Whipping up a dust storm in D

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Dust storm obscures Sydney Opera House, September 2009. Image by Janet Kavanagh, NSW Maritime, CC

While innocently vacuuming never-ending dust this week, I accidently sucked up the D harmonica which was lying on the coffee table. Said harmonica emitted a plaintive sound, closely resembling the wheezy noise of a piper warming up (think, You’re the Voice, Eric Burden’s Sky Pilot and that AC/DC song about it being a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll).

Alarmed (these little blues harps cost $45 a piece), I managed to grab one end before it disappeared into the dusty bowels of the 10-year-old Wertheim. After a short struggle and a discordant approximation of the intro to Blowin’ in the Wind, I freed the harmonica and continued on my merry way.

Most household tasks have fallen my way since She Who is Ambidextrous (SWIA) broke a bone in her wrist, although to be serious, using the vacuum cleaner has always been one of my chores. This machine has seen better days, but it still does the job. The broken hose is securely held together with gaffer tape and a pair of chopsticks. A while ago I priced a replacement hose at a vacuum cleaner shop (I could have bought a budget-level machine for the same money). The enterprising young lad managed to side-track me to a really up-market vacuum cleaner which, I discovered after a 20-minute spiel, cost $1,799.

“I could buy a 20-year-old Toyota Corolla for that sort of money,” I said, “Nice try, kid.

I went out of the shop happily humming ‘I love my Toyota Corolla, aha hah,’* having spent no money at all. Instead I went to one of those big red and green barns and bought a roll of gaffer tape.

Maybe 36 years ago (or more), I succumbed to a sales pitch when a colleague sent his uncle around to sell me a vacuum cleaner. I had been telling this colleague how the old machine was seriously incapable of sucking up not only dust but hair and dander from a Golden Retriever.

So Uncle Harry called around, to demonstrate the superior dust sucking power of a top of the line Electrolux, in the days when top quality appliances were manufactured here and sold door-to-door with a five or even 10-year warranty.

I bought the Electrolux on time payment, because that was the only way to finance such an extravagant purchase in those impecunious times.

I’ve earned a few million (sic. Ed.) dollars since then and that old machine refuses to die. It’s now the ‘downstairs’ vacuum cleaner, although I’ve been known to use it upstairs when (as is a common problem), temporarily unable to source the right-size dust bags.

“That old thing still does the job,” said She Who Told Me in Week 3, “I Don’t Vacuum”. (My Dr. said I shouldn’t vacuum- bad for the back. Ed.)

A while back, when the tiler had finished laying tiles in our downstairs rooms I (without thinking), took the Electrolux out and started sucking up tile dust. It was the smell that alerted me – smoke pouring out the top of the machine. The bag was chockers. I let the Electrolux cool down, put in a new bag and what do you know, it continued on untrammelled, a glass half full version of the Millennial expression, “This sucks”.

I’m completely sure no manufacturer today could produce a vacuum cleaner (or any appliance), that would last 36 years and more.

This line of thinking led me to research robotic vacuum cleaners, which can be bought for as little as $129 or as much as a 20-year-old Toyota Corolla. Choice magazine generally gave all models the thumbs down when marking them on the capacity to extract dust from carpet.

The intelligent vacuum cleaner does a pretty good job on hard floors, although why you’d prefer a round model over a square one (to get into those nasty little corners that harbour ancient dust), is a mystery.

The perplexing thing is this: where does dust come from and why does it settle again after one pass with a vacuum cleaner? As Quentin Crisp said in The Naked Civil Servant: “There is no need to do any housework at all.After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”

Dust mites and chronic allergies

I will acknowledge to being a little bit fussy about vacuuming, ever since the allergist did the pin prick tests to show I was hyper-allergic to dust mites. On first discovering this in the 1990s, we hired a heavy duty industrial vacuum cleaner and paid an agile friend to clean the crawl space in the attic of our 60-year-old house. After the fourth big black garbage bag was passed down the ladder to the respirator-wearing assistant, our friend declared that was one job he was never doing again.

