Christmas 1953

This was to be a good Christmas. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were here on their first visit to New Zealand and would make the Christmas broadcast away from Buckingham Palace for the first time ever. After Christmas I would play in the brass band to welcome them at the Woodville Railway Station during their tour of the country in a special train. Elaborate preparations and welcomes had been made in towns and cities all over the country. There was red, white and blue flags and bunting everywhere. But first, for me, there was Christmas and then a Boys Brigade camp at Foxton Beach.

1953 had been a good year. Without School Certificate, the first year fifth form had not demanded much of me so I was able to spend time doing other things. (I attended the Pahiatua District High School which had a 4 year School Certificate course.) At school, my uniform consisted of thick navy woollen shirts, shorts and socks in both winter and summer. Plus heavy shoes and a cap. Whenever we went out of the school in school uniform, caps with their red and green braid and metal badge, were compulsory. To be seen without the cap would mean a detention at the least. The girls wore navy woollen gyms in the winter with a beret, but now wore a lighter weight cotton pinafore and panama hats in the summer. I went everywhere by bike. Mum always insisted on us coming home at lunchtime for a hot dinner every day.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, I went to band practice. We all loved it. I played solo cornet, and had to attend the ANZAC day parades and RSA funerals to play the Last Post and Reveille as well as other band events. I hated the funerals when it was someone I knew.

On Wednesday nights we had Boys' Brigade. On Sundays we had Bible Class and Church. On Saturdays there was often a Bible Class dance in Pahiatua or Palmerston North. `There was no TV, only the radio. We always listened to the Sunday request sessions and Country Calendar. We loved Take It From Here and Hancock's Half Hour. Life was easy and interesting.

Christmas Day 1953 started with Mum waking us up at 5-30am. Porridge and toast were already on the table waiting for us. Mum wiped the Vegemite off our face and made sure that our band uniforms were neat and tidy. Each Christmas the brass band roused the town out of their morning slumber by playing Christmas carols. This was our annual fund raising event. The band divided into two, and we loaded up two trucks with chairs and music stands and headed off in opposite directions. Each of the band members took a turn knocking up the reluctant citizens and asking them for a donation. I think that many of them put something in the tin to get rid of us.

This Christmas dawned overcast with a cold wind blowing from the south. I arrived at the Council Chambers on my bike before the doors were opened and was greeted with the news that the Wellington-Auckland express had crashed in the central North Island. There were many casualties. That was all we knew. What a start to Christmas!

We gleaned more information as we drove around the town on the back of the truck. The crash was at Tangawai, somewhere near Waiouru. The army had been mobilised. A bridge had collapsed. Much of the train was lying at the bottom of a river. There were many dead.

Who was on it that we knew? How many had been killed? Why had it happened? It was a sombre Christmas morning. We couldn't wait to get finished to find out more. We finished playing, tidied up, and soon after ten o'clock went quietly home to celebrate Christmas.

When I got there, Mum, Dad and Joan were still at the Christmas church service. We had strict instructions not to open our presents until they came home. We turned on the radio hoping for some special news broadcasts. We heard the worst, but information was scarce. When Mum and Dad arrived home, we opened our presents. They were mostly the new clothes we needed, with a small bar of chocolate or something thrown in. I always wanted a train set, but it was never to be. There was never any extra money.

At 12-30 the Queen broadcast her Christmas message. It was a sad message with the disaster hanging over our country. Later, we heard that the town clerk and his wife were both on the train and were killed. The train had crashed over a bridge that had been washed away when a lahar on Mt Ruapehu had burst, sending the contents of the crater lake cascading down the Whangehu River.

After Christmas, I went to the Boys Brigade camp at Foxton and was brought back specially to play in the band at Woodville when the Queen and Duke stopped there. The Duke moved among us and talked to many of us. Our pictures appeared in all the main papers. We were taken back to Foxton in a taxi.

It was a good Christmas.

Alec Utting
November 1995