Don’t panic, dear reader. I’m not leaving; just reflecting this month on memories. I am occasionally asked, “if I miss Australia.” Well, that is a difficult question that does not truly have an elevator pitch answer. Depending on the circumstances, where we are and who is asking, there are a couple of versions. Sound bite: “Well, I have not lived there for forty years. I have lived in the U.S. longer than I lived in Australia.” The longer version is more complex. I do think of Australia a lot, but do I miss it? Well, I could not have today in Australia the life that I have here in Newport. I have decided over the years that what I miss are the memories I have of growing up there.
I muse more and more of late of the early memories of time with my Dad. Mum was a writer and Dad would take me out of the apartment on weekends to give her some sea room for writing. We would visit the Australian Museum, about a mile or so down the hill from home. I enjoyed this place. I recall it as a cross between the Met and the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. Artwork, rocks and soil, dinosaur bones, Aboriginal artifacts, quite a mix. I recall Dad seemed to know a lot about most of the stuff, the artwork in particular.
We would wander on, across Hyde Park, complete with Australia’s own imposing statues of British notables and explorers. Large swaths of Sydney were, no surprise, named in the 18th century British style. We would often end up at Circular Quay, the Grand Central Terminal-like city end of the complex web of ferry routes that transport a large chunk of Sydney’s population to and from somewhere and back. He would buy the tickets and we would do a couple of laps around the harbor. Tickets were purchased ashore and there was no one on the ferry watching for joy riders like us, and we traveled around the harbor undisturbed, until we wanted to get off.
Or we might cross Sydney Heads and end up in Manly. Because of the potential for a seaway on this route, our preferred ferry was a big ship-like double-ended monster built in Scotland after the War and delivered to Sydney on its own bottom. In winter, with a big swell running courtesy of a southerly gale, the course was a diagonal out to the center of the Heads, then bear away down swell to Manly, a beach village at the north end of the harbor. Having the scuppers awash was nothing to be remarked on by the regulars. Those passages were the first time I saw big seas up close and personal, and I do certainly remember feeling anxious. I might have been anywhere between 4 or 5, and 8 or 9.
Quite often, especially in summer we would on Friday evenings decamp for Palm Beach, one of the venues where, over the years, he kept his long string of boats moored. The Cooper Family Ranger 33 is number 8 in the naming line.
The trip to PB, as we called it, was a 90-minute bus ride, to cover about 25 crow flying miles. The buses were British Bedfords, big lumbering beasts, with manual transmissions and vast diesel engines disgorging exhaust that today, would make the EPA cringe. Imported from the UK they were, and except for the interiors, exactly, because they were, like the Knight bus from the Harry Potter movie. They had the circular stairs at the stern to ascend to the upper deck, Dad’s location of choice, because it was the smoking deck, and an open rear platform. It could not be called a door, for there was no door, nor a way to close this space off.
Later on, we school kids took great pleasure in jumping of this platform as our stop approached, ideally being the first off, to show each other how brave we were. I don’t think COOL existed then. I probably still have some of the scar tissue on my knees. We scholars traveled on public transport, so we learned, or the grownups tried with limited success to teach us to behave.
Some of the most vivid memories are the times spent with Dad on his boats on Pittwater, Broken Bay, Coasters Retreat, around the corner at West Head and up off to other estuaries. The entire area was a National Park, so deserted, bushy and scrubby in the extreme. One favorite spot was Refuge Bay, a deep sheltered inlet with a small beach and behind the beach, a waterfall, ideal for bathing. Refuge Bay was the location to which a goodly number of the “race boats” on R&R after returning from the Hobart Race visited. We could row by these impressive yachts, the very same ones we had seen down just a couple of weeks before in Rushcutters Bay. This part of Sydney Harbor was down the hill from our flat and boasted a large park adjacent to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, organizers of The Hobart. I would row or sail the Sabot around the anchorage for hours just ogling these thoroughbreds.
Later on, Dad would turn me loose, by myself on the current boat for the winter holidays, a couple of weeks in May. Here I was, maybe 13 or 14, tooling around this wonderland of water and bush, towing my Sabot as a dinghy, all on me lonesome. This is the Australia I miss.
We lived in a neighborhood called Kings Cross. It was atop a prominent hill, to the east of downtown Sydney and was a cross between Greenwich Village and Times Square. Growing up there produced strong and pretty vivid memories. On school holidays I would be tasked by Mum with some mission into the village: collecting groceries, coffee, cashing a check, whatever. Off I’d trot, at perhaps 7, 8, 9, maybe 10 or 12 years old. Bare feet, maybe a tee shirt, a pair of shorts, like surf trunks, no one batted an eye. Why would you when there were strip joints mixed in with the coffee shops, a Woolworths, clothing shops for men, women and others, gay couples walking down the street arm in arm or holding hands…all just a part of the scene at The Cross.
At one end of the main street was a drag show called Les Girls, and it was perfectly normal, to the point of unremarkable, to see the girls walking to work. I would occasionally wander in through the stage door to watch rehearsals. My mother was a playwright and was known to, or by, almost everyone (and by association so was I) and the girls batted not an eyelash. This was fortunate since I could have been knocked out had they.
Australia was a prime location for Displaced Persons, refugees from Post-War Europe, and Kings Cross was where they ALL seemed to wash up. Slight old men, thin on hair and thick on heavy eyelids, immaculately dressed and with walking stick in hand and matching limp would be passing in and out of the coffee shops, greeting others in a language not English or Australian. One shop, by the name of Repins, the source of Mum’s Mocha and Kenya fine grind blend of coffee, was a classic of the type. A low ceiling of cigarette smoke, pastries in the glass cases on the left, booths in front on the right and 2-foot diameter tables in back, with two to six people hunkered over them. Arguing, in the debate sense of the word, as far as I can remember in a host of eastern European languages. Cigarettes often in elegant movie star like 6-inch-long holders, in one hand held between the first and second fingers, elbows on the table, Jean-Paul Sartre-like rimless glasses, small cups of espresso, held motionless between saucer and lips for the entire time it took me to be served and leave, solving the world’s – their New world’s – problems.
The flood of people in the ‘Cross who had arrived on the ship with what they stood up in, coated in the immovable dust of destroyed Europe, found in Mum a surrogate Grandma, of the type we see in our mind’s eye they may have had. Always ready with an ear, a smile, a meal, a cup of something warm and soothing.
It was perfectly normal for me to wander in from somewhere at 5 PM and find Mum had brought home a 100-pound wringing wet, tiny woman, from say Romania or Poland, appearing frail enough to be blown over by the bus driving by. She was unburdening herself to Mum of some pressing issue in an English barely serviceable to say, “Hi” and a well-justified fear of “the authorities.” Mum was feeding her an omelet and coffee and just listening. I have many boxes of Mum’s plays and correspondence, and there is plenty of evidence she took no prisoners and cared not whose rice bowl was broken getting to the bottom of her newfound mate’s problem.
My Mum died in January 1980, in the flat, in her armchair. Her coffee cup, half full and cold, on the side table, cigarette ash on her lap. This as I was in the thick of sailing on and preparing Australia to get on the ship for Newport. I have a distinct memory of not wanting to, and so not, looking at her body as the ambulance guys took her out on the stretcher. So be careful when you ask if I miss Australia, the country and society, today. Maybe not, but I do miss what I remember as the Australia of my childhood. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia.