On Monday morning the ninth of December 1940, the hot, gusting northerly wind, picking up dust from the earthworks for the new Whyalla shipyards, turned the rising sun into a dull copper-coloured ball which reflected dirtily off the Gulf waters that were whipped to a white-foamed chop by the wind. Along the sandy edge of the wide tidal flats, hundreds and hundreds of tents stood in neat lines, the wind bellying-in their sides and flapping their flies, finally stirring those who had rolled over in their camp stretchers to try and claw a few more minutes rest before starting the week. They stumbled out muttering, slitting their eyes into the wind, and tasted the dust gritting in their teeth.
For most people in Whyalla it was to be a day like many others, hot and dusty, a vaguely irritating sort of day, but for me it was exceptional! You could say it was the most important day of my life, but that would be to overlook the nine months since I was conceived and, as we shall see, a pretty tough pregnancy for my mother.
Whyalla, on the north-west coast of Spencers Gulf, South Australia, was on the threshold of a man-made boom that was in the process of increasing its population from about fourteen hundred in 1938 to over five thousand by 1943. In accordance with the Indenture Act, proclaimed in 1937, BHP started construction of a ship yard and blast furnace in 1939. It was this that brought my father to Whyalla as a contractor, carrying stone in his own truck to build the sea walls. In December 1940, over half of Whyalla’s population of four thousand lived in tents, most of them along the beach. Earlier residents lived in the “good” houses which were walled by flattened kerosene tins or white-washed wheat bags. In December 1940 the fresh water supply was still inadequate but the pipeline from Morgan on the River Murray had been started and would be opened on 31 March 1944.
Earlier in her pregnancy, Mum stayed with her parents in Cleve (and here), down the coast from Whyalla, with my elder brother John, who was born in the Cleve District Hospital in 1939. Dad periodically drove the truck over the ninety-six miles (154 km) of rough dirt track to visit on weekends. Mostly he stayed in Whyalla and, when he wasn’t working on the sea wall, he worked at building a stone shed on land he and Mum had purchased for the family home. The shed, which Dad intended would eventually house a car, was about as big as a single car garage and when I saw it recently it was been used for just that purpose.
This land, at 39 Roberts Terrace, is still one of the best sites in town, being only a few metres from Flinder’s lookout, which overlooks the town in all directions as well as the BHP works and across the top of Spencers Gulf about forty kilometres to Port Pirie. The house that Dad started to build in the early nineteenth forties, is still one of the best houses in Whyalla.
But I’m getting ahead.
By December 1940 Mum was back living with Dad in the newly completed shed, and I guess John would have been staying with Grandma and Grandpa Haines at Cleve, as there would be no way for Dad to take time off work to look after him and I don’t think there was any one else to it.
Having dropped Mum (and me) off at the hospital before 6 am, Dad would have been at work from a few minutes after that. Since Mum’s parents did not have a telephone then, or ever, the only way to advise them of my birth was by telegram. If he did the telegram Mum received would have looked like this.
This would have cost 45 pence or three shillings and nine pence (3/9), which would have been close to 15 per cent of my father’s weekly earnings at that time so, because they were very poor, it was an expense that would have been weighed carefully by my parents. The only alternative was the weekly mail from Whyalla to Cleve.
I know from my mother that I was born before 9 am, so my father would have been able to lodge the telegram as soon as the Whyalla Post office opened at 9.00 am. The postmaster would have sent it by Morse Code to be received at Cleve Post Office at 9.04 am, and then delivered by the telegram boy on his bicycle the 1.6 kilometres to my grandparents’ small farm on the Kimba road to the north of Cleve.
This makes me wonder if, instead of going on to work, Dad stayed at the hospital until I was born, although he would not have been permitted by the hospital staff to be with Mum at the time of my birth. This brings me to my earlier remark about Mum having a difficult pregnancy. Apart from the heat of the last few months, she must have thought she was having twins! My mother was only 153 cm tall and not a large build and, although the weight of 12.5 pounds mentioned in the telegram is not quite correct, I weighed 11 pounds, 3.5 ounces or 5.1kg! I was the heaviest baby born of the first 100 babies born in the first Whyalla Hospital (the building in front is the original building), which, fortunately for me and Mum, was opened earlier in 1940. While my birth was, of course, the major episode in my life it was also a minor event in that booming, pioneer town. I don’t know what has happened since, except that my younger brother, Graham, was about the same weight when he was born about 18 months later.
Also in 1940 the Whyalla Abattoirs, the R A O B Hall, the Ozone (roofless) cinema, St Teresa school and the Bay View and Spencer Hotels were opened or nearing completion. The Whyalla News was started and the shipyard began work on the corvette HMAS Whyalla, which was launched in 1941 and now sits on blocks outside the now defunct shipyards, alongside the main road into Whyalla.
Amidst all this activity, with war raging across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East as background that hot, gusty, dusty Monday morning, the ninth of December 1940, I was born the second child and second son of Francis Leo Nolan, 38 years, born at Port Pirie, South Australia and Florence Evelyn Nolan, formerly Haines, 28 years, born Kangarilla, South Australia, now a suburb of the City of Onkaparinga.
I really don’t know if holding the record for the heaviest baby born in the first hundred in the Whyalla Hospital has influenced my life in any significant way, except that I’ve always been conscious of being big for my age in an unquestioning sort of way. I don’t recall ever wishing to be smaller but when I’m standing near someone who is taller than me I have a strong desire to sit down.
According to an article in Scientific American magazine, September 1997, by Elizabeth F Loftus, ‘it is highly unlikely that an adult can recall genuine episodic memories from the first year of life, in part because the hippocampus, which plays a key role in the creation of memories, has not matured enough to form and store long lasting memories that can be retrieved in adulthood.’
Although I don’t remember it first hand, been born was too important an episode to leave out.
All future episodes record here will be as I remember them, with a minimum of back-up research and checking—as I would relate them if someone asked me about it over a drink or over dinner.