Monday, November 28, 2016

Remember Henty

Henty B&B. Photo by OZinOH on Flickr 

The following piece about my father Bede James Smith appeared originally in the Katharine Susannah Prichard Past Tense Anthology in June 2016

Remember Henty

Bede woke to the sound of rain pelting on his tin roof. He pulled up the window and leaned out to sniff the air. A plume of steam was rising from the earth, giving off a pungent smell of  eucalyptus. Somewhere from the centre of town he heard voices cheering, so he quickly dressed and dashed down the road to investigate. The sudden downpour had taken everyone by surprise and a group of wild-eyed locals were whooping it up, dancing barefoot in the main street. It was March 1939 in the New South Wales town of Henty. The drought had finally broken. Rain continued all morning and by lunchtime floodwaters were lapping the bridges of nearby Yerong Creek, washing away grim memories of the dry.

My father, Bede, was 29 at the time. He had been in Henty for three years, having bought his first dental practice there. Bede spent his boyhood in the neighbouring Riverina district, so Henty was familiar ground. He was sweet on a girl called Moira, the local teacher and his best mate, Frank, worked for the Commonwealth Savings Bank. Henty had a lively social scene in those days with Bede and Frank at the centre of it. They organised mystery dances for the Henty Younger Set, played tennis and golf and starred in amateur theatre productions at the School of Arts. Bede was captain of the Henty Cricket Team – the tall all-rounder could be relied upon to knock up a classy innings with the bat and take wickets with his medium-pace bowling. He could have remained in Henty, married his sweetheart and lived out his days as a country town dentist. Instead, he was lured to opportunities elsewhere and set sail for Canada in September 1939, breaking at least one heart on the way out.

There were 12 other Australian dentists on the Pacific crossing, all of them venturing overseas to take a postgraduate degree at the University of Toronto. Bede planned to return to Sydney after his studies and start a dental practice there. But two things intervened to alter his best-laid plans – war and love. While the ship was mid-ocean, Prime Minster Robert Menzies declared his "melancholy duty" and committed Australia to the war in Europe. The ship sailed on to North America regardless; there was no point turning back.

In Canada, Bede fell in love with a Toronto girl, my mother Marg Baggs. After finishing his studies he stayed on in Toronto and married Marg in 1941. Their first child, my sister Pat, was born in 1943. Bede enlisted with the Canadian Dental Corps and was posted to the wilds of Northern Ontario before serving overseas from 1943 to 1945, with the Allied Invasion of Europe. After the war he brought his Canadian wife and daughter back to Sydney and by 1950 they had three children.

The war changed Bede. When friends invited the family to go boating on the George's River, he found excuses to stay home. Marg pleaded with him to socialise, but he preferred to potter around the garden or listen to his opera recordings. And the last thing he wanted to do was take the children camping. His three years in the Canadian Army, were enough to put him off camping for life. Yet Bede always had time for his Henty mate Frank and the two reconnected in Sydney in the 1950s with their wives and children. They shared a passion for classical music, cricket and Henty.

On one occasion Frank came around to visit, with his newest LP record.

'What have you brought this time?' Bede asked.

'It's my latest, a recording of Heifetz doing the Beethoven Violin.'

Like a treasure hunter uncovering gold, Bede took the vinyl record out of its paper sleeve. Holding it carefully around the edges, he placed it on the turntable, pressed the start button and lowered the stylus onto the rotating disc. There was a small crackle before the opening beats of the timpani, then the woodwinds, and finally the strings took control. The two friends settled back on the lounge for a session of Beethoven.

In summer, Bede and Frank often made their way to the Sydney Cricket Ground, with wives and children in tow. The men retreated to the hallowed ground of the Members' Pavilion to watch their hero Richie Benaud, leaving the women to spend the day in the Ladies' Stand, chasing after bored and restless children. Later on in the evening after a few beers, the conversation inevitably circled back to that small NSW town.

'Remember Henty!'

'Ah yes, what about the time ...?'

At this point the women rolled their eyes. 'There they go again.'

As children we thought it a huge joke. We were sophisticated city kids. What was so special about some one-horse country town we had never even seen?

Those days are long gone. Bede and Frank have passed into history. Looking back I can see that remembering Henty became a shared folklore between two mates, a testament to good times and bachelor days. Bede and Frank didn't have a men's shed to escape the travails of life, but they did have Henty and those memories sustained them for many a year. In the 1960s we moved to Perth, many miles away from the charms of Henty. We never did go camping.

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