ARTHUR McDONALD 1933 – 2016: A Eulogy

September 16, 2016
Dad in his Prime c. 1963
Dad in his Prime c. 1963

Much of my childhood led me to believe that fathers came in two major categories: introverts and extroverts. In the afternoon on the way home from high school, I’d often stop at a friend’s house. His father – big, burly, taciturn – would invariably be sitting in front of the TV with a can of beer in his hand. “Hello Mr. P!” I’d chime. “Mmm,” would come the reply. Mr. P’s eyes would never leave the screen.

Then there were the extroverts, and Dad was a gold-starred example of the breed. If ever a friend came around to my place Dad would seize the opportunity to impose his personality on the gathering. He’d make bad jokes, and tell embarrassing stories about me. If we were playing cricket he’d need to demonstrate his prowess with bat and ball.

“Oh, how wonderful it would be,” I thought, “to have a father like Mr. P.”

Well, we only get one real, biological father, and I was stuck with Dad. I soon understood that the best way to avoid constant humiliation was to limit his exposure to friends, teachers, and the human race in general, even if it meant spending more time with my books and less with my peer group. Dad was all in favour of this idea. In fact he’d never allowed me to go and play with other kids after school when I attended Bellbird Primary. Instead I stayed home and read: Marvel comics, science fiction, and eventually, the Penguin classics. It set in place habits that I’ve never lost, and probably put me on course to be a writer.

It wasn’t part of Dad’s masterplan for my future. It was simply a result of his innate exceptionalism. Being an only child he always believed he was a special person – one of nature’s aristocrats. As I was a member of his royal family, he felt it was not fitting for me go off and play with the common herd. Better to stay home in the castle he designed and built – a freakishly tiny house on a spacious block of land in Bellbird.

No king could have been more devoted to his kingdom than Dad was to his weatherboard shack, even though he was a little casual when it came to adding luxuries such as steps. When my sister, Linda, arrived, he condescended to add another sliver of a room, which became my domain, and would be his for the last few years of his life.

Mum may have been the resident queen of the castle, but she was also the scullery maid, cook, and Jill of all Trades. When he returned home from work every evening, King Arthur would demand his steak and three veg. He didn’t even eat chicken, which he considered unclean – “bloody, dirty-looking things!”. When Mum decided to vary his diet occasionally by cooking chops or hamburger, he’d stare at his plate, and pronounce: “It’s alright for a change, Anne, but don’t make a habit of it.”

At the conclusion of the evening meal he’d lie on the couch to watch the ABC news, promptly falling asleep. If Linda or I flipped the dial to Channel 3, he’d wake up and yell: “Put that TV back on the ABC!”

To say Dad was a creature of habit is a wild understatement. His entire life was spent in three houses. Born in Paxton, he and his parents moved to Bellbird while he was still a baby. In 1960 he took possession of his own block of land and would remain there for the following 56 years, finally dying at home – which was his wish.

He had his simple pleasures such as the Saturday visit to the races in Newcastle, and needed few other stimulants. He was neither a smoker nor a drinker, which may account for his relative longevity. It was one of his maxims that you don’t have friends in this world, you only have acquaintances. Yet he managed to maintain a wide circle of acquaintances, who found him to be amusing, stimulating company.

Whenever I think about Dad, I get the feeling that he was undeniably clever, but almost wilfully uncultivated. Given other circumstances of birth he could have done something remarkable with his life. He had the brains, he had the wit, he had the charm.

His wild childhood didn’t help. The stories of his jeunesse consisted of a series of hair-raising incidents he was lucky to survive. Stealing detonators from the pit, so he and his mates could indulge in the noble art of blowing up mail boxes, he copped an explosion full in the face and would spend six weeks in hospital covered in Mercurochrome and bandages.

Racing his bike down Lett’s Hill the brakes failed and he narrowly avoided disaster at an intersection. On another occasion he fractured his skull when he crashed while being towed by a motorbike. The injury robbed him of a sense of smell, although in later life he still had a remarkable ability to detect an unpleasant odour. “I can taste it”, he’d explain.

