Norleen Fiebig, her life and death in the Solomon Islands
By Eric and Ruth Fiebig with extracts from Norleen’s Journal
Forgotten is the sound of the telephone ring, TV, radio and the plastic life they bring ….. Give me instead the noise of a candle. (Norleen Fiebig)
Dedicated to our children Merrilyn, Ian, Richard and Emma and to our Grand Children Sachin & Javier Vogt Catrina & Jonathan Fiebig in Memory of Norleen.
OUR INTRODUCTION TO THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
“Ladies and Gentlemen, fasten your seat belts! We are approaching turbulence resulting from a major tropical rain depression.” This was our introduction to the Solomon Islands as Ruth and I flew in to visit our daughter, Norleen. It was nine months since she began working as a teacher under the Australian Volunteers Abroad (AVA) aid program. She was appointed to teach at Waimapuru Secondary School on an island one-hour’s flying time from Honiara.
Her first view of the Solomons was a mountain on Guadalcanal rising up through the clouds. She wrote, “The flight in was excellent as the course took us around the coast, over villages and the occasional road, of a land that was to be my home for the next two years.” Her introduction was so different from our bumpy, rainy entry to this “Land of a Thousand Islands”.
As Norleen settled into her teaching at Waimapuru we began planning to visit her. Naturally we wanted to see her in action and encourage her with the work that she was doing. We thought that a visit in our September school holidays would be the best time as some of her friends were planning to visit during the next January school break. This way she would have a steady stream of family and friends during that difficult first year. Booking flights was complicated as the schedules from Honiara to Kira Kira, the airport on her island, kept changing. Final arrangements were made for us to leave Australia from Brisbane on Friday 27 September 1991, and Norleen would meet us in Honiara as her light plane was scheduled to land within ten minutes of our flight.
The satellite weather map on our last night in Adelaide showed an unusual cloud mass in the Coral Sea, north east of Queensland. This caused us to wonder what the weather was like in the Solomon Islands. However, there were no isobars shown to indicate a cyclone. The cloud mass was still visible in the Brisbane forecast the next night, but again, no mention was made of this feature. A few showers greeted us as we arrived in Brisbane but Friday morning dawned bright and sunny. After the usual delays through emigration, we boarded the green and white flagship of SolAir, Solomon Islands International Airlines, for the flight to Honiara. The time passed quickly and we had good views of the Queensland coast before we headed for the Coral Sea and the Solomon Islands. As we approached the Solomons, the clouds we had seen on the TV weather map became obvious. We lost sight of the sea and could not see the small islands south of Guadalcanal. As the plane began its descent, we passed through one layer of thick cloud and then a second layer. It was impossible to see out of the windows when we descended through a third layer and the plane bounced around in high turbulence. I had a moment of uneasiness – bordering on panic – as we were flying blindly through this cloud, and thought; “How awful it would be if our plane crashed into Norleen’s little plane.” This was strange, as I normally do not worry about such things. However, the uneasiness continued.
Below the clouds, Honiara was visible through light rain as we banked around and landed at Henderson Airport, 14 km east of Honiara. We knew we were in the tropics as we descended the stairs from the plane. The high humidity hit us although it was not hot. The steam rose from the tarmac and we were aware of the strange musty smells of the tropics. As we hurried to the shelter of the airport buildings, Ruth thought that she saw Norleen with a group of Solomon Islanders behind the safety wire fence at the perimeter of the airport, but she was not there.
The airport buildings were old and grubby and the concrete floor was wet from the rain. People milled around to collect their luggage and then headed for customs. The local travellers had an advantage as they went through a separate area, but we seemed to take forever. “You cannot bring lemons into the country.” said our official. He took them with a smile, and I knew that they would not be wasted, but would be a luxury on his table that night. To my right was a group of dark skinned Solomon Islanders in bright floral dresses, and I caught a glimpse of Norleen. However, when I looked closely I saw that she was not there.
Travellers in shorts and sandals were met by their casually dressed friends, whereas tour groups were met by uniformed guides – a splash of colour in the drab airport buildings. Soon the numbers thinned out and we went into the airport lounge that had vinyl covered seats and a large window overlooking the entrance road, lawns and trees. Gradually the people dispersed, except for a few of the locals as they shuffled around, sliding their thongs on the ground. I found an airport official and asked him when the plane from Kira Kira was due. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Ten minutes ago!” and then turned away. Both Ruth and I were agitated and our normal holiday air of anticipation and excitement was missing. We both felt that something was wrong.
“Who are you waiting for?” a well-dressed Solomon Islander asked us. By this time we were the only Europeans still at the airport. We said, “Our daughter was due on the plane from Kira Kira.”
“My friend is on that plane also.” He said, introducing himself as Martin Karani, a police officer. We assumed that he was also on special duty, watching overseas arrivals for problem people. He was dressed in a grey suit, shiny black shoes, white shirt and tie, so different from the casual clothes worn by other people at the airport. It reminded me once more of the contrasts of foreign places.
Martin made inquiries at regular intervals and kept us informed. “It is not unusual for planes to run late,” he said. Later he told us that the pilot had radioed in that he was 60 miles away, at 8 000 feet and beginning his decent into Honiara. To comfort us, he said that he was not worried, as aeroplanes do not crash in the Solomon Islands. Actually, only once had a plane crashed and that was in 1978. This small plane had left Belona, an island south of Guadalcanal in bad weather. As it approached Honiara, bad weather closed the airport. This plane then turned around and attempted to return to Belona. However, conditions there had deteriorated also and the plane continued to be in radio contact for the next three hours as it attempted to find a place to land. Finally, it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea. The plane and its passengers were never found.
Needless to say this did not comfort us, but we had faith that Norleen would still arrive safely. There had to be a simple explanation for her delay. Martin suggested that the plane may have developed some trouble and had landed at one of the old wartime airfields on the eastern end of the Island. We had been told that several fixed wing aircraft had begun a search, but had not found anything. The emergency radio beacon on the plane had not been activated, so the officials were optimistic that the plane had not crashed. This gave us a glimmer of hope. We did not know what to do; we did not even know what accommodation Norleen had organised for us. We thought it was at the Honiara Hotel near Chinatown.
The long wait continued. We walked outside between showers to look at War Memorials to the many people who lost their lives while fighting near here during the Second World War. Many of these were airmen. This only heightened our feelings of despair.
As we waited we tried to find reasons why this should happen to our daughter. Norleen was only 28 years of age and had been teaching in Australia for seven years when she accepted the challenge to teach in a developing country.
She wrote this explanation.
“I have always wanted to teach overseas, but the kind of exchanges run with teachers is generally to countries such as America, Canada and England. Ones that hold little interest for me – as I have nothing to “exchange”. When Sandra (a teacher at Thornden in 1990) was relating her experiences as an AVA to Botswana, I knew that this type of exchange was exactly what I wanted, as it holds the opportunity to:
* Live another culture, hence learn a different way of life in the best possible way.
* Help me to grow and broaden my experiences
* Have fun! – And help if I can
* Gain experience and accept a new teaching challenge
* To share
* Challenge myself to find inner resources for coping in new and different circumstances.”
We were proud of her decision to try and help other people in this special way. There were times in the last nine months when we were worried, as it seemed as though Norleen was taking too many risks. There is no doubt that she lived an adventurous life in the Solomon Islands. Once she wrote about being stranded with a group of students after a picnic. “The truck didn’t arrive for the return trip as it had been stopped by high rivers near Kira Kira. It wasn’t long before it was pitch dark as the moon had not risen. I followed one of the students and at times all I could see was the white bucket he was carrying. I followed that white bucket for hours. After about four kilometres we came to one of the biggest rivers. It was armpit deep and flowing very swiftly. There was nowhere else to go but through it. It was a strange feeling, sloshing around in the swiftly flowing current, clutching our gear; being able to hear but not see those around you. If it wasn’t for one of the students supporting me, I am sure that I would have been washed away.”
Our letter of concern prompted a quick reply saying that she had no intention of taking unnecessary risks. Crossing deep rivers or swimming alone in a turbulent sea was safer in her eyes than riding a bicycle to work in Adelaide, as I did. How ironic it was that now she was missing on a commercial airline flight which is probably one of the safest means of transport.
We thought again of our months of planning. Norleen kept feeding us information, ending with this note:
“I’ve written this on a small piece of paper so that you can pin it on your fridge.
THINGS TO BRING.
Duty Free: Alcohol, as much as you can – gin, a good bottle of Scotch even a cask of red wine would be good.
Some ‘AA’ batteries for my torch and tape player.
A cheap plastic watch – not really necessary, but mine has stopped.
500 ml Redken shampoo and conditioner – this would be my idea of luxury!
A cheap plastic egg slide – they are $20 here.
Some tapes of classical music that you think I would like Dad! My Eagles tapes.
Forget about the heavy books I left for you to bring, as I am good at hunting up reading matter. Do bring the latest Cleo, Cosmo, Vogue, Woman’s Weekly, House and Gardens, anything! PLEASE.
A pair of white socks and a pair of respectable shoes – cheap canvas ones would do. (I don’t feel comfortable wearing thongs in restaurants).
Bring an old double bed sheet for your use – and then to leave here. I will leave it when I go, so it only has to last a year…”
Suitable clothing was obtained for our trip. Norleen had written about clothing. I could wear what I liked including brief shorts and singlet tops. However, Ruth had to dress modestly, covering her shoulders and knees – and everything in between. Ruth had to make some of her clothes as it was out of season and I had difficulty buying a pair of sandals in June. Ruth could not buy long loose shorts as they were not in fashion so her winter months were busy sewing shorts, tops and light dresses.
Our excitement had grown progressively during the last few months as we planned our visit and we received more letters from her describing her wonderful island home. But now at the airport as we waited for news our anxiety increased. After two hours, the officials had closed their offices and it was not possible to obtain any more information.
It seemed like aeons since we had cleared customs and time seemed to stand still. Finally we took out a pack of playing cards and began a game of Cribbage. At least it took our minds off the immediate problem, but it did not ease our apprehension. As it was getting dark, other people began arriving who were friends and relatives of the other passengers on the plane from Kira Kira. They too were waiting for news. Martin told us that the search had been called off until morning; weather conditions had been too bad to start an effective search that afternoon. The planes had been flying “blind” north of the island and across the sea to Kira Kira, hoping to find some sign of the missing plane.
Suddenly two robust Solomon Island Catholic Nuns, bare foot and dressed in light blue uniforms arrived. They came straight to us, threw their arms around us and one of them said to Ruth, “You poor mother.”
In our hearts, we then knew that Norleen was dead.
Henderson Airport Lounge where we sat for three hours on that fateful day.
IN THE BEGINNING
Police Officer Martin arranged for his troop carrier to take us to the Honiara Hotel. The nuns had offered but their little Suzuki was too small to take our luggage and us, so we arranged to meet them later. As we travelled to the hotel, I began to think of our lives and the circumstances that brought us to this time and place. We have always had a close relationship with our three children. Often they surprised us by their actions as Norleen did by choosing to teach overseas. They often gave us much joy as we watched them grow and build lives of their own. The really sad thing is that parents do not always give praise when they have the chance. It is only at times of sudden death of a loved one that thoughts are brought into clear focus. We found out many things about Norleen after her death that we had never heard before. It was only then that we realised how special she was to many people. To fully understand Norleen, it is necessary to know something about her family and how we helped shape her life. In turn she had shaped our lives.
Norleen’s mother, Ruth Kleinig was born at Kapunda in 1938 and lived on the family farm. Ruth says, “The eight children in my family are like a roll call from the Bible. They were Ruth, David, Christel, John, Marcus, Naomi, Vernon and Lois.”
I was born at Nuriootpa in 1936 and was the eldest of three children. Ruth and I are descended from German ancestors who migrated to South Australia as free settlers before 1845. We inherited typical “German” attitudes based on the work ethic that “a labourer is worthy of his hire.” In other words, work hard and God will bless you.
These early German settlers may have appeared conservative, but they must have had a spirit of adventure to endure the hardships of leaving “home” and heading for a strange land and unknown future.
Both families had a firm faith in God and this was practised by regular attendance at Lutheran Churches in the Barossa. We can thank our parents for sound values often supported by strict discipline, now called “corporal punishment.” Sometimes this seemed (and was) unfair to us, being the oldest children in the family. We were often held responsible for the misdeeds of our younger brothers and sisters, but this form of punishment did gain positive results! Ruth’s father believed that anything that was not productive, educational or enriching to life, was a waste of time. Consequently, he disliked radio (except religious and news programs), magazines and sport, passing these values on to Ruth. It was not until Ruth’s brothers and sisters grew up and found enjoyment out of playing sport that these attitudes were softened. I even took her father out for a game of golf, one of the many sports that I enjoy.
Ruth and I differed in many ways. Ruth’s brothers and sisters were born at regular intervals and she left school at 13 to help on the farm with the animals and the younger children. This limited her formal education to primary school, but the practical “education” she learnt from life meant that she could hold her own in any company. My family was actually three separate families. My brother John is five years younger than I am and my sister Rosalie is fifteen years younger. Rosalie remembers me reading stories to her as a child and this was my only practice in raising children. Ruth on the farm helped raise her seven brothers and sisters, while carrying out numerous farm chores. I left home at the age of 16 to board in Adelaide and continued my formal education through Adelaide University, gaining a Bachelor degree in Civil Engineering.
Ruth left the farm at 18 to nurse at Murray Bridge. This was near the new farm that her parents had purchased at Cooke Plains, south of Tailem Bend. She studied the necessary subjects to enter the nursing profession and began her formal training – not a bad effort for someone who had not attended secondary school. Only two years into her course, she was approached by a member of the Lutheran Mission Board and asked to nurse at the new hospital at Hermannsburg Aboriginal Mission, west of Alice Springs.
She accepted and worked very closely with Aboriginal people and stayed there for almost a year. This was a good learning experience for a young farm girl! Then followed almost two years as a medical supervisor in the Immanuel College Boarding House at Novar Gardens, Adelaide, where she looked after students who were not much younger than she was. Ruth then returned to her nursing training at Wakefield Street Memorial Hospital until her marriage to me in July 1961.
When lovers first meet, should bells ring and the sky turn blue? This did not happen to us. Our first meeting was memorable for different reasons. It was at a youth camp run by Lutheran Tertiary students. As I was one of the few students then to own a car, I volunteered to pick up a couple of girls at the railway station and bring them to the camp. Ruth said that she felt like a bag of potatoes as she and her luggage were dumped in the back of my Volkswagen. There was no doubt that I had few social skills in those days, but Ruth did not match my image of an ideal girl. She was plump at the time due to the unbalanced diet she had at Hermannsburg, was very shy and lacked an interest in sport. It was no wonder that I could not remember her name each time we met during the next two years. I finished my engineering degree and suddenly found myself with time on my hands. Previously, I had to study long hours and I did not have many social contacts. Then, one hot summer’s night I met Ruth at a youth social function. After again asking her name, we shared supper and then I took her back to the Nurses Home. We talked until early morning – and I proposed two weeks later. We were running out of things to talk about, so that gave us a new topic as we started planning the wedding. You could say that Ruth has been talking and I have been listening ever since, but that is not quite fair. Ruth loves having people around her and enjoys conversation. I can be content in solitude and tend to be a good listener.
Our first real date was in January, but we had to wait until seeding had finished on the farm before we could marry in July. After a honeymoon driving to Queensland and back, we moved to Port Lincoln. I was transferred there from Adelaide and I worked as a construction engineer in charge of about 100 men who were laying sewer mains in the town. Away from family and friends, Ruth and I developed a strong relationship and had many enjoyable experiences. Ruth was pregnant with our first child when I introduced her to the joys of spear fishing – wading through shallow water at night, using a Tilly lantern and a hand spear. Tulka Beach just west of our home was still full of flat head, flounder and crabs, so we never came home empty-handed. At last I had her interested in some sport and outdoor activity.
Merrilyn was born at Port Lincoln Hospital. Those first few months were difficult for Ruth, as she was isolated from family and friends. She had no one to confide in during convalescence and looking after her baby. My mother visited us for a short time after Ruth came home from hospital and her help and support was appreciated. We were delighted with our healthy baby. Several months later we returned to Adelaide and I was appointed as a maintenance engineer at the Sewerage Depot, Thebarton. We lived in a lovely old mansion on the property, facing the Port Road at Thebarton.
This was the most enjoyable time of my career. I began to learn the many problems of running a sewerage system in Adelaide and was promoted to Operations Engineer after several years. Ruth was not so happy as she did not have any neighbours. She only had a young baby and me for company. Ruth, with her strict upbringing, was trained to always obey her husband – and did not tell me of her loneliness. We often had friends around, but the long hours spent alone during the day were hard for her. Merrilyn kept her busy, but Ruth needed more stimulation than motherhood provided. The “pill” had just been developed and she began to use it. However, the early doses were too strong and they made Ruth very miserable and depressed. “I am not taking the pill any more.” She said. “The side effects are so awful that I don’t care if I get pregnant again.” So she did – and we were planning once more for a new baby.
What a shock! Two babies in 13 months, how would we cope? That first year at Thebarton was a blur to me – and a sad one for Ruth. I was very busy, solving pumping problems and was often called out after hours leaving Ruth even more alone. Looking back now, I can only believe that Ruth must have loved me very much to accept such a difficult situation.
Sunday 7th of July 1963. How can we ever forget it? The previous week started badly for me with a couple of major problems. One night I was called out at 3 am and this added to my fatigue at the end of the week.
Ruth began to have labour pains during the morning, so we did the washing. Then visitors came for lunch and we entertained them. Finally, Ruth hinted that they should go as she was having severe labour pains and needed to go to hospital! They left and I took Ruth to Hindmarsh Hospital. I was completely exhausted after cleaning up and promptly fell asleep. The phone rang soon after and the duty sister told me that I had another lovely daughter. “Thanks,” I said and immediately fell asleep again. Consequently, Ruth was all alone until I called in for a brief visit before work on the Monday morning.
It was several days before I held Norleen in my arms, this little bundle that had given us so much joy – and now sadness. Having two babies at different ages was more difficult than twins, as they had to be fed and put to sleep at different times. Of course, I helped as much as I could, but there were many hours when Ruth had to face these problems alone.
In contrast, my work continued to be exciting as I had over 260 men to control, hundreds of kilometres of sewer mains and over 200 pumping stations to maintain. My theoretical training was good, making it possible to introduce many new ideas by gaining support of my senior foremen and staff. I enjoyed working with these men and the challenges they presented. Most of my ideas were modified following discussion, and many new ideas that I introduced were still in use when I retired 25 years later. Using the experience of my staff to increase my knowledge served me well throughout my career. There is no doubt that men who are keen on their work produce excellent results – with a bit of encouragement and recognition.
Parents can look at their children and see attributes that they have given them. Both Merrilyn and Norleen were highly intelligent and happy children. Merrilyn, like me, was content to be by herself, but Norleen followed her mother and always loved having people around her. Both girls developed good management skills, and it was plain to see how our lives influenced their development.
Merrilyn and Norleen were great company for each other. Merrilyn was very smart as a baby and could always get what she wanted without using words. Norleen, however, began talking at a very early age and then taught Merrilyn how to speak. Once Ruth’s brother Vernon was having a very complex discussion with one of the girls and he thought it was Merrilyn. Imagine his surprise to turn around to find that it was little Norleen that was using three syllable words in this serious discussion with him.
I have photos of Norleen at eight months in her swan rocker. She would stand on the seat, or rock, facing backwards. Many times she nearly tipped it over. These pictures capture forever her excitement. There is another photo of Merrilyn and Norleen holding hands and bathed in the golden light of sunset. At the time, Ruth and I had returned from a holiday at Broken Hill, as Ruth badly needed a break from the children. Norleen was only 14 months old, but was happy to stay with Ruth’s sister Christel at Loxton, while Merrilyn stayed on the farm at Cooke Plains. When the two children were reunited, they walked hand in hand for over an hour.
One Sunday morning Ruth and I were lying in bed, trying to work out a few problems. It seemed that life was just too demanding. Merrilyn was nearly four years old and Norleen was approaching three. Although they were wonderful children, we were looking for something new to help us grow as a family. I suggested that we could go to Papua New Guinea. Ruth was amazed at my idea, as this was one of her secret wishes. However, it was a subject that we had never discussed. Two of her Uncles were working there at the time and it seemed a great chance to do something different. I obtained four months long service leave from my job, making it possible for me to work for the Lutheran Mission. We paid our airfares to New Guinea and the Mission provided accommodation for the family and found suitable projects where I could use my expertise.
It was raining when we arrived at Lae – ten inches that day – but it did fine up on the following day. Within a couple of hours the roads were dusty. I can remember our two small children, timidly holding their hands out from under the veranda to feel if it was still raining. Only days later they were running around in the pouring rain having a great time. We were flown up the Markum Valley to Goroka, where I checked the design of a water supply system for a secondary school. It was a strange coincidence that at Goroka, Merrilyn met the boy she was to marry many years later. However, a fouryear old boy was not very interested in a fouryear old girl as they played different games.
New Guinea was a great surprise to us. We expected primitive conditions, but we were soon to find out that the Lutheran Mission was well established and had an excellent construction, teaching and medical organisation. Norleen was very popular with the New Guinean girls because she had such soft, blonde hair and they loved touching it. This was so different from their coarse, black, curly hair. Both girls loved the freedom and attention they received from the house girls and students. This was such a contrast to their life at Thebarton where, for many hours a day, they had only their mother for company.
The four months we stayed in New Guinea were busy in exotic, but primitive locations. It was, however, one of the most enjoyable periods of our lives and was an experience that none of us would ever forget. The Mission flew us to Goroka, Mount Hagen, Madang, Finschhafen and back to Lae in their light planes, past some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in the world. We loved it – all except Norleen who was airsick every time we travelled.
There are many photographs from these travels that show our fair skinned young children surrounded by the local dark skinned girls – all with happy faces. Norleen was very young and could not remember very much from this trip but she always enjoyed looking at the photographs. There is no doubt that these made a lasting impression on her, seeing such happy people in such simple surroundings. It may have had something to do with her decision to join Australian Volunteers Abroad so many years later.
What a change on our return to Australia. I was transferred to Whyalla, a large mining town in the north west of South Australia, and put in charge of sewerage construction. Whyalla is a five-hour drive from Adelaide and one hour from the nearest town. It is surrounded by saltbush and red dust, but in 1966 it was a lively town of over 35 000 people. My work was less demanding as I only had 120 men and one council to deal with. When Merrilyn started school, Norleen cried, as she wanted to go to school with her. Fortunately, Norleen could start kindergarten soon after, and I can remember this proud girl packing her case for her first day at “kindy.”
There are times when all parents think their children are geniuses. Our time came when Norleen returned home with a detailed drawing of a house, complete with flowers in the window and a huge TV antenna on the roof.
“Who helped you with this Norleen?”
“You did it all yourself?”
It was a drawing well ahead of her age and showed a remarkable eye for detail. However, it was a “once off” effort and she reverted to the colourful squiggles of a normal fouryear old. It was only much later that we discovered Norleen’s secret. She was very much driven by peer pressure and never wanted to stand out. Her drawing of a house caused so much comment that she hid her talents, to conform to the rest of her class. I now have four pen and ink drawings on the wall of my study that Norleen sketched during her stay in Waimapuru. These show the same talent that we glimpsed when she was a child at kindergarten. Norleen always tried to meet people at their level. This was a characteristic that made her so popular and so effective as a teacher.
Norleen was very independent as a child. Ruth can remember taking her shopping and not wanting to hold hands. However, she would hold on to Ruth’s skirt so that she would not get lost. Once Norleen’s Grandmother thought that she was helping her across stepping stones through a swiftly flowing stream in the Flinders Ranges. Halfway across, this little girl turned and said over her shoulder, “Come on Grandma, it is not far now.” I have this scene on a movie and it is plain to see that Norleen was more confident than my mother when crossing this creek.
As a special treat for Norleen’s fourth birthday we took her to a local production of “Carousel.” At interval time we realised why Norleen was so radiant. “Daddy!” She said, “Look at all of these people here for my birthday.”
