jenn jay tales

Jennifer Johnston shares her travel tales; life adventures; observations, photos and random thoughts

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How I lost half of myself

A weight loss journey

Background to the story

It’s well known there is a noticeable drop in the number of female lifesavers who continue volunteering once they reach age 50 and over. To continue as a lifesaver requires passing an annual proficiency test which involves a swim, run and obviously a certain amount of fitness. Maybe it’s hard to make the commitment later in life as other priorities take over? But not for Helen Hallett. She will be 55 years’ young in September.

Helen continues in her voluntary capacity as a lifesaver at the Gold Coast, a role she’s loved since her mid 20’s. She also works full-time for Surf Lifesaving Queensland. I initially met Helen in the Brisbane office of Surf Lifesaving Queensland, while I was working for the Lifeguard team. Helen is one of those work colleagues you love to be around. Upbeat, fun, generous with her time and incredibly passionate about what she does within the lifesaving community. Helen was the reason, as a freelance writer, I began researching a feature story on the 10 year anniversary of the Boxing day tsunami. We were at our desks in the office one afternoon, when a discussion began about Helen and her family’s incredible experience in Thailand during the Boxing Day tsunami – it was a real sliding doors moment. I wrote the story (with Helen and her family a major part of the story) and it ended up being published by QWeekend, titled Fatal shore. Qweekend article 13.12.14

A few months later I spied a call out from an Australian tabloid magazine for an inspirational real life story for “mature” women. I knew Helen would be a perfect choice having discussed her weight loss journey when interviewing her for the tsunami story. She agreed to do the article.  Helen generously gave more of her time to me to share her weight loss story. It’s not easy to share something so personal. That was 15 months ago and I’m not sure whether the magazine ended up publishing the story (I was paid for it.)  One of the many frustrations of being a writer!

So I’ve decided to share Helen’s story here, because I feel it’s a story worthy of sharing. Hopefully I’ve changed it enough to not conflict with the tabloid Magazine article (should they ever publish it!) Continue reading


Lest we forget

A war medal finds it way back to family

A story about Family / tragedy / intrigue / mystery and relevance for ANZAC day

Digging in his Tarragindi side garden, Mat Schliebs discovered a piece of metal. “Initially I thought it was part of a child’s toy or a piece of scrap metal,” said Mat. “It was buried almost 30cm deep.” He showed it to the rest of the family. They cleaned the dirt off and to their surprise discovered it was actually a war medal. Engraved on the back was an inscription: DS Parkinson service number QX13579.

The Pacific Star Medal (photo: courtesy Courier Mail)

The Pacific Star Medal (photo: courtesy Courier Mail)

Mat’s 8yo son Flynn suggested they should try and find a family relative of DS Parkinson and return the medal to them. “My mum and I looked up DS Parkinson’s family tree and information about him on WWII, which said he was captured by the Japanese and he died in prison during the war,” says Flynn. “ We cleaned and polished the medal and we wanted to find who it belonged to.”

Flynn emailed Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper to ask if they could help find the family of this soldier. This story was published on Thursday 7th April calling for any family or relatives to come forward.

The family connection

My mother phoned me on the afternoon of Thursday 7th April, to say she had a bit of news to share. A medal belonging to her Uncle Des had been found. Mum was excited and surprised. I couldn’t believe it either! She was having difficulty contacting the family, so I located the story on-line and contacted the journalist Trenton Akers who wrote the story for the Courier Mail. He co-ordinated contacting Megan Schliebs – Flynn’s mother. I let Megan know Des’ niece Nanette Johnston (my mother) – was still alive and co-incidentally lives in Tarragindi.

Des Parkinson his story

Desmond Stanley Parkinson was born on the 30th October 1910 in Woolloongabba (now Buranda) Brisbane. He was the youngest of four children, with one older sister Vera and two older brothers Frank and Arthur.

baby Des Parkinson

baby Des Parkinson

Des started primary school as a 6yo at the Dunellen Provisional School, which later became the Greenslopes State School.  In July 1925 Des attended the Church of England Grammar school (Churchie.) He represented Churchie in the A cricket team in 1927-28 and in rugby in 1927.

1927 - Churchie and the A Grade cricket team (Des 2nd from right front row)

1927 – Churchie and the A Grade cricket team

1927 Churchie first XIII (Des 1st from left front row)

1927 Churchie first thirteen

Leaving school at the age of 18, Des worked for the Queensland Trustees, until he enlisted in the Australian army in July 1940.  Corporal Des Parkinson was sent to Singapore in August 1941. He was immediately promoted to Sergeant and sent to Malaya where troops trained to fight against the Japanese.  The family received correspondence from Des during his time serving in Singapore.

