Harry Julian Onsman
On her 32nd birthday in 1951, Elisabeth Onsman gave birth to her second son, naming him after her parents. Grandfather Harmen Visser was an introverted realist; grandmother Jeltje Heerema was a socialist activist. On the paternal side, grandfather Edzer was a football fanatic and grandmother Geertruida was a non-nonsense individualist. Inevitably Harmen Jelle Onsman inherited all their traits.
Three years later I was born and Harm acquired a shadow. Older brother Edzer was too old, younger brother Ricky was too young and sister Julia was a girl. As soon as we were old enough, he and I with our cousins were a tribe, roaming the countryside around our little farmhouse on the North Sea dike during summer and skating on the canals and sledding wherever there was the slightest hill to go down in winter. We were poor but as kids we didn’t know that. We were just kids and we had adventures.
Harm wasn’t the leader of our gang but he was the eminence grise. When we formed Leeuwarden’s first prepubescent rock band, the Little Lions, he made all the guitars out of plywood, paint and fishing line and soldered painted tin cans into a drum set. We didn’t make a lot of noise, well, cousin Andries did on the drums, but in our bedroom upstairs we were stars until the fishing lines broke and the drums fell apart. To this day I cite the Little Lions as my first band. It was the first example of Harry’s love of being the power behind the throne.
Being from the poor part of town meant doors were closed to us. Having graduated from a primary school that was not expected to produce capable students, options for academic high schools were none. Mother, recognising that Harry was indeed capable of more than unskilled work, lobbied to get him into a middle level high school. She was successful but having someone from the wrong side of the tracks in their class didn’t sit well with the teachers. At this time, students were forced to speak Dutch rather than Frisian, and our urban dialect was anathema to all. I recall Harry coming home with a bruise on his forehead where his teacher had thrown a bunch of keys at him for saying “Niks, Meneer” instead of “Niets, Meneer”!
Perhaps that’s why my mother decided we would immigrate. Harry was phlegmatic about the prospect, I was less so. From a memoir I wrote called The Family Guide To Euthanasia:
During the war, the Germans built a number of anti-aircraft bunkers on the lee side of the sea-dykes. At least thirty centimeters thick reinforced concrete, the walls were virtually impregnable. A huge hexagonal hole in the roof remained from where the anti-aircraft gun used to be bolted. There were a series of these grey monstrosities along the northern dykes that the government finally got around to clearing in the 1970s.
In the summer of 1964, Harm and I sat on the roof with our feet dangling in the gunwale. Opposites in most things, he was shortish, stocky and dark eyed and haired, where I was as thin as a weed with blond hair and blue eyes. Our discussion took its usual course: me being excitable and argumentative whilst he was calm and argumentative. I had just outlined my plan to stay with opoe, our grandmother on my father’s side and the grandparent who we were closest to, when the rest of the family migrated to Australia. It was a perfectly plausible plan but as always Harm seemed to disagree.
“You are so stupid. Opoe doesn’t want you to live with her. And you’ve got no choice in the matter because you are just a little boy, little boy.”
“I’m taller than you, dickhead!’ Already I displayed the cutting wit and lateral thinking that would form the basis of my adult communication skills.
“You’re still a little boy, little boy! And we are all going to Australia. Mamme has decided.” Harm could be (and often was) a pain in the bum but he was also usually right. Part of me admired him, another part just wanted to belt him. Some things would never change.
Moving to Australia had an immense impact on all of us. We were described as a family of low intelligence with few real prospects by the immigration official, who also thought Dad was too old. We only got in because Edzer was an apprentice. In retrospect, the move also splintered us as a family. We became a family of ees – Eddie, Harry, Andy, Julie and Ricky. Eddie went to work, Harry went to Cosgrove High School, I went to Glenorchy Primary for a year then Claremont High, Yulia and Ricky to Abbotsfield Primary. Later, Harry went to Elisabeth Matric, the rest of us to Hobart Matric.