Three happy years in Whyalla were followed by three years in Harben Vale, near Hahndorf. This was a contrast from the red Whyalla desert to the green Adelaide Hills. Our home was an old but relatively convenient farmhouse in spacious grounds. It was very cold and wet and at one time the kitchen ceiling turned black with mould. However, the summers were pleasant and we had a beautiful “English style” garden. Whyalla was an oasis in the desert formed by pumping water from the River Murray.
Now I was part of the plan to increase the availability of water to metropolitan Adelaide, by building another pipeline from the River Murray.
Our garden at Whyalla was colourful but was mainly centred on Australian native plants and hardy annuals. Our Adelaide Hills garden was full of roses, dahlias and cold-climate shrubs. There had to be some brightness to compensate for living in such a cold area.
Merrilyn and Norleen had fun in the “parklands” around our house, with lots of sheds to play in and this helped to develop their sense of adventure. They could attend the Lutheran Day School at Hahndorf and this fulfilled one of Ruth’s wishes, to have her children educated at a Christian school. Merrilyn and Norleen were dressed in their little school uniforms, with straw hats and cases, walking confidently to the school bus stop at the end of our lane. One evening a fellow engineer of mine picked the girls up when it was pouring with rain. He then apologised to us, wondering what we had taught our children about being “picked up by strangers”. Our girls knew that it was one of my work associates because he was driving a blue car just like mine. We were living in such a secure area that thoughts and fears of “strangers” were far from our minds. It was such a blessing that our children could grow up with a feeling of security and could trust the people around them. Norleen, especially, gained from this open approach to people. How else could she have faced a class of students with confidence, or headed for the unknown in the Solomon Islands with so much joy and anticipation.
Seven years later, our son Richard was born in the Mount Barker Hospital. The girls had a great time with this oversized doll and would often push him around in a cart or balance him on their tricycle. Richard was also a happy child and would play games any time of the day or night – 3 am was one of his favourite times.
Once Richard began to walk he joined in with the girl’s games. The open spaces of our land gave our three children the chance to play with the sheep we used as lawn mowers and the old goat that ate everything – including the plastic buckets we used for water.
Richard was 2 years old when we moved again, from our solid farmhouse to an aluminium transportable home at Coonalpyn. The house was hot in summer and very cold in winter. Even the hot water service would freeze during frosty nights. That June we had over twenty frosts in a row. My job was to complete the laying of water mains in the area and then dismantle the camp. This took less than a year and we shifted to Adelaide in December 1972.
Schooling at Coonalpyn was very different from the Christian school at Hahndorf. It was only a small school and some of the teaching staff was not as dedicated as the Hahndorf teachers. Merrilyn had an excellent teacher who was one of the best maths teachers in the State. Norleen had a teacher who was good at sport and spent most of the day playing games with the students. She thought he was great, but we were not so sure about his teaching abilities. There is no doubt that Merrilyn benefited from this year and gained a love for maths and science subjects. Norleen just loved school.
Our new home in Adelaide was half way between the city and the beach at Glenelg and was within walking distance of Immanuel College. It was possible for the girls to go to the new primary school built on the college grounds when it opened that February. The children settled in to city life without much difficulty.
This was the end of childhood for our girls. They soon entered college and changed into delightful young ladies. We joined a Lutheran Church that had an active youth group and our home was often filled with young people. After we bought a caravan, they joined us for holiday weekends and the circle of friends grew. Ruth and I enjoyed outdoor activities, such as canoeing, fishing and hiking with our children. Ruth has grown much younger and more attractive over the years, due to the encouragement of her children. We have much to thank them for.
It was dark and it was still raining heavily when we arrived at the Honiara Hotel. They did not have a booking listed for us. However, there was a message for Norleen at the desk.
THE LONG WAIT CONTINUES
The Honiara Hotel had a spare room in the new section. Just as we were leaving the desk, one of the girls remembered that there was a message from Norleen’s friend Tania, saying that she was home and Norleen could stay with her.
Two porters took our large cases up several flights of stairs, through a long corridor and into our new room. It was antiseptically clean, painted white and not homely. The lovely view of the harbour was obscured by rain. It would have been pleasant under normal circumstances. Ruth unpacked a few of our clothes and we had a bath to try and relax. We tried to eat some cheese and savoury biscuits but they tasted awful – like sandpaper! What could we do next? Perhaps we had better telephone Tania and let her know what had happened. The telephone did not work; it was impossible to dial out or even raise the desk. What else could we do?
By this time we both felt thirsty, so we went down to the bar and bought a beer to share. As we were drinking it, I decided to ask the receptionists how to make an outside phone call. “We are having trouble with the phones”, she said, “so I will have to ring for you.” I rejoined Ruth and as we were finishing our beer, the receptionist came to us in the lounge. One of the women at the desk remembered Norleen from her visit earlier in the year – and then found another message for her. It was from Jan Henderson, saying that dinner plans for the following day would be changed because of a golf tournament. This message also included a contact phone number.
After finishing our drinks, we returned to our room. The phone rang; I picked up the receiver and heard Norleen’s voice. I cried out, “Norleen, where are you?” Then Ruth came running to the phone. A very sad voice replied, “I am sorry to tell you but I am not Norleen – I am Barbara, the other Australian teacher at Waimapuru. I am ringing to tell you that Norleen was definitely on the plane that is missing. I have also heard that the plane did not return to Kira Kira as some people had hoped.” She continued by saying that she was going to contact the Australian High Commissioner to let them know about us and to see what they could do. Barbara’s call confirmed what we expected. Norleen would not miss that plane – even if she had to swim the three rivers and fly in wet clothes.
It seemed like seconds later that the phone rang again. It was Jan Henderson, the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner and she wanted to know how we were. She had met Norleen two weeks ago and had arranged for her to bring us to their place for a meal. Soon after this, the Australian High Commissioner rang to say that he would visit as soon as possible.
It was not long before there was a knock at the door and three people arrived. The Australian High Commissioner, John Starey, introduced himself and his second secretary as he entered the room. The third person stayed outside and was not introduced.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He is a reporter,” said Mr Starey.
I groaned inwardly. Not reporters already! So I went out and spoke quietly to him and asked that he wait until Mr Starey was free. The reporter had been waiting at the Australian High Commissioner’s home when he heard about the missing plane and followed him to our rooms. Later John Starey found the reporter in the bar and heard that he had lost relatives in the plane crash in 1978. He realised that he was intruding on our sorrow, so left without seeing us. All of the newspaper reports in the Solomon Islands and in Australia were accurate and very sympathetically written.
We thank God for protecting us from sensational press reports and the additional trauma that this could cause. John Starey came straight to the point. There is nothing much that could be done until morning, but he had arranged for a Hercules transport plane to bring a helicopter, with search and rescue teams from Australia. This would take time to organise, but they should be in Honiara within 24 hours. He promised to keep in touch with us and would help in any way that he could.
Television is not a high priority in our lives, but we do like watching some programs. It was ironic that two shows that we watched at the time were “Brides of Christ” and “Embassy”. The first series dealt with the problems faced by nuns in the modern world with its changing values. That program gave us insights into the Catholic Church and the special role of nuns. This made it easier for us to understand and accept the love and concern given to us by the nuns at the airport. We thought that “Embassy” was carefully researched and gave a clear background of what to expect when dealing with embassy staff in a foreign country. John Starey and his staff looked as if they had walked out of the TV series. It is strange to think that television had helped us in such an unusual way by giving us a point of reference as our world came crashing down around us.
The phone rang again soon after John and his associate left our room. A woman’s voice asked if John Starey was there – and then she said not to worry as he had just walked into the reception area. I guessed it was Jan Henderson. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Jan knocked on our door. She breezed in, took one look and said, “It was too lonely and isolated here. Pack your bags and come and stay with us.” This high official from the New Zealand embassy opened her home to total strangers! Norleen had said, “Won’t Mum and Dad be surprised when we are invited to Jan’s home for dinner.” Now Jan made her home available to us for the whole time we stayed in Honiara.
On our way out through the hotel foyer, we met the nuns who had comforted us at the airport. They introduced themselves to us as Sister Paul Francis and Sister Donna Kauhin, who was the Mother Superior of St. Joseph’s Convent in Honiara. Jan asked them if they would like to follow in their car to her home. It was pouring with rain as we drove up a steep ridge to Jan’s home. We remember very little of that ride, but we can remember the laughter as the Sisters described the trouble they had in driving their little Suzuki up this slippery slope.
Jan introduced her husband, David, and little daughter, Jennifer. Immediately we felt welcome and it was a relief to have other people around us in a family situation. Sister Donna was quiet, but Sister Paul was such a bright and energetic person. David and Jan were supplying us with drinks and listening to Sister Paul’s stories. She told us about the many relatives of the other people on the plane that arrived at the airport as we were leaving. They gave comfort to these people. There were 15 people on the plane and all were Solomon Islanders, except Norleen and the Australian pilot.
Then Sister Paul explained to us why she was at the airport. Her brother is a priest who was working on a nearby island. She was very close to her brother. On the previous night Sister Paul heard a noise at the window. When she looked out, she saw an owl calling to her. The Solomon Islanders have a belief that is common to several other native groups – that an owl is the messenger of death or grief. This vision upset her. Later that night in a dream she saw her brother’s body in a coffin. After waking in fright she went to get a drink and then realised that it may not be as bad as it seemed. Solomon Islanders believe that such dreams foretell the death of a person – but not of the one seen in the dream. Sister Paul knew that the death of someone would deeply affect her but that her brother would be safe. Next day she was worried about the special warning given through the vision of the owl and her dream. Sister Paul could not concentrate on her work at all that day.
The plane from Kira Kira was due to land at 3 pm, fly on to the island where her brother was working and then returning to Honiara at 5-30 pm. At the appropriate time, Sister Paul threw her car keys to her houseboy and told him to go and meet her brother. Suddenly she felt compelled to go, so she retrieved the keys and went with another sister. The two nuns piled into the little Suzuki and headed for the airport. On the way, Honiara Radio broadcast the evening devotion, based on Mark Chapter 4, the story of Jesus stilling the storm. The commentator finished by saying that Jesus stills the storms that trouble our lives and provides us with His peace. Sister Paul then found peace in her heart, knowing that she would soon be of help and comfort to someone in trouble. On reaching the airport, Sister Paul sensed that something was wrong, so she asked our policeman friend, Martin, what was the problem. He said,
“The plane from Kira Kira is missing.”
“Why are those European people here?” she asked.
“They are waiting for their daughter who is on that plane.”
Sister Paul then came to us and threw her arms around Ruth.
As we were leaving the airport in the police vehicle, the nuns became aware of the relatives of the other passengers. A husband was waiting for his wife and two small children. A priest and his wife had relatives waiting for them and there were many more. It was only at dusk that these relatives became alarmed. The nuns arranged support groups to be with each of these families during the next week. It was after these arrangements had been completed that the nuns came to the Honiara Hotel to see us again.
Although Sister Paul rarely wears shoes and has trouble keeping her veil straight, she has travelled the world and is highly educated. Her duties include being a member of the Teaching Services Commission, (the body that appointed Norleen to teach at Waimapuru), secretary to SOLTRUST, a non-government group working for human development and also trustee with IUMI TUETHA (Pidgin English for You and Me Together) Holding. This unique company is designed to foster sustainable development where all profits go back to the people. For example, they were developing portable logging mills that could be used by the villagers, reducing the damage caused by multinational logging companies as they decimate the local rain forests. This delightful person is a dynamo of energy and enthusiasm and helped us, for a moment, to think of other things.
We began to under-stand how God had provided us with help and comfort. Martin, Sister Paul Francis and Jan were all able to provide special assistance to us that night in so many ways. I do not believe it was pure chance, but God making provision for us.
At midnight we went to bed, listening to the rain and hoping that Norleen was not lying in the jungle with severe injuries. However, in our hearts we knew that Norleen was dead and we had difficulty coming to terms with this sad situation.
Friday, 27th September 1991 is etched into our memories as the longest and saddest day of our life.
GO INTO THE WORLD
We woke at 3 am with the rain drumming on the roof. I joined Ruth in her single bed to gain comfort, and we cried together. Both of us were hoping and praying that Norleen was not out in this heavy rain. A truck rumbled past. The sound of its wheels on the coral roads was so much like the noise of a passing plane that we began to wonder if they had resumed the search. As we could not sleep we began to think about Norleen’s life.
One of the longest and HAPPIEST days of her life was the Immanuel College Sports Day when she was Deputy House Captain of Kavel girls’ team. Their House did not win the Shield, but they had competed very well. Norleen took part in many of the events and improved on her previous best. She came home with a glow on her face that showed us that something very special had happened that day, as she surprised herself with her own achievements.
That last year at Immanuel College opened new opportunities for her. Being a Deputy House Captain gave her a leadership role to encourage the House members to gain points for academic and sporting achievements. She was also appointed prefect with the special role of assisting the year eight students during their first year at College. Her bright, happy and caring nature ensured popularity with her students, which in turn built up her confidence and self esteem – developing a character of her own. She had walked in Merrilyn’s shadow for much of her early life.
Our two girls were inseparable until they went to College. Merrilyn led and Norleen followed, or did as she was told. If Merrilyn was the cart, Norleen was the horse. However, the girls loved each other and played well together. They wrote and produced their own plays and presented them for family and friends. They cast themselves as a whole range of odd characters and dress accordingly. Often cousins, friends and animals were coerced to join them in their antics. The results were always hilarious and were great “ice breakers” at parties and family gatherings. Our children grew up without television and this probably helped them develop their imagination and own style of humour.
Merrilyn led the way at school where she was always a top student and won several scholarships. Norleen also did well at school but did not display the flair that Merrilyn had. She worked hard for her results, whereas her sister seemed to pick up new ideas very quickly. They were both strong and athletic, excelling in track and field events and loved playing hockey. Their strength amazed me at times, as both girls were small and slim. I was a good long distance runner during my school days and had good jumping skills. Once when they were in their early teens, they took my hat and ran off with it, so I loped after them. I knew that I would catch them after a couple hundred metres when they began to tire. However, I never did catch them. It was only then that I realised that they could run just as far and fast as I could in my prime! How times had changed. Girls were never allowed to run more than 200 metres when I was competing in athletics and generally lacked fitness. It was one of my regrets as a teenager that it was not possible to share sporting and outdoor activities with girl friends, as they were not interested. Our daughters had great times in their teens doing the outdoor activities that I loved.
During the last few months that Norleen spent in Australia, she had several serious talks with us, remembering things that we had forgotten long ago. When she was about four years old, she remembered me saying that I did not expect my girls to go to university and said, “Tertiary education was wasted on girls.
They marry, have children and do not gain full benefit of higher education.” Norleen accepted my explanation and when she grew older thought that it was a rather sexist remark. Without persuasion from us, Norleen entered a feminine role as a home economics teacher. However, Merrilyn completed an honours degree in science and worked as a research physicist in satellite imagery. She is now working part time in that field following the birth of her first child. Somewhere along the way I must have changed my mind – or the world has changed it for me.
Another regret that Norleen had was that we never bought her a “bride” doll. She reminded us that we gave educational gifts rather than “frivolous toys”. The girls did have a pram and several dolls that were given to them, but I also remember how upset they were when my parents gave them two “black” dolls – New Zealand Maori dolls. It was prophetic that Norleen was never a bride, but now has many native Solomon Island children that are proud to call her “mother”.
After college, Norleen attended teacher training college at Underdale and completed the four-year Bachelor of Education degree, majoring in home science and maths. Her practice teaching was in two metropolitan schools in an area of high unemployment, where she loved the challenge it presented. Her third school was Whyalla Stuart and she enjoyed returning to the mining city of her childhood. Imagine her delight when she was offered a first appointment to Whyalla Town High School.
The city had changed since we were there as the ship building activities had closed and less work was available. Many of the Government rental houses were now used for single parents who could not find housing in the metropolitan area. Children of unemployed people are often hard to teach as they lack ambition or confidence in the future. However, Norleen accepted these hardships and developed strong teaching skills. Her happy and open nature made it possible for students to approach her with their problems and she gave them sound advice and encouragement. We were told of two teenage girls that she helped in a special way at Whyalla. One wrote a very sad poem at the time of Norleen’s sudden death. This girl referred to Norleen as B.A.F. – her Best Adult Friend.
Norleen was always very petite and feminine, but had exceptional strength of body and character. She worked in a gymnasium to build up her petite frame and she embarrassed many young men when she challenged them to arm wrestling – and beat them! Her friends would taunt a youth that had a high opinion of himself, to challenge her. He would readily accept a challenge from such a happy, slim looking girl, and then be most embarrassed to lose. Her open and friendly nature attracted many friends and she always seemed to be the centre of a crowd of happy young people. Although she had difficult students in her classes at time, we have not heard of anyone taking advantage of her apparent openness. There was a very astute mind behind that attractive exterior and many of her students admired her. She was always fun to have around. If you wanted a crowd at your party, invite Norleen.
At one fancy dress party, Norleen and a girl friend dressed up as “punk rockers”. They went to one of the local hotels before the party and met several genuine “rockers”. Norleen’s experience at acting difficult characters in childhood plays must have helped her, because the girls had great fun teasing these men. Yes, they were from Adelaide, they were in town for a short while and it was a pity they could not spend more time with them. Imagine the stories they told when they arrived at the party.
Whenever we visited Norleen in Whyalla, she always made us feel very special and would arrange to have a party with her friends in our honour. They would be pleased to meet us and there was good fun and fellowship at these times. One Saturday morning, Cameron, one of her boyfriends was very upset. He had lost his car. He had met some of his friends at the local hotel the previous night and left his car parked in the driveway of a nearby petrol station. He had stayed longer at the hotel than expected and someone drove him home.
He had planned to go early the next morning to pick up his car, but slept in. By the time he returned, the car was gone – could Norleen help him find it? We all piled into her car and drove to the garage – to buy some petrol. With her usual smile she asked if anyone knew where a certain car was parked? With a wink, the owner said that he did not have a clue. By the time Norleen and the owner had finished teasing Cameron, there was no doubt that he would be careful where he parked his car in future. When in trouble, go to Norleen and she would try and help them.
Sporting activities were always a high priority, and she was able to continue her love of hockey. While studying in Adelaide, she was a member of the mixed hockey team at Underdale campus. Norleen was a hard opponent and played hockey as she approached everything in life – with all her strength and concentration. She left many a male opponent floundering as she robbed him of the ball. Once a volatile Greek attacked her with a hockey stick after she had stolen the ball from him. He was immediately surrounded by her angry team mates and he cooled down very quickly.
At Whyalla, hockey was major girls’ sport, and Norleen was delighted to join the Hummocky Hill Hockey Club. Two seasons later, she became assistant coach of their “B” team. In her last year at Whyalla, Norleen had played as reserve in the “A” team, while coaching the “B” team. Both teams reached the finals, which were played on the same day. The “B” team played first and won. The coach of the “A” team then asked her to play in that team – “Give it all you’ve got and I will take you off when you tire”. Norleen played the whole match and was instrumental in scoring the winning goal. She was included in the best player list for both teams. This created history, as Norleen was the first player in the Whyalla Hockey Association to play in two premiership teams on the same day.
Lyn, her hockey coach from those days, spoke to me recently. Many of her friends remember Norleen frequently. Her cheerful nature influenced people so much that she still remains a daily part of their lives. Now Lyn sees much of Norleen’s spirit of adventure in her daughter, Hannah. Norleen took risks that worried Lyn – always living on “the edge”! Always striving for that little bit extra or doing the unexpected; always asking questions and thirsting for knowledge. Now three year old Hannah is doing the same, asking questions, swinging by one hand when she should be holding on by two – that sort of thing. This little girl who loves hockey just like her mother and Norleen, complained recently that she could hit the ball easily but can’t “dribble” the way she should. Like Norleen, she is always striving to do better.
On her return to Adelaide, Norleen played District Hockey at “B1” grade. Her aim was to reach the highest level possible to test her ability. However, she was so disappointed that she could not train regularly. Imagine our surprise when we unpacked her trophies and found the “1990 Best Player Award” from that team. We would have loved to be there when she received this award, but she had not invited us, as it must have been a surprise for her also.
There are other characteristics of Norleen’s that I want to share with you. Ruth and I attend a Christian church regularly. Norleen did not attend the denomination that we attended, but went with her friends. In Whyalla, sport was played on a Sunday morning, so she went to the Catholic Church in the evening with her hockey friends, or did not go at all. Her apparent lack of commitment was a worry to us, and we were concerned about the strength of her faith. She would reassure us by saying that God did not live in churches but was with us every day, wherever we were.
Norleen had a strong love of God, and showed this through her unconditional love for the people around her. This was a strong lesson for us and one that we would remember in the future.
There were several different groups of friends that Norleen had cultivated. Her Immanuel College friends were a favourite group and they would meet on regular occasions. These included Cate, Wayne, Peter, Andrew and Stephen. Cate was like a sister to her, and they spent many hours together. Later, she married Wayne and they have remained family friends of ours. Andrew and Peter live around the corner from us, and we see them frequently. Several times each year Norleen went camping, water skiing and hiking with them. This group repaired an old shepherd’s hut near Melrose in the Lower Flinders Ranges. It was in a very isolated area and was almost one hour’s walk from the nearest road. They often went camping at “Rankin’s Hut”, as it was a great way to relax and build up their strength for the following week. Once when Norleen returned from camping at this hut, I could see that something special had happened that she wanted to share with me. She could not sleep the previous night. At about 3 am she left all of her friends asleep and climbed the mountain behind the hut to watch the sun rise. This was unusual for two reasons. Norleen was never alone and she was never an early riser. I am sure from the look on her face that she had special insight of some kind; a warning that soon she would be in a lonely place away from her friends. Shortly after this, she told us of her intention to teach overseas.
After four years in Whyalla, Norleen returned to teach at Thornden High School in metropolitan Adelaide. She lived in several houses with different groups of young people. Although she always had her own room, she had young people around her and this made her feel safe and secure. In her last home, there were several friends that had shifted from Whyalla to work in Adelaide. She surprised us one day and said that she was going to Saudi Arabia with Cameron who had relatives there. Only weeks later, this was cancelled due to that country’s invasion of Kuwait, ultimately resulting in the “Gulf War”. A short time later, she told us that she had applied to join the Australian Volunteers Abroad program and had been accepted for overseas service as a teacher. This meant that she required two years’ leave of absence from school to complete her overseas posting. We were delighted that she was prepared to make this sacrifice of time and salary. It bought back memories of the time we had spent in New Guinea many years earlier.
Norleen completed her second year at Thornden High, teaching a special course that had been developed by a former colleague. It was a catering course aimed at mature-age and teenage students, teaching management and costing skills in addition to food preparation. The students were involved in preparing food for special functions at the school. They evaluated the cost of the work and charged for their efforts, thus making a profit. They were able to use the Food and Catering Class as fund-raisers for new equipment needed at the school. This gave the students incentive to produce their best results.
In the year that Norleen left for the Solomon Islands, one of the students wrote an article for the school magazine which was a wonderful testimony to Norleen’s ability to provide assistance to her students in every way possible. This article was entitled:
“The Best Year of My Life”.
“I was fifteen years of age and in year eleven. I had chosen my subjects very carefully that year, including Food and Catering as my priority subject. I heard Food and Catering was going to be an interesting subject, becoming very involved in dealing with the preparation of food. Because of this depth, it was noticed that it would take up fifteen of my lessons a week. This is a great deal of class time and I was hoping very much that the teacher would be nice, as a teacher is one of the main influences on you within a subject.
The class itself was only small, but the friendship involved was endless. Naturally it took time to adjusting and we headed off to a slow start; getting to know one another, especially the teacher! Her name was Miss Norleen Fiebig, and I must admit it took me a while before I became comfortable with her as my teacher. She seemed very smart and eager to teach us as much as she knew, which believe me was a lot! Sometimes I wondered just when all the information she crammed into her brain was going to run out, but it never did.
Most of the work we did was practical, although, unfortunately towards the middle of the year, the theory came piling in. Food and Catering became my favourite lesson and I devoted all my time towards it. Miss Fiebig always encouraged and complimented us. Whatever our ability was, she always found something to say to us that would make us feel special. We were constantly talking of our next moneymaking scheme, working out menus and how to save money so that our profit would be huge.