It’s not too hard to find out the answer to the question, where does dust come from? Science Daily surmises, not so surprisingly, that most house dust comes from outside. The scientists developed a computer model that could track distribution of contaminated soil and airborne particulates into residences. They found that over 60% of house dust originates outdoors. The study by the American Chemical Society found that contaminants like lead and arsenic can find their way into homes via airborne dust.

Researchers David Layton and Paloma Beamer found that household dust included dead skin shed by people, fibres from carpets and upholstered furniture and tracked-in soil and airborne particles blown in from outdoors.

The 2009 report mentioned above came out in the same year a 500 km wide dust storm the colour of Donald Trump’s complexion swept across New South Wales and Queensland. The Australian capital, Canberra, experienced the dust storm on September 22 and a day later it reached Sydney and Brisbane. Thousands of tons of dirt and soil lifted in the dust storm were dumped in Sydney Harbour and the Tasman Sea. Ah yes, you remember that.

Random dust storms aside, the real culprit feared by those suffering from asthma and hay fever is the dust mite. Scientists agree that dust mites thrive among the aforementioned dead skin discarded by humans and pets. The dustier your mattress and pillows are, the worse the problem gets. As this fascinating but skin-crawling article says, there could be between 100,000 and one million dead dust mites (and mite dung) lurking in your bed. Ugh!

What you need to do, every time you change the sheets, is to strip the bed, hang the bedding out in the sun then attach the nifty little mattress cleaner that may or may not have come with your vacuum and give the mattress a good flogging, so to speak.

Or you could buy a robot vacuum cleaner and instruct it to spend all afternoon roaming around on the bed:

As Hal said in 2001 A Space Odyssey: “I’m sorry (Bob), I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

*(a reference to Tiffany Eckhardt’s love song to her Toyota Corolla)  

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Falls a risk for over-65s

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Elderly couple out for a stroll – falls and the over-65s photo courtesy pixabay.com

You may know this statistic about falls among older people, but it is shocking all the same to learn that 74% of people who were hospitalised after a fall had broken their hips. Head injuries were the next most serious (22%) with limb fractures further down the list.

About a third of all Australians in the 65+ age group will have a fall each year, but most are not serious. About 10% of people in this cohort who suffer a fall end up with a serious injury.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports states that about 100,000 people aged 65 and over were admitted to hospital after falls in 2012-2013. While that is a few years ago, the statistics are part of a 10-year study done at the time, so are representative. Discuss, as people say when posting something contentious on social media.

The falls could be as relatively minor as the tumble I took down our steep terraced acreage recently, which resulted only in bad language and a few minor scrapes. I few years ago I had a rather more serious fall – a broken rib and a bruised thigh – what rugby league commentators scoffingly dismiss as a ‘cork’. I was carrying two folding chairs in each hand while walking down the stairs. Did I mention it was raining and the soles of my shoes were wet? Duh!

Which brings me to She Who Is Ambidextrous (SWIA), who has taken the lead (2-1) in the Domestic Falls Stakes. Excuse me for making light of a poor but not overly serious situation.

SWIA had what’s known in the medical business as a FOOSH (Fall on Outstretched Hand). She sustained the injury as a result of tripping down some stone steps in the front garden.

As a young friend who rather more seriously injured his arm last year said when hearing this news, “At least it wasn’t a PAFO.”  (let me know if you can’t figure it out..)

Yes, it seems we are now in that age group who are more prone to falls, and, having fallen, are more likely to suffer an injury with a longer and sometimes problematic recovery time. Moreover, the fallout from falls can have psychological ramifications, making people less sure of themselves and reluctant to do ‘normal’ things which might result in falls.

It can happen to anyone, anytime.

The AIHW statistics quoted above include the telling observation that 72% of falls occur in the home or residential aged care facilities.

