Charcoal to dust, then dawn.
The small community of Illawonga was devastated by years of drought. Intense heatwaves scorched much of what Harvey grew up exploring and appreciating. In late October 1983, during a record heatwave, raging bushfires swept across the community and the national parks surrounding Illawonga, with disastrous results. Some of the Stewart's’ farming friends and work clients became trapped, and burnt to death by wildfires; others were scared for life. During the afternoon red-hot embers drifted onto the Stewart’s home, multiple spot fires ignited within roof gutters and in many garden beds. Mr Stewart rallied his family together to fight the fires with buckets of water and old damp hessian bags. Charlie, John, Harvey and the Stewart girls fought for six hours tirelessly, eventually saving the home from destruction. By sunset, the family was exhausted but successful. As they sat down on the rear doorstep for a cool drink, Harvey watched on in horror as he noticed his old gum tree was burning furiously - and with it his tree house. The old tree suddenly exploded like a small bomb went off, burning quickly out of control. Charlie firmly held onto his son’s shoulder, preventing Harvey from getting too close.
“It’s way too late, laddie, nae amount of water can save it noo.”
Harvey was in a state of shock and disbelief. His tree house and old gum meant so much to him; the tree had brought Rose and Harvey closer together. It had been his silent retreat ever since Rose left; often he would whisper to the red gum as if he were secretly talking to Rose at the movies. Amongst all of this death and destruction, Harvey felt so emotionally overwhelmed, with a powerful desire to write down his feelings. His writing had become the catalyst for self-confidence, in order to explore and express his feelings and philosophies with friends. Now he had to capture their grief and emotional outpouring of a community. He also felt that Rose would be feeling extremely low if she knew what happened to their tree and especially since some of her neighbours, who were close friends of her mothers’ had perished in the wildfire.
Before their evening meal, Mrs Stewart gave thanks for their survival and prayed for the souls of those who perished and others critically burnt in hospital from that Black Ash Wednesday. Following the sombre meal, Harvey left and went straight to his bedroom, opened his journal and began writing a poem to Rose about the loss of their old friend the majestic River red gum. Whenever he felt bad or something troubled him in his life, his trusty pen and journal became his strength and guidance to help him find some sense of order within all of the chaos.
Tell me your story please
A whisper of smoke, is all the life that is left in our tree,
once a Goliath, now a mere smouldering log next to me.
Flames ravaged your heart, bringing you to your knees;
Ash Wednesday’s fire, devastating, as your soul it seized.
Once grand and tall, in all your glory, you proudly stood,
reduced to this smouldering stump, from burning wood.
With your last whisper, tell me your sad story please;
a Eulogy from the King, of the great valley of trees. . .
My canopy a landmark on this the highest of hills;
I governed vast lands, safe from loggers and mills.
For hundreds of years, our branches they grew;
we shaded the lives, of many more than a few.
Koalas, Kookaburras, man and reptiles too;
each one of them visited my priceless view
How could anyone spoil all that represents freedom?
When a butt by a road, lit up God’s Garden of Eden!
Many years of drying winds, my leaves no longer green,
I feared what had started, was worse than I had ever seen.
Brothers lay there helpless, in the path of winds and fire;
thirsty trunks did burst with heat, obliterating all desire.
Giant fireballs grew in size, relentless, roaring like a gale;
sadly fuel for an inferno, as it approached us with full sail.
The unsuspecting family, within their modest timber shrine,
they often enjoyed my lovely shade; today was the last time!
The hillside just erupted; there was nowhere to escape;
this manmade disaster was surely environmental rape!
Too late for fire prevention, no fire pump could fight;
from once a peaceful paradise, to this baron ugly sight.
..So as the final embers flicker, and the haze begins to clear,
I just cannot believe my eyes, or prevent a farewell tear.
It was a devastating time in the small farming community on the back of many years of drought. During this summer, many crops and pastures baked dry in the hot sun. Modest amounts of grain, green pasture and water were available for the malnourished merino sheep and Herford cattle to survive.
