22 June 2015, Williamstown, Melbourne, Australia
This location is full of memories for me. Locals would know that where we’re sitting now was the rifle range for the 1956 Olympics. Off the coast here is a reef, good for whiting. Dad would take us to the pylon out there to fish in his boat and when the red light came on, they’d start shooting at the targets and you’d have to up-anchor and get outta there. Hardly a relaxed morning out.
And in those same waters, back in the early 1960s, Klaus and his brother Jock and a few Jacques Cousteau-loving mates went diving with their dicey home-made SCUBA gear. One day, there was a problem with Dad’s tank, he blacked out and, with weight belt on, went straight to the bottom. Luckily Jock was there to drag him to the surface.
It was a life full of near misses. But more on that later.
Klaus Dieter Fincke was born in Berlin on June 28, 1938. Berlin. 1938. That was quite a time and place to be born. Klaus’s father Paul was a machine-whisperer – an engineer and mechanic who maintained aircraft. He married Lissi and they lived on a good-sized block in Berlin until he was sent, as an aircraft mechanic, to Norway for much of the war. Lissi managed alone in Berlin with young Klaus and a daughter who died, and Jock, born in 1942. She grew vegetables to feed the family and bombs fell.
When the Russians entered Berlin, she ran, pushing her children and treasured belongings in a handcart. Returning to defeated Berlin, the only work Paul could find was hard labour, lugging briquettes. But then then he saw the newspaper ad that changed so many lives: skilled workers wanted for the Snowy hydro project in Australia. Lissi hated the idea but eventually let him go: after all, he’d be home in a couple of years.
So, Klaus was on the loose in bombed out, blockaded Berlin. Lissi was a tough, fiery mum, I gather, but there was still a load of mischief to get into for the resourceful Fincke boys. Kids skated on the frozen lakes, scrounged up goodies brought by the US aircraft constantly overhead. The rubble of bombed buildings was turned into a mountain by bulldozers and, in winter, was a great tobogganing run on which, predictably, Klaus broke his arm.
Imagine how Lissi must have felt when Paul wrote to say that he’d worked and saved hard, bought a farm in the Snowy. ‘Bring the boys to Australia,’ he said. Dad said she was deeply unhappy, leaving her home for a spot on the other side of the world, but the three set sail in April 1953. I asked Dad if he was scared, leaving his home and travelling half-way around the globe. He told me that a margarine company had picture cards to collect, to stick into albums, and he had one about Australia. It had images of strange landscapes, of kangaroos and crocodiles and sharks and everything looked vast and dangerous and exciting.
Was he scared? He couldn’t wait.
On a spring afternoon, 15-year-old Klaus stepped off the boat in Melbourne and into the back of the Holden ute his dad borrowed for the journey. They drove north all night. It was dusty and bitterly cold in the back: Paul stopped by the roadside and made a fire for hot drinks. At around 6.30 the next morning, probably as the sun was rising, they arrived at the farm near Jindabyne. Lissi hated it the land drab, muddy and brown after winter. But Klaus loved it at first sight. He jumped out of the ute and never looked back.
My brother Dale and I spent a beautiful couple of evening hours in hospital with Dad late last week and he told the story of his first car; one of probably a hundred he owned through his life. It was a Land Rover, so clapped out that a farmer had dumped it in the creek. Klaus handed over 50 pounds earned as a kitchen hand and winched it out with some mates. He wanted to learn his father’s craft and over two years they dismantled and rebuilt the beast, with Klaus inhaling Paul’s vast mechanical experience.
By now, Klaus had begun a coachbuilder’s apprenticeship, making snowmobiles in Jindabyne. He’s also fallen in love with motor bikes and made a useful discovery: Snowy workers had money and bikes, but no clue about maintaining them. So Klaus serviced and fixed them, bought and sold them, all the while living the Australian adventure to the max: fishing, shooting, riding fast on icy mountain roads, all sorts of life-threatening hijinks.
Lissi turned the dismal brown land into a farm and grew food. Life was pretty good. Klaus and Paul started a mechanic and towing business and in about 1960, decided to come to Melbourne and bring the business name. I always thought it wonderfully romantic: Snowy River Motor Body Works, opposite the cemetery in industrial West Footscray, next to a radiator repairer and a milk bar.
Dad, who really mustn’t have had a whole lot to do with the sea until the voyage to Australia, become entranced by the water. He fished, mucked about with boats, took to skin-diving and spearfishing. At the Altona Squash Club he met the shy, raven-haired Lynelda, the only child of local small businesspeople Lindsay and Joy. They absolutely adored Klaus. My cheeky little grandfather was in awe of his mechanical knowledge and Joy loved him, despite the terrible tricks he played on her. Visiting the native enclosure at the zoo when we were kids, Dad secretly opened the pack of sandwiches. When Nana turned around, three emus had their heads in her shoulder bag! She took off, trying to outrun them. They chased her! For Dad, that was worth the price of admission.
