From polio and plague ships to bomb threats and maternity homes, 95-year-old Kath O’Sullivan looks back at a life of lockdowns

Before I begin let me set the scene … I’m 95 and live in a small retirement village in Auckland, not one with little houses all in a row, nor a tower with a lift where you need to remember the floor you live on.

My village is due to be modernised, so when one of us passes on to care, or the other place no one likes to mention, their apartment remains vacant.

At the start of the recent lockdown there were only 16 residents left, allowing us to form a bubble. Thank goodness we were not asked to stay isolated in our rooms like thousands of retirees in larger villages, (remember MIQ is only 14 days, oldies stay isolated as long as the lockdown lasts.) Of course we’re a tougher breed. Have to be cos we’ve experienced these things before.

Remember, humans born before the advent of computers did their learning by repetition. Also known as ‘rote learning’, this was the way we learnt our tables and spelling lists, our manners, like please and thank you, and no elbows on the table, and boys remove caps when entering a building, and girls sit with knees together, and speak when spoken to. Sorry, I nearly forgot this is about lockdown. I guess at my great age I’m allowed to digress.

I can only speak for myself, but here are examples of my learning curves concerning lockdown.

1926 I started young, possibly whilst in the uterus. (Dad was locked down in the great strike in May 1926, just before I entered this world.)

1935 I was nine. What a day! Ethel Fowler got the cane for talking. She was furious and said she’d tell her Dad and he’d sort the teacher out. At playtime she crept into school and hid the cane behind a picture hanging the wall. Our teacher had a short fuse (he was shell shocked in Flanders), said he’d keep us locked in until someone owned up. No one did. We were saved when the headmaster came to see why cleaners couldn’t get in room two. He sent us home pretty damn quick.

I’ve learned to put up and shut up when the government tries to do its best. Life’s like cricket, Yorkshire born, I haven’t a rugby simile, but when you’re bowled a googly, you raise your bat and play your best.

1940 All private cars in the UK were locked down, or put on blocks for the duration. Food was rationed. Blackout curtains on every window, or the air raid warden yelled, “Put out that ruddy light”. No more than five inches of water permitted in the bath. No overseas travel. We were in lockdown.

1942 watched helplessly as the undertaker closed the lid on my mother’s coffin. For her, the final lockdown.

1944 Pontefract Barracks, where all newly enlisted army women spent their first month. Week one we were vaccinated for smallpox, typhoid, and numerous other plagues. They are all listed in my old army pay book, I’ve forgotten where it is at the moment, but I can find if you wait a while. After receiving these jabs we were confined to barracks for seven days. For those too young to remember, ‘confined to barracks’ it is the army term for lockdown.

1953. Boarded the immigrant ship ‘Captain Cook’ and smiling with anticipation I set off to the promised land hoping to see some of the world on the way. Four days later a war bride passenger was diagnosed with polio. First we heard of it was when the purser asked if passengers who owned inflatable cushions or swimming rings would bring them to his office. Apparently the crew were to try and make a sort of iron lung. First stop Curacao, where she was taken ashore. Our ship was classed as a plague ship and armed police guarded our gangplanks. The yellow fever flag was flown for the rest of the voyage. No one was allowed ashore at any port. So it was five weeks lockdown until we disembarked in Wellington.

1955 I was expecting my first child and had booked into a maternity home.

Did you know the law then said mothers should remain in such places for two weeks after the birth? Besides which, many such homes restricted who could visit and when. Most permitted only husbands to visit at night. There was no such thing as a shared birth. When my waters broke my husband helped me into the car and drove to our destination. He carried my suit case to the door. When he knocked it was opened by an elderly nurse. She grabbed the case with one hand and me with the other and pulled us inside. When husband tried to enter she snapped, “Go home, you are not allowed to be here,” and slammed the door in his face. Was that a lockdown or a lockout?

1971 I joined a group of ex migrants on a flying visit to the UK. Since we had a stopover in USA we had to produce proof of vaccination for smallpox and some other plague. At Kennedy Airport, we were locked in a lounge and searched for weapons. When I confessed to having a toothpick the cop questioning me turned a funny colour. That lockdown was short, it seems the police shot the guy who was trying to highjack a plane. (He was not one of our group.)

1976 Not a real lockdown, but a reference to vaccines. Proof of a recent vaccination for smallpox and another deadly plague was required before I could join a group of teachers travelling to China. Our partial lockdown came when an earthquake destroyed a city near Beijing and it was not considered safe for us to visit the capital. Instead we flew to the walled city of Sian. Our return journey, in what might be called a coincidence today, included a visit to a hospital in Wuhan, the first city to use lockdown for Covid-19.

1995 I joined a seniors’ university tour of USA. When we were about to land at LA airport our plane was diverted to a different landing strip. We were rushed of the plane and pushed through immigration and customs by a large police woman carrying a gun. Next we were herded into a large room, furnished with chairs and told to remain there till called. No explanation given. We rushed to the locked glass doors and stared out. Someone shouted “look”, and pointed to men with guns squatting on every available roof top. Later we learned the President was due to visit that day and The Mad Bomber had threatened to kill him. I’m not sure who or what the Mad Bomber was, but he was the reason we spent three hours in lockdown.

2001 I was seated in Perth International Airport waiting for my flight to the UK to be called. My son and his wife were seeing me off. We had just ordered a cuppa, when the loudspeaker asked everyone to remain on the upper floor and keep away from the main stairs. Naturally everyone rushed to the balcony rail to see. There was a parcel sitting on one of the middle stairs. We watched as the bomb squad examined it and then removed it. A very short lockdown.

2010 Perth again. My son had driven me to the airport and my luggage had gone through when a voice over the loud speaker demanded everyone leave the building immediately and go home. There was to be no loitering, the building must be cleared. We joined the puzzled throng outside. No one seemed to know what to do. Then a policeman climbed onto an ornamental ledge and shouted every must leave the area. Parking machines would issue free tickets, others must walk away. I heard more than one person say they had no where to go, they’d spent up and had no money for a hotel room. We found our car and as we drove away I felt sorry for people dragging suitcases along the footpaths as they headed for the city.

My son decided to head for the Domestic Terminal hoping they would know more, but sadly so had a hundred or so Kiwis, most of them determined to sleep on the floor there. We went home and since my luggage was on the Air NZ plane I had to borrow a t-shirt for bed. He tried phoning Air NZ but could only reach their Melbourne Office. They knew nothing but, before he rang off, he gave them his opinion of our airline in shocking language. But that’s what we have to expect from Kiwis who have chosen to live over there. Though it’s strange since the real, everyday lockdown they are all clambering to return. Next day they phoned us to say flights were on again. Another short lockdown for me.

I began with rote learning and life experience. I’ve learned to put up and shut up when the government tries to do its best. Life’s like cricket, Yorkshire born, I haven’t a rugby simile, but when you’re bowled a googly, you raise your bat and play your best.

Kath O'Sullivan is a Yorkshire-born, Kiwi great grandmother who loves life.

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