A year-long bout of rheumatic fever when he was 13 put an end to his scholastic career. When he recovered he went out to find a job. He ran bets for the SP bookies, delivered papers, and got a junior post at a furniture shop. A team photo from that time shows cocky young Arthur striking a pose, as if ready to break into a dance at his end of the static line-up of employees.

Over the years Dad would work – very briefly – at the pit top; drive a soft-drink delivery truck for Knipes; work as a garage mechanic; as a final fitter (or “bodybuilder” as it says on my sister’s birth certificate) at a caravan manufacturer; and finally at Allandale Geriatric Hospital, where he more-or-less wrote his own job description as a kind of groundsman and Mr Fixit.

None of these jobs may sound very distinguished or exotic, but it was the mere fact of having a job that gave structure and dignity to Dad’s existence. No matter what he earned he always lived within his means, having a mortal dread of debt. In time, his obsession with saving became a pathology. He would study rival products to secure the best value-for-money, even if it were only a matter of cents. He couldn’t understand how anyone could ever go to a restaurant for a meal when you can cook something at home – or in his case, have someone cook for you at home.

When Mum finally got fed up and left, Dad’s frugal habits became even more exaggerated. He scoured supermarket shelves deciding which brand of beetroot or baked beans to buy. He discovered a culinary preference for frozen pies that just happened to be the cheapest.

Although he had been a snappy dresser as a young man, by the time of his retirement (which he delayed as long as possible) his daily ensemble consisted of nothing more than shorts, short-sleeved shirts and singlets. Long trousers and jumpers would appear when the weather got cold.

Over the years Dad became more and more fixed in his ways, and seemed determined to limit his own horizons. In his childhood he’d been a reader, but in later life would never touch a book. His speech got more hokey all the time, initially as a joke and ultimately as a habit. Apart from one unaccountable trip to Melbourne for a few days, when he asked me to recommend a hotel, he had no desire to travel anywhere further than Broadmeadow races. When I went overseas for the first time in 1981, he sat me down for a father-and-son chat. “Son,” he said, “I don’t know why you want to go to Europe. You see it every night on the news!”

This was one time I had to contradict him. My usual approach was to agree with whatever he recommended. I’d reply: “Yes, Dad”, and promptly do the opposite. If it worked out, he’d say: “You were right, mate. You were right and I was wrong.” But when I said what I was going to do next, he’d fire back: “You don’t want to do that son.”

My feeling was that any argument with Dad was futile because he could not be swayed from his fixed opinions, although I understand that as a boy I was given a leeway my sister and mother did not enjoy. I was also quick to take the first opportunity to head off to Sydney, leaving Mum and Linda to Dad’s autocratic ways, which would lead to their own departure.

For King Arthur, being abandoned by his subjects was not in the script. Why would they clear out, when life in Bellbird was a virtual paradise? What more could these ingrates possibly want? In time he would settle down, find a new pattern of life, and his irrepressible, cocksure personality would reassert itself.

When I look back on Dad’s life today it seems filled with disappointments and lost opportunities. To my eyes his existence at the end seems utterably sad and lonely. For this, Linda and I are partly to blame for we probably visited him no more than once or twice a year. He infuriated us both by his refusal to get the telephone connected, meaning that we couldn’t even ring each other. Eventually he stopped answering letters and notes, so that a visit was the only option.

If Dad was lonely it was by choice rather than necessity. I believe it was actually his preference to remain at home in his castle rather venture out and suffer the thousand small irritations that society inflicts on the man of taste and character. Dad felt himself to be exceptional as a child, and he retained that feeling until the day he died. Not many of us can boast the same degree of self-confidence, nor say we were perfectly happy with a lifestyle that verged on the monastic.

To those of us who knew and loved him, his self-assessment ultimately rings true. Even though he drove us crazy he was an exceptional person – an exception to almost any rule one can name. If he manages to talk his way past the front gates there won’t be another like him in Heaven.