I hadn’t looked at the old camphorwood chest since I was a kid. But now I examined it, as if, for the first time.There was a large butterfly carved into the lid and other designs on the side with old scratches across the front of it. I carried it to my desk and opened the lid. Inside were piles of envelopes containing old photos and letters. One envelope was neatly labelled Ocean Island. I flicked through the photos, the handwriting on the reverse named places and dates. Thank goodness there was no digital photography then.
Then I found what I was after. The letters were folded neatly inside a large envelope. There were three piles of them. I opened the first pile and glanced at the top right hand corner; ‘C/- BPC Ocean Island, 6 June 1948’. The letter was addressed, ‘Dear Mum’; my grandmother. The letter was yellowing yet crisp in my hand; I began reading the cursive writing and imagined the excitement of the writer and the reader. The letter told of the ship’s voyage from Melbourne to Newcastle; what it was like on board; the crew and the food. It was just a typical letter home from a travelling son. Only he wasn’t on holiday – he was on his way to Ocean Island to start a new job. I looked at the date again; my father had been 18. I imagined what it must have been like back then. The war had ended a few years before and for some reason he decided to go to a small island somewhere in the Pacific. What did BPC mean? I didn’t know.
I ran my fingers down the page. I’d never really taken much interest in his story. My childhood was peppered with vague memories of his adventures in the tropics and I remembered the name of Ocean Island. I knew phosphate had been mined there. Like most kids, I half listened to my fathers stories or not at all. I read somewhere that interest in family history reaches us in our older years. Now it was too late to ask him anything as he’d passed away four years before.
I’d finally found the time to help my mother clean out his things – he had a lot. My mother and I had sat on the carpet of his study pulling out things that he should have thrown away years ago. We laughed as we binned the old cheque stubs from the 1960’s, his handwritten to do lists, business letters in carbon, receipts for things which had long since become landfill. And that’s when I found the letters – tucked away in a small camphorwood chest. My grandmother must have saved them and given them back to him a long time ago. I wondered why he’d never mentioned them. Even my mother hadn’t remembered seeing them before.
I made my decision that day not to let the letters wallow for another sixty years – I was going to type them up and publish them so that my family and future generations could read his story. I looked at the dates of the other two piles of letters – 1949, 1950. There were three years of history in more than 100 letters.
This is the story of what I did and what I found out. I hope you enjoy it.