Darwin 1974 & a Letter Sent the Next Day – Frances Marilyn Roberts

I flew, with our four children, to Darwin on 2 November 1974, my birthday, with a couple of suitcases, just clothes, bedding and a few bits and pieces. The rest of our belongings were very few and arranged to be delivered in about 2 months. John had secured a home in Playford St, Fannie Bay paid for by the Police and furnished to a basic standard. He was completing a month of practical work prior to finishing his training just before Christmas. The house was elevated with lots of glass louvres, very light and airy. He had found a house as near to the Primary School as he could, and it was only a few blocks away.

Unfortunately, Catherine had to go to the junior school near the highway which was a much longer walk. We wanted her to make friends and not miss out on Christmas functions so even though it was only six weeks to the end of term she went to school each day. Of course, all the children had to come with me, and we pushed 10 week old Kimberly in her carry cot and the others walked. It was very hot and humid and often raining heavily as we trudged through deep puddles. It took a toll on all of us. It must have been unusual to see a family with a baby trotting up and down the streets each day. Several people spoke to us along the way and eventually one young mother offered to look after the two boys while I made the two daily trips to the school, and I collected them and her son on the way back and they played at our place. This worked well.

It was this family who reassured us about cyclones, how there were often warnings, but they always turned away and became just severe storms. Cyclone warnings were issued so in theory I knew what to do but I had no experience of even very severe storms let alone cyclones.

We went to a few of the police Christmas functions and were starting to settle in. The massive earwigs threw me; fortunately, at that stage I didn’t see too many cockroaches. I was finding it hard to feed the baby myself and decided to go onto the bottle, not me – the baby, and bought formula.

John had become friendly with Dave Carol and his wife Helen who was due to have a baby and when she went into hospital and had the baby we looked after her little son who would have been two. They had lent us a net porta cot for Kimberly until we got her a proper cot, because they wouldn’t need it for a while. The little boy was originally going to stay the night but on Christmas Eve David decided to pick up his son as he felt it was better to be at home for Santa coming. Later I was so relieved that I hadn’t been responsible for him. We were to visit another colleague next day for Christmas lunch and were looking forward to the party.

We put the children to bed as usual, Lee and Glenn in one room and Catherine and Kimberly in another, all excited about Christmas. We filled the bath as advised. Once they were asleep, I started to wrap presents and get their sacks ready. John went off to bed and I continued making a cot from a tomato box for Catherine’s new doll, with lots of lace and frills. It took longer than I thought but just as I finished it the power went off. I went off to bed, but it was getting very noisy and windy and the louvres in our bedroom were rattling a lot. We went into the lounge and noticed that the corner of the ceiling was flapping up and down and there was a lot of water on the floor. John noticed the block of louvres in the bedroom was pulling loose so he went and got some rope and tied them to the bed which was very heavy wood. We were worried about explaining this to the owners.

It was very noisy, and the wind was very strong and woke the children. The bathroom window blew in and then the wind stopped, and everything was unnaturally quiet after the terrific noise of the storm. We knew that this was the eye and that we had to open the opposite louvres and the wind would come from the other side and be stronger. John went outside and came back for us and said we needed to get downstairs. He had picked up keys earlier in the day for the concrete block storeroom downstairs so that we could store the suitcases of old clothes we had.

The living room walls and windows blew out. We grabbed the children from the bedrooms and the louvres in Catherine and Kimberly’s room smashed in just as we got them out. Then the louvres in the other bedroom went. We dragged the children through the kitchen to the back stairs and with the wind howling John took Catherine into the storeroom. Then Lee and Glenn and I followed with the baby. We could feel the house shaking. It was very difficult getting down the back stairs and I had to hang on very tight and it was a slow job. As we reached the bottom the porch and steps gave way.

Our station wagon was parked under the house just outside the door to the storeroom and I think gave some protection. The walls of the storeroom didn’t go right to the floorboards above and of course rain came in. The owners were fishermen and had floats and other stuff in the storeroom including polystyrene sheets which we were able to sit on and keep us out of the water flowing in. John also arranged one over our heads. The suitcases held old clothes which we were able to use to keep dry and helped with the cold.

