I first started working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Sydney when I was 17 years old, joyfully working on some of the crappiest cartoons ever made. I remember that time as one of great personal triumph, but also profound and enduring heartbreak.
I’d wanted to work in animation since I was 8 years old but thought such a career wasn’t even possible in Australia because I’d never seen a cartoon with Australian voices. When attending a weekend animation seminar at the age of 15 however, I learned that many American cartoons on TV were actually made at a big animation studio in Sydney; Hanna-Barbera. This was an alleluia moment for a lifelong cartoon nerd and I set about getting a job there. After mailing them letters and drawings for a year or more, they finally responded by sending me a drawing test. Using character model-sheets as a guide, I was to pose Hanna-Barbera characters in as many different situations as I could. The model-sheets were from “Kwicky Koala”, the last ever cartoon by Tex Avery, a TV series that was made in Sydney the year before. (The characters “Ratso the rat” and “Dirty Dawg” were where the great Tex Avery ended his career, but where I started my own).
Hanna-Barbera liked my attempts at drawing their characters and called me in for an interview, and Dad accompanied me on the long train journey from my hometown to Sydney. While the typical animation/cartoon portfolio of today is badly drawn anime, back then it was poor man’s Frazetta; lumpy drawings of awkwardly posed, axe-wielding barbarians, accompanied by equally misshapen warrior maidens in brass bikinis, whereas my own portfolio consisted of a few illustration jobs I’d done in my hometown. When I showed my T-shirt designs, cartoons for the local newspaper, and some illustrations for the school magazine, to my surprise and delight Hanna-Barbera offered me a job on the spot. I was 17 years old and could barely contain my excitement, and it took the tag-team of Mum and Dad to calm me down and counsel me not to throw off my final year of high school with only a few months till my final exams. To stop my teen-whining about their repressive parental fascism, they compromised by allowing me to work at Hanna-Barbera during term breaks in my final year of high school.
In September 1981 I was unbelievably excited to have several weeks working as an animation assistant, an ‘inbetweener‘, at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. I stayed with my Aunty Marg and Uncle Keith near Manly Beach, and caught the 144 bus to St. Leonards and the Hanna-Barbera studio, where I worked my arse off every day and eagerly stayed late most nights. Every animation studio I’ve worked at since has at least one annoying spotty-faced, cardigan-wearing, eager beaver, and in 1981 it was me; “Animation! Oh boy!” One memory of this time which doesn’t involve me sitting at a lightbox and quivering with febrile excitement from head to toe, was going into downtown Sydney to see a new movie that everyone at the studio was talking about; “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” which had just opened in Australia. Hollywood’s early 1980s power couple of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just produced a bouncing baby mega-hit and I was working in showbiz myself. Life was just peachy-keen. When my time as an inbetweener was over I went back to finish high school as per the agreement with Mum and Dad, secure in the knowledge that I’d lined up a job for myself when I finished high school (which was just as well, because a few months later I botched my final written exam so it’s fortunate that I wasn’t relying on my HSC marks to get a job). Hanna-Barbera had a late-starting season in 1982 and the timing was perfect, as my family had a lot going on that year and I was glad to be with them.
My mother had given birth to the last of her seven children, my brother Alex, in mid December 1981, and began having mysterious seizures culminating in a particularly terrifying fit after she’d come home from hospital. In the many years since, I’ve often thought about the unbelievable bad luck that not only did my mother have that seizure at all, but that it occurred at the exact moment she had a pan of boiling water in her hands. One minute earlier or later and her hands would’ve been empty. She’d have still had the seizure but would’ve fallen to the ground otherwise unscathed and been spared the intense pain of being doused with a spilled pan of boiling water. So much misery hinged on the quirks of an instant. Apart from the agonizing burns this brought her, it also made for a puzzle of symptoms for the doctors to pick through; partial paralysis, ongoing seizures, burns, all after a history of blood clotting.. Which were causes and which were effects? Answering these questions was the focus of early 1982, when Dad (and later myself) accompanied Mum to Sydney for a variety of medical tests and examinations at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Back then they didn’t have the wonderful brain imaging gizmos available today. I’ve recently had brain scans aplenty and the resolution these days is surprisingly clear, but in 1982 the images were hopelessly vague and ambiguous, like photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as likely to cause wooly theorising. There was a dark smudge on my Mum’s brain scans but what was it? A blood clot? Or perhaps something more sinister?