Harry did well at school, becoming a prefect (well, of course he did!) and by the time he was at Matric, got his Che Guevara face into the local newspaper for various reasons, mostly his nascent involvement in politics. He carried that on at University, where despite earlier assessments of his intellectual capacity he did a master’s degree in linguistics, whilst setting cars alight in the protests to get an underpass under the road that cut the Ref off from the main campus, and promptly being thrown into a paddy wagon. Brother Rick recalls the time from his perspective:
In 1972, Harry took me along to a Vietnam War Moratorium march from the university to the Hobart CBD. What struck my 12 year old self was that, while it was a mostly peaceful march, Harry was one of the people doing his best to unpeacify it. Not in a violent, fascist kind of way – more a merry prankster kind of way. He seemed to particularly enjoy taunting and provoking the police along what was otherwise quite a nice walk.
In 1974, I became a member of the Australian Labor Party. That I was not of voting age didn’t seem to be significant. What WAS significant was that when Gough Whitlam came to town, I got to meet him, thanks to Harry. I wish there had been a photo of us in the “green room” at the university union building: me, the venerable Gough, Tom Uren and Mungo MacCallum. Talk about giants among men – Harry was the only one in the room under 6’4″.
By 1976, Harry had me letterboxing and doorknocking for Julian Amos in the state election. At 16, I couldn’t help but be dazzled by how Harry managed his campaign, creating an image of the sincere, reliable, pipe-smoking young Doctor Julian Amos. That he was a Doctor of Botany was not emphasised.
This was around the same time that, as editor of the Uni student paper Togatus, Harry published a front page cartoon of Premier Eric Reece under the banner “The J Edgar Hoover Award for Kicking the Communist Can” and then wrote a letter to the editor of the Hobart Mercury complaining about the cartoon. The letter was published, of course, under his name. The Mercury had no idea.
I should add that around this time, Harry also got involved in Amnesty International, bearing office as required and raising funds when needed. And as well, setting up a gaudily painted youth club in Elisabeth Street that quickly became a refuge for disaffected and estranged young people. And despite numerous raids the drug squad never managed to find anything. That’s all I’m saying about that. They never managed to find anything.
Having met at University, and both about to be posted somewhere in the state to work off their studentship bonds as teachers Harry and Terese Henning married, suitably kaftaned a la mode, pleasing my parents no end, moving out past New Norfolk and Harry quitting as soon as he could, submerging himself into eminence grising in a big way as Amos’ secretary.
Around this time came another development. I’ll pass the story over to his friend Ron Snashall:
Harry was a close and dear friend of mine from my mid twenties to my mid thirties when he moved to Melbourne and I to Canberra.
Harry was a totally committed club man and a superb political animal. His wicked sense of humour and his drive enabled us to confront and overcome many obstacles – both in our loved Australian Labor Party Soccer club and in our deep and constant work in the Tassie branch of the Oz Labor Party. Harry was always helpful to others and KEEN. I offer the following pieces of our shared early history hoping to ease the burden of grief by the insertion of humour…a quality that Harry possessed in bucket loads.
On New Years eve that year at a drunken party at Harry and Theres’s place we jointly agreed that a soccer team was just what was needed in Hobart. Harry, Therese, Colin Pidd and Annette, Dave and Angie Byrom took off for a holiday. Snash went directly to Soccer HQ in Darcy Street and registered us in the lowest Division…4 The soccer officials asked me did we want to try out in the pre-season Ampol Cup. I knew we needed practice but had no idea what the Ampol Cup was. I paid our $50, we got White Eagles in the draw. They were State League reserve team. Our first game was at KGV, the Wembley of Tasmanian soccer. We scored in the first three minute ! Andy was it you ?? Their coach went spastic and we got walloped 17 to one !!
ALPS philosophy was a pure piss take: no coach/ no training/smoking at half time/no elections for Officials. Harry and Ron swapped President and Secretary roles each year. We took the Whitlam – Barnard diumvarate as our exemplar. After 4 years a young, cheeky subversive team member asked about the chances of an election of Committee members. Harry told him to fuck off.
We funded the team for the first 3 years on the sale of Yalumba 4 Crown port which we purchased in palate loads at $1.70 per bottle and sold to anxious team supporters at $2.50 per bottle.
I can confirm that it was indeed me who scored ALPS first ever goal. Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I bounded up to Harry for a high five but he just looked at me in disgust and said, “You idiot, you’ve got them riled now.” I thought the final score was 22-2 but I had long stopped counting.
