My father was born in 1924, when electronics were in their infancy and electricity wasn’t widely available – certainly not in Bootle, a working class suburb of Liverpool. As a child, the only electricity in his house came from a hand-wound dynamo, which he attached to a treadle sewing machine to increase the output. He laid a bare wire along the top of his fence and when he saw a cat jump up he’d peddle like crazy and the cat would leap off yowling.
He started an electrical apprentice just before war broke out but his workplace was bombed so he was moved to a nearby shipbuilders. He spent the rest of the war repairing ships, a reserved occupation, so he was never called up. Would he have gone? He was fearless but he was no killer.
When the war finished he joined the merchant navy and over the next seven years circled the globe many times, as a ship’s electrician. His skill at repairing practically anything was greatly appreciated and he was quickly promoted to chief electrician. In his travels he picked up snippets of numerous languages and made up derogatory phrases about most nationalities. Phrases he continued to use well past their use-by date. He was the antithesis of political correctness.
Back on dry land he married my mother, who already had two young children from a previous marriage. He was good with children and together, over the years, they produced three more. And he built us many wonderful, though often dangerous, toys. A little tractor with an exhaust pipe that burnt our legs and a corrugated iron canoe which sank in the river.
And though he stayed ashore for the rest of his life, He didn’t stay too long in any place. Over the next thirteen years he moved his growing family from England to New Zealand, back to England then back to New Zealand again. He designed and built power stations: coal powered in New Zealand in the fifties, nuclear powered in England in the sixties and hydroelectric in New Zealand in the seventies.
During our first stint in New Zealand, in a tragic accident, my two older sisters were washed out to sea. Dad was a strong swimmer and was able to rescue and resuscitate one sister but sadly our oldest sister drowned. She was only nine. The guilt of that loss stayed with him for the rest of his life and he never acknowledged his heroism in saving one daughter.
Did I mention he was fearless? Not in an extreme sports way. He considered all sport a waste of energy. He was an extreme worker. If there was a shortcut to take, he’d take it. If there was no shortcut, he’d make one up. He saved thousands of hours, though the savings were partly offset by his numerous visits to hospital for broken bones, burns, concussions, contusions and cuts. Even so he was well ahead.
He had enough electric shocks to kill a dozen electricians but they didn’t seem to faze him. He barely noticed the small shocks and bounced back quickly from the big ones with more energy than ever, his battery recharged.
He loved to scavenge, picking up bits and pieces from tips and junk shops and off nature strips. He was into recycling long before it was trendy. And he’d rebuild his scavenged bits and pieces into crazy inventions. In the late sixties, as microwave ovens were first appearing, he built a microwave ray gun – to keep the neighbours’ cats off our property. It didn’t work particularly well but he was happy that it worked at all.
He could build or fix almost anything. He was an amazing renovator. He restumped our house, dug out underneath to make a garage and workshop, turned the roof space into an attic and extended the kitchen and laundry.
Mum didn’t approve of the home improvements, so he’d wait till she went away for a few days. The moment she left, he’d whip out the timber hidden under the house and fire up the power tools in a frenzy of activity. When Mum returned she’d rant and rave and Dad would appear suitably chastised, though he was likely just lying low while he planned the next stage.
They split up in the mid-seventies, when we were in our teens. The reasons were never made clear but I think it was more than just the renovations.
Dad had no difficulty finding a new home. His skill with power tools made him a popular housemate for young homeowners, and at his first share house he met a beautiful young nurse, half his age, who cared for him for the next forty-two years.
They moved to her family home, a ramshackle little cottage in serious need of renovation, on a huge block of land. Enough room to build a dozen sheds. A place where he could hammer and saw, electrocute himself and fall off ladders every day of the year. Heaven on Earth.
He thrived. He built extensions and sheds to his heart’s content and was the electrician for the local caravan park for over thirty years, passing on his wisdom, and his shortcuts, to a succession of maintenance men. In his spare time he wired up neighbours’ homes and made concrete statues. And in the winters they holidayed in Eastern Europe, sleeping in a tent and enjoying cheap wine.
His body started to fall apart in the final years of last century but he barely noticed. He had a pacemaker fitted and his hips and knees replaced. He was like a six-million-dollar man; though if he’d had his way he’d have picked up the bits from the tip and been a six-dollar man. He just kept on going, working well into his eighties surprised when he had to have a bit of a lie down each day.
But all good things come to an end and when his kidneys packed it in, his days were numbered.
He spent his final hours not in a hospital, surrounded by machines, but in his own home surrounded by family. His body contorted with pain, each breath a gurgling wheeze.
On the evening of August the twenty-ninth, he breathed his last rattling breath. Then silence. A silence so startling it took my sister and I several minutes to appreciate its significance.
He was on this Earth for ninety-two years, two months and eleven days, though he crammed at least a century of living into that time. His cat slept with him that night, as though forgiving him his many transgressions against its feline friends.
The morning of his funeral, my brother and I ventured into his tool shed to behold possibly the largest collection of analogue electronics in the southern hemisphere. Dozens of VHS tape players, AVO meters, oscilloscopes and an ECG, interspersed with concrete statues, countless tools and many items we couldn’t identify, all festooned with cobwebs.
A shrine to his many achievements and obsessions, chronically cluttered yet strangely empty.
JG Sept ‘16