Blakesley, Colin Phillip Interview
Today’s date is the 25th January 2018, and I’m interviewing Colin Philip Blakesley with regard to him being a long term amputee in Hawke’s Bay, and his working life and early life; so over to you Colin.
Hello. This is Colin talking. I’ve lived in Hawke’s Bay all my life … born and bred; born in the Hastings Memorial Hospital; first resided in Akina Street in Hastings in early 1946. Later on we moved to Lane Street, ‘bout 1948, roundabout. And later on my parents moved to … ooh, can’t think of the name of the road now; just off Grays Road.
How many in your family?
There’s a brother and sister; my brother’s passed away now.
In the early sixties I began working for a gentleman at Havelock North called Curran Engineering – the building was formerly Cranko’s Engineering; I think a lot of people would remember this – used to make model trains and all sorts of beautiful toys.
But Curran Engineering was run by John Curran and Hector Murray, and I served my time with Johnny Curran who was from Ireland. And he did his time in the Belfast shipyards, so he was a great man to learn from … very great man who’s passed away now unfortunately; they’ve both passed away. But I spent nearly six years with Johnny Curran in those days, and I left John to go to Taupo with a change of scenery and a change of engineering techniques; and unfortunately, we couldn’t move to Taupo so I had to come back to Hastings, in early ‘69 I suppose … 1969, 1970 I came back to Hastings.
Met a lovely girl, and I got married in 1970, I think it was. And at that time I’d picked up a job at Tomoana Freezing Works, which was Nelsons New Zealand at the time. I worked at Tomoana for another seven-odd years ‘til 1972, when my life suddenly changed. It’s a funny day because now I’m almost seventy-two; and 1972 – I will not forget what came round the corner at the age of around about twenty-seven, when a car collided with my motorcycle. And the final result left me an AK [above knee] amputee, plus several weeks in isolation due to a gangrene problem.
I’d actually lost my leg on the road below the knee, and a gentleman who I met just recently through another amputee was the gentleman that actually picked me up off the road, out of the way of the traffic; and put me down [on] the side of the road and held me up, and talked to me and chatted to me. I was so grateful for that ‘cause it kept me awake. And I remember saying to him, “Don’t forget to get my boot off the road … I’ve left it on the road.” He said, “It’s not your boot, son, it’s your leg.” That’s all I can remember now because I woke up in hospital.
But anyway, I spent many, many weeks in hospital because I finished up with gas gangrene. Three operations later, I became … well, before that they actually put the leg back on … but gangrene set in. And several operations … two or three operations later, I finished up above knee amputee, still with a gangrene problem. So I spent many, many weeks in isolation, not able to even see my family. I had two children at the time.
Is this in Hastings Hospital?
In Hastings Hospital, yes. I had two children at the time, and they weren’t even allowed … nobody was allowed in the room except for the nurses and nursing staff.
But anyway, that problem went away and I finally was released. But just about on the day I was released, a chap called in to see me; I had many, many visitors, but this chap called in to see me. He was a total stranger to me; he looked at me and I looked at him, and he said, “Are you okay?” And I said, “Well, I’m minus a leg but yes, I’m okay.” He says, “I’m the man that hit you.” And I said, “Well … there’s no ill feeling; it was a mistake, because we both had green lights.” Now I believe, we both had green lights. It was when the ring road was first introduced into Hastings, and the corner was the Herald Tribune corner where I was hit. But anyway, we had a bit of a chat and he left me feeling a bit happier, I think, because he felt very, very guilty.
And shortly after that a member of the Amputees Association, which I knew nothing about, stuck his head in the door and said, “Hi – I’m from the Amputees Association.” I said, “Whoa! Whoa, whoa”; ‘cause I had no idea of what was going to happen to me. None at all. So he explained – he was a bus driver actually; he drove the … I think he drove the Dominion bus from Wellington up to Hastings every day. He’s a below knee amputee. We had a good old chat; I cannot remember his name now, it’s too long ago, but … had a good chat, and he told me a few bits and pieces. Anyway, he left, and [a] couple of weeks later I was released from hospital, and home with a bit of information I’d be going to Wellington. I still had no idea what was going to happen. They said, “They’ll make a leg for you.” I said, “Oh yeah, okay.” I’d never seen an artificial leg in my life.
No. Most people wouldn’t’ve.
No, this is right, you just don’t … you don’t understand.
[Speaking together] You don’t associate …
No. And I got to Wellington and I met old George … George Slater. He made my first leg for me, which looked like two pieces of downpipe with a hinge in the middle, strapped round me [my] waist and a bit of string to stop it [?flicking?] forward. And it worked [chuckles] … it worked. [Chuckles] But I was a determined person, and I said, “Well if this is what it’s going to be, this is what it’s going to be.” So I wore that leg, and smashed it several times, because some of the things I did was [were] far too heavy for it. And [of] course that resulted in many trips to Wellington to fix it again.
How did you go down and back to Wellington at that stage?
I took myself down.
In the car?
In the car. My own car – I should’ve mentioned it before – my own car was a little Vauxhall Victor, and I made a calliper for the clutch which I could operate with my stump to push the clutch in and out, and that worked well. That was something I was determined to do; I asked the boys at Tomoana to get me a bit of steel, and I made it up at home and I fitted it on the clutch … just dropped on the clutch with the pedal up and a pad … and it worked very well.
When I got me [my] new leg on … come to get in me [my] car and put me [my] foot on the clutch, I couldn’t operate the gear lever because it was a column change gear lever, and my knee was here somewhere. [Indicates] So I was staying in Lower Hutt at the time at my uncle’s place, and I went back there and I said, “Who do you know that’s [who’s] got a gas plant or an engineering plant handy, Uncle?” And he said, “Oh, so and so”, he said, “I’ll take you there”, you see. “No, no, I’ll take meself [myself] there.” And so I did – I drove to this place. I just stuck it in second gear and left it there … just drove in second gear; drove to this place and I said what I wanted to do. All I wanted to do was borrow a gas plant, take the gear lever out, heat it up and put a set in it like an ‘S’, so it cleared my knee. And the joker laughed at me, and he said, “Serious?” And I said, “Yes. I want to heat it up, bend it” … He said, “I’ll give you a hand.” So he gave me a hand and we shaped it, put the pin back in … perfect. Absolutely perfect – plenty of room for the prosthesis, and I was able to drive home quite comfortably.
