52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 29: Music
The Week 29 Challenge in 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks is music. This was an easy one for me to choose as my dad devoted his life to his music both in an amateur and professional capacity. Sadly we lost my dad a month ago so this is a fitting tribute to him. The below story is the eulogy my brother and I did at his funeral. Dad was an intelligent and funny man. It is a long post but I hope you enjoy dad’s story as much as we enjoyed presenting it at his funeral.
Week 29 – Music
The Early Years
Dad, Eric Walker, was born on the 28 December 1938 to Dorcas Stokes and Howard Walker, in Stafford in the English Midlands. He arrived 11 years after his sister, Eileen. Dad was born at the beginning of World War 2 and as such became used to rationing as part of his early childhood. He would often regale us of stories of this time including the time his mum had spent weeks saving her ration coupons to buy him a new suit, which he promptly ruined by spilling oil on it whilst in the air raid shelter.
Following the war, Dad, Auntie Eileen and Grandma made the journey to Margate for a holiday, to stay with a family whose daughter they had billeted during the war. Dad remembers on their way home going to London so their mother, a teacher, could show them the capital city. She took him to the Science and Natural History Museum where he first became interested in the crystal exhibitions. He regularly returned to the Museum in later years as his love of science developed.
For Christmas 1948 his mother bought him a chemistry set which set him on his lifetime interest in chemistry. This was to be their last Christmas together as she died on 8 May 1949 when he was just 10 1/2 years old. He missed her dearly for the remainder of his life. Shortly after her death he undertook an examination for the local boys Grammar School exam, something, she had encouraged him to do. She never got to see him be accepted.
Dad’s love of sciences really shone through during his time at school. The chemistry students were once given the opportunity to do any experiment from their chemistry textbook. Somehow dad had a version of the book which had some extra chapters and he had fostered an interest in nitrating substances.
His chemistry teacher was wondering the classroom and asked why there was such a strong smell of toluene. I’ve got it to di-nitro toluene. The teacher looked at dad, said Walker, you’re a bloody lunatic and very carefully picked up the beaker and left the lab. Had he managed the third nitration he would have made enough TNT to do substantial damage to the science block.
Dorcas also fostered a love of music in him and taught him to read music and encouraged him to sing in the church choir. During his high school years his dad took him to the local British Legion Club that had a brass band made up of ex service personnel and locals. Dad was handed a trombone and this was the beginning of his lifetime love of the instrument. He was taught by a local ex-grammar school student. As he was in the Science programme at school he wasn’t able to undertake the full music course but did join the school choir. He was asked to join several groups including the Teachers Orchestra, Three Traditional Jazz Bands, an 18 piece Swing Band, and was a founding member of the Stafford Youth Orchestra and Staffordshire County Youth Orchestra.
When he was called up for National Service he spoke to an ex Army Bandmaster who contacted the Royal Artillery Band. He undertook his training at Oswestry before being posted to the Royal Artillery Plymouth Band. He decided to do music professionally. When this band was disbanded he was transferred to the RA British Army Of the Rhine Band in Dortmund Germany and was fortunate to travel around Germany, Belgium, France, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Italy, and Switzerland.
Dad used to tell the story of evenings where his unit would sit around playing music and singing songs. One night he started playing kiss me goodnight, Sergeant-Major and his colleagues joined in a rousing chorus – which was perhaps a little too loud and too late in the evening. The RSM ordered them all out onto the parade ground – lined them up in formation and promptly gave each soldier a kiss goodnight.
Dad also used to enjoy little pranks with his chemistry knowledge and loved mixing ammonium nitrate and iodine. When it is wet it is nice and stable, however when it dries out it is sensitive to vibration and makes a nice boom sound. He had a habit of painting it around hallways and areas soldiers would move through. When he was deployed in Germany he tried this in the old stone castle they were based in, and unfortunately for dad one of the officers remembered the prank from the UK. Dad spent many hours with a toothbrush scrubbing the halls clean.
Once on his return from Germany for Christmas, through Manchester airport, he had his trombone with him. The Customs officer wanted to ensure it had nothing concealed in it. So he made dad play Christmas carols in the Customs Hall in Manchester airport with all the squadies singing along.
He was to perform in a variety of concerts, in parades, with the Horse guards, around Europe and the UK. He was encouraged to audition for the Halle Orchestra, a symphony orchestra in Manchester, but was sent back to the UK for treatment for bilateral retinal detachment in 1964. Following surgery he spent 4 months on his back to recover. He was unable to play his trombone professionally due to the treatment he was receiving.
A Change of Direction
It was at this time he chose to study Radiography at Oxford University before going to Stoke Mandeville Hospital where he worked in the Spinal Injuries Unit. He met mum there, where she was studying burns and plastic surgery nursing. They moved to London Hospital in Whitechapel where he undertook higher level studies in radiography eventually becoming a tutor radiographer.
They made the decision to get married and he asked permission from mum’s parents, Horrie and Marj. The response he received from grandad was “Sir, I am in receipt of your communication!” Her parents said this marriage will not be going ahead, however, their Auntie Nellie, who was all of 5ft nothing and in her 80’s, made a trip to England and met dad. She said “This wedding will go ahead. I have taken Horrie over my knee before, and I can take him over it again.” They married in 1970 in Stafford with dad’s Uncle Oliver giving mum away. They lived in Ilford when I was born, followed two years later by my brother.