Harry was political and ambitious, me not so much. Football remained our common ground and when Anne and I moved to Melbourne, Harry, now married to Nikki, and I got season tickets for Victory. We went to any Socceroo game we could, including flying to Canberra and sharing a hotel room. When Australia, two nil up against Iran managed to concede twice and thereby get eliminated from the World Cup, Harry said as we exited the MCG, “Well, at least we’re through!” The we had shifted from Australia to the Netherlands.
When the new Melbourne team announced it had a Dutch coach and a Frisian star player, we jumped ship (a little insider joke there) and we became founding members of Melbourne Heart, later Melbourne City, each season sitting in D27 and D28 for every home game, watching the team win bugger all but enjoying the beer and chips, and the regulars around us who became football friends. Of course, I had to give running commentaries of each game so that he could understand what was happening and why, which annoyed Harry but it had to be done primarily because it annoyed Harry.
Annoying each other was our forte, preferably with as much weirdness as possible, and Harry excelled at it. Here is a verbatim text exchange from 2009, when I was trying to research an unsubstantiated rumour for a memoir of our brother Eddie I was writing. Bear in mind that at the time of this exchange we were both in our sixties.
AO: What do you remember about Eddie paying maintenance for a baby that was not his?
HO: The baby story is mine. He stole it from me. It’s always like that with good ideas.
AO: You are insane
HO: You are too young for these delicate matters.
AO: I’ll simply make it up. You will not look good
HO: But the baddies are always the interesting ones in any piece of fiction.
AO: See earlier message. If you know nothing you should honestly say so. You are the senior member of the family and we all look up to you.
HO: Confucius say if all look up your only option is to look down on them. It’s hard to be an Olympian
AO: Jesus wept.
HO: Only on my command. Minor irritating deity really. Too earthly for my tastes. Odd parents.
AO: Which brings us back to Eddie’s pretend baby. What do you know?
HO: He told me after I told him about mine. No further details.
AO: I will beat it out of you. Be prepared.
As far as I could find out, neither of them actually had pretend offspring.
Things changed yet again and circumstances conspired to drive another wedge between us. Although Harry and Maree lived a short tram-ride or long walk from us in the next suburb, we drifted apart. Anne and I moved to Tasmania, which didn’t help. In any event, such drifts were not unusual. Even between family members relationships can wax and wane, and ours, for a myriad of reasons, have waxed on and off more than The Karate Kid.
Our mutual friend and accountant Rod Ellis described Harry as an eternal optimist. There is something in that. Harry seemed to have taken Browning to heart when he said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s Heaven for?”. Right to end, he was confident that he could deal with whatever was at hand. Let me share our last ever conversation. I rang him on the 15th of this month when he was very ill in hospital. He couldn’t answer but he sent me a text.
H: Can I call you later?
H: Doing a few procedures. Will call after that.
A: Thumbs up emoji.
An hour and a half later he texted:
H. Wired up so could be a day or two. Can’t talk.
Wednesday 16, 10.00 am
H: Been moved from Covid clinic (15) days, now in Thoracic and Respiratory Unit but still dealing with that plus leftover lymphoma bits, shingles bit and heart issues. Being dealt with one at the time. Will call when I can breathe without hoses up my nose.
A: Thumbs up emoji. Try not to catch anything else.
H: Skull and cross bones emoji.
If this was a story, it would finish there. But it isn’t a story, it’s a perspective of a life in point form, little vignettes that give an impression of a life that was lived, a shimmery account of my brother when he was alive. To say we had a fractious relationship is no more or less true than to say we were brothers. Brothers are different to friends, to acquaintances, to team-mates. Brothers’ lives are threads intertwined in a familial tapestry, a part of something that others are not.
Forty years ago, Harry and I were standing a small, white room, unnoticed around the back of the Royal Hobart Hospital. It smelled of antiseptic, nothing in it but the door through which we came and a small curtained window, which we stood in front of, next to each other. While we waited, I started to look around. Then I felt the slight touch of his hand on the back of mine and we looked up as the curtain opened to reveal the body of our mother. We nodded and the curtain closed.
Three score years and ten between your curtains. I hope you had enough happiness in your life.