for pipis at low tide.
Out to sea are the “Hen and Chicken” islands, consisting of one large island (the “hen”) with several small islands to the left (the “chickens”), and there’s also Sail Island (which looks exactly like a yacht’s sail)
The beach was so popular that mostly the same families would return each year, so each holiday we’d meet up again with lots of really good “once a year” friends.
It was magic.
At one end of the beach, a little river comes down to meet the sea (see the picture on the right). It’s very shallow and gentle and really good for little kids to paddle in.
In the other direction, a kilometre or two along the beach, there’s “the Gap”, where in some ancient time the sea broke through the sand dunes and where we’d have great fun jumping down the huge sand-cliffs (well, they seemed huge when we were young)!
And, near the Gap, there’s a large lagoon where you could gather cockles (often called clams nowadays) and where we sometimes fished for flatfish (using a stick with a short piece of fencing wire stapled on to make a “spear”).
Most people camped in tents or caravans, but there was a row of six concrete units near Mr Wrigley’s shop (now the Cove Café) and we rented the one on the end each year. The units have been long since demolished, and it’s a small carpark now.
The bach was very small. The larger of the two rooms was just big enough to hold two bunks (for Mum and Dad), plus a table and chairs, and the second room was tiny. It contained two small bunks (for me and my sister Lynne), a basin, and a tiny little electric cooker with two hotplates. When my older brother Max was there he had to sleep in a tent in the camping ground.
The photo on the right was taken in 1959 and shows my girlfriend Carol Griffin (in front), my sister Lynne, and a young friend Bryce Beeston, on the steps of the bach.
One of my memories of the bach involves Pat McMinn, a famous New Zealand pop singer of the time. She was visiting the Cove and Mum and Dad held a party for her in our tiny bach.
My sister Lynne and I were meant to be asleep in the back room, but Pat saw us poke our heads around the corner and asked if we’d like her to sing something. We were thrilled, of course, and she sang “Opo the friendly dolphin” for us.
“Opo” was a very friendly dolphin who had captured the public’s imagination up in Opononi, in the far north. He even allowed children to ride on his back!!!
Read about Opo here and listen to Pat McMinn sing the song here. By the way, at the start of the music clip you may notice that there’s a poster saying “Opo the gay dolphin”. In those days the word “gay” meant “happy”, so (in today’s language) the sign actually means “Opo the happy dolphin”.
Another of my memories of the bach involves eggs. During the 1950s, at least in rural areas, you usually bought eggs directly from someone who kept chickens (a farmer or a friend). Because the chickens weren’t kept in cages on a very controlled diet, there was much greater variety in the eggs, and sometimes you’d get a “double yoker” (an egg with two yokes).
One day Dad was cooking bacon-and-eggs in the bach and he said he was sure he’d find a double-yoker because the eggs were so large. His theory was that the bigger the egg was the more likely it would be a double-yoker.
So, he picked out the largest one and broke it into the frying pan, only to be disappointed to find that it had a single yoke. But, undeterred, he picked out the next largest one and this time it was indeed a double-yoker. Finally he picked out the third biggest egg and, lo-and-behold, this one was a triple yoker!!!
Of such trifles are memories made.
Many of our teachers served in the Second World War, which had ended less than ten years before I started at Carruth House (the hostel attached to Whangarei Boys High School). One of those teachers was Humphrey Dyer, who we knew as “Hump” (behind his back). As it turns out, Hump had quite an effect on my life at the school and at the hostel. But, before I tell you about that, you need to know a little bit about his wartime background.
Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Dyer was a pakeha who commanded the Maori Battalion (it was normal to have a pakeha commander at that stage of the war). He was a strict disciplinarian, but was also very loyal to his troops and they admired him greatly (his nickname was “blood-and-guts Dyer”). He had been brought up in a Maori community and knew the culture well.
However, his command of the battalion ended in controversy. The issue was that, when his troops captured weapons from the enemy, they kept them and used them in future battles (against the same enemy they’d captured them from). This was traditional Maori practice during warfare (and, indeed, the Germans did the same thing in their North Africa campaign).
However, Dyer’s (English) superiors thought this practice was “bad form” and ordered that it stop. Hump, knowing how his men felt, refused to obey the order and resigned instead.
Here’s an account of the story (you’ll find Dyer’s name first mentioned about half way down the article):
Those bloody Maori are using our Spandaus on us
The first time I met Hump was in 1953, when I was eleven. A friend and I were in the gymnasium trying to do a “knee mount” on the horizontal bar, but without much success. We were real beginners and didn’t really know what we were doing.
Then I noticed a teacher over by the door, watching with a wry smile on his face. He came over and offered to show us how. I thought that there was no way he’d be able to do it; he looked very old (I now know he was 55) and he looked pretty overweight to me.
Well, Hump hooked one knee over and, hey presto, next moment he had swung around and was sitting up on top of the bar. Then it was our turn and (with his help and advice) we soon had the manoeuvre off pat. It was so easy, once you knew how!!!
So, I learnt two lessons that day: 1) Skill beats brawn and 2) Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Here’s a little example of how kind Hump was (despite his wartime reputation as a strict disciplinarian).
A master would come around the dormitories every morning and wake the sleeping boys. He would barge in, turn on the harsh overhead lights, and tell everyone to get up straight away. If you were a bit sleepy and slow you’d get a right telling off.
But not Hump. He would come in (very quietly), switch the light on and say “wakey, wakey, time to get up boys”. Then he’d switch the light off again to give us a few more moments, then repeat the process until we were all up and moving. He was a very kind and gentle man.
