The Black and White Song and Dance

For Don Balassone 1943-2015

 

The first VFL game I attended was Collingwood versus Essendon at Victoria Park in 1980.  I was seven.  Driving in from East Doncaster, dad took the Eastern Freeway before veering off at the Chandler Highway exit.  We then snaked our way through Yarra Boulevard, before parking up at Yarra Falls and commencing a long, but enjoyable walk to the ground.

 

My reasons for becoming a Collingwood supporter were quite trivial.  A Jewish kid across the street who I looked up to barracked for them and used to talk the Pies up during our one-on-one street matches.  But a more likely reason was that my favourite TV show was ‘The Incredible Hulk’ starring Lou Ferringo.  Due to a striking resemblance to Ferringo, Rene Kink, one of Collingwood’s stars at the time, was nicknamed ‘The Incredible Hulk’.  Whatever the reason, I was hooked and became a black and white fanatic from a young age.

 

As we walked towards the ground, dad was like a tour guide pointing out all the local landmarks.  He had grown up here after migrating from Italy in 1950.  I soon discovered there was a strong family connection to the area…

 


 

Donato Balassone was born in 1943 in the Italian town of Sulmona in the Abruzzo region.   Donato means donation and thus Donato has always marketed himself as a donation to mankind.  Some have speculated that Balassone means ‘song and dance man’, so if we are to interpret his name literally, his singing and dancing have been a gift to the world.  Sulmona is located at the foot of the Maiella massif and is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the poet Ovid, whose bronze statue stands in the town piazza.  Donato’s parents Alfonso and Concetta married in 1936.  Their first son Pasquale was born in 1939.  Not long after Donato was born in ’43, Sulmona was subject to an American air raid.  During the strike Concetta wrapped Donato in a blanket and ran for safety.  When she finally found shelter she uncovered the blanket to find a blue-coloured baby, almost suffocated to death.

 

Sulmona is an ancient Roman town surrounded by farmland.  Most of the families who lived there owned plots of land a few miles out of town.  The Balassone’s owned about five acres.  Pasquale, who later became known as Peter, and Donato, who later became known as Don, helped out on the farm.  Peter took the sheep to the mountains to eat grass, while Don assisted in digging crops – although being a small child meant he could wander off from time to time and pluck the luscious cherries from the trees.  Don’s first moment of self-awareness came while standing by a mountainside and being lit up by the Abruzzo sun.  In an instant, he felt a oneness with the earth, universe and creation.

 

At about 10:30 each morning, the women arrived with baskets of food for a well-earned break.  The diet consisted mainly of pasta, vegetables, corn, figs and cherries.  Meat was a commodity they could not afford and the sheep they grazed were eventually sold for cash.

 

At this time there were numerous relatives living in the family household.  Hence, there was limited space and resource to adequately cater for all.  On top of that, Alfonso had two sisters who he felt were not chipping in.  The last straw for Alfonso came when one of his sisters decided she wanted to become a nun.  It was time to leave.  He decided on Australia.  There would be opportunities for the kids there.

 

Alfonso sailed for the antipodes in 1949.  He would spend a year working and establishing himself in Melbourne before his wife and two sons would arrive.  Later that year, Concetta, Peter and Don went to Rome to acquire the necessary paperwork for their immigration.  One of Don’s endearing memories of this trip is being surrounded by the grand beauty of St Peter’s Square.

 

In early 1950 they boarded the ship The Sorrento from the Bay of Naples.  As the ship departed, with the land of his birth slowly receding before his eyes, Don was filled with a sense of wonderment.  For the next six weeks, Don and Peter roamed the ship barefoot while their mother Concetta was holed up in her cabin with severe seasickness.  There were twenty or thirty friends from Sulmona on board, so the kids were treated like kings.

 

The imagery of the voyage was unforgettable: different coloured people in different coloured attire at African and Arabian ports, enormous barrels of bright-yellow bananas at Colombo, schools of dolphins following the ship, monstrous waves, migrating whales, flying fish leaping twenty feet into the air.  But none of these sights were daunting to a little boy, but rather wondrous.  This was the adventure of a lifetime.

