Topic: Unbreakable Glass by Maurice O’Reilly

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1963. A time when boys were boys and their parents were unafraid of that fact. Our community was unique in that we had an American exchange school teacher - John E. Glass. ‘Mr.’ Glass during school, ‘John’ to a select group of teenage boys who enjoyed outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, exploring and featuring in the local newspaper on many Mondays for their weekend activities – all encouraged and lead by the indomitable John E. Glass.

Some of these adventures were admirable; others were considered reckless. Many Monday mornings found ‘Mr..’ Glass in the headmaster’s office being sternly admonished for setting a bad example to impressionable young men. An example was the time ‘John’ and his boys decided to clear the local golf course of opossums.

Before he retrained as a school teacher, John E. Glass had been a US Marine. He might have been skinny and with half of his right thigh missing as a result of an incident with ‘gooks’ in Vietnam, but he was unafraid of anything and proficient at almost everything young men admire, especially if it involved weapons and physical challenge.

The opossum eradication project was planned for Saturday night and a friendly farmer’s Bedford truck was borrowed for the exercise. It carried John and 4 gun-toting teenagers on the back. Although it was a year before I could qualify for a licence, I drove. The golf course was opossum paradise. Their red eyes gleamed from every tree. The hunting team tied themselves to the stock crate on the truck deck with hay bailing twine. When an opossum realises that it has no long term future in a solitary tree it will scamper down and run to another. This was ‘real’ hunting - shooting moving targets at 40km/h while dodging trees, roughs and bunkers.

The night was proceeding nicely until I miscalculated the width of a sand-trap and we became stuck. Fortunately we were able to break into the greenkeeper’s shed and borrow his tractor. Unfortunately the light of Sunday morning revealed that we had trashed the golf course. The police had little difficulty in tracking down the guilty party and ‘Mr..’ Glass spent more time with the Principal being advised that our community might be better off without his influence and activities. Most of our evenings and weekends during the next month were spent learning the art of ‘greenkeeping’ at the golf course. Society was much more tolerant in those days.

On one long weekend ‘John’ decided to introduce his adventure group to the pleasures of skin diving. The place chosen for our underwater assault was Tuhua - Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty. The island enjoyed a huge reputation for abundant fish in clear water. Our equipment was simple: mask, fins, snorkel and a homemade ‘Hawaiian sling’. This was a broom handle with a length of sharpened and barbed steel rod fitted in the end. A looped ‘yard’ of surgical rubber fitted at the other end. When the rubber band was stretched up the handle it provided a powerful propellant for the spear. Anything within three metres was in big trouble.

Our mentor had many abilities, but organisation was not among them. There had been no consideration of accommodation in Tauranga on the Friday night prior to catching the early boat to Mayor Island. While standing under the awning of the pie-cart eating our dinner and looking out into the rain, we realised that the option of sleeping in the park was not attractive. While we were discussing alternatives with the pie-cart proprietor, the local policeman arrived for his evening meal, so we sought his advice on accommodation. Having no funds did reduce the options, but with some resourceful thinking the policemen suggested we use the unoccupied cells at the police station just up the hill in Monmouth Street. It had the added advantages being on a slope that would enable John’s old Humber with a flat battery to bump start and of being close to the wharf for our dawn departure.

I have since slept in a couple of other police cells. The Tauranga station was unquestionably the most hospitable and without the stress of later experiences. We laid our sleeping bags on the wooden beds and discussed among ourselves the crimes we could have committed to achieve this same accommodation. Most of us fantasized about a crime that would have left us more financially well-off. John advised that robbing banks was not as smart as nicking the things that we would have bought with our illegal gains. His plan was much more efficient and the policeman agreed that they took a dim view of bank robbers nationally, but didn’t have the resources to track stolen goods that left their community. Both our adults proved to be teachers.

The journey to and from Mayor Island was on the boat that catered for people who wanted a day out fishing. It took about three hours to cover the 25 miles from The Strand wharf to Half Moon Bay. A study of the US Marine Corps curriculum in our school library had revealed that they work ‘with’ the US Naval Forces, but never mentioned they actually commanded marine vessels. Indeed, John had already proved to us that he was not worthy of commanding the tractor tubes we used for navigating the Karangahake George.

Undaunted, he soon convinced the skipper that as a ‘marine’ and a science teacher he was the ideal person to tune up the skipper’s nautical skills. When he elected to take a ‘shortcut’ into Half Moon Bay the skipper did manage to wrestle back the helm. which almost certainly avoided our first shipwreck experience.

The four divers were discharged onto the sandy beach and the boat left to give the paying customers their day’s fishing. The skipper promised to return for us on Sunday evening. With hindsight this was surprising. John and his three diving novices found the caretaker of the Fishing Lodge and convinced him that we were worthy of his patronage. Our fast-talking leader promised we would be forever in his debt if we used one of the nearby cabins free of charge for our night’s accommodation.

Now we’d secured a dry place to sleep and thrown our backpacks on the bunks, we gathered some driftwood for the fireplace, sure in the knowledge that it would be the ideal place to cook our catch. The caretaker advised the best place to dive and we scurried over the narrow ridge to Omapu (Western Bay.)

Mayor Island is a beautiful place. The island is subtropical, covered in pohutukawa forest and with outcrops of black glossy obsidian once quarried by local Iwi. At the time of our visit the birds were almost tame and their calls were a cacophony of constant sound.

We quickly slipped into the water and were instantly transfixed by the astonishing sights of thousands of fish darting around rocks and ‘corals’ that supported brown, red, green and black seaweeds or kelp. Starfish, kina, crayfish and many shellfish lay all around. It was a completely new world of quiet ‘whooshing’ and ‘clinking’ sounds, full of things that we did not recognize but were awed by, even as teenage boys.

Until this time our experience of fish was the trout, whitebait and eels caught in our local rivers, and supplemented by the pictures found in our school library books. It seemed that every species of fish in the world must be right here at Omapu and for a while we were overcome with fascination.

However, the fascination did not last long. We were hunters. The fish hovered just out of arm’s length … but well within the range of our spears. While it wasn’t as easy as we first thought we did manage to spear significant varieties of quite large fish. We each towed a small car inner tube that supported a sack into which we put our catch. When I felt a jerking ‘yank’ on the line attached to my waste, I looked back to see a shark attempting to steal my fish.

The story I told around the campfire that night to explain the loss of my spear and tube was due to the fact that I immediately attacked the ‘huge’ shark with my spear and almost had it to my advantage, but it just escaped to warn its mates we were in the vicinity. The truth was: I dropped my spear, slashed the rope with knife and swam backwards up onto the rocky shoreline at a speed that would likely have won me an Olympic gold medal.

‘Mr..’ Glass was an excellent science teacher. As ‘John’ he was the most exciting person in my early teenage life, and has left an indelible impression that shaped my attitude to life. He will never be forgotten.

Our journey to beautiful Mayor Island was also one of life’s ineradicable experiences. For me, it is a sacred place.

 

About the writer:

 

Though he has reached an age when he should know better, Maurice O’Reilly still attempts to push a few limits – but nothing like his experiences as a teenager which were recorded in his first publication, A Series of Small Explosions. (Find out  more at http://www.maor.co.nz/.) He has also published many stories of his adventures in magazines and newspapers.

 

‘Unbreakable Glass’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors Bay of Plenty Region with support from Tauranga Writers.

 

Read more about Tuhua - Mayor Island - at http://tour.thepeninsula.co.nz/mayorisland.htm.

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This page archived at Perma Cc in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/RS43-2DBZ

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