Later in my time at Carruth House, an incident occurred that really upset Hump and had serious repercussions for me. It was all a silly misunderstanding, really, but it turns out that Hump very much disapproved of homosexuality and he mistakenly thought that I might be gay. (What he didn’t know was that I had a girlfriend I used to regularly sneak out of the hostel to meet!!!)
What happened was this. My friend, Bill Killen, was a talented musician, and I said gosh how difficult it must be to play the piano. He said that it wasn’t that hard and he’d give me a demo. So, to do this, he sat on the piano stool and I sat on his knees (both facing the piano) and Bill played the piano with my hands on top of his. We were just skylarking, of course, but it did give me a sense of what playing the piano was like (and I still thought it was bloody difficult)!!!
However, Hump happened to walk in while this was going on and he wrongly decided that we were cuddling each other. Well, this normally kind and gentle man just about exploded!!! Hump reported the “incident” to the head master of the hostel, my parents were brought into it, and there were lots of Serious Discussions behind the scenes. In the end they realised that, actually, nothing had happened, and the whole matter was dropped.
I don’t blame Hump for his mistake. His attitudes were pretty “normal” for those days, with most people thinking that homosexuality was very wrong (it was actually a crime you could go to jail for). I also wonder whether Hump’s involvement with the Maori Battalion lead him to think that Bill and my friendship was wrong because Bill was a Maori (pakeha were officers in the Battalion and wouldn’t have socialised with their Maori troops).
Anyway, I still think very fondly of Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Dyer. He was an admirable and very kind man.
POSTSCRIPT #1: Many years later, the famous New Zealand author C K Stead wrote a novel titled “Talking about O’Dwyer”. Although the book is fiction, it’s based very much on Hump Dyer’s life. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and, through Stead, learning more about the man I’d known at school.
POSTSCRIPT #2: As an adult, Bill Killen and his wife and family lived near Auckland. We didn’t see that much of each other over the years (the tyranny of distance), but we remained friends until he died at age 60. Here’s a photo taken in 1984 when Bill and my children David and Anna happened to be visiting at the same time. Bill was in town with a travelling circus, employed as their piano player!!!
The memory of World War Two was still very fresh in everyone’s minds during the 1950s and there was concern that there might be further wars. As a result, there was compulsory military training for all eighteen year old males, which involved three months of full-time training at a military camp.
Now, this didn’t apply to Grandad Dale (because I was too young at the time), but our school (like many others) also provided military training for its boys, which was compulsory unless you were medically unfit or had ethical objections (conscientious objectors).
“Barracks Week” (as it was called) was held in February each year and involved the whole school being trained as if we were soldiers. We were organised into military Companies and marched about practising parade-ground drills (“Attention!”, “Present arms!”, “Left wheel!”, “Halt!”, etc). We even had real rifles (303s) and spent time firing live ammunition at targets.
I thoroughly enjoyed Barracks Week each year, it really was much more fun than schoolwork!!! My first experience of it was in 1954, when I was twelve. By 1959 (my last year at school), I’d been promoted to Company Sergeant Major, which meant I was the senior boy in a Company of maybe a hundred or more boys.
It was all pretend, of course, but I can still remember marching my Company onto the parade ground and (in a shrill seventeen year old voice) calling out, “Company B, on the right, form close column of platoon!”. I’m still not sure what that command means!!!
I was twelve during 1954, my first full year at Carruth House (the hostel attached to Whangarei Boys High School). Most boarding schools in those days had an “initiation ceremony”, where the new boys were put through a (usually humiliating) ritual, and I remember that part of ours was a boxing match. I was quite tall for a twelve year old, and very skinny, and I was matched with a very short boy who was really tough. He was far better at it than me, but I survived, and he and I later became very good friends.
We slept in dormitories, each with about 10-20 boys of the same age, and had meals in the hostel dining room in a separate building. After breakfast, we had to walk only about 100 metres to get to the classrooms.
Most days, when classes were finished, it was sport sport sport! Cricket, softball, rugby, hockey, basketball, gymnastics, tennis, swimming, diving, and lifesaving; everything I needed was right there “in my back yard”. The playing fields were a couple of hundred metres away, the swimming pool and tennis courts were right next to the hostel and the gymnasium was actually in one of the hostel buildings.
For sporting competitions, the school was divided into three “houses” of about 200 each (“Bledisloe”, “Grey”, and “Hobson”), plus the fourth house being the 100 boarders of “Carruth”. We Carruth House boys (mostly country boys and Pasifika) were extremely competitive and very proud of our sporting success against odds of two-to-one.
On Saturdays we spent most of our time playing for sports teams. Saturday nights we usually had a movie in the gymnasium (I was one of the boys who learnt to run the film projector). On Sundays we had to go to church (even if we weren’t religious), but most of the rest of the day was free, which usually meant more sport!
Although Maungaturoto was only about an hour’s drive away, I was still required to write home once a week. Phone calls were very expensive in those days, so people often wrote letters (emails and mobile phones hadn’t been invented yet). I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at this weekly chore, as you can see from the rather short letter on the right
Not everything was idyllic, but I really did enjoy hostel life. Even the alarums were exciting, like the wet weekend when a large group of us chased something (I haven’t the faintest idea what) through the bushes that edged the school grounds. We were discovered by the French teacher “Black Jack” Granville, who proceeded to give all thirty or forty of us “the strap”, giving each of us “three of the best” on the hand. It hurt like hell, but we grudgingly admired this “old man” for his stamina. (He was probably only in his early fifties, but that seemed very old to our young eyes.)
Some boys hated boarding school, although I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. Looking back, though, I realise that every now and then a boy would just disappear, never to be seen by us again. I presume they were bullied (by teachers, or other boys) and managed to convince their parents they should leave. The teachers didn’t announce anything; the boy just wasn’t there anymore. Sad, eh.
But I was one of the lucky ones. I loved it.