Lost Opportunities

My Dad was a fitter
and turner
, toolmaker and maintenance fitter.
He was exceptionally good at his trade. Dad could make anything involving
metal and would prefer to make it rather than buy it.

As I was growing up and developing an interest in science and electronics, Dad
seemed to be able to answer any question I put to him. He knew how a radio worked
and helped me build my first crystal set.
When I got to high school and started learning algebra, calculus and trigonometry
he seemed to be able to explain every question I had at least as well as my teachers.
Dad often had his own particular way of explaining a topic that made it come
alive in my mind. I didn’t
think about this much until later in my adult years. This seemed to me just what
a Dad should be able to do. But as I became a science and maths teacher myself,
I started to realise he would be what we would now classify as a gifted student.
We would regard him as having the potential to go a long way. Had he been born
in the fifties like I was, he would almost certainly have gone to university
and had the opportunity to do post graduate studies.

Dad was also a gifted and advanced pianist. As we were growing up we realised
that not everyone’s dad played the piano and certainly not everyone’s
dad played what we later learned was called classical music. But although we
loved his music and loved hearing him play pretty well every night we didn’t
realise until late in our teens how advanced he was. He played Chopin, Paganini,
Liszt and many other
composers’ works from memory. Even then it was only well into my adult years
that I started to realise how amazing it was that a fitter and turner son of
a blacksmith from Kalgoorlie was such an advanced musician. He was certainly
talented enough that had the opportunity arisen, he could have made a career
from his music.

Yet Dad never had the opportunity to go to university or had the opportunity
to make a career from his music. My dad was a teenager (although the term wasn’t
used then) during the depression and had to leave school to go to work as soon
as work was available. He worked as a Diesel Mechanic in the Kalgoorlie mines
and the power station there. Each week he would bring his pay packet home and
give it to my grandmother who would then give him whatever she thought was a
reasonable allowance to live on. He wasn’t destitute. Dad was able to buy
a number of old motorbikes and eventually a brand new Francis
Barnett
in the late 30s. He
even bought a piano as far as I know with my grandmother’s blessing. Who
knows, if things had continued as they were he may have had the opportunity to
advance his education and eventually make it to university or have opportunity
to play music as a career.

But this was not to be. The war came and Dad joined the RAAF as a Fitter. Even
there he excelled. I recently applied for and received his air force records.
The results of his examinations for his group of trainees is included. The names
are listed in order of merit and at the top of the list, alone in the category “Pass
with Special Distinction” is dad’s name. While he was training in
Melbourne, my auntie contributed to the war effort by inviting some of these
young men home to replace some of family comforts they were missing. I still
have a photo from those days of my dad in his RAAF dark blue uniform sitting
at the piano at my auntie’s house. That’s how he met my mum (my auntie’s
sister). The were married on December 6th 1941. Pearl
Harbor
was bombed on December
7th 1941. All leave was cancelled and within days of becoming a married man,
he found himself at the receiving end of Japanese bombs in the Northern
Territory
.
Although mum and dad were able to correspond, all mum was allowed to know was
that he was somewhere in Australia and was left to guess that he was in the Northern
Territory.

Just a few months later she received a telegram from the Air Force:

REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR HUSBAND, AIRCRAFTSMAN CLASS I STANFORD HARVEY
CURNOW, IS REPORTED TO BE SERIOUSLY ILL AND HAS BEEN ADMITTED TO A MILITARY HOSPITAL
AT BATCHELOR SUFFERING FROM A PROBABLE FRACTURE OF BASE OF SKULL AS THE RESULT
OF ACCIDENTALLY FALLING FROM MOVING TRANSPORT ON 18TH JUNE 1942 STOP

YOUR HUSBAND’S CONDITION IS CONSIDERED TO BE SERIOUS STOP

ANY FURTHER INFORMATION RECEIVED WILL BE IMMEDIATELY CONVEYED TO YOU STOP

SIGNED ETC

Thanks to the surgeons at an American
Military Hospital
, Dad did recover although
he was left with permanent paralysis of one side of his face and for a long time
was very embarrassed about this. I don’t know all the details of his recovery
but he was not discharged until 1944 without taking any further active part in
the war. (One of his brothers was killed in the Battle
for Singapore
and the
other spent 11 days drifting in a dinghy in the Mediterranean after being shot
down.)

On medical grounds, Dad was advised not to return to Kalgoorlie where work was
being offered to him and was forced to compete in a much tougher employment market
in Melbourne. Eventually he was able to get a position as an apprentice fitter
and turner as part of a scheme to retrain returned servicemen. He remained with
the same employer for the next forty years. However, despite his proven intellect
and ability Dad remained a blue collar worker all his working life. One of the
high points of those early days was the young husband and wife, with my then
infant eldest brother being able to move into a War
Service
home in Highett which
remained the family home for the rest of Dad’s life and until Mum was no
longer able to live by herself.

Interspersed with periods of great happiness, perhaps the greatest of them the
birth of their four children, Dad experienced periods of deep melancholy. It
wasn’t easy feeding, clothing and schooling four children on a fitter and
turner’s wage even though he worked long hours of overtime when it was
available and took on a second job as a waiter at a golf club on weekends.

Things probably got to their lowest point at the death of my brother after a
long and difficult illness, but then things started to look up as Dad neared
retirement age. After years of working amongst heavy machinery he had suffered
significant hearing loss and was successful in receiving a small but useful compensation
payout. Then again, after years of hearings, letters and appointments with government
bodies (mainly the Repatration
Department)
he was finally awarded a compensation payment and pension
for his war injuries. Although the compensation payment did not cover the pension
he would have received if the government had originally admitted liability
for his injuries, it was enough to allow Mum and Dad to live comfortably for
their twenty years of retirement.

I wrote this piece for another purpose. But as I was writing it, it made me
think again about the concept of "potential." Given my Dad’s ability and talent,
many would say he had the potential to acheive much more than he did.

When I think about that, my first reaction is to wonder who has the right
to judge the worth of one life’s achievements and whether something "better"
could have been achieved.

Leaving that aside though, did my Dad have that potential, or when you think
about potential do you have to take circumstances into account? I guess we
can never really now.

What we can now is how we respond to what we believe is our own potential.
What do we do with the gifts we have? This is not about beating ourselves up
and telling ourselves we should be doing more than we are. It is about taking
an honest assessment of ourselves and asking ourselves what do we really want
to do and what can we do about that.

I leave this with you.

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