Topic: Murdoch McTavish (1923-2011)

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Murdoch’s Memorial (New Zealand-Aotearoa): My father, Murdoch McTavish, was buried on Tuesday 17th May 2011. This is partly the eulogy I gave and partly the one I wish I had - John McTavish

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My father, Murdoch, along with most born in the 1920s, had the hard luck for his birth to coincide with circumstances that pretty much guaranteed he would know poverty, the Great Depression, minimal education, limited opportunity and war.

Maria and Sam, Murdoch’s parents, married in 1913 in Whangarei. Maria had only just arrived from Wales as a servant to a wealthy family. Sam drove a stagecoach between the railhead at Otiria and Horeke, not a well-paid occupation and one soon to disappear as the internal combustion engine gained popularity. Sam’s skill with a six-horse team did not transfer to manipulation of the motor vehicle. He became a farm worker finding work where he could.

Sometime in 1925 Sam became the sole employee - somewhat euphemistically entitled ‘farm manager’ - of an absentee owner of a sorry patch of scrub and gorse typical of small farms in the Pungaere district of the far north. While the family remained perilously close to the breadline the job at last provided stability and had the saving grace of including a house and keep.

My father, Murdoch, was born in Kawakawa Hospital during January 1923. He was the last of five children, born when his mother, Maria, was forty-five years old. His first recollections dated from the Pungaere farm.

Just at the time my father was old enough to make the trek through bush and scrub to the one room school in Pungaere, the Great Depression struck. Already low, the family’s standard of living couldn’t go down much further, but the effect of the Depression was to guarantee that none of the five children received more than a rudimentary education. While the elder four were already working, Murdoch showed enough promise to be allowed to stay on past the school leaving age of thirteen to gain Proficiency at the end of his Fourth Form year by correspondence.  That was it; no higher education could be afforded for him.

Nevertheless his qualification, aptitude and serendipity gained him a precious place with the Post and Telegraph Department (known as the P & T); a prized, secure position with the certainty of his wage actually being paid. So there he was in the winter of 1939 a mere boy, sixteen years old, in the dusty, muddy, scrubby, gorse-infested, remote, backward far north, required to leave home to work erecting and maintaining telephone lines, camping for weeks at a time in company with a gang of men.

He rose to the challenge and quickly gained the respect of his elders and superiors. This time marked the beginning of his deep affinity with the north, land and people, as he strung telephone wire across the valleys and hills, beaches and inlets, through scrub, rain and sun. He loved it all.

But far away, in parts of the world unknown to Murdoch, megalomaniacs were planning world domination. Not long after Murdoch started with the P&T, New Zealand found itself at war with European powers and contemplating an increasingly belligerent Japan. The lives of everyone alive at that time in history were to be altered; a few for the better, many for worse and some ended in oblivion far from home.

As soon as Murdoch turned eighteen in January 1941 he volunteered for aircrew, which he correctly saw as a natural fit to the increasingly technical work he had been doing in the P &T. 

Murdoch sailed for Canada as a wireless operator/gunner trainee in the Empire Training Scheme shortly after his twentieth birthday in January 1943. Even with the outcome of the war very much in the balance aircrew training was thorough and therefore protracted, and when he completed his training he remained in Canada for a further period as an instructor. He was still only twenty-two in January 1945 when he began operational flying with the already famous RAF 75 (New Zealand) Squadron operating Lancaster heavy bombers from Mepal in Cambridgeshire, England over a then yet, but certain, to be defeated Germany.

With aircrew’s tenuous hold on life, even towards war’s end in the European theatre, social mores, particularly long engagements, tended to be of less importance than pre-war to both the service-men and their English hosts. Consequently, having met each other at a dance put on by the locals for the aircrews, Murdoch and Ida married in September 1945. This just as the Japanese surrender brought the Second World War to a close thus ending the possibility that 75 Squadron would transfer to the Eastern theatre.

Ida became his War Bride and so began the wonderful marriage that became the pre-eminent thread through my father’s life. International travel then was not the easy, quick undertaking it is now. Ida, my mother, had to call on courage and fortitude to forsake everything familiar in order to journey to the other side of the world to be with her new husband.        

