Finding Grace in our Marriage
MARRIAGE AND OVERSEAS
We were married in a Lutheran Church in 1963 in East Melbourne. We had been members of the Lutheran church on and off, and I usually enjoyed the sermons. Marriage solved my insecurity, but, inwardly, I was still searching. Six months after our marriage, while I was working with BALM Paints ICI, I came across an advertisement offering a CSIRO studentship for PhD studies in Tasmania. I had never heard of bioelectricity in plants and thought it rather challenging so I went for it. In my application, I wrote that the only biology I knew was from the odd article in Scientific American. My future supervisor thought that my electrochemistry would prove handy and that I could learn biology along the way.
Milena prospered in Tasmania where she taught at Ogilvie High School. A past student, Karina, contacted Milena in August 2017 and, in February 2018, had a wonderful reunion in Hobart getting to know this jovial lady who is the local radio host for a German multicultural program. Her husband Graziano hosts the Italian equivalent. Milena taught German, English and History in Tasmania. Karina thought very highly of Milena both as a teacher and as a person. Both Karina and Graziano currently play a very active role in Hobart society.
Milena loyally attended all my soccer matches in Tasmania with little Paul who was born in Hobart. Once she was frightened for my life when I, playing for our lowly University team, kicked the winning goal against an ethnic side who were on top of the ladder. The smallish crowd came onto the field and jostled me for the goal came just before the final whistle. Although I received offers from elsewhere, I always enjoyed playing for university teams because there was no pressure and I was assured to play even if I missed training.
Many other things happened if I only stopped to think about it but let’s move forward to 1964 in Hobart, Tasmania. We had a lovely apartment on a hillside overlooking the Derwent River in Bedomme Street, Sandy Bay. We could see all the cruise ships arriving while our heads were still on our pillows. We had a glorious view over the bay and the tall bridge. One afternoon I picked a crop of broad beans from the established garden and laid them out on a tray outside our window to dry. I didn't want them to dry out too much, so in the early morning sunshine I got out of bed and drowsily went outside to pick up the tray. I stooped down to grab the tray to find myself starring into the face of a tiger snake at very close range. It had been curled up in the warm morning sun on top of the tray. Its body was reared up but, presumably startled by my boldness, it had already made a decision to make a run for it. When I first saw it its head was pointed to the left instead of straight at me. I jumped about two yards back in fright. The snake took off and was gone in seconds. I wondered afterwards where I would have put the tourniquet had it struck me in the face.
I was in the first year of my PhD studies when my landlord's son, attending an expensive private school, asked me for interesting chemistry experiments they could do in class. It was the time of frequent atomic bomb testing. I suggested what I thought would be an interesting ecological experiment. The science master was willing to go ahead and designed the experiment. I cannot remember if I ever asked them whether they had ventilation in the laboratory, which one would assume would be a standard requirement.
I asked the boy what sort of Geiger Counter they had. It wasn't a particularly sensitive one. I decided that they would need to determine radioactivity in dried extracts of tea leaves. They purchased teas grown in a variety of regions around the world, with the date of harvest known. They were to make hot water extracts of the leaves and then concentrate them to dryness in flat aluminium dishes suitable for the counter. This way they might be able to crudely map the direction of the radioactive cloud around the hemisphere.
It never occurred to me that the school laboratory would not have a fume hood for ventilation. The radioactivity could also' perhaps' steam-distil out of the extract and therefore yield false results. I just never gave it deep thought and was proud for suggesting such a simple and clever experiment.
The next thing I knew was his distressed father coming downstairs informing me that a fleet of ambulances had to be called to hospitalise the teacher and most of the boys who had fainted because of alkaloid inhalation. Only a few were required to stay in hospital once they began to recover. Once again the Lord was gracious to all. It could have been an absolute disaster.
This family portrait was taken in 1968 when I joined the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in Canberra. Milena’s mother stayed with us frequently and was devoted to her grandchildren. So much so, that we had frequent arguments as she interfered in our lives, but she was a treasure at the same time. Canberra was neat and a perfect environment for families. One day, when Milena’s mother was outside calling out for our son, the Governor General, Sir Paul Hasluck, popped his head over the side fence asking, ‘Are you calling me'? He was our neighbour, but I was always scared that he wouldn’t want to talk with me. Canberra was a settled time for both of us and we attended the Lutheran church although I never became involved much. We enjoyed our little son’s question, after we swam in Lake Burley Griffin, 'Where is the bath plug? Can I pull it out'?