And you drove from Wellington back to Hastings?
Back to Hastings, yes.
And your wife was probably having fits?
She was; my first wife was. She was, she was panicking. But the first job I did when I got home, I mowed the lawns – it was nearly a quarter acre section. So I mowed the lawns. But nothing held me back and I was working as a fitter/welder at Nelsons at the time – better known as Tomoana Freezing Works – but prior to that I’d been working as a structural steel welder all round the country. And my job was kept open at Tomoana for me by Frank Lang, who was the chief engineer at the time. Good old Frank, he come [came] to see me; he said, “Your job’s there, Colin, whenever you want it.” I said, “That’s great.” So I finally got back to work. I spent about a month at home I suppose before I went back to work.
How long would it’ve been from the time you actually had the accident ‘til you went back to work?
‘Bout six months, round about … six to seven months. Yeah, it was a long time. And being young I was still pretty fit and … well, I was fit fortunately, and I think that helped me out a lot; kept me going. And I wasn’t idle at home, I did all sorts of things, and built a beach buggy for the beach while I was idle; and got the boys at Tomoana to bring me some steel home. And I got all sorts of things done, but at least my job was still there. When I went back I went and saw Frank, and I said, “Well I’m back, Frank – thank you very much for keeping my job open.” He said, “No problem, Colin. Go back to your bench, you can work on the bench and just do repair work”, and all that. And I says, “No”, I says, “I don’t want that, Frank – I want to go back to what I was doing.” I said, “I’m a fitter/welder, and I’m up and down scaffolding, I’m up and down ladders; I’m in tight corners and inside boilers – I’m all over the place.” And he said, “Okay, but you fall off I’ll kick your butt”, he said. I said, “I won’t fall off, Frank – I might come close but I won’t fall off.” So he was quite happy, and I did this, I went back to exactly what I was doing before … only thing I couldn’t do was run. Most other things I could do – climbing ladders, scaffolding, not a problem, tight corners, inside boilers, inside very very restricted areas – with a struggle of course, but I got in there. But I always had a fitter’s mate, who was always a great friend, with me. Everybody had a fitter’s mate. But those years … they seemed to pass quite quickly. I spent nearly twenty-two years at the Works, and I finally left the freezing works to start my own business. I bought a business which is a specialised welding business which was owned by Mr Lowe, or Lowe Engineering, I think he called himself. So I bought his little business in Raureka. I worked that for six or seven years.
What year would that be?
Twenty years … ‘bout ‘91, ’92, round about.
But in the meantime I’d also joined the Amputees Association round about 1973, about a year after I lost me [my] leg. I found out a bit more about it, and Yvonne Francis was the reigning president at the time; and I went to a couple of meetings and I enjoyed it – they were a great bunch of guys and women, mostly the older age bracket; I was the youngest there. They were mostly my parents’ age, in the [their] fifties, sixties, at the time. So I became one of the youngest members; ‘73 I joined, roughly. I’ve been a member of that Association ever since. Seen a lot of people come and go through the Association – all the people that I knew then have now all passed away, sadly; they’ve all gone. Some too early – I say all of them too early, because they weren’t at a great old age, unfortunately. A lot of characters. Old John Foote was one of our secretaries for many years – he was a real character, and he absolutely loved the job as a secretary.
Was he a working person or was he retired?
Oh, he was a … well, he’s an invalid actually because he was totally wheelchair-bound.
Yep, incapacitated; except for his brain and his hands. Yeah, and he knew how to use them in a newsletter or writing something up; he was really good. But he was amongst the many great secretaries that we’ve had. I can’t remember them all now … Helen Rogers was another great one.
When did you become president?
Well I become president quite young actually; round about … I’ve actually [been] in the Association about forty-four years, so I became president in … oh, must’ve been the early nineties, late eighties. I’ve stood down a couple of times and then come back up again.
‘Cause that’s worthwhile for the Association.
Oh it is – you’ve got to try and encourage other people to step forward and have a go, you know. Usually you can pick somebody who’s really keen, especially the ones who keep interrupting you, and …
Then you know that they’re really keen.
Then you know, well .. yeah, yeah, I’ve got something for you. Yeah. But anyway …
When you were going to Wellington, did they alter the type of legs that you had?
Yes they did. I had that first ‘downpipe leg’, I call it, for approximately … until they moved from the old …
To Meehan Street …
… ‘til they moved to Meehan Street. Then Ray became my fitter … Ray Burnett … he became my fitter then, and then he passed me on to Otto, and I’ve been with Otto for well over forty years now, so … well, thirty years, anyway. But around about that time my legs started to change; they started to come into a hydraulic knee joint, and just different little set ups. I said to Otto the first time I met him, I said that I was due for another leg. I said, “Otto, please, can you make a leg?” I said, “You know what I do for a job. This doesn’t seem to apply to people; you make legs for them, but you don’t seem to inquire what people do for a living.” I said, “I don’t sit at a desk all day – I’m a fitter/welder, I’m up and down things; I need and a leg, and foot, that are flexible – very flexible.” Right, so that was the beginning of this hydraulic leg, and … a very different one to this one.
With a foot that moved …
Yeah – toes moved, which was great, ‘specially when you try to go downhill or something, or uphill. And that worked very well and I’ve had that style of leg ever since – only modifications are new types of knee joints. Otto Boch is my knee joint; the rest of it’s made in New Zealand, of course.
Is it titanium?
