What makes a hero?
I’ve already asked a similar question in my post, Saving Lives – Which One Will Make You a Hero?
This time I ask it with the seriousness that comes with ANZAC day and our recognition and respect for the soldiers who fought.
I was originally going to write about Simpson and his donkey – the story of a stretcher bearer who risked his life to save hundreds at Gallipoli. His story captured the hearts of a nation and is well known by Australians. You can read about it here.
I’m going to tell you about a hero who joined up mainly because of a murder scandal. He also went AWOL, played an ingenious trick on the officers and later pulled off a daring heist.
While his bravery on the field is in no doubt, it could be how he survived his childhood that gives him real hero status.
A LOVEABLE LARRIKIN
The man I’m talking about is my husband’s grandfather Harold Macnish, a loveable larrikin who endured atrocities most of us could never imagine.
I had the privilege of knowing Pop for a few years before he died, aged 93, in 1989.
He always came across as cheerful and loving and it was not until just recently I realized what an amazing person he was.
One of his grandsons, Tony Bailey, has written a book in honour of a life that gave so much – and received so little.
In his book, God Willed It, Tony describes his grandfather as: “an orphan, a warrior, a digger, a gambler, a larrikin, a womanizer, and a two pot screamer”.
The book tells the tale of Pop’s Irish-born mother and how she bravely left her country of birth to make the long and dangerous journey to Australia.
She was a good Catholic girl and relied heavily on the church to guide her morals and decisions.
She worked behind a bar at a hotel in Townsville before meeting her future husband.
The marriage was not approved of by family – an unlikely union between an Irish Catholic and a Protestant.
Regardless, they lived happily and produced three children – Pop was the middle child with an older sister and younger brother – until tragedy struck and his father died suddenly. The man had left no provision for his family.
Pop’s mother tried to make ends meet, even resorting to begging help from her dead husband’s rich family, but in the end, she had no option but to return to Ireland to get funds.
THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND
She couldn’t afford to take the children so she left them where she believed they would be safe – in a Catholic-run orphanage.
It is hard to imagine that such evil could prevail in a place claiming to be working on direct orders from God but this is where the story of Pop’s torture begins.
He and his younger brother were repeatedly beaten, starved, overworked and sexually abused. Their sister had been taken to another part of the orphanage and they didn’t see her again for years.
The abuse continued throughout Pop’s childhood despite the fact his mother had tried in vain to reclaim her children when she returned from Ireland.
Did this make Pop bitter? Yes – for a while. Did it make him strong? Seriously tough.
The recurring theme was Pop’s dedication to protecting his little brother and it was out of that need, after tasting freedom at age 17 for such a short time, that the murder scandal made joining the army the only safe decision.
I’m going to be mean and tell you if you want that full story, you’ll have to read the book – God Willed It by Tony Bailey, available through;
AN UNLIKELY HERO
The brothers joined up but it was soon discovered Pop’s brother was too young to enlist, by a matter of months. Pop couldn’t un-enlist so did the only thing he could think of – disappear for a while in the hopes he could wait for his brother to join him. Leaving his brother alone at war was not an option.
This made him AWOL (absent without leave) – a deserter, a crime punishable by death.
The need for soldiers was so desperate that when Pop gave himself in, a desperate last ditch ploy to avoid starvation when all his funds had run out, he was merely fined and sent out to fight.
Pop and his brother fought alongside other diggers in France. Pop made it home by the skin of his teeth, horribly scarred, both physically and emotionally. His brother did not.
ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) day is the anniversary of the landing of troops from Australia and New Zealand on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey, in World War I on April 25, 1915.
During this ‘war to end all wars’ 60,000 Australians were killed – 8000 of them in Gallipoli and the others on the Western Front of France and Belgium. 156,000 were wounded, 18,000 on Gallipoli.
There are many tales from the frontline describing Pop’s bravery and strength, particularly when it came to protecting his brother.
These are things I didn’t know about the happy, fun grandfather I knew for a short time.
The man I saw – the loveable larrikin – was best described in a tale in the book about how Pop invented the Bread Patrol.
He used his new-found influence with a field promotion to escort a small group of men to the nearest bar to enjoy some wine and bread.
The men all wore full patrol uniform and when stopped and questioned by officers as to their mission, Pop would tell them the men were on ‘bread patrol’. As Pop predicted, the officers didn’t want to admit they didn’t know what that was so waved them on.
They got away with this for five days, right near the frontline of the war, until someone finally wised up. They were all brought up on charges and docked a week’s pay which Pop claimed was more than worth it.
Pop killed many men, saved many more, found a way to fight the bitterness inside him, forgave his mother for deserting him (at age five when she left them in the care of the nuns, Pop couldn’t understand her efforts to save them) and reconciled with her.
His childhood experiences gave him a unique understanding so that when he was the manager of a plantation in New Guinea, he treated the native workers with care and respect – something they were unaccustomed to.
Despite this, he was forced to declare war once again on a group of cannibals who had abducted his wife. A truly horrifying story you will have to get the book to read. (When you do, you will also be entertained by his daring heist).
He spent 61 of his 93 years married to that woman (another unlikely union between a Catholic and a Protestant) and together they raised four children – one of them my mother-in-law.
He had 56 different jobs in his lifetime – and was never formally educated. He never lost the need to fight injustice where he saw it and thought it important to treat people with kindness.
Pop – he took lives, he saved lives, he created lives. He stole, he deserted, he gambled but he also treated everyone with fairness, fought for the underdog and worked hard for everything he had.
What makes a hero?
Wishing you a gleeful week, Tamuria.