With any other organ in the human body, the very next step would be surgery to find out what that ominous shadow actually is. However, cutting into the living human brain – the repository of what makes each of us actually ‘us‘ – is only a last resort. First, many tests were done in an attempt to surmise what that shadowy thing might be but they were all inconclusive, and the mystery of what horror lurked inside my poor Mum’s head was not resolved until she underwent a brain biopsy; the crude and invasive process of opening up her skull and cutting into her brain to look inside. When Dad and I visited Mum after this grim procedure, her head was shaved and the horrifying scars on her skull were bandaged, but I was keenly aware of their presence. She had pipes going into her nose and mouth and was connected to electrodes and monitors. It was a nightmare image that haunts me still. She was weakly conscious though, and gave us a reassuring little smile before needing to rest. It was a sombre ferry ride back across Sydney Harbour to Manly. Although I’d always thought she’d pull through her ordeal, and had blithely reassured her many times, I finally sensed in that knowing part of my guts that my dear Mum would actually die, and when we got back to my Aunty Marg’s house I lost my composure and broke down in grief at the realisation.
The doctors soon confirmed what I somehow knew; she had terminal brain cancer and not a blood clot as was previously hoped. Mum decided to return to our hometown rather than submit to a treatment at a Big City specialist hospital that would not save her, but merely prolong a hospital stay far from her family and her newly-born child. We all returned to Armidale to await the inevitable and Mum was setup in her own room at the hospital near our house. Depending on her strength sometimes Mum would come home for the day, where our focus was on her comfort and hers was on getting to know her youngest child, Alex, (who was not even one year old when months later Mum finally died). I’ve recently had to endure a tiny fraction of the physical difficulties that my Mother went through, a mere crumb by comparison, but I now have a visceral reminder of what a brave and wonderful soul she was. I already knew this, and felt it keenly, but more recently my appreciation for her ability to persevere bravely in the face of hopeless heartbreaking hardship now verges on awe.
One night, after hospital visiting hours were over, I went to the Drive-In with my mates to sit in the back of my mate Phil’s ute, and watch a movie and drink. Drink quite a lot, in fact. I’d already downed substantially more booze than my meagre alcohol capacity, when I stuck my head in the cab to ask Phil to pass me another bottle, at the precise moment he slammed the door. It should be noted here that the door to Phil’s ute was ‘sticky’ and always required an extra HEAVE to close. A force that was applied to my skull, and it rang like a gong from the mighty blow. There was much hilarity, even from me, and as I lay down in the tray of the ute I heard my own laughter as if from afar but could feel no pain, which should have been a sign… The chattering voices of my mates faded in my head, leaving me in a mental still point as I looked up into the star-mottled blackness of the night. Without the distractions I’d prepared for it, my mind dwelled on horrifying realities – the cruel specifics of my mother’s predicament and the fact that she’d soon leave us forever – hit me every bit as hard as the truck door had pounded on my skull, and I started to quietly sob. At first my mates thought I was joking, but quickly realised what was happening. They drove to pick up supplies, and took me out into the bush someplace where they built a fire and we sat and talked through the night. I cannot now remember the details of what was said. I was drunk, and probably mildly concussed, but I do remember how much it meant to let out my grief while being supported by my friends.
The long-awaited telephone call from Hanna-Barbera finally came. They wanted me to start work for good, but once again it was not a simple decision. Now the issue was not finishing high school, but that my Mother was terminally ill. Mum however was adamant that this time I go and start work so that’s what I did, vowing to travel home each weekend from Sydney. I regret that decision with all my heart now, and wish I’d stayed home in Armidale till the end. All these many years later a few more months with her would be so much more valuable to me than a few months being an inbetweener on “The Animated Mork & Mindy show”. If I could go back in time I’d counsel my younger self much the way my parents had coached him the previous year; ‘don’t throw this time away, you’ll regret it later‘, but in mid 1982 I moved to Sydney to live with my Uncle John in Manly Beach and start work at Hanna-Barbera in earnest. My first day on the job there was one of those snafus that often happen in production, where the person who’d interviewed and hired me the year prior, and who’d finally called me down to Sydney a mere few weeks earlier, no longer worked at the studio and his replacement had never even heard of me. When I suggested she call the other guy for clarification it transpired that he’d gone to England. In the days before email, getting prompt feedback in such circumstances was out of the question, so that was a squirmy moment to be sure. Thankfully, she gave me another try out and I re-won my spot as a member of her department, and threw myself into the work with nerdy teen intensity, coupled with the need to distract myself from bigger realities. After years of yearning for it I was finally working in animation at last, though not under ideal circumstances.