I had grabbed a bottle for the baby before we went downstairs so was able to feed her. The children were very quiet and as we listened to things blowing away we kept saying things like, the television’s gone, the cot’s gone, the Christmas tree’s gone. I was so glad we had somewhere to go the next day; we knew they would look after us. I remember thinking I was glad I hadn’t had time to mop the floors but was annoyed about the toy cot I had spent so much time on. We knew the storm was bad but with no previous experience we did not feel we were going to die. They say ignorance is bliss and in this case for me it was a comfort.

Time had lost meaning but it seemed like hours and indeed was. As the morning light came John went outside and realized the extent of the damage. He found a police shirt and hat and put his stubbies on. We managed to find clothes for the children and some of John’s old clothes for me, but the nappies were too wet. We picked up the full box of baby formula which had survived. John said he would need to go to work and got us all into the car which was a bit battered but started OK. We drove along the sea road which was slow because of the debris and picked up a couple of people on the way. I think this was when I realised the extent of the damage when I saw all the destroyed houses. We would not be visiting anyone for lunch. As so many others we had thought our flimsy property was the only one to be damaged.

At the Darwin Police Station there were a number of other Police families, and they gave us a cup of warm water each to clean up. I was able to make up another bottle for the baby and two other mothers fed their babies from this bottle. Sterilization was not a consideration. I remember a Greek family being there and the mother was extremely distressed. She was trying to get her son to go back and lock up and he kept saying but there are no doors. It was beyond her understanding.

John had dropped us there and gone off to work. It became very crowded, and we were moved to the Court House. Eventually someone said we should move to the Customs House which had more room and was sheltered from the rain. Someone must have given us a lift and when we arrived, they gave me a desk for the children to sit on to keep them out of the water which covered all the floors. I became upset when I realized they would have to sleep on the desk because I knew I could not keep all four of them from falling off.

Fortunately, John found us and took us back to the Watch House and we spent the night in the cells. He had been back to the house and recovered most of the children’s Christmas gifts and several bottles of soft drink. The Christmas presents kept the children occupied for the next few days especially the craft things and I was able to make bottles for Kimberly with the lemonade which was sterile if a bit fizzy and sweet.

Next morning he took us to Darwin High School, and we stayed there for a couple of days. There were sheltered rooms, I think the library which had carpets and we were given blankets to sleep on the floor. Some people tried to wash clothes in the school fountain, but they weren’t drying well. John called by to say that someone had complained that there was a woman with four children, and they had no shoes. So, we were given some thongs. There were lots of rumours flying about the cyclone swinging back but mainly there was just a steady rain.
The school was very organised, and we were dispensed frugally with disposable nappies which had become a dire problem. Men tended BBQs and produced stews and there was fruit and drinks for the children. Latrines were set up which frightened the children more than anything I think, maybe because they frightened me trying to balance on those wooden planks. The children played quietly, one advantage of having a few, and stayed close.

While at the school I wrote what we call “the Cyclone letter” to my mother. John said he had been allowed to phone his father and let them know we were safe.

The following day 27 Dec we were told that we would be flying out and needed to wait for busses at the Police Training School to take us to the airport. The other Police families were gathered there, and I handed over the cans of food I had and soft drinks but refused to give up my baby formula although I did share it. I felt guilty because the women were busy constantly chopping up fruit and I was too busy with the children to help. I remember looking out at the devastation and the deforestation and thinking I will never forget this sight. We were there until well after dark when busses came and took us to the airport.

The plane a 747 was one of the most heavily loaded. I had one seat for the five of us right at the back and the lady next to me had two seats for herself and her two young boys. She held one boy and Catherine shared a seat with the other. I held Lee and Glenn and Kimberly was in a padded cot on the floor. The hostess was really angry about this because she said it was dangerous for the baby but that was the best we could do. The plane had difficulty flying because of the weight and dipped several times in the stormy weather causing some anxiety. The lady next to me needed several little bottles of brandy.

