Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

July 16th 2006
My Magnetic Island

Frank as a cowboy in the 1940s Frank Putland is a retired teacher who spent his childhood on Magnetic Island during and following World War II. Frank has assisted our new Reconnect with Magnetic section with a delightful reminiscence of those times and, mentioning quite a few old Island families. The story was also published in the Magnetic Island State School 75th Jubilee commemorative book in 1999 but may help us flush out more history and yarns of those great Island times of yesteryear from others who recall them (Ed).

My Magnetic Island
By Frank Putland

Somebody is supposed to have said that there is a book inside every one of us, struggling to get out.

Fear not! I don't have the time to write a book but the invitation to reminisce on the Magnetic island I knew has sent the memories into overdrive and incident after incident comes back as clearly as if it had happened just yesterday.

But yes, Nelly Bay and Magnetic Island during and after the war!

Without a doubt, the best place in the world for kids to grow up - an endless adventure playground where the only dangers were the ones we made for ourselves; where we cherished the mateships that existed amongst ourselves; where we respected our elders, whoever and whatever they may have been; where we were lucky to have some of the best teachers going around the One Teacher circuit at the time . what a place, and what a life!

For a kid who had spent virtually all of his five years on the island during the war, who stood open-mouthed looking at droves of fighter planes flying out to battle or bullet riddled ones limping back, who played in the gutters cut by the landing barges bringing men and supplies ashore, who had learned to count (up to forty-eight) ships of all shapes and sizes at anchor in the bay, who had lived the last couple of years without the two sisters who had been evacuated to Ravenswood . to this kid, the news that the school would re-open was a joy beyond belief.

I'm sure that I didn't realise that the dangers were past and that the Japanese were in retreat, but I understood that at school I would learn to read and write and draw and do things with numbers.

So off to school I went. It must have been sometime in '44 and the teacher, as best I can recall, was Miss MacKenzie. While I have dim recollections of the lady herself, I sure remember the clean slates routines, "a like an apple on a twig, a says a.." , the chanting of tables, and so on. From this distance I can only assume that 'Miss MacKenzie' must have been of far greater interest to the hundreds of servicemen about the place than ever she was to a kid just beginning the great school adventure.

And "ditto" - make that double ditto! (or had I just got a year older) for the second teacher, Freida Vass.

Now Freida and 'Miss Mc' must have taught me reasonably well because I very clearly remember being able to read the newspaper headlines by August '45. "Atom Bomb dropped on Japan" it said, and for years it was clear to me that someone had dropped a billy-can sized bomb on those awful people, and they had given up. I still see the headline, and still have exactly the same billy-can in my head.

And of bombs and war and August '45 - I also remember my mum becoming hysterical at about 10 o'clock on the morning of August 15. Sister Betty had left home to "go to town" to get a birthday cake for brother Rex. Mum had spoken excitedly to either Harry Thorley or Mr Coleman (the man with all the birds in cages) who had called her to the radio - then sprinted off along the beach to get Bet before the boat left for town. She explained later that the war was over and that she didn't want Betty "in town" on her own that day. Bet must have been about twelve, and very pretty. I reckon it took me twenty years to realise what mum was so excited about. I don't remember what Rex got for a birthday cake on the 16th!

But back to school, and Freida. One thing only can I remember from the classroom. Freida was making a point, fairly forcefully, to someone else in the room, and was doing the "chalk and talk" thing with vigour. The point obviously needed a firm and vertical line. Freida swiped at the board, the chalk broke, and her half-inch fingernail went the full length of the board. I don't know how it affected her, but I still see it; I still hear it; my teeth go on edge as I think of it; the skin on the nape of my neck still creeps as I type.

Did she achieve anything that lesson. You betcha! In forty years as a chalkie, I never once let fly on a firm, vertical line. Never once!

The next school adventure was indeed something new for me: a male person with whom I would have daily contact and who was concerned about my well being and my development.

