28 July 2017, Grovedale, Geelong, Victoria, Australia
I suppose it's not surprising that many of my memories of my father Rex are - and will always be - about places. Special places. Landmarks. After all, he was a licensed surveyor and a man who loved and understood the world very much in terms of physical geography, maps and roads and boundaries.
Even last week, when he was very sick but alert, albeit somewhat confused, I found myself naturally wanting to tell him about places he knew that I’d also been to recently - St Arnaud (the Google Maps woman amusingly called it “Saint Ah-No”), the railway works at Murrumbeena station - names and places I hoped he would recognise and recall. So this is a kind of route map of Rex’s life and its landmarks...
Rex was born in 1935, son of Win (nee Charlton) and Charles Downes, baby brother to Rosemary, and he grew up in and around Murrumbeena. Two Murrumbeena addresses - 10 Perth Street and 6 Gilsland Road - were important landmarks for successive generations over many decades to follow: Rex and Rosemary’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and many cousins on both the Charlton and Downes sides, and then my own generation.
He went to school at Murrumbeena State School in Hobart Road and - although notoriously tone deaf - made his contribution to music by playing drums in their marching band. He went on to Lloyd Street Central School in Malvern, and then completed his secondary education at Melbourne High… the school on the hill by the Yarra (the hill being made of Silurian sandstone, he told me more than once, quoting Hills’ “Physiography of Victoria”).
At Melbourne High, he played football - he was a nuggetty rover with the nickname “Tank” - and showed an even greater talent as a cricketer. He had the ability to move the ball in the air and off the wicket both ways, remarkable for a man of his stature (5’4” at full stretch). What's more, he showed decades later he could still do it... with a tennis ball, in a back yard, on the beach, even with an arthritic hip off a one-step run-up.
A lot happened in the 1950s. After doing his Matric, Rex joined the Forests Commission on a cadetship and studied surveying at RMIT. He did his “Nasho” - National Service - at Puckapunyal (now there’s a place name) in the early 1950s. And he lost his father at a young age, becoming a great support to his widowed mother as the man of the house. With his studies finished, he completed his articles under Aubrey Houghton at the Forests Commission and became a licensed surveyor. He had already begun the routine of regular trips away to “the bush”, near and far, that would characterise much of his working life.
In 1957, people at the Forests Commission apparently conspired to matchmake Rex with Marion Williams, who was working in the Draughting office there, and they went on their first date on 18 July 1957 - 60 years ago last week. Exactly 6 months later, on the 18 January 1958, they were married and honeymooned in Marysville, a place that seems an unlikely honeymoon destination to younger people these days, but was all the rage with young Melburnians at the time. There’s nothing scandalous to be read into the short engagement - Rex had been offered a position in Tasmania working for the Public Works Department - and so they set off soon after for Launceston. While Marion made a home at 52 Janet Street, Rex worked hard on a variety of jobs, including the engineering surveys for the Batman Bridge across the upper Tamar River. Before long they had two children, me and Jenny. Continuing his passion for sport, Rex became a champion club golfer in Launceston.
They made lifelong friends in Tasmania - Rex’s work colleagues and neighbours in Kings Meadows - but Melbourne was always home and we returned to Victoria in 1967, initially to live with his mother Win in Murrumbeena and then to the house at 28 Clifford Street, Glen Waverley where Rex and Marion were to live for the next 25 years or so.
Rex rejoined the Forests Commission under Chief Surveyor Keith Kosky. It was here that he again made lifelong friendships with a group of mostly younger surveyors, field assistants and “chainmen”, many of whom are here or have been in contact this week. It’s been a source of great pride and comfort to Marion to hear how important Rex was to them as a mentor, a boss, a colleague and a friend.
His work took him to the four corners of Victoria… well, three corners, given that Victoria is kind of triangular. The names of the towns we'd see written by Mum on the calendar by the phone each week, along with the names of country hotels where he stayed - the Commercial, the Criterion, the Railway - became the landmarks of Rex’s working life:
Cobram and Numurkah in the north
The Strzeleckis and Yarram in the south
Cann River and Corryong in the east
Portland and Edenhope in the west
...plus Daylesford, St Arnaud, Myrtleford, Tallangatta, Noojee, Taggerty, Mount Baw Baw, Mount Buller and many other places in between.
