“You know, I once heard that your life is defined by what you do when presented with the need for a Plan-B.” As said to my blogging buddy, Dan, by his driver.
If my father was a ghost this is where he’d hang out. It’s the Napier Soundshell – one of many iconic Art Deco buildings in our city. (All built after the 1931 earthquake.)
On New Year’s Eve hundreds gather here to watch fireworks at midnight. During Art Deco Weekend the large square in front of the sound shell is packed with vintage cars. Crowds gather on the grass in all their Art Deco finery for the Great Gatsby picnic. (John and I went with Dad and his companion one year. We ate crustless cucumber sandwiches. Dad loved it. Afterwards he promenaded up and down the path, his lady friend on his arm, admiring others and fancying they were admiring him. He did look the part!)
Often on summer weekends there is a craft market in front of the stage. Outdoor concerts are staged here. Dad attended many. And he played in them, too. Dad was a brass bandsman. The trombone was his thing.
Dad was also an earthquake survivor. (So was my Mum.) Around here being an earthquake survivor means only one thing – living through the big one back in 1931. And it was very big – around 7.8 on the Richter scale. Actually there were two: the first jolt and then another thirty seconds later. I’ve always thought that was a particularly cruel thing; those who’d survived the first jolt would have just been getting their breath. Mum, for the rest of her life, counted to sixty after any decent shake before deciding it was over.
Sadly, the 1931 quake holds the record for the most loss of life of any earthquake in New Zealand history. The buildings in the city centre that withstood the quake were burnt to the ground in the ensuing fire.
My dad was six. It was the first day of the school year, February 3rd. He and his brothers, along with the other children at the school were probably saved because the quakes struck when they happened to be playing outside. Dad was pretending to be an aeroplane. His hero was Charles Kingsford-Smith, an early Australian aviator. Dad used to joke the earthquake caused the only aircraft crash he was ever involved with. He was thrown to the ground. In places around the Bay the land rose over two and a half metres. Near Hastings it fell by a metre. No wonder Dad couldn’t stay on his feet!
Maybe most shocking of all, Dad and his brothers (Dad was six, they were eight) walked home after the earthquake – on their own! The inner city only half a mile away was already burning. They must have been terrified. On the way they met one of their uncles, who Dad said was bleeding from his head, and then there was a panic that a Tsunami was coming. They all ran up Napier Hill, to safety. Fortunately there was no Tsunami. The sea did retreat but in this case it was because the quake had thrust the land out of the sea.
In later life Dad said he thought the earthquake was probably the reason he had few memories of his early years.
Apart from this he wore surviving the ’31 earthquake like a badge of honour. It was as if life could throw nothing at him to match that day. He did have his share of tragedies and heartbreak but I never saw him afraid. Not once. I saw him down but never for long. My father always got back up.
As he grew older this became a little problematic for me. You see, although his body became frail, his spirit didn’t change. Until the very end he retained his confidence in his ability to get back up. Maybe he was a little over confident. That depends on your point of view.
Back in early 2010 Dad’s brass band was scheduled to perform at the Soundshell. There was a cruise ship in port – a big one. When that happens, the city puts on a good show, including free concerts at the Soundshell. Dad’s army training (another story for another time, perhaps) and all his years as a bandsman meant it was ingrained to his core never to let your mates down.
On the day of the concert there was a large earthquake, in Chile I think, and a Tsunami warning was sent out across the Pacific. It was after the tragedy in the Indian Ocean. People were jumpy. I guess we still are. A warning is a big deal here. Twice a year the sirens are tested – just in case. Much of downtown Napier is actually below sea level. We’d be in trouble, big trouble, if there was a decent sized tsunami. People were advised to stay away from the beach. Some of the shops in town closed.
I telephoned my Dad. Yes, he said, he’d heard. But the show must go on, he said. And he had the key to open up the forecourt so the others could bring their instruments on to the stage.
Dad, I said. Please don’t go. I was worried. Dad, I said. They’ve asked people to stay way from the beach.
He said, I won’t be on the beach.
Dad! I said.
See that path in the photo? Only a few metres further along from here, and only the day before yesterday, the waves washed right over it.
I’ll be able to get away in time, he said. I’ll be able to see it coming from the stage, he said.
Dad, I said, if you see it, it’ll be too late.
He laughed, his laugh, the one I can still hear: one third guilty – he knew he was taking a risk; one third flattered – he liked to know I cared; one third reassuring – I was his frightened little girl, he was the father and he still knew what was what.
Come to the concert, he said.
I drew the line there. I live on Napier Hill. Who in their right mind goes from a hill to the beach when there’s a tsunami warning?
We waited. We followed the Civil Defence warnings. Eventually, John, brave man that he is, braver than his wife, thought he should check on Dad. What he discovered was the band performing to a straggly crowd. In front of the stage was Dad’s fire-engine-red Peugeot. If you check out the top photo again, take a moment to imagine a smallish red car parked in front of the crowd, stage right. That’s almost the exact spot I took the beach photo. Dad parked there, ready for a quick getaway.
Logic says there’s a lot wrong with this as a survival tactic. The first I’ve already stated: if you see a tsunami, you’re in big trouble. (I have another story about my mother checking out tsunamis which I’ll save for another day! Fearless both of them!! Or, as bad as each other, depending, again, on your point of view!) Second, driving through crowds of panicked people will never, ever be quick. Third, my father played the trombone. Trombonists sit at the back of the stage. And lastly, by this time in his life, the cane my father carried and managed to make look dapper wasn’t for show.
Luckily for me, my husband, and my Dad, and all the rest of us, the tsunami, when it arrived, was small. A few boats were damaged due to the surge but overall the sea levels rose less than half a metre.
I have to give it to Dad. He had his plan B: that quick get away. And I think he had a plan C, too. Which was, if he was going to go, it’d be with his mates, doing what he loved. He most definitely wouldn’t be the one to let the side down, not then, not ever, no matter what his worried daughter might have thought about the matter.
Dad passed away a few months after this tsunami episode. He went out fighting, his spirit in tact to the end. And that was his Plan D: make sure to show your kids how to live life.
Job done. Job well done, Dad.