As it turned out Ida wasn’t required to completely forsake her heritage because circumstance allowed the family to take the long voyage back to England in 1955.  With his young family Murdoch visited Mepal and found, only ten years after the airfield had witnessed daily deeds of bravery, it was inexorably reverting back to farmland. My father never returned nor ever left New Zealand’s shores again.

Since then all signs of the airfield have gone except for a memorial to 75 Squadron in the small village that is Mepal. It is now almost impossible to accept that skylarks sing above the wheat waving in the gentle summer breeze where once heavily laden bombers lifted off on their missions of righteous retribution. On each occasion that I have returned to Mepal I have felt a profound sadness for those who died so far from home doing the right thing, but immense gratitude that my father was spared to allow him the rest of his life.

The embodiment of those New Zealand characteristics of reticence and modesty, my father never considered the war the big thing of his life. For him his life with Ida and his children was the biggest thing. He devoted himself to being a good provider materially, morally and emotionally. For all that the only person he really confided in was his beloved Ida. She loved him and he loved her through bad times and good, life’s ups and downs, apart or together, through sickness and health for the whole of their 65 years of married life. And I know they haven’t stopped now.

Ours was a happy family, or if it wasn’t that was well-concealed from me. Friction, arguments and other unpleasantness were foreign to our family life. Old family photos show a family at ease with itself whether around a campfire by a stream near Taumaranui while Dad fished, trips to the snow of Ruapehu, tennis on the courts across the road or annual Christmas visits to his parents, my grandparents, in Kerikeri to where they had retired from Pungaere.

Although his job took him and his family to the King Country for more than a decade in the early fifties, it was the north Murdoch returned to as often as he could with Ida and their children. The children grew up roaming the same country he had as a boy and Junior Linesman, exploring the same dusty roads, swimming in the sea at Paihia and Kerikeri Basin, digging for pipis at Skudders Beach on the Inlet and cooking them up for a feed over a driftwood fire, gazing in awe at the Kauri in Puketi Forest and the eucalyptus around Kerikeri and revelling in the exciting security that was the small retirement farm of my grandparents.

My father retired from his career with the P& T after eventually serving as Principal of the Post and Telegraph Technical Training School in Auckland and finally as Regional Training Officer for all of the areas he had laboured over since his career began, from Turangi in the south to Kaitaia in the north. Given the modest circumstances into which he was born and the era in which he lived, to start as a probationary junior linesman, serve as a Warrant Officer in one of the most illustrious squadrons of the Second World War then to progress and retire as the head of the Post and Telegraph training organisation was an extraordinary achievement.

For all that, he wanted no memorial, no plaque nor headstone to remember him by. He was content for his ashes to be scattered to mingle with the dust of the north. His memorial, and that of his unsung comrades in the P&T and Air Force, is all around in the free and peaceful land of opportunity, Aotearoa, New Zealand, that his service in war and peace bequeathed to us all.

 

First photo: MLH_McTavish_26B.jpg Warrant Officer Murdoch McTavish (75 New Zealand Squadron) marries Ida Francis in September 1945 in March, Cambridgeshire, England.

Second Photo: MLH_McTavish_26A.jpg Murdoch McTavish and his mother Maria (the writer's grandmother) on the steps of the house at Hill Farm, Kerikeri, Christmas 1965.

 

About the writer: John McTavish has a day job as an orchardist. In 2008 he gained a Diploma in Creative Writing and now his night jobs include Bay of Plenty correspondent to New Zealand Classic Car magazine; article writer for Alfa News and editor of two magazines from the Fruit Growers’ Association. When time permits, he writes poetry and prose.

‘Murdoch’s Memorial, New Zealand-Aotearoa’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region.)

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This page archived in September of 2016: https://perma.cc/K7NG-ZHP3

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Murdoch McTavish (1923-2011)


Year:c.1980, c.1990, c.2000, 2011, c.1920, c.1940, c.1950, c.1960, and c.1970
First Names:Murdoch
Last Name:McTavish
Date of Birth:January 1923
Place of Birth:Kawakawa Hospital