 

As the ship approached Melbourne, six-year old Don somehow spotted his father Alfonso among the massive crowd at the port.  He had not seen him for a year.  Alfonso had two ice-creams in his hands, which he miraculously managed to get to his sons through the portholes of the ship.

 

Soon after the family settled in Hotham Street, Collingwood.  Alfonso was initially a labourer and later a storeman, while Concetta worked as a machinist in a shoe factory.  Don vividly remembers his first day at school.  A bully, sensing an easy target, was mouthing off at him.  Though Don didn’t understand a word of the tirade, he knew it wasn’t nice and he thus proceeded to beat the daylights out of the bully.  At St Joseph’s Primary School he was a notorious fighter who never backed down, particularly from fights with bigger kids.  His older brother Peter expressed his concerns to father Alfonso, who merely smiled.

 

Despite the propensity for fighting, Don maintains racism was never an issue for him.  It may have been because he possessed blue-eyes and fair skin, or perhaps because kids would no longer pick on him because they knew they’d be trouble.  An incident that had a profound impact on him and won him over to the Aussie spirit occurred after his father Alfonso was hit by a car and spent time in hospital with a broken leg.  During this period Don recalls some strangers at the hospital befriending him, even though only years prior their respective countries had been at war.  He was quickly drawn to the Aussie spirit, this ideal of mateship, the willingness to give someone a go, and sensed the positive implications of adopting such an attitude to others.

 

He was soon introduced to the Collingwood phenomenon.  On Saturday afternoons he heard the roar of the crowd from the football stadium across the road.  What was this strange game in a strange land?  He was curious.  Around this time he recalls an old man with a cap from across the street, looking down at him and telling him about the great Collingwood Football Club, the mightiest and most successful team in the land – the old man relayed the history of the club with such zeal and passion that it was infectious.  Not unlike the incident at the hospital, here was an Australian taking time to converse with a migrant kid.  That was it then, Don would become a Collingwood supporter.  Before too long he was standing in the outer with his godfather Otto Zampichelli at Victoria Park, and had frequented several other suburban grounds, as well as attending a packed final at the MCG in the late 1950s.  He also watched games from the balcony of his Uncle Jim Biffi’s double-story house in Bath St, Abbotsford, which overlooked Victoria Park.  In particular the powerful figure of Murray Weideman made an impression.  The ‘Weed’ was a barrel-chested man of strength who put fear into the opposition like no other.  Perhaps Don saw a bit of himself in the ‘Enforcer’.

 

In the Olympic year of 1956 Don started secondary school at Collingwood Tech, widely regarded as one of the roughest schools in Melbourne.  But his reputation, acquired from his infamous primary school scuffles, preceded him – people knew he was not to be messed with.  A notable school friend was Graeme ‘Jerker’ Jenkin, best remembered as Alex Jesaulenko’s stepladder in the 1970 Grand Final, but also a fine ruckman in his own right who went on to play over 100 games with the Pies.

 

Don excelled in sports at Collingwood Tech and became a school boy discus champion.   Later that year he joined another great Collingwood institution, the Collingwood Harriers Athletics Club.  During this period he trained and competed with Australian discus champions Ves Balodis and Harry Mitsilias, as well as sprinter Peter Norman, who later won a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics (famously sharing the dais with the ‘Black Power Salute’ medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos).  Many years later Don returned to Collingwood Tech as a maths and science teacher before eventually becoming a production engineer and starting his own lighting and power business, lighting up the world with his torches.

 


 

