Trask, Eric Donald (Don) Interview

It’s 19th August 2022, and I’m interviewing Don Trask, who was an aerial mapper in Hawke’s Bay. Don is going to tell us about his life in Hawke’s Bay, time as an aerial mapper, as well as about his family and interests.

Right. Well I guess my story begins on the 12th July 1934 when I was born to Eric James and Winifred Caroline Trask, nee McDougall, in Hastings, New Zealand. My dad, Eric, had been called back to Hastings from Whanganui (later accepted as correct in Māori, the ‘Wh’) where he had started his working life in the Post Office.

His mum, Mary May, and father, William James Trask … Jim … together with his sister, Beatrice, and brothers, Donald and Gordon, and a niece, Audrey Beil, had gone on an Easter drive in 1930 to a spot north of Napier, where there was a rocky outcrop on the beach near Whirinaki, known as Pine Paua. James took the two boys around the seaward side of the rock to explain the geology exposed by the king waves which had weathered the face to tell an interesting story. Always subject to the king waves and the steep, shingly beach, it was tragic when one rolled in and washed the three out to sea. Mary May, Beatrice and Audrey were still in the car, but when the men failed to return, Audrey went down to see what had happened and saw the three out beyond the waves. [Phone notification] Donald managed to almost reach the beach, and Audrey took his hand, but the undertow was too much and he was washed out again. The alarm was raised, and the police sent to help went to the wrong spot. A number of those on the beach tried to effect a rescue, and one was drowned. A young Napier Boys’ High School pupil, Johnny Johnston, did manage to rescue one, and was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s medal for Bravery.

Some years later, Johnny Johnston was invited to the Heretaunga Swimming Club’s reunion and met up with me as one of the organising committee. Eric was contacted and returned to Hastings that same night to join his mother, sister and cousin who were living in a house on the corner of Ellison and Sylvan Roads in Hastings. From there he arranged a transfer to the telephone exchange in the Hastings Post Office.

On February 3rd 1931 the Hawke’s Bay earthquake struck, and Eric was given the task of checking the mass of telephone lines which went from the top of the building – that’s the old Post Office – across to a single pole with many crossbars and insulators, from where the individual lines dispersed to the homes of the users.

On his return to the office, he went to a landing at the rear of the building, and looking across the yard towards Karamu Road, he saw Audrey who was working at the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company. They waved to each other to ensure both were okay. At the same time his wife-to-be was employed by Mr William Williamson, to me Uncle Will, in a bookshop right next to the Post Office. One of her duties was to open a bookshop on the railway platform when a train was due. After the earthquake, this was more a full-time site because of the damage to the main building. Eric was reticent to approach the girl from the bookshop and so asked Audrey to introduce them; Audrey and Winifred McDougall were known to each other and they’d both completed a clerical course, with Win topping the class. The romance began between Eric and Win, and they were duly married in St Andrew’s Church on the 13th April 1933. The first of their two children, Eric Donald, me, was born 12th July 1934. By this time the family was living at 805 Ellison Road, just half a block from where the Trasks had been at the time of the drownings.

The [In] earlier times, Jim Trask and the family had been working in the milling business at Rangataua on the main trunk railway line, with William Reeves, Jim’s brother-in-law, Jim, and another name I can’t remember. In lieu of pay during the Depression, they developed an area of felled bush into farmland to provide food for the families. This was subsequently taken under the Public Works Act for a railway settlement. They then shifted their clearing and development, across from the Dreadnought Road to the Ohakune Road; then in the mid-twenties they shifted back to Hawke’s Bay, where Jim became a mill foreman for McLeod and Gardners at Puketitiri.

In 1927 they were listed in the electoral roll as living at a number in Brunswick Street which I don’t know, before settling at that home on the corner of Ellison and Sylvan Roads. A little over five years later, Peter was born on the 2nd December 1939. By this time Don [I] had started at Parkvale School after an apprenticeship in the kindergarten which met at the Methodist Church Hall in Hastings Street.