Des Parkinson WWII ready for war

Des Parkinson WWII ready for war

But the Australian and British forces surrendered to Japan on the 15th February 1942 and all Commonwealth soldiers became Prisoners of War. This is when the correspondence from Des became erratic.

My mother has actively researched the history of the event surrounding Sandakan and Des’ fate as a prisoner of war. Over the years she read many books and has been involved with the Sandakan memorial foundation. The following information about her Uncle Des is sourced from her research.

Many of the prisoners of War were sent to Changi prison in Singapore, but due to overcrowding in this prison, large numbers were sent to Sandakan. On 7 July 1942, “B” Force, including Des sailed from Singapore on the Japanese ship “Yubi Maru” for Sandakan, Borneo, arriving at Sandakan 11 days later. In total, 2,750 prisoners of war comprised of the Australian 8th Division and remnants of various British units were moved to Sandakan. By September 1944, the numbers had fallen to 1767 Australian and 641 British.


POW Number 312.

As far as we know, Des remained at Sandakan until he was sent on the 1st Death March to Ranau. By the end of 1944 when allied forces were within striking distance of Sandakan the Japanese command ordered the prisoners be removed inland to Ranau, (256 kilometres) west. These became known as the “infamous” Death Marches.  In January 1945, 470 prisoners guarded by 500 Japanese were forced to march through almost impenetrable jungle along narrow tracks of mud, through swamps and over treacherous mountains. Many of the prisoners were suffering from advanced stages of diseases and malnutrition but were still forced to march through miles of some of the most difficult country in Borneo, terminating at Ranau on the foot of Mt Kinabalu.

The second march comprising 532 prisoners left Sandakan on 29 May 1945. 183 arrived at Ranau on 26 June to find only eight survivors from the first march. Of the 288 prisoners left at Sandakan, none survived to the end of the war. The Japanese said no prisoners should live to testify what had gone on in the years they were prisoners of war.  Sadly despite receiving official news of surrender, the remaining 33 surviving prisoners at Ranau were killed by the Japanese.

In a book written by Lynette Silver (Sandakan – A Conspiracy of Silence, published 1998) it is recorded Des reached Ranau but died a few days later on the 19th February 1945. He was buried at Ranau 1A. The cause of death recorded was malaria / acute enteritis. Of the 1,800 Australians sent to Sandakan, only six survived – because they escaped. In total, 2,428 Australian and British prisoners of war died on the Sandakan to Ranau Death Marches during World War II.

Sandakan camp

Sandakan camp

The family is notified

Des’ surviving sister Vera (my grandmother) was notified of Des’ death in October, 1945 – eight months after his actual death. They then had the unenviable task of telling Des’ mother he’d died. At the end of the WWII Ettie Parkinson had prepared Des’ room, cleaned his shoes, anticipating his return. According to my mother, she was devastated about Des’ death and never recovered from the terrible news. Ettie died a few months later, on 12th February, 1946 (aged 73 and a half.) It was said she died of a broken heart, caused by the news of Des’ death.

1922 Desmond and his mother Ettie Parkinson

1922 Desmond and his mother Ettie Parkinson

“I only knew Des for a few short years, as I was only nine years old when he left Australia, never to return, but I still have some vivid memories of him and happy times,” says Nanette. “He was my favourite Uncle, and he will remain in my memory forever.”


The War Medals

In 1951 the Australian Government posthumously awarded Des Parkinson four military medals. With the exception of the Australian War Medal, they were sent to the Queensland Trustees. The family has correspondence from the Central Army Records Office of this. From here there is no knowledge of where the medals were sent. Unfortunately due to a family rift which occurred when Des was serving his country overseas, there was no contact among Vera Lavis and her surviving older brothers Frank and Arthur Parkinson (who both went to war in WWI).  No one (on our side of the family) is really sure why the family divided but it was after their father, Frank Comer Parkinson died (13th April 1941.) My grandmother never cared to discuss the family division – asking her about it caused her grief.

My mother nor her brother Alan Lavis knows how Des’ Pacific Star medal ended up in the Tarragindi garden bed, until Liesl Harrold, filled in a vital missing piece. A third generation family historian with specialist skills in built heritage and statistical research, Liesl read the article in the Courier Mail and saw an opportunity to  test her genealogy skills to help in some way. “Having relatives of my own who served their country during the World Wars, I can appreciate how much a missing medal can mean to a family especially with ANZAC day being fairly close,” says Liesl.

Liesl’s research revealed the house once belonged to Errol Parkinson, the son of Arthur Harold Parkinson, one of Des’ older brothers. There is no information about how the medal came to be buried or whether there is only one.  Could there be more? Errol Parkinson passed away in 2010. It appears the Queensland Trustees may have passed the medal (s) to Arthur Parkinson and then to Errol. Without contact with any side of his family no one is sure.  But to be certain there are no further medals buried, we’re organising a metal detector to check the garden bed before it is filled in.

