Army “sprog” became radical hippy activist
Anti-nuclear campaigner John Zawada tends his Toodyay permaculture garden.
By Ieva Tomsons
TOODYAY couple Dr Despina Weston and John Zawada are refugees from opposite ends of the world with complicated life stories which The Herald will run in two parts, beginning with John.
John was born in a displaced persons camp in West Germany in 1946 before migrating to Australia with his Polish family when he was four years old.
Arriving by ship at Fremantle in 1951, the Zawadas were despatched to Northam Migrant Accommodation Centre before John’s father was allocated to work at Bailup Farm Mill in Gidgegannup where they lived in small cottages with 14 other Polish families.
John struggled at Mt Helena Primary School for two years but fondly remembers the orange school bus driver who could roll a cigarette with one hand while driving.READ MORE
“Mr Barnes had two Pekinese dogs and liked to stop on the way to school to shoot roos so by the time he had rounded us all up we sometimes wouldn’t get to school until noon,” laughs John.
The family moved to Bayswater when John was almost seven and his battle with English and school continued until he left Governor Stirling Senior High School at 16 to join the army.
“I was one of those kids who found it difficult to assimilate.”
Of the three Zawada children, John was the most religious and at 14 considered becoming a Catholic priest which he decided wasn’t for him once he discovered girls.
John’s nine-year army career started with a four-year fitting and turning apprenticeship at Victoria’s Balcombe Army Apprentices School which was investigated by the 2016 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
He was at the school during a period when bastardisation was rife and accepted as the norm.
“The sprogs (juniors) had to run the gauntlet. They break you down to rebuild you in the army’s image – that’s the logic, but I don’t bear a grudge.”
In the 1960s the army desperately needed refrigeration mechanics so John volunteered for two years’ training by correspondence at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
While awaiting his first deployment to Vietnam, John was sick of the “hurry up and wait” army life and he went AWOL from Holsworthy Army Base in NSW and travelled around NSW and Tasmania for a month.
“After 21 days you are classified as a deserter and it was only a good word from my priest that saved me.”
Soon after, John was promoted to corporal and sent to Nui Dat in Vietnam as a refrigeration mechanic. He was 22 and still very religious.
Later, as part of the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group in Vung Tau, John led a small team which enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy as they moved around the base maintaining refrigeration and airconditioning equipment at the hospital, mortuary, communications transmitter and the Rest-in-Country Infantry Centre.
Like McHale’s Navy
“We were like McHale’s Navy but in the army; we had free rein and didn’t have to attend morning parade.”
They got to know the Americans and traded Aussie boots for T-bone steaks and engaged in other bootlegging activities.
The autonomy suited John but his second tour of duty, 1970-1971, was another matter.
His freedom was knocked on the head and he recalls joining the Americans on semi-authorised missions including one to the Viet Cong stronghold of Parrot’s Beak on the Cambodian border.
“As soon as we arrived in the Herc (Hercules aircraft) we were met with wailing sirens and exploding incoming rockets and we had to run for cover.
“During the weekly patrols spotlights were on all night and we would try to move forward each day.
“We thought we were invincible.”
Drinking and girls
R&R breaks in Bangkok introduced John to drinking and girls but he was also beginning to understand the futility of war and started writing letters to his commanding officer questioning Australia’s involvement in the so-called ‘American War’.
John left the army in 1972 and married the following year.
He was spending up to six months in the Pilbara working in refrigeration and air conditioning and the prolonged separations impacted his marriage.
After three kids and 10 years of trying to make the marriage work, the couple called it a day.
John had already started to lecture in his trade at Perth TAFE and went on to obtain his teaching degree.
From 1980 to 1996 he enjoyed teaching the apprentices but was also looking into alternative lifestyles and got involved with the anti-nuclear movement and environmental groups such as Men of the Trees and the Great Walk Networking Group which opposed logging old-growth forests.
“In the late 1980s it was seen as radical to plant trees on farms,” laughs John who volunteered for Men of the Trees at the Dowerin Field Days.
“I did a lot of soul searching during the TAFE holidays and in 1991 spent three months in Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal where I helped to set up the Permaculture Principles in Biratnagar Village.”
Taking early retirement from TAFE in 1996, John was free to pursue an alternative lifestyle and travelled Australia working on organic farms and campaigning to stop logging in far-east Gippsland’s Erinunderra Forest in Victoria.
“It was a very hippyish lifestyle; a lot of radical activism with lock-ons (to forestry machinery), tree sits and other disruptive activities.”
A year later he had married an English woman and was in Ireland working with a broad-based Christian group which ran farms for people with disabilities.
On their return the couple settled in Bega NSW where John continued to work and train people with disabilities, and immersed himself in various alternative groups.
When his second marriage ended in 2006 he returned to WA to train indigenous volunteers at a remote Aboriginal community in the Gascoyne.
Despina and John first met in the late ’80s at a mutual friend’s dinner party.
Twenty-six years later they met again during one of John’s trips to Perth to visit his children and they decided that the time was right to be together.
The couple bought the historic Shoemaker’s House in Stirling Terrace in 2009 and after extensive renovations to accommodate Despina’s art studio and consultancy rooms they moved in in 2011.
Today you’ll find John either behind the wheel of the school bus a couple of days a week or working in his permaculture garden, that is if he isn’t out and about with Friends of the River, Arts Toodyay, Toodyay Historical Society or the Toodyay Naturalists’ Club.
“I am still an old hippy,” said John who is now fantasising about moving to the Greek island of Ikaria where residents live to 100 – but only if Despina will join him.