The final straw for many Illawonga farmers was the devastating wildfire, which took the lives of some respected and well-loved community members. It wiped out over half of the grain farmer’s crops, destroyed 12 homes and dozens of hay sheds.
The next day Harvey was trying to extinguish the smouldering from his old gum tree. The intense heat from the fire had melted the nylon tap washer inside their garden tap, so the minimal water pressure, plus a leaky tap, reduced the pressure to a trickle. Harvey walked away from the smoking stump in search of a tap washer. Tentatively, he crept into what was left of his family garage. His efforts in helping to save the family home came at a high price. His tree, his tree house and fathers backyard shed were destroyed. With the shed, only just standing, and filled with sickening streams of grey smoke, Harvey walked nervously inside, trying to concentrate on finding a tap washer from the old white sideboard. He was most surprised to see it was one of the few survivors from the intense flames; it stood, partly scorched and blackened in the far corner of the shed.
“Well at least, it’s still standing,” Harvey whispered to himself, before coughing violently from the smoke filled air. His smoke affected eyes surveyed the shed, full of charred remains of furniture, memorabilia and machines, all once his treasured possessions. As he grasped the handle to the parts draw, he thoughtfully considered what remained in his life that really mattered most.
“Are we possessed by collecting possessions, when material items don’t feature in funeral processions? They were never a steal, nor a necessary cost, but a figment unreal and eventually lost.”
“I still have my family, our home and my health, which is more than many have left after yesterday’s disaster.”
Wiping ash from his eyes, Harvey slid open one his favourite assorted spare parts draws from the charred sideboard. A slight wisp of smoke crept up into the air. Although his initial plan was to find a garden tap washer, he temporarily forgot the pain of his loss and began reminiscing over his remaining little treasures . . .
Life’s little treasures draw to a close
I hold a drawer’s handle, firmly in my hand,
slowly I open it, to begin my cunning plan.
Often a drawer would open, and then reclose again,
taking away a part of my life, into its treasure den.
Eyes transfixed upon a box, of rich and rarest beauty,
full of collectables that were, once my precious booty.
Nuts and washers, bolts and widgets do I see;
a very old golf card and a lonely wooden tee.
A yellow set of earplugs, for such a very noisy world,
a screw, the lodger of the wood, no longer will it twirl.
One obsolete phone index, with superseded numbers,
reminders of my old social and flirtatious encounters.
A giant marble rolls forth, right under my view;
A King of imprisoned parts; a life somewhat askew.
My childhood revisited, with toys and many games;
memories reignited now, with old electric trains.
Sliding out the draw, much farther than I should,
why, do I delve deeper?. . a thought not understood.
Slides are worn from opening, for the thousandth time,
this chapter soon will come to close, for me it is a sign.
A nineteen fifty-seven Florin coin, with tarnish on its skin;
a year of plenty for my country, let good luck for me begin!
Then I see some tackle, a sinker and one old rusty hook,
perhaps I should be writing…. my own adventure book!
As I move even closer, I hear waves, fresh from the sea,
thinking of these lost treasures, fills me with great glee.
But my plan has been foiled, investigations all in vain;
my search for a tap washer, has escaped me once again.
So as this adventure slides, ever slowly towards a close;
my attention is returned quickly, to that dripping hose!
Stewart Engineering was fairing better than most businesses, but it was having its share of hardship. Plenty of work followed the fires, and since Harvey had taken over the manufacturing of seeding and tillage equipment, work had never been busier. Farmers were replacing burnt equipment and getting machinery repaired, but their ability to pay accounts became increasingly unlikely. Stewart Engineering was fast becoming a debt collecting service. The stress on his parents showed, and Mr Stewart’s health took a turn for the worst. Harvey sensed his newly found empire crumbling. His father Charlie had been his coach, mentor and teacher during his apprenticeship, even though they had their differences. Now, amidst all the bleak forecasts for Illawonga there was a larger hurdle for the family to face; Charlie had a much bigger challenge. His diagnosis was bleak; he had contracted both prostate and terminal lung cancer. Harvey forgot their differences and regular squabbles and devoted all his time to his father and distraught mother. During the many family visits to the district hospital, Charlie would try to disguise his obvious pain. Harvey preferred to visit his father in private, as there was plenty on his mind to say to him before he died. The toughest sentence was trying to say how much he admired his Father and simply say, “I love you Dad,”
A phrase both men never conversed to each other. On their last evening, Harvey knew he had to say goodbye in a letter or poem. . .
