How I Met Your Grandfather

@supergran41 requested a few items from Canberra’s past plus one that is essentially timeless. These three brought back recent and longer term memories for me…

Starlight Drive in at Watson + 70s Valiant + Car Load of Kids

Starlight Cinema courtesy of of family on car

The lights went off just as Jill put the stir fry on the stovetop. It took her a second to take in what was happening, and she was disoriented for a moment longer by the screams of concern coming from Brad and Belinda.

‘What happened Nanny?’ Brad called. Through the dim, grey light, Jill could just make out Belinda’s eyes darting around, searching desperately around the room for a glint of light.

‘It’s okay my darlings, it looks like the power has gone off.’

Jill glanced up at the microwave clock to confirm what she had said, and sure enough the LCD screen was blank.

‘It might be a fuse, but more likely it is the power company. I’m going to grab some candles.’

The children made more nervous sounds as she stood up and walked slowly towards the cupboard, feeling her way around the furniture, partly because she could just them make out in the dim light, and partly following the map of the kitchen her subconscious mind had memorised.

‘It’s okay. I’m at the cupboard now. I have matches and candles in here, unless Grandad has moved them.’

She felt around in the cupboard, which was in complete darkness, gently moving past what she thought were the table napkins and firelighters, until her fingers touched upon what she thought were the matches. She moved these out and put them in her pocket, before returning to the cupboard again until her hands gripped the candles. She took these also, and holding them between her legs, attempted to light the matches.

‘Damn Grandad’s cheapness,’ she cursed under her breath.

‘What Nanny?’ Belinda called, worry still apparent in her voice.

‘Nothing dear. Just wish we hadn’t bought the no-name matches.’

She struck the match twice more against the packet, and at last it lit. She clasped the candle and lit the wick. Light suddenly flooded the space around her.

‘There we are now,’ she said, carrying the candle back to the table where she could make out her two grandchildren sitting stiff and nervously. She placed the remaining candles on the table and sat down next to them. When they were all lit, there was a surprising amount of light. As it grew, she could see the children relax.

‘All done. Now let me see what’s going on.’

The children moved around the table and huddled around her, as she found the number for the power company on her mobile phone. She called their faults line, where a recorded message told her that the suburb of Watson would be without power for at least the next hour.

‘We’re in for a wait guys,’ she said, hanging up the phone. ‘But we can have some fun, can’t we? This is just like camping!’

‘Tell us a story Nanny,’ Brad said. ‘That’s what daddy does when we go camping.’

‘Okay,’ Jill said hesitantly, wondering what she could tell them to keep them entertained for the next hour. She stared out the window at the black night, now enveloping them all the more due to the lack of light usually emitted from the nearby houses and street lights. She could just make out the full moon shining brightly through a small hole in her neighbour’s row of pittosporums. Her eyes drifted around the vegetation, and saw off in the distance a slight glint. Something metallic was being partially lit by the moon’s glare.

‘That must be the old Starlight Drive-in sign,’ she said, although not aware she had spoken the words out loud.

‘What Nanny?’ Belinda asked.

Jill looked down at her and smiled.

‘Have I ever told you about the time I met your grandfather?’ she asked.

Both children shook their heads, with a glint in their eyes.

‘Well, nuzzle in a little closer and I’ll tell you all about it.’

‘It wasn’t far from here, at the old Starlight Drive-in. They put the sign back up a few years back, and you can still see it from the road. But the drive-in hasn’t been there for years.

‘A drive-in was a type of old-fashioned cinema. It would be fun to go to on a night like tonight. Instead of staying in and watching movies, or going to a theatre, you would drive to this big open space, with a massive screen. Then you either tuned into the sound via the radio, or put this big clunky speaker into your car window.’

‘Why didn’t people stay home and watch DVDs?’ Belinda asked.

‘Well, it was before DVDs were invented, my dear. And even today it’s fun to go to the movies, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I love the movies; especially the food!’

‘Well, this was like a big open-air cinema; and it was really fun. Cars loaded with kids and parents, young people on dates, and whole families out for their monthly visit.’

It was a Friday night. 29 December 1979; the last Saturday before New Year’s Eve. It was a hot night, and it felt like anyone who had stayed in Canberra for the holidays had decided to go to the drive-in.  I wasn’t even meant to be there. But Aunty Anne really wanted to go the drive-in with this boy. You know him as Uncle Bert, although in those days everyone called him Alberto. He really was a lovely young boy, even then, but my parents were a bit narrow-minded. They didn’t like the idea of Anne dating an Italian. So they only agreed to it on the condition I went as chaperone. Dad at least leant us his new Valiant for the night; although I was scared stiff driving it. He loved that car.

I didn’t know until I arrived that Alberto had brought a friend; James. I wasn’t prepared for there to be another boy there, and he took my breath away the moment I set eyes on him. He was tall and handsome, with blue eyes and this lovely, wispy blonde hair. It took me a few moments to even find my voice around him.

