Alex Barker belonged to a generation that spent its youth in war. It was a role that cast a long shadow over his life – a shadow that darkened as the years passed. He was tormented by memories of that brutal war until the day he died.
I didn’t know Alex until his final years. I met him at the aged care facility where he lived and where I work. By the time I knew him, his eyesight had gone. He could make out shapes but little detail. He liked to listen to the radio and had his own corner in the B wing lounge where he would sit and listen. For all of us who knew him, that spot, no matter who might sit there now, will always be Alex’s corner.
He was fond of talking books. I thought I’d get him some material from the local library so I asked him what sort of stories he liked. Westerns he told me. “Do you have any favourite authors, Alex? Anyone I should keep an eye out for?” “No,” he said. “Anyone’ll do.” Great, I thought. This’ll be easy. I didn’t know much about western authors but I’d heard about Zane Grey. He was a legend. Zane Grey and the Riders of the Purple Sage. There was bound to be a shelf load of his stuff at the library. Easy. Piece of cake. I had it all figured out. And then Alex said, “Except that bloody Zane Grey! That bloke gives me the shits. He takes half an hour just to describe a tree.” So we dropped Zane Grey and The Riders of the Purple Sage. And we went for Ben Coady and The Abandoned Outlaw instead.
Alex’s close mate was Lindsay Nancarrow and the two of them would spend a lot of time together, not always talking, but just being together as people who are close will do. I used to chuckle watching the two of them coming back from breakfast, side by side along the corridor in their wheelchairs in a slow motion race.
Everything about Alex was slow – apart from his mind of course. He was in his own time bubble. And the pace around him, of carers and other staff, of visitors, must have seemed like warp speed to him. But when you took the time to enter his bubble, to slow down and listen, he could take you back into his world, through his memories of other times and places when the pace had been faster and at times even frantic.
Alex Bell Barker was born on 23rd June 1922 at his parents’ home in Maryborough Queensland. He was the youngest of four children born to Mary Eliza Barker (neé Bell) and Herbert John Barker, who was known to all as Bert. Mary was a sometime journalist who contributed to both the Woman’s Mirror magazine and the Maryborough Chronicle. Bert was a decorative painter who came from a family of coach builders. Alex remembers his father as an artist with the dagger liner, a fine brush required for the most intricate work.
The eldest of Alex’s siblings was his sister Ruda (christened Gertrude), followed by Bill, then John. John would later become a fully qualified butter maker at the Maryborough Butter Factory, while Bill would, at the age of eighteen, become Queensland’s youngest ever fully qualified pharmacist.
Alex started school at The Albert School a co-educational primary that covered the years up to seventh grade. He joined the Boy Scouts and it was here that he gained an introduction to semaphore and Morse code, two skills that would soon have a profound effect on his life. Alex loved his time in the scouts, relishing the mentorship of two adult leaders Mr Bertram and Mr Horne. Under their guidance and inspiration, Alex became a Patrol Leader but when they left the Scout troop they were replaced by a man called Crocker whose leadership skills were less satisfactory. When Alex helpfully pointed this out to Crocker he was given ‘scout punishment’ which entailed having cold water poured down his sleeve. Alex wasn’t having any of that. He (literally) got on his bike and that was the end of the Scouts.
After completing primary, Alex enrolled at Maryborough Boys Grammar in year 8, or what was then known as Junior year. He remained in secondary school until the end of Year 9.
Upon finishing school, at the age of 14, he began working at a local draper’s shop where he delivered parcels, swept the asphalt and cleaned windows.
The Second World War broke out little over two months after Alex’s seventeenth birthday and, lying about his age and claiming to be eighteen, he enlisted in the 47th Militia Battalion. Alex wanted to join the Regular Army but he needed to be 20 years old for that. Unfortunately when he lied about his age, his lie was not big enough.