I am here for you Dad
Hi there dear Dad, yes it’s me, your son,
I hear the worst of pain has just begun.
You are fighting hard to kill this cancer,
I wish just this once I knew the answer.
Sure Dad, I am going to miss you too;
I prayed so hard. . . Yes, I do love you!
Each time you held my hand so tight,
I desperately wished to join your fight.
We pray for all your pain to leave,
I fear you will be gone, this eve.
Now as you lay there, peacefully,
I ask the Lord this simple plea:
Please forgive all my father’s sins,
take him to where your world begins.
A great and glorious world of love,
where he can watch us, from above.
Harvey held his father’s hand whilst he held back tears of sadness,
“Dad, I promise you I will make you proud of me and proud of what our family have achieved.”
Charlie’s last words were pain-filled, but like his lifetime’s reputation, his words were thoughtful, deliberate and concise…
“My son, I’m proud of who you’ve become, not just because of your talents, but by what you have done with those gifts. You have become a young man full of awareness, through your observations and in turn, you have assisted the less fortunate with wisdom and your actions. Promise me you will leave this town, to find your true calling in life as you once wanted. Harvey, your destiny is bound for much greater things than here in Illawonga. Please make our name proud as you have made me proud.” Harvey nodded.
“I will Dad, I promise!” Charlie’s voice strained as he continued,
“Your words must be a reflection of your spirit, with intention to enrich the hearts of others. Allow your poems to carry the shroud of wisdom, inherited from your elders. It is your duty to pass on this philosophy for future generations. Direct your skill from life’s apprenticeship towards pleasing the eyes and ears of others. Only then, will you be remembered and your Character revered. Above all, love life and live your life to the fullest and then good fortune will enrich your heart.” They embraced, fearing that the end was near.
As Charlie’s eyelids slowly drooped, a calm contented smile transformed his pain riddled face. Harvey shuffled away, wiping tears from his eyes. Slowly, he turned around to his father, hesitated and then found the courage;
“I love you Dad.”
Charlie Stewart opened one eye, and in his farewell gesture, acknowledged his son's remark with a wink and with his fragile final words whispered . . .
“I love you too, laddie”
Harvey smiled at his father and then burst into tears. That single moment of joy became rocked by inevitability. The shock sent him running clumsily through the hospital corridors, as he strained to identify exit signs through his glazed eyes. Harvey squeezed his way through the narrow gap in the exit doors and then sprinted to a patch of lawn near the car park of the Hospital. Harvey tripped and fell heavily, landing with a thud on the sun-baked grass. Winded and gasping for breath, he wiped his eyes and then scanned across the dry crisp lawn. A tall, green, single-stemmed weed caught his attention. It displayed a perfect white ball of soft seed spores. It was like a beacon or a lighthouse in the desert.
“What does this mean?” Harvey thought to himself, lying on his stomach in the hot sun. Suddenly he began imagining and mumbling to himself.
I realise I’m never alone
I lay in the field to erase any thoughts,
of a day I would rather forget.
The rustle of leaves, a breeze on my face,
dries the tears, then dissolves my regret.
I lift up my head to look over the grass,
and notice a figure so slender and tall.
It takes away breath, as I ponder a thought;
…nature makes mountains seem small!
The answers hide in the strangest of fields,
as a distraction that flirts with my mind;
the troubles of past, may be simply a dream;
or a drama that I hope to unwind.
As the breeze multiplies and spores drift away,
leaving one single stem on its own;
I think of those close, who are waiting for me;
and I realise I’m never alone.
As Harvey watched the seed spores float upwards towards the hospital, a cold shiver crept quickly up his spine. He knew Charlie must had died!