Moving forward quickly now, I remember what my father said after I resigned from my Research Fellowship in Canberra. I was about to take my family to America for overseas post-doctoral research experience virtually without money in my pocket. Australia had an inferiority complex then and hired most of their staff from overseas. We had sold our few belongings which paid for the passage to East Lansing, Michigan. My father said that I amazed him because I was always doing things without money (I was married on $100, and that was a loan from my best man) and we lived as though I was invincible. Little did I and he know that God had already eternity in mind for me. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that He set eternity in the heart of man. Somehow, I was already living in the faith of that subconsciously.
We stopped for a week in Fiji where my 2-year old daughter was cured from heat exhaustion and a sudden tropical gastric disease by a Polish tropical medicine specialist. In Vancouver we boarded the Canadian Pacific train and got out at Winnipeg which was at about -30 degrees with the chill factor. Foolishly we let our children play in the snow, after they had heat exhaustion in Fiji. We then had to fly from Toronto to Detroit only to find out that the travel agent had booked us on a flight leaving from the furthest airport (1 of 2) in Toronto city. We had just enough time to catch the plane, in a taxi, which used up almost all our money. Fortunately, in Michigan we were met by my new boss. He had unknowingly arranged a terribly smelly student apartment for us. The whole of the the interior was stained with greasy curry residues throughout the small apartment.
Being a fastidious German, my boss would have assumed it would be in a clean state. Although he was friendly and welcomed us, together with his lovely family, I had never met anyone like him before. He would allow his children to bathe outside in a tin above-ground swimming pool during lightning strikes only a short distance away.
He never said good morning to anyone. One day, getting tired of my greetings, he looked up from his desk and retorted, ‘I know it’s a good morning. You don’t have to tell me’. That helped to appease the Asians in other laboratories who had assumed for a long time that the Professor was a racist.
I couldn’t bear waiting for my first smallish pay. It turned out our daughter had pneumonia. No doctor would take new patients. Finally, through my professor’s help, we were able to see a paediatrician who said that we should turn around straight away and return to Australia. Michigan weather was the worst for anyone with pneumonia and that she would end up a chronic sufferer of asthma all her life. I stupidly obeyed my hardy German Professor to get her exercising in the snow. ‘That will cure her’, he said. Of course, she became worse. I ended up taking her in my arms to hospital late at night in the deep snow. Another family with a very sick and crying child was in the waiting room ahead of us. When eventually the door opened with a shout, ‘next’, I pointed to the other child that she was here first. ‘Oh no, we can’t look at her. They have no insurance’.
For three months after that I would find my wife crying whenever I came home from work after dark. They had bad days at home even after we had cleaned all the walls and furniture. On top of that, our daughter Jenny, had fallen out of bed and a tooth came out with part of her jaw attached, as the photo indicates on her recovery. Finally, the doctor said that an allergen in the unit was preventing our daughter from getting better. We moved out of town to a new apartment without any furniture, including no beds' because there was a six-week long truckers strike. By this time it was late spring and she immediately improved. I don’t think I ever prayed, but perhaps my wife did. My wife went to church because she believed and I just enjoyed meeting the people there, and the sermons were interesting.
The Professor’s imported German research assistants had been talking frequently amongst themselves when the boss would fire me from his laboratory for turning up at 9 am instead of at 8 am. He was also annoyed that I put my instruments out ready for work the next day instead of locking everything away for the night. One day the two ladies were frantically searching for about 5 minutes looking for a pair of scissors. So I opened a drawer and said, ‘Here it is’. After thanking me, they turned around red-faced, asking, ‘How did you know we were looking for scissors'? 'I have a German mother', I said.
In hindsight, I thank the Lord for watching over us and I could tell you much more about the USA, but shall refrain except to mention that I had to lie in the gutter in Bloomington, Indiana, while a bank robber had a shootout over my head with State Marshalls crouching behind me. There is one thing that I did often enough though. I would repeat, in parrot-like fashion, the prayer my mother had taught me in German.
‘Oh Jesus joy of my desire, should Satan want to devour us, then let the little angels sing, this child shall be left unharmed’. I sincerely believe that the Lord honoured that throughout my life even before I knew Him.
