Grandpa had a repertoire of tales that were often repeated. But every so often a brand new one would arrive, sometimes even prompting others who knew him longer than I had to remark that they hadn’t heard that one before.
His tales covered a range of experiences that covered his life. He was the eldest of 17 brothers and sisters whose father was a self-taught engineering contractor who built bridges and other civil works in and around Taranaki and was Mayor of Stratford in the early 1900s. Grandpa told of his exploits during World War I fighting Turks at Gallipoli and in Palestine; Home Guard duties in WWII; farming experiences; rifle marksmanship; lawn bowls; livestock; bureaucracy; the bloody royal family; explosives; lawn culture; neighbours; motorcycle riding; literature; politics; bagpipe playing.
Occasionally other family members or acquaintances would recount similar tales that Grandpa had told. This didn’t always make those tales true, particularly if they were repeating what they had heard from Grandpa other than their own involvement in the issue at hand. Some family members told the same stories but with different endings, adding to my confusion about which one may be right.
Grandpa was a big part of my life. He and Nana had retired into Stratford from their sheep and cattle farm at Wharehuia just before I was born. Mum and Dad’s farm was about 12km away – an easy drive in a Triumph Herald – and Grandpa would often arrive about morning tea time and stay for lunch. I’d follow him and Dad around. He and Nana would come for Sunday dinner at weekends. Silent reflection wasn’t part of his vibe and I am a sucker for a good yarn.
Grandpa was widely read. Bertrand Russell’s autobiography and Shakespeare’s plays were read for pleasure. I think he became an atheist after reading the Bible. He was always keen to hear what I was reading and a challenge was always to summarise it in a sentence.
He taught me how to play chess and a range of card games, including Euchre and 500. I learned that when played by skilled opponents, the game of Draughts is like Tic Tac Toe – there can be no winner.
A skilled marksman, he taught me how to shoot. I am right-handed but left-eye dominant. Grandpa insisted I shoot left-handed so as to keep both eyes open.
A good gauge of how factual Grandpa’s tales may have been was brutal honesty, often about himself. This included how he choked during a Ballinger Belt marksmanship competition. It also included many of his wartime experiences, like plagues of blowflies at Gallipoli in no-man’s-land while stalking Turkish snipers. And his admiration for a Turkish sniper he was stalking in Palestine who shot him instead. What should have been a bullet through his heart was absorbed by his ammunition bandolier. “Great shot. At 300 yards with less than 3 seconds to make it.”
Wartime stories that were less hard to believe included a perennial gem about how, when in service in the desert at Palestine, he had grown a beard but shaved it off when the crickets in it kept him awake at night with their chirping.
Another tale involved finding a set of bagpipes abandoned in the desert, presumably by a Scottish regiment, and making makeshift reeds from things he found lying around so he could play them. There were a couple of versions of this tale that I had discounted as fiction. At the social event following Grandpa’s funeral, I got into a conversation with a member of Stratford’s pipe band community who told me that not only was Grandpa a skilled piper, but that he had the pipes Grandpa had brought back from Palestine. Grandpa had gifted him those some years before.
I wish I had asked Grandpa more questions about his life and experiences, like why his family moved to Stratford in the late 19th century and about his grandparents. The answers he gave may have been true.
Thank you for indulging me, Robert Adam (Ad) Sangster 16 March 1891 – 15 May 1987. You were a bloody legend. I am forever in your debt.