As a teenager, during school holidays I was incredibly lucky to be able to go with Dad to some of these places whose names I'd been hearing for years, to experience his working life in the bush with his crazy surveying crew, to help navigate country roads, to come back at the end of the day with leeches in my socks and stay in country pubs. What a life!
He knew people all over Victoria (most of them publicans), made conversation easily, never lacked for something to talk about but was a good listener, too. He made some surprising friendships: George Vasilopoulos, of the Abominable restaurant on top of Mount Buller (the A-Bom), who hosted an early Christmas dinner for the survey party every year for several years (I’m told what happened on Mount Buller stays on Mount Buller); Stuart Calvert of the Inlet Hotel at Airey’s Inlet, who called him “the little brown man”.
It came as a big shock to everyone when Rex had a heart attack in 1975 and he was a pioneer patient for open heart triple bypass surgery at St Vincent’s Hospital five years later in 1980. Within a few more years, he'd also had both hips replaced. So hospitals also became landmarks of a sort in Rex’s life, but not usually for long. He seemed to dust himself off after each of these health setbacks or challenges and move on.
Aireys Inlet had been a special place in Rex’s childhood (just as Eastern View a few miles along the coast had been for Marion) and it became special for all of us when we started spending summer holidays there in the early 1970s. It was made even more special when, after Rex’s mother died in 1977, his share of her estate allowed Rex and Marion to buy the house at Aireys that became Winsome, in honour of Win. This was definitely another landmark, with its tradition of New Year’s Eve parties, a tent city on the grass and cricket on the beach the next day.
Rex’s working life ended early when he retired because of his health and his growing frustration with endless departmental reorganisations under successive state governments... but that was nearly 30 years ago! That's really when a remarkable second phase of life began for Rex and Marion, involving grandchildren and travel.
They moved from Glen Waverley to Parkdale in the early 1990s, to be close to Jenny and their grandchildren Meg and Greg. They also began travelling to Queensland every year to get away from cold Melbourne winters that were starting to bother Rex, seeping into his metal hip joints and making life outdoors much less enjoyable. Having worked their way up and down the Queensland coast, they found and settled on Magnetic Island as their home away from home, and for more than a decade would set off every Queen’s Birthday weekend to drive to Townsville, exploring different parts of inland NSW and Queensland on the way.
In 1996, Rex and Marion took their first and only trip outside Australia, circling the globe. They spent several weeks in the UK with Jenny, Peter, Meg and Greg and toured Europe before moving on to the US, staying with Renee, Maddie and me in Philadelphia and then doing the Grand Canyon, Vegas and Hawaii. Rex saw many of the major landmarks of the world in one long, amazing trip - from Stonehenge to the Grand Canyon, from the Arc de Triomphe to Trump Tower!
But probably nowhere in the world impressed him as much as Magnetic Island. He loved long walks on uncrowded beaches, the beautiful Horseshoe Bay in particular, and there was always a sheltered bay out of the wind no matter which way it was blowing. We all got together to celebrate his 70th birthday in Townsville in 2005 and Magnetic Island has become a place of pleasure and pilgrimage for all of us.
Of course they would return to Parkdale every year, but eventually began looking for a new place to live. They considered a return to Launceston, or the Bellarine Peninsula, but settled on Grovedale. Health issues started to kick in almost as soon as they moved here, but the garden still thrived. Yes, as much as he knew these places all over Victoria and Tasmania, or the towns between Melbourne and Townsville, or Oxford or Cornwall or Manhattan or Waikiki, and as much as he loved Magnetic Island, the place Rex really loved to be was in his own back yard, with his family close at hand, and preferably with a beer. Cutting grass, weeding, burning off. Planting and tending vegetables - tomatoes, radishes and endless varieties of lettuce. Or growing amazing fuchsias. Minding grandchildren. Looking after family dogs (or were they looking after him?). He worked incredibly hard in the garden, mostly with his shirt off and the radio on, listening to football, cricket, the races, any sport.
I like to think Rex has left his mark, not only in the garden beds he built and tended... or the pegs and blazes and permanent marks he left all over Victoria... or the bearings and boundaries he drew on countless survey maps... but - of course - in the lives of so many people. And a very special place in our memories and our hearts.