Suzie and I stood in Auckland Airport’s Departures lounge, embracing our friends before we left town. We were about to fly to New York City, where we had a Kiwi friend upon whose couch we could crash, to arise and begin a new life in America.
It is February, 1987.
“Keep in touch, Suzie,” said her old friend Nick, who’d come to see us off. “The place won’t be the same without you.”
I could easily believe that. Suzie brought lightness and gaiety wherever she went. I watched her embrace Nick, a smile lighting her face. It was a big smile, beaming out friendliness and confidence and a love of life. Which sort of sums Suzie up in many ways, if I may be so glib. As usual she was dressed impeccably for the occasion, today in hippie style jeans and knitted V-neck top under a ragged little denim jacket all strung together with a long, colorful scarf.
We’d known each other for many years, Suzie and I, had lived together in many places. Africa, Australia, New Zealand.
Now, we wanted to try America.
“What’ve we got to lose?” we said. This was in a way idle boasting, because as artists whose entire possessions fitted into just three suitcases, we really didn’t have much to lose.
I was a film animator. Over the years I’d learned all I could in New Zealand about making animated films from my father, himself a former Disney animator, and from the other two New Zealand animators then working, and of course from the mistakes and experiences of the dozens and dozens of short films, mostly TV commercials, that I’d made. So I knew a lot about making animated movies, but I’d gone about as far as I could go in New Zealand.
It was time to pack up my pencils and my dreams and head to America.
America! Where the movies were big and anything could happen!
My father was proof of that. In the 1950s he had dared to dream and take his chances in life as an artist, and he had accomplished what I now set out to do. He had worked as an animator on feature films for Walt Disney. Then as now, no small achievement. Especially for a poor boy from Texas who’d done two hitches in the US Navy and started a family even before attending art school. From there he was selected to work for Walt Disney. After seven years at Disney, my father (and my mother too, for she and he were partners in many ways) decided to leave California and emigrate with the family to New Zealand.
My father left America in search of artistic growth in New Zealand.
(That, and a better life for his family.)
Now, twenty years later, I was leaving New Zealand in search of artistic growth in America.
Ha! Ha! How the gods love a laugh!
Here I was thinking that I was a true antiauthority bohemian artist, when all the time I was merely following in my father’s footsteps.
In exactly the opposite direction!
I was started along in my father’s footsteps as an animator, it may interest you to learn, not by my father or by another person or event, but by a ghost.
A very real ghost.
It was 1970, two and a half years after we’d arrived in New Zealand and a year since I’d left school and gotten married. I was married to Ethne, my first great love. Our baby was born in November the year before. He was healthy and fat! And smart too just like his father. Ethne and I and the baby were living in Mairangi Bay and life was good. We even had a car. Sometimes the car worked and sometimes it didn’t. I was still working at Northcote depot for the Ministry of Works, helping to build Auckland’s Northern Motorway. It was a rough and tumble world of working men and earthmoving machines, but I’d made friends and was growing up. I’d been promoted out of the ditches and in with the surveyors over a year before.
It was a dreary winter’s day, with squally gusts of rain blowing through. A lot of the men had come back to the depot for smoko; it being payday, they could collect their wages. We’d gathered in the tearoom to play cards and share a few laughs. The weather was miserable and nobody wanted to be outdoors. It being winter, the earthworks machines weren’t running, so the pace around the depot was more relaxed, and smoko breaks were sometimes extended affairs. Just keep a low profile and don’t let Pat, the foreman, catch you goofing off. The card game was breaking up. I was about to leave the tearoom to collect the Thames wagon and be off to Sunset Road with Peter, the chief surveyor, when:
“Rusty! Hey! You’re wanted on the blower!”
It was Roy, the office manager, calling down from the landing at the top of the stairs that led to the offices. Apparently, I was wanted on the telephone.
“What?” I called. “Me? Are you sure?”
“It’s probably another cock-up,” muttered Buck seated at the card table, and the gathered workers laughed. Nobody ever got calls, except Pat and the big bosses. Maybe this was another joke? How the men loved a joke, at anybody’s expense! You couldn’t leave your leg unattended for even a second at our depot, someone was always there, ready to pull it for you. I looked around at Pat and Buck and the other workmen in the tearoom, some of whom I knew quite well, but they all appeared innocent enough. You couldn’t tell by appearances, though, for I was still young and a very poor judge of what was in the hearts of men by the looks on their faces.
“Yeah, you! You’re wanted on the blower!” repeated Roy, who then turned and retired to his office, where the telephone was.
“Blast it all!” I now said, mimicking Pat’s usual grumble as I trotted up the stairs. Pat was the foreman of the depot, well liked by the men, whom he ruled like a benevolent king. He always grumbled loudly and mightily, as he trotted up the stairs that led to the office to take his telephone calls, about the ineptitude of the big bosses and how they couldn’t get along without him. In this way he reminded us how important he was and how lucky we were to have a foreman as good as he.
Which is true, he was a good foreman.
“Can’t they even wipe their own blasted backsides up there,” I grumbled, mimicking Pat, “without it blasted raining blasted showers of crap on us down here …”
The men, Pat included, found my joke funny and I enjoyed the sound of their laughter in my ears. “Good one, kid,” they laughed. “Ahaw haw haw!”
It was no joke, though. It was my sister on the telephone.
That morning, Mom had collapsed and been rushed to hospital, could I please come right away.
To be continued…