Carol D. Meikle (nee McLay) was born in Balclutha, in the South Island of New Zealand. Carol, now retired, worked as a secondary school teacher for many years. Her interests include reading, music, film, gardening, writing and her family (two grown up children and six grandchildren), as well as her family tree and family history.
The following memory piece, by Carol D. Meikle, appeared in Growing Up In Wartime: Recollections from Children and Adolescents of the 1940s, compiled by Isobel Veitch, edited by Mervyn Palmer and published in 2009 (ISBN: 978-0-473-15535-3). Profits from the sale of this book went to benefit a charity in Dunedin, New Zealand. We at “The Forever Years” strongly recommend this book, which shows not only how our childhood years are indeed our “forever years”, but also how living through war feels through the eyes of a child.
My two sisters and I were “war babies”, born in 1938, 1940 and 1942. My brother arrived in 1945. In a way we were all fortunate to be born. Many men were away overseas and, as a consequence, had their families later in life. My father was very disappointed not to be chosen to fight, thanks to a brush with tuberculosis which caused much sadness in the lives of his generation.
Those left behind had their job to do. My father, who was Clutha County Engineer, had to do his usual job with the added burden of the County Clerk’s job. After he died, I was clearing out the top drawer of his chest and found a few precious letters. One of them was from his friend and colleague the clerk, who wrote during his camp training before leaving New Zealand. He never returned and left a young widow with no family. Two of my school friends lost their fathers. Our parents talked often of friends and relatives who did not return.
Dad joined the Home Guard. He spent quite a number of weekends away training at Kaka Point, where they sorted out ideas for survival, should New Zealand be unfortunate enough to be taken over. The threat became increasingly real when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and extended their hold over the Pacific.
The lead lights of our bungalow were covered with cardboard. Pictures of trees, flowers and people from other lands were stuck on with glue. My favourite scene was a lagoon at night with light from the moon shining on the water. When they were taken down, we missed the pictures, but were surprised at how much lighter the house was. At night we had watched our parents pull down Holland blinds, being careful not to make chinks of light. Travel at night was not encouraged but if the car had to be taken out, lights were not on full beam.
Petrol was rationed. My sister spent time in Dunedin Hospital having three operations and then recovery time in Kew Hospital where St. Andrew’s Home is today. Kind people would give their petrol ration coupons to my parents so they could travel the fifty miles to see her. One of my earliest memories is of one trip in a Ford Coupe. I was laid along the back window ledge while my parents and uncle sat on the bench seat. The hospital foyer was piled to the ceiling of the stairway with sandbags in case of a bomb explosion. It was only later that I learned why the bags were there.
Food rationing meant that Mum had a ration book for each child and when the grocer rang the back door bell we would go with Mum to watch her tear our grey ration stamps. Vegetables and meat were delivered to the back door. The coal man was a more frightening caller with his face and hands blackened with coal dust. He carried his load on his leather vest. The noise as he emptied the sacks into the coal bin was fearful. We peeped from behind Mum’s skirt. Material and wool were also rationed. Our beds were covered with patchwork quilts made from old clothes and suits. Neighbours has curtains made from sugar sack hessian bordered with cotton print. Many of our clothes were “cut down”. Jerseys were knitted from unravelled wool.
Some of our neighbours had trenches in their gardens. We were trained to get under the oak table. We were not sure why, but we often played there anyway.
Good toys were in short supply. Grandparents made a wooden rocking horse and rag dolls were made by aunts. My first bought doll had a very heavy plaster head with features and hair painted on the pink skin. The light rag body made carrying her awkward. She was not beautiful, but she did have “sleeping eyes”. An uncle made us toy cars with tin and solder and carefully painted details. One Christmas, we girls each received a bought yellow teddy bear wearing pyjamas Mum had made. Our initial was embroidered on the soul of one paw to prevent fights over ownership.
The wireless was almost sacred: when the war news was on my father listened with his ear as close as he could get. He concentrated with a serious face and marked the movements on a map. Silence was expected, as the short wave news sounded as if it were coming through water. On Fridays at lunchtime, my mother turned on the “Community Sing” on 4ZB. Dunedin people met and sang during their lunch break to lighten their spirits. Mum sang along as she made and served lunch. We, too, learned the tunes which became woven into our lives: When the Lights go on again all over the World; There’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover and the rousing Maori Battalion March to Victory— those tunes take me back to the Ann Street kitchen.
Uncles and friends came to visit in military uniforms and stayed a few nights when they were on leave. The local railway station was an exciting place to go and see them arrive or to watch the adults hugging and waving until the train had gone. My maternal grandparents frequently visited to help Mum and Dad with us children. I now realise the great stress they must have been under. They had lost three children in infancy and now their remaining two sons had gone off to war. They busied themselves with household chores and my grandmother and mother often wrote letters to “the boys”. Posting letters meant a long walk to the end of the street for me. I was sometimes lifted up to the corner post box to drop the letters under the red flap. The postman’s whistle heralded his arrival, complete with uniform, bicycle and a large post bag. Letters from “overseas” were met with great elation. Sometimes bits had literally been cut out by the censor.
Both of my grandmother’s boys returned, but cousins of my mother and father did not. I remember visiting my Great Aunty Agnes in Gore after the war. Two of her daughters had married returned soldiers and her oldest son came home. Sadly, her younger son did not return. She sat in her armchair by the open fire. On the wall opposite her in an oval, wooden frame was a photo of William in his army uniform. Each ANZAC day, she poked a poppy into the frame and each year we visited the poppies inched their way further around the photograph.
The end of the war was celebrated in Balclutha with a parade along Clyde Street, starting at the south end and proceeding to the park near the bridge. A menacing tank ground its way forward, followed by people on the back of trucks waving fern fronds. We were all dressed in our best and stood on the footpath under the shop verandas. We watched in awe as people waved flags and marched in groups behind the pipe band. A brass band was in the park rotunda. At night the festivities continued with a large bonfire on the river bank. I had not been out much at night and was excited by the buzz of the happy crowd and the leaping flames of the huge fire.
“The Boys”, our uncles, returned on ships. Again, we listened to the radio to hear about the troops jubilant arrival home. My younger sister asked Mum, “Is that all the Gavins arriving home?” (Gavin was one of the uncles). Our Uncle Bill returned with presents from Egypt. There was a leather handbag with pyramids embossed for Mum, a leather humpy covering for Dad, and for the nieces (us) he had Egyptian dolls. My older sister received a lady in a long, black gown with beadwork on the yoke, golden jewellery and orange head gear. I receiver a worker with a thickly woven full-length shirt, complete with pocket, and a knitted brown cap. My younger sister received a gentleman in a long, striped gown, wearing a fez. Other gifts included silver filigree bracelets, one with a turquoise scarab beetle; a necklace of red glass beads set in golden clasps; a wooden camel; nine little red boxes with names I could not read, filled with different shells. I played with those shells often, setting them in different patterns, admiring their colours and shapes. I still have them and have collected many other shells over the years.
Ours was a sheltered war. It took many years to get a more complete picture. ANZAC Day services at the town monument were an annual reminder. Our war years taught us to be careful with what we had, to be innovative and to recycle things. The examples of our parents and grandparents gave us an assurance that it is possible to cope with difficult and stressful times. Thankfully, war has not been so dominant in our later lives.