After parking the car at Yarra Boulevard, we took the track past Dight Falls, where the salt water from the sea meets the fresh water of the Yarra River.  Innumerable Magpies occupy the area and it is said that the Collingwood mascot was inspired by the magpies at Dights Falls.  To a seven-year old kid it seemed remarkable that such a tranquil place was located so close to the noise and chaos of the city.  All the while, dad filled me in about his youth.  All these stories strengthened my sense of attachment to the area.  We then stepped out onto Studley Park Road.  Slowly etching our way towards Mecca.  We turned right onto Trenerry Crescent, before marching down Turner Street with the faithful.  The black and white colours were everywhere.  The exterior of the Rush Stand was adorned with black and white stripes.  Stalls were selling scarves, flags, badges and posters.  An old raggedy man was hawking peanuts.  Scruffy kids were collecting aluminium cans.  A large queue was gathered outside the Rush Stand gates.  There was a strange inner-suburban smell in the air.  Hot dogs, pies, chips, vinegar, jam donuts, beer, nicotine.  Oh the excitement of passing through the turnstiles and into the stadium.  We settled in the outer on the half-forward flank as the Reserves were concluding.  Had the game already started? Dad explained the concept of the Reserves to me.  Thank God, I hadn’t missed anything.  The crowd continued to build.  The Reserves trudged off.  Suddenly a deafening roar pervaded the stadium and the banners were raised.  It felt like the earth was shaking.  Dad lifted me to his shoulders and I saw my black and white heroes emerge from the race of the Ryder Stand and burst through the banners.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Damian Balassone

Damian Balassone is a delusional Collingwood supporter who writes poetry and fiction.

Comments

  1. Mighty writing about a mighty man. Thanks Damian. This is such a wonderful tribute and memoir. I hope it is read as widely as it deserves to be.

  2. Ian Hauser says:

    Yes, this story deserves a good audience. I’ve long held the view that every person’s life journey is worthy of a book given that every life is anything but ordinary. Your Dad sounds like he might deserve a couple volumes! Might we hope for further instalments here? Now, if only he had been a Bombers supporter…

  3. Beautiful story, beautifully written and told. The conclusion about your first match sent chills of distant echoes down my spine.
    The Avenging Eagle’s father and mother had a remarkably similar upbringing in the Biokovo Mountains of now Croatia, and their journey to and in Australia in the early 60’s parallels Don’s.
    Inspiring. Particularly loved the inclusiveness of everyday Australians in the 50’s. Populate or perish.

  4. Andrew Starkie says:

    Brilliant testament to your old man, Italian migration and footy, Damo. Well done.

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Classic memoir DB.
    Can relate to almost every stop along the journey. From Sulmona to St Peter’s Square to the mighty Vic Park !
    And Don returned to Collingwood Tech to teach? Once Collingwood gets a hold of you …
    I might have been standing near you during that game in 1980 as we used to stand on half-forward flank at the back of the Rush Stand. I was 10 years old and the roar when we snuck home by 4 points…you never forget it. Thank you for this terrific story, mate. Will share far and wide.

  6. Yvette Wroby says:

    Wonderful story and a pleasure to meet your family through your writing. Well done

  7. Luke Reynolds says:

    Wonderful writing and tribute Damian. And such a great Collingwood story, from Victoria Park to Dights Falls to Collingwood Tech. Loved it.
    Reckon a best of team from Collingwood Tech would be a fairly handy team.

  8. Steve Fahey says:

    Terrific read Damian, and a great tribute to your father and your relationship a few days before Fathers Day.

  9. Thanks John, Ian, Peter, Andrew, Yvette, Luke and Steve for taking the time to read this and for your very kind words – greatly appreciated. And special thanks to Phil who helped initiate this piece.

  10. E.regnans says:

    G’day DBalassone.
    Wonderful images, a wonderful story of moments, scenes, connection. Full of wonder.
    The flying fish! The bananas!
    Making the best of things.
    Following the scent.

    “Donato has always marketed himself as a donation to mankind.”
    Bravo.
    Well played.

  11. Thank you Damian for a wonderful account.

    This story would strike a chord with many children of immigrant families of the 50s and 60s. My mother made such a trip, on her own, in 1960, my father too had gone ahead of her some six to nine months earlier.

    Of that trip, my sister still has the chest that came with her, which held all her possessions.

    Long after we stopped using Sicilian within the family, we always referred to the chest using the Sicilian word: baullu, and we still call it that amongst my siblings.

  12. Wonderful story, Damo, and a pleasure to read.
    I am amazed at the similarities between Don’s journey and that of my father from Ireland via England, right down to buying a bunch of bananas at the port of Columbo.

    And I am so sorry, but it is impossible not to compare these migrant experiences, and the subsequent contributions they made to this country, with the xenophobic flavour of contemporary discussions surrounding immigration.

  13. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Beaut DB, bloody beaut.

