Trials and tribulations: Nancy Johnston

(Published Una Voce, September 1997, page 19 and in Tales of Papua New Guinea, page 112)

Nancy Johnston was wife of the late Bill Johnston who began his career in PNG as a Patrol Officer in 1946. He rose through the ranks to a/DC and was promoted to Director of Civil Defence in 1970. Nancy went to PNG as a bride in December 1946 and spent her early married life on outstations.

My husband Bill noted, when writing about living in Papua New Guinea, ‘There will never be a similar period in history that will be available for a person of my background to experience. I consider Nance and I were fortunate to have had the opportunity to live the life we did.’

We were fortunate, indeed. We had a ‘nomadic’ type of life moving from place to place, crating and uncrating our possessions, but this contributed towards making it an interesting and wonderful life and we felt we were making a worthwhile contribution to society. Experiences were taken for granted but we now realise it was a privilege to have been part of this history-making period. The thirty years we spent with the Department of District Services and Native Affairs (with name changes) was full of experiences, mostly good. This is to put together a few that were not so good – I will call them family ‘dramas’.

Life was good when living at Misima, Woodlark and Normanby Islands in the early postwar years. There were no doctors and we had no medical emergencies – we were young and healthy and we did not have children. So it was with confidence and the belief that ‘it only happens to others’ that we arrived at Kikori in January 1952 after a stormy trip on a coastal vessel, holding on to the two babies we now had. Alan was a toddler and Christine was four months old. We had no worries as there was a doctor at Kikori and we had been told that in an emergency a plane would be sent from Port Moresby, but no one thought to say this could sometimes be futile! A year later, our third baby, Gary, arrived to live with us in the dank and miserable conditions that Kikori is noted for. We now had three children under three years of age.

We were soon to find life was not always uneventful as it had been during the past six years. The first year passed without drama except, perhaps, for Bill’s long exploratory patrols which were, for me, dramatic enough. During the next year, in April 1953, Bill left for a three month patrol, two months to be spent exploring and one month escorting a party of men from the New Guinea Resources Exploration Company up the Erave and Tua rivers. This part of the patrol was aborted when a canoe carrying some of the party’s equipment overturned and their gear was lost. This allowed Bill to return to the station sooner than anticipated. What a godsend it was for me because there would have been no way of contacting him if he had been in the wilderness in hostile areas when, soon after his return, we experienced the most distressing time in our lives. It still hurts to think and write about this part of our lives – but it happened.

The resident medical officer was several days’ walk away in the mountains in an area inaccessible to planes when Christine, three weeks before her second birthday, said, ‘I sick Mummy’. She looked alright but did not want her lunch; time passed and it became obvious what was to happen and, in less than an hour, she died in Bill’s arms. Being lunch time, radio contact could not be made with Port Moresby or anywhere else until a signal was picked up by the Department of Civil Aviation in Madang. It was too late for any advice but Bill spoke to the Director of Public Health who was visiting there. Later in the day, Alan gave us a toadstool that Christine had picked and a bite sized piece was missing.

At first light the next morning a Catalina left Port Moresby to take us back there for a post mortem and burial. We declined the offer of leave, we did not want to relive our grief with family and friends and instead accepted a transfer to Madang. Our hearts overruled our heads when we decided to have another child, perhaps a little girl, not as a replacement for our beloved Christine – that could never happen – but maybe a compensation. Eventually, after settling in, in Madang, I visited the doctor. ‘Not so’, he said, despite it being obvious I was pregnant. Five months later, just nine months after the tragedy, we were overwhelmed when our daughter, Margaret, was born in the hospital at Madang.

I caused the next drama when I was admitted to Madang hospital with a suspected heart condition. On the doctor’s suggestion we took leave to seek medical advice in Sydney with me believing Bill was soon to be a widower with a baby and two small children. It was not to be, my problem was gallstones. Four months later, after an operation for me, measles for Alan and Gary and dyspepsia for Bill, we returned to a new posting at Bogia and were happy to be told a doctor was stationed there.