No. No – it does wear out.
And do you have it with a silicone sheath on your leg?
No, I’ve only got a light rubber sheath and a leg sock. The silicone I tried and I just couldn’t handle it. I was so used to this rubber sheath that’s where I was comfortable. It’s good, it supports me round my butt and takes about fifty percent to eighty percent of the weight on the end of it.
On the end of your leg?
Yeah, because on the end of my leg I’ve still got the patella … the knee cap … which is screwed onto the bone, which gives me that hard bearing pad. Very hard bearing pad.
And that’s good?
Well it is to a point, ‘cause in the eighties, I think it was … yeah, the eighties sometime, round about ‘85 … I used to go out. Then when I got home I sometimes I’d whip my leg off and go back on the crutches because it was … sweated that much during the day that it’s got to go; it’s got to come off and go on the crutches. So I’d do that, go on me [my] crutches. My wife was working at the time, and I’d go down the driveway, check the mailbox, come back. But a little patch of my driveway was a bit wet, and the crutches went from under me when I stepped forward they went, and I landed fair square on the end of my stump.
You’d know all about it, yes …
It shattered the thigh bone, split totally. It smashed the condyles which hold all the nerves and that, off the side, and left me in agony for many, many many, many weeks. Many weeks – I was about two months off work. Yeah.
When I went to hospital with that – my son took me to hospital; he was asleep at the time because he was doing night shift – and I managed to drag myself inside and wake him up, and he took me to hospital. They didn’t know what to do with me. They had no idea.
[Speaking together] ‘Cause it was outside their …
Yeah, you’re right – it was outside their criteria … their training. And the guy had to be called back in to do the x-ray, but he wasn’t very happy about that; he was [as] rough as guts, and I was in sheer agony. And when that was done they sent me home with some panadeine – still in agony. But my wife, later on during the night, got a doctor from down the road … a friend; came down and he took one look at me and shot me full of morphine. That fixed it.
You do have to have that extra bit of painkiller if you need it.
You do; you do. Panadeine didn’t go … nowhere near it. So it was morphine for quite a while after that. And all I could do was sit in a chair; they didn’t even put it in a cast because it nearly doubled in size with the swelling, so … I was right out of action totally, and it really upset me.
Were you paying at all for your leg at that time?
‘Cause there was a period of time when people had to pay a fifth of their leg.
That’s right – that would have been prior …
Yep, that’s right.
‘62 I think it was.
That’s correct. Because you know, at that time when I was going to, going to the conferences in the early days of being in the Association, and being in the president’s seat or whatever, or on the committee, they were still fighting then for different privileges for us. It was really interesting, because what we said, with the remits that went through from all the different districts – as you would know – were taken to the government; spoken about and talked about. There has been a time when they’ve tried to wipe a lot of these things there, and it’s been done, not too long ago, either. And there was a time when they decided to send everything to Australia and get it made in Australia, which didn’t work either. No, it didn’t work, because they would just take a picture on a computer and send the measurements away; and it come [came] back and it was nothing like the leg at all.
So that leaves me, even now, if I need a new socket, I still prefer the old plaster.
Yes, plaster cast is the best way to do it.
That’s right. It’s you …
You get it exactly right.
It’s you, yes. Exactly. I still prefer that way.
They didn’t suggest putting plaster or anything on your leg when it was healing?
No. No, they said, “No, we can’t plaster that ‘cause it won’t stay on.” I said, “Well how stupid is that? You could lace into the plaster, and something round my waist.” But … “No, it just … no, it wouldn’t stay on because it’s tapered.”
They need to do more research …
Beside[s] it was going to swell. So … but they just couldn’t handle me. When I came right – I got back into a leg – Otto made me a leg that was laced together, the top half casing was laced together so I could adjust it, and it worked well – very well, and it actually got me back to work.
It also got me an interview up [at] the hospital, through a doctor up there who got to hear what happened to me, to talk to the nurses about an amputee, and how they handle an amputee. And I must have spent about an hour there I suppose, just talking to them, nurses and physio staff, and they were so surprised because they hadn’t come across it before. I said, “It would be rare, but there are better ways, surely, to handle an amputee than how I was handled, and to recognise the pain that you could be in.” Maybe I didn’t show much.
Because it’s not only the nerve endings right there and then, it’s what would be the nerve endings from the rest of your leg that isn’t there … would’ve kicked in as well.
That’s right – they were all floating loose.
When you’re going in these tight corners, did you ever have to take your leg off to get round a corner to get in? [Chuckles] If you follow what I mean?
Yes, I do follow what you mean, Erica. [Chuckles] Yes, that happened to me a couple of times in the freezing works. There were what they call the retorts; they were the cookers that cooked up and minced up all the rubbish meat and bones and fat and what-have-you, for the rendering. And they were about, say, two metres in diameter and about four metres long … circular tube thing with rotating arms in it. And every now and again they would have to be tested because they were a pressure vessel, just like a big pressure cooker – massive things, smelly things, stinky things. So the testing man from the government would come along and he’d drill some holes in it, usually down the back end, to see how thick it was. And if it was too thin out it went, and they would replace it. But if it was okay, we’d have to get inside this thing, grind these little holes out and re-weld them … weld them up again from the inside, then go on the outside and find that weld and weld it up again. Well getting inside those I had to take my leg off. I couldn’t climb over the thing.
