About My Dad
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away”
This is a quote from Terry Pratchett’s wonderful and inspiring Discworld novels, and it is a sentence that has been ringing in my ears over the last week.
My father passed away on Tuesday 22nd December, 2015, at the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast. But that’s the part of the story that will fade away, and what will stick around are the countless ripples that he left behind.
The Early Days
My dad, Ivan Bradford Johnston, was born on the 25th of March, 1946, at home in Brookmount Street, Belfast to John Henry (or Jack, as everybody called him) and Vera Johnston.
He was the youngest of 3 children, Norma his older sister, and Kenneth his older brother. They moved frequently around Belfast during his youth, from his grandparents’ crowded house off the Shankill Road, to Sunnyside Street off the Ormeau Road, and finally to Sydenham in East Belfast.
He attended Strand Primary, where apparently he met some fellow young entrepreneurs:
“At the age of 7 my business enterprises began, with my good friends Victor Wilson and David McKinstry — we took advantage of David’s large buggy and in the winter time we would head down to the shipyard, and to a local wood importer, where we would pile all the scrap wood into the buggy, and head back to Victor’s back garden. [There] we would cut and pack short sticks, to make into kindle bundles, ready to sell around the doors on Saturday afternoon, after we came back from The ABC Minors.
“In the summertime we swapped the wood for flowers which we would get from Mr Smith’s garden (sale or return), and on Sundays we would sit at the graveyard gate and sell any we had been left over from the previous day.”
Later the Johnstons moved on from Sydenham, to a then-brand-new development, Clarawood, off the Knock Road, where he attended Ashfield Boys’ High School during the late 1950s and early 60s.
After high school, and after a couple of part time jobs, he got a mechanic’s apprenticeship on the Springfield Road at James Mackie & Sons, at that time one of the largest employers in Belfast. This was to be the beginning of a long career spent in the engineering industry, that would continue right up until his passing.
After the end of his five year apprenticeship, in his own words,
“I was drawn to the excitement of travel”,
and he signed up for the British Merchant Navy, where he would serve as a junior engineering officer.
About his maiden voyage, he wrote:
“I remember my first trip on the MV Testbank, a tramper managed by Andrew Weir & Co. I signed on a 2 year contract joining the vessel at the East India Docks in London. I had no time to be home sick as when I joined the vessel we set sail for the South Pacific — first port of call Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Then we spent another few months discharging around the Pacific Islands ending up in Fiji, where we spent over 7 weeks loading sugar by hand.”
I had always known my father was well traveled, and about his naval career, but it was only when I came across some of his old belongings from this time, kept faithfully and tidily in an old biscuit tin, that I really understood.
Expired passports, immaculate discharge forms, and Seaman’s record books that list countless countries visited, and years served, along with photos that capture those moments.
“We headed across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal to discharge in New Orleans — this was the start of a few trips across the Pacific from Australasia to the USA. Then we at last got a homeward bound cargo, jute, from Calcutta to Dundee — however just as we headed to the Suez Canal with only 4 weeks to home, the Six Day War started, and we were re-routed via the Cape, which added about a further 3 weeks to our trip. Then we ran out of fresh water, as the evaporator had broken down, so it was a matter of looking for rain showers and putting out canvas catchers so we could at least have a wash. By the time we got to Dundee, there were a lot of smelly and unhappy sailors.”
He sailed with lots of different shipping companies, like Shell Tankers and United Arab Shipping, for 12 years. Below are some of the remarkable photos and things collected during that time, undoubtedly a small fraction of the memories he created.
As an aside, my dad, from my experience was always pretty quick to produce a camera, which would invariably lead to a bit of annoyance from the rest of us as we groaned at the thoughts of being the subjects of another snap. But looking back at these photos, it’s clear that he loved to capture memories through a camera. I never realised it, but perhaps my father and I shared a love of amateur photography, and it seemed like he was pretty good at it too — I don’t know whether it is the analog quality of these photos, or my connection to them through him, but they feel alive.
12 years after embarking on that first voyage, he came back to dry land for good, getting a service engineer’s job with GW Monson & Sons, located in Newtownards, where he settled for the next few years.
He continued travelling, meeting up with family in California and elsewhere.
As he said, with characteristic simplicity,
“It was at this time in my life I met and fell in love with my beautiful wife Carolyn”
They were married in April 1983, surrounded by their massive group of family and friends in Bangor.
I don’t know how they felt about this, but my parents always seemed to me to be a fantastically well suited pair, matching dry wit, similar ambitions to create memories, and never really taking advantage of the generous qualities of the other. But they were always strong, and they continued to explore the world together right up until the last weeks — I can only hope to live as they did together.