Miss Fiebig ran the class like it was a business so the learning became easier and more exciting. We knew that all the profit we made would go towards the dishwasher we were saving up for, so this gave us our inspiration as well. She treated us as equals, unlike some of our other teachers. If we acted in a responsible way she would treat us like an adult. We all felt she had confidence in us in return. We respected her for this. I think in some unusual way, each and every one of us looked forward to this lesson, we all enjoyed each other’s company, including Miss Fiebig.
When we weren’t cooking our hearts out, trying to prepare meals for functions, Miss Fiebig was teaching us a new and interesting method of how to make different types of pastries, dough and biscuits. We would all joke around and laugh at each other’s mistakes, helping each other when it was needed.
We all kept a journal so that we could write of our troubles and successes. If we felt that we needed a talk, Miss Fiebig was always there to comfort us or give advice. Whether it was about our boyfriend, mum, dad or if we were just having problems in general. The situation was the same in Miss Fiebig’s case. I remember she would often come to school in a bad mood and tell us of the problem she was having with her latest love. Miss Fiebig gave so much of her spare time to help us with functions, even exams.
She wanted so much for us all to succeed, as she always made it clear that our class was very talented and full of initiative. I think in a way, she cared and worried for our futures more than we did.
The end of the year came so fast. I don’t know why, but I did not want the year to come to an end like everything else always did. Especially when the day came that Miss Fiebig happily announced, with a big grin on her face that she always wore, that she was going to the Solomon Islands for two years. I don’t know why, but I could not seem to feel the happiness that she did. I suppose I was being selfish, but I did not want her to leave, especially as I would be doing year twelve the next year and she would be so far away.
Finally I learned to accept it, although I was still filled with disappointment. She needed to be encouraged, as this would be a big, frightening step for her. She would be leaving a relatively comfortable world to enter a poor, lonely world, where it would be a culture shock. Miss Fiebig had not only become a teacher to us, but she had become our friend.”
Norleen was no angel and hurt us at times. We love all of our children and they have been a great joy to us – most of the time! Norleen wrote on walls and threw tantrums like any other child, but she had learnt much from us and the love we had given her. However, there was no doubt that Norleen had special qualities that were all her own. These qualities made a great impact on her students in the Solomon Islands.
In January 1991, we farewelled Norleen at Adelaide Airport as she travelled to Melbourne for two weeks orientation. The photograph taken at the time shows the look of bright anticipation on her face. It also shows us holding tightly onto her arms. We did not know then that it would be the last time we would ever touch her.
We are very fortunate to have Norleen’s journal and the many letters that she wrote to her close friends and us. From these writings, it is possible to present a clear picture of what happened at the Waimapuru National Secondary School and how it became home to her.
The first entry in her journal was a newspaper cutting from the Herald-Sun, dated 17 January 1991, giving details of the start of the “Gulf War”. Her comment was:
“It seems a bit ironic that the day I am due to leave Australia to broaden understanding and bridge the gap between cultures, America bombs Bagdad and begins the Gulf War!”
LONG, DARK NIGHTS
As Norleen left Australia she was asking, “Why was there needless death and destruction in the world?” Now we were doing the same! While we could not sleep that night, we began to try and find answers to our unanswerable questions.
First, why would God allow our daughter to die when she was doing such great work? Secondly, why were we left alive in preference to her? To our human logic, both Ruth and I had lived full lives – you could say that we had reached our “use by date”. If someone had to die, it should have been us. The next question was just as difficult. If we are to live, what special task has God lined up for us? Could we, in some way, continue the work that Norleen had started? We knew enough about our daughter to realise that many people would be very sad if she was dead. From Norleen’s letters we heard about the work she was doing in the Solomons and we were certain that her influence and effectiveness at Waimapuru School would leave a huge gap. We could imagine the shock and dismay at the school as her teacher friends and students prepared for exams.
I had read several books in the last couple of years where young people died suddenly and this had resulted in many of their friends reassessing their lives. Many of these had become Christians and realised a purpose in life that was not there before. Although we were not certain that Norleen was dead, Ruth and I were different people than we were a few hours earlier. It was certain that our retirement plans would change direction – or would intensify in certain areas. We were planning to retire in about four years, and had been attending Lutheran Teachers College courses to gain knowledge for lay mission work in the future. Now it seemed that so much of the reading and studying that we were doing had another purpose. This was preparing us for the events that were now happening.
Assuming that Norleen was dead – how could we carry on her work? We are not teachers. How could we continue with a project that she had left unfinished? This was just as difficult for us to think about, but one thing was certain – Norleen would not want us to be sad. In some way we could feel her presence as we stumbled through these difficult problems. We were almost certain that God was allowing her to guide our thoughts in a special way and give us strength. Would anyone who knew her ever forget her infectious laugh or zest for life?
What if Norleen was alive? She would finish her two years at Waimapuru and return to Australia. How long would she be remembered and who would take over from where she left off? How would she return to teaching in Australia? We both felt that Norleen had received such fulfilment in her short time at Waimapuru that she would have difficulty returning to teach in Australia. Her old position would not provide the challenge or the joy that she was having with these enthusiastic young people under such primitive conditions.
It was amazing how quickly we changed from that feeling of despair and started developing a positive plan for the future. Just before dawn we went back to refreshing sleep due to sheer exhaustion. The deep sadness was still there, but for Norleen’s sake, we had to be brave and help comfort her friends. God was still with us, so who could be against us?
One of the last things Ruth decided that night was that our family should be with us. If Norleen was dead, they should all be here to share in our grief. Alternatively, if Norleen walked out of the forest alive, what a great time of rejoicing it would be! Either way, it was the right plan for us to adopt.
We awoke next morning much brighter than we thought possible, although Ruth was in turmoil and felt that part of her body was dying. However, the peace of God was supporting us.
Breakfast was my first meal for sometime but Ruth still could not eat. We appreciated the company provided by Jan and David. They tried everything possible to make us comfortable especially as the weather was bad. The rain continued without stopping and it added to our misery – Honiara was no paradise in the rain.
Ian joined our family by marrying Merrilyn in March 1986.
My father is next to Norleen and my mother is next to Richard.
Telephoning Australia had to be timed correctly. We did not want to wake our families up early and spoil their Saturday morning rest. However, we could not delay our calls for too long or they might hear about the crash in the news. We rang our daughter Merrilyn and son-in-law Ian soon after 8 am South Australian time. It was wonderful for us to have Ian’s strength to support Merrilyn and our son Richard during this time. He said that they should be able to arrange something, but time was short. If they missed the Sunday flight from Brisbane, they would have to wait until Wednesday, and we could not face such a long time on our own. Ian said, “What about Richard?” and we said, “It was important that he should come too.” Then Ian reminded us that Richard did not have a passport. I said, “We would organise something from this end through the Australian High Commission.”
Finally, we arranged for Ian to ring my parents at Nuriootpa and Ruth’s Adelaide relatives. We also told him that we had problems with cash, as we would be faced with extra expenses. Ian immediately started organising their travel arrangements for an overseas flight, a difficult task on a Saturday morning during school holidays.
I had hardly put the phone down when the First Secretary from the Australian High Commission rang. “Was there anything he could do?” “Yes”, I said, “Please arrange a temporary passport for Richard so he could come on the Sunday flight.” He assured me that even on a Saturday in Australia, this could be arranged.
The next phone call was to Ruth’s sister Christel and her family at Loxton. We told them that Norleen’s plane was missing and we were afraid that she was dead. I heard Norleen’s cousin, Janine call out, “I know that Norleen is not dead – she is a survivor and is alive!”
Janine is so much like Norleen in many ways, and I felt at that moment, the close affinity that she and so many of the cousins had with Norleen. Many of them have similar characteristics to Norleen, being full of life and laughter.
It was fortunate that we rang as early as we did, because there was a news flash on Adelaide radio at 10 am, telling of the missing plane with two Australians on board. Many of our friends heard it and feared that we were on that plane.
It poured with rain all that day. Henderson’s home was built on a high ridge overlooking the harbour. “There is a great view of the islands across the bay”, said Dave. We could barely see the road at the base of the hill because of the rain. The home was typical of tropical houses and had lots of windows and overhead fans to circulate air. The wide verandas were furnished with cane chairs and also had overhead fans, which circulated the air and reduced the effect of the high humidity. We felt so helpless. The weather was so bad, that the air search had to be restricted to a sea search, a considerable distance from the probable route of the plane.
Our family relaxes with Dave (standing) and Jan Henderson on their balcony. Richard and Merrilyn are with us and Ian took this and many other photographs of this trip.
That morning, Norleen’s friend Tania, came and visited us. She was married to a Solomon Islander that she had met while teaching at a local school. Norleen was invited to stay at her home the previous night. Tania is a very attractive young lady with long blonde hair, much like Norleen’s. We spent a very quiet time talking and thinking. Much to our surprise, Tania stayed all day and we began to realise how much Norleen meant to her. We finished up comforting each other. Tania had organised a birthday party for Norleen on the airport lawns in July. It was her husband’s family that had adopted Norleen as a “wontok” (literally meaning “One Talk” – members of a tribal clan), so Tania felt that it was her sister that was missing. The thought of all of the crash victims being out in the jungle in such bad weather was horrific. We were sheltered, but storms and high winds lashed the eastern end of the island.
Ian rang back at lunchtime confirming that they would be arriving on the Sunday afternoon flight. They collected enough money with the help of family and friends as the banks were closed. All of the relatives scattered around Australia and many of Norleen’s close friends had been notified. The Australian High Commissioner, John Starey telephoned once more and confirmed that the Hercules transport and search helicopter was due to arrive later that evening.
He also asked our permission to release Norleen’s name in a report on the ABC television evening news. That was good as many people had heard the radio news flashes and had thought that we were the two Australians missing on the plane. John Starey gave a voice-over on the television reports and we were thankful that no other reporters had contacted us.
We were amazed to find that Jan had only met Norleen three weeks ago and through this she knew of our visit. Dave was captain of the local Golf Club and had organised a major tournament followed by a ball. However, the tournament was cancelled because of the heavy rain and Dave was able to spend the afternoon with us. We had thick New Zealand steaks for dinner and that renewed our interest in food.
This was our introduction to the wonderful hospitality that we received from the Henderson family over the next few weeks – and for each subsequent visit of family and friends to Honiara. A chance meeting with our daughter provided us with a contact that gave us great comfort and help through one of the worst periods of our life.
Norleen’s Grandmother, Ivy, had made her special biscuits for us to take to Norleen’s school. We shared them with Jan and the many people that called to comfort us over the next few days. At least we could share something special from Australia with the many callers. Jan thought they were wonderful, and it reminded us once more how my mother had helped in time of need. She is renowned for her cooking, especially biscuits and “Deutsche Kuchen”, a yeast cake with special streusel topping which was a specialty of early German settlers in the Barossa Valley.
We received several phone calls during the day. Michael, the school principal from Waimapuru rang us but was practically incoherent with grief. All he could manage to tell us was the high regard he had for Norleen. All of the school was praying for her.
The weather cleared slightly during the afternoon, and we went for a short walk down the ridge to the main road and back again. People watched us, as European people do not walk much, especially on wet muddy roads. However, we needed to have some activity to ease the oppression of the last twenty-four hours. The Hercules transport plane arrived from Australia at dusk and made a brief sweep of the area on its approach.
After such a stressful day we collapsed into bed and slept soundly until 3 am. Once again we talked for several hours. This time Ruth had problems accepting the timing of the accident. Why had God allowed this to happen before we saw Norleen? How Ruth longed to hold Norleen once more, and why was she denied that opportunity? We both began to remember all the times that we had touched Norleen in a special way. Like the first time I had held her in my arms in the hospital, how she would hold on to Ruth’s skirt while shopping and of us holding on to Norleen at the airport at her departure.
Then we thought of the strange telephone call that could be the last time that we would hear her voice. Norleen rang us at home the week before we were due to leave for the Solomon Islands. This was only the third time we had spoken to her at Waimapuru. The phone rang one evening while I was away on business. Norleen said to Ruth that there was a slight change of plans – and then the phone went dead. The next night I was home when Norleen rang again, so Ruth and I were able to talk together on our phone extensions. This time Norleen explained her change of plans and I thought that such a minor problem could be sorted out on our arrival. It was a strange telephone call, with long pauses between sentences. This often happens with radiotelephone calls as there is a delay between changing from transmit to receive. However, it was clear that each of us was hanging on to the words of the other in a special way. Ruth said, “Norleen, we love you very much!” and I said “Yes we do!” Unfortunately, I do not say this enough to my wife or my children, but I was so pleased that I said it at that time. I wanted to finish by saying “… but we will see you soon.” However, these words became stuck in my throat. As we hung up the phones, we felt perplexed. Now that phone call has special significance for us.
Then we thought about Norleen’s burial. John Starey had told us that every effort would be made to find the bodies of the passengers, if indeed the plane had crashed. Norleen’s body would be transported to Australia or anywhere we wished. We both thought that Norleen would prefer to be buried at the school that had become her home – if this were possible. No doubt there would be problems with land rights, but we hoped that a location could be found in an isolated part of the school grounds for her grave.
Next we thought about starting a scholarship fund from Norleen’s estate for students to attend Waimapuru School. She had written about the cost of education in the Solomon Islands. It is not free and is relatively expensive considering the low income that most families receive. Only one child in eight receives secondary education and only one in eighty has a chance of tertiary education. As families have difficulty raising money for school fees, some villages pool their resources to send one child to school. For economic reasons, that is usually a boy. Consequently there are two boys to every girl at secondary schools. However, if a girl is educated she could teach her own girls how to sew and cook healthy meals with the meagre resources available in the village. Consequently, her knowledge would be invaluable to her family, even if they do not continue on to tertiary education. We also remembered Norleen writing, “Teach a boy and you train one person. Teach a girl and you train her family.” From this it would be wise for us to help girls gain a higher education.
Just before dawn all of the dogs in Honiara began to howl. It was a spine chilling sound. It seemed to us that even the dogs were joining in the sorrow of the families who had lost their loved ones. Certain once more that Norleen was dead, we felt that many others shared our loss. We had been so engrossed in our own loss that we had not thought of the others who were on that plane.
Once again we fell into deep sleep and awoke to a bright sunny Sunday. Our spirits lifted with the sight of the sun, and we hoped that God would make all things clear to us that day.
SUNDAY – SUNNY DAY
The view from Henderson’s balcony was beautiful. We could see a wide sweep of the bay with several large islands on the horizon. It was possible to view a long section of the coast to the east where the pilot of Norleen’s plane had radioed in saying he was 60 miles from Honiara, at 8000 feet and the descing into Henderson Airport.
At breakfast, Jan asked us if we would like to attend a Catholic Church in Kukum, near Chinatown, with some of their friends. I said, “We would love to go”. We walked the short distance to their home and were introduced to the Neilson family, Brian, wife Katherine and their two young children Hans and Penelope. Brian was the project officer of the New Zealand Development Bank, which was instrumental in supplying agricultural aid to the people of the Solomon Islands.
The church we attended was typical of most small village churches in the tropics. It was built out of concrete bricks that were made on site by the priest and local people. It had a concrete floor, a galvanised iron roof and large rectangular holes in the walls for ventilation, in place of windows. The priest was a Dutchman over 70 years old who had spent many years of his life planning and building this church. About two hundred people were there that morning and six of us were European. It was the First Communion for a group of young Solomon Islanders and there was a feeling of excitement in the congregation.
We felt accepted by others as we sat in these strange surroundings. It was comforting not to feel like “strangers” but part of the congregation there to celebrate the first communion of these ten year old children.
After several songs were sung in beautiful harmony, the priest began a prayer with special mention of Norleen and the other people who were on the missing plane. At that moment a swallow flew into the church and glided freely up and down, just above our heads. Both Ruth and I thought independently, that this swallow was just like Norleen, free of earthly restraints. She was a great swimmer, and we could picture her sleek body now carving through the air just as she swam in the water. When we talked about it afterwards, our friends were surprised. The swallows are only in the Solomon Islands for about three weeks as they migrate from Australia to China and that was the first they had seen of them that year.
After the priest’s address, there was a ceremony for the young people who were presented for their first communion. Each child said a prayer to the congregation. All of them mumbled their prayers so that it was difficult for us to hear them – except for the last prayer. A young girl stood up and prayed in a bold voice.
“Lord, we pray for the youth of our country. We belong to a young country and the future lies before us. We are not sure we are strong enough to carry the responsibilities that await us. We need you to guide us so that we will be really Christian leaders for our people. This we pray to the Lord.”
I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rise as these words echoed the thoughts expressed in a recent letter from Norleen. With the letter she sent a photo taken of a child paddling a canoe in a vast expanse of water. She was only two years old and could barely walk. She represented to Norleen the strength and confidence of the women in the Solomon Islands.
At morning tea after the service we met the Beata Jio, the lady who wrote this prayer for the young girl. She was married to the leading computer programmer in the Solomon Islands. Her husband had been trained overseas and was installing major computing equipment for the government administration.
This was one of the anomalies that we found so frequently in our visit; to find such highly skilled indigenous people trained in the latest technology, yet their water supply and telephones often did not work. We enjoyed talking to Beata as we tasted the special food they had prepared for the celebration. She had a high administrative position, raised her family and still found time to teach the children in Sunday school and conduct the local choir. It reminded us of Norleen’s words about educating girls. There was no doubt that it was important to have educated women to stand beside their men and give them support and encouragement. Beata said, “Education is a luxury for women in the Solomon Islands, but so necessary.”
The Australian High Commissioner, John Starey rang when we arrived at Henderson’s after the church service. He told us that the crashed plane had been located from the air and he would provide us with more information when it was available.
It was a relief to hear this, as the uncertainty of not knowing Norleen’s fate was very difficult to bear. One of our main worries was that the plane may have crashed into the sea and the bodies not found, as had happened in the last crash. Our time of waiting would soon be over.
Jan and Dave drove to Henderson airport to farewell one of their associates who was returning to New Zealand. They expected to be back by 1-30 pm, in time for lunch. We looked at some magazines and tried to keep calm. Soon after 1-00 pm they returned with a crunch of tyres on the gravel. We realised immediately that Jan and Dave had been given the difficult task of telling us the news. They burst into the room and threw their arms around us, telling us that there were no survivors and that Norleen died instantly. It was a relief to know that she had not suffered and was now at peace. I felt God support and strengthen me as I prepared to telephone our families.
I rang my parents at Nuriootpa and my mother appeared to accept the news with her own quiet reserve. I told her how much our new friends had appreciated her biscuits. Arrangements were made for her to ring Ruth’s sister Christel in Loxton and Ruth’s brother Vernon in Minyip, Victoria. My parents had very close association with these members of Ruth’s family. Next I rang Ruth’s brother John and his wife Claire. They would notify the rest of the family, especially Ruth’s mother who would have difficulty understanding what had happened. She had problems remembering day to day events due to her age. Then it was lunchtime and we attempted to maintain a sense of normality.
Arrangements were made by the Australian First Secretary Mal Davidson, to use the VIP Lounge at the airport when Merrilyn, Ian and Richard arrived at 3-00 pm. John Starey was also there, to meet his wife on her return from Australia. It was much later that we found out how special it was to use the VIP Lounge. It was reserved for Heads of State and other top dignitaries. It was not normal for either of the Australian or New Zealand High Commissioners to use it to meet their families or friends. The Solomon Island Government gave this special privilege to us so that we could meet our family in private, away from the eyes of reporters. As we waited for the plane to arrive, John Starey told us what he knew about the plane crash.
The pilot had chosen a route south of the normal one and that took the aircraft over the weather side of Guadalcanal Island. As he began his approach to Henderson Airport, he crashed into the side of the third highest mountain in the Solomon Islands. The weather and terrain at the crash site were very rough and it was not possible for anyone to land. The helicopter had hovered above the site and a doctor had been lowered down on a rope. He found five bodies that had been sucked out of the tail of the plane and they were still strapped into their seats. The plane had been carrying enough fuel for a further three hours flying and that had sprayed through the dense wet jungle. This had caught fire almost immediately and most of the fuselage was badly burnt.
The son of the Australian pilot was on the plane with our children and we were able to meet him. Once again it bought home to us that we were not alone in our suffering. He was only 21 years old and was following his father’s career in aviation.
It was a breath of fresh air to see our children. Merrilyn was wearing bright summer clothes and Ian had his cap on back to front in the current fashion. Both Richard and Ian were wearing shorts and looked like typical tourists. The welcome was subdued as each of us wondered how the other felt, the deeper grief and sadness not showing.
The embassy staff, John and Mal, guided their luggage through customs and eased entry problems. It was arranged that the family should stay together for the first night. One of the New Zealand staff who lived in the house next to Hendersons, was away for the weekend and our children could stay there for the night. Then Merrilyn and Ian would stay with Lynda Senger, the Second Secretary (Development Assistance) for the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB) Office. Richard would stay with the Second Secretary, Edward Sellers, who was Richard’s age. We had met him on the first night at the Honiara Hotel. Jan and Dave were happy for us to remain at their home and we were very grateful for their continuing help. It was wonderful that all of these people had opened their homes and hearts to us in our time of need.
Back at the Henderson’s home, the phone began to ring as family and friends contacted us from Australia. How quickly the news had spread and we were amazed at the number of people who rang. It was wonderful that our friends and relatives were able to phone us but no calls were received from reporters. We kept records of the people who contacted us. Calls were received from Ruth’s sister’s Lois in the Blue Mountains, Christel from Loxton, Naomi from Darwin and brother’s John in Adelaide, Marcus and David from Cooke Plains. Norleen’s very close friends in Adelaide, Cate and Wayne Schumacher and Andrew Whittaker rang us. There was also a call from the AVA friend Robert in New Guinea who said that he was making arrangements to come to Honiara as soon as possible.
It was wonderful to have Ian answer the telephone and deal with many of the calls, easing our burden. We had family discussions between phone calls and we were able to exchange ideas with our children. Merrilyn and Ian accepted the idea of having Norleen buried in the Solomon Islands, although Ian put the alternate view; making sure that we were aware of the effect it could have on her friends. Richard needed time to think about it but also agreed. Norleen’s friends and relatives would not be able to attend the burial and would have difficulty visiting her grave. To cater for these people, we began planning to hold a memorial service in the Immanuel College Chapel after our return to Australia.
Dave was a great help in these early discussions concerning the possibility of having Norleen buried at Waimapuru, as he was familiar with local customs. We knew that nothing could be decided without talking to the Solomon Island officials.
During that afternoon there was a telephone call from the Waimapuru School Principal, Michael and he gave us his deepest sympathy and asked if it would be possible for Norleen to be buried at the school. It was truly an answer to our prayers! Mike continued by saying how extremely upset the teachers and students were to hear of Norleen’s death. They had difficulty finding out details of the accident due to poor communications between their island and Honiara.
Merrilyn, Ian and Richard shifted into the house next door. The lass was very surprised to return home from her weekend away and be greeted at her door by Richard. Dave bought out more New Zealand steaks for our dinner. Imagine his horror when Ian wanted to “tenderise” his beautiful steaks! I think that Norleen would have been proud of us as we prepared to enjoy the steaks – and the bottle of red wine that Dave provided. I think this sums up our lives since Norleen’s death as we still have fleeting moments of joy mingled with deep sadness.
Our wish to bury Norleen at Waimapuru may seem strange at first. However, the aptness of this action was reinforced by the special request from the School Principal. Her love affair with Waimapuru developed during the first six months of her stay. Her first few letters told of problems overcome. She wrote:
“No amount of briefing could fully prepare me for the changes I would face when working with a different culture. Honiara is a busy, dirty, unloved place. Certainly not the place I would choose for a holiday. Michelle (the other AVA who had been posted to an even more remote island than mine) and I spent almost a week there. The money that AVA gave us for accommodation ran out after the first few days, so two AVAs who came here last year, Kym and Karen, allowed us to sleep on their floor.”
It was necessary for Norleen to purchase supplies for the next six months as many commodities were not available on San Cristobal Island. That took a full week and she walked many kilometres; shopping around as prices varied greatly and no shops stocked all items. In addition, bureaucratic red tape had to be faced when dealing with Government officials. There were lots of appointments – and waiting for important people to see her. For example, to get unaccompanied baggage out of customs, it took four hours to fill out eight forms, pay $7 and visit five different locations – all kilometres apart. Fortunately, the Education Under Secretary helped Norleen. He used his influence and car to skip a few procedures.