Medal Presentation

As a special tribute Megan Schliebs contacted Weller’s Hill Primary school’s principal John Webster to ask if the missing medal could be returned to my mother in their annual ANZAC ceremony. This took place in a moving ceremony on Friday April 22nd. My mother was presented with the medal by RAF Wing Commander Merilyn White with Ivy and Flynn from the Schliebs family.


Nanette Johnston and Wing Commander Merilyn White

Nanette Johnston and Wing Commander Merilyn White

Nanette Johnston and her brother Alan Lavis have never sighted any of Des’ war medals and are delighted one has been found. They’re grateful to the Schliebs family for retrieving such a treasure.  “To see and hold one of Uncle Des’ medals for the first time is very special,” said Nanette. “I’m very grateful to the Schliebs family and to the school for their involvement. This is a very special ANZAC ceremony.”  The generous way the Schliebs have handled this has touched all of our family – including my cousins and we can’t thank them enough for the special part they have played in this story.

The Schliebs family and mum

The Schliebs family and mum

Des Parkinson is my great Uncle. His is one story among millions. On ANZAC Day we remember – those who have fallen and have given their lives in the various wars over the years. So many family members are affected by war and the impact of loss continues to be felt many generations later.

Lest we forget.


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Five Minutes of fame – interviewee is interviewed!

Swee Lee O’Gorman of DrinkingShampain Blog tracked me down to have a chat about a brief “interlude” I had (many moons ago) with someone very special in the Rock music scene.

Co-inciding with it being 18 years since the sad passing of Michael Hutchence, Swee Lee found a blog post I’d written a few years ago. As a fellow INXS fan I was happy to relive my very brief Michael Hutchence moment with her. Find her post here

Love the blogging community – how they reach out.

Thanks Swee Lee. xx



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Chasing Dreams – A Triathlete’s story

On my journey as a Freelance Writer I interview people from diverse backgrounds and that to me is the best part of the job – meeting people and hearing their story.  This is why I will continue on in my quest to have publishing success as a writer, because I LOVE what I do and I am a firm believer in following your passion.

Christophe Manchon

Christophe Manchon

Talking about following your passion, I met Christophe Manchon, a Brisbane based amateur triathlete mid way through the year. He was such a pleasant person to interview and gave me much time and support in putting a story together which had a  re-write a few times due to changes in publication taking up the story.  Read about a young man who is leading a full, busy life and chasing his dreams.


Christophe and bike @ QUT Kelvin Grove Campus

Christophe and bike @ QUT Kelvin Grove Campus


The Human Spirit triumphs over Tragedy

Sarah Yip was one of my case studies for a commissioned story I wrote for a weekend newspaper magazine. The story, a reflection ten years on from the Indian Ocean Boxing Day Tsunami. A story of survival and the impact it has had on her life, Sarah’s story is a reminder of how the human spirit endures and evolves in the face of tragedy and despair.


We know what its like to book a family holiday at the last minute – Sarah Yip’s family was no different.  Sarah at 23 had recently graduated from the University of New South Wales with a Environmental Science Degree and was re-locating to Bangkok in January 2005 to take on a role as the Australian Youth Ambassador with the United Nations. “It was a lifelong dream of mine to work for the United Nations,” says Sarah. Her family were keen to enjoy Christmas together before Sarah took up her overseas posting.

Sarah Yip

Sarah Yip

With her father (John) organising their family holiday, for his wife (Catherine) and two daughters, Sarah’s new role in Bangkok influenced their destination choice.  “My father is a Risk Manager and has a habit of calculating the level of risk when selecting holiday destinations,” Sarah said. His research indicated Thailand was a safe destination – tsunami free – so he chose the island of Phuket as the opportune place for the family.  Procrastination about which hotel to book, meant most hotels closest to the beach were booked out, so they settled for the Club Bamboo Hotel, three streets from Patong Beach and up a small hill.

Arriving on the evening of the 23rd December, Sarah and her family spent the next day driving around the Island, sightseeing. On Saturday, (Christmas Day) the family visited Phi Phi Island playing tourist. On their return the family felt like a night of shopping and wandered along Patong Beach. Passing a tailor’s shop, Sarah decided she wanted a suit made to fit her tall frame. “As a lanky giant, I’m challenged to fit into store bought fashion,” she said.  As she was on a short holiday, Sarah organised the follow up fitting appointment with the Tailor for 9.30am, the next day (Boxing Day.) For no real reason her father suggested changing the appointment to 10am.