My first memory was meeting an older boy with a butter box box cart on the corner of Ellison and Willowpark Road. In the cart the older boy had … full of apples, and he gave one to me. The truth was that I had escaped from 805 and was on an adventure. The incident with the cart boy is as clear today as what happened this morning, and I was probably only three years old; certainly pre-school. The rest of the exploration is not so clear, but the family, finding me missing, were in a panic and set about searching. Apparently, being Saturday – in those days late night shopping – they were able to follow my route, which took me to Bunkers Toy Shop which I was familiar with, then across Heretaunga Street to the billiard saloon in the Grand Hotel building. From there I went onto the railway platform in Russell Street, and was pushing a trolley around when one of the railway men recognised me as Mac’s grandson. At that time Mac, my grandfather, was the railway ganger and lived in a railway house along the track on Market Street extension. Phew! Don [I] was found.

Don’s [My] first teacher at Parkvale School was Miss Bain, followed by Miss Pickett, then Miss Faram [and] Miss Benson, with Mr Harris as Form 2 teacher in my last year. The teaching was based on the Rudolph Steiner philosophy, and the experimental teaching was a valuable experience for me. During the time at Parkvale which had its own swimming pool, I not only learned to swim but became proficient, and was encouraged by the headmaster, W B Rowe, to join the Heretaunga Swimming Club. As the tallest boy in the school alongside Les Scott – see the class photos – I did perhaps have a small advantage, and won a few races. On one occasion using the diving board, there was a loud crack as the board in the final bounce, broke and landed in the pool. Mr Rowe, who was somewhat hard of hearing, was down in the dressing sheds and heard the noise. It was reported that without looking he said, “That will be Trask.” [Chuckle]

From Parkvale, Don [I] then went as a bus boy to Napier Boys’ High School in 1947, starting [cough] as a third former in a Trades class. I was told halfway through the year I should have been in the Professional course; and so moved, with the task of catching up with the rest of 3A.

The next move was to change from a bus boy to a boarder at Scinde House. The first term saw me in a large dormitory, and in the next term in a room on the veranda of the principal’s house with Barry Wake and Ted Trafford. And I have just found Barry Wake in one of the homes in Hastings.

The next move was to Hawera Technical High School at Form 5 level … another catch-up year. In the first few days there, I attended a rugby meeting, to find two of my Scinde House fellows, Mac and Boyd Ellison, sons of Doctor E P Ellison, had also shifted during the term break. My School C [Certificate] year was another catchup year, and when it came to sitting the exam I had a dose of influenza which affected my performance and led to a failure. I decided to leave the high school and join the National Dairy Association as a potential lab [laboratory] technician. [There were] three of us; Bob Perks as leader, Roy Brock and myself as juniors. At the same time, determined to pass School Certificate, I joined the Correspondence School and did my study in the evenings.

Having experience as a Boy Scout in Hastings, I was asked to help with the Boys’ Brigade as a sergeant under leader Larry Grosse, who later became a Presbyterian minister. When he left for Australia to further his experience in his work, Bob Perks took over both as bible class leader and Boys’ Brigade captain. This coincided with the 1951 National wharf strike, and a few of us left with the assistance of a local father, Mr Barrett, who drove us down to Wellington to catch the inter-island ferry to Lyttelton. En route to an international Boys’ Brigade camp at Waipara, north of Christchurch, this was an experience I had: I remember being placed in the cabin on the ferry, which from its shape was up in the bow of the ship. Of the twenty-one passengers there I was the only one not seasick, but when I entered a bell tent at Waipara I fell flat on my face, and the effects of the ship’s motion took over.

