|North Island Nomads, Continued
Back on the relatively flat, the big attraction was the New Zealand Army Museum, about 15 miles across the scrub from downtown Okahune. . .all four streets of it. To get there you drove past the town park, which features enormous smiling vegetables. . .a 10 foot tall carrot, a rutabaga the size of a Volkswagen (although down here a rutabaga is called a 'swede' for reasons I haven't doped out yet), a portly and oddly misshapen spud (it was round and lumpy, unlike the oblong Idaho bakers we usually picture, and was more like a thin skinned boiler), and, lastly, a fourteen foot tall parsnip. All were there to encourage us to eat their cousins in large amounts, and testified to the hard work of early Chinese farmers who leased partially cleared land from local dairy farmers—the terms were for three years, with minimal rent, but the Chinese truck farmers would pull all the stumps from the sections and turn over a well tilled patch of ground that could be turned to pasture or planted with swedes.
The crops that flourished most up here were the winter root vegetables who were guarding the playground, and as we found at dinner a bowl of well roasted local veg was mighty tasty indeed.
At any rate, beating our plowshares into swords, the Army Museum had nothing to do with root vegetables, but everything to do with each conflict New Zealanders have been embroiled in, from the Musket Wars of the Maoris prior to colonization, to the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s that pitted many of the local tribes against the Europeans who were moving into the neighbourhood—as well as tribe against tribe, as some of the smaller iwi looked to settle scores with larger tribes who had decimated them in the earlier Musket Wars—and before. On through the Boer War, the first campaign the New Zealand military waged overseas, when troopers and infantry joined their British cousins from 'home' to fight the wily guerrillas of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. . .on through World War I, World War II, the Malaysian insurrection. Korea, and Viet Nam.
The museum turned out to be a real E Ticket, a five star attraction, and an exhibition that could stand next to any of the Smithsonians without being in the shade.
First up was a decent sized room filled with dress-maker dummies decked out in women's clothes from a century ago. A peach coloured wedding gown, button shoes below plain grey frocks, nursing uniforms with winged hats worn by 'sisters' in field hospitals during the First World War, and some beaded dresses sketched with pearls and framed by ermine wraps. . .all hung from headless mannequins with nearly empty sleeves—as though waiting to be hemmed for the street.
Each set of clothes either belonged to a particular woman with a connection to the Great War, or was a replica of clothing she would have worn at the time. One of the fancy dresses belonged to a wealthy aristocratic type who had a mania for mauve—literally everything from her limousine to the toilet paper in the bathrooms of her mansion had to be purple. When not shopping for monochrome necessities to fill out her wardrobe and her home, she was a formidable fund raiser to support needy service men returning from the front.
Down the way was a simple frock and long skirt, belonging to a singularly determined mother. Her only son died in Belgium, and she conceived a determination to bring his body home to New Zealand. She sailed to Europe, hired a horse and wagon, and in the dark of night drove out to the war cemetery where he had been buried next to his comrades in arms. She took a spade to the dirt, but before she could exhume her son, the horse took fright and bolted, and she had to walk back to the hotel empty handed.
A night or two later she was back—presumably with a horse who was her equal in nerve—and succeeded in unearthing his coffin and claiming his bones and the shreds of his uniform. . .which she packed up for the boat ride home and later interred where she could visit them when she wished.
Another, sadder, tale, was told beside another plain set of clothing, with a dark felt coat and a broad rimmed hat. These had belonged to a woman who never gave up on finding her son, even after he had been missing for fifteen years, following the slaughter at the Somme. She refused to believe he was dead and laying in an unmarked grave, and kept up a constant stream of letters to hospitals and the Red Cross and service men clubs—anyone who might have word on her son.
The long years passed, and one day a journalist in Sydney happened to hear an idle remark about how many ex-soldiers in a local convalescent hospital had no family to bring them cigarettes, and how the poor devils suffered from want of tobacco—the hospital commissary being stingy in what it doled out to them. He picked one particular 'orphan patient' to highlight their plight, and chose a man who had been found wandering behind the lines after the Battle of the Somme, in a state of utter shell shock. He gave a name and a regiment that corresponded with nothing known, and had clearly been unhinged by the horrors and the terrors of that ghastly engagement. Amnesiac and catatonic, his accent pegged him as from the Australasian neighbourhood, so to Sydney he was sent. . .and there he languished for nearly fifteen years.