We sat together in the front seat while the love birds cuddled in the back seat. He was quite the flirt.

‘What’s a fwirt, Nanny?’ Belinda asked.

It took Jill a moment to respond, so swept up was she in memories of that night.

‘A boy who is very good at speaking to girls,’ Jill said at last.

‘Like Brad?’

Jill smiled.

‘Maybe. Shall I continue the story?’

The girls nodded.

In those days, you usually had some sort of preview or short film before the main feature. I can’t even remember what it was on that night, but neither of us liked it. We made some idle chit chat and were really getting on well. Suddenly my night was turning out far better than I hoped.

Until he spotted an Asian family in a nearby car.

‘Boat people,’ James scoffed.

I was half way through my university degree, and I was quite full of myself. Thought I was a modern woman at the start of an independent life; which, I suppose I was. Still, it took me a moment to take in exactly what he had said.

‘Sorry?’ I said at last.

He must have sensed from the tone of my voice that I wasn’t impressed, so he tried to change the subject.

‘Nothing. When do you think the main feature will start? I’m bored of this; do you think it will be scary?’

He sort of shuffled towards me as he said this.

I leant away from him.

‘You can pick a Vietnamese family from behind can you?’ I asked.

‘Well, they’re all the same, aren’t they?’ he responded innocently.

‘They would probably say the same thing about you. What’s wrong with people arriving here via boat?’ I asked.

He paused and looked at me for a moment, obviously considering how honest he was going to be with this girl.

‘I don’t like what that Fraser is up to,’ he said at last.

Now it was my turn to scoff.

‘What bits don’t you like? Compassion for people fleeing a war we participated in? Updating Medicare so everyone gets a chance at some decent health care? Opening up Government so we actually know what the public servants who work a few miles from here are actually doing?’

James sighed. It was now clear to him the flirting was over and he was going to speak his mind.

‘My Dad is a GP and he reckons doctors were just fine at making sure those who couldn’t afford to pay still got treatment. Now Medicare means everyone has to pay something. Anyway, Fraser is just implementing all the stupid ideas that communist Whitlam had. Welfare state… give me a break!’

I was silent for a moment, so stunned was I by how conservative this guy was.

‘In fifty years, people will look back at these changes and think what took so long,’ I replied at last. ‘They’ll take transparent government for granted. I bet Australia will be full of different cultures, and all the better for it. Already Alberto’s family is here from Italy, and that Vietnamese family there. If Australia reaches its potential, we’ll be holding out a compassionate hand to all sorts of people fleeing awful situations around the world. Humans are good at treating each other badly.’

‘You have that right,’ James replied triumphantly. ‘And they are also great at bludging off others, starting with that Asian family there.’

‘And what about Alberto?’ I asked him indignantly.

‘He’s different,’ James said quitely.

‘Why, because he’s got the right shaped eyes?’ I asked.

James stared at me.

‘Can we go back to talking about the movie?’ he asked.

I stared back. He was damn attractive, but I just couldn’t deal with his prejudices. Fed up, I got out of the car.

‘I can’t believe it took until 1973 for this country to give up on the absurdity of the white Australia policy. The first Australians were black!’ I said, leaving the car.

‘Where are you going?’ Aunty Anne called.

‘For a walk,’ I replied, slamming the door.

I didn’t know where I was going, but I found myself at the candy shop. I decided some popcorn might cheer me up so got in line without really thinking about it. It wasn’t until I got near to the front that I looked to see who was in front of me in the line.

A tall Vietnamese man was ordering drinks. I was stunned immediately by how well he spoke English. Nonetheless, the girl behind the desk confirmed he wanted six drinks in total.

‘Big order,’ I said smiling.

He nodded.

‘Yes, I speak the best English in my family, so I’m always sent to order things.’

‘Your English is very good,’ I said.

‘Thank you,’ he replied, the merest hint of accent to his words. ‘We have been here for three years, so I’ve had some practice now.’

‘I’m Jill,’ I said.

He smiled and returned my handshake.

‘I’m Anh,’ he replied.

‘If you don’t mind me asking, did you arrive by boat? It’s just, 1976 would line up with…’ I didn’t finish my sentence, concerned suddenly I was stereotyping Anh because of his appearance.

He smiled. A warm smile, complete with eyes glinting with equal parts amusement and kindness.

‘It’s okay, Jill. It’s a fair question. We did arrived by boat. My family was on one of the first. We arrived in Darwin, not sure what we would find in Australia. We were relieved to be accepted on humanitarian grounds. We left Saigon…’

Anh was interrupted by the girl holding a tray of drinks in front of me.

‘I’m sorry, thank you,’ he replied, taking the tray. The waitress looked at me expectantly. I was so taken by Anh’s story it took me a moment to register that she was waiting for me to give my order.

