Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Sunday School Captain: My glimpse of Norman Gordon Rae MC

At the age of seven, after a life-changing week-long visit to hospital, I developed an interest in religion.

My spleen was eating up blood platelets faster than I could make them. As a result, bumps turned into bruises which took ages to heal. The teachers suspected bullying at school – or perhaps at home - and I was examined by the headmaster in his office. He contacted my parents and this lead to a visit to the family doctor at Seaford, Thomas B. Ready.

Dr Ready referred me to pioneering paediatric haematologist Dr John Colebatch (AO) at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. He proposed a minor procedure with a few days’ observation in hospital. So, late one afternoon Dad drove us all from Seaford to Bethesda Hospital in Richmond. We stopped for fish and chips on the way.

The hospital floor was covered with hard dark brown ceramic tiles and the metal-framed bed was much higher than my bed at home. Mum was worried that I might fall out and crack my head – something I managed not to do.

Dad was present for the procedure and looked on with the occasional controlled squirm. Dr Colebatch pressed some instrument into my sternum and I heard several ‘clicks’ and felt pressure but no pain. The aim was to inject steroids into my bone marrow. This would often rectify the condition; if not the next step was to remove the spleen. Luckily it worked. A bandage was applied and this was followed by clear advice not to ‘pick the scab’.  The opportunity to try this didn’t happen for at least a day when the dressing came off.

My hospitalisation was to observe the recovery and also to try to get me to improve my diet. I was prepared to eat anything offered if meals concluded with chocolate ice-cream. I made a deal about this though tinned peach was added to the Neapolitan ice-cream which I did think was a sign of bad faith.

An older boy moved into the bed to my left; he was about 12. One of his visitors was going to be his ‘minister’. I anticipated seeing a man in with a beard and flowing black robes. Instead, the minister had a grey suit with a white shirt and dark tie. He spoke to me in a normal voice. A rotund Fijian nurse spent rather too much time speaking to him and trying to impress me with stories of the ‘good work’ such people had done in Fiji.

To my right was a long corridor at the end of which was a nurse’s station and the door through which my parents and brother would come to visit. Young Jeff came in first one day and was told by the nurse at the door not to spend too much time. He ran to my bed and plonked a Mediterranean blue plastic model of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird car on the bed and quickly turned to run about again, tripping at the door. I thought this was terribly unfair for him as he had followed the silly instructions in good faith.

In any case, the ‘ministerial visit’ left an impression on me because it was definitely not what I expected.

After a few days, Dr Colebatch came through to ask a few of the children when they could like to go home. Most wanted to go home immediately and he reasoned with those who couldn’t about why they needed to stay longer.

By the time he came to me I knew what to say. ‘When would you like to go home?’ ‘Since I came on the weekend I should stay a whole week and go home on Sunday’, I said. He seemed surprised by this though he certainly agreed.  He asked if I was eating my meals and I proudly told him ‘yes’.

On returning to school I paid more attention to ‘religious instruction’.  Prior to that, I had thought the irrelevant volunteers who conducted these courses were a waste of time. I had learned that my expectations were incorrect, so I wanted to know more. I heard about the Church of England Boys Society (CEBS) and thought that would be a good thing to join. It was apparently like the scouts but without the thugs. Though I didn’t enjoy the poison ball games in the old Seaford Hall and was confused by the first game of ‘Chinese whispers’, I did read the CEBS manual which said that every good CEB should pray and go to church. The CEBS master suggested that the newish St Silas Church in Seaford South would be most convenient for me.

The ‘church’ however was not as expected. The group of about 30 squashed into a garage neatly lined with unpainted Masonite. The ‘Vicar’, Albert Church, from the parent church, St Paul’s Frankston, did at least have robes and wore his collar back-to-front.

The garage was on the property of Norman Rae, who Dad told me was a war hero.

Although he was no minister he was certainly in charge of what went on. It seemed to be a very short period of time that the church moved half a block down to a bright and airy new hall. By that time, I had been and later confirmed by Archbishop Frank Wood at St Paul’s Church, which did look like a proper church.  

After that I became an altar server, risking life and limb to climb the ladder to post the hymn numbers every Sunday morning.

Norman Rae was an imposing figure. I was impressed by his energy since he was almost 80. He did strike me as a heroic type; he knew what was going on, no-one contradicted him, he had built the garage church with his own hands and somehow managed to raise enough money for a new hall. He was also the driving force behind the Sunday School which I took part in eagerly.

My participation in the church meant that Mum had an opportunity to volunteer to play the piano for church services and also the choir practice. Dad felt his duties were fulfilled by dropping Mum and I off for services and choir practice. While my brother was also baptised he did not show an interest in such things. 

The choir was led by Eric Jones, a short stentorian-voiced Welshman who knew his music. There were about 20 people in the choir practice and we were all assigned the relevant parts; soprano, alto, tenor and base. Only one voice resonated in the base section - Norman’s.

The St Silas church community was regularly grateful to ’Mr Rae’. He had grown up at ‘the Overflow’ in New South Wales, a place romanticised in Patterson’s poem ‘Clancy’ and for that reason seemed to me that it was a logical place to breed heroes. Each year he would travel there for a holiday. Each year the church community would buy him a bigger farewell gift and crowds would be there to farewell him. 

If some thought such well-wishing and farewelling would aid his 'retirement' they were mistaken. He accepted the warm wishes and would return refreshed from his trip home.

Later we moved suburbs and I lost contact with St Silas. In 1974 I was working at the Manyung Gallery in Mount Eliza, and one day old Mr Rae came in for a look. He removed his old dark green hat with its small feather to enter the building. 

There had been some kerfuffle when he came in which made me look. We chatted for a while. He had slowed somewhat and was not as spritely as I remembered him. This was a little sad as he was about the same age as my grandfather who had retained his sprightliness though not his ‘bravery’. 

Apparently, he had argued with the Yorkshire-woman who guarded the Gallery door about the 50-cent admission fee. This was a common cause of discontent, later dropped. The guardian could not understand why I had given him so much time, but I was impressed that he had tackled her directly and successfully – a rare achievement.

Battle of Beersheba
I thought of Norman Rae recently as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, a significant turning point in the history of the Middle East.

The Battle of Beersheba was his regiment's first major battle and it made the Australians a legend. It was the basis for thinking of him as a war hero and along with the impression he gave of being imposing meant he usually got his way, though as a child I didn’t really understand this.

On 31 October 1917, an attack was launched to outflank the Turkish bastion of Gaza, against which two previous attacks had failed, by capturing another heavily defended town to the east - Beersheba. 

A deteriorating tactical situation late on the first day of the operation caused the 4th and its sister regiment, the 12th, to be unleashed on Beersheba at the gallop: the charge of Beersheba.

Captain Rae was awarded the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ in this battle. During the mounted attack on hostile trenches, he single-handedly captured over 60 prisoners setting an example to his men under extremely heavy rifle and machine-gun fire.

After Gaza fell, Turkish resistance in southern Palestine collapsed. 40 days later, General Allenby entered Jerusalem on foot through the Jaffa Gate, together with his officers. He did this out of respect for the status of Jerusalem as the Holy City important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and was well received by the city’s inhabitants.

I don’t know where Captain Rae’s firm religious beliefs came from but his participation in and survival of such a significant battle together with the momentum that battle helped create to change the face of the Middle East would have left him with a stronger resolve.

Norman Rae died in 1977 and St Silas closed in June 1987, but the heroism and significance of the Battle of Beersheba are still remembered.