At Michigan State University I very much enjoyed the daily walk to the AAEC Plant Research Laboratory (large building in the middle left, right photo), particularly the many fresh animal tracks in the snow. The constant hoar on the trees, in winter, was spectacular.
My daughter reminded me of another story I almost forgot. When summer approached in Michigan we decided to do a round trip to Hiawatha Falls (I was always a fan of American Native Indians), Niagara Falls and London (in Canada), where Milena's cousin from Czechoslovakia was living. As we travelled up Route 75 to cross the Great Lakes into Canada we had a rest stop near Indian River. As the attendant was filling the car he looked at the sky in the direction in which we were going and commented ‘I don't like the look of the clouds over there. I saw a tornado come down from a cloud like that in Jackson’. ‘That's exactly where we are heading for’, I said. 'Aw, don't worry about it. We don't get tornadoes here'.
We drove further north in peace and stopped in Mackinaw City to get a few snacks in the supermarket as we were on a shoe-string budget. The sky was getting very dark and we heard the rain pelting down outside. Suddenly sirens sounded. Someone shouted "touch down". People scampered in all directions, but we didn't know where to go. The supermarket was just a super-large tin shed, which was no match for a tornado. I didn't know what to do. We bundled our children into the car in pelting rain. 'Let's get out of here'.
Everything was grey. The windscreen wipers were on maximum and I found the highway exit, sighing with relief, as we left Mackinaw behind. We sped through the rain towards the long bridge across Lake Superior and began the drive across into Canada. The darkness lifted and I felt easier as we were driving over the long bridge.
When we approached the Canadian side I saw the border guard outside his watch house with binoculars in hand. It had stopped raining by then. I stopped and wound the window down to greet him, ready to show our passports. He bent down, looked at me and said, 'I wondered whether you would make it'. ‘What do you mean'?, I said. ‘Well, you had a tornado on the left and a tornado on the right, following you right behind your car.’ I jerked into action and got out to look from where we had come, just in time to see a funnel retreat into the clouds. 'Wow, just as well I didn’t stop on the bridge to take a photo. I didn't know'. Twin tornadoes are not uncommon (photo). There were four in Mackinaw City that afternoon.
We proceeded into Canada a little shaken. The gas station attendant hadn't been wrong after all. Apparently, the tornado belt took a significant step northward into Canada in 1971. Not knowing the Lord yet, I thought what luck! While we were there, nine people died in a tornado at Grand Rapids only a short distance from where we lived. Even small whirlwinds in Australia's deserts can shift a car off the road. We would have been very vulnerable on the long bridge.
Not long afterwards, I was walking to work on a very humid morning along the beautiful and extensive sports fields. There was not a cloud in the sky. Strange I thought. I always imagined Melbourne to be a hot place, but this was really hot. I felt like a ship gliding through the dense humid air leaving a wake behind. Without warning, a huge bolt of lightning hit a large tree about 70 metres away. Birds scattered in every direction. I stooped covering my head. I had never experienced anything like that before. It affected me for months. I could never walk fully upright again on humid days in Michigan.
RETURN TO AUSTRALIA
Our return to Australia was wonderful. It was almost like God was rewarding us. Universities paid for relocation expenses in those days. We travelled by train to Chicago and were wonderfully entertained on the train by French nuns playing guitars and singing ‘Dominic’. They laughed at the potty-chair we had brought along for our daughter. From Chicago onwards, we had a luxurious sleeper cabin on the Santa Fe across the Mid-West to Los Angeles. We dropped in on Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. Since the hire company had mislaid our booking, they upgraded us to a lemon-yellow limousine and then drove us in style to San Francisco.
ALMOST STRANDED PENNILESS AND WITHOUT A WORKING VISA IN SAN FRANCISCO
Here the Lord intervened once again. I drove slowly across the long bridge to Berkeley, the University of California campus, and back again before dropping off the car near the wharf. I went slowly across the bridge for Milena to obtain good photos. Suddenly, a police car was tail-gating me with lights flashing, so I thought I might be going too fast and slowed down to 60. At the end of the bridge we stopped and the police officer got out of the car. Paul noticed that he loosened his revolver in the holster as he approached our car. ‘Mummy, is he going to shoot daddy'? It turned out that we were crossing the bridge much too slowly and cars coming at 120 mph could have killed us from behind. I interjected how that could be because I had seen in the meantime that the speed limit was 80. The officer said that people don’t pay attention to that.