The two ladies had lived, I think, at Mandalay, but in about '46 a residence took shape on the flat over the creek from the school house, and the promise of a more permanent appointment of a married head teacher was probably the result of the approaches made by the parents collectively. The three gentlemen who followed as Head Teacher at the school each left indelible impressions upon me - Mr McCartney (whose given name eludes me now, but I suspect he may have been Jack), Cyril Grace and Jack Toohey each instilled high ideals into this impressionable youngster, and I'm sure they had similar influences upon most of the children who came into their care. Of the latter two who oversaw my "middle and upper primary" education, I remember no occasion when I failed to get a satisfactory answer or explanation to a question or a confusion that I brought to them.

I well recall the school routine that banished us little kids from the school room and verandahs before school because the Scholarship classes were getting their extra instruction in a Grade Seven environment for the best part of an hour, while we played and chased about. And the same determination to give kids in a ridiculously large, multi-grade, country, one-teacher school the best possible crack at the dreaded Scholarship exam saw the Grade Seveners still at it long after the bulk of the kids had headed for home.

And it wasn't only the Three Rs that we were exposed to. We did our share of weeding and watering, had art lessons each week, took music by courtesy of the ABC after the radiogram was installed, and so on. I still have the wattlewood egg-cup I made on the lathe under the residence (while the girls did their needlework and the littleuns did basketry or whatever). At about the time I made the eggcup, I worked with a couple of other boys (Noel Finch and Ron Snell, perhaps) to fretwork an honour board to record the names of all those from the school who passed the Scholarship exam.

For me, the regular visits by the clergymen from Townsville were somewhat eagerly awaited and, long before I began to understand the significance of their philosophy, I remember being in awe of the beautiful language in the Bible Readers that appeared reasonably regularly in the school routine.

We were taught the fundamentals of a range of sports but as I look back now, they seem to have been "bat and ball" games, without exception. Although I have a dim picture of goal posts on the bottom flat, I have no recollection whatever of a single game of footie. Perhaps the loose gravel on the rock hard surface had something to do with that. I was lucky to be a pretty fit if lanky lad and I remember that my classmate Stan Parsons and I had a deal with the adults who played tennis on Saturdays: if we watered, rolled and marked the court, we could play with the grown-ups on Saturday. And we had only to walk over the footbridge and through the trees to the shark-proof swimming baths where (providing it was high tide) we could qualify for all manner of official certificates.

Two sporting achievements are etched in my mind forever. Both involve "rounders" which, as best I recall now, was a softbally - basebally sort of activity. But I can still feel the sweetness of the blow that put the softball clear through the open schoolroom windows that seemed to be about 200 yards away (You all know that "the older I get, the better I was" syndrome.) And the other blow is probably better remembered by Ernie Stewart because when I looked around to see what I had hit, all I seem to remember is blood and teeth all over his face!

For all that part of a pretty long life that I have looked back at my Magnetic childhood, I've felt that it was a good life. We had very little money and lived in pretty primitive houses, but they were the times and we were happy with our lot. Certainly, I don't and can't recall a single day that I didn't like school (though I'm still a bit put out for being wrongly accused of starting a fight on one occasion).

And "school" was a far cry from the luxury of modern, well lit, air-conditioned and carpeted entertainment centres that are the norm today. Standing on black, creosoted wooden posts (for the first years, with a dirt floor underneath) the entire school house - which no doubt still stands and will put
the lie to all this - could not have been more than about forty feet by twenty, with perhaps eight foot verandahs front and back and the main room may-be twenty feet square. We marched into school up the central front steps, after the morning parade. The front door was also centrally located so that we marched into the central aisle between two sets of four long desks with forms. From that front door, the teacher's table (for all eight years, I suspect) was front and right. The entire library, one set of about six shelves, was hard left in the corner, while a couple of presses held all of the Departmental goodies - the ink powder, copy books, Bible Readers, Maths Cards, red tape, coarse string, sealing wax, envelopes, the white calico Commonwealth Bank bag, and all sorts else. And in the one to the front left, we kept our boxes of pastels, our drawing books, and all those things that didn't have to go to and from home each day. Two blackboards (which seemed to turn green sometime during my adventure but were still "blackboards"), were mounted front right and left. There was another board on an easel on the back verandah for ages but that may be the one that Cyril (I think) had mounted centre front to increase the firepower as the place grew out of control to about thirty-five or so kids.