So I had an apprentice boy with me that day, and he didn’t know I was an amputee. [Chuckle] He’d been there for six months; so had me [my] fitter’s mate – been with me a long time, but he didn’t say anything, and I just … The boy got all the gear ready, he got the welder ready, the bits and pieces I need; that’s great, and I said, “There’s something I want you to do. There’s the fuses to this machine in my hand – put ‘em in your hand, stick ’em in your overalls pocket, and don’t let anybody have them.” “Right”, he said, “that’s fine. So I’m safe … I’m safe. The electrician has given me these fuses – that’s it, done.” And I said, “The other thing I want you to look after is me [my] leg.” He says, “What are you talking about?” I says, “Well, my artificial leg – I can’t get in there with my leg on.” And he sort of looked at me and he said, “Yeah, okay, okay.” So I peeled me [my] overalls off, peeled me leg off [with] me trousers, put me overalls back on, handed him the leg. I said, “Don’t lose it!” [Chuckle] He just stood there like a little tin soldier, he was that mystified that I had an artificial leg. [Chuckle] But my mate and I could see the funny side of it. [Chuckle] I mean he was only seventeen or something … sixteen … whatever he was, and he had never seen an amputee before. But that was a very quick lesson for him, and he guarded it with his life. [Chuckle] Nobody was even going to look at it. So I got the job done.
There are other times at home I’ve taken the leg off to get up in the ceiling to put batts in, and you know, I’ve had to leave the leg down the bottom of the ladder. But that’s about the only two times.
Your children didn’t take off with it?
No. No, no – they knew better. Unfortunately, my first marriage ended over this problem, over the amputation. We parted in about late ‘72, ‘73, and I sort of had to go my own way then, sadly. But those two children are grown up and they’re good friends with my children I have with my other wife. So the five children are brothers and sisters.
They all accept each other?
Yep. They range from thirty-seven to fifty-two, round about. They all get on very, very well. So that’s something; and even my wife and my ex-wife get on well, so that’s good.
There is a mental block with some people.
There is a mental block, yeah.
Yes. A lot of people are becoming amputees younger; it’s regarded as part of society, that some people …
Yep, that’s right.
… are disabled in that way.
We’re more visible in society now … much more. I wouldn’t wear shorts in those days, because of the conscious feeling. I’d go down the beach, I’d go swimming, but I had a … well, I did a lot of scuba diving and then free diving. That was my sport, was swimming, still is. But I did a lot of …
Did you do much sport at school and college?
I played a bit of football, but not a great deal. Swimming was my forte. Bit of motorbikes, and that come to an abrupt end. I did actually ride a motorbike again after that for a year or so when I was working back at Tomoana. I had to modify it so I could use it.
Did you ride an ordinary bicycle?
I can, but it’s awkward. Otto has said to me, “I’ll put a rotating cuff in your lower leg, and that will help.” And I said, “Well I’ll think about it. What’ll it cost?” He said, “No, no, no, we’ll fit it for you”, which is great but I’ve never bothered to do it. So I don’t really bike; I do go to the gym. I was going three times a week, but I keep fitter doing things myself – I’m always on the go.
Now which college did you go to?
And which primary school?
And Johnny …
How long had he been in New Zealand?
Curran? Quite a few years, because he worked for Percy & Henderson’s, the big engineering company that was down Omahu Road. He worked there, and so did Hector, his partner. But I don’t really know … it must have been in the fifties at some stage.
Now you’re retired, and you still go swimming?
When I can, yes.
And mobility scooter; and driving a car?
Yes, still drive.
Is it easier for you with an automatic car?
Yes, it is, but it doesn’t worry me. I can drive either. Yep – I even went truck driving for a little while, just a short burst … you know, in amongst the years when I didn’t have a job.
Did you ever go skiing or flying?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t, but in the early days Yvonne Francis was just starting to get into the amputee skiing, and she was very keen on it in those days. Lovely lady. And that was sudden … very sudden. I’ve actually got her card from her funeral there. I’ll get it out in a minute.
So you still had [a] good active working life right up until you retired?
I did. I did. I moved from Tomoana to my own workshop; did that for about seven years, and I finished up with a job for a juicing plant that was being built. And finished up building that, then going to Australia to dismantle some stuff in a place called Poowong which is just out of Korumburra, [Victoria] dismantling some stuff in a [an] old mill factory … pipework and tanks and pumps and motors, and …
So a fitter/welder has to have a background in electricity as well?
Yes, electricity and mechanical …
Did you have a ticket for that?
Well I had my tickets for welding; I had me [my] welding tickets all my life – not quite in the last years, but I carried them all my life. But I mean either for the welder, leads you to many other aspects of jobs, ‘specially at Tomoana ‘cause you’ve got to be hands on – not just welding, you’ve got to be able to … whoops! that pump’s blown apart. You’ve got to fix it. You’ve got to be a mechanical engineer also, and a mechanic and a painter and a labourer. Yeah, got to be a bit of everything. Whereas some people just stick to the one job, they stay there all their lives and don’t do anything else.
So boring. I preferred a good variety, and Tomoana was a good variety. And a lot of other places I worked too – the juicing plant was a great variety of work. Unfortunately that went under, so I was back out looking for a job again and I finished up with a good job with All Steel Engineering, which was run by Tony Keong; and he died just recently. That was a good job, once again a good variety of work, great variety of work.
Did you go offshore?
No, no, I didn’t go offshore; I went offshore for the juice factory. No, I didn’t go offshore but we had four or five customers in the bush doing logging. They had a lot of breakages and what-have-you, so I travelled a lot in the bush.
Forestry, yep; doing logging repairs, machine repairs, breakages. I enjoyed that.
Hard hat stuff.
Yes, hard hat stuff. Well … when I didn’t have a welding helmet on, yeah.
Now the juice factory … you’d have to bring the stuff back?
Yes, the stuff was loaded into two big containers, two forty-foot containers, and shipped back to New Zealand and then we had to unload them when they got here. Our factory was actually where the testing station is now – it used to be Hastings Glass. That’s where the second factory was. Hawke’s Bay Apple Juicing, I think they called themselves.
Were they part of Wattie’s?
No – totally separate. Independent owners. They just got on to apples, we crushed them, processed them and turned them into concentrate, and shipped them off to wherever they had to go, you know.
Through the Napier Port?
Yeah through the Napier Port, or by road. Actually mostly road, ‘cause the tankers took ’em away, and mostly up to Auckland. Mostly Tauranga and Auckland.