Something in the author's description of this lost soul, and the similarity of the name he had given to that of this woman's son, caught the eye of a friend of hers—who got word to New Zealand about the story, and she sailed for Sydney at once. She recognized him at once, and took him home to nurse him the rest of her days, although he was never quite 'of this world' even when back home in his own haunts once more.
There were many such tales in that room, and the rest of the museum was equally fascinating. There were numerous life sized dioramas of New Zealand troops slogging through dripping Malaysian jungles, or peering into No Man's Land from a muddy trench on the Western Front—or reaching for the rip cord as they bailed out of a transport plane above the gift-shop.
Exhibits told the tales of POWs with tiny compasses hidden in buttons, and handicrafts fashioned from scraps of wood and metal to wile away the endless hours of boredom in stalags across German or Poland. A section on food covered camp cuisine, field rations, and rationing at home, with particular ingenuity. Cheese was a big export to the U.K. during the Great War, and a small grille below the placard explaining all this wafted the scent of sharp cheese to your nose. . .nearby another bit talked about how ginger-nut cookies were the favourite homemade sweet to be sent abroad, since they travelled well—you opened a small drawer and were greeted with the unmistakable sweet smell of ginger and molasses.
(One could only be grateful that they didn't try the same stunt with a section on field latrines or poison gas. . )
All in all, a remarkable place and well worth our afternoon.
On the general subject of museums, on Wednesday we nipped downtown to visit the local library—which fits all sorts of historical displays in between the literature, magazines, and DVDs. There was an intriguing exhibit on rhododendrons, themed around the mighty specimen garden outside of town. Beautiful botanical portraits illustrated stories of flower hunters who combed the globe to bring back specimens to plant here—including one chap in the 1920s who traveled China and Tibet looking for the rare and the wonderful—and used a rifle to shoot down blossoms from inaccessible branches or sheer cliffs.
The highlight, however, was the two computers in the reference room—here you could slap on headphones and play back hundreds of commercials and short films from the 1920s onwards. An old TV ad from the early 1950s, for example, exhorted Kiwi women to buy girdles made in New Zealand for New Zealand women. . .the announcer, a prim looking lady in a huge hat, assured everyone that “this model, for instance, uses two way support to make anyone look a size smaller—in comfort!” Looking at the actual contraption, with its taut rubber panels and criss-cross elastic bands, it looked to be as comfortable as shoving your thumb into a toothpaste tube, but what price beauty?
There were 1970s commercials urging everyone to drink more milk or wear neon striped tube tops and bell bottom pants, adverts explaining why you needed Brylcreem if you ever wanted to go on a date, and much else, but our absolute favourite was a six minute theatrical short subject from the 1940s, all about puff pastry. . .how it is made, how it is used, and why it would make your life a joy.
There were many revelations—one is that puff pastry used to be sold in blocks the size of the yellow pages, shipped across the country from regional industrial bakeries and retailed in corner shops. It was important to keep it cool and moist, so the film advised us to wrap it in a damp tea towel and store it inside the under-the-counter flour bin in cold months (since no one had—or has—central heating, any room in a Kiwi home without a fireplace tends to be mighty chilly in the winter). In summer, the smart cook sticks the pastry block into the upright wash tab with a wooden lid, which was generally kept in a lean-to out back, and so was a bit shady and exposed to a breeze.
When it came time to explain how to use puff pastry to best advantage, we were introduced to a representative New Zealand housewife who had company over. She stood in the kitchen, worried about having her pies resembling 'sunken gardens.' The narrator commended her for taking such pride in her baked goods, but then the camera cut to the company in the living room—a couple of severe looking women seated on a couch, wearing enormous hats. “You want your pies to look their best,” the voice intoned, “but the two old bats on the sofa will scarf down anything as long as it's free!”
Despite having such non-discriminating guests to feed, our heroine used proper technique to trim her pastry, pre-heat her oven, and brush everything with a glaze of milk, to produce proper pies—even if her company didn't appreciate it.
And so, wiser and happier, we carried on with our vacation here in Kiwi Land.