To digress for a moment, many great Dad stories were about animals. Lion Park visits were a family favourite in the 1970s. Well, for other families. We dreaded them. Dad couldn’t help himself, he had to open the car windows! Klaus and Lynelda married in 1965 and went on a romantic honeymoon to Hayman Island. Dad hunted for cowrie shells by sifting through the sand with his pocket knife; an activity regarded as dangerous. He wore only thongs on the reef; again, against all sensible advice. The knife disturbed a stingray and he was slashed across the arm, soon blacking out from pain and blood loss. My then-pregnant mother had to drag him a couple of kilometres over the reef for life-saving medical attention. His feet were cut to shreds and he got coral poisoning.
This disregard for rules became a familiar theme for her. Klaus was his own man, for better, worse or near-catastrophic. Our family lived in Altona West, overlooking the refineries, and our grandparents lived nearby. Dad worked six days a week, running the busy panel beating business. He took his rye bread open sandwiches every day and the workshop was a hub for a collection of eccentric and interesting local characters. When I think of Klaus at this time, I think of him leaning over an engine, the absolute picture of concentration, the air whistling through the Escort ciggie always hanging off his top lip.
We had a passing parade of cars – I remember a pair of huge, ridiculous Dodges especially. He wasn’t an enthusiast or show off; his interest was entirely practical.
Weekends and holidays were spent on the water, somewhere. He fished the Murray, spearfished amidst waving kelp beds and always had a boat. He water-skied with mates – some of my most terrifying moments were spent watching them compete to get closest to the bank and spray water on the grazing sheep. That was the key to being with Dad. You had to go to him. He did his own thing; you were welcome to join in – if you could keep up!
We went mushrooming with him, the eternal hunter-gatherer, in the nearby fields, always worried because he really just wanted to catch tiger snakes in his bare hands. And he did! It’s hardly surprising that he produced three rather risk averse children. When Dad was 52, a twinge that started on the squash court during his regular weekly game became a heart attack on the golf course days later. I have thought about that time a lot lately, when I’ve felt overwhelmed by the cruel hand dealt him in the last three months. It could have all ended back in 1991. He was lucky, and we’re grateful for the medical technology – and for mum’s tender care - that kept him with us.
But then, it was his turn to provide tender support through mum’s long cancer ordeal. After she died, we wondered how he would manage, but he forged on pretty well alone. He loved cooking for himself and he had many friends. For 20 years, Dad delivered Meals On Wheels, and he loved it. A gregarious, decent bloke, he helped out his clients and relieved them of the fruit on their trees – my father was a champion fruit scrumper, no unclaimed fig or apple was safe.
Klaus was a complex man. He’d come from half a world away yet lived in just three houses, a kilometre apart, for 50 years. Gregarious, friendly and funny, he was also happy alone; company very often had to be on his own terms. A freewheeling, exuberant prankster, he was frustratingly inflexible at times. Authoritarian, yet with scant regard for rules, conventions or authority. He was a quintessential working class man, who applied himself and became a successful stock market trader. He made money by careful study, analysis and calculated action. He also made, it, as many of you would know, by simply not spending it. Crummy coffee, bargain bin snags at Coles …. he hated to part with his hard-earned. But the essence of Dad, I think, was adventure.
He lived for it. He wanted to be moving, active, alive ... The bush camp at Lake Eppalock was legendary. There was sailing, yabbying, fishing, boating and at times it all got a bit tribal. He roamed the outback when he could, and when he couldn’t, there were more sedate trips to the Kimberley and New Zealand – he refused to wear a breathing mask flying over an active volcano, contaminated his airways and was sick for days.
Of course. My Klaus …. knew geography, the weather and had a feeling for tides. He caught crayfish that we ate with white Sunnycrust bread when I was a kid. He loved Johnny Cash and the National Geographic documentary theme, and we polka-ed together at the Eltham Barrel. But he could be a tough parent. Set in his ways. And of course we clashed when I was a teenager. He scared away my friends with the stinky cheese he’d eat for breakfast. His soft heart was exposed around animals and he put away his guns many years ago. I have watched him with the grandchildren he thought might never come…watched him morph into fun, game-playing gentle Opa who will be missed.
We had a new routine, he and I. He wasn’t a café man and I couldn’t stand his horrible coffee, so we’d meet each week at the Altona dog beach. He’d buy real coffee from the cart at Cherry Lake and we’d watch my kelpie chase seagulls. We’d note the weather and tide, watch the pelicans and the fishing boats head out on calm mornings, as we had done together 40 years earlier. Once, I turned around to find him gently holding a seagull I had mistakenly thought dead – Klaus saw it moving and now cradled it in his big hands. Should we take it to the vet, I wondered out loud. No, it’s only a seagull but, he said, he didn’t want it attacked by the dogs. I watched him find it a sanctuary in the soft sand and saltbush, and I marvelled at the tender man he had become.
Auf wiedersehen Klaus.