So that was liquid gold, we used to call it, the apple concentrate. Horrible looking stuff, but … [chuckle]
Working with all the welding and stuff, did it give you any health issues?
Yes. The fumes and all the welding over the years has contributed to my COPD today. I do have COPD. [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] I’ve got it … say in the early second stages of COPD; that means I’ve only got about sixty-three percent of my lung capacity. And I was a smoker too, but the doctors all agree now that my job contributed definitely to that COPD … definitely to the COPD; to the welding.
Because probably you wouldn’t have been able to have a proper protective mask?
There was no such thing. They weren’t invented, there was no warnings. And some of the materials you were welding were highly toxic. Highly toxic, and you couldn’t get out of the way of it; you either held your breath or blew it away, and just got on with the job.
And the sooner you got out of it the better?
The better. Many times I had to stop, I was that sick; and it hits you – the toxic poisoning – when it hits you it hits you like the flu. It really … everything in your body starts to ache and scream, and you’ve just got to stop. And they say, “Drink lots of milk; get lots of milk into you before the job”, but how do you know you’re going to … you can’t just drink milk with every job. [Chuckle] They say, “Oh, drink it afterwards too.” Well believe it or not, I found the best thing for it was a couple of jugs of beer, [chuckle] and that would get you – s’cuse the term – that would get you piddling and that would flush your system. [Speaking together] They didn’t believe me; and I said to a couple of guys that had it, “Try it next time, for goodness sake; try it – couple of bottles of beer is not going to hurt you, and it’ll start your system going.” And it does, it flushes it out. Better than water, ‘cause beer gets you going quicker. Those sicknesses were quite common actually … quite common.
For all the fitter/welders?
Definitely. Definitely. And I’d say a lot of those old welders actually died of that disease, not knowing that they had it unfortunately, because if you’re in the later stages of it – and I don’t think I’ll ever get to the later stages. I hope not, ‘cause it’s under control. They could’ve been right in the later stages and not even known.
Just thought it was old age probably …
Old age, and a bit of emphysema or whatever, yeah.
Did you ever have a fear of being in enclosed places particularly with Tomoana?
No. Confined spaces and heights never worried me. I could be as high as liked, tight as I liked. But I was in the back of a boiler with a little fitter mate, and he was in there with me. He should’ve really been outside but I needed him in there to hold some things in place while I tacked them into place. “You can get out, and I weld them.” Well he got in; and he went to get out and he froze. He froze. It was very difficult, because I didn’t quite understand what had happened to him. He said, “Colin, I’m scared. Confined space has got me.” And he froze. And he just sat on the floor, and he went like a dried rag; he was stiff. So I got out and tried to encourage him to get out; and no, he wouldn’t move. So I went to get a couple of other guys, and went got the medic. She come over and tried and tried, and gave him drinks of water to try and calm him down. And she thought, ‘I wonder if I get an injection into him to help him’, and I said, “Well, good luck – you’re going to have to get in there to do that.” And she said, “No, I’m not getting in there – you can get in there.” I said, “No, I’m not getting back in there with an injection for him.” But we finally managed to coax him, just to get him near the porthole. The porthole’s only … round [to] get your shoulders through. [Speaking together] And you got in by putting your hands through first [then] drag the rest of yourself through. Some people put their legs through first but I couldn’t do that; it was too awkward. So we managed to get him near the hole and we got hold of his shoulders, managed to get him halfway through, then dragged him out. But he was okay after that, he came right. But he said, “This never ever happened to me before.” I said, “Well have you ever been in a place like this before?” He said, “No.” I thought, ‘Oh well – now we know … now we know.’ But it’s one of those things of the job.
Now, associations ..?
No, the Amputees Association took all my spare time. [Speaking together] And the family. The family. I had a new family underway then, and it was just … just long days of work.
And you still like doing things with your hands?
I still do. I’m continually busy. I’ve several projects underway at the moment, and I just thought to myself the other day, ‘I’ve got to stop doing this, ‘cause there’s too much.’ And I think – you would know – you get to a stage in your life … you just can’t think quick enough, and things become a bit of a muddle. Unfortunately that’s started to happen; I’ve got to back off.
What do you think of the emphasis now on the disabled games? You know, they go all over the world for paralympics …
I love it. But I think there’s too much emphasis on the runners, because I’ve heard many comments … “There’s nothing wrong with those guys – look how they can run! Why can’t you run?” Sort of thing. And you’ve got to try and explain to them that they’ve still got their knee joint.
That makes a huge difference …
Huge difference. And people can’t sort of understand that, but those that I’ve spoken to realise, ‘Ah, now I see it. That piece on the bottom is carbon fibre, and made to aid in speeding, and he can still use his knee joints.’ But I enjoy the swimming ones very much; there’s some magical swimmers amongst the paraplegics in that. No, I enjoy the Paralympic Games.
I like the way that they’re getting such support from all realms of society.
They are. They are, and getting a lot of publicity too, which is good … which is good. I only wish they’d give more publicity to the suicide side, and bring that into line a bit more, because we’ve lost amputees to suicide in Hawke’s Bay. I lost two boys many years ago, and that was very, very sad.
Do you think we could do more within the Hawke’s Bay Society about that type of thing?
If we got involved with that particular Association, or those contacts, we perhaps could because …
But the privacy rules rule it out.
It does, you’re dead right – it’s very hard to get round that. [Speaking together]
Were you a visitor at the hospital, for new amputees?
And that should be still going …
It is still going, but the Privacy Act gets in your way. But there are ways round that by having contacts outside or whatever, who’ll get you in to see that person. I won’t go any further than that, because …
‘Cause of the Privacy Act?