The first drama at Bogia happened when Gary developed a high temperature when the doctor was on patrol. Bill sought help from the Patrol Officer’s wife, who was a trained nurse with access to the hospital’s drugs; she administered penicillin and returned home. Shortly after her departure, Gary convulsed, his nose bled, he lost control of his bodily functions and stopped breathing and was put on a table as a dead child until Bill felt a heartbeat and started resuscitation. Gary commenced breathing but did not regain consciousness until some time later. He was, and still is, allergic to penicillin. Not having electricity for lights added to the drama and the situation was made worse when the kitchen bench was set alight – in my ‘hysterical’ state, I spilt the methylated spirits whilst trying to light a pressure lamp.

The next drama occurred when Bill was on patrol. Margaret, now two years old, experienced a high temperature and was treated by the doctor for malaria and, as a further precaution, given an antibiotic. Her temperature could not be stabilised and the doctor became concerned about her survival so he sought and got permission for Bill to be brought in from patrol. On receiving the advice by runner, Bill speed walked until he reached home. The real problem was later established by another doctor as a case of overdosing with drugs: ‘According to the book that child should be dead,’ he said. Fortunately, the continual vomiting saved her life but left nothing in her system to cure, thus prolonging the illness.

During the night of Bill’s return we desperately needed the doctor and both felt we could not leave Margaret when it seemed a matter of life or death. The only option was to wake five year old Alan. It was a dark moonless night and to reach the doctor’s house he needed to walk through the station area and the police and hospital compounds, a ten minute walk for an adult. I will never forget watching that little figure going out alone into the pitch black of night carrying only a hurricane lamp. This was during a period of sanguma (sorcery) activity in the area.

Personal outstation dramas were often compounded by things connected with everyday living. Being involved with correspondence schooling with one child and keeping an eye on two others was more or less a full time job and there was the extra work involved with accommodating and entertaining the continual run of official and unofficial house guests, usually complete strangers. In addition, there was a fault with all the houses we lived in – not one was fenced. At Bogia, the house was built on the seashore which meant the children needed full-time surveillance. Watchful as I was, one day Alan and Gary took themselves to the nearby wharf where a groper had been lurking in the deep water. Gary fell through the rotten timber into the sea. After his second time down under the water Alan, realising he was in trouble, alerted a nearby policeman.

In 1957 the Manam volcano erupted, giving me visions of coping with small children and tidal waves; it ended in being a spectacular sight we could watch whilst lying in bed at night. Life went on and with it all, I lost weight and it was hard to see I was within three weeks of having our fifth child. We were overdue for leave and with no suitable hospital facilities at Bogia, I departed for Sydney ahead of Bill leaving from Kelaua airstrip on a tiny one engine Cessna with Alan occupying the only passenger seat with Gary strapped on his lap whilst I sat next to the pilot with Margaret on mine. It was no joy travelling with three small children when eight months pregnant, especially when we found, on reaching Madang, that the flight to Lae had been cancelled because of bad weather. It took four days for us to reach Sydney. Our baby boy arrived three weeks later, on Christine’s birthday! Hence the name Christopher.

The next move was to Manus Island where there was a one teacher school for our growing children and where Chris started his Territory life. Ulcers, caused by scratched sandfly bites were a problem with the children until they built up an immunity. Our first drama was with Chris. After tipping the dregs of kerosene from six beer bottles which the staff used for filling the refrigerator tank, he drank the contents thinking it was lollywater. At that time lollywater was produced in beer bottles at Lorengau. A frantic call to the District Office brought Bill roaring home in a Land Rover and then a couple of kilometres along the road to the hospital with a gasping Chris to find the doctor was occupied in saving the life of a child with cerebral malaria. When the equipment necessary for a stomach wash for Chris could not be found a screaming match developed between the doctor and nurse which only subsided when it was found. Chris was then treated by the nurse and spent a night at the native hospital and survived. We, and the house staff, had not realised there were enough dregs in the bottles to half fill a glass.