After three months training at Enoggera Camp in Brisbane, Alex was assigned to the Signal Corps and posted to the Headquarters Wing in Brisbane. He would do 12 days’ straight duty in order to qualify for a weekend’s leave and then would travel by train to his parents’ home in Maryborough. Very often he would encounter Mr Crocker, his former Scoutmaster, who was now a porter on the railways. Alex sensed that Crocker was keen to chat, but Alex had no desire to renew the acquaintance. The only railway person he had any interest in was Hazel Messer, the Stationmaster’s daughter. Alex liked the look of her and decided that one day he would get the nerve to ask her out.
He had a mate called Frank Therkelsen and the two of them decided to have what was called in those days a “chop party”, the forerunner of the barbecue. Alex didn’t have a girlfriend, but decided to ask Nola Clemens who was a friend of the family. When Alex and Frank arrived at Nola’s home in Frank’s car, Nola announced that she was unable to come but had arranged for her friend Hazel to stand in for her. It wasn’t until much later that Alex realised the girls had, in his words, “cooked it up”.
Later that year, Alex was ordered to report to the Signals School near Brisbane. He qualified as a signaller and was enlisted in the Regular Army. By the end of 1940, and still an underage soldier, Alex was promoted to Corporal and began to instruct other men in the use of wireless, flags, heliograph and aldis lamp, all of which employed morse as the language of communication.
His various duties in Australia, included a posting at Fort Kissing Point, which sounds like something out of a ‘50s RomCom, but is an actual place. He also had a stint as a coast watcher on Magnetic Island. By now promoted to Sergeant, Alex was placed in charge of a detail of wireless operators whose role was to observe shipping and aircraft activity around Palm Island and report by radio to Townsville.
In June 1942, he turned 20, or according to the Army, 21, which meant that he could now join the AIF and be eligible for overseas service. He was posted to New Guinea. This assignment was interrupted when he became ill and was sent back to hospital in Cairns.
After being discharged from Cairns hospital, he was ordered to return to Brisbane. On the way he stopped over in Maryborough to visit his parents. He also spoke to Hazel’s father and gained his permission to marry.
Alex obtained leave that was owed and he and Hazel were married on the 7th of March 1943. They honeymooned at his parents’ holiday home on the coast. Alex took Hazel boating. They sailed from Tuan Point to Amity Point. Despite fine weather and a calm sea, Hazel spent the entire trip cowering in the bottom of the boat. Upon their return they encountered some local fishermen who told him that the Army wanted him in Brisbane. The honeymoon was over.
Alex was soon on his way back to Papua New Guinea and the time he spent there during the war left a lasting impression. Not all of it was bad. Some of his many anecdotes were hilarious. There were tales of being trapped in quicksand and of children rescued from crocodiles and of fishing with gelignite. Alex was always a keen fisherman. But the serious side of war was something else. The things he was prepared to talk about were bad enough, but the worst of it he kept to himself. The enemy he faced was ruthless and played by different rules. The experiences that traumatised him most were the outrages he witnessed against children. Many of his stories are not fit for repeating and the ones he left untold can only be imagined. One story he was prepared to tell, was of his futile attempt to save a native village.
One evening, Japanese aircraft passed overhead on their way to attack the US wharf at Giropa. Realising the enemy might mistake nearby native cooking fires for their target, Alex ran to warn the villagers. He was too late. As he approached, shouting his warning, bombs began to fall amongst the native huts. Women and children were blown to pieces and a scorching steel fragment struck his eye. Ultimately, this fragment, too deep to be removed, would cause a cancer. But the sight of those innocent women and children being slaughtered left a lifelong scar as well.
Not only the sights, but the smell of war as well left a lasting impact. A sickly odour would haunt battlefields long after the action ceased and Alex could never quite get the stench of death out of his nostrils. Years later he could still taste it in his food. The war became a burden that would weigh upon him for the rest of his life. Yet in spite of his inner torment, it never compromised his demeanour. He remained always courteous, thoughtful and appreciative. He was a gentlemen. The burden he shouldered, with such dignity and grace, has at last been lifted. Rest in peace Alex. And farewell. It was a privilege to have known you. And we were proud to call you a friend.