Not too long (suspiciously soon, let’s be honest!) after meeting, and marrying, my mother, I was born in August of 1983. We lived together in 51 Eastmount, Newtownards, where I remember my first year of juvenile anxiety — screwing my eyes shut to make sure Santa wouldn’t think I was awake, and take away my presents — and walking down the road to the hill overlooking Strangford Lough to watch the Ards Air Show, and the Red Arrows, take place overhead.
I remember too, trips to France (where he taught me to swim) with uncle Harry and aunt Roberta and their soft-top car, St Andrews in Scotland with the beloved Bill Campbell where I held my first golf club (and I haven’t gotten any better since), and Castlewellan — a place now etched in my heart with so many wonderful family memories.
In September 1987, my little sister Debbie was born, and we spent a few months living down in Bill Campbell’s house at Butterlump Rock while our first family home, at Erindee in Donaghadee, was built.
Two children might have kept some other families house-bound, but not ours:
“We were a close family and spent most summers in our touring caravan heading away each Friday after work to Castlewellan and other parks throughout Ireland, and during summer breaks we headed off south to Limerick, Cork and Kerry where we made some great memories.”
That’s the point really - memories you create in other people are those ripples, and my dad made sure we have countless amounts of them.
As the kids grew, [the caravan] was no longer on the agenda, instead it was Spain, France, and of course USA — California in particular.
I’m hugely grateful to my parents not because they took us to visit dozens of countries and locations, but because everywhere we went, we created those memories - we could do this in a rain-soaked caravan in County Clare, or getting locked out of our campsite and stuck on a beach in Italy.
One common thread running throughout his life was my dad’s sense of ambition, whether that be with travel, with family, or with work.
After 12 great years at GW Monson, in 1992 I decided to broaden my outlook and took the plunge into starting my own business. Thermpak [now TPS], which at one time employed 7 people. and is still going strong to the present time.
Running Thermpak gave him the opportunity to visit, or indeed revisit, countless cities, keeping up the spirit of adventure that he’d never lost.
And throughout all of that, I think he still really loved to adventure close to home, around Ireland.
He even took on the challenge of coaching rugby, at least rugby minis, at Donaghadee RFC.
The memories I have relating to rugby and my father involve DRFC’s biennial Boxing Day matches with Wigtownshire RFC, in Stranraer, Scotland. Every other year, they’d come to visit and compete against us, and every other year again, we’d travel across on the ferry, and play against them. But I barely remember the rugby (I think I played in a couple of minis matches, but hardly a glittering playing career), it was the sing-songs on the ferry, or in the clubhouses, and the warm and friendly folks who came along, that stick in the mind.
He didn’t let illness stop him either:
In 2005 I unfortunately suffered liver failure and became very sick, but after a two year wait in 2007 I was given the gift of liver, and was flown [in an] air ambulance to King’s College Hospital in London, where I was given a new liver.
After his transplant, he was deeply involved with ensuring that people in his situation would be better off, through the RVH Liver Support Group, and by encouraging people to join their countries organ donor register, if available. As he said, still with customary dry wit:
The transplant was a success and up until now was performing well — I had a very important extension to my life.
And he did, in fact it was important to all of us in his family.
So this is it, there’s no avoiding talking about it. Unfortunately, in mid-2015, he was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer.
Cancer is a horrible, dichotomic disease. It takes people away slowly, but ends fast. It spreads your grief out over weeks and months, but doesn’t let you have that last punch of loss that you might need to move on. It makes you feel guilty, because you feel relieved for an end to their suffering, instead of devastated at their departure.
The rest of this part of the story doesn’t need to be told, but there are good things to hold onto.
For one, my dad maintained that adventurousness, fitting in as many trips around Ireland as he could, getting the best steak of his life, and battling the disease with dignity and courage. I was lucky enough to be able to share with him some wonderful news about my own future, and I hope that provided him with some comfort.
Another was the kindness and gentle compassion shown by the staff of the Marie Curie Hospice. It was here where my dad spent the last few days of his life, cared for by people who must have to deal with such tremendous heartbreak on a constant basis. Please support them, or your local hospice, if you can.
And it was there where he passed away, not even a mile away from 25 Knockwood Crescent, where he grew up all those years ago.
At the funeral last Monday, I was surprised by the vast numbers of people who turned up to say goodbye. Of course, I shouldn’t have been, because nobody who lives this long, or creates this many ripples in life, could have had otherwise.
This is what gives me comfort and delight - I know I won’t meet him again, in the religious sense anyway, but I, and many others, are still left with tremendous memories of him, or created by him. This living obituary is merely, pun intended, a drop in the ocean.
Please go and make some ripples of your own.