When not at work, I spent many weekday evenings at the cinema, and 1982 was a great year to use movies as a distraction from my troubles, with “Blade Runner“, “Road Warrior“, “Wrath of Khan” “ET“, “Tron“, “Tootsie“, “Poltergeist” and other such fantastic faire. Ironically, all these years later, re-watching the escapist movies that helped me hide from my emotions back then brings back that complicated mix of real-world feelings to me now as fresh as ever. In fact, there are a few movies from that time that I simply cannot watch at all, especially one that my Mother herself loved, often playing the soundtrack music in her hospital room that year (merely hearing that melody now, over 30 years later, brings on a tidal wave of raw emotions from that time).
After working Monday to Friday in Sydney, I caught the Friday NORTHERN MAIL TRAIN at around 9:00 PM from Sydney’s Central Station for the chilly overnight journey to the New England Tablelands, finally arriving at Armidale at about 8 AM Saturday to be with my dying Mother and family. Rural NSW trains had some truly antiquated rolling stock as late as the mid 1980s with compartments that seated about 8, and they weren’t heated even in winter. Sometimes the conductor would toss a heated brick ‘foot warmer’ under the seats. City folk unfamiliar with this drill were aghast; “Is that it?!” they’d cry, dressed on the assumption that there’d be heating. We country folk wore sturdy greatcoats and Ugg boots (which were merely a cheap way for Aussies to keep our feet warm till LA super-models ‘discovered’ them). We’d laugh hollowly that, yes, the pathetic brick was the extent of the heating and add that the really chilling part of the arrangement was that the brick would be long-cold before we got to the really icy spots in the mountains. We’d offer a blanket and thermos of warm drink to the newbies lest we shared the compartment with a frozen corpse by Murrurundi. Many people, including Australians themselves, are unprepared for the fact that anywhere in Australia is COLD but my hometown, and the New England Tablelands region in general, will take those people’s breath away in the winter. The journeys were slow, with the train splitting at Werris Creek and if the cold didn’t mess up your sleep then 30 minutes of to-and-fro shunting sure would. I’d finally be getting to sleep when we arrived at Armidale. I remember at least one time when I dozed through the stop and poor Dad had to step on it and drive to the next town and meet the train there (at Dumaresq or Guyra).
The travel schedule was punishing but my time away from the sorrow each week, and the distractions of work and travel, allowed me to compose a cheerful demeanour when visiting Mum, as the last thing a terminally sick person needs is visits from hangdog sad-sacks. In my weekly visits home, Mum was curious about my new life as a worker in the Big City. She’d always taken a keen interest in my adventures even when I truly had none, and ever since I was a small boy it was a ritual of the day to sit with Mum in the kitchen after I’d come home from school. She’d take a quick break from whatever she was doing (probably preparing food for her brood) and have a cuppa with me and ask about my day in school or how things went with various of my mates. Now that I was working she was full of curiosity and enthusiasm for this seemingly exotic new life I’d somehow found for myself, asking me about the details of the job and my new life in Sydney. Often in my life since I’ve thought how my Mother would’ve liked certain things in my adult life. To meet my girlfriend, hear of my adventures abroad, or my professional exploits. I know too that my siblings who are now parents themselves wonder how Mum would have enjoyed being a grandma (for the record, I think she’d have liked it very much, and would’ve been a wonderfully attentive grandparent). So I feel blessed that, in my case, Mum was able to see me start my own career and express her joy at seeing me finding my own way in the world.
As the months of her decline wore on, Mum’s communication skills suffered due to the expanding evil in her head, so she mostly listened while we did the talking, but the spark of her keen intelligence never left her eyes. Intelligence minus the ability to communicate may seem a contradiction, but I’ve recently had the experience myself of desperately trying to speak from within a mind that has lost the neural connections to speech. It is utterly terrifying, though in my case I saw daily improvement rather than daily decline like my poor Mum. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one-by-one as time wore on, she never gave in to ‘why me’ bitterness. One of the incredible qualities that my Mother possessed was her warm stoicism, and although all of us around her were increasingly distressed by her tragic situation, I never saw Mum herself rail against the cruel circumstances that had befallen her. The cancer robbed her body of the ability to speak at the precise moment when she had so much to say, and this often made her heartbreakingly frustrated, but her ordeal never caused her to vent at medical staff, God or Fate. Now that I’m more than ten years older than she was then, I’m even more amazed at the grace that this brave young woman, my dear Mother, brought to her plight.