Even though we were careful and watchful parents, accidents do happen, it only takes a minute. It was fortunate that it was I who found the uncorked bottle of lethal dieldrin left under the house by a Public Works employee whose job it was to check the grease trap for cockroaches; and after workmen had been, Bill finding that the downstairs area where the children played was alive with electricity after they complained the ground tickled their feet. Alan once found and brought home an unexploded hand grenade, a relic from the war. Another time, on taking a tomahawk from him, I found he was trying to decapitate a small snake which was standing up to him. He was given a baby crocodile for a pet which, after a few months ‘went to God’ and he pickled its earthly remains in a jar and found it hard to forgive me for disposing of it some time later. He then thought he could keep a venomous sea snake in the bath as a pet. At eleven years of age he left for boarding school in Sydney and, as other mothers know, that in itself is a drama.

Chris, the youngest child, still had time to catch up with his dramas. One time, when a toddler and we were entertaining, he swapped my brandy, lime and soda for his fruit juice and subsequently seemed to be at death’s door, scaring the wits out of us until we realised what he had done and the ‘death’s door’ look was intoxication! I have not forgotten his quickness of hand when I was engrossed in doctoring the children’s chicken pox. The swiftness of grabbing the medication caused it to splash in, and burn, his eyes resulting in another quick dash to the hospital. At two years of age, he became sick and the doctor suspected Coeliac disease. This was confirmed after the doctor from the Naval Base and one from a visiting ship had been consulted. Recreation leave was taken to hospitalise him in Sydney but probably it was the other three children who had the sympathy of our fellow travellers. The day prior to leaving, all three were stung by wasps on the forehead, giving them the appearance of Down’s syndrome victims. Chris is now the quiet one in the family but as a small child he never stopped chattering and more annoying was the fact he expected answers. One morning, when busy at the sewing machine, I realised the prattling had stopped and, on racing to the mouth of the river, I found a bedraggled Chris being pulled from the water. The house was built on the river’s edge and, as usual, there was no fence to keep the children in – or the pets.

We always had a dog or dogs and they brought problems as well: one jumped from a truck and was killed, and another was given a lethal bait – his death devastated the children; another received a dreadful injury when he got mixed up with the participants of a tribal brawl after the Papua versus New Guinea football match, and another was involved in an accident which destroyed his manhood but at least left him alive and able to enjoy life. There were other animal dramas, too many to tell in detail.

We transferred to Popondetta in January 1963. I travelled by plane with Margaret and Chris, and Bill used the Government trawler taking Alan and Gary plus the house staff, our personal effects and our dog, cat and chickens with him. The day before leaving, Gary fell from his push bike on to the karanas (coral rubble) road resulting in severe abrasions and gravel rash from face to feet – and there was a three day boat trip ahead! Friars Balsam was used on the poor child, he accepted the initial painful administering, no infection followed and he was soon his usual cheerful self. The older children were past childish sicknesses, but not Chris. During one wet season, he kept many residents out of bed because of a bronchial attack. There were two doctors in the District, one at the Mission at Oro Bay and the other at Saiho where the native hospital was situated, but both doctors were beyond several flooded rivers and so was the oxygen supply. Because of the emergency the power, usually turned off at midnight, was left on and people brought double adaptors, leads and electric utensils which could be filled with water to create steam to help Chris breathe. There was no hesitation from half a dozen men to take two Land Rovers, shovels and rope to help dig and pull each other out of the swollen rivers to get the doctor and the oxygen supply. We will always be grateful to the people who helped us that night.

Again I thought Bill was to be a widower, this time with four young children. I found a ‘lump’, the doctor was concerned and advised me to travel to Australia the next day which I did. I arrived in Sydney to be hospitalised immediately and before the week was out, the tumour was removed. Fortunately, it was not malignant. These days, with long hospital waiting lists, many people would be envious of the attention we once got from the hospitals in Sydney thus providing us with peace of mind. For this trip I left from Girua airstrip on a Piaggio aircraft with facing seats. On boarding and waiting for the plane’s departure I overheard a passenger, sitting opposite, say to a fellow traveller, ‘Look at that poor b…..’. and there was Bill on the tarmac, looking miserable, holding hands with Chris on one side and Margaret on the other and both kids were crying. I too, was unhappy, my concern was how would Bill cope with plaiting Margaret’s hair for school!