My time in Hawera was quite important to me as a growing teenager. The St John’s bible class was a source of many friendships, as was the swimming club, the Boys’ Brigade, and the Mount Egmont [now Mt Taranaki] Alpine Club. I played in the second XV at high school, spent time competing at swimming, and did some teaching. As a member of the Alpine Club, I spent time on the mountain skiing, climbing, and on working bees for the construction of the Kapuni Hut. It was whilst working on the hut that, after carrying two loads of materials from Dawson Falls to the site, I sat down to have lunch and stretched my legs out, when crack! And my knee joint failed. The cartilage which had been giving trouble for some time, finally split, and I could not use my right leg. A couple of the team went down and located a stretcher. It was a pretty primitive being sacking and two poles, but did I care? The boys took me back to the track at the Falls, and after arriving home I was hospitalised for a time before an orthopedic surgeon from Wellington removed the bits of cartilage. Today, seventy years on, I’m starting to feel the after-effects.

Luckily, I had managed before the knee problem, to summit Mount Egmont under the guidance of Rod Syme. On one occasion my friend, Noel Coates, and I went to Dawson Falls with the team, and after a climb to the top of Fanthams Peak, spent the day skiing. In the Symes Hut toilet there was an amusing sign, ‘We Aim to Please You. You Aim, Please’. At the end of the day Noel and I left the hut at about four pm, with the knowledge that the icecap was setting in. We glissaded down to the Falls in just twenty minutes, climbed on our bicycles and headed home. Still aided by the downhill [cough] we passed through Kaponga another twenty minutes later; then started the long slog home to Hawera.

Can’t remember how much longer.

The work at the NDA went on, and when a shipment of glass bottles [arrived] intended for the sterile injections we were manufacturing, the railway strike meant we were forced to store the shipment in the shed in Normanby, just north of Hawera. None of the three of us had a driver’s licence but I had some small experience, and we took a company truck and shifted the glassware from the railway wagons to a shed at the rear of the hotel. A small number were returned to the Hawera storage, but unfortunately in the wet the cardboard liners washed into the bottles, necessitating washing before sterilisation. In fact, the steriliser was not as efficient as it should have been and the sterile solutions, unbeknown to us, started to grow mould. In effect the operation had to be closed down, but before this I had elected to join the Air Force as a flying cadet.

After attending interviews in Wellington in early 1952, a long wait started. With no apparent decision and the start date for the Elementary Flying Training School course almost there, I phoned the RNZAF [Royal New Zealand Air Force] Movement[s] to find that the selection personnel had referred my medical to the aviation GP [general practitioner] in Hawera for a check on blood pressure. On calling the GP I found that he was at a conference at the Chateau [Tongariro]. This was finally cleared and Movements sent the necessary travel documents for my passage to RNZAF Taieri. I was one of two accepted RAF entrants, with the understanding that after Taieri I would be bound for the United Kingdom.

Because of the delay, I was a fortnight late arriving at Taieri, and the course was well underway. Posted to C flight, I found I was with the experienced trainees, some of whom had a thousand hours in their log books. It was not until some years later that I found as a seventeen-year-old, the others were all twenty-one-year-olds. It was mid-winter, and the flying training in Tiger Moths was a trifle cold. My instructor was Squadron Leader Aubrey Bells, a very experienced pilot and Adjutant of the Reserve. He flew a Mustang fighter based there. He was something of a perfectionist who tended to shout if you dared make a mistake, and I found this off-putting. When he was on leave I had another instructor who was relaxed. I went solo in the prescribed time and was gradually catching up with my ground subjects.

My two roommates were Ron Peterson and Len Cowper. Ron had been employed as a non-flying person with NAC, [National Airways Corporation] and decided to change to air crew. Len’s father was an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, and had similar aspirations. Ron went from New Zealand to Germany and was killed in the crash of a Sabre jet sometime in the next few years, and Len became Chief Pilot for Cathay Pacific.

In an interview with Squadron Leader Fitzwater at the course’s end, I was faced with the opportunity of re-mustering to the next course, but felt the future was a bit uncertain, and decided to return to Hawera. I was almost immediately invited to join a Bible class group heading for a debating competition in Palmerston North. This was accepted, and the weekend was spent there in some great company. On my return to Hawera, I was told by my mother and father that [I] had been asked if I would attend an interview with Piet van Asch, in the hope of a job with New Zealand Aerial Mapping. This proved an excellent opportunity, and after the interview I was appointed to the position of Flight Planner/Navigator. This position had been held by Peter Marshall who’d been flying in Germany during World War II, and ended up in a prisoner of war camp; and was in the Great Escape. Cyril Whittaker had taken Peter’s place as a step towards piloting the aircraft, and his family and mine were friends from early days in Hastings, hence the opportunity.

