AVIS Quarrell’s memory is as bright as the searchlights she used to operate during the Second World War.
The 90-year-old recalls her adventures and rattles off names and events as if they happened yesterday.
Her wit and knowledge enthrall students during war history lessons at the Warrnambool RSL and she is planning to write another local history book.
Her own life is an adventure story itself.
Born in Terang, she spent her childhood attending 32 schools across western Victoria, the Wimmera and Mallee with her four brothers and mother, all following her father who was a mechanic in search of employment.
She left school at 15 and in her teens was a competent driver who could pull an engine apart and reassemble it.
Avis enlisted for the war effort merely as a break from her work in a Melbourne glass factory and joined the Australian Women’s Army Service.
The rookie training camp was a rude awakening. It was her first real socialisation in an all-girl environment, but she took the challenge in her stride and soon fitted into the system under the title “Gunner Bellman”.
She still has her neat study books in phonetics and Morse code required for operating powerful searchlights.
Her mechanical skills came in handy for maintaining and repairing the engines that powered the lights, which were used for night-time training for aircrews and surveillance.
But she grew tired of the monotony and hankered for a role with four wheels.
“I was car mad and still am,” she says.
Her application to join the motor division was accepted and life quickly became more exciting.
Driving lessons were held on the slopes of Mount Buffalo on unmade roads in a five-ton truck with an instructor in the passenger seat and other students in the back.
“There were 16 to 18 of us having lessons at a time,” she recalled.
“It was a horror, but exciting. You had to be extremely careful and precise.
“I topped my class and missed out on a perfect score by half a point.”
After two months at the Victoria barracks on St Kilda Road in Melbourne she was assigned a 1941 Chevrolet car to drive senior officers to various appointments.
Avis admits: “I’ve always been Chev crazy.”
Avis rattles off names including General Robertson, General Burston, Matron Sage and Lady Mountbatten among the many distinguished passengers she ferried to their destinations.
But she had a dim view of some men with the rank of major, who seemed to belittle her role.
One particular such officer sat in the car and refused to offer her assistance while she jacked up the car and changed the wheel after the tyre went flat.
Another ordered her to drive through long grass on a rural property despite her insistence she needed to walk ahead to check for stones.
She had the last laugh when the steering tie-rod broke on a rock and he had to walk to his destination.
Avis spent 18 months in the driving unit after the same amount of time in the searchlight section.
Her most memorable weeks were after the war’s official end when she was required to stay on for several more months.
“There was a brigadier who has been a prisoner of war in the Japanese camps and I was detailed to go to Spencer Street station and pick him up,” she recalled.
“He had a thick briefcase under his arm and he was very thin.
“Three weeks later I got a call to pick him up from the barracks and I was his driver for six weeks, day and night.
“It was the most amazing period of all my army life.
“We drove to Gippsland, western Victoria, Moama, Bendigo, Castlemaine — all over the place visiting homes.
“Sometimes he was gone for an hour, sometimes longer.
“Then one day he told me what he was doing.
“When he had been a POW he promised other prisoners he would return anything they left behind and take it to their parents. He had photos, watches, letters etc in his briefcase.”
Noticing his bad health, Avis offered him a Thermos of black sweetened tea and a blanket for which he was very grateful. He dozed off in the back set, warming his weary body.
“When we finished I went to salute him, but he said ‘no driver, I salute you’.
“He was a fantastic person. He was an Adelaide man who died about six years ago.”
Avis left the army to marry and settle on a farm at Boorcan, where she lived for 30 years and raised three children before moving to Warrnambool in 1979.
She still drives and her little Ford Laser sedan has just had another engine fitted after the original blew up after 400,000 kilometres.
Most of her travelling to destinations for tourism books. She was involved in producing 15 of them with a business partner and another 18 on her own.
This year she produced the Warrnambool Fire Brigade’s 150th anniversary history book.
Avis also produced several books for Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, where she is a life member, having just been re-elected to her 26th term on the board.
Apart from a slight stroke about five years ago she keeps excellent health, thanks in part to her active lifestyle.