We’re having a class reunion. Nothing exceptional about that I hear – but this is not just any school reunion. It is the 50th anniversary of the Class of 1962 and it is special to me because I was not a member of the class of 1962.
This reunion is a lot more than a get-together of the forty or so teenagers who made up the Senior Year 12 class at Cairns State High School in 1962. This event will also reunite those of us who were contemporaries and classmates a year or two before 1962; for this was a time when the majority of pupils left school at Year 10 entering the workforce as apprentice fitters or carpenters, cadet draftsmen and trainee bank clerks. The Junior Year at Cairns High School in 1960 was no exception.
It was a time when a tertiary education was not as essential to a good livelihood, as it surely is today. Last year in 2011, the number of school attendees who remained at school until Year 12 was greater than 70%. In 1961 fifty years earlier, it was about 15% and the majority of leavers finished their schooling in at the age of 15 or 16 after completing what was then known in Queensland as the Junior Public Examination.
I left school in 1960 and became one of those apprentices, but many of the friends I made then, who were to complete their senior year and became the Class of ’62 are as close to me now in spirit and memory, if not geographically, as they were then.
One thing we all have in common of course is our age. We all started school at the same time and we go through our lives knowing that each birthday event, a fortieth, a fiftieth and a sixtieth birthday will happen to us all within the space of any twelve month period.
We all started our school lives in 1951 as Grade 1 infants. If we were town kids we went to school at Cairns North or Central or Parramatta or Edge Hill. The out of towners went to Redlynch School and Freshwater, Gordonvale and Aloomba, or tiny one room schools at more remote locations.
I started my schooling on the other side of the world, arriving as a Ten Pound Pom when my parents emigrated in 1955. It wasn’t until 1956 when my folks moved to the big smoke, after a year in the tiny sugar town of Mossman, that I was enrolled in Grade Six at Parramatta Primary School. The school was fifteen minutes’ barefooted walk from our home behind the Council works depot in Charles Street, at the end of a dusty lane sandwiched between the shameful little shanty cottages that pensioners were obliged to live in and the local horse pound. It was there at Parramatta School, where I learned to play Aussie Rules against the big kids from Freshwater and the lightning fast Indigenous boys from Aloomba and Babinda. It was here also where I attempted to play cricket for the first time, and soon understood that even when my agrarian swipe missed the ball, which it frequently did, I was nevertheless expected to run if the wicket-keeper missed it as well and the long stop was chasing it down the other end of the field.
Two years later, in 1958, we were co-mingled at Cairns State High and Intermediate School as we graduated to our Scholarship Year, which would decide whether or not we had what it took to progress to High School and a secondary education. This was where many lifelong friendships would start. A boy from Central would find himself sitting beside a boy from Parramatta, or a girl from Redlynch, with the pattern regularly enriched by new pupils arriving from other towns, or other parts of the world. Blue eyed blonde kids from the Baltic with names that teachers struggled to pronounce, and Greek and Italian kids with accents that made us giggle; they would all become part of our post war Australian society.
Our teacher was Miss Baskett – to us she appeared well advanced in years and obviously near the end of her career, but she was no more than 49 years old that day she stood in front of us and told us what to expect, and what she expected from us. If ever there was a person whose true vocation was to teach, it was Vera Elsie Baskett. We loved her. She was cricket mad, and would spend hours talking to us about Alan Davidson and Ray Lindwall and our great new captain who was going to show those Englishmen a thing or two – Richie Benaud.
