First Contact

Anita Spinks

"No, not for me," I snort as I survey the challenge of contributing my own story to the U3A publishers. "My story is too dull, to conventional. Who on earth would consider reading it?"

The thought stuck in my brain, an irritation, an itch just asking to be scratched. Perhaps my own story is not quite so dull. Not at all as conventional as would appear on the surface, though I have spent a lifetime trying to mask the unconventional aspects.

Let me go back….delve into those hidden recesses that I've all but succeeded in relegating to the past. My younger brother and I were born to freethinking parents in post war, Menzies era Sydney. On the surface, a conventional suburban family. My father was very keen to maintain that facade as the memories of World War 2 were close at hand. It didn't pay to be too open with your beliefs or lack thereof; records are kept, look at Nazi Germany! Old records could be dredged up and used against you if things turned nasty. This was his thinking, and he communicated this to us in no uncertain terms.

Luck was on the side of our little family. My father was selected to be the recipient of a cadetship issued by the Commonwealth Government. This allowed him to study engineering at the newly formed University of NSW. It was a hard slog! The path of the part-time student with a family to support was not an easy one. He attended lectures at night, either catching the bus back from Kensington or a bus plus train and eventual pickup from Kogarah station. We kids were bundled into the car at 9 o'clock at night, and driven to the station to wait for Dad's train to arrive.

The recollection of those late-night pick-ups is still crystal clear in my mind. We would gaze with longing in the jewellery store window near the station, imagining the treasures we would buy once the status of our family was improved and we joined the ranks of the professionals.

Time moved on and at long last we attended my father's graduation at the Roundhouse in the grounds of UNSW. It was an evening to remember and my heart swelled with pride as photos were taken of Dad in his cap and gown. "Education is the key," Dad would say, "there's no other way for working class people to get ahead in the world. Be grateful that we live in a country where the opportunity exists. In most countries the opportunity for even a basic education is completely denied to people like us."

So begins the second phase of my life in the suburbs. Even then, it was not the run-of-the mill life experienced by my contemporaries. Part of my father's public service job entailed mentoring young students in Australia studying on The Columbo Plan. These young engineering students usually came from Sri Lanka, though if I remember correctly they came from as far afield as Egypt. Perhaps I'm mistaken on this one, but I do remember young men with names like Ahmed and Facile visiting our home for a slice of traditional Australian life. Who knows what was running through their minds while they were eating Mum's roast lamb with vegetables with a milk based pudding for dessert?

To this day, I do not know anyone one who entertained people from such diverse backgrounds. I think the experience thoroughly imbued me with the conviction that we are all just human beings!  The same joys and fears, aspirations and disappointments beset us all, though they may come in many a different guise.

After a time my father developed a very close friendship with one of his charges from Sri Lanka. When his young friend eventually picked up his bride from the airport, our house was the first port of call on the return airport trip. I vividly remember this shy young woman in her gossamer thin traditional clothing, so ill prepared for chilly, July weather in Sydney. I was struck by her exotic beauty and quiet charm.

By the time I had left the family home and started out on my own adult life, these contacts with my parents still continued, though the Columbo Plan was eventually phased out. I don't know when they ceased entirely as I was preoccupied with my own concerns by then.

So….maybe not such an ordinary life at all. We were exposed to different cultures in an age when people didn't travel much at all. It's a different life now. Overseas travel is commonplace for people from all walks of life.

I am forever grateful to my parents for my contact with ”the Other", in my formative years; other cultures, other beliefs and other ways of living life. The values of my parents are hardwired into my brain, and I hope I've been able to pass on this legacy to my children. Time will tell.