  14. Brilliant DB. Such a life-affirming story. Family, travel, footy. It’s all there.

    Confession time. When at school I bought a long-sleeved Collingwood training jumper. I was compared to Tony Shaw for a while- minus the pace and prodigious kick!

    I reckon this piece encapsulates the Almanac values perfectly.

    Thanks.

  15. Frank Cheeseman says:

    Thanks for the fabulous story Damien, bloody marvellous.
    Ordinary men and women who are, by any measure, exceptional.
    Echoing The Tall Man:
    “Donato has always marketed himself as a donation to mankind.”
    Indeed, well played,
    Thanks.

  16. The first word that came to my mind after reading this was Marvellous…. it’s actually not a word I use much, then I see in the comment above by Frank, “bloody marvellous”. So this is definitely a marvellous piece of writing.

    It also has a biblical tone in the way you tell the story Damian.

    I really love the way you have woven your families back story into this footy story.

    Kate

  17. george smith says:

    I don’t know if this is the right place to mention – but Travis Varcoe’s sister Margaret has died after a freak accident playing football on Sunday in Adelaide.

    I wish to express my sincere condolences to Travis Varcoe’s family and friends. Also to his Collingwood and Geelong team mates, all Collingwood and Geelong supporters, and to Margaret Varcoe’s team mates and supporters.

    RIP Side by Side.

  18. Great (his)story telling Damien. Not only regarding your family history but the memories of how it felt to walk to Victoria Park for a game; the anticipation, sights, smells and sounds and the squat peanut-selling man who seemed to have been there since forever.

  19. Stainless says:

    Concur with all previous comments, Damien – a ripper piece.

  20. Thanks E.R, Joey, Smokie, Swish, Mickey, Frank, Kate, Bruce and Stainless for your feedback. Too kind. I’m rapt that dad’s story resonates and that many can relate it to in their own way.

  21. Rick Kane says:

    Beautiful story DB (although I was forever waiting for it to head into rhyming couplets or something!).

    Stories such as yours, while triggering personal reflections, are also a reminder of just how big and connected our world is and how few of the real stories get told. I’ll take a hundred more stories of the walk from Yarra Falls to the ground and recollections of parents lives lived before I need any more “reality” shows or stories of boy wizards.

    In a story filled with touching images, I did really enjoy reading this: “His older brother Peter expressed his concerns to father Alfonso, who merely smiled.”

    Good stuff.

  22. Joe De Petro says:

    Beautiful account and tribute, Damian. My father came over in 1950 as well and eventually settled in a Fairfield, not far from your own Dad. These stories of 1950s and 60s immigration need to be told. Thanks for sharing yours.

  23. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Wow, thanks DB.

    ‘Standing by a mountainside and being lit up by the Abruzzo sun.’ That really kind of floors me, that line. And the ice creams being held by your grandfather. It always strikes me as extraordinary that all of our lives may indeed come down to a string of images that someone will write or speak of us in passing, when we are gone. Yours are wonderful for your dad. Sounds like he was a man drawn to the light from the start.

    As the daughter of an immigrant too, I really relate to the conjuring of a father’s homeland that is not ours but is also profoundly ours. It has come down to us. We know it in our cells. There’s an exquisite proximity/distance in the viewpoint that makes it all the more poignant somehow.

  24. Have been saving this one for a few days. Was worth the wait. Just beautiful DB.

  25. Amazing tribute, you have to write a whole book!

  26. Superb Damian. Loved it. What a story.

    VFL Footy was a bit more mysterious in the 50s. Played on grounds behind brick walls that seemed to wrap their arms around the locals.

    What a magical ride your father had. A new land, a new life, a new sporting love. And how lucky was Australia to have these people who came here to work and live and be part of it all.

  27. Thanks Rick, Joey, Mathilde, Rob, Roma and Dips. Your words are much appreciated. ‘It always strikes me as extraordinary that all of our lives may indeed come down to a string of images.’ So true Mathilde, so true.

  28. simply wonderful !

  29. Keiran Croker says:

    Just got to this today. I concur with all above Damian. A lovely piece and vivid recollections of your Dad and Grandfather.

  30. Scott (Moca) says:

    Well done Bell!! It’s great! Will now show Robby, he will love it too!

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