The contacts are good, so there’s always ways round it. But as far as the suicide side goes, we haven’t really approached it except when it did happen – it was many years ago; it was in the late seventies, I think it was, that two boys committed suicide; both amputees. They were a couple of Dutch boys, I think they were. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. We thought about it then – ‘How do we get into this?’ But there was such a closed book; you couldn’t get anywhere near it then. There was no information, no help … nothing. I still think there must’ve something. [Speaking together]
There’s no counselling, and yet there’s counselling for everything else.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. But not for that.
And not just for the person who’s now an amputee, but for the person’s family and associates as well.
It’s the ones that are left behind – yeah, that’s right. But even counselling … if you can get it prior to that if you get an inkling. And I’ve had the inkling and it has happened since then – but not to amputees – and suicide has happened, and that’s been the result of it. But there was nothing you could really do, because once again there was … it was either talk to the person [speaking together] who would totally ignore you, or try and talk to the family, who wouldn’t believe you. So you were tied both ends, tied down. But I still think, and I know, that most amputees … should I say most? Or all amputees? Go through a massive psychological change in your life, and it does bring you down. It pulls you down to a depression stage where you’ve got to pull yourself out of again.
It brought me up, actually.
Yes. Because my leg was giving me such bad …
Such a bad time? Yeah.
… I was pleased to get rid of it.
Yeah, well that’s dead right.
I was pleased to get rid of the pain.
That’s dead right. But suffering a trauma accident …
Yours would be totally the opposite …
Totally the opposite, this is right. And that’s where the psychological side really … really hits, because you still want it; you know, you think it’s still there but it’s not there.
So being associated with the Civilian Amputees’ Association in New Zealand, you think that it’s helped you being a member?
It definitely has.
You’ve had good bosses?
Yes – I’ve been able to pass on what I’ve learnt in the early years … the early amputees that I knew and the committee that I worked with; learnt how they lived; learnt how they accepted things; and been able to pass that on. And not only that, accepting within myself finally, I was able to pass on my personal things that happened – stupid little things that happen to you when you’re an amputee – pass them on. And ‘specially people who are going to become an amputee – it was good information for them. And I think that’s the best side to approach an amputee – before they become one, if you can.
I received a civic honour in 1997 for community voluntary service, that was presented to me by the Mayor at the time; the one that gave you the award … he’s passed away now.
Oh, Jeremy … [Jeremy Dwyer]
Jeremy. That was a very great honour that, because it was a suit job and there were about ten other candidates the same day.
Yeah, it was wonderful. I’ve still got it hanging on the wall at home.
And it was ..?
1997. I became a life member of the Association in 1998, and that was great also. It’s one of those things that, you know … I’ve also presented some life memberships; I actually presented a life membership for [of] the Federation to Yvonne Francis, when we had a conference here in Hawke’s Bay. Yeah, that was great. We had it at the hotel – the …
‘Cause she lived here for a long time, didn’t she?
Oh, she did, over in Taradale with her husband, Michael. Michael’s a … well, he was a dentist – I don’t know whether he’s still operating. He was a dentist in Napier.
She was a very good supportive person …
… to have on the trips.
Very good … very good. I had a lot of discussions with Yvonne; especially when you were coming up to be a president or something, and you’re totally blind to what you’re walking into. Because once you become that you’re heading towards the Federation, sooner or later. And she was very, very helpful in those days. Pointed me the right way and directed me in the right direction, because I was a lot younger, and of course a lot more active mind, and different ideas. [Chuckles] I got myself into a lot of trouble sometimes at some of the big conferences. But they were facts, simple as that.
Have you got something else that we haven’t covered?
Yeah. I’ve acted in the Association for about forty-four years, round about. [Of] course during my years as an amputee I’ve been closely involved with the Hawke’s Bay branch, and for the past few years I’ve [had the] pleasure of the president’s position. I’m also proud to have a position as a committee member on the National Executive. I also stood for the chairman of the National Executive, but unfortunately I was voted out. I also stood for the treasurer; Neil Rogers helped me a lot there, because he was a national treasurer at one stage, and he give [gave] me a lot of good tips and advice. But I missed out on that too, ‘cause old Jim Bishop decided to stand again. I know why, but it doesn’t matter now. Yeah, so that didn’t eventuate. But I left the National Executive, I was only in it about three or four years and I pulled out again, because that was becoming too much of a headache … working full time too. ‘Cause most of those people weren’t working full time; [they were] devoted to their thing. But February 2008 I actually retired from our Association but I returned in the later years to help out as a vice president; just to help them out a bit. I’ve since retired again.
But you will come back in if they need you?
I’m always there to give advice, yeah.
But on reflecting back … I used to lie in hospital thinking that I’d never return to the job. I love doing my favourite pastime of skindiving, and many other things. But when I finally had my first artificial leg I decided it was going to have to follow me around, [chuckle] and that I was going to get on with life. Not as easy as before, but much better than feeling sorry for oneself. There’s always somebody worse off. But getting back in the water for me … I actually put all my gear up for sale with a friend of mine; I said, “Gather my gear up from home – my diving gear – and sell it in the underwater magazine for me, please; I’ll never get back in the water.” Well I left it, I never thought any more of it, and about a month after I’d been at home – he’d been in contact with me – he come [came] round and said, “Want to come for a drive with me, Colin?” He was a Maori guy … a very nice Maori boy … he was actually one of my fitters’ mates at Tomoana. “Come for a drive”, he said, “I’m going out to Mangakuri”, which is a beach just south of here where we used to dive quite a lot. “I’m going out for a bit of a dive – you want to come out for the afternoon?” I said, “Yeah, sure, I’d love to come.” So we get out to the beach and – I’m on me [my] leg, just – we get out to the beach, and I hobbled around, look at the water and think, ‘Oh, geez … I would love to get back in there, really.’ He opens the boot and pulls some gear out, and hands me my wetsuit, my knife, my flippers. I said, “You’re supposed to sell these.” He said, “I’m not selling them.” I said, “Well how am I going to get in the bloody water? I haven’t brought me [my] crutches with me.” He said, “I’ll piggyback you.” [Chuckle] Hughie Cooper was his name; great guy. Hughie piggybacked me into the water with my gear on; no tank, just snorkelling. And from that day on I continued diving.
