Old Jack – Memorial to an Australian Airman

The man the Wolf knew as Old Jack left us yesterday.  He was on any view of a good age.  When he rang me a few weeks ago to say that he was in St John of God at Ballarat with cancer, he told me that he was philosophical – but every time I saw him, I thought he that he looked better.  The last time I told him that I expected him to be playing beach volley ball the next time I dropped in.  He was also philosophical about the fact that since he was in hospital, the Wolf was not allowed in.  He had however told me that he thought that he would fall off the twig in about month, and he was about right.

I met Old Jack when I moved to Blackwood some nine or so years ago.  He had got there a bit before me – in about 1938.  He came down the slope to introduce himself.  He was the only one to do so.  We realised we had so much in common – he was an old styled Irish Mick Collingwood supporter.  For reasons I could follow, he was not all that enthused about the crowd at the pub, and he would drop over for a chat about twice a week.  The house was on a steep slope, and the Wolf and I could see the bottom of Old Jack’s very long legs through the window as he came down.  I would offer him a red and he would always say ‘Only a very small one, thanks Geoff.’  He would then sip the bloody stuff like altar wine.  The Wolf became very fond of him because he stayed with Old Jack when I was overseas.

Old Jack was bloody tolerant for one of that generation.  He had very few demons.  He got a kind of guilty pleasure from fruity or spiced conversation, and general irreverence.  Every now and then we might watch a movie.  I was surprised that he was so taken with Patton, and he read all 1000 pages of the memoirs.  After I had done a course on the Stuarts at Cambridge, he knocked over a very sophisticated long book on the 1641 Revolution.  He loved the scarves and jackets I brought back from Oxford and Cambridge, especially those associated with a Catholic college.  We also liked some comedies.  Some could set Old Jack off on a kind of keening pained laugh – like the scenes between Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War.

He had a seasoned Irish attitude to the English, especially royalty.  He told me that after his dad got back from the first war, he and others were very dirty on the Poms for their condescending attitude to our troops and to medals.  He said his father used to insult them on the trams.  When I first called on Old Jack the other day in Ballarat, he had a book on Gallipoli.  When I said it was hard on the Poms, he replied instantly – ‘no more than they bloody well deserve, Geoff.’  Old Jack took the same attitude into the next war – and he kept the faith.

Like a lot of those guys, he did not talk much of the war, and he was close to being a pacifist.  He did however show me a written memoir of his life one day, and we discussed it once or twice.  He joined the AIF and went to Syria.  He there got shot at – by the BLOODY FRENCH!  Old Jack took serious exception to this treatment, and he joined our air force.  He went to New York, trained in Canada, and then served as a navigator in Mosquitoes in England.  He flew 47 missions over occupied Europe.  In an RAAF book, I have seen a photo of his shining morning face and lantern jaw during a pre-raid briefing.  He was active over the extension of the D-day front toward Holland.  He told me that their main fear was going down alive and being lynched.  He was always sympathetic to the Germans on the ground, and Black Saturday really unsettled him, as it did most of us because, he said, this was a firestorm like Dresden.  At the end, he got into Hitler’s bunker and he was revolted by the filth and stench left by a boozed Russian peasant army.  He told he could not believe the suffering of the German people.  He flew in the escort for Churchill back from Potsdam and then escorted Atlee back.  He was hugely entertained when I told him what my Oxford tutor said – the Russians asked the English who they had counting the votes.

There was hardly any malice in Old Jack.  I am a very different matter, and any reputation could rocket into the fence when Old Jack and I got going.  I urged him to go and see Helen Mirren in The Queen.  Old Jack was not moved.  He was bloody bog Irish stubborn.  I told him of the scene where she floods the 4WD after saying she had been a driver in the war. ‘Yeah, yeah…we saw her and her bloody sister buggerizing around, but they did not seem to do much, did they?’  Shit – you are not safe for what you did in 1945!

Old Jack even passed a rude remark about my namesake.  He gave me a shy look and said that Guy Gibson was thought possibly to have consorted with other ranks, and that this was definitely not the done thing.  I told him it was one thing to shaft royalty, and another to question the VC winning leader of the dam busters, whose grave I have visited in Holland, and whose name I bore with pride.  I reminded Old Jack that Bomber Harris placed Gibson in Valhalla – far above the salt.  Old Jack withdrew the remark – and he then proceeded to tip a bucket over Bomber Harris.

Well, he’s gone now, Jack Rayner, and he won’t be back.  He will go into the ground at Blackwood in the space he left beside Grace shortly before I arrived there.  It is a gravestone I have tended on cemetery duty.

Rest in peace with God and Grace, Old Jack.  You did us all proud while you were with us here, and the Wolf and I are better off because of you.