They made the decision to move to Australia so mum could return to her family in Perth. He found a job in Broken Hill that he was going to apply for and he told mum that he would stay there during the week and come home on weekends. I think it took mum a year to stop rolling around on the floor laughing.
A Return to what he loved
He did some work in Perth in Sir Charles Gardiner hospital but was struggling to find permanent work so he looked for work elsewhere in the country. Around this time new treatments for his eyes had become available and he was able to play his trombone much more often.
He ran into Colin Harper, whom he had met in the British Army, and after an audition for the Military Band and was offered a role in Sydney with the 2nd Military District Band. When we arrived in Sydney he studied part time at the Conservatorium of music. He performed in many concerts including Martin Place, and the Sydney Opera House.
I recall the story he regaled of a performance the 2nd Military District Band did with the NSW Police Band. An announcement was made that tours of the barracks would be taking place and dad loudly interjected, and the police will be taking voluntary confessions in the guardhouse. The police officer sitting next to dad took great offence at this comment but maintained his silence. When it came time to perform dad was unable to lift his trombone as the police officer had handcuffed it to his chair leg.
An army medical officer realised he was a trained tutor radiographer and he was encouraged by his Music Director to take the role as it offered him more chance for advancement. He was transferred to the Military Hospital in Ingleburn. When he transferred to the medical corps he still had his band corps insignia on his uniform. Naturally the Matron saw this and questioned him why a musician was doing x-rays. Dad replied – I am here to teach your staff bugle calls to save money on phone calls. Matron was unimpressed and sought out the CO to complain. Dad was called into the CO and asked not to stir the matron.
Another move is afoot
In 1982 we moved to Brisbane where Dad worked at the 1st Military District Hospital. We moved onto the base in 1983 and one day dad came storming into the house to ask us what we had said to the new adjutant as he said I have insolent brats. I said we were swimming in the pool and he asked us what did we think we were doing to which I replied “Swimming, Sir”. A short, succinct answer to his question with sir on the end, the way I had been taught. He then asked “No, I mean what are you doing on this army base?” “We live here sir.” “Ahhhh Sergeant Walker’s kids.” The tone of the Adjutant’s response really said it all.
I recall one day not long after we had moved onto the base that it was raining. Dad called mum and asked her to pick him up from work as he was ready to leave. Mum had the keys in her hand and was standing at the front door when she remembered he could walk straight across the road from the back entrance of the radiography department. He was standing there laughing at her.
He would often phone up mum with random jokes during the day such as “What’s brown and green and quivers up a tree”. Then all mum would hear was “yes, sir, right away sir, and a dial tone”. He would then phone back anywhere from 30 minutes to hours later to deliver the punchline – “a frightened billiard table.”
Another time he fell asleep on the couch and I noticed a Nikko pen nearby. What was a young girl to do – there was a Nikko and a bald spot. The next morning he went off to parade none the wiser, but shortly after when he had removed his hat and was sitting in the radiography department, his colleagues cracked up laughing – they found the smiley face on his head amusing. Dad did not quite see the humour in this as he stormed over to the house yelling “where is she I’m going to kill her?”
The music continued
Dad played in various amateur theatre orchestra’s performing music for such shows as the The Sound of Music, Ruddigore, The Music Man as well as oratorio’s such as The Jerusalem Passion, a local Brisbane composition. In more recent years he was a much loved member of Queensland Wind and Brass.
Dad encouraged my brother and I to play instruments – with my skill being violin and viola, and my brother following dad with a trombone. My brother says he was lucky to spend a lot of time playing trombone with dad and that he is pretty sure there have been a few conductors look up at the trombone section and worry when they saw the two of them together.
Dad taught us many things about music and he always said “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it confident and loud.” He told us a story of when he was in the Army Band in Sydney and they were performing in a massed bands concert and performed the 1812 Overture. There is a section leading to the finale where the bass trombone has a descending part as the music slows. For some reason the conductor announced in the final rehearsal they would not do the decellerando. Dad was not in that rehearsal. Anyway as you can imagine the band getting to that section when a rather loud bass trombone belted out his part and slowed all the bands down – with the conductor frantically trying to keep going. The bass trombone won.
My brother says he learnt so much from dad about playing trombone, including alternative slide positions. I was to learn one of these the hard way. I recall being in a performance for an amateur musical theatre production of Ruddigore, when I was suddenly hit in the back of the head by an object. This continued numerous times throughout the performance and the next chance I had, I turned around to notice the grins on Dad and my brother’s faces. They had removed their slides and started using the inner slide as a pea shooter using scrunched up mintie wrappers. I discovered later dad had been performing this prank on the string section since the 1950’s!
Dad continued to play his trombone until a couple of years ago when ill health made it hard for him to play.
Dad passed away in the early hours of the 2 July 2018 with mum by his side, although she had drifted off to sleep just prior. She was upset that she hadn’t been awake as he went but my brother responded “Typical dad, going behind your back to do it his way.” His passing has left a very large hole in our lives and we will forever remember him.