Moving back to Hastings in the latter part of 1952, I boarded with my McDougall grandparents, Dougie and Mac, at 110 Stortford Street. [The] NZAM [New Zealand Aerial Mapping] office was at the top floor of the building in Russell Street next to the Post Office, over Poppelwell’s, Warren’s Bakery [and] Mrs Ingram’s; and looked across the street to the railway yards.

Training commenced immediately, as Cyril was to attend an RNZAF multi-engine flying course at Wigram, so into the nose of the Beechcraft AT-11, which had been set up as a bomber trainer, with excellent visibility and a plate glass forward-looking window, intended for the Norden bombsight. Cyril sat in the copilot’s seat behind and called instructions to me, the new pupil. After a few hiccups the pattern settled down, and I went solo. A year of settling in followed with flights all over the country, getting used to the then unusual tasks and fitting in with a new group of fellow workers.

Christmas 1953 was approaching and Queen Elizabeth II was visiting New Zealand. Home to Hawera for a family Christmas; then a memory was the Queen processing through Hawera on Friday 6th January 1954. And on Argyle Street the locals had lined the roadside with hydrangea heads, side by side. Back to work in the new year, and on Thursday 28th January 1954 we ended up in Invercargill for the night. We attempted to book in to our usual hotel, only to find that our rooms were taken by Her Majesty. We all had to find somewhere, and so I ended up at Peter and Maggie McDougall’s at West Plains. They were my grandfather’s brother and his wife. Next morning there was a civic reception, and the crew attended as the weather was not suitable for mapping. It was quite an occasion and imagine our horror when we saw the Union Jack broken out on the flagpole, hanging upside-down; an SOS.

Later in 1954, NZAM was asked to cover the Western Samoa group, and preparations were underway. About mid-May – I cannot locate the diary – Maurice Boshier, the production manager, and I drove to Auckland to board the ‘Matua’ for the transit of Cyril Whittaker, our pilot, and me as navigator. Before we boarded Maurice and I had a look around, and in the process went to Mechanics Bay, headquarters of Tasman Empire Airlines [Limited], TEAL, to see the Solent Flying Boat which served Samoa. While we were there we saw a mechanic working at the rear of one of the starboard engines. Suddenly there was shout, and the mechanic leapt out of the nacelle and ran along the wing in a ball of fire. His companion kept shouting at him to jump into the water, but he was close to the wing root before he jumped.

Cyril met up with me next day and we found our way to a cabin on the ‘Matua’. Settling in, we were surprised to find we had the company of a pair of bulls in crates, in front of the cabin window. We were to meet the bulls a few days after their arrival in Apia when they [we] were invited to McMillans at the Reparation Estate, Mulifanua; there were the bulls quietly grazing. We were to establish a fine friendship with Mac and his wife, and had many experiences with them during our stay.

[The] New Zealand Ministry of Works had provided a half-round hangar for us, with three rooms for sleeping and storing our personal gear. Next door lived the O’Callaghans who were responsible for the airfield, and we mealed with them. Ted, his wife and two young children, a girl and a boy, looked after us well.

Cyril and I arrived on the ‘Matua’, and Piet Van Asch and Alva Cutler in AHO with an RNZAF navigator. Piet went on to the UK [United Kingdom] to attend a Hunting Aerosurveys conference, and the team of three settled in. We started mapping shortly after, but quickly discovered that the flight plans provided by [the] New Zealand Lands and Survey [Department], who were to use the photography for production of contour maps, made it [an] impossible task because of the nature of the topography, and the daily cloud built up. The only way we could achieve cloud-free cover was to plan runs across the Island, and choose the clearest one each day. We managed to cover the whole of Upolu and ninety percent of Savai’i, when on the rarest of afternoons [we] managed to fly a tie run the full length of Upolu. Most days when we managed some cover, we mealed in Apia at Aggie Grey’s hotel, and some years later, revisited.

