Good evening, Uncle Peter. It’s my six o’clock call from Auckland.
Hello. I’ve been watching the TV news, about Christchurch. It put me in mind of when we were kids, and when I was young.
I was working with Dad. He was the boss and I was just a helper. We were working near Marton — Turakina I believe, between Palmerston North and Whanganui — doing logging work. I was in charge of a team of workhorses. Four horses — big, heavy draught-horses. I guess you’d call me a teamster.
Were you clearing native bush?
No. Those days were well past in that area. It was mostly pine and macrocarpa. Plantations, windbreaks, shelterbelts were being taken out. Some white pine was coming out from the wet areas for butter boxes. Not much of that left, though.
The logs got cut, and I’d drag them out with the horses. We’d pull them out to a railway siding, and send them off to Cook’s Mill. There was a good market in spite of the depression.
I vividly remember one particular morning. I had the team dragging logs, and to my great astonishment, as I was trying to get something done, my horses started staggering about all over the place, as if they were blind-drunk, every one of them — like a gang of drunken men. And the logs were on the move too, but I was familiar with earthquakes, and I realised what it was. It was so bad the horses couldn’t stand, and I was thrown about too. Had a job staying on your feet. Dad shouted out, ‘Earthquake! And that’s a bad one!’
Of course we didn’t fully know where it was centred or what had happened until we saw the newspaper. We had no radio or anything out there. And there it was on the front page. ‘NAPIER EARTHQUAKE.’ It was really fierce.
The authorities called for volunteers to help with offers of accommodation for people whose houses had been destroyed. Our family offered help. We were in the College Street house, and took in two or three old ladies who had escaped from Napier. They’d lost everything, so they lived with us, and Old Phil and Aunty Florrie.
Another vivid memory is of the aftershocks — lots of them.
Well, these old ladies were pretty upset by what had happened to them, and when an aftershock hit our house, they’d panic. I remember them running around the house squawking like chooks without heads. One was called ‘Vi’, and as she was panicking around, Dad grabbed her and tried to calm her down.
‘It’s all right, Vi,’ he said. ‘It’s all right. I’ve got hold of you.’
But she turned on him and shouted, ‘YOU BLOODY OLD FOOL, IT’S NOT ALRIGHT!’
And there was me, just sitting there in the house, a twenty-year-old, minding my own business, and pretty green, and I remember the thing that startled me at the time was hearing this headless chook squawking that my father was ‘a bloody old fool’.
I remember being shocked and thinking, I know my father’s not like that!
That was 1931. That earthquake was a very traumatic event, and it affected half the North Island. Everyone had their recollections of it — remembered it in their own way — but my most vivid memories are of drunken horses and headless chooks, just the way I’ve told it.