At the same time we were learning of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth and the Blue Mountains, and Edmund Kennedy and his fate at the end of an Aboriginal spear, and reading Danger Patrol or being taught about the square on the hypotenuse; we were also learning vital rules that would inexplicably remain in one’s memory long after they ceased to have relevance, if ever they did – such gems as twenty six bottles to a kerosene tin, and five and a half yards in one rod, pole or perch. Should our attention be seen to wander during these lessons, Miss Baskett had a wonderful way of restoring it by taking hold of the tiny hairs at the side of the head, just in front of the ear and lifting the wayward boy from his seat (it was only ever a boy, girls were always attentive) and leading him thus to the blackboard, she would emphasise the point she had just made by repeating, for his own personal benefit, what had clearly and ill-advisedly escaped his attention. She did this without malice, almost affectionately, but it always left me with the side of my head stinging and my ears burning whenever I was the offender.
It was in my Scholarship year that I first encountered two boys from Central School with whom my life would be forever entwined. Mal Cleland was a jaunty and cheerful sport-mad fellow with ears the size of Volkswagen doors. Mal instantly became Miss Baskett’s pet, possibly because he knew almost as much about cricket as she did. He had two elder brothers, both of whom had excelled academically and athletically and he was determined to follow their footsteps. One of his brothers John, who became a pharmacist and was widely known as the Mulgrave Road Medicine Man, went on to become Mayor of Cairns. His other brother, Rob became a highly regarded architect.
The other boy was Ian Fraser, a sandy haired freckle-faced guy, whose dad was a railway guard, and whose mother, Rose had the floor in her home so shiny that Tom Cruise would have sailed right out the door had he tried his Old Time Rock & Roll trick there. Mal and Friz were to become my lifelong friends – Mal was Master of Ceremonies at my wedding, I would be best man at the wedding of Ian and Ellen, while Ian would have that honour when Mal married the lovely Kay. No story of my life can ever be told without reference to these two guys with whom I was to share so much laughter, so many happy times, and a few sad ones over the next forty to fifty years.
I’m looking now at the 1958 photo of that Scholarship class and I am reminded of other classmates that I’m looking forward to seeing again all these years later. As an aside I wonder to myself why it was that I was the only kid wearing a pullover? Was I some wimpy milquetoast? Surely not, my family has heard for years how well I accounted for myself in those days – this was tropical North Queensland, I could not possibly have been cold. It must have been my Mum’s doing.
Keith Gould went on to graduate in the Class of 62, but I first remember him as a kid from Cairns North, who smiled a lot, yet took things seriously and seemed to know more about plants and wild life than the rest of us.
Brian Colless, someone who I will have no difficulty in picking out of the crowd when we all meet in August, was even then a wonderful combination of superb athlete, and diligent scholar. He went on to hold numerous records in the school and elsewhere for his speed on the athletic track and his skill on a rugby league field. He later moved to Darwin where for many years had a highly successful civil engineering practice.
Dorothy McKay was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Dorothy was incredibly diligent and clever and with one exception, silently suffered the discomfort of sitting next to me for most of my Scholarship year. The one exception occurred after a class test when, as we handed in our work, she leaned across to my side of the desk and staring straight ahead softly whispered, “Cheat”. Of course, she was quite wrong; I had simply been checking my work against hers, to make sure that we were in agreement on some of the thornier points.
But Scholarship was just the beginning. We were 13 and 14 year old kids, waiting to go from our annex on the other side of the school grounds, across the quadrangle to the big school. Scholarship was easy – three examinations: English, Arithmetic and a combination of history and geography known for some unclear reason as Social Studies. A pass mark of 50% was needed for entry to High School; otherwise the year would have to be repeated. I coasted through the examinations and although I’m sure with a little more application I could have done better, the school was satisfied enough with my 78% to allow me to start my sub Junior year in the Academic stream – and the good news (perhaps not for some of the teachers) was that I would be joined in Class 3A1 by Mal and Friz.
So we were finally in High School – an imposing red brick structure on the main road north of the city, three blocks from the Esplanade and about half a mile from the main business district. The high school was established as an annex of Central School in 1919 and moved to its present site four years later, but it wasn’t until the late 1930s that the school building in which we were to spend the next two, three or four years of our school lives was constructed.