Stay on your feet – join an exercise class

Several Australian states have started a “Stay on Your Feet” campaign, which makes sense when you consider that in Queensland alone, falls cost the state more than $100 million a year.

Most people aged 60 and older are quite aware of the risk involved in taking a tumble and many attend exercise classes designed to shore up core strength and improve balance. So in many ways SWIA’s fall last week is a bit ironic as she is dutiful about attending exercise classes and daily doing what I never do (a morning stretch routine).

One of my regular readers says the thing he likes about the weekly read is that it so often addresses issues affecting ‘our’ age group (he means the over-60s).

So this is for you, mate. Core strength is the overall fitness and flexibility of the core muscles that help us keep our balance, sit down, stand up, lie down, kneel and squat. If your core strength is suspect (like me, down on one knee to get a dish out of the bottom cupboard), you will be found out using your hand/s for support.

Try these tests (and absolve me of all responsibility if you fall in a heap).

Sit on a hard-backed chair for 10 minutes. Now get up without using your arms for leverage. Do the same thing from a sofa, recliner or armchair.

As Billy Connolly says: “Ye know how auld you are by how long it takes to get out of a beanbag.”

The other trick is to stand on one leg for as long as you are able to hold the position, say 30 seconds (no hand support). Now try the other leg. Notice the difference?

The real test is how successful you are at putting on your underpants while standing.

Some people make provisions as they age by retrofitting their homes in some way, for example putting grab bars in the bathroom and toilet. Some even have ramps built to avoid going up and down steps or stairs. People aged 70 and over who live alone are often encouraged to wear a device which they can use to call for help.

Scientists in Australia, the US, UK and Europe are working to develop devices which can prevent falls by predicting the likelihood of a person having a fall. The University of Missouri is collating data from sensors built in to the walls of homes were aged pensioners live. The university’s researchers found that even small changes can predict if an elderly person is about to suffer a dangerous fall.

The risk quadruples if walking speed slows; for example when walking speed decreases by 5.1cm per second, the person has an 86% chance of toppling within three weeks, compared to just a 20% chance with no change. A drop in stride length of 7.6cm predicted a 51% chance of tripping within three weeks. Scientists elsewhere have developed wearable devices which can measure a person’s gait and ability to perform tasks like sitting down and standing up again. These can also reliably predict the likelihood of a pending fall. Scientists are finding these various devices helpful in predicting falls among people who have an illness which affects gait (Parkinson’s Disease, MS, joint pain (arthritis), spinal cord compression injuries and peripheral neuropathy, often associated with diabetes.

If all else fails, there are a range of alert buttons one can wear and press if in need of help. The help buttons trigger a monitoring station which will investigate and, if necessary, dispatch an ambulance.

The main risk of hurting yourself is if you are elderly and live alone, especially in a big, impersonal city. Chances are you could lie on the floor a long time before anyone discovered what had happened to you. I was reminded about this scenario when watching a new TV reality show, Ambulance, which is an inside look at London’s ambulance service. In the first episode, a man in his 90s has fallen to the floor and can’t get up. It’s been three hours and ambulances keep getting diverted to more urgent situations. To add to his woes, an ambulance is about to pull up at his front door when they get sent to help a woman who says she is having a miscarriage. Turns out to be a serial hoaxer

Good thing we live in a small community, where the first responders attending SWIA were prompt, thorough and cheerful. Medical staff at Maleny Soldiers Memorial Hospital were also very thorough, leaving nothing to chance.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, SWIA needs me to tie her shoelaces, take the lid off the pickle jar, and adjust the recliner… (and explain that the title of this article does not, of course, refer to said SWIA. Ed)

Today marks FOMM’s fourth anniversary. Congratulate me, make suggestions, or send gratuities!

