TOM Parsons knows a bit about marriage, in a professional and a personal sense.
As a marriage celebrant, he officiated at 1865 weddings and more than 100 affirmations. He was also married for more than 50 years to Hazel, until she died.
“We had a good life together,” he says.
Tom and Hazel followed their two daughters to Gippsland in 1980. In the 34 years since then, he’s become familiar with the by-roads and short cuts as he goes from wedding to wedding, sometimes three or four on the same day.
Tom was born and bred in Rochester. His mother, a piano teacher, taught him the piano when he was six years of age. At Wesley College, a teacher told him he would make a better organist, and he plays the organ to this day.
After leaving Wesley, his father insisted on Tom spending two years training with the Myer Emporium because he was impressed by the business training given there and he also knew the trainer. While Tom trained, he lived in Box Hill where, on Sundays, after attending the Methodist Church, the youths of the congregation would retire to the minister’s home and sing around the piano.
With the outbreak of WW2 in Europe, he joined the Citizen Military Forces before his 18th birthday. At the initial training for the 17th Light Horse Machine Gun regiment, he decided he preferred the Royal Australian Air Force and on August 15, 1940, he began training at Somers, Benalla and Mallala.
There followed a nightmarishly slow journey to Cape Town on a liner, the Westerland – “almost as slow as a sailing ship” – and then on the faster Highland Brigade in a convoy to England.
On one of the first church parades he attended in England, the minister asked if anyone could play the organ. With no takers, he asked if anyone could play the piano. Tom said he’d try – it was a pipe organ with three keyboards. Thereafter, wherever he was, he played the organ or piano. At Ossington, there was even a grand piano.
About 1000 trained aircrew from Australia, Canada, Rhodesia and New Zealand arrived in England to fight in the war in Europe. Tom’s job was to instruct night pilots. After logging up 1114 hours in the air, he was sent to Scotland for three weeks’ recuperation. With no more trained colonials arriving in England, the top brass decided pilot teachers would fly in their place. Until May 1945, he flew missions with the 139 Pathfinder Squadron 8 group based on the south-east coast of England.
On the four-hour return flight, he flew straight to Berlin, dropping his parachuted flares over the target so the bombers, which took eight hours on the round trip, could drop their load on the target three minutes later. It was precision flying.
There was a high casualty rate among the pathfinder pilots and bomber crews. In every one of the nine or 10 sorties he flew, he was coned in searchlights, evading the ack ack guns by moving slightly to the left or right and varying his height either up or down, then coming back on course to drop the flares. His navigator didn’t know about this forbidden tactic, so reminded Tom when he was off course.
Although he knew there were other planes in the sky, he could not see them. His aircraft was alone. One night he suddenly saw a German plane just above and in front of him firing all eight guns. He said, “If I’d put my hand up, he would have hit me.”
During the five years he spent overseas, he became a flight lieutenant and passed the frequent extensive examinations with distinction. But the five years of living on his nerves took their toll. “I was a mess,” he says.
When the war ended, he returned to Melbourne. The RAAF had established a depot at the MCG and offered free university training, but Tom was tired of study and opted out. In December, 1945, he became a citizen again.
At a victory dance at Elmore, he met his future wife, Hazel Campbell, a nursing sister in charge of a ward at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. During their courtship, he got lost whilst driving across country from Jerilderie to her parents’ home at Pleasant Hills in southern NSW, because all the signposts had been removed during the war.
They bought a business and settled for 30 years at Lockington, relocating to Echuca where this churchman, finding nothing amiss with the idea of celebrants, became one.