Sydneysider: A personal journey
I’m writing this on my 65th birthday – an occasion to ruminate on the fact that one might not have had a life at all. I was my parents first child, but I, me, as I know myself, would not have been conceived had mum not had a miscarriage in the UK in 1944.
My father was an RAAF night-fighter pilot and my mother had been a Womens’ Air Force flight sergeant manning the famous Chain Home radar system – strung out along England’s south coast – that gave early warning of incoming Luftwaffe raids.
Mum had come through The Blitz, the German strategic bombing offensive against the UK which lasted from September 1940 to May ’41. Over a million houses were destroyed or damaged and 40,000 civilians killed. Dad didn’t even arrive in the UK until late 1941 by which time Hitler had called off the assault and turned his air force towards the Soviet Union.
By June 1944, when the Allies had launched the invasion of Europe, mum had been discharged from the WAF and dad was supposedly recovering from a terrible case of tuberculosis. They were living in Kent, which turned out to be directly under the flight path of the V1 flying bomb, the first of Hitler’s revenge weapons.
The V1 was a cheap, mass-produced, pulse jet powered cruise missile with a primitive guidance mechanism. They dubbed it the buzz bomb from the engine’s distinctive sound, and you knew, when the engine cut out, it was coming down.
Three long years after the end of the original Blitz, V1s began to fall on London at the rate of over 100 a day. In the skies above the home where mum and dad were living, the Blitz was fought out all over again. Anti-aircraft guns banged away, night and day, balloon barrages were thrown up, and fighter aircraft attempted to intercept the incoming bombs.
It was all too much for mum, who had a miscarriage. The doctor sent her to bed for a week, but my future life still hung in the balance because while she was there, a V1 was hit by anti-aircraft fire about a mile short of the house. It caught fire, its engine stopped and it began to glide towards the upstairs bedroom. Mum and dad heard the motor cut out and threw themselves under the bed. Fortunately the bomb passed just over the house, showering burning fuel into the yard and exploded a mile away. Of course dad couldn’t keep away. He raced off to the crater and carried away what remained of the mysterious jet engine. Adding it to others that fell nearby he managed to assemble quite a lot of the mechanism in the bedroom before his haul was confiscated by the local military and police.
So that’s contingency for you. Our lives are made up of a continuous succession of these little accidents. If your local ack-ack gunner had been just a little bit quicker off the mark and your buzz bomb started its earthward plunge a hundred metres sooner, you would not have been.
Looking back, my life has been within a heatbeat of being snuffed out quite a few times. About 1973, I was driving west on the Great Western Highway out near Penrith and I pulled over and walked forward of the car about 50 metres to a phone box to make a call. (I can’t even write that sentence without wondering if half the people who read it ought to have “phone box” explained for them).
As I hung up, and turned to open the door, I looked back towards the car to see one of those glazier’s trucks where they carry big sheets of glass on an A-frame on the flatbed driving towards me. And then a whole load of unsecured glass lurched gracefully off the nearside of the truck and hit the road. There was a sort of white explosion and a tinkling cloud hurtled towards the phone box. About a hundred thousand vicious fragments, airborne at high speed showered along the footpath, finally stopping just short of the phone box. The truck sped off down the highway and I walked back to my car. If I’d have finished that call about four seconds earlier, I’d have been ripped to pieces.
There is no “meaning” in any of this; no divine purpose; no predestination in the religious sense. There is just the meandering of a limitless material universe. The sensible learn to reduce their chances of copping it unnecessarily and do what they can to make the make the world a better, less chaotic place.