Related reading, FOMM back pages

WWI Pacifists, Conchies and Rejects

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WWI Rejects, Montville Memorial Gates, photo by Bob Wilson

Amidst the salvo of Anzac Day stories, the people least often talked about are those who did not take part in WWI,  either because of a Christian or moral objection, for practical reasons, or because the armed forces rejected them. According to the Australian War Memorial, 33% of men volunteering for the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in 1914 were rejected on medical/fitness grounds. Enlistment standards were gradually relaxed in ensuing years, allowing many of the rejected men to enlist. Key among these changes was to reduce the minimum height of a recruit from five foot six to five feet.

The World War I rejects don’t get much press at all: the blokes with poor eyesight, bad teeth, flat feet, hernias or some  other physical ailment or disability which ruled them out for active service. But once rejected, they often had to bear the same stigma as the despised ‘Conchies’ or ‘CO’s’ – our unique slang for conscientious objectors. In Australia, CO numbers were estimated at less than one in 30.

Globally, there were around 16,000 conscientious objectors during World War I and their numbers swelled to 60,000 or more in World War II. During the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands sought deferment of the call-up or, in the case of American objectors, fled across the border to Canada.

Despite the early fervour to enlist for World War I, the country on the whole rejected the notion of conscription. PM Billy Hughes took the issue to a plebiscite twice during WWI and each time narrowly lost.

Meanwhile in tiny New Zealand (1914 population 1.1 million), the government simply passed a law and conscripted young men for the war effort. And as at least one controversial account claims, they took a very dim view of men who refused to fight on religious or ethical grounds.

Archibald Baxter, father of New Zealand’s late poet laureate James K Baxter, was one such staunch CO – an absolutist to the last.

His autobiography ‘We Will Not Cease’ makes for startling reading as it sets out the cruelty inflicted by his own countrymen on those who refused to fight. Baxter’s son wrote a poem with the searing lines:

When I was only semen in a gland

Or less than that, my father hung

From a torture post at Mud Farm

Because he would not kill.” (Pig Island Letters, Oxford U.P.1966).

Baxter Jnr’s poem, which describes his father’s ‘blackened thumbs’ refers to Field Punishment No 1, also the name of a 2014 New Zealand television movie. CO’s were hung up on poles (on the front line), in faux crucifixion pose, in the hope they would somehow recant.

Baxter never did.

The mistreatment of conscientious objectors in New Zealand has come to public attention in recent years, first through a public exhibit, and later by an opera, ‘War Hero,’ based on Archibald Baxter’s book.

Meanwhile back in Australia, for those who desperately wanted to enlist, particularly for World War 1, being found unfit to serve was a cruel blow that caused many men to become social outcasts. Unless employed in some clearly supportable on-land war effort, when these seemingly able-bodied men of a certain age were seen out and about, they were often subject to much derision.

The nearby hinterland hamlet of Montville holds a unique place in World War I history, as explained in a Canberra Times feature by Chris Sheedy, commissioned by the Canberra campus of UNSW.

The Montville War Memorial lists the local men who served with the AIF, but also the ‘Rejects’, the men who wanted to serve, but were classified as unfit.

Sheedy writes that in the celebrations of the homecomings of soldiers during and after WWI, most communities around Australia ignored those who didn’t serve.

“In fact, many shunned the ‘shirkers’ and were divided into segments of those whose family members had served and those who had not.”

The authorities must have foreseen this by developing badges for those who volunteered but were deemed ineligible to enlist, or honourably discharged because of age, injury or illness.

Sheedy notes that many men chose not to volunteer for practical reasons – they had a family to support or a farm or business to run.

Professor Jeffrey Grey from UNSW Canberra cites Robert Menzies as a prominent person who chose not to volunteer. Menzies had two brothers who went to war but the siblings agreed that Robert (a lawyer), would stay because he was more likely to provide for his parents in their old age.

Australian folk singer John Thompson, who has researched and written songs about WWI, describes it as a time when there was indeed a mood in the country among young, single people to ‘do your bit’. Thompson developed a song about Maud Butler, a teenage girl who so wanted to do her bit she dressed up as a soldier and stowed away on a ship. She got caught, but later made several other attempts to enlist.