Now the scary thing was this. We only had two hours left to drop the car off and board the ship. By this time I only had a few dollars left to account for my life. I had no job, no money, no investments, an expiring visa, no work permit - and the officer wanted me to accompany him to the station. Oh no, I thought. I still had to find the wharf, drop the hire car off and get the family, and all our luggage onto the ship. Ships don't wait for passengers. What if he even wanted me to pay the fine once we arrived at the station? I couldn't have paid anything. All we had were non-refundable tickets to get us to Melbourne and we had no travel insurance! Not even my parents back in Melbourne could have covered us. Whatever would we have done?
I wasn’t going to tell him that we were about to leave the country. I couldn't pray. I wasn't a Christian yet! I gave him my Michigan State University staff card with identity photo and hoped he wouldn't notice that it was no longer valid. ‘Would you bill me please'? By the grace and mercy of God he allowed us to proceed. Whatever would the four of us have done had we been stranded in America with no job and no money, had we missed the ship with an expiring working visa? In America, everything depends on the $. As I am typing this, it gives me goose pimples just thinking about it.
Two years later California caught up with us. We received a court order to face charges in San Francisco. I wrote them a nice letter and received an even nicer letter, after a few weeks, from a Judge Carroll saying that I had been pardoned. Wasn’t the Lord good?
Finally, we were on board the Oronsay, departing from San Francisco with much relief. Note what the swimming pool on a cruise ship looked like 46 years ago. Milena has a white bathing cap.
In 1971 I took up my job as a lecturer in biophysics at a university in Melbourne. In those days the university laid on everything on a plate. Our passage from America was paid for, the little furniture we had was shipped over and my laboratory was equipped with almost everything I asked for. Life at university was rosy and I had great expectations of one day becoming a leading academic. My undergraduate record at Melbourne University had been abysmal but my PhD studies at the University of Tasmania, together with my years as a Research Fellow in Canberra mingling with the best of Australia's scientists, changed everything. I had become a true research scholar at long last.
Our families were developing rapidly. Both Milena and my sister gave birth to two children as shown, together with our parents, at a celebration in the local German-style 'Salzburg Lodge'. Nevertheless, the two families eventually drifted apart there being a huge economic and cultural gap between myself and my brother-in-law, Heinz. Upon our return from America we started off life with nothing having spent everything to travel to Michigan State University. Milena's mother is on the far left. Her father had passed away in a car accident when she was only 10 years old.
Milena flanked by Elizabeth's grown-up children, Michael and Ingrid.
A close escape from drowning comes to mind too. One day we decided to go boating one cool, overcast afternoon, fortunately without the children. The Gippsland Lakes looked placid enough. The Lake was completely devoid of activity. No boats were to be seen anywhere. There was an old boat shed with a boat for hire sign. Naturally, as I am prone to do, Milena and I got into the row boat and paddled towards the middle of the salt water lake. I was totally relaxed and enjoying myself having forgotten that Milena couldn’t swim more than 2 metres. We had no life vests. I was oblivious to any potential danger, admiring the coast line and proud of myself that I was able to row so far out without feeling tired.
The afternoon was getting late. The shore was too far away for me to see where the boat shed might be, but, in a relaxed mood, I started rowing back when I noticed, from the trees in the distance, that I wasn’t making any headway. I put my back into it, but all I could manage was for the boat to remain stationary. I started building up a sweat when I realized that the tide was picking up and was sweeping us towards a wide gap where a strong surf had developed. I began to row in earnest, not telling Milena what was happening. After rowing as hard as I could, I was coming to the end of my strength when a motor boat suddenly appeared. He was from the boat shed. ‘I’ve been watching you and saw you were in trouble. You would have been swept out to sea, you know’, he said. I knew alright, I thought, with great relief. I had been nearly swamped once before in a row boat by waves reflecting from an anchored tanker and that was without any surf. Milena would have drowned for sure on the Gippsland lakes that day. There is no doubt in my mind that we are only here to tell the story because the Lord has been delivering us from trouble over and over again and I wasn’t even a Christian yet!
So, what, you might say?
That happens to lots of people.
SURE, it does.
Because God is merciful