If the weather was not suitable for mapping, we would explore the Island’s places of interest, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s tomb, Falefa Falls; or more often we would go sailing in a catamaran built by Mac and his workers, using two large breadfruit logs carved to make a hull, and a plank deck to join the two together. It had a set of sails and we had a lot of fun sailing around the lagoon near Mulifanua. On one occasion we had Mac and his wife, their little one, and a jazz singer, Mavis Rivers. I was at the helm when the fishing line we were trailing snagged on the reef. I had to sail back along the line and come up into wind to release it. Unfortunately I was not quick enough, and the location of the snagged line was missed. In frustration, Mac said he would swim down the line instead, and in he went. The little ones called out, “Malie!” (Shark!) And so Mac was quickly back in the catamaran. Another attempt at finding the location of the snagging ended up with the realisation that it was not snagged on the reef, but we had foul hooked a turtle. This was pulled aboard and we returned to shore.

Alva was keen to take a movie of the Samoan boys catching a turtle, and so the two locals went out in their paupau [outrigger canoe] and re-enacted a typical capture. It was our wish that the turtle then be freed, but the tradition was that you eat what you catch, and so reluctantly we let the boys follow their tradition.

On one occasion Cyril and Alva visited the site where the movie ‘Return to Paradise’, featuring Gary Cooper and local girl, Moira McDonald, was filmed. I headed into Apia and spent the afternoon with a friend, Pedro de Treend who had come to Apia to teach at one of the local schools.

Somewhat based on the Samoan experience, two years later in 1956, the company decided to spend a month to six weeks closer to where the important work and best weather prevailed. We spent 1956 away, time-based in Invercargill and living in a crib on Ōreti Beach. We found that in order to find clear conditions we had to fly under cloud all the way to Gore before we could climb to mapping altitude in A1 conditions. The following February-March period we managed to find accommodation in a house at Frankton, adjacent to Queenstown, belonging to the Fred Lucas family, who had moved to the Shotover Hotel. And there we lived for the next few weeks, cooking for ourselves and harvesting mushrooms and blackberries and catching trout, to supplement our home-cooked meals. If we had a busy day flying, we would have our evening meal at Eichardts, or in Queenstown.

For the next few years we repeated this pattern, shifting into an unoccupied crib next door. In that time, if the weather was not clear enough for mapping, we would go around the area exploring the countryside. We had trips up Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, and tramped into the old home of Paradise. On one occasion we explored the Caples Valley on the western side of Lake Wakatipu, staying in a hut which had been used by an early Governor-general. The valley was home to protected fallow deer; they were a delight to see and in quite large numbers, and I brought home a set of palmated antlers.

One of the projects was the strip mapping of all the state highways throughout New Zealand. One which was not complete was State Highway 6, which took the traveller down the South Island west coast finishing at Lake Moeraki, before continuing from a few kilometres north of Haast Pass via Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, to Invercargill. We drove from Queenstown over the Cardrona to Hawea then on to the end of the construction, about where it crosses the Burke River into the Haast Valley. The construction folks bulldozed a track across the river to enable us to join the completed road down to Haast township.

Jim Meale, who had joined NZAM after retiring as Assistant Surveyor-general, provided the transport in his Morris 1800. At one point just before Haast Pass, the road went down into a creek. Jim drove down the slope with [into] the water where the car stalled. His comment was, “The sign at the top said Ford; but we are in a Morris.” The 1800s distributor was right out front, so the stall was inevitable. From Haast, where there was an airfield, which we did on occasion use, we went on south as far as Jackson Bay, before returning to Queenstown.

Other places we took the opportunity to explore were the Greenstone and the Routeburn, and on one occasion, because we were in and out of Milford Sound with our mapping, we took the opportunity to walk Milford Track, up to the cairn on McKinnon Pass, before returning to the Sound. An earlier visit to the Sound was when the Tourist Corporation had just opened the hotel. We stayed the night in the hotel, and the cost of meals and accommodation was five pounds each. Wow!