You just needed that …
Yep – he was the …
… helping hand, and then you were away.
Yes – he was a helping hand, yes – I needed that. And I’ve passed that advice along to many people. [Chuckles] That’s right – and it’s a different world; I love it, it’s a totally different world.
So do you still go in the water quite often?
I haven’t recently ‘cause I’ve had a serious ear problem which has now been fixed. It was about 1995 – I burnt the interior of my ear very badly doing a welding job. And it resulted in about three operations to try and fix it because it had burnt the eardrum, but no graft would take to it because of the blood flow. So I just finished up with an ear that … every time I got it wet I’d get an infection in it, and that meant even if I sweated, I’d still get the infection. I had to give up wearing my hearing aid in that ear because I sweated. So finally, my doctor sent me to the hospital to check with the ear nurse up there, and she put me onto one of the surgeons – an ear surgeon – who said, “We can fix that for you, Colin; we can actually open that up, remove all that inner eardrum and everything associated with it, close the ear off through the actual ear canal, close it off.” They operated around the back of my ear; made a beautiful job of it. I must admit it was rather painful afterwards, but it doesn’t matter; and now I have that ear totally sealed off. No more infections. And I must say ACC come to the party with this one because it was a work accident, and they came to the party. Now I’m going for the cochlear implant, behind the ear, some time in April, May … May maybe, six months later he’ll do the cochlear implant for me.
Would you be able to swim after that?
I can swim now.
‘Cause you have to keep that out of the water, do you?
I did for at least three or four weeks, yes; ‘til the stitches all came out and it sealed up. Yep. Now it’s good as gold, and showering … no problem. Seems funny, I wonder if it’s clean? [Chuckles] You don’t really know. [Chuckles] I’ve got to get my wife to look at it every now and again.
My wife, Heather, has always supported me in all the challenges of an amputee’s life. I’ll tell you what, she’s had some pretty good challenges, along with our three children at home.
How old are those children now?
Those children now are in their thirties and forties; plus an older son in Auckland and an older daughter who was travelling the world at the time, but she now resides in Hobart. Heather’s always supported me in many ways.
Going overseas – when you go through airports, how do you get on?
Well now it’s not so bad, ‘cause I wear shorts all the time; it’s obvious. But the very first time I went to Melbourne I had a lot of trouble, and I was almost made to strip off ‘cause in those days I wore jeans. [He] waves the wand all over me; comes back down this side; said, “What have you got down there?” I said, “Artificial leg.” He said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” “You didn’t ask.” [Chuckle] “Surely by now you must have lots of amputees going through these machines – do I have to write it on the personal form you fill out? There’s nothing there to say.” So I think they’ve done something about it since. But I just had a recent one coming back from Tasmania. We went to visit my older daughter over there, and I had trouble coming back through the Melbourne airport there.
Did they take your leg away and put it through the machine?
No, they didn’t. They put the dog on me; lovely little dog – he had a good sniff around, and in between my legs and up me [my] bum. [Chuckles] I could just about see him shake his head [chuckle] by his sniffing, because you could stuff anything down there. I mean I’ve got a hollow tube down there which could be filled with anything, you know – it has been done. [Chuckles] But yeah, that was a bit of a hassle. And they said … there was something else; I had a jacket on cause it was very cold, that’s right. Still in shorts; I had a jacket on, and they said, “There’s something else setting this off – what else have you got?” “Oh”, I said, “I’ve had all sorts of things done; I’ve had bypasses … I’ve had a big one in the aorta.” I said, “I’ve had a wrist fixed. Oh”, I said “I know what that is – it’s the steel pin in me [my] arm.” [Chuckles] I said, “You actually picked that up?” She said, “Yes, look at this”. She showed me the thing which he ran the thing over. “There it is – it’s in there … big long steel pin.” So we got round that one. I said, “Do I have to write these down or something every time?” She said, “No, no, no – we’ll sort it out.”
But I mean that all takes time. In the meantime you’re rushing to catch the next plane. I can’t move very fast, [chuckle] but fortunately I had a wheelchair most of the time on that trip, which was good.
Airports are far more suitable now than what they used to be.
Oh definitely. Oh, definitely, yes, yes. Once upon a time … I have been lifted in by the forklift. I’ll never do that again, that was so embarrassing. [Chuckles] So embarrassing. But they insisted; they wouldn’t let me walk up the steps. That was the old Air New Zealand … just about DC3 models … but now I have no trouble walking up and down the steps.
But I did take Jack Foote to Dunedin. He wanted to see Dunedin, and he wanted to go to a conference, so we made him a delegate to come along with me to a conference in Dunedin. And I chaperoned Jack all the way in a wheelchair; and we landed in Christchurch as a bit of an over stop [stopover] for the next plane. We get back on the plane ready to go, and we’re heading back to Wellington. Got on the wrong plane. Poor old Jack had been stuck in a little narrow wheelchair; shovelled into the plane; shovelled onto the seat by the window; then I got in beside him. He accepted it, he was well in his seventies then.
Did you get to Dunedin?
We got back off the plane again; onto the right plane and went to Dunedin. And he thoroughly enjoyed himself. These are pictures which I’ve got somewhere. He passed away many years ago, and so did his wife – she’s [was] a lovely lady. But Jack wanted to see the Larnach Castle; it was one of our tour trips on the conference, and he wanted to see up the top. He said, “How can we get up there, Colin?” I said, “Well, I don’t know about ‘we’”, I said, “I can.” And two … Lorraine’s husband …
Yeah, Lorraine Peacock’s husband and another chap, looked at Jack and said, “We’ll carry you up”, and they did. They carried him up in the chair as far as they could, and then they carried him up the tiny little bit – it’s very hard to get up to the top landing.