There was nothing to eat on the plane, but we were just glad to be going somewhere. I was due to go to Melbourne but had no family to go to and so when we landed in Brisbane I decided to stay there. It was early hours in the morning, and everyone was very tired and had only eaten fruit all day. The Red Cross ladies were very kind and gave us bottles for the babies. I was sent to Wacol Migrant Centre and put in a two-bedroom unit. No one came to see us and so we missed breakfast, and I went out at lunch time to find out what the process was. The Doctor saw us all and said Kimberly had a bit of thrush but otherwise we were all OK. I sent off my letter to my mother and we had lunch in the canteen. Food was fine and varied. They directed me to their opshop for basic clothes.

We were given some vouchers to purchase clothing and general items, and someone drove us to Big W to use them. We were visited by the church, but I was not ready to accept assistance, I didn’t realise I needed it, we seemed OK. Then Lee became unwell and just lay in bed all day and couldn’t eat. I was boiling lemonade for him, but he wasn’t getting better. John finally found where we had been sent and arrived on a two week leave. He called a taxi, and we went to see an outside doctor. He said Lee was dehydrated and sent us to the hospital. They said Lee had Guardia and would not discharge him to the hostel.
A couple allowed us to stay in their home when they went away for the weekend so that we would be nearer the hospital to visit Lee. They also gave me a number of flannelette nappies for the baby. I had only seen toweling ones before so this was a novelty for me.

REDCLIFFE

John spoke to the Queensland Police, and they offered us accommodation at a holiday house they had at Woody Point. It was very small, but we were pleased because Lee could come home. When they presented us with the keys, we found out it was only for two weeks. John extended his leave but in the end, he had to return to Darwin.

Some Police Officers took us to see some part furnished accommodation in South Gate. It was always difficult doing anything because of carrying the baby and having the others to watch. As we drove, they pointed out a large man with a Mohawk and said there were a lot of odd people around.

We took the first property we saw. It was part of a large house that had been split up. It was pretty bad, grubby and very basic. There were 2 bedrooms, a kitchen and a downstairs bathroom, no lounge only a hallway with a sofa and TV. I did a load of washing that first day and left it out at night and there was a knock at the door and there was the man with the Mohawk. He advised me not to leave washing out as it could get stolen. He was an artist and lived in rooms behind us. He was good with the children and gave them brushes to paint with. An alley led down a side path directly onto the beach where we often went. A young girl befriended us but was constantly around and wanted a lot of attention. She said her mother was ill, but I think she had a drinking problem. The little local shop owners were very nice and always asked after us.

I had to take Lee for a checkup at Mater Children’s Hospital and of course that was a marathon of trains and busses and made more difficult with having all the children and a pusher. Catherine had measles at this time, and I was able to get someone to look after her because she was quite Ill. It was a long day leaving early and not arriving back until seven at night. We had a long wait at the hospital and transport took a long time. We had no phone, and the babysitter was very angry and never sat for us again but at least Lee was OK.
Lee recovered and started to put on some weight, but his stomach was like a little football.

Catherine and Lee went to school and again there was a long distance to take all of them each day. I did not put Glenn in preschool because it was too onerous dropping off and picking up at so many different times.

Money was very tight as we now had to pay rent ourselves because John was provided with accommodation in Darwin and needed money himself. We were able to walk to the main shops but there was no opportunity to go anywhere or buy any extras.
John was able to visit for a week on R&R and I think he was shocked at our accommodation. However, it wasn’t long before he was able to arrange for us to return to Darwin on April 1st

CYCLONE LETTER

This is a transcript of a letter written by myself to my mother and stepfather on the night of Boxing Day 26 December 1974 from Darwin in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy. The letter was written in various coloured crayons from the children’s Christmas gifts which I changed as the pencils wore down.

My husband John and I had recently relocated to Darwin with our four children Catherine, 6 years, Lee 5 years, Glenn 3 years and baby Kimberly 4 months. John had completed his training as an NT Police Officer and commenced duties on 23 December.

The children and I flew out of Darwin to Brisbane late on the 27 December and John remained at work. We returned on April 1, 1975, and still reside in Darwin. Our two daughters, son and our grandchildren are also Darwin residents.