The journey to San Cristobal Island was with a privately owned cargo steamer that carried lots of passengers – and left when it was ready. The departure time changed daily, starting from Monday and finally the ship left at 4 pm on Thursday. The scheduled twelve-hour trip took 20 hours as the ship zigzagged to three unscheduled stops at small villages on other islands. Norleen was the only white woman on board and there was one white man. When the ship finally arrived at the port, 5 kilometres from the school, there was a high swell so they had to anchor offshore. Everything, including six months supply of food for the school had to be off-loaded by small dinghies. Fortunately a Solomon Island teacher helped Norleen, and her gear was unloaded on the second trip. It then poured with rain and her six month’s supplies would have spoilt but for the teacher’s help. He arranged for her goods to be stored under the veranda of a leaf hut on the beach – there is no town at the wharf, only a small village. This was Norleen’s introduction to the “Solomon Island Way”, a big change from her highly efficient and organised life in Australia. She began to enjoy the change of pace – and was soon telling us to “slow down”.
The only town on San Cristobal Island is Kira Kira and has the island’s airstrip – a remnant from the Second world War. It is only a small settlement, consisting of a couple of trade stores, a local market, the Post Office and communications centre and a small hospital.
Waimapuru School is 18 kilometres west of Kira Kira, over three very large rivers that can only be crossed by truck when the water is low. After heavy rain it is necessary to wait until the water subsides before the rivers can be crossed safely. Waimapuru National Secondary School was build with Australian Government aid in 1983. It is a boarding school, nestled between a black sandy beach with heavily wooded and very steep hills to the north. There are several villages nearby. The setting is beautiful and very peaceful and Norleen wrote two weeks later that she was happy with her surroundings.
The facilities at the school were good but not adequately upgraded or maintained. As Norleen wrote: “Half of the fridges – including mine! – do not work and the library has not had a new book in years. Cooking gas is low and the students are often hungry. There is no material for my students to use for sewing and everything hinges on the budget set by the politicians in Honiara. The government runs the school, which is the biggest outside of Honiara. It is mainly a boarding school with a cosmopolitan staff consisting of 2 Australians, 2 New Zealanders, 5 American, 2 Indian, 1 Fijian, 4 PNG, and about 13 Nationals. Quite a combination! There are 405 boarding students (only one third girls – which is the usual ratio here) from all over the Solomon Islands.”
The house that Norleen lived in was of a comfortable western design, with plenty of louvre windows to provide cross ventilation. Initially she shared it with a very confident first year Solomon Island English Teacher, Navie Bentley. Her other home economics teacher was Jossie, a 21 year old Papuan, who was married to a Solomon Island teacher at the school. Jossie said that they made a good team as they make each other laugh. She had a strange view of Australia, based entirely on the “New Idea” and other women’s magazines. The questions that Norleen asked about local life and customs also made Jossie laugh. For instance, she learned that Pacific National women had very defined roles and obey their husbands. However, they remain very independent and are very strong willed, knowing how to get their own way. Jossie’s husband realises that she would run back to her family if he is too jealous or deals harshly with her.
The next letter told us more about accommodation. “The rats woke me last night. They decided to have a party in the section of ceiling above my head. However, one of my greatest annoyances is one of the smallest creatures here – the ant! These creatures invade my kitchen benches and capture anything that contains the slightest hint of sugar. They explore your person, fall on you – down your shirt – and if you squash them the burning irritation is more than just annoying, it is down-right painful.”
Norleen continued: “I wrote earlier saying how slow everything seems to move here. I am beginning to like the ‘Solomon Island Way’ now and I am adjusting to the slower way of life. It is amazing how much you can fit into a day when you go at a leisurely pace, without the stress of modern life, the time it takes to travel, or the need for time-out from mental exhaustion.
Today is Monday, and here is what I have done. A quick swim in the surf by my black sandy beach and a shower before eating breakfast on the veranda. To school for 7.15 am assembly, then classes until 1.30 pm. Lunch followed by one and a half hours on the computer compiling a test for Wednesday and then a similar time weeding my garden. Relax by reading and finishing a book by Somerset Maughan, tea and I still had time to write several letters.
I do not plan to fit so much into a day but I just do what I want when I want, and this seems to be the key to a busy, fulfilling day.”
Norleen developed a deep love for the students, staff – and the work that she was doing at the Waimapuru National Secondary School.
NORLEEN’S WAIMAPURU LOVE AFFAIR
“It is two minutes to assembly – time to go. I grab my woven grass bag laden with schoolbooks, don my ‘slippers’ and, shaking off the night’s sleep, step out into the new day.
Another beautiful morning.
The coolness of the night still hanging in the air belies the future heat and humidity, as the sun begins its climb over the plantation. Long shadows play across fresh cut grass, the remnants of an afternoon punishment session for some wayward students. In the distance I hear the dull roar of the sea competing with crickets, cicadas – and the raucous crowing of roosters. Many a stone has been thrown at these pests as with body clocks out of sync; they take up position under the window of a weekend sleepy teacher, and proclaim the dawning of a new day at some dark hour. A scrawny dog barks at my passing and is surprised that I do not cower in fright.
Assembly is over quickly with announcements, a Bible reading, prayer and the song “Sweet Jesus” sung in natural harmony, the beauty of which gives me goose bumps and touches the soul.
In the distance the cook makes his way to the kitchen, lava lava tucked tightly across his naked belly and smoke from his locally made cigarette faintly taints the morning air. On the road behind him, several piccaninnies, arms stretched high above their heads, push start the truck that is to take them to the primary school down the track.
The day has begun.”
Norleen wrote this after several months of living and teaching at Waimapuru School. Her confidence was growing as she became familiar with Solomon Island customs and culture. In her early letters she wrote about her surroundings and other activities.
“Down at the beach I am continually amazed at the changing shoreline. Every time I see the river mouth it has carved a new course. Huge trees uprooted, shift position daily, as the pounding surf changes the landscape. I went to the village yesterday. I wasn’t intending to go, just content to walk to the beach. I stopped to admire a huge tree with growth all over it, when a student and teacher caught up with me. We chatted and I ended up walking to the village with them. I would never go to the village by myself. I don’t yet know what are the right and wrong things to do. Until I work it all out I am content not to go blundering into their lives. The village was quite large and very neat. I enjoyed a drink from a coconut brought down from a tree by a villager. They gave me some chillies, shallots and freshly dug peanuts.
The local people own the river near the village so we did not venture far from the road. You need to ask permission to use the river. However, it is available for public access close to where the road crosses it.”
Gradually she began to adapt to the Solomon Island way of doing things and she became more relaxed and able to accept the difficulties that faced her. She had time to begin sketching once more with pleasing results. That was after she had to wait several months for our art materials to arrive by post. Delayed deliveries of parcels were always a problem.
The student activities gave her considerable pleasure. “It is such a joy to teach the students as they are so happy, often laughing and are never rude or malicious to others. They are also good at entertaining themselves. The Saturday night concerts are great and they have to be seen to be believed.
Everyone crowds into the Assembly Hall, sitting on the wooden benches in an excited and happy mood. Half of the fluros are turned off to set the scene. The back of the room and the stage are lit. Moths and insects attracted to the lights join the buzz. Occasionally a bat or bird flies in to check out what is happening. It is 8 pm and the rain has stopped. The night is warm and calm. The first band comes on and tunes up amid screams and cheers from the enthusiastic crowd.
Solomon Islanders love their music in every shape or form. They do not just beat the drum for the change of lessons – they play it! Sometimes they start slowly and increase the beat until they finish in a vigorous crescendo. At other times it is even and rhythmical. Every morning their voices harmonise while singing their National anthem, almost reducing the listener to tears with the emotion they put into it. Church is a pleasure, as they love to sing. But, back to these concerts.
The students go on stage – not really having played together – strum the electric guitars, play the drums and keyboard, making the audience scream and laugh. They teach themselves a few bars and chords and are not afraid to display their new talents. Tonight we had a Bruce Springstein song and a Beatles song as the only two that I could recognise. Sometimes they sing in their native tongues (of which there are over 100) and only a privileged few can understand. Each band plays a few songs and then gives way to the next. Jossie leans to me and says, ‘How many times have I said that the bands should practice before playing? It is just not organised.’ I just laugh and she joins me. It will never happen.
One night a little SI girl sat next to me and was happy to cuddle. She leaned into me most of the night, clapped when I clapped and smiled up at me at odd times. It just goes to show that words are not needed to communicate.”
The Solomon Island teacher, Navie, helped Norleen in those early days by introducing her to local villagers. This way she could learn about village life and customs. They took regular Sunday afternoon walks to Kokana village.
“We cut 50 pandanus leaves to take to ‘Granny’ so that she could teach me how to make two floor mats. The leaves were balanced on our shoulders during the walk through the heavy bush. All of the family was present and we chatted, ate slippery cabbage and kumara (sweet potato). I tried baked and steamed bread-fruit, neither of which appealed to me. They told Navie that I am not like other white people and this showed by the way that they began to accept me. They would talk to me even if I could not talk back. Their language is a mixture of words, gestures and expressions, where special emphasis on words can change their meaning.”
She wrote in her next letter: “I have now been here a month and this is what I have achieved. I have taught full time, read 5 books, sketched three scenes, baked bread, cake and biscuits, ridden a bicycle to the river and walked to the falls. I have been out to dinner with other staff eight times and had people over to dinner a few times, planted three garden beds with flowers, bushes and trees, built a trellis for my beans, sewn three garments, swam three times a week on average and regularly had a hit of tennis. My house is clean, my clothes are washed and I am well fed. How come I never have time to do anything back home?
Fridays are one of my big days with a full teaching load. I usually come home and feel like doing nothing – but not today! During Friday work sessions several students are put at our disposal for 90 minutes. Usually the staff gets them to weed or do general jobs around the yard. I was clipping my hibiscus hedge that surrounds my yard when my ‘helpers’ arrived.
The two girls and three boys were ‘wontoks’ of Navie. As a result of being ‘family’, they put in more hours and worked harder, even continuing when we said they were free to go! The two girls prepared the ‘motu’ out door stone oven, peeled the sweet potato and scraped coconuts to make coconut cream. The boys dug another garden bed and a hole for my waste food scraps. They got a bit carried away with the hole and it finished up waist deep! Navie told me afterwards that the students could not work out why I, a white woman, was clipping the hedge as they do not work in gardens but generally supervise the students. The students found it strange that I was prepared to get dirty and put in some hard work with them. They also had immense delight in my attempts to speak ‘pidgin’, was excited about scraping coconuts, cooking in the motu oven in my leaf kitchen and learning SI ways. They loved it when I wanted to take photographs of them at their various activities! I must learn pidgin as soon as possible as then, and only then, will I become more accessible to the students.”
It is easy to understand why Norleen made such an impact on her students. She was just being herself, full of joyous exuberance, facing every difficulty as a challenge to be overcome and yet attempting to live by the local rules. Talking pidgin was not encouraged as English is the official language of the Solomon Islands and students should use it at all times.
Norleen had to face other problems due to the isolation of Waimapuru. Communication with Australia was a problem as her letters took two or more weeks to reach us and ours took a similar time. It was strange to read the answers to letters written three weeks previously, especially when others had been written since then. At times it was a problem and she felt as if her Australian family and friends had forgotten her. We sent parcels of goods that she could not buy locally and these were often delayed in the post. Two identical parcels arrived two weeks apart, making Norleen think that some of the items we had written about had been stolen in the post. Reading matter was at a premium and rats chewed one parcel of magazines. Many people in the photographs were beheaded. She never did find out what hat the Queen was wearing to Ascot Races.
In March she wrote: “I have just returned from Kira Kira where I picked up your letters and parcel. The T-shirt, wrap, shorts and drawing pen were there, but no drawing pad. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! TANNGIO THOMAS!! (My pidgin is improving) It was like Christmas again, and made up for the disappointment of not being able to buy what I needed in Kira Kira.
It makes it so much easier to know that I have the support of family and friends. Merrilyn, I appreciate the special trip you made to buy the lava lava and it is beautiful. It is good to have the extra pair of shorts to mess about in. I get so dirty here Mum, just like the Norleen of old! One pair is covered with stains from the hedge clippings and has turned an unusual grey colour from the sea water and black sand. (I have to swim in shorts to hide my thighs, to conform to local customs as bathers are out!) I have also received a wonderful parcel of goodies from the teachers at Thornden High – most unexpected, but truly great support.”
The weekly trip into Kira Kira was always a highlight. Seats like church pews were placed on the back of the school truck and with the wind in her hair, she would join the other teacher’s game enough to endure the trip. The crossing of the rivers was always an exciting experience. The water was often waist deep and sometimes they were stopped at one of the rivers. On several occasions, Norleen waded through these rivers, supported by some of the strong male teachers and walked back to school, rather than wait several hours for the water to subside.
One week later she wrote: “I even surprised Barb, the other Australian teacher when I went into Kira Kira today – twice in one week! It was a perfect clear day – some might say hot. I did shopping for Barb, Navie and me – and then was pleased with the amount of mail I received. There were two newspapers from Australia and several letters. We sat on the steps of the store and read our mail.
The trip back was superb. I cannot work out why I like the journey so much, but I think I came close today. There is nothing like the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. I feel truly alive, and glad to be alive – so content with the world around me. Sometimes I look at my surroundings and wonder where on earth I am? I try to write descriptive letters back home, but there is no way they could imagine all of this. It is beyond imagination to see the vivid green and the amazing height of the trees as they soar to the sky.”
One Saturday in March Norleen spent with an American teacher. She wrote: “Today was great. Doug came over for a leisurely breakfast of vegemite and grilled cheese on home made bread, we decided to go for a bike ride. I had trouble with my borrowed bike as the back wheel stopped turning. Doug repaired it and we headed west to the end of the road. We cycled at a leisurely pace and stopped to check out some ships at Konasugu. It was definitely peak period as two ships were in the harbour. We stopped when and where we felt the need.
One of our stops was at Pameau primary school. The place was deserted, which gave an eerie feel to the small open wooden classroom, with the wind gently disturbing the chimes and the student’s artwork. We stayed a while out side the open Church of Melanesia and talked religion. The day was spotted with good conversation and also times when the beauty of our surroundings made words unnecessary. On the bay, the other side of Konasugu, we discovered a great picnic and fishing spot. There was beach, shade and coral rocks all in the one place. We ended up riding 15 kilometres along the road, having to carry our bikes across several large rivers. The last one, the Wairaha River, was the widest and deepest so we left our bikes and waded across. We were told by some of the students on our return that the river is infested with crocodiles and, at high tide, sharks. We did have a vague idea of this at the time so kept a wary eye on our surroundings.
On the other side of the Wairaha, the road ascended steeply and we continued walking in the hope of finding a splendid view of the river mouth. However, the road veered away and followed the shoreline. Apparently we were not far from the largest village settlement on San Cristobal. I guess we need to save something for another day.
We ate lunch on the beach at a village with a lovely view of Pamua, the small island off the coast. Naturally, we provided considerable entertainment for the local piccaninnies. The ride home was broken with a stop at a timber mill, a rest at the home of the school typist and several stops to chat with the villagers on the road. These stops were more than welcome for me as my legs were aching.
At one point we took a path to the beach to watch a large cruise liner pass by. It seemed such a contrast to our environment. You could imagine the rich American and Australian tourists thinking that they have discovered the Pacific, but what do they know about life here?
The day was hot, but the blue skies and lack of rain seemed most welcome after the constant rain we have been having lately. Today was truly a great adventure.”
Norleen ordered a canoe from one of the local villagers. Her letters often gave us progress reports of this construction, but like all things Solomon Island, it was expected to take a long time.
Sunday March 24: “Today Navie and I went with one of the American girls, to the village where the canoe builder lived. He took us to the foothills to show us the canoe’s progress. I was quite excited and pleased at what had been achieved. The SI teachers have been teasing me by saying that they know the man and if he says it will be finished in two weeks, he may mean two years. Navie says that it is because of I am a white woman that so much has been done. Granny had finished my mat and the canoe builder gave me a hand of bananas so we were quite loaded up on our return.“
It was interesting for us to hear that the canoe was never finished. Two weeks before Norleen’s death, the canoe split into two pieces.
Norleen was always surrounded by people. We often used to joke about it by saying that Norleen needed at least five people around her or she would think that nobody loved her. When she applied for posting as an AVA she stipulated that she must not be the only European at her school, but must have other expatriates. At Waimapuru, she became a catalyst between the Americans, New Zealanders and Australians. One evening Barb and she, with beer in hand, dropped in unannounced on some of the American male teachers and expected them to provide food! Steve was cooking and after the initial dropped jaw, the meal was expanded to cater for two extras. It was a fun night and they finished up playing cards by candlelight after the power had been switched off. New Zealander Gary heard the laughter and joined them.
The Americans soon turned the tables on her and two days later she found an advert for the “ANZAC DAY DAWN SERVICE” in her pigeon hole, which was to be held at Norleen’s. The wording had been changed to say that rum, milk and coffee would be served and that there would be no charge. Many of the staff came for the evening meal on Anzac Day.
The American teachers held a class picnic and invited Norleen to come. She wrote: “I was quite taken with the way the students treated me. They wanted me to drive in the truck cabin, gave me coconuts to drink and made room for me under their makeshift shelters when it poured with rain. I was asked to serve myself first! These people really know how to treat guests.
I revelled in doing absolutely nothing. I have never been on a school excursion where I could relax so completely. One did not have to worry about where the students were all the time. They organised their own games and cooked the food without a single question or instruction from the teachers. Then all of the students helped clean up at the end of the day. They can teach Australian students how to behave! The trip home in the pouring rain was loud and jolly. The students were singing, clapping, waving to passers by and there was much laughter. We looked like drowned rats by the time we arrived home.
Mum and Dad just rang! They have not heard from me for a month, so they have not received the parcel that I sent them two weeks ago. It was good to talk to them and know that they care.”
Norleen longed for news of home and friends and for a period the rivers became impassable, then:
“I was sitting in the staff room during break time when the headmaster announced that the rivers were down and the truck was going to Kira Kira. Consequently, afternoon classes were cancelled – just like that! I dashed home, picked up some money and hopped on the truck. I received two packages and several letters. What joy! What bliss!”
Next day she wrote: “I had a wonderful day today. After a sleep-in until 8-00 am, I headed to the beach for a swim. The morning was magic, the water smooth and glassy and I had the beach to myself. A quick jog, then home for a shower and breakfast of my homemade muesli, pineapple and a mug of “English Breakfast” tea. This I enjoyed on the “patio” while reading the paper that Mum and Dad sent me. A truly indulgent start to the weekend.“
Norleen took many photographs of her home, her class, the villagers and the surrounding forests, sea and gardens. The whole area is so photogenic that cameras can be pointed in any direction to produce attractive photographs. She always had two copies developed in Australia through a postal service as local developing produced washed out prints. In April she sent us two films including a series taken of her class as they prepared a meal in her kitchen. There were several beautiful photos of Norleen surrounded by a group of smiling students, plaiting her hair and holding on to her arms and shoulders. She wrote this about the one used on the front cover: “I love this photo. The students were so delightfully happy and decided to become quite ‘touchy’ to me. Students of the same sex may show affection for someone by holding hands or walking arm in arm, but this kind of privilege in not shown to expats or members of the opposite sex.”
Norleen had a steady stream of students looking at her photographs. This was the beginning of a close relationship with them and many would drop in to her home during spare time to listen to tapes on her little tape recorder, or just to “story”.
At the start of the second semester Norleen flew back to Kira Kira from Honiara. When she arrived at the airfield she knew that the truck would not be there to meet her as it would be unloading stores from the ship. Much to the surprise of the students that were at the airport, she decided to walk back to Waimapuru. It had been raining and the rivers were high, but she was able to cross them with the help of the students. She completing the 18 km walk in three hours. She was finally HOME and glad to be there.
There was no doubt that Norleen was captivated by Waimapuru, its people and surroundings. How could we think of taking her body back to Australia if there was a chance of having her buried at Waimapuru? We knew that the students would maintain her grave. However, we did not know how important this was to her Solomon Island friends.
Our children slept soundly on their first night in the Solomon Islands. Ruth and I also slept well that night as our children were sharing our sorrows.
A NEW WEEK – MUCH TO BE DONE
Monday was a day of activity. We started by admiring the view from the balcony as all of the islands were now visible. Mal organised a hire car and Ian picked it up. The children were then independent and could travel freely to the homes of their hosts. I rang Immanuel College, informing them of Norleen’s death and to arrange for a memorial service. It was decided to hold it on Sunday 20 October in the Immanuel College Chapel and the time was set at 12 noon, before Headmaster’s Guest Afternoon at 2 pm. I prepared a death notice and faxed it through Jan’s office, which included information on the Memorial Service. This would allow interstate and country friends to make arrangements to attend. I rang my work number and gave them full details. They heard the news bulletins about the crash and guessed that it was our daughter who was killed.
The first official visitor that day was the Minister for Education, who had a long talk with us and finished with a prayer. We could not help wondering if an Australian official would pray with us. A short time later, the Catholic Archbishop of the Solomon Islands, Father Adrian Smith, called with a message from our Lutheran Minister, Brian Schwarz, in Australia. Brian had met Adrian at a seminar in Honiara while he was working in Port Moresby and had telephoned the Archbishop’s residence hoping to get a message to us. Through their renewed acquaintance, we had a wonderful encounter with a great man of God. As we talked, Ruth said, “I have been through the ‘Garden of Gethsemane’ during my time of waiting.” Bishop Adrian then used this comment in the two memorial services at which he preached. We were invited to the memorial service that he had arranged for Tuesday evening at Holy Cross Cathedral in Honiara.
After these two visitors, Dave took us into town to meet many of the officers at the Australian High Commission and joined them for lunch. This was at the Hibiscus Restaurant, which had an exotic name but was lacking in good food. We were too late for most of the items on the menu. Jan joined us and so did the pilot’s son. We felt sorry for this young man as he did not have the family support that we did.
That evening we took Jan and Dave to a Chinese Restaurant as recognition of the help they had given to us, where we enjoyed a very pleasant evening. The meal was much better than expected and we were beginning to realise that everything was relative. Ruth and I had visited several developing countries and did not expect the variety of food that is available in Australia. However, we were impressed with the effort that was made with the local produce.
Although our holiday plans had changed drastically, we still saw much of the Honiara and the surrounding areas. We were entertained by Jan at her favourite Chinese Restaurant and their best French Restaurant. In each case the food was excellent and the prices were equivalent to those in Australia. It was the locations that we remember. The “Mandarin” was build of timber and had lift-up sides to view the river, which was dirty by day but beautiful at night. The “La Perouse” was built of timber logs with a thatched roof and was on the beach. Both restaurants had great charm.
Another time, we all met at the Mendana Hotel and had drinks under umbrellas near the pool and beach, just what you would expect from a five star luxury resort in the tropics. The Mendana was named after the Portuguese Captain that sailed around the world with Magellan over 400 years ago and discovered the Solomon Islands in 1568.
The hotel is now called the Kintano Mendana – after a rich Japanese merchant who bought the hotel and will probably be forgotten in his own lifetime.
News of the accident and Norleen’s death was broadcast over Radio Australia. Many of the AVAs who had come to know Norleen at the briefing in Melbourne or were corresponding with her heard the news in many countries around the world. One of her close friends, Peter Leske was working in France and he also heard the news. How fortunate we were to have Radio Australia to notify all of her friends in distant lands.
Faxes and letters began arriving from all over the world as people heard the news. Within days we received a fax from the United Nations Volunteers head office in Switzerland, AVAs in Western Samoa, New Zealand Workers in Partnership Pacific office, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid in Canberra and others representing AVAs in Japan and New Guinea. Later we received letters from Mongolia, Korea, Kiribati, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and more from New Guinea. At times we had to use an atlas to find out from where these letters originated and we could imagine the work that these young volunteers were doing throughout the world.
Our family and many of our new friends joined us at the Catholic Memorial Service at Holy Cross, Honiara on Tuesday night. The cathedral was filled but people moved over to make room for us. Over one thousand people were crowded into the cathedral, and it was very moving to be joined in mourning with so many people. At a special time in the service, all of the bishops left the front of the cathedral and went to relatives of the victims of the crash. The Archbishop found us in that crowd and gave us special consolation. After the service, we were introduced to all of the Bishops who had come together from their parishes throughout the Islands for this service. The people killed in the crash came from many of the seven provinces of the Solomon Islands. Many people were touched by this tragedy.