During our Queenstown stays we mapped large areas of Fiordland with power schemes such as the Manapouri, lots of Central Otago and Southland, including dams and irrigation schemes. Unfortunately, on one occasion, just north-west of Queenstown at twenty-five thousand feet, I experienced an attack of altitude sickness, and the work had to stop. I won’t go into the rest of that. Because of what happened on that occasion, my flying had to stop for quite some time. I continued to be responsible for flight planning and was joined by a number of trainees and assistants. One of these, David Napier, continued with the company even after [the] 1989 sale to the opposition, when the senior staff were all told to clear their desks. After thirty-seven years this was a bitter pill, and we did not qualify for the dole as we had not been out of work for a long enough period.

Fortunately the Statistics Department were looking for staff to carry out the census a year later, and I was selected as supervisor for Havelock North and was joined by assistants. This meant choosing a staff of thirty plus enumerators, and was an interesting challenge. For an office we had the whole top floor of what had been the Post Office, and the team we chose did an excellent job. Again, in the next census, I was appointed supervisor for Havelock North, and the team were based in the upper floor of the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Building. This of course only lasted a short time, and then it was back to the unemployed in the hope of work. The department could not provide anything; then they did come up with something – scrub cutting in the Kawekas. This I turned down, and six months later went on to the dole.

The obvious alternative, for which I had experience, was to set up as a consultant, for I had a lot of contacts in local bodies and was an Associate Member of the New Zealand Forest Service. Two forestry jobs for which I had the qualifications were in Kenya and in East Kalimantan, but these disappeared; and on a business visit to Wellington I found the New Zealand Forest Service staff all twiddling thumbs and wondering what their future would be. It was soon clear that this was not going to provide an income, and so ..?

So I decided to retire and look after my wife, Aurea, and maintain our property at Havelock North. Aurea had mobility problems from birth, but refused to let this affect her life and did everything others were doing, including as a Senior Girl Guide, tramping in the Kawekas. After our wedding, in the next five years she gave birth to three girls. And then we adopted two boys and took responsibility for a little girl, who as a foster child became a member of the family. Over the years, Aurea had given care for a number of social welfare foster children for short spells. One of these, Hayley, was in touch again in 2021. After retirement I had to endeavour to maintain our half-acre property, which took a lot of time and effort. Aurea and I kept in touch with all the members of the family as they became adults and started their own families; two in Auckland, two in Melbourne, and two in Hastings-Napier district.

I have always felt that there was some activity that I could contribute to, should I put my hand up. Over the years I have enjoyed being involved in a number of these, though because of my duties as navigator for New Zealand Aerial Mapping, I became somewhat unreliable. We had to chase the fine, cloud-free weather in order to achieve suitable aerial photography of anywhere in the country which was to be mapped. This also applied to a number of Pacific Islands, including Norfolk, Fiji, Tonga, Niue, Samoa and the Solomons. Some say we covered from North Cape to Stewart Island; but I say from Three Kings to the Snares, and this included the eastern-most islands of the Chathams.

Then I’ve got a list of involvements that I had: the Heretaunga Swimming Club, the Hastings Scouts – Heretaunga and St Andrews, the Boys’ Brigade in Hawera, the Hawera Swimming Club. I was a Sunday School teacher – Frimley, Havelock North – and then superintendent in Havelock North. St Andrew’s Session in Hastings where I was ordained by Reverend Alec Mitchell; moved to St David’s, Hastings and then to St Columba’s Havelock North Session. I retired after sixty years as an Elder … now an Elder Emeritus. I was on the school committee at Te Mata Primary; Home & School at Havelock North High School; Hospital Chaplaincy Committee, and organiser of bed-pushers from St Columba’s for fifteen years; the establishment of SPELD Hawke’s Bay and its first president; president of Hastings Hearing Association; Hastings Heritage Trails I was a committee member; and did the research.

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Interviewer:  Judy Shimick

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