A major drama involved Bill. He was selected by his Headquarters to be included as member of a Land Board travelling to different parts of the country and, whilst in New Britain, the Cessna 310J crashed on Unea Island. The initial report advised one person was dead. The children were home for the school holidays, it was a harrowing time and we sweated it out for several hours until further confirmation came that Bill was a survivor. Three days later he returned home with an injured shoulder, and black and blue from where the seat belt had been when he hung upside down in the plane, but within a week he was flying again with a newly formed Land Board. Some time later compensation was paid by the airline – the grand total was fifty dollars, yes that’s right, fifty dollars, with a proviso that he make no further claim. This amount was to cover the loss of his luggage, clothing, some personal items and, I suppose, injury. Oh! for today with ‘counselling’ and large compensation payouts such as that given recently to Leo McLeay, a Federal politician, for falling off a bike!

With the children being older and three at boarding schools (Gary went in 1964 and Margaret the following year), the dramas lessened, although there were a couple of broken limbs and football injuries and Margaret had a bad measles attack at a time when several school friends were visiting for the Christmas holidays. Chris caused a panic when his bike was found at the small swimming pool. Gary swam the length of the pool, underwater, several times searching for him – he was later found at a friend’s house. Further panic was caused when Chris was almost scalped by a termite tin protector cap when he crawled under the low school building.

Alan was the least of our worries but, at 12 years of age, he had an experience he has not forgotten. His Papua New Guinean friends had told him, ‘stung three times by a wasp you die’. One day some wasps from a disturbed nest settled on Chris’ head. Alan, always protective of his little brothers and sister, knocked them off and was stung three times. The poor kid hurried home to die. We doctored the stings and he could not understand why his Mum and Dad were unconcerned when ‘death was so close’ and he still recalls the unsympathetic reaction he got. Despite never missing the prophylactic dose, he had a nasty attack of malaria delaying his return to school.

Even a tiny phalanger can cause traumas! The kids’ nocturnal pet lived in the house for a couple of years. He survived an overnight marathon swim in the toilet and he scared a somewhat inebriated friend when at night he came to life and flew across the room landing on our visitor’s neck. As daylight came he usually got into Chris’ bed but this was his downfall – one morning he was found smothered. Such incidents were upsetting for the kids and what upset them, upset us.

We were posted to Port Moresby in 1970 and Chris went off to boarding school. Alan, at 19, was called on to register for the ballot for service in the Vietnam War, but fortunately his birth date was not selected. At 21 he developed melanoma – Bill flew south to be with him at the time of the operation and we sweated out the following years. He is now a married man with three small children.

The final drama for me happened when I put a new Colt Galant (which Gary had just won in the Aviat raffle) upside down in the middle of Lawes Road; we were unhurt but the car was badly damaged. This happened a couple of days before testing for a driver’s licence – I did not try for a licence then, nor have I tried since.

The grand finale was Bill shattering the bone in his heel, with further complications when thrombosis set in under the plaster. This happened a few weeks before Independence Day. Bill’s last official act in Papua New Guinea was to organise the pyrotechnic display in the main centres. The igniting was to start at the time Big Ben, relayed from London, boomed out midnight hailing in Independence. It was a dangerous experience, the mortar fireworks, with an instantaneous fuse – so different from those he was accustomed to from his childhood days. After training in Australia he travelled to the districts concerned to instruct the various people who were to handle the fireworks on the night of the celebrations. Bill found it surprising the number of aunts, uncles and cousins whose burials were to take place at some remote place on the exact date planned for the fireworks which, at that time, was several weeks away! The volunteers to help out were mainly the reliable Field Staff officers.

Despite being on crutches, Bill carried out the job and was personally involved on the actual night on the top of Burns Peak. He was still on crutches when we left Papua New Guinea on 28 September 1975.

How did we survive those times when counselling was just a word? Just as everyone else did in those days when common sense prevailed – and with the love, support and companionship we gave each other. The kids have married nice people and given us, so far, twelve grandchildren. We never blamed our lifestyle for Christine’s death, accidents can happen in any walk of life. Her remains are in Port Moresby, her spirit has never left us; and we could not have a better daughter than Margaret – we could not imagine life without her or, for that matter, any of our children.


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