From war, to a cyclone, to toppling in a tank – it’s all part of a rich life story for Maleny local, Joe Beaupellet.
by Victoria McGuin
Joe Beaupellet is a gentleman. The welcoming smile, coffee and biscuits upon my arrival gave me this clear impression. He is also a Frenchman with such a strong accent you would think he has just arrived in Australia, rather than lived here for 50 years!
Joe’s childhood is a humbling story, and his tenacity and good humour over the years in France and Australia is an inspiration.
“I was born in February 1935 and lived in Brittany,” Joe told me. “When World War II started, we had to go to Lyon – it was the capital of the French Resistance.
“Food was scarce, I only weighed 45 kilos when I was 14 years old. I ate my first orange when I was 12, it was my Christmas present, and by the age of 14 I only weighed 45 kilos.
“I was the eldest of seven children, and if you didn’t wake up first the others would pinch your food!” Joe gave a wry smile. “Our parents would put things in our shoes, and we were happy with small things. Just a potato on your plate would make you happy, as they were hard to find.”
In 1945, the Germans began to leave. “The government were giving guns to the French people to fight the soldiers, but the trouble was they weren’t trained French soldiers, so they would aim at the German soldiers and get shot themselves. It was terrible.”
Joe was a secretary in the Navy and, although he did some outside exercises, much of his time was spent working in the office. “I was in the Navy wanting to visit the world, but I spent 28 months in Algeria, during the France/Algeria war, so I didn’t travel anywhere else.”
Joe did, however, meet his wife, Danielle, there. “My wife is from Algeria and she didn’t like the cold weather back in Lyon, where I was living. She was ready to start a new life somewhere warm.
“It was good timing, as there was a strike, a revolution in France in 1968 and I was pretty involved with the union, I wasn’t very popular.” Joe’s eyes twinkled, “I was a ‘troublemaker’.”
Joe, Danielle and their three daughters made the move and arrived in Adelaide on a ship called the Galileo. “I worked in Adelaide for a week on a car factory production line. There were three of us French men there, and I was told there were plenty of jobs in Darwin.”
Determined to carve a path in Australia, Joe moved up to Darwin first, with the family to join him once he had established work and a place to live.
“I worked as a welder, making stairways, balconies, anything with steel and metal. I was being paid for eight hours a day but working for 12,” Joe shook his head. “Luckily, I met another Frenchman who told me there was a good job in the government for my skills. I applied and stayed there for 18 years!”
Joe began by working for an Aboriginal settlement. “I would have to fix everything they broke, like locks in jail, with screwdrivers jammed in. I had to take the locks to Darwin to be fixed and bring them back again.
“The first day I went to work to the settlement, 20 Aboriginal people came for work, the next day none. Money was not important to the men; they would share and trade without it and found it difficult to adapt.
“Some thefts happened where I was advised to call the police or press charges, but I wouldn’t because I knew how to work things out and get back what was stolen.
“I am the only one from the settlement who received a Christmas card from the Aboriginal people,” Joe said with a touch of pride.
This was not the only challenging experience for Joe in Darwin. “My family had a house in a new housing commission, and it was Christmas Eve 1974. We were told a cyclone was coming, but nothing could have prepared us. We had a party in the workshop, and it was quite windy, then we went to bed.
“Danielle woke me up, ‘Jo, Joe, look!’ and I said, ‘I’m going to sleep’, she replied, ‘No you’re not!’.”
It was a night they would never forget. “The power cut, the walls cracked. We were all in a corridor, the family dog was shaking. The roof came off, and the sheets ended in a tree. Everyone was shaking and cold.
“I decided to crawl down the corridor to the lounge to get some alcohol to keep everyone all warm, and a tree crashed just past me. It was a shock. The wind was 240km per hour.”
The family were very lucky to survive, 71 people died and 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings were destroyed.
“I never found the roof to my garage, it came off in one piece. And cars ended up in the swimming pool at the hotel.
“All the families were evacuated, mine went to Perth, and I stayed in Darwin and transferred to a welding shop to help with the repairs.
“Luckily, I had insured our house 28 days before the cyclone! Whitlam was a good bloke, he paid everything that needed to be paid.”
Joe’s good luck came once again a few years later when he was working on a large “jellyfish” water tank and fell to the bottom while climbing out. He laughed at this, “The papers made it into a big story and said I fell 15 metres, the tank seemed to get bigger every time! But after that, there were always grilles put in place on tanks, which was good.”
Darwin was full of good times for Joe and Danielle. “We opened a cleaning business for 11 years, and we could take time off to go on bush walks and go fishing.
“There was a French hour on the radio at the time, and we ended up taking that over for a couple of years together, playing French music, doing the news in French, it was good fun,” Joe grinned.
When Joe reached 65, he wanted to retire. “I love Darwin, but it’s too hot, and now it’s too crowded for me. When we first moved there in ‘69 it was like a cowboy movie; people would ride into town on their horse, tie it up and go to the pub!
“So, we bought a caravan, as we wanted to visit the Kimberly. My dear wife hated the caravan,” Joe reminisced with a chuckle.
“On our travels we ended up in a caravan park near Landsborough, and I showed her this house in Maleny. That was it.”
Two of Joe and Danielle’s daughters still live in Darwin, the third in Caloundra, but sadly, Danielle has had to move into the nearby Erowal Aged Care Facility for the last seven years, with dementia.
“We had ten good years here,” Joe shared. “I go and see her every day, take her food, sit with her. She doesn’t recognise me much now, but every now and then I see her remember, and she asks me for a kiss.”
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