My Cyclone Tracy Story – Sean Kennedy

Christmas Eve 1974. I was 3 years and 24 days exactly, just a child, even a toddler, but that night and the days following are burned into my brain the way that nothing else in my life has ever done…

I remember snippets from the weeks or perhaps even months leading up to Tracy, I remember visiting one of Mum’s friends in Berrimah who ran a child care centre on their private property down towards where the DPIF are now located. It had to have been the dry season or early build-up because I remember bright glaring sunlight and yellow dead dry grass that the kids were playing on. No sun smart for the kiddies in those days!

I remember other snippets of family life pre-Tracy at our home in Young Crescent, Alawa; being in the kitchen with my Dad having a drink of milk, the fishtanks with the siamese fighters my parents kept, swinging from the lowest branch of the frangipani that grew in the backyard, playing in the rain with my older sisters until Mum called us inside and gave us an ice block each from the chest freezer in the laundry…

I recall my Grandmother visiting us from down south and taking her on a family picnic. Or was it a barbecue? I can still picture myself sitting on the back of a giant Galapagos tortoise at what Im told was the Yarrawonga Zoo. Then there was a trip to Mandorah on the ferry, Mum and Dad bought us all a packet of chips each and I lost mine overboard in a gust of wind. I cried and cried until Mum comforted me by telling me that all the fish could have some chips now. I was happy then as I watched the chips disappear in the wake thinking about the fish snacking my chips.

Its funny the things that stay with you, things that seem insignificant…

I remember the day of Christmas Eve. My fathers workplace held a staff Christmas party that we went to that was aimed at the kids; a miniature train, jumping castle and a merry-go-round. The merry-go-round caused me huge distress, I was too young to be allowed on it and I remember protesting loudly in the way that only a 3 year old can! Thats all I recall about normal life in Darwin until that night, the night when everything changed.

I don’t have clear memories of the lead up to the winds but I know the stories that my parents and siblings passed down, how the wind started to pick up and the rain came under the louvres and started to flood the floor, sodden towels trying to soak up the water. Then it came to the point where my Dad decided we needed to take shelter and I was woken up and taken into the bathroom with the rest of the family. These are not pictures I have in my own minds eye from my memories, but rather have a different substance, a memory not formed from my own experience but from what others remembered and passed onto me.

What I do have in my own memories are of being scared, huddled and wet sitting in the bathtub with my sister while my father and my two oldest brothers held a mattress over our heads to protect us from debris. I don’t recall the wind, or the sound of the wind, but I remember the fear. Not just my fear but the fear of those around me, after all a child’s world begins and ends with their family. I remember my parents singing songs and Christmas carols to keep our minds from what was going on around us. I don’t know what the carols we sang were but I know we sang them. I also remember lighthearted joking conversation, no doubt to buoy the spirits of the children, and my oldest brother making a joke about flying tree frogs. Then the next thing I was looking up and seeing the roof lifting and flapping above us, then suddenly gone. The image of the shattered walls against the black sky will never leave me.

Apparently at some stage our neighbours ran to our house and took shelter after their house disintegrated. I don’t recall them being there, only my family, but Im told it was a very crowded bathroom. I don’t know how long we waited for the winds to die down, and I don’t know if I slept through much of the night but I remember the light of the morning and the shock of what we saw before us.

As we emerged from the bathroom I remember the silence as we walked from room to room taking in the destroyed ruins of what had been our home. My parents bedroom had a huge tree that had smashed through it, a tree that had only just finished giving us ripe juicy mangoes. My oldest sister was carrying me on her hip as we went through the house but I must have struggled or become to heavy so she put me down. I remember the water seemed to come half way up my tiny legs and then my mother screaming at my sister for putting me down barefoot with all the broken glass amongst the debris on the floor and then my father scooping me up and putting me on his shoulders.

My father, like me, wasn’t a tall man but on his shoulders I was up so high and as we walked down the hallway the insulation that hung down in ribbons dripping water kept brushing past my face as we moved through the ruins of our house. I remember the exposed timber rafters open to a grey sky and the sound of dripping water. And the silence of my family, no tears, no words, just shock.

After that we went to the house of family friends, the Ricardos, who’s house was somehow unscathed. It had become a refuge for many families and was very crowded and noisy. It was Christmas day and dearest Alcina, my mothers friend who’s house it was, gave my sister and I a paper fan each. Mine had an apple design and my sister had an orange design. That was the only Christmas present we got that year, I wonder what happened to them…

That night and the next 3 we spent at Nightcliff High to wait to be evacuated, sleeping on chairs in a large hall with many other families. My memory fails me for this period though I can remember at some point driving back to out house with my father and asking him what had happened. I don’t know what sort of an answer he gave, how do you explain something like that to a 3 year old?

At some stage as we were preparing to be evacuated we were given injections, a vaccination of some type. I remember a big room with white tiles, must have been the school toilets and this is where I thought the injections were given, but my mother tells me it just happened in the hall not the toilets so that fragment of a memory has no flesh on its bones.

We were eventually evacuated to Sydney on a RAAF Hercules plane, I think I have a vague mental image of being on the plane but my mother tells me that other passengers complained about my incessant crying and so I was injected with a tranquilliser without her consent, so its little wonder that its a bit vague… How anyone could complain about a crying child after what everyone had just been through blows my mind! When the plane landed in Sydney we were not allowed off the plane until we had been fumigated, a nice touch for people who were in all respects refugees. I doubt that boat people would be treated like that today!

My father and 2 oldest brother remained behind in Darwin so it was just my mother and 5 traumatised children who arrived in Sydney overwhelmed, exhausted and emotional. We were met by a young woman who was a volunteer with the Salvation Army, who helped my mother by taking us kids off her hands so she could have a break and a deep breath. I remember that I was given a toy by her, I think it was a train, while my sister got a golliwog if my recollection is sound. She was a very kind woman and my mother kept in touch with her for many years afterwards, but as often happens drifted out of touch eventually. I wonder where she is now or if she realises that she still remains a figure of respect in our family even after 40 years…

Memories from there are just the usual growing up stuff in country NSW where my family resettled and spent many years. Nothing in my life since has compared to that experience, and for that I am of course thankful, but the allure of Darwin, and the mythology that my family built up about the place drew me back in my early 20s, and to this day for all its warts, flawed beauty and shortcomings Darwin is my home and always will be.

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