Two sets of windows opened most of each side wall for ventilation and the while the ones on the teacher's side revealed only the great mango tree, the tennis court and the bush beyond, the other side looked over the creek, where one could follow the rise and fall of the tide (which on King Tide might actually enter the school ground and fill the "creek" behind the line of tamarind trees) or the passing parade of people crossing the bridge and walking the path the full length of the fence.

A pair of small, black, glass fronted display cases hung on the wall beside the table, one with an interesting display of rocks and minerals, and the second with a dozen or so butterflies beautifully mounted. I always understood these to have been made and donated by "Mr Coleman", and the second case set me off on a fascinating twenty year hobby in entomology - a hobby that eventually proved quite incompatible with the regular disruption of transfers within the Department.

A corrugated iron enclosure in the rear corner under the school was the "shed" where important items like the tennis net, roller, lime and so forth were kept, along with spades and shovels, hoses and things for us to maintain the losing fight against the long dry seasons, the weeds and the bugs.

At safe distances, and in appropriately differing directions from the back steps there stood the two out-houses - disgusting thunderboxes that the big kids sometimes needed to assist in bailing or burying. But that was a rare requirement as Norm Gulliver, at first with the magnificent "Dolly" and "Dobbyn", could be relied upon to do the rounds unless something dire had affected him or the horses.

While a well and windmill provided water generally used for washing and watering, drinking water was stored in two rain-water tanks on the playground side of the school building. And as every country kid knows, if you rely on tank water, the times will be when a sudden storm drowns all the frogs in the tank, or a desperate possum will find a way in. If Freida's fingernail is still a shocker, so too is that strange smell as one dips into the cupped hand under the running tap..

All bags (always knapsacks except for the couple of strange people who carried little ports) were hung with hats, jumpers and raincoats on hooks mounted on the wall that half enclosed lower level, until first bell permitted us upstairs to get ready for the day. So well I remember the day I tried to show off my pride and joy, a little used safety razor blade that was the best pencil sharpener in the business, only to severely lacerate my middle finger as I rummaged around in my tatty knapsack trying to locate it.

And what a great responsibility it was to be the rostered flag raiser, who had to get out the flag and have it hoisted at first bell so that we could go through our little routine every morning. I don't remember the women being in this act, but certainly the men made us well aware of our personal and patriotic responsibilities.

"Attention! Good Morning, boys and girls."
And from our two neat lines from the foot of the steps to under the fig tree, "Good Morning, Sir."
"Salute the flag."
"I honour my God; I serve my king; I salute my flag."
"Down. Hands up those who brushed their hair. Hands up those who cleaned their teeth. Hands up those who cleaned their fingernails."

There may, on rare occasions, have been an inspection, with hands palms up then nails up.
"Right turn. Quick march."

The school day had begun! And what a good boy I must have been - what good people we all must have been - because I'd swear that, in several years of asking, the teacher never found one of us admitting to having skipped the ablutions!

Some days - and I don't recall any regularity or significance to which - the morning parade ritual or the first minutes in school would be garnished with..

"The Australian Way of Life!"
"We live in a democracy. This means that we enjoy the right to live our lives in complete freedom. We are free to say what we like, to go where we choose, to live where we wish, and to follow whatever occupation especially interests us. There are no barriers preventing any one of us from rising to the highest position in the land. This is the great Australian inheritance handed down by our forefathers. This is the Australian Way of Life."

Time then for chanting tables, for "mental arithmetic", for written notation, and maths. Spelling, analysis, parsing, recitation, composition and such had their turn between little lunch and big lunch. After big lunch came copybooks, history, geography, art, craft, music, ball games and folk dancing (though that seemed to be a good excuse to gather in the sun on the bottom flat after little lunch in the winter time).