I remember my Sydney-bound return journeys, as the train rushed through spectacular sunrises over the coastal regions around Gosford, the verdant beauty at odds with my sadness at what I’d seen that past weekend. My head out an open window, the wind tousled my hair as I swept past beautifully lush mountainous areas over foggy deltas, and inlets flecked with low morning cloud, and ruminated upon my Mother’s increasing frailty. The train click-clacked over railway bridges and through towns as I came closer to Sydney and prepared for the work day ahead. At Central station I’d grab something to eat, then transfer to the North Shore Line to St. Leonards, and go to the studio. It was a strange double life; shuttling back and forth between inanely detailed work on a cheesy animated TV cartoon in Sydney, where none of my coworkers knew of my family’s predicament, and being at the bedside of my dying Mother in a small country town, where the entire community was aware of our tragedy. My job-title that year was ‘inbetweener’ but it summed up the half-here-half-there state of my existence as well. Weekdays in the city, overnight journeys to weekends in the country, then catching the Sunday overnight train back to Sydney to be at work again on Monday morning, all through the mid-year winter months until November 1982, when Mum finally died, about a fortnight after her 39th birthday.
The day before, my Uncle Keith had phoned me at the studio to say that Mum had taken a turn for the worst and I should head home to Armidale immediately, by plane if possible. Flights were all fully booked so once more I caught the overnight train, and arrived too late. She had died in the night. Tears did not come to me that day. Instead, I was left with a hollow empty feeling. Cancer creates disorienting shifts in the apparent progress of time. It is both excruciatingly slow – a death rattle prolonged over months – and shockingly fast, as the person appears to age years overnight. The grieving process is drawn out into a gruelling emotional marathon, and the horrified realisation of loss happens long before the death itself. With me, it had been back on the day that Mum had her brain biopsy, I’d felt the cold and terrifying certainty of it, wept in anguish at what was about to happen and I’d been grieving ever since, but the actual day of her death I was numb as a plank. It is a sad and terrible thing to watch someone that you love deteriorate in front of your eyes. There can be an impulse to stay away and spare yourself the sight of someone who was once a powerful presence in your life reduced to a mere wisp, and that inclination brings with it stabbing pangs of remorse. I myself felt a strange relief after my Mother died and hated myself for that at the time, and for a long while afterwards, even though I knew that my Mother too was grateful to be done with her pain.
As her body failed her and she prepared for her end, Mum was in many ways ready to go, though she made it quite clear that she would whole heartedly regret not seeing her children grow older. Mum died in the company of my brother Rob, who was 12 years old at the time. In those last days, when she was so weak as to be drifting in and out of consciousness, family & friends were taking turns to visit Mum and read to her despite being outwardly unresponsive, hoping that she might hear our voices and be comforted. Rob was reading to Mum when she suddenly woke up. As Mum’s friend Phyl rushed to find a nurse, Mum’s eyes looked at Rob, and then she died. This was a shocking burden for a 12 year old boy to bear, but I told Rob many years later, in his adulthood, that I will always be grateful that he was there, so that poor Mum did not regain consciousness in an empty room with nobody she loved by her side at the end.
The first time most of her children had ever experienced the death of a loved one, it was of their own darling Mother. Children usually ease into awareness of death as firstly, older, more distant relatives die, but all our Grandparents and many Great Aunts attended Mum’s funeral, and most of our parish was there too. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on me to this day, it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, at 39 years old, survived by a husband and 6 of her kids, including an 11 month old baby; it seemed so unfair that I was coldly angry about it for quite some time. Try as I might, I could not adopt my Mother’s warmly humane stoicism back then, much as I admired it, but I try to apply her example in my life now. There is an instinct in all of us to help our friends through the dark passages in their lives by pointing out a ‘silver lining‘, and while there’s sometimes wisdom to that approach I’ve never found any optimistic consolation to offer when someone dies. There is no ‘upside‘ to it. We must accept that death inevitably happens to us all, good people as well as bad, healthy as well as sick, young and old alike. Personally, I believe that there’s no divine reason for it, but by the same token, there is no one to blame for it either.
The year I started working in animation was a landmark year for me, and one full of conflicting emotions, both then as it happened, and now as I reflect back upon it. Joyfully, I got my foot in the door of a job I’d always dreamed of but as I crossed that exciting threshold, tragically, my young Mother was stricken with terminal cancer and taken from us. Even now, the feelings from that long-ago year are brought vividly to life each time I go back go to my hometown, as my visits there have been so infrequent, living abroad for 30 years. Perhaps we all feel the death of our own childhoods, often associated with a specific place, but the year that I turned 18 and my childhood officially ended, was the exact same year that my Mother died. My trips back to Armidale are always faintly tinged with sadness, because I associate them not only with the end of the childhood I once had there, but with my sad journeys home in that last year of my beloved Mother’s life. But, as the first-born of her 7 children, I was was blessed to have Mum’s loving guidance all the way till my own adulthood, unlike my younger siblings, so I consider myself very much the lucky one among us.
Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982