Our form teacher, who was also our English teacher, was Claire Clarke. Miss Clarke was new to teaching but not to the school. She had been in Miss Baskett’s class ten years earlier and her 94% had won her the highly prestigious Lilley Memorial Medal awarded for the highest Scholarship Examination marks in Queensland. We had heard of Miss Clarke’s endeavours the previous year from a justly proud Miss Baskett, and we were looking forward to meeting her.
We were her first pupils, and sitting there right under the nose of this pale slip of a girl were Ian and myself. Why we chose the front row, I don’t know – perhaps it was chosen for us. Behind us in the second row were Mal and John Hoban, a boy who to the anguish of my mother, took delight in writing in Biro on the back of my school shirt for the next two years – he was known to us all as Hobo.
Miss Clarke was a very good English teacher who over the next two years would painstakingly take us through As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice and some of the richest and most evocative works of poetry and prose that a young and eager mind could want. Lamentably, the young and eager minds were not sitting in the front row and I was neither mature enough nor interested enough to listen and be inspired by such works of art. Like many others who have gone before and followed since, it was not until further down life’s path that I came to appreciate the wealth of literary treasure that was placed in front of me. Fortunately for Miss Clarke and others, the class were largely a lot more disciplined and advanced in their mental development than I for we did after all, have girls in our class, as well as fellows like Rod Wilson and Alwyn Grenfell who excelled in their academic endeavours and who themselves went on to become highly talented and successful educators in later years.
For the first time in our lives we had more than one teacher, and our day became a series of periods. Chemistry and physics in the school laboratory with Mr Comino and Mr Feldt (whose lovely daughter, Lois was in our year); mathematics with Mr Dart, Mr Noble and later the mercurial “Jock” Menzies; geography with the energetic Miss Davies; French with an offhanded and dishevelled Frenchman whose name I have long forgotten, who would sweep into the classroom with a “bonjour, mes eleves” and sweep out again five minutes later after setting a swift assignment whereupon he would lean on the balcony overlooking the quadrangle finishing off a half smoked cigarette extinguished before entering the classroom; and finally there was Mr Gavrishchuk, our German teacher who imbued in us so much enthusiasm with his passion and delight in the language (although he himself was Russian) that to this day, I am convinced there is not one of his former pupils who does not know the words of The Happy Wanderer or Cindy, Oh Cindy! as it would be sung in the music halls of Bavaria or Saxony. We read from a pleasing little tome called “Das Buch der Jugend”(The Book of Youth), written in Gothic German Script and listened to Mr Gavrishchuk barking “Passen Sie auf!” when he wanted us to pay attention (which was loud, but significantly better than having one’s hair pulled Miss Baskett style).
Mr Gav would come into the classroom, take out his book and say in his wonderful accent, “Today, ve vill be studying idiomatic German phrases”, whereupon Ian would look up from his exercise book, and in an innocent and enquiring voice say, “Yes, sir?” Gavarischuk, would look at the boy slightly puzzled for a moment, then an understanding smile would come across his face and he would say, “No, no, not you Fraser; ve are studying ‘phrases’, idiomatic German phrases.” Ian would look instantly apologetic and say, “Oh sorry Sir,” and he would return to his work looking for all the world as though he were embarrassed at drawing attention to himself in this way, while around him Williamson, Cleland and Hoban would be trying to suppress their mirth with a cough or a sneeze – and no doubt the rest of the class would moan collectively, but silently at our childish wit.
For all that, I loved learning German so much that Mr Gavarischuk asked that I enter a German Poetry reading competition held at a venue in the city and organised by the North Queensland Germany Australia Society. My poem of choice was Meeresstille, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I won’t bore readers with a rendition, even a written one. Needless to say however, I was brilliant – and I won the competition in a canter. When called upon, and frequently when not, I am still liable to regale my family, or anyone else foolish enough to ask, with a faultless performance of this wonderful ode. The prize which was presented to me amid generous applause was a large volume of German poetry – perhaps a just reward for my effort.