And once in school - no, wherever we were about the island - the rules were simple. We did as we were told. I don't think our case was really any different from any other kid's because everybody knew everybody, especially the teacher, and so word got about, so to speak. What today would be interpreted as interference, a denial of my civil liberty, or some form of discrimination was in fact, nothing more than a community concern for all its members, even the young and silly. How well I remember the consequence of Harry Thorley's conversation with mum the day I was diving out of my boat way out near the beacons. I didn't know he could see me. And he was probably long dead and gone before I realised that, above all, he cared.

Being the kid of the Parent's and Friends Secretary, the pianist at the monthly school dance, a wheel in the CWA, and a pretty bright lady, it's only now, years on, that it becomes crystal clear how she seemed to have such detailed knowledge of just about everything I got up to.

So the school in the 40s was a bit primitive by today's standards, and the rituals a bit quaint, I guess. But for all that, the kids did well where it mattered in the educational stakes, and the Scholarship pass rate was high, just as most did well in the greater game of life because we entered it with a tolerable degree of literacy and numeracy, with a more than passing knowledge of our country's geography and history (albeit the white history with Wylie and Jacky-Jacky thrown in) and a with a wealth of old-fashioned values and the sure knowledge that the world out there owed us absolutely nothing!

But, of course, life on the island was far more than school from nine to three.

Getting to school was itself an adventure, and a new adventure, day after day and year after year. At first we walked to school - not quite the many miles through crocodile infested swamps an all that grandpa-ish "when I was your age" stuff we joke about - but we walked, up and over the then narrow, single vehicle roadway from Geoffrey Bay to the school. And every day there was something to see - the birds and butterflies and wallabies, snakes, goannas and more on the land, or the rays and sharks and dugong and fish and winter whales either close inshore or well out in the bay. I wonder, do hundreds, perhaps thousands of screeching white cockatoos still invade the beachfront she-oaks as the nuts mature? What a way to start the day as we walked away from home!

And what a spectacle it was to be held back by workmen as the dynamite blasted huge boulders to bits and hurled fragments ten times as far as we could throw rocks out into the sea. They would count the blasts carefully, wait another ten minutes or so, then walk up the road with us and see us on our way. Of course, with half an excuse, like too much rubble, or too much danger, or the occasional landslides in the wet season, we would go to or from school on "the goat track", a poor and ill defined walking track that had pre-dated the vehicle way.

The photo at top shows a view of Bright Point and the road from Arcadia to Nelly that was being blasted in Frank's account. Most likely, the "goat track" he refers to is the track which runs above the road and is presently being restored and from which this photo was taken. (Ed.)

But progress overtook us, of course. The Giffords and the Paskins (I think) converted some ex-army Chevs into buses, and a passenger transport system had arrived. Trying to pass vehicles on the old road, where for half the journey, it seemed, one sat suspended over unbelievable chasms, was a terrifying experience, but we were generally grateful for the free ride home. Frank Windsor operated the iceworks in "Arcadia" and having a couple of youngsters of his own, he provided a morning lift to school as he did his Nelly Bay deliveries.

At some stage the kids from Horseshoe Bay joined our ranks at Nelly Bay. They had two bus rides to get home - one from school to Arcadia Post Office with a Paskin, a Gifford, a Coleman, (I think), or Alf Armour as a driver, and then, with Bob Henniquin (or sometimes one of the pineapple farmer fathers from Horseshoe Bay) to take them home. At one stage there must have been as many Horseshoe Bay kids - Swensons, Clarkes, Greniches, Browns, Hazzards at least - as there was of the rest of us.

We were slowly becoming victims of the easy life - that is, after we had chopped the fire-wood, hand pumped the water, filled the kero lights and fridge, raked the leaves and bougainvillea thorns away from the house, fed the chooks, collected the mail and run the messages. You see, modern technology in the form of electricity was very late coming into my childhood, and the idea of effortless water wasn't even a dream of my boyhood. In each bay, the telephone was at the Post Office and the few rich, itinerant people who had a phone connected through the manual exchange with its miles of cords and cables were from a different world altogether.

