Yesterday my aunt’s 101st birthday coincided with the final flight of the last Qantas 747. I’m trying to work out if the two are connected. In Aunty Jean’s case, she had a quiet afternoon tea. In the case of the Qantas 747 there was a farewell fly around and much hoo-ha at the beginning of the journey across the Pacific to Los Angeles and finally to the airplane graveyard.
(Sidenote: I’m very distressed about this as I think this plane should have gone to the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach)
Jean was born in 1919 during the height of another Pandemic- the Spanish flu. She is the youngest of three children; outliving her brother Don and my mother, Sylvia. In the early years, they moved between South Melbourne, Prahran and finally to Surrey Hills which was then surrounded by apple orchards. The family were members of The Presbyterian church and had holidays in Healesville. They were the descendants of gold rush miners from Yorkshire and Wiltshire. The next generation from the gold miners were small businessmen and blue-collar workers – in Jean’s case, her father worked for the same printing company all his life.
Then came the war. After surviving a bout of TB and enforced hospitalisation Jean became a WAAF, was stationed in country Victoria where she kicked up her heels. Somewhere along the line, there was a broken engagement and then she buggered off to Sydney joining my mother where they shared a flat in Lavender Bay and had Lots of Fun. Mum talked of the American boys gifting them nylons and taking them for drives to Palm Beach. Jean worked as a dressmaker, loved parties and going to the Eastern suburbs beaches. It was all so different to life in Melbourne.
And somewhere in this period, Jean met George who’d been in the Royal Navy and ended up in Australia. He was unlike any of the Australian boys she’d known and in the early fifties they were married,
Meanwhile, what of Qantas? This is a tale of two icons after all. Qantas Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd was registered as a business on 16 November 1920. Founding chairman Fergus McMaster wrote Qantas was “inspired by the spirit of ANZAC”. The first Qantas air routes provided vital connections to the people of western Queensland who responded with enthusiasm by purchasing shares and travelling by air.
The founder’s vision was always on the horizon, they were pioneering a new form of travel, not just an airline. The ‘NT’ in Qantas represented their plan to fly overseas via Darwin as the main aerial port of entry at the time. From joy-riding and charter work based at Longreach in western Queensland, a route network quickly developed. The vision for overseas expansion was achieved in 1935 with services between Brisbane and Singapore taking three and a half days using DH-86 aircraft. From 1938, Empire flying boats linked Sydney and Singapore introducing full cabin service and modern comfort.
Jean and George settled in Wollongong and then they bought a display home in Cronulla, reminiscent of the Harry Seidler house in Wahroonga. At the time, their little part of the Shire was still bushland-their neighbor ran a few cows on his block the street. Two sons were born and they settled into the bucolic fifties with dinner parties and yacht club dances and barbecues down on Buraneer Bay. There were Qantas pilots and flight engineers living on their peninsula. Many years later, ex Qantas chairman, James Strong used to live down the street, and Jean would see on her daily walks.
At this point, Jean and George started spreading their wings- probably with Qantas. They went to Bali before it was fashionable and Jean came home with a burning passion for Batik after taking classes at a tiny workshop in a Legian backstreet.
There were stints overseas at the company expense in London – South Kensington and Boston. Weekends spent at galleries and in the country and mini-breaks in Europe. Jean was in her element having discovered a late interest in art. They bought art books and prints, and original fabric from Liberty of London. She lingered in galleries all day in New York and loved the excitement of dressing up for a Broadway show and a late dinner at Elaine’s. Back in Australia, Mum and I devoured the letters from her and envied life. I think Mum always thought she should have been the one overseas. Just the odd little innuendo here and there showed a hint of sisterly rivalry. Mum married the maverick bushie; Jean settled down with the witty Englishman. ‘She followed ME to Sydney,’ Mum would say in the evenings. ‘If she hadn’t done that…’
Life changed for Jean in the 70s and 80s. Kids growing up and husband retired. He wanted to spend 6 months in the Old Country and she refused to go. Rumour has it that she didn’t want to leave her garden. Or maybe it was the fact my mother was sick. George came home after a few months and declared he wanted a separation as he’d hooked up with an old flame. And he left. He was 63. She had just turned 65.
People talked and wondered and talked some more. I couldn’t ask my mother any details as she was dead. And I couldn’t really ask my Aunt why George had left in the first place. I still don’t know three decades later- it’s just whispers and hearsay.
But there she was alone in the beautifully decorated house with her memories of the past, her batik art and her garden. For a while, she had a partner, but he wanted to marry her and she was understandably a bit wary. She was a member of a dinner party club and a garden club and had a supportive group of pals.
And Qantas during this time? It was going from strength to strength. It became a domestic as well as an international airline. John Travolta was its ambassador for a while. It was still the Australian airline, but not the airline. People started to turn away from it a little, but when it came to the crunch, there was the safety record. Even the near misses became a legend. Qantas divided people like football teams- you either loved or hated her.
Now with the changes in aviation, the 747 is being superseded by newer, more efficient aircraft. The old girl has been left out to pasture. In this case, a flight to the US and final retirement to the Mojave Desert. Sounds like a fitting plot for a Pixar film.
Aunty Jean has her first house move in 60 years in February when she was admitted to an Aged Care Facility. She was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago but resisted any moves to admit to her to one of “those places.” But as time went on it became more apparent it was the only choice possible. She’s now settled in a room facing the garden. In a funny way, she’s happy there in her new community.
Yesterday was a quiet afternoon tea with her son and friends. They ate ginger snaps and birthday cupcakes. In Melbourne, we attempted a Zoom call but there was a technology failure. Around about the same time, Wunala the final 747 in the Qantas fleet did a flyover over Sydney before launching out over the Pacific. People had been talking about this final flight on social media all day, there were photos and videos posted. I’d like to think, though it’s totally illogical, all this fuss was for Aunty Jean at the start of her 102nd year. After all, she’s a year older than Qantas.
With thanks to the Qantas website for the historical background and Mrs. Woog at Woogsworld who gave me the idea (unbeknownst to her!)