As Thompson explains in the introduction to the song, Maud scrounged up the various pieces of an army uniform. “But she couldn’t get the (tan) boots and that’s what eventually led to her being discovered.”

Maud climbed arm over arm up an anchor rope to stow away aboard an Australian troop carrier. Historian Victoria Haskins, who researched the story, recounts how Maud gave interviews a few days after her return to Melbourne on Christmas Day, 1915.

Maud told local media that she “had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl… I decided to do something for myself.”

While there may have been an initial wave of patriotism and a naïve yen to support the British Empire, volunteer numbers dropped in the latter years of the war.

The Australian War Museum estimates that 420,000 Australians enlisted in WWI, approximately 38.7% of the male population aged between 18 and 44. So despite the enormous peer pressure on young men to enlist, 61.3% of enlistment-age men did not join the war effort, for whatever reason.

Enlistments peaked at 165,912 in 1915 and declined in the ensuing years to just 45,101 in 1917 and 28,883 in 1918, the year the war ended.

Most of the literature about Australia’s involvement in WWI emphasises the 420,000 who enlisted, rather than the 665,000 or so who did not.

Given that a majority of men aged 18 to 44 either did not volunteer or were rejected by the AIF, it seems absurd to perpetuate the myth of the shirker. Those who stayed behind because of family loyalties, businesses, careers, or simply because they felt it wasn’t their fight, did not deserve to be ignored or worse, handed a white feather in the street or have one left in their mailbox. It is shocking to recall that a formal Order of The White Feather was formed to encourage women to pressure family and friends into enlisting.

As the AWM comments: “Some criticised the practice, arguing that ‘idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired.’ ”

It wouldn’t work today.

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Australasia and World War II – things you may not have known

 

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World War 11 and impact on New Zealand

I grew up in the backblocks of New Zealand, ignorant until quite recently about the impact of World War II at home, particularly friction between American and Kiwi servicemen.

Prior to the 90th birthday of a family member in New Zealand, I did a modicum of research to find out what it was like for a Kiwi lad growing up in the World War II years. Amongst other things, I discovered that when this fellow was 15 (April 1943), a brawl broke out between American and New Zealand servicemen in Wellington in what became known as “The Battle of Manners Street”. The brawl, which has been greatly exaggerated over the years, lasted about four hours and was eventually quelled by civil and military police. There were other antagonistic affrays between soldiers and sailors in Auckland and a second incident, in Wellington’s Cuba Street.

As happened in Brisbane and other Australian capital cities, women formed romantic liaisons with American troops. About 1,500 Kiwi women married Americans during World War II. As recounted in New Zealand History online: “The soldiers were starved of female company, and many Kiwi women were charmed by the Americans (sic) good manners and ability to afford taxi rides, ice-cream sodas and gifts of flowers.”

Between 1942 and 1944 up to 45,000 American soldiers and sailors were based in New Zealand, before or after the war in the Pacific.

Most readers would be familiar with the much-chronicled “Battle of Brisbane” – a vicious World War II brawl between US and Australian troops on November 26 and 27, 1942, an incident army censors sought to supress. The fracas was sparked by tension between US and Australian servicemen over the former’s extra-curricular activities with local women. American troops were better paid, better turned out and had access to luxuries like chocolates, nylons and cigarettes (Or as the saying apparently went ‘Over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ Ed). Smokes were available to US troops duty free from a canteen in Queen Street. Australian troops complained about the unfairness of this and, after briefly being given access to the canteen, the practice was deemed illegal.

In New Zealand as in Australia, allied troops engaging in public brawls was certainly not what the top brass wanted to read in newspapers. There is evidence that much of the detail about the three-hour Battle of Brisbane was hushed up at the time, likewise the Manners Street incident. Censorship was loosened in 2013 with the release of previously classified CIA documents. In one of these documents, a 1942 report by US war correspondent J Edward Angly (which I downloaded from the CIA website), observed that resentment was rife among Australian troops during World War II. The Americans were more affluent and by reasons of their manners and appearance, more attractive to local women. There was also some tension in that the Australian militia could not be sent to a Pacific theatre of war beyond their mandated territory. “The Americans know this and are inclined to rib the Australians about it,” Angly observed.