It was the end of an era; two decades of service to a farming community in repair and machinery manufacturing was over. Harvey was proud of his father’s achievements, from tirelessly serving the Illawonga community and raising his family through difficult times.
Most importantly to Harvey, he was able to tell his father for the first time that he did love him. On Charlie’s deathbed, they spoke of fond memories with the family and their great achievements at work.
Four days later, Harvey recollected those stories at his father’s funeral service. He was amazed that hundreds of people attended the service. Harvey stood in front of the pulpit preparing to speak; but before he did, he whispered to his two sisters Vonne, Gill, and his brother John,
“Perhaps Dad did a lot more for this community than I realised.”
It was Harvey’s turn to talk about his father; normally he would be petrified in front of such a large audience, but today he spoke clearly with calm and confidence. He felt Charlie’s presence around him in the old Uniting Church Hall, as if he were listening to his every word. He wanted his Father’s friends to know who Charlie really was. He recalled the fond memories of time spent with his father,
Suddenly Harvey’s notes began to quiver,
“I have treasured memories of working with Dad as an Apprentice; helping him dismantle Caterpillar Bulldozer tracks, and nervously holding the track pins with long Blacksmith tongs as he swung a gigantic sledge hammer at the pin. He never missed. Thankfully!”
Gaining confidence again, his voice lifted,
“One of our best customers at work was old Jack Hutchins; we often rebuilt or repaired his enormous Mallee Root-Rippers and his land clearing equipment. Jack was obsessed with modifying his fleet of Jaguar cars. One time, Dad and I fitted Morris airbag suspension to his E-Type Jaguar. Jack convinced Dad to do the job. Charlie told me that anything is possible! However, if you do not give it a go, you will never know if it could have worked? . . . It didn’t! The following week we changed it back again.” Many at the service politely laughed, which pleased Harvey, before he continued,
Some of you would have reminders of Charlie’s expertise; like the Illawonga Memorial Oval gates boasting his hand smithed wrought iron wording. Some of the farmers might own a Stewart Engineered implement, like our ‘Ripmaster’ Blade-plough or a cattle stock crate. Perhaps Charlie repaired your tractor or windmill. He was able to make or repair or recreate most things. To those of us who could understand his broad Scottish accent, we knew him as Charlie the Researcher, the Thinker, and resourceful Engineer.”
Harvey stopped and thought to himself for a moment, and then his mind began wandering off to stories and great times they shared.
“Perhaps I am a bit like Dad after all. I feel guilty about all the fights we had, and I hated the way he was so strict, but he was always fair. If I end up half as respected as him in the community, I would be more than satisfied with my lot.”
His long contemplation was suddenly broken with,
“Harvey . . . Harvey!” Vonne shook his shoulder to snap him out of his daydream.
“What were you thinking Harvey?” his sister, Vonne asked,
Harvey looked up, and blushed with embarrassment, once he realised where he was. He refocussed, and then continued . . .
“Sorry about that! I was just reminiscing and all that! I would like to finish by reading you a poem I wrote about my mentor.”
The mentor that taught by example
I remember the day my Dad passed away,
thinking, life will never be the same.
Memories flood back, preserved they will stay,
as the pain of our loss will remain.
He taught me mechanics and driving,
but our fishing near sent me insane;
without his guidance for my steering,
I’m up a creek without a paddle again.
The mentor that taught by example,
listening to his children seemed a chore;
He’d show me only once as a sample,
with instructions, for one thousand more.
As a father, he loved all of us dearly,
but look out if we put one foot wrong;
A firm clip under the ear for my brother,
painful reminder, to last the daylong.
My father was the proud educator,
his mantra ,‘Please don’t sing along’!
His singing in the shower a reflection,
of a drowned and forgettable song.
Weekends we watched Dad in the garden,
he mowed lawns and trimmed back the hedge.
For Sunday roast, a burp with no pardon,
as he reached for the whiskey on the ledge.
Highly skilled in metal fabrication,
Dad built farming equipment all day,
many will remember his inventions,
I still remember things he would say.
So as we farewell the old Scotsman,
there is just one thing left to be said,
remember the man that helped you,
now that my mentor is dead.