Yes, it’s twisty.
But they got him up there, and he was absolutely rapt, amazed.
So really amputees can do anything.
[Of] course we can, with a bit of help. And he was wheelchair bound. There’s photos of all the old ones, yeah.
Our first night at the hotel … we stayed at the Leviathan, is it? In Dunedin … lovely old hotel. It was a great conference too, really good one. And of course in the fridge was all the little bottles of liquor, and Jack thought they were free. So so he consumed all those in one night … he liked his drink; he liked the old whisky and a bit of gin and … he loved it. [Chuckle] Every time you went round to see him personally he would … “Want a gin, Colin?” I said, “No, I don’t take that stuff.” But anyway, he consumed all these little bottles, he come [came] and said to me, “How’d you get on with all those nice little sample bottles in the fridge? They were mighty.” And I said, “What’re you talking about, Jack?” And he said, “All those little bottles in the fridge.” I said, “You’ve got to pay for those, Jack, they’re not free with the room.” “Oh”, he says, “well I drunk all mine.” [Chuckle] Must’ve been about twelve of them. [Chuckles] I said, “Well never mind, we’ll just put it on the bill.” [Chuckles] Which we did.
But just talking about drink – just flicking back to the very early days of having committee meetings, we used to drop round different people’s places, and there’d be a flagon of beer there. And we’d have a flagon of beer with our meeting. It was so common, it was not funny. And we’d alternate – I’d bring the flagon, or somebody else’d bring the flagon.
Do you think a hall is better … a public place?
I still think in the home is the best place, I really do. Because we had a lot at our place; we had a lot of meetings at our place. Where we are now we’ve been for over forty years, and everybody was so relaxed. We had AGMs [Annual General Meetings] there, out the backyard with the barbecue and a few beers, which was suddenly stopped by one of the presidents. They stopped doing that – “no, we won’t have that.” “Alright, that’s fine, okay.” But it lost a … it lost a little bit of social …
[Speaking together] The social side of it is most important.
Yeah. People chatted, and helped with the barbecue, and …. oh, did all sorts of things. We would get forty to fifty people at an AGM in my backyard. We’d get thirty-odd people at a committee meeting in my sitting room. And my kids used to think it was marvellous, all these people legless; wheelchairs and all, you know. And I think it’s sort of lost that personal … like, people looked forward to going; “Oh, we’re going to Colin’s place”, or “we’re going to Neil Rogers’ place”, or somewhere like that. It was something to look forward [to]. You go to a hall …
So perhaps that’s the way to … It’s not got the same ambience.
It’s not the same. No, it’s not the same. Well, it’s all right. It’s a matter of a personal voluntary … it’s just something you did in those days, but … “Whose place will it be?’ And you put your finger up … “Okay”, and it meant a lot of work for you and your wife, but it didn’t matter. Somebody else would do it next time. But we did have quite a few at our place. Heather supported me in many ways over that.
Oh, the other thing I must mention too, is … I’ll just flick to phantom pain, because I suffer from phantom pain badly. And I mean not as phantom feelings; severe phantom pain which has put me in hospital – so bad that I’ve had to go on a drip to control it. I now live on what you call gabapentin, which works on the nerves; a combination of gabapentin and the silver statins. [The] combination of the two work on the nerves, and they’ve helped me tremendously.
How long has that gone on for?
Ever since I’ve had my leg off.
All that time?
Yep. All that time. In the early days we had a little gadget which was a nerve impulser, I’d call it.
Yes, you ran it up your leg …
No, you actually stuck the little sticky pads on; turn the volume up. We had one of those in the Association and it disappeared somewhere, but that did help. It was supposed to break up the nerve ends, ‘cause the nerve ends mushroom, so they say; they mushroom, and they always try to grow. They get to a point where they can’t go any further.
But the phantom pain – it’s a horrible thing. That’s where my wife come [came] in – so supportive, try and do all sorts of things; took me to hospital …
Do you still wear a waist belt?
No. No. That disappeared when I started to wear hydraulic legs. It disappeared after I broke my femur in the fall, because my stump changed shape after that, and it looked like a Coca Cola bottle. So Otto says, “We can make you a semi-suction leg.” “That’ll do – get rid of this confounded harness.” And I’ve been like that ever since; yeah, great. So … still a bit of a figure in there, but it’s compressed, and holds on. But the phantom pain always hits me … I know exactly where it is; it can be in the heel, the top of the foot, a toe, the shin where it was actually broken off – I know exactly where the pain is, what part of the part that’s not there, funnily enough.
And if you get over-tired, does it come more?
If you get stressed out … if you stress yourself out, it does. I’ve been to a couple of clinics … stress clinics … and it does actually contribute to phantom pain, yes.
Now this book ..?
1995. It’s got my personal profile in it and also the editorial, which I wrote. You can photocopy that, it’s no problem. Yeah. Jenny Thompson was the president then, and of course Lorraine was the honourable secretary. But her father, who was the … he wasn’t a solicitor, he was something else … her father played a big part in it too because he was a war amp, [amputee] and we did have a few war amp members in the very early days.
Yes, we had one or two.
Yes, ‘cause Wellington we did.
Yeah, you had a War Amp Association. And we did gather in a couple; they’ve passed away well and truly now.
But the wide range of technology – you know, we started with … when I first started with a couple of bits of downpipe; the technology now, and I keep putting what I find on our Facebook – it’s absolutely amazing, what they’re doing. It’s amazing.
I used to wear out a foot every year, the ankle joint; soon as they got a titanium one, so far this foot’s been going for eleven years.
Maybe that’s what keeps you going?
Oh yes, I think so. And keep moving; make sure I move.
Keep moving. Well this is what I do … I’ve got many projects at home. Okay …
So this is Colin and Erica, who’s also an amputee just for the record, so that you know. He’s had a very full life. So signing off now.
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Interviewer: Erica Tenquist