The “Battle of Brisbane,” where up to 4,000 people slugged it out on the streets, resulted in one fatality and eight serious injuries.

Anyone who has seen Queensland Ballet’s evocative production of ‘Cloudland’ would recall the tension between American and Australian servicemen, out for a night of drinking and dancing at Brisbane’s once famous dance hall.

On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Brisbane, Dr Judith Powell said in a blog the incident had become such a part of Brisbane folklore that when Queenslander Jeff Horn met reigning welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao in the boxing ring at Lang Park, the event was billed as “The Battle of Brisbane”.

The Battle of Manners Street does not hold that kind of mystique, but looking into it allowed me to discover that World War II had more of an impact on Kiwis at home than we might realise.

On June 19, 1941, the liner RMS Niagara was sunk by a mine laid by the German auxiliary cruiser Orion off the coast of Whangarei, north of Auckland.  Everyone aboard escaped and was transported to shore.  But a large consignment of gold from the Bank of England worth £2.5 million pounds went down with the ship. The gold was a (then secret), payment from the UK to the US for munitions supplies.

German surface raiders operated in New Zealand waters in 1940 and 1941, sinking four ships. Japanese submarines also operated in New Zealand waters in 1942 and 1943. They sent reconnaissance aircraft over Auckland and Wellington, but did not carry out any attacks.

For all of that, Kiwis tend to remember the more emotive brawl between (inebriated) soldiers in Wellington’s streets and laneways. There were racial elements to both brawls, with the presence of African American sailors and soldiers in Australian cities a challenge to the then ‘White Australia’ policy. Various sources say the Battle of Manners Street was sparked by US servicemen and sailors complaining about Maori servicemen being served alcohol in the Allied Services Club. The Maori soldiers in turn complained the Yanks were getting preferential treatment.

Up to 1,000 people, including some civilians, were involved in skirmishes which were quelled by civil and military police three or four hours after the violence started. No reference to the riots appeared at the time in local newspapers or on the radio.

According to a 2013 update by stuff.co.nz, false rumours that two American serviceman had died that evening persisted for decades.

It is worth pointing out that servicemen on furlough typically went on drinking binges and in New Zealand at the time, pubs closed at 6pm.

The ‘Six O’Clock Swill’ was notorious for prompting binge drinking and bad behaviour in general.

Hard to imagine the Australian and US military having such antipathy today, drunk or sober, especially when it appears that we are still able and willing to support the American military when the occasion arises. Although Australia was not directly involved in missile strikes on Syrian targets, PM Malcolm Turnbull has not ruled out joining the US, UK and France in future military action if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad again uses chemical weapons.

Never mind that, you say, what happened to the gold?

Oh, the gold? Yes, 94% of it was salvaged for HM Government by an old ship that found the wreck by dragging its anchor back and forth across the Whangarei harbour (exploding the occasional mine). According to this Wikipedia entry, there are still five gold bars down there – somewhere.

Even after 78 years, the legacies of war keep surfacing. Kiwi environmentalists are pressuring the government to assess the risk of a major oil leak from the Niagara.

Auckland Conservation Board chair Lyn Mayes told the New Zealand Herald last year that the rusting hulk was a ‘ticking time bomb’. While only sporadically leaking oil over the years, the Niagara’s two main oil tanks still contain 2000 litres of oil.

Which makes you wonder about the wrecks of 30 ships sunk by German and Japanese submarines around Australia’s coastline between 1942-1945.

I  don’t like the use of the word ‘famous’ in this list of shipwrecks as so many of them represent lives tragically lost at sea. But it is a fascinating peek into our war-time history.