‘Umm….packet of jaffas and a large popcorn please,’ I said at last.

‘You ordered a toasted sandwich at the movies?’ Brad asked.

Jill shook her head with amusement.

‘No, these were little red lollies that were hard on the outside, and had chocolate in the middle. I think you can still get them.

‘Yum!’ both kids said. She realised how intently they were listening to her story, leaning forward on their hands as she spoke.

‘Be careful you don’t burn yourself on the candles kids.’

Jill continued her story.

‘Are you here alone?’ Anh asked, as he waited with me for the food.

I blushed, suddenly embarrassed.

‘No… well yes… sort of.’

We both laughed.

‘I’m chaperoning for my little sister. She’s on a date. I didn’t expect to find myself with company for the evening, but he brought a friend.’

‘Nice guy?’ Anh asked, smiling.

‘Sort of,’ I replied. ‘Tell me more about Saigon?’

I was desperate to change the subject.

‘After the fall of Saigon in 1975, my family was certain we would suffer much violence from the communist regime. My family was wealthy and prominent in the south, although not overly political. My father owned a successful cloth business. Nonetheless, he packed up everything we owned and managed to smuggle us all out. It was very frightening. We didn’t know where we would end up, and I was only fourteen when we left. The war was not good for Vietnamese people.’

I nodded, trying to offer some understanding. But really, what did I know about your homeland being ripped apart by civil war and having to leave your family?

After speaking to Anh I returned to the car and James, feeling much calmer. I opened the door and popped myself down next to him. I had to admit, he was very attractive and if I was truly a modern woman, shouldn’t I welcome the change for someone to challenge my opinion.

‘I’ll give Fraser and Whitlam this,’ James offered after a few bites of popcorn. ‘I do like the idea of Legal Aid.’

I smiled at that. It turns out we had more in common than we thought, and that night was the beginning of…

Jill was interrupted as the lights went back on in the house.

‘Awww,’ said the children in a disappointed tone. ‘Can we turn the lights off and tell stories by candlelight some more?’

Jill smiled.

‘No, now the lights are back on, I should cook some dinner.’

‘You haven’t finished your story, Nanny!’ Brad said, smiling and looking at her hopefully.

‘Sorry guys, it’s pretty much finished.’

‘How many Vietnamese live in Australia now?’ Belinda asked.

Thousands and thousands; all Australians now. And thousands of other cultures too,’ Jill said. ‘Many more Vietnamese came to Australia after Anh in the 70s and 80s. Just like his family, they were searching for a better life. And just like him, they contributed to a better Australia.’

‘You know, some famous Australians are Vietnamese. Hieu Van Le, has just been appointed Lieutenant Governor of South Australia. If it wasn’t for Australia accepting those poor pepple fleeing war and persecution, South Australia wouldn’t have such a good Governor now.

‘And there is that Luke guy on SBS!’ Brad exclaimed.

‘Luke Nguyen,’ Jill replied. ‘That’s right, he’s a great chef.’

‘Can we go to the drive-in one day Nanny?’ Belinda asked.

‘No, I’m sorry Belinda. The drive-in and perhaps all it stood for, has long since been ignored and forgotten. Eventually it fell into disrepair and closed,’ she said sadly.

She looked down, reflecting on those times and the conversation with James all those years ago.

‘Now, those ideas are just a distant memory.’

But her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the front door.

‘Grandad!’ called the children.

Jill beamed as her husband walked in.

He entered the kitchen and hung up his jacket.

‘My darling Anh, I was just telling the children about the day I met you.’

Wonderful Starlight Cinema image courtesty of Trevor Dickinson, who does some amazing images of Canberra. Check out Starlight Cinema courtesy of

Chrysler Valiant image: 1978-1981 Chrysler ‘CM Valiant sedan’ CC BY-SA 3.0. Bidgee – Own work

3 thoughts on “How I Met Your Grandfather”

  1. Ahh…the starlight! We got to go ’cause all four of us kids were free (under 12). We’d be invited to stay awake for the first movie and instructed to ‘go to sleep’ for the grown-up movie afterwards (once the thermos of hot chocolate had been split six ways in plastic cups!). Great weaving of politics through this personal reflection.

  2. Thank you for the beautiful story you wove for our family. What you did with those three words was wonderful, not just for the memories you evoked, but also for the tolerance and understanding you promoted. Truly you are Canberra’s Storyteller Supreme.

  3. Thanks for the kind words guys. Heidi, the yarn certainly brought back similar memories for me. Bit of a shame I can’t take my kids to have the same expereince now. Roxie, I’m not so sure about being Canberra’s storyteller, but it’s really good to know I wrote something of meaning for you. There is a bit of momentum building it seems to bring back the Starlight Cinema sign once again. See this Canberra Times’ story for the details

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