The telephone was out of order on Tuesday. The technician said that we used it too much. We found out later that someone in our street had not paid their bill, so they cut us all off. How fortunate we were to send and receive so many calls on the previous two days.
Visitors continued to come. Margaret from Selwyn Anglican College, an hour’s drive west from Honiara, found courage to come on Tuesday at her third attempt. Originally, Norleen was allocated to Selwyn College and Margaret’s husband, Shane had written to her before her appointment was changed. They had met Norleen when she visited Selwyn during the July holidays.
At Jan’s home, I answered the phone on two occasions and no one answered. Guessing that it was a Solomon Islander, I asked Jan’s house girl, Naomi to answer the phone the third time it rang. It was Grace from the SI National Bank who told Naomi that she had met Norleen, but was too shy to speak to me. Arrangements were made for her to meet us during her lunch break, however she did not arrive. Finally, we decided to try and find her at work. We guessed that Norleen used the closest branch to the town centre, so I approached that counter and asked for Grace. The girl that served me dropped her head and became very upset. We had found Grace at our very first attempt – out of dozens of girls who work in the three local branches of that bank!
Grace was able to have an early lunch break, and we took her to a quiet office in the New Zealand High Commission Building. Norleen had gone to that Branch three times and each time Grace had served her. She remembered Norleen’s happy face and beautiful “garden of flowers” dress that she wore. We were amazed that Norleen could make such an impact during such short meetings. Grace was pregnant at the time and wanted to call her baby Norleen. (Her baby was a boy, so she called him Nolan). We found the “garden of flowers” dress in Norleen’s wardrobe and gave it to Grace before we left for Australia.
The word “indefinite” has a different meaning in the Solomon Islands. A National Memorial Service was planned for Wednesday afternoon in the Anglican Cathedral. John Starey was having major problems with the local Government at that stage. He asked us if we were going to attend this service and I said that I would only attend if we were especially invited. Then on Wednesday morning, Radio Honiara broadcast the following announcement, “The Memorial service planned for this afternoon had been postponed indefinitely. It will now be held at 2 pm on Friday afternoon.”
The Anglican Archbishop asked me later that week if I would like to present a eulogy for this service. I agreed but knew that it would be impossible for me to attempt to read it. Consequently Sir William Mickie, head of a local car rental firm, read it for us. He began by saying that the parents of Norleen Fiebig were sitting at the left side of the cathedral five rows from the front – and we felt 2000 eyes turn in our direction. We estimated that there were 1500 people inside and another 1500 on the grass outside the open sided cathedral at the service.
Our modified holiday continued. Merrilyn and Ian went on two diving excursions. If Jan had not been so busy, she would have been delighted to join them. Dave showed us various scenic spots around Honiara. I played golf with Dave on two occasions.
The first one I could hardly remember. The second time was quite remarkable. We were on the open veranda of the Clubhouse waiting to tee off when an oppressive stillness came over the area. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked in bewilderment. The birds stopped singing and the breeze stopped rustling the leaves in the trees. Then we looked towards the road about 100 metres away and saw a large yellow construction tip truck, escorted by police vehicles. This truck was carrying the bodies of the crash victims from the airport to the hospital. On that truck was the body of our beloved daughter, Norleen. Then followed practically all of the vehicles in Honiara, a fleet of several hundred cars and trucks of all descriptions. I have never seen such a long funeral procession. Dave said; “I can not believe it – all those vehicles and no horns tooting.” At the time the truck with the bodies reached the hospital, three enormous claps of thunder rent the sky and made my hair stand on end. We stood in awe until the procession passed – and then we played our game of golf.
After that game, Dave introduced me to two men who were in the Golf Club lounge. They were explosive experts who had been working at the crash site. Their normal job was to destroy unexploded bombs and shells found in the fields as a legacy from the Second World War. The special task force was used to prepare a helicopter landing strip above the crash site. The ridge was about 150 metres above the wreckage, but one and a half kilometres away. It was necessary to build a track diagonally down the mountain and across another ridge. The bomb disposal experts were lowered down by rope that was angled at 60o to the ground due to high winds at the site. Their explosives and canvass for a shelter were then lowered. The weather deteriorated before their food could be lowered and the helicopter was forced to leave. These men worked throughout the night to prepare an approach and exit path through the trees and blasted off a level landing area. All of this work was finished by 8 am the next morning. The men said that it was too uncomfortable to sleep so they might as well work!
They said that the landing conditions were so bad that it would have been impossible to stand up without being sheltered from the trees. Being lowered down onto that site was the most frightening experience they had ever had. I could understand why the doctor had not landed when he first inspected the crash site on the previous day.
It was amazing how information was given to us and we felt that God was using many people to keep us informed. I had a strange phone call from Martin, our policeman friend, on the Sunday night after the plane had been located. Ruth and I had accepted the facts, as they were reported to us, about Norleen’s death. However, Martin said
I thanked him for this information and then discussed it with Jan. We were both sure that the information from the Australian doctor was reliable, but Martin could not believe the facts. We kept this story to ourselves that night, but I was able to pass it on to John Starey the next morning when he rang. It was a surprise to me that I was able to supply local information to the Australian High Commission, just through a chance meeting at the airport. John Starey continued to use me as a confidant as he worked through the difficult problems with the local authorities.
Bodies of dead relatives are treated with great respect in the Solomon Islands and funerals are arranged as quickly as possible after death. This is partly due to the lack of refrigeration, and bodies decay very quickly. It took three days to find the crash victims and a further four days before the bodies were recovered from the crash site and flown to Honiara. After such a long delay, the relatives were distraught and thousands of people were waiting at the airport and the local hospital. As it was thought that the Australian pilot had caused the accident, the relatives considered that the Australian Government was trying a cover up the facts.
There were other rumours about the cause of this disaster as it had such an impact on so many Solomon Island lives. The Australian Government flew in a local reporter to the crash site endeavouring to provide clear and accurate coverage in the local paper. However, that reporter was “white”, and this added to the tension. John Starey was aware that just the slightest mistake by the Australian Search and Rescue Services could result in a major international incident. It was a great compliment to have this high official discuss his strategies with me and to value my advice.
Thursday’s edition of the “Solomon Star” sold quickly, and we were fortunate to buy several copies. The articles and photographs in this paper gave graphic details that were more explicit than would be printed in Australian papers. However, I think it helped our grief to know exactly what had happened and that Norleen must have died instantly. Here is a part of one of the articles, describing the crash scene.
“The aircraft brushed the tree-tops off like a giant blade, leaving a trail of topless trees for at least 50 metres before the final crash. It did not hit the vertical mountainous cliff as at first thought. The right wing of the aircraft was completely damaged by fire. The tail somehow broke off and fell some distance from the fuselage. Police believe that it was during this breaking up of the aircraft that five bodies were thrown off the fuselage with two or three chairs.
Still in the fuselage were ten charred bodies, including that of the pilot. These charred bodies would make it difficult for relatives to identify them, except for the pilot who sat in the front with headphones on. The five people found not burnt were Fr Tara and his wife Louise, Mrs Margaret Nuake and her two young children.”
(Then followed descriptions of their injuries.)
“The main body of the aircraft was totally burnt. Even the structure was totally destroyed by fire…..
Getting to the site of the crashed aircraft was difficult. The area cleared for the helicopter to land was one and a half kilometres away on another mountain several thousands of feet above sea level.
From there, army and police officers climbed up Mount Nasuha to recover the bodies of the dead passengers.
The mountain tops and deep gorges below were always covered in mist, thus making it difficult to stay longer on the landing site.”
Other reports mentioned that the Prime Minister was concerned about the delay in bringing out the bodies, so he replaced the Australian Director of Civil Aviation with a Solomon Islander. This was only a political move as it was still necessary for the Australians to provide the helicopter and ground support personnel. The reports clearly showed the anti-Australian feeling that was growing in Honiara at that time. It was also reported that there was difficulty accounting for all of the 15 bodies.
Initially we thought that Norleen’s body would be easy to identify as she was the only “white” passenger. From the newspaper reports it was obvious that the bodies were very difficult to identify and it took considerable time for this to be done by the authorities.
Norleen’s body was sealed in a beautiful rosewood coffin with an ornate silver nameplate and silver handles, which was supplied by the Minister for Education. It was the most beautiful coffin I had ever seen.
As they were loading the coffin on to the light aircraft, a Solomon Island woman touched me on the arm. She introduced herself as the Government pathologist who identified Norleen’s body. Barbara had told her that Norleen was wearing a simple necklace with a single pearl drop and several silver rings. The pathologist said that the chain and holder was still around her neck but the pearl had disappeared and there was no sign of the rings. We could imagine the difficult task that this woman had identifying the charred remains of all of the victims. Up to that time we had shut our minds to the possibility that the coffin could contain someone else. We appreciated her effort to find us and give us this assurance.
We have since found that the information supplied by the so-called pathologist was incorrect. The Australian Army Captain who was in charge of the Search and Retrieval exercise has since visited us in Adelaide and he said that this was impossible. He said, “Norleen’s body was easy to identify because she had much finer features than the Solomon Islanders. I identified as many of the bodies as possible and once the bodies were identified, they were placed in bags that were permanently sealed. No-one would have seen Norleen’s body after I had identified it.”
We also heard a rumour that two men survived the crash and had crawled some distance away before dying from their injuries and exposure. The mother of one of these men was quite certain at that time that her son was alive, as he had come to her in a vision. However, the captain said, Even the children who were thrown out of the plane and still strapped to their seats, had died instantly through the shock of hitting the ground at high speed. He confirmed other facts that we could only guess at from reading the news paper articles.
Grief councillors suggest that it is wise to view the body of a loved one. In our case, we had no chance to see Norleen’s body. However, I did not want to as I could imagine what we would view, having seen enough deformed bodies in TV news reports over the years. We both wanted to remember Norleen as she was, an attractive young person full of life and laughter.
That was the saddest week that we can ever remember and we will never forget the many incidents that occurred. There is no doubt that a close brush with death makes a person place a higher value on life; the sky is bluer and the grass is greener than ever before. Our lives have taken on a new meaning as we realise that God still has plans for us. We value each day as it dawns.
THE LAST SEMESTER
Our policeman friend, Martin, rang us in Honiara on Wednesday, saying that there was an Australian at the airport who claimed to know us, but he was reluctant to give him our address. It was Norleen’s AVA friend, Robert from New Guinea. Martin was often on duty at the airport, watching for “undesirables” as they entered the country. Robert arrived, wearing thongs, jeans and t-shirt, just the type of person that Martin would enter in his records. Poor Robert was extremely upset by Norleen’s death, had packed the bare essentials and had been travelling for several days from a remote area in the Highlands of New Guinea. No wonder he did not look as well dressed as the rest of our friends.
Robert arrived at Henderson’s house, tired, dispirited and in a state of shock. He asked me if Norleen had told us how special he was. I looked at this distressed person and could see someone that Norleen would comfort. However, I could not imagine him as Norleen’s choice of a marriage partner.
Norleen had visited Robert in New Guinea during July and he had nursed her when she was very sick with malaria. Robert told me of his recent visit to a clairvoyant where the card of death had turned up. He was not disturbed as he assumed that it indicated a broken relationship. He was separated from his partner so this did not surprise him. I told Robert of my belief that we are not meant to visit fortune tellers as many of them use black magic to foresee the future. He replied, “It was the second time I have been told bad news by a fortune teller and it has come true.”
All I could do was console Robert and tell him that he was one of the few people who had ever given comfort to Norleen when she needed it. I thanked him for the care and attention he had given her during a very severe malaria attack. Norleen’s writings confirmed that she knew of Robert’s love for her, but that she did not return his love in the same way. Norleen’s death added to Robert’s troubles and we all felt sorry for him.
Norleen made plans to visit Robert in Papua New Guinea during the holiday break in June. He was appointed by AVA to teach carpentry at Mendi in the New Guinea Highlands. They planned to climb the 15 400 ft peak of Mt Wilhelm, the highest mountain in New Guinea.
Norleen never did climb Mt Wilhelm! We could not believe the post card that she sent us. They did a 2 hour practice run to become acclimatised to the altitude. Norleen and Robert were to start next day at 2-30 am for the four hour walk up the steep track to the summit aiming to be there at sunrise. Mt Wilhelm is usually free of cloud early in the morning and then is covered in cloud for most of the day. The morning view is usually spectacular, as it is possible to look across New Guinea from the northern coast to the southern coast.
The post card said that they walked up to the second lake, to check out the path that they were to follow the next morning by torch light. Norleen continues: “Unfortunately I developed a fever during the night, so we had a change of plan. Next morning we got up early and headed DOWN the mountain. The morning was magic, giving us excellent views of the ‘world’. We were fortunate enough to hitch a lift down the mountain soon after we joined the road ….”
We could not understand what Norleen was telling us. It was out of character for her to fall short of a goal that was so important to her. To get so close, and then fail was unthinkable.
The next cryptic post card told us little more and hardly mentioned her sickness. They were going to Ambua Lodge, which was a resort on a beautiful lake. This required a walk from Purmaga to Lake Kutubu and a canoe ride across the lake to the lodge. Norleen’s journal fills in the gaps that were missing from the post cards and provided us with the explanation that we were looking for. She wrote: “We landed safely at Purmaga and headed off on the 27 km walk to the edge of the lake. I was feeling very sick and felt like ‘throwing up’. By sheer stubbornness, I kept putting one foot in front of the other and only rarely did I ask Robert to stop for a while. I was walking in a dream and remembered very little of the walk. On the return journey, I was very surprised to find that I had walked 10 km before we were picked up.
Just when I was about to collapse, a vehicle went past and stopped. This was unusual as only three vehicles use that road each week, and one of those was a grader! The little Suzuki was packed full with supplies and there was barely enough room for the PNG driver and his passenger. He was from Queensland and we had seen him on the plane earlier this morning. Room was made for me in the cabin and both he and Robert sat on the bonnet. We had only gone a few miles when the car was stopped by PNG villagers, who would not allow the men to ride on the bonnet of the car, as the village would have to pay compensation if anyone was injured. Fancy having legal problems in the middle of the jungle. During this time I had been growing worse, but it had to be done and I would have to start walking again. I wrestled my pack out of the Suzuki and began to put it on, willing my body to obey. The Queenslander said ‘No! You stay put and we will walk.’ How thankful I was to sink back into that seat. Even so, I found it difficult to follow the ceaseless chatter of my friendly driver.”
Robert and Norleen stayed at the construction camp for two days as Norleen was very sick. This was confirmed to be malaria but unfortunately there was no suitable medicine in the camp. Finally she was flown to Ambua Lodge by company helicopter. The pilot realised that she would suffer a relapse if she tried to walk. She wrote in her journal:
“The helicopter dropped us right at the front of the lodge. I felt as though I was in a dream. Was this a commercial or had I turned millionaire overnight? We met a friendly English couple and they had chloroquine. My malaria was treated at last!”
It was a great comfort for us to know that Norleen had received remarkable help and assistance during her attack of malaria. We felt that God was looking after her and made sure that appropriate help was at hand. It was a change for her to receive help that she could not repay, as she often supplied help to others in need. Norleen wrote in a circular letter to her many friends: “My trust and faith in people has been restored. When I was unable to walk another step, a vehicle appeared from no-where and took me to a road building base camp. I stayed there for two nights, all meals included, until I was able to continue. I did some unusual things, including two spectacular – and free – helicopter rides.”
Norleen quickly regained her health, finished her stay in PNG and returned to the Solomon Islands. It was only when we received her next circular letter that we realised how serious her sickness was during her New Guinea holiday. Consequently, we wrote to her expressing concern about her health. We thought that she caught malaria because she had not been taking the correct medication. We now know that the Solomon Islands is one of the worst places in the world for malaria. Most permanent residents have attacks at times and antimalarial tablets only provide partial protection. Her next letter to us was almost entirely devoted to the problems that malaria caused at the school. It started like this:
“Do you think I get sick a lot? I appreciate your concern about my health and I guess that the lack of professional help does create risks. However, I feel that I have been extremely fortunate health wise. I have not missed a day from school. I eat and drink whatever I like and is available. Some of the food has to be seen to be believed!
Food is in short supply at times, but I have a nutritious, balanced and varied diet and do not go hungry. I have not had one cold or other sickness, except for my ear infection that kept me awake for four nights. The rash I get is only minor and does not stop me from enjoying my garden. When I read the letters from you complaining about colds and other sickness, I know that I am better off here than you are!”
The strong words in this letter once more reminded us how difficult it must be for Norleen to be so far away from family and friends. It was also a lesson for us to remember that she was confident and did not take unnecessary risks.
During the first week back at school after her New Guinea holiday, two things happened. Firstly, it rained heavily and her bush kitchen finally fell down, and she was asked to help on the “Open Day” committee. School Open Day was used as a display to the general public. It was a craft fair with custom dancing and feasting, followed by prize giving to the top students. Norleen wrote:
“At the conclusion of the first ‘Open Day’ committee meeting I ended up with several responsibilities – to organise the prize giving and to arrange the feast. This latter responsibility may seem to be right down my alley, with all my food and catering experience, but somehow I think not! I have the feeling it involves visiting the local villages to try and rustle up some beasts (such as cows, pigs and fish), to buy and kill them for the event. Then to organise troops of students to cook the meat and bake huge slabs of various types of “pudding” in the motu. I wonder what other surprises the event has in store for me!”
During the next few weeks, her three Form 2 girls helped her establish a bush garden. They chose a spot about eight minutes walk from the school near Navie’s garden where they spent three hours “brushing” as it is called. The jungle had to be cleared and the ground prepared for planting. Norleen said that she managed to get far dirtier than her girls do as she enjoyed the physical activity. The girls wanted her to rest and get out of the hot, tropical sun. They planted her garden and she wrote: “Today I spent several hours weeding my garden. Plants grow quickly here, but unfortunately so do the weeds. My corn, okra, slippery cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers are quite healthy, unlike the sweet peas and rock melons that did not put in an appearance. On paper, my garden looks quite impressive but it really is humble. I would hate to live by my skills alone. Occasionally some Form 2 girls see me walking to the bush garden, so tag along to help and ‘story’. This I appreciate.”
Work on her outdoor kitchen progressed with the help of two Form 5 boys. They salvaged what they could from the old one and then burnt the rubbish. Next they had to find sago palm leaves for the walls and roof. Norleen sent word to some of the nearby villages. Several days later, she took five boys and one of the girls to Ri Ri village and cut ten branches of sago palm leaves at $2-50 per branch. The kitchen gradually took shape and she hoped that it would be finished before our visit.
“On Saturday, the students arrived at 7-30 am to build my kitchen. I enjoyed learning how to remove the middle of the leaves and attach them to form the walls and the roof. We made good progress. Gary popped in for lunch of grilled cheese on toast. He was on punishment duty and was very hungry. We then watched our teams practice for Open Day finals. Two of my Form 5 students, Hency and Georgina found me near the sports field and suggested that we go to a waterfall near Kokana. Some village piccaninnies showed us the way and were surprised that I enjoyed climbing the high, steep rock face of the waterfall. We picked some small pandanus leaves to make a mat and then caught some shrimps in the river. We ate the nuts and bananas that the girls had bought with them. Hency gave me such a complement by saying that she thought that white people did not like spending time with Solomon Islanders. That is why she thought that I was different. It was a lovely ‘time out’ and we had a good time relaxing and storying.
We intended returning a bush knife we had borrowed from a villager at Kokana. There was a big group of people there so we were reluctant to go too close. However, we were called over and given a bowl of food. The villagers were surprised when I ate with my fingers like they did – although they took the trouble to find a spoon for me. The feast was to celebrate the deciding of a ‘bride price’ and I felt very privileged to be there.
The following Thursday I did not go to Kira Kira, as I had been in on Tuesday to buy some thread for the student’s uniforms. I was storying with the students when American teacher, Jeni arrived with some mail for me. I have not had much mail lately so it was very welcome. Jeni wanted to stay and talk while Hency plaited my hair. She did not go when the girls had finished, so reading my precious mail would have to wait for a while.
I asked if she would like to come for a walk with me so we did my favourite loop – along the beach, through the coconut plantation and home via the road. I dropped in to Barbs before returning to my place for tea. She was taking a pizza out of the oven, so invited me to stay. Pizza, Yum! Then while Barbs left for school duty, I returned home armed with a cold beer to read my mail. ‘Sst’, beer open, letter open, then ‘knock, knock’. It was Gary, with a couple of beers as payment for me cutting his hair a couple of weeks ago. I finished my beer, we talked, he kept on talking and decided not to go to supervise a few students at prep. So we drink the beers he brought. Then ‘Gary, it is 12-15 am, go home!’ He gets the hint and left reluctantly, still wanting to continue the conversation. So by the light of a candle, as the generator had been switched off hours ago, I finally managed to read my mail.”
Food was often in their thoughts. Norleen mentioned reading many books and she was amazed at how often food was mentioned. At one time when fresh food was very short, she wrote about the latest book that she was reading: “This book is terrible. In this story they eat ice-cream all the time! Sitting here in the bush and reading about these people eating ice-cream is pure torture!”
Norleen had been at Waimapuru for seven months when she looked back on the experiences and the changes that have occurred in her life. She wrote in her journal:
“I sit back and wonder how much this place has “changed” or added to me. Some things are obvious like:
* I strike a match differently ( they are always damp!)
* I read many books
* My feet are harder (This is the only place I know where it is acceptable to go to school barefoot – especially when it rains)
* I can choose, scrap and husk coconuts
* I have washing calluses on my hands
* I am less tactile and more patient (I play a good waiting game)
* I suppose you would like me to say I have a permanent tan, but when you are around so many beautiful shades of brown, “tanned” does not come into it – I am always “white”!
* I can make a variety of dishes out of few ingredients. I bake bread, biscuits and cake regularly.
* I can make a bush garden
* I have people as friends I would not have at home.
* I have my own wontok following.
* I’ll eat mouldy weevilly food and cut my own hair.
* Finishing the school day at 10-15 pm. on duty nights does not bother me.
* I can tell a ‘tourist’ from a ‘traveller’. I have more conversations and spend less time on ‘chit-chat’.
As for things on the inside, that is harder to tell. I have become more energy/environmentally aware. I am more tolerant of people’s differences and I am more willing to give. I also know what it is like to be in need (it is much harder receiving than giving). I have become a good correspondent.”
Then she wrote this poem and sent it to a friend in Australia.
THE ROAR OF A SMILE
The sounds of the century left behind
By-passed by progress and it’s unpleasant grind.
Islands in the sea of background noise –
And “big” men forever building more dangerous toys.
Forgotten is the sound of the telephone’s ring,
TV, radio and the plastic life they bring.
Traffic consists of the school truck on a mission.
No-one jostling for prime position.
Too soon to be invaded by the “better” world
and all its twisted values held.
Progress, a country not equipped to handle.
Give me instead the noise of a candle.
She wrote about the difference between Solomon Island and Australian students by saying, “The students are much more in tune with each other than people in Australia. I will miss the telepathy – the raising of an eyebrow which means so much. The slight move of the head when a student wants help. When you want to gain someone’s attention, you do not yell out ‘Hey!’ All you do is go ‘Sst’ and the person you want will turn around. I do not know how, but it is quite specific. They do not need to talk. It worries me to think of the trouble I will have when I return to teach in Australia.”
Although Norleen had become very much at home at Waimapuru, she still missed Australia. A representative from AVA, Jo Thompson, visited the school for a couple of days. Norleen wrote in her last circular letter, “It was good to catch up with all that was happening with volunteers. Both Barbs and I felt flat after she left. She bought a bit of Australia with her, a bit of home and took it with her when she left. At least we have each other to feel flat with. I will really miss Barbs when she leaves at the end of the year. We spend a lot of time together.“
In contrast, the American teachers were often a source of fun to the Australian girls. This was often accidental due to cultural differences. Here is a typical example. The Americans had a greater access to funds for various activities than the Australian girls did. Norleen was hoping to teach hockey at Waimapuru, but could not fund the purchase of equipment. The Americans said, ‘No worries! We can get hockey sticks and uniform, etc. But what are you going to do about ice?’ All they knew was ice hockey and the thought of producing ice in the tropics gave the Australians quite a laugh.
Saturday 14 September, Open Day finally arrived, but not without its problems. Mike, the school Principal, visited Norleen’s house on the Friday evening to inform her that the Province had closed the airport – because the wind sock was broken! Norleen said that it had been torn ever since she had been there, so closing of the airport was some sort of political ploy. It disappointed many people as none of the invited guests could fly in for the school Open Day. This spoilt a very important occasion for the people of the Island as much of the pomp and ceremony would be missing. She wrote:
“My introduction to Open Day was a cool dawn. Some students helped me put up the clothing and textile display. The day dawned calm but overcast. I managed a quick breakfast before dressing up (I put on shoes!) and taking my box of prizes to school. I was required on stage for Prize Giving, to hand out the prizes to the replacement civic official from Kira Kira. He in turn gave them to the students. There were a lot of speeches before the day could be declared open, followed a brief hour to look at the various subject displays, followed by a long three hours of custom dancing. It was enjoyable but far too long. At 3 pm, a little behind schedule, the feast was accompanied by more speeches as the people ate. I did not participate in the feast as it had been sitting out for hours and did not smell the best. As I had been up since 5 am I was past being hungry. In the afternoon, the sports finals were played.
It had been a long but successful day. I was very impressed with the students as they were so helpful, without being told what to do. The home economics display raised over $400 in clothing sales. Barbs and I were just throwing together a light, quick tea when the New Zealand teachers Hammish and Gary knocked on the door. They announced the arrival of the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner, Jan Henderson, who had arrived on a morning flight after the airport had reopened. Jan had spent five hours in Kira Kira as all of the local transport was at the school for Open Day. So we invited all of the New Zealanders to stay for tea. Although we were weary, we managed to prepare quite a spread. Jan was happy to have an early night, while Barbs and I went dancing.
Next day we hitched a ride with Jan to Powa, a small Provincial school on a nearby island. In good weather, it is one hour’s ride by motorised canoe from the wharf at Konasugu. There were more speeches on our arrival, and more custom dancing. We were privileged to see two special dances from Makira, the first a drum beating dance and the second a water dance. The latter was as we left. Fifteen girls were in the sea making music with coconut shells. Powa is the oldest school on the Solomon Islands and is very run down. The students have to fend for themselves at weekends as there are no meals provided due to lack of funds. The wind had picked up during the afternoon and the trip home was quite an adventure. Jan thought it was a great joke as us ‘Aussie’ girls bounced around in the canoe. I still have bruises to prove it.”
Jan left the following morning – and met us two weeks later in a hotel room at Honiara.
Friday 27 September was Norleen’s last day at Waimapuru before she left to meet us. It dawned wet and cloudy and she spent some time preparing a lesson on the black board in the Home Economics room ready for our visit.
One of the students wrote later; “I was on my way to the science lab when I glimpsed Madam Norleen coming along the corridor. I promptly hid myself behind a pillar. When she passed me by, I leap onto her way and greet her with ‘Good Morning!’ She was startled at my jumping, then offered me her ‘high cheek’ smile and returned me ‘Good Morning’…Dear Norleen…They were the last words I spoke to her.”
At her last class, she dismissed the girls with her normal farewell, “Bye Bye girls!”. Then off to her house to pick up her string bag and back-pack, then onto the school truck.
Now we were planning to return Norleen to Waimapuru – in a rosewood coffin.
WAIMAPURU SCHOOL AND ITS PEOPLE
Many Solomon Islanders were at the airport to help carry the coffin to the aircraft. It is very important for them to touch a coffin as a mark of respect to the deceased. Sister Paul Francis, with many of our new friends ran to touch the coffin and helped carry it to the aircraft. Dave lifted little Jennifer up so that she could touch it also and commented that she was becoming more of a Solomon Islander than a New Zealander. Jan’s house girl, Naomi, made a beautiful wreath of frangipani. These delicate flowers usually go brown after an hour in the tropics, but they were placed on the coffin and remained a beautiful cream all day.
The “Islander” single engine aircraft, provided by the Solomon Island Government, had just enough room for the official party. Lynda from ADAIB represented the Australian High Commission and Nick McLewen, Pacific representative for AVA, sat in front of Ruth and me. Richard, Merrilyn and Ian were behind us. Robert sat at the very back as close to Norleen’s coffin as possible and was very sad. Ian was busy taking photographs of the beautiful scenery around us. We did not see much as we were thinking of what lay ahead. As we were flying across to San Cristobal Island, Ruth said, “This is the first time that our whole family has flown together.” Then added, “And the last time” as we both thought of Norleen’s coffin behind us. Apart from that we were all very quiet, engrossed in our own thoughts.
Flying in a small plane did not worry me as much as I thought it would and I felt reasonably comfortable. The sun was shining and there were excellent views of the coast. The mountains were still shrouded in cloud and it was not possible to see where Norleen’s plane had crashed. We flew low over the sea and saw a school of large fish. After nearly an hour, we crossed the island that Jan and Norleen had visited by canoe only weeks earlier. Finally the aircraft approached Kira Kira airstrip and it looked as though we were trying to land on an aircraft carrier – with sea at both ends of the strip. This old war time airfield was nearly three miles long and it took several minutes to taxi to the concrete bomb shelter that doubled as a terminal building. It was made of concrete blocks and had openings instead of windows. The broken windsock still hung limply on its pole at the end of the runway.
School Principal Mike, several of the staff and students and some villagers met us. The women had huge garlands of flowers to place on the coffin. The school truck was broken down, so a large Government yellow construction truck was used to carry Norleen’s body back to her school. This was appropriate, as Norleen loved travelling that road on the back of a truck – with the wind blowing through her hair. Students lifted the coffin on to the back of the truck with great reverence and care. Ian, Richard and Robert jumped on board the truck to travel with the coffin and were joined by the students. Ruth and I felt like royalty as we sat in the front of a comfortable Toyota four wheel drive utility, borrowed for the occasion from the local branch of the development bank. The villagers watched us pass, all very solemn. Three plane crash victims had been buried the previous day in one of the villages, so many people were sharing our grief.
The three rivers were down and we crossed them with the water level just below the doors. It was still quite an experience as the driver skilfully dodged the deeper waterholes. Very little rain had fallen over the last few days and the sun was shining brightly.
As we approached the school compound we saw a freshly dug grave close to the entrance. It was not in a secluded corner as we had expected, but Norleen’s grave will be a prominent feature of the campus for everyone to pass as they enter the school.
We felt hot and thirsty as we had left the Henderson’s home early that morning and had waited for more than an hour at the airport before we boarded the plane. It was 10-30 am before we arrived at Waimapuru National Secondary School and all of the staff and students had been seated in the Assembly Hall since 8 am. Our light casual clothes were not suitable for the funeral of our daughter. We needed a drink, a wash and clean clothes before the service. Mike said that the students would not mind waiting a bit longer. They had waited in silence in the Assembly Hall for several hours. He also told us that the school had not been able to function that week. The students would not leave their dormitories for the first three days as their grief was so great. They had taken all day Friday to prepare the Assembly Hall for the service and for the classes to make beautiful wreaths of frangipanni, hibiscus and other tropical flowers. The front of the Hall was decorated with plastic buckets of tropical flowers and leaves – simple but beautiful.
The bare foot altar boys in their red skirts and white tops carried a large wooden cross and tall candlesticks at the head of the procession. The coffin was carried into the Hall by students representing the different Provinces of the Solomon Islands. We followed the coffin to the front of the Hall and sat on the seats reserved for us. Father Abel, the School Chaplain began the service with words of introduction and then the students sang several hymns in beautiful harmony. Norleen had written in her journal that their unaccompanied singing in natural harmony gave her “goose bumps” and touched her soul. I have never heard such singing. One of the teachers said after the service that they normally sing well, but he had never heard them sing with such sincerity and feeling as they did that day.
Near the start of that service I saw two swallows sitting on a beam in the Assembly Hall. They watched the whole service from their vantage point and stayed there for over an hour. I said to Ruth, “Why two swallows?” I thought that one could represent Norleen as she watched the great honour given to her. Then we remembered that a home economics student teacher died with Norleen and the second swallow could represent her.
The service continued with Bible readings and a short address by Father Abel. Then eulogies were given by me and then Australian teacher Barbara gave a talk saying, “I wish I could sit down and talk to her the way we used to – her bright cheery face peering through the wire screen, calling out so that I could come in to get breakfast.” She read verses from Galatians, Chapter 5, which describes the problems of human nature with its ambition, jealousy and anger – and concluded, “But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control… and it is these qualities that Norleen possessed and will be remembered in us. Her spirit will be carried on by all of us who care and knew her.”
Nick spoke on behalf of the Australian Overseas Service Bureau and School Principal Mike could only give a short talk because of his deep sorrow. Finally the Chairman of the School Board explained that the grave was sited at the entrance to the school so that all of the students that come there will pass it and remember Norleen.
Then followed a series of special ceremonies of deep significance. The children of Norleen’s class completely surrounded the coffin with a long flower chain and sang a special song for her. Then all of the classes and many individual students and staff placed wreaths and floral tributes on the coffin. Soon the coffin was completely covered with brilliantly coloured flowers and these were piled high. Norleen loved flowers, so it was fitting that she was surrounded by such beauty.
The next ceremony is only used on special occasions to give respect to a dead chieftain or tribal leader. Norleen was given this great honour as student representatives from each of the Provinces approached the coffin on their knees, then rose and touched the coffin with their foreheads. They dropped once more to their knees and went backwards away from the coffin.
Some of the senior students lifted the coffin shoulder high and carried it to the centre of the hall. All of Norleen’s class then passed under the coffin as children would when saying farewell to their departed mother. These two ceremonies gave us some idea of the respect they held for our daughter, and how much they had come to accept her as “family”.
Each of our family had selected a wreath from the coffin. The altar boys carried the cross and candles and the priest lead the procession from the Hall to the grave-site. All of the students, staff and villagers followed us. The coffin was rested on bamboo poles across the grave and rough rope vines were used to lower it into the ground. The bare earth and naturalness of the surroundings was in stark contrast to the sanitised proceedings at an Australian funeral, and had greater meaning for us.
Although the service at the grave side was not long the noonday sun was beating down on us. Some of the students had thought about this and brought umbrellas to hold over our heads providing shade, for which we were very grateful. We placed our wreaths into the grave and then flowers came from all directions as the students paid their respects. Merrilyn stood at the grave and said, “Goodbye, Norleen.” and we all burst into tears, sharing our grief as a family. Father Abel, Principal Mike, Navie, Ruth and I wrapped our arms around each other and cried. Another group comforted Robert and our children. The students began covering the coffin with dirt and no one left until the grave was completely filled. Then sadly, slowly they all dispersed.
Mike gave us a large manila envelope at the service, which contained over a hundred condolence letters written by the students and staff. We read these beautiful letters later that day. A Form 5 student, Noelyn, wrote, “It really was a shock for me to hear the tragic accident and I just didn’t want to believe that Norleen was involved. I really missed her for the passed few days because she was my only teacher I felt free with and who is always willing to give a hand. Late Norleen had been one of the teachers where most of the students love to talk with. She was so loving and kind beyond what we expected.” Many of the students repeated the references to her smiling face and that Norleen was a very helpful and approachable teacher. The sincerity of these letters written in their quaint English and many decorated with intricate artwork, touched us deeply.
Barbara had arranged for the teaching staff to meet at her house for a community lunch. We remembered how Norleen had made plans for us to visit many of her teaching friends and for them to provide special meals from their cultures. We were given curries, rice and other specialties prepared for this meal. In a short time, we met many of the teachers that had given Norleen so much support over the last nine months and they told us stories about Norleen. My diary entry said that it was a happy time with everyone talking, laughing, and crying as we shared our memories of a gracious girl.
At the luncheon, Garry asked us if Norleen was a Christian. I said, “Why do you ask?” He said, “Norleen always attended Bible studies and sat quietly at the back of the room but never said much and would not join him in religious discussions.” Norleen had been a great help to Garry in many ways and had encouraged him to have a better attitude to life. During this last week he could not understand why he was so happy, while everyone else was sad. As he stood at Norleen’s grave he realised why he was happy. He did not need her support any more. She had helped him so much that, in future, he could stand on his own. Gary’s words confirmed to us once more, that Norleen had a firm, secure faith in God and was able to demonstrate it through her love and concern for others.
Finally we were taken to Norleen’s home. It was still locked and there were many marks on the doors and windows where the students had pressed their faces against the glass to look inside her home, wishing that she was still there. The “duty free” films that we had bought for Norleen were used extensively during our trip by Ian who took many photographs. Merrilyn and Richard also took some and we were so grateful to have these as a permanent record of events that we glimpsed briefly through our tears. Photographs were taken of Norleen’s home, just as it was, before we entered it. Her sports shoes were drying on the louvred window with a billum hanging beside them. Two carry bags were on a chair nearby. The “take-away” menu from the Adelaide Saigon Restaurant that Merrilyn and Ian had sent as a joke, was stuck on the fridge. Her larder was well stocked with food and spices that friends had sent her. A Hagen Axe and carved shield decorated one wall, a reminder of her recent trip to New Guinea. Another wall was covered with photographs and post cards that she had received from friends around the world. Several woven mats covered parts of the concrete floor – one had not been trimmed and looked as if it was Norleen’s first try at weaving. Clothes were hanging in her open shelf wardrobe. It was all neat and tidy, simple but comfortable, everything waiting for her return.
The garden was neat and tidy, with a small bed of roses struggling in this unsuitable climate. The crotons, hibiscus and other tropical plants were neatly trimmed and showed the results of her student helpers. The outdoor kitchen was nearly complete, with only one wall not assembled. A couple of hours work would see it ready for use, but nothing had been done since her death.
It was time to rest and renew our energy. We slept in Norleen’s house that night and also Sunday night. Merrilyn and Ian slept in Norleen’s room while Ruth and I slept in the spare room as she had planned. After a rest on that Saturday afternoon, we went for a walk on Norleen’s black sandy beach. On the way we passed Mike’s house where his wife and her friends were under the trees, preparing a special evening meal for us. On the beach we were offered coconut milk by some of the girls and then we sat with them as they played the guitar and sang. Merrilyn and Ian spent some time going through Norleen’s effects and found her sketchbook. One sketch was of fallen trees on the beach. Merrilyn found the place where Norleen had sat to sketch this scene and asked Ian to take a photograph from the same spot. Four of Norleen’s sketches are mounted on my office wall and I can see them as I write. One is of New Guinea, one of the beach and another of a river scene. The fourth one is an unfinished, unsigned drawing of her unfinished bush kitchen, just the way it was the day we saw it.
The evening meal outside of Mike’s house was subdued. It was a traditional feast and he had killed one of his free-range chickens for it. The poor chicken should have run harder to escape being caught as the meat was very tough. What we found difficult to eat was a luxury to them and it reminded us how spoilt we are in the west. Mike apologised for the short eulogy he gave at the funeral service. He said. “I was too upset to say more. It was very difficulty saying anything as I was reduced to tears every time I thought of her.” We gave him our assurance that we appreciated all that he said and did for Norleen while she was alive and at her funeral.
Sunday morning breakfast consisted of a pineapple we found in Norleen’s garden, bananas and toast with vegemite and jam. We had a quiet morning sorting out Norleen’s effects. Richard, Lynda and Nick walked with a group of students to the waterfall, one of Norleen’s favourite walks. Naturally they were caught in a shower of rain! Some of the girls took Ruth and me to see Norleen’s bush garden and then back to her classroom that she described in her journal.
“It is wonderful teaching in my class room. The breeze blows gently from the coconut plantation, through the room that has only columns for walls and gently flaps the papers. The magic blue of the sea beyond the coconut trees is in direct contrast to the vivid green of the undergrowth of clover and lemon grass which borders the classroom. It is easy to let your mind wander.”
Her plans for our visit also included several special lessons to her students. They had been invited to prepare questions that Norleen could answer before our visit. The two most popular questions were:
* How do we eat with your parents and
* How do we tell jokes to them.
Other questions included items about dress and customs that they had read about in Norleen’s magazines. She was asked by her Form 5 class, “What are panty-hose?” Norleen had her class in fits of laughter as she stood on her table with her legs covered in a lava lava – and proceeded to put on a pair of black panty hose, complete with seams. How strange this must have been for students who normally do not wear shoes. At times Norleen wondered why she was teaching them these things. That last week she invited some of her students to her house to help bake biscuits for our visit. She had prepared a lesson and written it on the black board ready for a demonstration lesson for us to see. Merrilyn had to rub it off as no one would touch it.
Gradually the students gained confidence and began to visit Ruth and me at her home. There was a steady stream of girls and several boys to the house and these included Norleen’s special friends. These girls would dance to the music from her tape recorder, or join her in free time. We met Hency, the top student in Form 5 who said that she was going to follow in Madam Norleen’s footsteps and become a home economics teacher. The students enjoyed the biscuits we brought from my Mother and those they had helped bake for our visit.
The apricots and other dried fruit that we gave them was strange to their taste. It was fun watching the expressions on their faces as they took very small bites, and politely said that they liked it.
Lynda, Nick and our children joined the students in a game of softball that afternoon and they all had a great time. One of the boys adopted Richard as his brother and we did not see him for much of that weekend. It was our son’s first visit to an overseas country and it was good to see him grow in confidence during that week as he faced each new experience.
That evening a group of the special students came to Norleen’s garden and took cuttings of various plants to grow around her grave. Earlier, Merrilyn had taken a cutting of the deep red frangipanni, one of Norleen’s favourite trees in her garden and planted it at the head of the grave. Once again there were tears and laughter as we all remembered stories about Norleen. The Sunday evening church service was conducted entirely by the students and it did them credit. Hency sat in the row in front of us and had a photograph of Norleen, taken at Kira Kira Post Office. This was passed tenderly along the row and all of the girls examined it intently. They loved looking at photographs and saw in them things that we had never seen.
The Toyota returned for us on Monday morning as school returned to normal lessons. Many of Norleen’s special student friends skipped lessons to see us leave. The last view of Waimapuru was of Norleen’s grave. Every day the students placed fresh flowers on it. This time her initials were shaped in red hibiscus flowers and surrounded with long spikes of white flowers. Ruth could not take her eyes from this sight. However, I have great difficult accepting that this is the grave of my daughter. I still think of her as alive and not confined to a dark hole in the ground. Her body may be there but I cannot think of her in any other way.
During my stay in the Solomon Islands I was aware of her being close to me, guiding my thoughts and giving me comfort. Her funeral was a dream from which I will awake sometime in the future. My memories of her span the many hours we spent together in love and joy and that first visit to Waimapuru was a strange adventure where I somehow missed seeing her.
Our short visit had passed very quickly, but we felt that we had seen what Norleen had wanted us to see. I had even climbed the water tower, that only the brave would attempt, and had a great view of the school. We had also walked on her special beach although none of us were game enough to swim in the heavy surf that day. The teachers and students were just as she had described in her letters. It was easy to see how Waimapuru became very special to her and we knew it was right for her body to rest in the place that had captured her heart.
HOME FOR THE MEMORIAL SERVICE
Barbara flew back to Honiara with us. She was so upset at Norleen’s death that she planned to go back to Australia on the next flight. After several days with us she changed her mind and deciding that her students needed help to finish the year. Even though it would be hard to return to Waimapuru and its memories, Barbara knew that her students would need guidance as they prepared for their final exams. When we last heard from Barbara, she was teaching “English as a Second Language” in Laos, continuing to work in developing countries. She is a brave young lady and has shown determination in her endeavour to make the world a better place.
The aircraft was late in arriving at Kira Kira and we were tired and hungry by the time we arrived at Jan Henderson’s home in Honiara. Kathy Neilson was watching for us and we were invited to her home for a late lunch. The hospitality of the New Zealand people and their staff was outstanding. Jan’s house girl, Naomi, was so shy that it was several days before we actually met her. Each day we would leave our dirty clothes on the chair by the bed. They would disappear and return the next day, washed and ironed by this lovely lady.
Two of Ruth’s secret wishes were to visit a convent, and to have a meal with an Archbishop. On our last night in Honiara, we did both. Sister Dona invited us to afternoon tea at the convent and at 7 pm we had dinner with Archbishop Adrian Smith. We expected to see Sister Paul Francis that afternoon, but she was busy with one of her special projects and we did not see her. Sister Dona was a gracious host and our time passed quickly. We arrived at the Archbishop’s home a little after 7 pm, having adopted the Solomon Island practice of always being a little late. We were embarrassed to find Archbishop Adrian in the garden waiting for us to arrive. He introduced us to several retired priests and a special visiting priest from the Philippines. The company was delightful and we were entertained with many stories of the Islands. The “humble” meal that Father Adrian had invited us too, was superb and included Australian wines. That day had been declared a public holiday of mourning for the crash victims. Consequently, the local shops were closed, so one of the priests rode his bicycle to Chinatown to buy ice cream for us. They knew how much Australians like ice cream!
We retired to the lounge for coffee, port and more stories. As we passed from the dining room, through an archway to the lounge I saw a large butterfly. I felt compelled to take it outside and set it free, but one look at those delicate wings and I knew that it was too fragile to touch. We sat down and talked. The butterfly followed us into the room and fluttered around the ceiling for sometime. Then it settled on my left shoulder and fluttered up the side of my face. It felt like the times when Norleen would kiss me on my cheek. The hair on my neck stood on end!
The butterfly did this a second time and I was too shocked to move. Then it landed in front of my feet with its wings closed and looked away from me. I thought, “If that is you Norleen, surely you would be looking at me.” The butterfly slowly opened its wings. I saw angel shaped wings, charcoal grey in colour with white stripes through them and they had delicate swallow tail ends. In my mind I heard Norleen say, “Look at my lovely wings, Dad. They are not pearly white like the angels – they were scorched in the fire – but I think they are great. I am here to say, goodbye. Thanks Dad, you did well and I am pleased with what you have arranged. I am not going back to Australia with you as I am staying in the Solomon Islands. Goodbye and God bless you.”
With a flick of those beautiful wings it flew through the open window. Everyone saw what happened but no one spoke. I had a great feeling of wonder and peace. I do not believe that Norleen was changed into a butterfly, but my feelings were so intense that night that I could not ignore them. I am sure that in some strange way, Norleen was able to give me a final kiss. It also seems fitting that a butterfly gave me this insight as it is a symbol used by the Christian church to represent rebirth. (Strange to say, I have looked at numerous butterfly collections since then, but never seen one that looks anything like that butterfly.)
Archbishop Adrian drove us back to Henderson’s and gave us each a carved cross, inlaid with “Mother of Pearl”. We wear these crosses on special occasions with great pride, as we remember this humble man of God. These people, their gifts and hospitality, made our last day in Honiara very special to us.
We shortened our stay in the Solomon Islands by a couple of days and returned to Australia with our children. The Tuesday flight on which we booked was due to leave in the afternoon. The plane was four hours late, so we had time for some last minute shopping, another swim in Henderson’s pool and still we waited.
Mal Davidson arranged for our luggage to be loaded on the aircraft and our passports cleared in advance. Finally, after waiting so long, there was a rush to get to the airport on time – Dave does not like farewells! By noon the next day we were back in Adelaide in time for a light lunch. Ian’s parents and several of Norleen’s friends met us at the airport. Finally we were home and back to the daily routine. The lawns had to be cut and clothes washed. Life goes on, but everything seemed different.
Over 500 people attended the Memorial service on Sunday 20 October from all over Australia. It was fortunate that we had given Norleen’s friends time to make travel arrangements so they could attend the service. Many of Norleen’s Whyalla friends could not attend so it was decided to hold a mass in the Whyalla Catholic Church at the same time as our service. Norleen attended this church for several years and I was able to supply them with a detailed program of our service.
Ruth’s brother Dr John Kleinig, a lecturer at Luther Seminary, North Adelaide, conducted the service and we had chosen a number of songs that were special to us. After words of introduction, I read the Obituary. The first hymn was “As we step from the edge of morning….” This is one of my favourite songs. It reminds me so much of a special time in Norleen’s life when she climbed a mountain in the Flinders Ranges and watched the sun rise. I often think of her at the edge of morning. For so many people, seeing her bright face was the best start to a new day.
One of the last photographs taken of Norleen shows her head bathed in bright light and it almost seemed as though she was fading from sight. John wrote this poem after seeing the photograph.
There was in you, dear Norleen,
A gentle hidden radiance,
That flashed out in a glance
And showed up in your face
Like a shaft of light upon the sea,
In a sudden dazzling smile,
Which shone at us and made us glad
At your warm delight in us.
Yet you did not belong to any one of us,
But were quite beyond our reach,
Like the sun behind a cloud;
You were held by your fragility
From shining as you wished to shine;
We, still hampered by ourselves,
Could not match your simplicity.
In your final photograph
It seemed you had begun
To be transfigured with your face
In incandescent glow;
As you stood beside your friend,
You smiled at us once more,
Leaving us behind in darkness
And passing over into light.
At the Memorial service, Richard read Psalm 23, a prayer was said and Ian read from Mark 4, about Jesus stilling the storm. John gave an address, which he said was one of the most difficult sermons he had ever given. It was based on Romans 8, saying, “Neither death nor life … nothing under all creation can separate us from the love of God.” We sung another hymn and Norleen’s cousins formed a choir for a song. Then followed tributes from family and friends.
Cathryn said that she had met Norleen on her first day at Immanuel College – and sat next to her every day for the next five years. They had good times together and often talked as girls do. They talked about life and its values. They also talked about death and that they were not afraid to die. They both agreed to live life to the full and that eternal life was more beautiful than they could imagine.
Whyalla friend, Cameron told of the many lasting friendships built in that city and there were many separate groups. Norleen seemed to be a member of most of these groups as her interests were so diverse. He ended by saying, “The sunshine has gone from our lives, but never from our hearts.”
Bill Armstrong represented the Australian Overseas Service Bureau and spoke of the wonderful work done by Norleen – and of the thousands of people who have gone before her. At present there are over 250 people who are serving in 30 Third World countries providing assistance – just like Norleen. He said, “Norleen would not consider that she was doing anything special. She was doing what she could do best – teaching to and learning from the people around her. However, anyone who gives up their career for two years and works for one tenth of their normal salary, as Norleen and others are doing, must be a special type of person. The message that Norleen gives to us today is that the world is not a perfect world. It needs ‘Norleens’ who are prepared to disregard the differences between people. She urges us all ‘to be on the right course.'”
Merrilyn began by quoting a poem written by Robert, describing Norleen’s life in the Solomons as “Black and white coming together in spiritual harmony.” Merrilyn said, “She had few possessions but her house was a home. Her sketches and personal touches decorated the walls. It was neat and extremely well organised. There were lollies from Cameron and a bottle of wine from us waiting for a special occasion. Her cupboards were well stocked with food and spices. It had everything that she needed. I regret that I cannot send Norleen the satchel of bearnaise sauce that she asked for in her last letter. It is hard to believe that all of the beautiful things of hers that we are storing, will never be collected. We did not make a fuss when you left. Two years is not such a long time! Norleen I love you. Thank you for being my sister and my friend.”
Norleen’s Uncle Geoff Denham wrote a poem that he read. It referred to a visit from Norleen where she taught them a new card game called “Oh Hell”.
In life’s eternity
You taught us to play
Laughter and fun.
You sat on my knee
one social night.
No words were needed
Ruth gave thanks to all of the people who helped us during this difficult time, especially to the many people who helped us in the Solomon Islands. She ended by thanking everyone in our family who took some part in the service. Two of the hymns in this service were used at Merrilyn and Ian’s wedding several years ago.
The service was closed with the “Christmas Blessing” where we ask God to hold us tight and to watch over us. We thought of Norleen as a child of God going home.
Ruth and I met many of the congregation as they left the church as many of them wanted to tell us who they were and to give us their personal greetings. It took 45 minutes for all of the people to leave the building. The last to leave were some of the students from the college and we marvelled at their patience.
Merrilyn and Ian opened their home after the service for a light luncheon. Many people came – and admired the special decorations that Merrilyn and Ian had prepared. They had mounted photographs and some of Norleen’s weaving on the walls. The Hagen axe and other Solomon Island artefacts were on display. Merrilyn had a special arrangement of flowers in her bath! She displayed the many floral tributes we had received and the flower arrangements we had purchased for the service. Norleen loved flowers and would have been liked the colourful display. The yellow flowering hedge on the boundary fence was in full bloom. This hedge was one of Norleen’s favourites and it only flowers for two weeks each year!
In the next few months I had two bronze plaques made, one is on her grave at Waimapuru and the other is mounted on a moss rock at Immanuel College.
A memorial stone was placed at Immanuel College, close to the Home Economics Centre where Norleen and her friends met for lunch during their college years.
Flowers and other tributes, left at the altar after the Memorial Service, were buried under a second rock that her friends had carried from Rankins Hut in the Flinders Ranges. The plaques are similar, both telling a little of Norleen’s history and of her hope for the future. These words are meant for the benefit of students who pass by – to give them something to think about as they plan their lives. These items are a lasting memorial to a very special person.
That is the end of Norleen’s story, but it also marks the beginning of a new life for so many of us. A life without her physical presence, a life without her laughter and words of encouragement. As Geoff said, “The sun goes down. It’s colder, even here in my world.”
RUTH’S STORY (WRITTEN BY RUTH)
It is almost three years since my darling daughter was taken from me so suddenly, without any farewells or warning given. Today, 7 July 1994 would have been Norleen’s 31st birthday, but there is no celebration.
A week before her death, she said good bye to me on the phone. It was a long, lingering goodbye. Who was to know then that it would be the last time I was ever to hear her sweet voice? After telling me of minor changes in her plans for the next few weeks, the phone conversation ended with “I love you, Goodbye.” There was “No looking forward to seeing you soon” or words like that. It was almost as if she knew that these would be her last words to me.
I am finding it very difficult to write this story, even after all this time. The tears, the pain and anguish are all part of my daily life. Time does heal a little, but how can a mother forget the child of her womb, who is no longer with her?
On the plane flying to Honiara, I had this awful, fearful feeling as we were flying through turbulence near the end of our journey. I felt that something dreadful was going to happen. I had flown in various countries under trying conditions before, so it was not first time flier’s nerves or anything like that. As I walked down the steps of the aircraft I looked towards the waiting crowd and thought I saw Norleen. As I came nearer, she was nowhere to be seen.
As I was sitting in the Honiara airport lounge, waiting for news of Norleen’s plane, that dreadful feeling returned. The hours dragged by and still no news. Maybe no news is good news after all. The rain was teaming down and the weather was more miserable than ever. What has happened? Why hasn’t the Kira Kira plane arrived by now? Where could it be? All of these unanswered questions and no one had any idea what could have happened.
Both Eric and I knew that come rain, hail or storms, Norleen would be on that plane. She was looking forward to seeing us both after being away for nine months. Also we could not wait to be with her.
Have you ever had a stranger come up to you, someone who would change your life forever? This person was to confirm my worst fears and yet comfort me at the same time. She was Sister Paul Francis, the Solomon Island nun who threw her arms around me, hugged me close and said to me, “You poor mother.” I knew then that Norleen was gone – that I would never see her again. This stranger was sent by God to warn and prepare me for the next few traumatic days.
After Sister Paul Francis and Sister Dona visited us at Jan Henderson’s home that night, I felt a sense of comfort. Exhausted, I fell into bed and slept soundly for a few hours. Then Eric and I both awoke. There was just so much to talk about and so many unanswered questions. I felt as if my heart had shrunk in size and a huge gaping void was in its place. The pain was unbearable. How would I ever cope? Would I ever be the same again?
The next day seemed endless. The tropical air was stifling and very oppressive, as I found it very hard to breathe. It felt as if my breath had been taken away. Even though Jan had prepared delightful meals, they tasted like sawdust to me and I could eat very little. Somehow the day ended and night came. Everything seemed so much worse at night. Once again I had only a few hours sleep when the howling dogs woke me. It was such a spine tingling howl as they seemed to share in my grief. My mind was in such a whirl as I tried to work out what was happening.
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear. I felt a little better this morning. The church service at Kukum helped raise my spirits – just like the lone swallow flying around in the church. Back in Adelaide, the members of our church at Immanuel Fellowship were praying for us.
Lunchtime that day, when Jan broke the news to us that Norleen was definitely killed in the air crash, I felt a sense of relief. At last I knew what had happened and, hopefully, the authorities could bring Norleen’s body out of the jungle for a Christian burial. That afternoon our children, Merrilyn, Ian and Richard arrived from Australia. How great it was to have their love and support. Our children were truly wonderful as they were able to plan events and think clearly and objectively. I was in a trance – going around in a daze as nothing seemed real. I had lost all sense of feeling. All of my actions were robotic, only doing things that I knew were expected of me and things that I had to do.
Eric was a fantastic help and support to me during those trying times – crying with me, supporting, comforting and upholding me with his love. Jan and Dave – total strangers when they found us at the Honiara Hotel – were the most wonderful and gracious hosts. Jan did it all; working all day and sometimes at night, dealing with the diplomatic tasks of her country, and then having to comfort and support us as well!
I did not know how I would ever cope with flying to Kira Kira, knowing that Norleen’s charred body was on the plane near where I sat. I could not touch the coffin as the Solomon Islanders did. It was too painful. It broke my heart to see Robert resting his head and weeping on Norleen’s coffin while we were flying to Kira Kira. On landing, villagers carrying wreaths of tropical flowers met us at the airport. The headmaster and some staff and students of Waimapuru school met us there.
The drive to the school seemed to take forever and it was a very slow procession. All the villagers, birds and animals were quiet and solemn as we drove by. When we neared the school compound, a freshly dug grave came into view. It was to be the last resting place of my beloved daughter, Norleen. It was hard to believe that I was about to attend the funeral of a child of mine who at only 28 years of age. She was so young. Aren’t funerals for old people? Someone once said that only the good die young, so I guess that God needs young angels as well.
The funeral service and singing was stirring and uplifting. Every step from the Assembly Hall where the service was held, to the grave site was an effort. The searing tropical midday sun, plus the humidity, seemed unbearable. We all gathered around the grave. As the coffin was lowered, Merrilyn said, “Goodbye Norleen.” It was more than I could bear! I felt the strong arms of Eric and the Headmaster around me and we were all crying together. Others were also comforting Richard, Merrilyn and Ian, as they wept at the grave.
The school staff and students supported and comforted me whenever they could during the next few days. I helped Merrilyn sort out a few of Norleen’s personal belongings and distributed then among her friends. The Solomon Islanders were so grateful to receive even a small item of her clothing. One of the boys was highly delighted to receive the small barbells that Norleen used for exercises.
There were other friends of Norleen, who were of comfort and support to us during the time we were in the Solomon Islands. These included her close friend Tania, and Margaret from Selwyn College. Also Robert who showed me photos taken of Norleen when she was with him in New Guinea. She looked so frail and sick with malaria that I could not bear to look at them. I collapsed and had to be carried upstairs to bed. The Catholic Archbishop of the Solomon Islands, Adrian Smith, the nuns and other officials, all touched me with their love and concern, helping me overcome my deep, dark grief and anguish.
Arriving back in Australia, we were met by family and friends at the Adelaide airport. How lovely it was to be invited to lunch that day by Ian’s parents, Lou and Lorna Vogt.
Back at our home it was wonderful to have folk dropping in at anytime, day or night, to comfort and uphold us with their prayers. They bought beautiful posies and bunches of flowers, which adorned our home in memory of Norleen. I was so grateful that the College gave me a week’s compassionate leave from work, before the Memorial Service. There were so many things to prepare for that, as well as other business.
I dreaded having to go through the anguish again at the Memorial Service. However, it was nowhere near as traumatic as the funeral service. Over 500 people were there to support us. I could only marvel at the large crowd that attended the Memorial Service. It was so wonderful that Immanuel College let us use the chapel for this service, as it was needed for the Headmaster’s Guest afternoon immediately afterwards. Some folk who came for the Guest Afternoon were very impressed to see what the College had provided in memory of an old scholar.
When the people arrived at the Memorial Service, they were each given a flower that they placed with other tributes on a white cloth in front of the altar in memory of Norleen. These tributes were burnt and the ashes placed under the memorial stone at the College.
Letters and cards continued to arrive from all over the world. One came from an AVA mother working in Zimbabwe, which said, “My greatest fear is that something will happen to my daughters while I am away from them. A bit different for me as my daughters, who are the same age as Norleen, fear the same while I am away. I have lost a son in a car accident, so I can grieve with you. People tend to say, ‘Time will heal’. Nothing ever changes the space that is left in your life. At times, the grief rises to overwhelm you years later.
I remember Norleen, a bright fiercely independent young woman, looking forward to a challenge. You must have many sweet, happy, comforting memories of her. I hope they will wrap around your heart and give you some ease.”
After the callers go and the flowers wither, what then? In my case, I buried myself in work at the College. There were so many sick students that needed my attention. How grateful I was to have a job that I loved. Also there were so many caring staff around who helped to get me back on my feet again. Whenever I looked around my home there were reminders of Norleen. Slowly, week by week, the tears became less frequent. Many times I still think of her and wonder if they will ever cease.
A year passed and then Eric and I returned to the Solomon Islands for the first anniversary of Norleen’s burial. This time we took Eric’s sister Rosalie, her husband Chris and their young son, Timothy with us. What would it be like to return to Norleen’s grave once more? How would I cope?
It was great to have the support of close family during this second trip. Eric just being there to comfort me, Chris with his love of life and fun, Rosalie for her shoulder to cry on, and Tim for us to watch the excitement reflected in his face as he had such a wonderful time.
Once again we caught up with the Henderson’s and had several meals with them. Rosalie, Chris and Tim were able to join us when we visited the Archbishop once more for our Solomon Island farewell meal. It was wonderful to meet more of his fellow priests and hear more stories from them.
Many of the staff and students at Waimapuru remembered us from the previous year and made us feel most welcome. Rosalie, Chris and Tim stayed with Mike, the headmaster and, as Rosalie and Chris both work in schools, were able to talk “shop”. We stayed with Jeni, the American Peace Corp worker who was a good friend of Norleen’s. We were only the second visitors that she had from overseas in the two years that she had been at Waimapuru. It can be very lonely there. The students appreciated having us “teach” a lesson in their classrooms and we were asked many questions about Australia.
The day before the first anniversary of Norleen’s burial, the students were busy preparing a feast and decorating the Assembly Hall. Around the columns of the hall, they wrapped palm fronds and then placed hibiscus buds on each point of the palm frond. These buds all opened next day for the Anniversary Service which was one of praise and joy. The hall looked beautiful, with flowers everywhere. The year of mourning was over and the service finished at the grave, now a garden, with a dedication ceremony. Then we joined all of the staff and students at the feast, where we were the honoured guests.
I felt too, that my period of mourning had come to an end and I now could meet the happy students that had received scholarships from Norleen’s Memorial Trust, which had been formed from money donated at the Memorial Service. In another way, Norleen’s death was not in vain. Education of her “children” has been furthered by it.
Did I regret the burial of our daughter’s body at the school in the Solomon Islands? Not at all! The students who are scholarship recipients, lovingly tend her grave, which is part of their culture. We were told of two American airmen who were killed during the Second World War and were buried in the middle of a remote village in the Solomon Islands. Forty years later a group of Europeans visited the village and asked about the two unmarked graves. The villagers had tended these graves with loving care for all of those years, without knowing who they were. We know that Norleen’s grave will continue to be cared for in that same manner.
How has Norleen’s death affected me? It has made me more aware of life’s fleeting moments and, like Norleen, I now enjoy living life to the full. My family is very precious to me, and I love them more than ever. I have the joy of looking after my infant grandson, Sachin, who is a delight. He is full of fun, mischief and energy, giving his Nanna and Grandpa many happy hours as we care for him. Prayer has become an important part of my life and so has Bible reading. My awareness of other people’s feelings has grown and I can share their grief more deeply. I am able to comfort and support the sorrowing, because I now know what it feels like to lose a loved one.
I have kept a number of Norleen’s personal effects, including some clothes of hers that I wear with love. In our new home, we have some of her furniture and antiques. I have restored an antique trunk of hers and have other items on display that she collected from the family farm. Keepsakes that I treasure most are Norleen’s journal, the many letters that she wrote to us while in the Solomon Islands and her photographs. I am so thankful that Norleen kept such a personal record of her life in the Solomon Islands and that none of it was destroyed in the plane crash. Merrilyn, Richard, her cousins and friends have many things to remind them of her.
The family celebrated Norleen’s first birthday after her death by meeting together in Alice Springs, the centre of Australia. Richard flew from Sydney and the rest of us travelled by car from Adelaide. We flew in a hot air balloon at sunrise over the MacDonnell Ranges. It was a wonderful experience and a fitting way to remember Norleen. The second anniversary would have been her 30th birthday, so I invited family and friends to a dinner party in our new home. We drank some of the red wine that Norleen had given to Eric before she left for the Solomon Islands. We could not think of a more fitting way to remember her.
Life must go on and I look to the future; especially that day when, once again, I will be reunited with Norleen in Heaven.
THE SPIRIT WORLD
The plane crash seriously affected the confidence of the Solomon Island people and this emerging nation was shattered by the death of these passengers. It was strange for us to be with them at such a sad time in their history. Over 90% of the Solomon Islanders claim to be Christians and yet many pagan beliefs exist. Westerners are normally sceptical of stories about the “spirit world” but I became aware of the forces that surrounded us as never before. We felt this struggle between “good” and “evil”.
Norleen became aware of the spirit world in the Solomon Islands early in her teaching career and wrote about this in her journal.
“Barbara told me about the Kukumora people this morning. These are mythical pygmy people, native to this island. They are small in numbers due to the fact that many women die in childbirth. They live in the mountains and are rarely seen.
Early this year there was a strange incident with one of the Year Two students, a small boy from the outer Province of Timotu. He was the only boy from this Province. This was significant as he had no wontoks at the school to look after him.
One day some of the boys came to the headmaster, saying that they thought this boy was mad. He was ducking and weaving and punching the air. The headmaster assumed that the boy was homesick and was seeking attention, so he called the boy in to hear his story.
The boy believed several Kukumoras were beating him up. He saw and felt the wrath of them. It was a strange story and not one that a student would make up. If the boys who saw him behave strangely where the ones who beat him up, the story would have come out eventually. Aside from that, the boy was covered with unexplained bruises all over his body, especially in places that he could not reach.”
This story highlights the ready acceptance by the Solomon Island people of the world we cannot see or understand. There was an evil influence apparent at the time of the plane crash. The Nation, as well as close relatives would sorely miss the people who lost their lives. There was the priest, Fr. Tara and his wife, who had ministered to many regions of the Solomon Islands. He was a lecturer to seminary students, training young people for a life of service. Billy Abana was the agricultural adviser who was attempting to change farming methods to make the Islands self sufficient in food production. Benjamin Ramo was a carpenter with the Housing Authority. John Sinalau was a hospital worker. The Nauka family lost a mother and two daughters. With Norleen were two student teachers who were returning from Waimapuru where they had been practicing teaching, ready to begin their teaching careers. The young flight attendant was well known and very popular.
Finally there was Billy Hiti, a distinguished Criminal Investigating Officer and his prisoner Tony Bara. The events concerning the death of these two people was recorded on the front page of the “Solomon Star” newspaper of 4 October 1991, adjacent to the article about the plane crash. Below the story and photographs of the bodies of the air crash victims were the headlines, “Khoo is now a free man.”
Khoo was a Solomon Island identity thought to be connected to drugs and crime. A police trial had been arranged as they suspected him of killing an associate in Honiara. However, the case was dismissed. Khoo tried to bribe Tony Bara to commit a crime and then threatened to kill him if he refused. Tony went to the police, asking for protection and another trial was arranged. Tony was taken to a small island off the coast, some distance from Kira Kira. This was done to ensure his safety until the trial.
On the morning of the air disaster, the CID officer flew to Kira Kira and arranged for Tony to return to Honiara for the trial. Both men were on the aircraft with Norleen when it crashed. The article continued, “Khoo is now a free man after the Central Magistrate Court discharged him of all other charges. These charges include conspiracy to murder and arson…”
Rumours were rife that Khoo had managed to sabotage the aircraft in some way, to ensure the death of Tony Bara. The Australian officials were accused of covering up the facts as it was claimed that Khoo had Australian connections that were protecting him.
There was no doubt in my mind that, although the accident was surrounded by evil influences, God’s was able to balance this evil by providing lasting benefit to the Solomon Island people – especially through Norleen’s death. God made special preparations for our arrival, the day before the accident, by warning Sister Paul Francis. I was aware of Norleen’s presence with us during our stay in Honiara and many times I felt guided by her. The swallows and butterfly were only physical signs of a presence that is difficult to explain and others told us of similar experiences.
Hency, a Year Five student, said that she intended following in Norleen’s footsteps and become a home economics teacher. she wrote about her last night in the dormitories at Waimapuru School, shortly after Norleen’s death.
“The night was dark and I could not sleep. The wild dogs began howling and the savage sound they made frightened me. Suddenly they stopped and I felt someone shake my shoulder. I sat up and looked around, but could not see anyone. Everyone in the dormitory was asleep, so I lay down once more. Again I was touched on my shoulder and this time I was certain that no one was there. The third time it happened, I realised that it was Norleen coming to say farewell to me. It was just as Norleen always did when she was on night duty. She would creep into the dorm, touch my shoulder and quietly say ‘Good night’ to me.”
Hency then fell into a peaceful sleep, knowing that Norleen had comforted her during that last night at school. Navie had a similar experience. Once when she was very depressed she heard an Australian girl call her. She went next door and asked the Australian teacher who was marking papers, if she called. No, she had not called Navie. It happened a second time. The third time it happened, Navie thought of Norleen and felt the oppression lift from her shoulders.
Norleen left no “loose ends”. Many people received a copy of the last circular letter a week after her death. Her very last letter was to Richard providing him with encouragement for one of his rojects. The final entry in her journal included her hopes for the future of the Solomon Islands. After writing about the values she was teaching her students she added;
“This country seems open to exploitation. The Solomons is at the crossroads. It wants to move into the 20th century, but in 10 years it could be another Papua New Guinea. (Already the Short Lands have turned into a mini Bougainville.) Hopefully this place will have some far sighted people in Government at the right time to set this country on its ‘right course’, what ever that may be.“
We take comfort in these last words of hers and hope that the scholarships we are providing from her Trust may help to train people; to set the Solomon Islands on its right course!
This has happened in deed! Recently, a number of scholarship winners have contacted us via FaceBook. They have become doctors, nurses, teachers, a newspaper reporter, a marine biologist, one of the girls is now a senior agricultural advisor and another, an aeronautical engineer working with Solomon Air, which he decided to do based on Norleen’s accident. They have formed an Ex-Waimapuru Student body and many of these students have contacted us via FaceBook. They acknowledge that the Scholarship Fund has assisted many students to take their place as leading citizens in the Solomon Island community.
INTO THE FUTURE
Hamish Alexander is a New Zealand marathon walker and is over 60 years old. One day he walked out of the jungle – and became a teacher at Waimapuru School. He wrote a letter to us after Norleen’s death, which has a message for every parent who has lost a child. He wrote, “..although there is much grief and anguish, there are positive things that you should bear in mind.
When someone dies what matters is not ‘how long or how short has the life been’ but ‘has it been a full life’. I bet you can think of many examples, as I can, of people who have lived to 60, 70 or more years of age whose lives have been quite empty for years on end. I’m sure that if you reflect, you will confidently say that Norleen had a very full and varied life.
Another point is ‘did the person have a happy life’. We know of millions of people around the world who did not. However, it is obvious to all of us – teachers and students – that Norleen, with her laughter and cheery conversation, was extremely happy.
Equally important is ‘did the person help others and make other people happy’, not ‘how may years did the person survive’. The fact that Norleen was a volunteer teacher in a developing country shows that she was interested in helping others and her warmth, energy and good humour conveyed themselves to large numbers of others, including many students.
I know that in times of tragedy the unpleasant and sad things seem to occupy our thoughts. But if you consider carefully, you should be able to go away from Waimapuru and Makira with, yes, a lot of sadness but with large amounts of contentedness, satisfaction and even happiness because, after all, who has been largely responsible for Norleen’s upbringing, personality, achievements and wonderful relations with others? The parents and other close relatives of course.
These are some of the things that can uplift you when, for years to come, you are thinking about the loss of your daughter and a fine colleague of ours”.
These thoughts have given us comfort over the past three years. School life gradually returned to normal. A few weeks after our visit to Waimapuru, we received this letter from Gary. “We had a party last Saturday to celebrate the completion of Norleen’s kitchen. The boys finally got the last leaves in place, so it was time to cook. There was heaps of food cooked and by nightfall we all gathered (a few staff and the kids involved with the kitchen) in Norleen’s house for a good time. It was kinda difficult at first ‘cos memories kept coming up .. but after awhile everyone livened up. It’s a great kitchen, bigger than normal .. a nice surprise for the next occupants I suppose.”
We left money with the headmaster when we left Waimapuru for a staff celebration, knowing what Norleen would have arranged an end of year party. Barbara wrote, “The $200 you left Mike is now being used for our end of year break. Jacinta (Mike’s wife) is going to help me organise it. We are going to have it on 28th of November just before most of us leave on the boat.”
I had discussed our intention to form a Memorial Trust with representatives of the Australian Overseas Service Bureau, who then contacted Mr Greg Crafter, South Australian Minister for Education at the time. He arranged for a law firm to produce the Trust Deed. By the end of December that firm, Thompson Simmons & Co, had produced the first draft. The main objects and purposes of the Trust were to provide scholarships, prizes and other incentives to students at Waimapuru School. Teaching aids and equipment were also included so that the majority of students would gain some benefit from the Trust. Wider aims and objectives are part of the deed so that other schools can be helped if circumstances change. The Norleen Fiebig Memorial Trust Deed was officially signed in March 1992 and the working capital started with $3000 of public donations and an insurance policy pay-out.
I had asked Mike to provide the school reports of a number of students and we planned to provide six scholarships for students in 1992, four girls and two boys. The first Trustees of the Memorial Trust included Norleen’s very close friends, Cathryn Schumacher and Peter Leske, Tim Gray represented Immanuel College and Ian was the first Chairman. They met for the first time on 12th March 1992, selected scholarship recipients and suggested that $600(SI) be provided for prizes. Mike was notified and six students – and their families – received immediate benefits from Norleen’s Trust. During the next six months I prepared a book of stories and photographs of Norleen’s life, from a child to her burial at Waimapuru. The pages were laminated to protect them from tropical weather and sticky hands. The book was presented to their library so that students can read stories about Norleen long after the students and teachers that knew her have left the school. The librarian has told us that the book is always open and there is usually a group of students looking at it.
Mike invited us to the customary first anniversary celebration of Norleen’s burial. Ruth and I made plans to return to the Solomon Islands for this celebration and decided to take my sister Rosalie, her husband Chris and ten year old son Tim with us. Norleen often went sailing and camping with them during school holidays.
The return visit twelve months later was so different from our first visit. The sun shone as we landed, there were no swallows and we stayed at the Kintano Mendana Hotel in the main part of town. On the first morning, Archbishop Adrian Smith came to our hotel and invited us to his home for an evening meal. We visited Jan and Dave Henderson and had several meals with them. Official business with the Minister of Education and Human Resource Development was completed and a lawyer gave us details of the claim he had lodged against the airline. Then we had the holiday we had planned the previous year.
Young Tim’s face beamed all holidays as he had new experiences, surrounded by so many smiling faces. Chris warned him on the first day that this was the most expensive day of his life.
“Why dad? I’ve only bought one ice cream.” said Tim.
“You now have a taste for overseas travel – and that is expensive.”
Our time at Waimapuru was delightful. This time we were met at Kira Kira with garlands of flowers. The trip to Waimapuru through the rivers was over stone culverts, which could be crossed by conventional vehicles. Many of our teacher and student friends were still at the school. Tim was adopted by the Solomon Islanders and only came home to eat and sleep. Saturday we watched the students butcher a bullock and prepare food for the anniversary feast. Chris was amazed as he watched these teenagers prepare for such a major function without teacher supervision. He could not imagine his students in Australia attempting this. They did everything. The boys built the fire and cut up the meat, while the girls made it into a stew and prepared other savoury dishes. Some students decorated the hall with beautiful flowers. Norleen’s grave had been turned into a garden, surrounded with soft lawn grasses, orchids and wooden rails, supplied by the local villagers.
Mike said that the concrete for Norleen’s grave was left over from a creek culvert. The plants had been provided by the local monastery and the timber rails had been cut from the forest by a villager who had only charged for petrol for his saw. Mary, the Librarian, designed the layout, bought the white paint and painted the rails around the grave. The bullock for the feast was purchased from a local village at about half the market value. Many of the local villagers had taken an active part in making the celebration a great success.
The anniversary service on Sunday morning was conducted by a French Catholic Priest from Kira Kira and the school Chaplain, Fr Abel. The French Priest spoke partly in English for our benefit, but mainly in pidgin for the students. Tim said that his pidgin was easier to understand than his heavily accented English. After the service we proceeded once more to the grave for a service of dedication. Then to the feast which was enjoyed by everyone.
Returning to Waimapuru for the anniversary was good for us. Chris and Rosalie stayed with Mike and were able to hear details of Norleen’s life at Waimapuru that he was too shy to share with us. He told them how he would occasionally invite Norleen and Barbara to his home to share a beer and then discuss ways that the school could be improved. Mike had a very high opinion of the two Australian girls and had complete confidence in them. We noticed changes in the school. The gardens were more extensive and ample food was available for the students. There were still problems and we noticed racial tensions between the three different groups of Solomon Islanders that were not so obvious on our first visit. We stayed with Jeni and she delighted in showing us the changes. Once I went for a walk with some of the boys and Norleen’s special girls called in to ‘story’ with Ruth. It was good to see how they had matured since last year.
The scholarship holders were interviewed and each one wrote a letter explaining how the scholarship had helped them. Florrie Alolo, now Head Girl Prefect, thanked God and then wrote to her parents to tell them the great news. One of the girls said that she would work harder and one boy now considered that we were his ‘parents’ as we paid his fees.
Godfrey Sautehi wrote, “I now belonged to both Australia and the Solomon Islands and I feel a strong desire to strengthen the bond between the two countries. I believe this encouragement will help me to possess a good position in the future, which will help me to contribute to the Memorial Fund and to help other people who are less fortunate than I am.”
Here is what Hilda Itou’s wrote.
“In 1991, my father who is my fee payer died from illness. Therefore I had no one else to pay my fees. Even my bigger sister and relatives did not bother about the problem I was facing. Despite this difficulty I continued to work harder in my schoolwork.
Your help in offering me a scholarship really makes me proud and is making me work even harder. Not only this but it at least helps to relieve the burden and pressure put upon my Mum who tried her very best to earn some money by selling her produce at market. The little money she received was used to cater for my needs of clothes and pens.”
We placed a memorial notice in the “Solomon Star” newspaper and the editor included a half page article to go with it. We gave Hency a copy of this paper and she told us how she could not afford to buy a paper. It would take several weeks’ pocket money to buy one. This gave us the idea of funding an annual subscription to the “Solomon Star” for the students at Waimapuru. The Trust Fund has supplied several cases of books for the library, which should benefit all of the students.
Navie took us to the village that Norleen visited frequently on a Sunday afternoon. Granny and her family were waiting for us, hoping that we would be able to visit as we did not have time the previous year. Navie also took Tim with a group of children to catch shrimps in a nearby stream. We were sad to leave the school that Norleen called home and the beautiful people that had made her life so happy.
SolAir now only had one of the original two twin-engine Otters they had purchased several years previously. The Otter is designed to fly in the Canadian wilderness areas and has many navigational aids that make it ideal for use in the Solomon Islands; to find small islands during tropical storms. It was impossible for one pilot to use all of the important navigational aids fitted, including the radar system, as he is too busy flying the plane. The Air Safety Committee had criticised the Airline in its initial investigation of the accident for only using one pilot. On our return to Honiara, we flew in this plane and two pilots were used. I was in the front seat and able to watch the radar screen record the cloud masses and ground features on our flight. Visibility was so good that I could compare the features out of the window with the details shown on the screen! The flight back was smooth, but once again the mountains were shrouded in cloud.
We can only imagine how bad the weather was when Norleen flew back from Kira Kira. The Australian pilot was experienced in tropical flying but had only been in the Solomon Islands for short time and it was the first time he had flown the route without supervision. Mike said that the plane was off course on its approach to Kira Kira and flew over Waimapuru. It appeared to him that the pilot had mistaken the school grounds for the airport. In Honiara, I spoke to a missionary who was on that outward journey to Kira Kira and he attempted to “talk” the passengers off the plane for the return journey. He claimed that it was too dangerous to fly in those conditions. He had no hope of talking Norleen off that flight! There is no doubt that a second pilot, using the installed navigational aids, would have made that flight much safer.
Honiara was very clean and tidy on our Anniversary visit; such a contrast to the first visit. The Government had organised a clean up for the 50th Anniversary of World War II campaign. Our hotel accommodated many Japanese visitors during our stay. A large contingent of Allied Forces had also visited Honiara earlier that year.
We toured the island, visited a war museum and historic battle sites. Road trips east and west completed our holiday. We visited a small resort island for a day and saw Selwyn College where Norleen was first appointed.
One of the joys of the second visit was to hear how several of the students from Waimapuru were beginning to replace the people killed in the crash. We met an airline steward who was a senior student the previous year. Hency was doing well in her home economic studies and will soon be out teaching. By chance we were introduced to the widow of the senior agricultural adviser who was killed in the crash. This young woman, Pamela Abana, had five children to support and was having difficulty coping with her changed circumstances. The Anglican Church had provided a part-time job and temporary housing for her. Now she has received special training at a college in Fiji, for work with youth. She wrote recently to tell us how she had overcome her grief and was now able to support her family.
At the time of writing, no compensation payment have been made to the families for the losses sustained in the accident and some of the families are facing financial hardship. Pamela was living in a Government house, but was asked to leave when her husband was killed. Much of the worker’s compensation payment was frozen until her children are 18 years old. No wonder she had problems coping with personal and financial loss.
(We have since heard that the airline will not pay any compensation to any of the families as no official claims were lodged against the airline within two years of the crash. The Solomon Island Government placed a two-year limitation clause on accident claims and that had elapsed before any claim was actually processed by the local courts. We challenged this ruling and that took eighteen months to be heard by the court. However, since then, a Solomon Islander has continued to press for settlement out-of-court. Letters sent to us suggested that compensation would be arranged very soon. However, that was two years ago. In 1999 at the time of this revision, no further word has been received.)
Our return flight out from Honiara was through clear skies and we had a magnificent view of the mountains to the east. It was as if God was giving us a chance at last to view the mountain that had claimed Norleen’ life. I had the feeling that a part of my life was over.
That was almost two years ago and my life has changed completely. Both Ruth and I retired from our jobs at the end of 1992 and have found other interests. We have built a new home as our previous one had too many sad memories. The new garden is a blaze of colour and we have a bed of roses in memory of Norleen as these were her favourite flower.
God has been good to us and has provided many opportunities to help others. We worry less and enjoy life more. Norleen has made us look at world problems in a different light – especially environmental problems. She wrote, “Existence in the Solomon Islands is far more closely linked with the environment and it all must be treated with respect. Much of my teaching deals with this.
In the past the Solomon Islanders lived in balance with their environment, but now the Western influence has resulted in unpleasant changes. Logging companies wipe out huge areas of vegetation. There is no selective clearing, just bull dozing and no attempt at reforestation. The Nationals get money at the cost of total devastation.
Then there is the problem of littering. Only a short time ago, food was served on leaves that were biodegradable and could be discarded anywhere. Now with the advent of modern day wrappers, plastic bags and cans, the Nationals do what they have done for centuries and just discard them anywhere. What a mess!”
This led to the final entry in Norleen’s journal where she wrote about teaching her students sound values. These words were included on a bronze plaque that is mounted on her grave.
“Now I just work on the students. My favourite topics are;
* value your culture,
* value your land and environment and
* all that is ‘white’ (Western) is not good!”
Then followed the paragraph about the Solomon Islands being at the crossroads and her wish that good leadership would be there at the right time.
Her very last words were;
“Wow! I could go on about recycling everything I use, but somehow that seems to be a good note to finish on. I think I’m doing my share of worrying for this world!“
She closed the book and her life ended. Good-bye, Norleen – your worries are now over. Thanks for being our daughter and our friend.
Epilogue – 2013
It is now more than 20 years since the unfortunate event that took our daughter’s life in September 1991. So much has happened since then. In Chapter 5 I wrote that we were planning to start a scholarship fund from Norleen’s estate and from the many gifts received from people who wished to help the students in the Solomon Islands. That in fact was well established by the time we wrote this book and the first group of students that were chosen for scholarships during our visit in September 1992 for the first anniversary of Norleen’s death.
On our return to Australia in 1991, the South Australian Minister for Education, Greg Crafter, contacted us and offered the services of a firm of lawyers, Thomson Simmons & Co, to prepare a trust deed for us. This was approved in March 1992. As the photograph shows on page 31, we were able to select the first group of students for scholarships during our second visit to Waimapuru when my sister Rosalie, husband Chris and 10 year old son, Tim came with us.
The Norleen Fiebig Trust Fund was established with a large insurance payment from the Overseas Service Bureau, being proceeds from the AVA insurance policy. Another payment was received from the Solomon Islands Education & Human Resources Department as Norleen was covered by workers compensation at the time of the accident. The remainder was from public subscriptions and donations. At one time, the Holdfast Bay Rotary Club joined us and sponsored a number of students from 2000 to 2006.
At times, the scholarship program has lapsed due to the difficulties in maintaining contact with school personnel. Racial tensions and political turmoil created havoc in the Solomon Islands for some years and it was necessary for Australia to send peace-keeping forces to the Islands. With civil unrest, communication sources broke down and it is still difficult to send and receive letters. Lack of modern facilities has been a major problem in other ways. At one time, the school was closed for three months because the belt that drove the water pump broke. Without a water supply to the toilets and other facilities, the school could not function and the students were sent home. When it is considered that some of the student travel for over to a week to reach there homes in distant islands, this was a major disruption to their studies.
After a couple of years without contact to the school, last year Peter Leske, one of the Trustees, used the internet to try and contact a source through the local Solomon Island paper, the “Solomon Star”. He found a group of ex-Waimapuru students who had formed an association, which aimed to “help out in rebuilding the school to its once renowned status as a leading (educational) institution in the country”. This group had a Facebook page and a number of these ex-students have now contacted us by email. Several former scholarship holders are key members of this group and it gives us great joy to know that they are assisting the school in a special way for the education and financial assistance they had received through the scholarship program.
The interim president of this group is Gabriel Tupuna, who emailed Peter and said that he remembered going with other scholarship recipients to prepare a meal for Peter and his wife, Kathy. Peter remembered playing volleyball and sharing that dinner with the students. In December 2011 Gabriel had just completed his masters specialising in anaesthesia and was working as a senior registrar at Honiara’s main hospital, the National Referral Hospital. Other scholarship recipients who contacted us were Nelson Manepura who now works in the Tourist Bureau and Caroline Menigi who wrote: I remember Rosanne (Schumacher) and Cate (Schumacher – both Trustees) who visited in 1996 and 1998 and we had special meetings with them. Now I am working for the Government in the Ministry of Finances, as a senior accountant, thanks to Norleen and you people. She also helped clean around Norleen’s grave.
Not many of the former scholarship holders have contacted us, so it was very pleasing to find that many of them have made an impact on the Solomon Island by taking senior positions. We have heard from others. One has become marine biologist, another an administration officer in the Australian High Commission, others a dentist, a reporter and school teachers. In the past 21 years, the Trust has paid the school fees for over 60 students and these are now spread through all walks of life. It is pleasing to find more of our scholarship recipients and to appreciate the impact they are having on the Solomon Islands in key administration and operational positions.
Gabriel informed us that Waimapuru School was being fitted with a satellite dish and it was hoped that direct communication with the school could be established. This took 18 months, as technicians are in short supply, but at last we have an email address for the headmaster. Consequently, another of the Trustees, Andrew Whittaker has been able to contact the school and, with is wife and two teenage girls, is able to visit the Waimapuru in September on behalf of the Trust, This will renew physical contact with the present school administration and restart the scholarship scheme.
As well as paying fees for students, the Trust has sponsored and subsidised expenses for Trustees, their families and other close family members to visit Waimapuru School. Some of these have taken their children and it has been very noticeable the impact these visit have on our representatives, especially the children, when they witness at first hand what it is like to live in a third world country. The people in the Solomon Islands are so friendly and happy with so little. As Norleen said, they are so keen to study and improve their education in the hope of living a better life. It tends to highlight the emptiness of our materialistic lives.
Ruth and I had hoped that the trust Fund would last for 10 years. Now 21 years later, it is still going strong. The funds were invested and the interest alone has been sufficient to run the scholarship scheme. The original principle is still intact. In addition to paying school fees and subsidising travel to the Solomons for trustees and family members, a hockey trophy has been presented at Immanuel College, originally to the best girl hockey player, now for a special sports trophy, as hockey is no longer played by girls at Immanuel College. In years when it was not possible to give scholarships at Waimapuru, grants have been made to assist underprivileged girl students in Cambodia and to assist family members in special educational projects. A cousin was helped to work in an orphanage in Southern India and a nephew to attend a youth conference in Taiwan as a chosen member of the Gifted and Talented High School program. Only four students were selected in Australia and he was one of them.
Recently we celebrated what would have been Norleen’s 50th Birthday. We still miss her badly and wonder what she would have made of her life. There is no doubt that her death has benefited many children throughout the world and I am sure that Norleen would be pleased with what her family and close friends have instigated on her behalf.
God has truly blest us in so many ways.
Appendix – Norleen Fiebig Memorial Trust
(21 year Anniversary of her death – Summary of Trust Activities
The Norleen Fiebig Memorial Trust was first established in March 1992, with the aims of educating children in Australia, the Solomon Islands or elsewhere,
- Providing scholarships prizes and other rewards and assistance,
- The advancement and promotion of education at Waimapuru Secondary School when possible
- The provision of teaching aids and equipment
- Provision of financial support to allow persons to travel to and from an educational institution and to interview students for the purpose of allocating scholarships.
In the last 21 years, scholarships have been granted to a number of students as follows:
- Six students (Florrie Kealau, Hilda Itou, Joyce Iteti, Pamela Nose, Andrew Harar, Godfrey Sautehi)
- Three students (Jennifer Gedi, Joanna Maenu’u, Gabriel Tubuna)
- Four Students (Moses Tongare, Rossana Theodi, Esther Abusuri, Gloria Tapakea – replacing one of the earlier students – Joyce Iteti)
- Three students (Lydia Kafurau, Caroline Minigi, Peterson Mauri)
- Four students (Daisy Kafo, Winifred Mara, Rex Tarani, Emma Bonuga)
- Five Students (William Waura, Nickson Kele, Julian Iteti, Lorna Gedi, Joy Angi)
- Three students (Anna Akomane, James Anifaemamu, Marolyn Inone)
- Four students (Elizabeth Liame, Lina Harurihu, Grace Iroha’Akeni, Morris Vaka)
- Three students (Brian Tofu, Phylis Mamau, Lily Pengalo)
- Five students (Philothia Paul, Jilian Fa’afunaua Trust & Salome Vatagi Rotary, Henry Tufa Trust & Nixon Panda, later replaced by Jackson Ragaia)
The school was closed for 3 months in 2000 due to a broken belt on the water pump.
- Three students by the Trust, (Alice Iwebu, Linly Galie & Noel Piku)
- No scholarships granted.
- Five students, (Mary Maere, Agnes Baru, David Airu, Trust & Seaton Lausaks, Stanley Seni Rotary)
- No scholarships granted.
- Four students remained, (Mary Maere, Agnes Baru, Trust & Seaton Lausaks & Kenedy Waitara replaced Stanley Seni who failed! –Rotary)
- Kenedy Waitara is the only student remaining. Planned to appoint more students following the visit by Claire Kleinig.
2007 Six Scholarships to Form 5, (Catherine Kinka, Stephanie Bea, Sandra Ngahu, Audrina Kana, Anderson Maeni, Gareth Haikau)
Three scholarships to Form 4, (Noella Dorovela, Saniela Qolu, Selwyn Nokali) Three added next meeting, (Emarlyn Marada Boka, Jacinta Nigalo, James Nublin) Total now – 12 students
2008 Four students in Form 4, (Mary Aukeni, Idesy Theoara, Tracy Elo, Chris Tewaani)
2012 Mary Aukeni was the only student remaining. Fees were paid directly to her as they had been paid by her family.
A number of these students have written to the Trust, telling of their progress.
In summary, 65 students have been assisted by the Norleen Fiebig Memorial Scholarship program. It was deferred at times as it was not possible to obtain information from Waimapuru School. In 2000, Holdfast bay Rotary Club decided to join the Trust and provided scholarships to four student positions – replacing one who failed.
(After the visit of a Trustee in 2013, eleven students were chosen for scholarships, beginning in 2014.)
Travel Assistance provided by the Trust
Family members and friends of Norleen have received financial assistance to visit Waimapuru and to make recommendations for scholarships.
- These were, Eric and Ruth Fiebig, Rosalie, Chris & Tim Morphett
- No visit
- Cate and Wayne Schumacher, double visit with children Alexander and Sophie.
- Peter and Kathy Leske
- Naomi and Garry Eckermann
- Robin and Rebecca Schaefer
- Rosanne and Steven Schumacher
- Lois and Geoff Denham
- Louise and Stephen McKenzie had planned to go, but it was not safe.
2006 Louise was appointed Government Prosecutor in Honiara in November.
2007 Louise’s mother, Claire and sister Hilary Kleinig visited in July
2008-2012 No visits were possible
2013 Andrew and Sue Whittaker with two teenage daughters, Matilda and Isabella.
It has been interesting to read the reports presented by these people on their return. Each one has added to our knowledge and improved the methods used to appraise the students. Trustees are now provided with more information when selecting scholarship recipients.
For the first three years, special awards medallions were presented to the top girl, top boy and top Home Economic students at Waimapuru School. This was discontinued as it had little value to the students themselves, and the awards were not publicised by the school authorities.
A Perpetual Trophy and award was presented to a girl hockey player at Immanuel College for a number of years. Until recently it was a special sports award as girls did not play hockey for a few years. This award has resulted in a high level of publicity at the College, as Norleen’s life and service has been acknowledged each year at the presentation ceremony. A plaque in memory of Norleen is maintained with love and care, in a special garden at the Immanuel College, near the Home Economics Centre.
Other Projects assisted.
A cousin was provided with assistance to work in an orphanage in South India and a nephew was financed to attend a Gifted and Talented seminar in Taiwan. A donation was made to Lutheran World Services to build a school in Cambodia and a donation was given to Plas Prai Foundation to assist the development of disadvantaged girls in Cambodia
Compensation from SolAir (Government owned Solomon Airlines)
Every effort was made to obtain compensation, as was the right of all air travellers under the Warsaw Convention and the Solomon Islands had been able to change the seven year period for claims to only two years. No formal claims were laid by any of the relatives at the time as all claimants were waiting for the release of the official report into the crash – which was never released. When we attempted to lodge a claim just over two years later, the two-year limitations period was strictly enforced. Unfortunately, no relatives of SI victims received compensation either.
The Trust Fund was started with donations from interested persons and various insurance payments. Currently, interest on the capital is sufficient to provide a reasonable level of expenditure in the form of assistance to education, as outlined in the aims of the Trust Deed
Special thanks to Ruth and Albert Fehlberg who did the initial proof reading, and to the many relatives and friends who encouraged us to write this story.
Other books by Eric and Ruth Fiebig
Elfriede’s Journals – 1929-31 Published 1995
A Hermannsburg Love Story Published 1996
Irrepressible Irene Published 1997
Deaconesses – Women Serving Their Lord Published 1999
Pine Springs Stepping Stones Published 2000
Copyright © 1994 Eric Fiebig
First Edition – Open Book Publishers – 1994
Revised Edition to A4 size Self Printed – 1997
Minor revisions, 1998,
Further corrections, 1999
Epilogue & Appendix added 2013