Bert Brittain and Joe Barton played marbles in the Port Elliot Primary School grounds when they were little kids, and now nearly a century later they’re grateful they haven’t lost them.
In a remarkable tale of mateship, they went right through school together, served their country at war in Darwin, and returned to live in Port Elliot where they are now residents at Resthaven, an aged care community service provider which encompasses the Old School House.
Bert is 98, and Joe turns 99 on October 16, and they can remember every key date in their lives and how Mrs Olive Golding used to give them the cane during class. It was tougher for dear Bert because she constantly belted him over the knuckles trying to change him from writing left-handed to right-handed. “I wonder if she ever knew that I was a left-hander out of school?” he quipped.
It was in this very classroom that Bert, at the age of six, met the only girlfriend he ever had in his life, his darling wife, Doris, who passed away aged 72.
When told he was still spritely and as sharp as his coloured pencils in Grade 4, Joe said: “You can’t tell a sausage by its skin.” The wit obviously remains too, and he also fell in love with a former Port Elliot school classmate, his wife Patricia, who died, aged 80, but they didn’t really know each other well at school.
Adding to this school connection, Bert and Joe each had two children who also went to Port Elliot Primary, as did their children and grandchildren.
“They were good times,” Joe said of his old school days. “The only problem was that there was no high school here at first so we’d have to catch the 10-to-10 train to Strathalbyn and get the five o’clock train home. Later we had secondary school classrooms in Victor Harbor at the old Wonderview picture theatre on Seaview Road, and the church hall near the roundabout on Adelaide Road.”
Bert milked cows when he left school. “It was during the depression, and there were no hand-outs,” he said. “I remember mum and dad going to the police station to get rations.” Later, Bert ran the general store in Port Elliot for many years, while Joe worked in a petrol station down the road.
As if it were yesterday, Bert spoke of when he arrived in Darwin with the Australian Army, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, and like Joe he recalled the bombings of Darwin. They weren’t in the same unit, and according to Joe he lived in luxury compared with Bert.
The reminiscing continues daily in the comfort of Resthaven. They said they love it here, especially with the old school building retained. In the morning they probably talk of the old local footy and cricket days, Bert’s tennis matches over 40 years, and how he still goes to the local bowling club for a quiet drink, where he is patron.
After their move to Resthaven Port Elliot, Jo and Bert were delighted to tour the refurbished building, which was gutted by a fire caused by vandals in 2012. Now restored and housing Resthaven Murray Bridge, Hillls and Fleurieu Community Services offices and wellness centre, the Old School House is back to its former glory. The centre only opened four months ago and last month reached a significant milestone with 50 per cent occupancy. Features retained include a section of the original chalkboard wall that was saved after the blaze.
And so the visit to memory lane and to the naughty corner in the Old School House continued, as did the memories of their childhood sweethearts. When it was mentioned that it was a long time to live in Port Elliot, having been born there, Bert said: “Oh no, I was well away for 10 years including the war… when I lived in Victor Harbor.”