On the morning of Boxing Day, Sarah and her sister  Helen were delayed in leaving where they were having breakfast, due to their waiter confusing her breakfast order.  Her father – ever the clock watcher was waiting outside with their Thai Taxi Driver who was to take them to visit some of the beaches, including driving Sarah to her 10am suit fitting appointment.  The delay meant they left the hotel around10.10am, a delay which saved their lives (including that of Roma the driver.)  “I remember as I jumped into the taxi a man rushed past us, running up the road ahead of us. He was dripping in sweat and screaming something about a wave,” recalls Sarah. “I saw water flooding up the road, people were caught in it, I had no idea what was going on,” she says.

The disaster unfolded in front of Sarah and her family. There was confusion and panic no one was sure what was going on and the language barrier only added to the mayhem. Sarah recalls the people’s injuries, many requiring medical attention. Her sense of helplessness in not knowing how to assist with medical aid was to haunt her for years to come. “There I was in the middle of a disaster zone and all I could do was watch.”

Sarah and her family were lucky because their hotel was set back further from the beach, so it escaped damage. They could return to their hotel and retrieve their possessions, including their passports. Unlike so many at the beach-side hotels who had not shared the same “fortune.” The day after Boxing Day amidst much confusion, Sarah and her family were able to escape to the airport, flying to Hong Kong where they stayed for a few days, before returning home to Australia.

Despite the trauma of the tsunami and the shock she felt about surviving when so many didn’t, Sarah was determined to take up her posting with the United Nations in Bangkok. She stayed in the role for 11 months, but due to medical reasons related to a whistle-blowing case, Sarah resigned returning to Australia.  Reflecting on her life Sarah realised, “I hadn’t processed surviving the tsunami incident and why I was spared an injury,” she said. “At that stage of my life, I didn’t believe in counselling,” she says.  “But I knew with how I was feeling, I had to talk to someone. I felt like I was just functioning – acting like a robot.”

Through meditation, yoga, art therapy and counselling Sarah’s life began to take on a different course. In early 2006 Sarah moved to Brisbane to commence a new role with Keep Australia Beautiful. Completing a personal growth course allowed Sarah to become aware of her psychic abilities. “I never believed in psychics in my youth, but in my 20’s that all changed.”

Sarah now 33, works full-time as a professional psychic on Brisbane’s south side.

“Following the Tsunami, I went from being a scientist in a government department, to a charity worker, psychic reader and counsellor, all within two years.  I was very introverted and closed down, but now I’m more of a risk taker and am willing to fight for my convictions.”

To experience tragedy and return in triumph is a human condition not everyone has the opportunity or the grace to manage.  The tsunami experience changed Sarah’s entire outlook on life. Sarah admits she was very competitive as a child, but she now channels that energy into being of service to humanity.  “I am grateful for the tsunami because it shocked me into consciousness. Without it I would still be acting like a robot trying to make other people happy.”

“I know if the tsunami had not happened, I would not have happened.”

Sarah Yip






Boxing Day Tsunami – 10 year “anniversary”

A Sliding Doors Moment

“We’re born, we live, we die… sometimes not necessarily in that order. We put things to rest, only to have them rise up again. So if death is not the end, what can we count on anymore? Because you sure can’t count on anything in life. Life is the most fragile, unstable, unpredictable thing there is. In fact, there’s only one thing about life we can be sure of. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”  Meredith Grey – ‘Rise Up’ Grey’s Anatomy

Death is inevitable, but in between birth and death our life takes us on a journey and we travel down a path that twists and turns. For some, circumstances beyond our control, creates a dramatic shift which alters our life path from its original course.

The 2004 Boxing Day Asian Tsunami was one of those moments that dramatically altered the life trajectory of so many. This Boxing Day marks the 10th Anniversary of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. For anyone who experienced the tragedy of the Tsunami first hand, there has been a journey of healing and a change in their life’s journey.

Read my story about three people impacted by this Tsunami – published in Queensland’s Qweekend December 13th-14th edition 2014.

Qweekend cover December 13-14, 2014

Qweekend cover December 13-14, 2014

Qweekend article 13.12.14 scanned

Qweekend Fatal shore article p2.

My personal thanks go to the Hallett family (in particular Helen – whose story motivated me to start researching this); Rod Emerson who courageously shared his story about losing his older sister, Kim. To Kirsty Wright who spoke so openly and honestly about a job which outside of their world, no-one really appreciates how harrowing it must be. Thanks also to Sarah Yip whose personal story did not make it into this particular article (due to word length limitations) but is one I will share on my blog (soon) as it is a special and inspiring story.

Special thanks to Alison Walsh – Deputy Editor at Qweekend who took a punt on this Freelance writer and supported me throughout the process.