We joined the army. That is to say, the boys that were not in the chess club, or participating in the drama classes, or the school band, were obliged to become members of the School Cadet Corps. At first hesitant about this, I soon discovered, that it was quite fun and in spite of myself, there was a patriotic nerve which twitched a little, when I became uniformed and polished and threw that Lee Enfield 303 across my puny shoulder. Of course we weren't to know in 1959 that our country was only a few years away from entering its longest major conflict which would involve many thousands of Australians and which would eventually polarise the country. Compulsory National Services for 20 year olds was still four or five years away but we would all later be required to enter the national lottery (it was actually called a ballot) where birth dates were pulled out of a barrel and those conscripted required to give two years full-time service to the military.
But Vietnam was still a few years away, and in 1959 and 1960 it was nothing more than a part of South East Asia, about which we learned very little. Although history was a subject I had elected not to take, I was aware that in those years, history was presented with a Euro-centric emphasis and focused on events and developments in Britain and Europe. I don’t think we were being taught much about Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia or China unless the stories were told from an imperial or a colonial perspective.
There were some wonderful experiences about being in the school cadets, marching behind the band on Anzac Day being one of them; but the real delight was when we packed our bags, and with sixty or eighty other boys, travelled for several hours by train to Townsville and then west towards Charters Towers and the Sellheim Army Camp where we would enjoy the rigours of Army life, cadet style for the next week. It was a week of putting polish on boots and brass and Blanco on webbing; going on night time manoeuvres; queuing for chow in the mess and being shown how to fire a rifle and a machine gun at the rifle range. The machine gun was a vastly different experience to firing a 303 rifle which had a kick like a mule, the Bren on the other hand would try to drag you forward off the mound as you held with both hands while the gun chattered and sprayed its rounds at the target – wonderful fun!
I should take a moment to talk about the girls. They were lovely all of them, Merle, Renee, Judith, Urve, Kay, Pam, Marion, Dawn; they were not girls, they were young women - and for the most part completely uninterested in the boys of their year (for although they were young women, we were far from being young men). Consequently we boys would go to the school dance, and make eyes at, and bee-lines for the girls in the classes one or two years below us while at the same time already-shaving, strapping young men from the senior classes would be gypsy-tapping and three-stepping with our female classmates. Of course there was rock and roll as well, but we were chrysalises emerging from our cocoons in this area, and this is the subject of a whole new blog when I think about the Troc Rhythm Trio, and the Edge Hill Merry Makers slowly being replaced by the Fireflies and Michael and the Mustangs as we rocked and stomped our way through the 1960s.
As I think again of our reunion, I keep having a Back to the Future sensation when I recall the school as it was in 1962 and what it surely must be like 50 years later.
- Do they still have blackboards in the classrooms and desks with inkwells? I think not, it's sure to be electronic whiteboards, and overhead projectors and computors.
- Do all the students assemble on the parade ground every week and face the flag, boys with their silver and blue banded hats held over their hearts? Surely not.
- And do they sing the school song? Is there still a school song?
Stand and cheer with all your might,
Hurrah, for the Cairns State High School....
- Does each class still pose each year in front of that arched doorway guarded by those two Ionic pillars, girls at the front, ankles crossed and hands demurely on laps, boys standing behind with arms folded like football players?
I'm sure those awful boys toilets with no doors on the cubicles and waist high partitions must be long gone, but I expect that kids still run up and down the stairs and it's still a noisy place with school bags, and bike racks and lots of trees and a great top paddock to play and watch cricket and football.
It's going to be a great few days - our August reunion. Sadly we won't all be there; a few are no longer with us - Merle, John, Rob and our dear mate, Mal, but they will all assuredly be remembered.
Pam and Rod Wilson and so many others from that 1962 class have organised a great program. The school staff are looking forward to seeing us - and I am certainly looking forward to seeing the alma mater.