But if life was getting easier, it was also getting fuller. The school dances and fancy dress balls, mostly in the hall beside Armour's shop but at least once at Mandalay and once or twice at Arcadia were the social highlights, it seemed. Everybody was there, arriving in buses and trucks, even on tractors with trailers. We kids clamoured for the chance to spread the pops on the wooden floors, and were entertained by the acrobatics of Vic (Viv?) Scott, the crazy auctioneer who could extract a fortune, it seemed, for a sponge cake or a tray of fruit. But his auction antics were as nothing when compared to his Highland Fling!

Perhaps the dance display was taking the mickey out of Audrey Close and all or us who learned tap and ballet from her, in the very same hall at Armour's. Audrey and Ron (?) had the pineapple farm way back near the hills (near Paddy Walsh's) and she tried desperately to introduce some couth and culture into our rustic existence. Again, mum was in on this act, being pianist, costume maker, and even composer of some original pieces that were sung. And we enjoyed some success, be it said, as several of us danced and sang our way to prizes and certificates in Townsville Eisteddfods! So there!

And young Trevor Close, who had come to the island with his parents from New Zealand, had us all performing a mean haka. But now I have difficulty remembering what we did with this foreign skill, or with the grass skirted island routine, the "Maori Farewell" that seemed to be the finale for more than one concert..

Foreign and distant places and events were brought into our consciousness when we attended ceremonies on special days like Anzac and Armistice. With a goodly gathering of adults from the community, and a clergyman from Townsville, we would gather at the memorial gates to the old cemetery near Cheetham's house. There speeches were made, prayers were said, flowers were laid,
silence was observed - and in some strange way we left feeling that we had done what we needed to - lest we forget - and we felt the better for it.

Another foreign and quietening incident was brought to me before school one morning in '52, when I was just starting the last lap of my Nelly Bay adventure. Most of us were gathered near the tamarind
trees getting used to the routines of a new school year when Marion Stewart walked up to me and said quietly, "Did you know that the King is dead." We actually had a wireless by this stage, but I had left home long before it was turned on for the 7.45 news bulletin (which was heralded by "Advance Australia Fair")! Now the King was the soldier whose picture went up on the screen when we all stood for the National Anthem at the pictures; his photograph hung on the wall of the schoolroom; his portrait was on every coin; we pledged our lives and service to him every morning. I think that, at that moment, I expected that the world would end. In fact, all that happened was that Jack Toohey said something wise and reassuring to the parade; he pointed out that we now needed to make our pledges to "our Queen"; we sang "God Save the Queen"; life went on. But why, I wonder, is that particular moment - down to the detail of Marion's red belt and hair bow etched forever in the mind of this old and long standing republican?

Were I writing that book, there would be tales of leap-frogging the posts that stood along the road to Our Island Home Guesthouse (until the day I didn't quite clear one - I remember that, too, and gave the leap-frog away on the spot!) Or tales of chasing millions of soldier crabs on the flats when the morning tide was low; of secret places where great sheets of quartz crystals could be prised from the boulder wall; of explorations thwarted by unscaleable precipices or unseen stinging nettles; of snakes and stone fish and sea snakes and sting-ray barbs; of cassowaries; of falls, and of friends, and of foolishness.

Not surprisingly, the one thing I can absolutely not recall of my childhood and youth was boredom! I managed to get a swim almost every day, walked or ran to every spot worth seeing on the island and collected a few fascinating ancient artefacts and some natural curiosities on the way, fossicked for shells on the reefs or mud-flats to supply mum's little jewellery and ornament industry, climbed almost every coconut palm (not the monster ones in front of Dempster's place) because a peeled nut was worth sixpence to a tourist, and managed , with line or spear, to keep the family in fresh fish.

And I had a couple of jobs for good measure. I could earn two shillings from Mr Vaughan for raking and sweeping all the pathways around Alma Den, and a year or two later, a little more from Sandy Laver for the same effort around the dining and dance halls (including around the mango tree that later became "the bikini tree") at Arcadia Guest House. But the best lurk of all was my job as "poster boy" for Thorley's Arcadian Garden Theatre. I'd be off every week with my billy of home made paste, a brush, and a roll of picture posters and up they would go - one glued on top of another until the wad was so thick that I had no choice but to scrape the board clean. With today's crazy collector capers, I guess I pasted tens of thousands of dollars worth of Spencer Tracey over Rita Hayworth over Lana Turner and Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert.

But I saw every movie that screened, from "Boom Town" on - for free! Even the one where Rita, completely clad in a very full and modest set of underwear, briefly crossed the screen and sent my mum and all the other dears into a real tizz - such dreadful immorality, and in front of the children who were sitting in the front row of canvas seats or, more likely, sprawled on a blanket even closer to the screen. What was the world coming when ladies underwear could be seen in public?

While all this was going on, the State School at Picnic Bay had been doing its own thing in a distant world of its own. Just once each year we got together on a school day for some interschool sport - a few races, tunnel ball, and cricket. Perhaps the girls played netball - I don't recall. When it was our turn to make the journey we would walk from the school along the dirt road as far as Coxon's farm, then through the bush to the beach (if we could persuade the teacher to leave the track just beyond high water line) and then it was up and over another "goat track" to Picnic Bay.

From that track, of course, was one of the most photographed Australian seascapes - Rocky Bay's beautiful beach, with the deep blue of Cleveland Bay stretching away to The Cape. But to us kids on the warpath to do battle with the only enemy we knew - the Picnic Bay kids - it was just another piece of home.

As I sit here, a lifetime later and with that last sentence having turned off the flow of ideas, I realise that it was, in fact, a special place of special people - and I realise just how fortunate I was to have lived and grown up in that lost piece of Paradise.

Frank Putland

About Frank Putland

Born in Townsville to "Island" parents, Frank Putland grew up in Arcadia during the war years and remembers landing barges digging deep holes in the mud, counting forty-odd ships in Cleveland and, by war's end, knew Liberators from Beauforts and Lightnings from Mosquitoes, frigates from destroyers, and all that great "boy stuff".

He started school at Nelly Bay when it was re-opened in 1944, completed Scholarship there in 1952 and went on to Townsville State High (then packed on Stanley Street just below the Sacred Heart). After graduating from Kelvin Grove Teachers College he (and after 1962, his wife Del - Home Hill - and family) served in a dozen communities in the north.

From '75 to '83 he was Principal of the Queensland Police Academy in Oxley, but in pre-Fitzgerald Queensland was advised that as a "religious T-totaller" who expected The Police Academy to be run on "moral and ethical principles that were quite impractical" (for that read "no organized crime by trainees and no on-campus prostitution") he was once again a teacher-on-probation in 1984.

While a volunteer at Brisbane's Expo '88 he established strong bonds with people in the Indonesia Pavilion and after a couple of very successful tours with secondary students, he and Del spent the Indonesian '93-4 school year in Semarang, where, as an exchange teacher, he lectured in the English Faculty at the Teachers College.

After retiring from Education Queensland, and again with Del's help, he ran a very successful (if financially non-viable) tutoring franchise for several years until 2003. Retirement plans were shattered within weeks by Del's failed health. At present they live quietly in Calamvale, Brisbane.

Del and Frank honeymooned on "the Island", and brought their three boys here for a week's holiday in about 1976. They have not had the opportunity to visit since.

Poems of Magnetic and other themes by Frank can be read in our magnetic.poetry section (read here) (Ed.)

(To make a comment see below)

My Magnetic Island
July 31st 2006
Very good reading .
May 29th 2008
what wonderful insight to the way it was
November 18th 2008
Nice piece of writings! I missed Frank's time in Semarang-Indonesia. He called me on his class "the boy with curly hair". How are you, Frank?

Warmest regards from Indonesia,

bob foster
August 27th 2009
Hi, Frieda Vass (Hamilton-Foster - married a fighter pilot - is my mum - died feb2002) She taught me also - music at Cronulla High School (Sydney). Four brothers - all bloody teacbhers!!She often spoke of her time on Magnetic Island. Has many relatives at Home Hill. Cheers for the rememberances.

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