This week was my father's 100th birthday: he died twenty years ago.
Forced by the Depression to leave school before he completed his Leaving Certificate, he took over his older brother's job in a Coffs Harbour grocery shop to keep the wages in the family. I still have his Latin text book with his name in the front of it – Eric Dudley Davis. He never appeared to me as a reader until he retired, when he began to read massive nineteenth century novels by people like Trollope. It finally occurred to me that he didn't read because he didn't have time: he often worked two or three jobs so we could have the luxury of a university education.
He was a fireman with the NSW Fire Brigade for most of his working life. Eastwood fire station has recently celebrated it's 100th anniversary too: that's where my father spent his working life throughout my childhood. The station was opposite my primary school and this gave me a few moments of glory when my class crocodiled across Rowe Street to see what a fireman's job looked like. I was the daughter of the man in the brass helmet showing us the hose, setting the siren going, and ushering us one by one onto the front seat of the big red fire engine. The station cat, a grey tabby, curled his way amongst our chubby legs which ended in white socks and lace-up black shoes. Dad's bike was leaning against the wall out the back: he sold his car when he married and didn't own another one till he retired.
My childhood was shaped by fire brigade business. For a month each year, Dad did what was mysteriously called “country service”. He'd leave us to relieve at fire stations in places like Bingara and Barraba and Tamworth. Often he was away for my November birthday, fighting fires in the Blue Mountains: I still remember the disappointment I felt when he wasn't there at parcel-opening time. On Christmas Day his shift ended at 8 o'clock in the morning. “You can open one present now” said our mother, when we went rushing into her bedroom at daybreak. We waited in increasingly excited and frustrated anticipation for him to come home before we could tear the wrappings off the rest of those tantalising packages.
We rarely saw Dad. When he wasn't sleeping, getting ready for the next shift, he was moonlighting: delivering groceries, or cleaning up building sites, or labouring for my uncle. But sometimes we holidayed at Callala Beach, and there we relished nights around the kerosene lamp when Dad came into his own as a story teller. The drive down Dorrigo Mountain in an old truck without brakes, along a steep twisting dirt road through dense rainforest. The night during the war when he was supposed to meet mum to go to the movies and he slipped into his seat smelling of smoke as the film ended: while she'd been watching Humphrey Bogart, he'd been unloading ammunition from a lighter on fire on Sydney Harbour. The union meetings which he attended religiously, often the sole dissenting voice, because if he didn't attend he couldn't complain about decisions. The day when he crawled into a pipe where a man was trapped and died, because he wouldn't ask his men to do something he wasn't prepared to do himself.
He had his first heart attack while he was fighting a bushfire along the Lane Cove River. He didn't say a word for a week, because my sister was coming home from Western Australia with her fiancé and he didn't want to spoil the homecoming. He was relegated to an office job at Headquarters in Castlereagh Street after this: he hated it. He hated not being able to string out our house in the bush at Bodalla. He hated inaction when there was something to be done. However he was still able to ferry people to the shops and to church. That's how he spent his last day. At dinner time, he felt crook, and he died that night.