Dear Mam and Joe,
Well we didn’t have a very nice Christmas. I’m writing this Boxing Day by the light of an oil lamp and now the pen has given out. Christmas Eve we got everything ready for the kids Sacks, Stockings, sweets, etc. and went to bed. About 2 when the storm was getting under way we got up to check everything. The kitchen was full of water and all the windows were leaking – They are very very big and louvered. We found the one in our bedroom was giving way so I held it while John got a rope from under the house and we tied the window to the bed. The wind was getting strong by now and the children woke up. The bathroom window blew in and then the cyclone stopped.
Everything went still and John went out to look at the damage. Not too bad. Then it started again only worse and from the other side. A hole came in the living room wall and the windows fell out. Seconds later Catherine’s and baby’s windows went and then Lee’s and Glenn’s.
We dragged them to the back door and stood on the back porch while John took them one at a time into a shed under the house. He could only take one at a time because of the wind force and the flying debris. As we got to the bottom of the steps the porch collapsed. When we were standing on it we could feel the house rocking. The shed underneath has 4 brick walls not quite reaching to the floor boards above. The children had no clothes on and I only had a dressing gown. Luckily the owners store fishing stuff in there and there were big polystyrene floats which we put on the floor and sat on to raise us off the wet. We also found a box full of old clothes which we wrapped around the children but we were soaked in minutes. Our bedroom is above the shelter and that and the other two went completely. No walls, beds, wardrobes, nothing. All the time it crashed down on us in the shelter and the roof started to give in. Anyway it held we stayed there till 8 a m. It eased up enough for John to go out. Glass and bricks and wood were still flying about. The children cried when we first came out for about 5 mins but after that they were alright. John had a look around and came back and a bit later I went out. The roof was gone all there was left was the kitchen and living room and they had holes in them and no windows. Everything had been swept out except 3 Christmas sacks and stockings. So the children had a couple of presents. We picked up a couple of bits of clothes but nothing wearable everything was soaked. I found an old pair of trousers and a jumper but no nappies – all the cupboards were soaked. The car was still going but very battered so we got in and took a few tinned things and the childrens toys and set off. No house had a roof and many were flattened.
We picked up 2 people on the way to Darwin. We got put up in the jail with a few others and John went to work from 9 o’clock. He had to go round collecting bodies and labeling them. Later we were moved to the court house and from there to the customs house. The floors were 2 foot deep with water and we had 2 desks to lie on. John took us back to the jail to sleep – it was quite comfy. I got some disposable nappies for the baby but the water ran out. I think the baby quite likes her bottle made with lemonade.
There has been plenty to eat even if the meals were a bit varied and most people had lemonade in for Christmas. We had 12 bottles which we saved. After spending Christmas night in the jail we moved to the high school and then to the library where we slept the night and I wrote this. We have plenty of blankets but it is too hot for them. Luckily the children don’t need many clothes because it is hot. The children opened their presents on the evening (Christmas) in jail and they were delighted with them. Everything was intact except a couple of presents and some books were soaked. Luckily most of the toys we got were construction things and books and crayons and plasticine so they are keeping them occupied. We are in the police training school now (Fri) waiting for planes. When we will leave I don’t know. I think we are going to Melb. where arrangements are being made for us. I will post this as soon as we get somewhere. There is no post, communications, electric or water here. None of us have so much as a scratch. The house next to ours is just the same and their shed is completely smashed so we were lucky. The children are quite happy – they think it a big picnic. John is getting some sleep now. He hasn’t had any yet. The police are seeing to everything. They are carrying guns and all dogs have had to be shot for disease lots of looters are around. Don’t worry about us we are being looked after very well. John will have to stay – I don’t know for how long. All trees are flattened and not a house is untouched. It’s unbelievable.
A lot of people are wandering around dazed even now. It will be years before Darwin is rebuilt. I’m not writing to my Dad or anyone so let them know. I don’t know when I will write again – I know it’s worse for you not knowing but we will probably be moving around a bit.
Love
Marilyn

 

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