My Father, The Colonel, The Health Nut

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A Part of Life

The Colonel – in full regalia

My father, Colonel James Claude John Laughlin, was proudly a military man. Discipline fitted him like his mess kit; smooth with no wrinkles.

A vital part of his discipline, I thought, was daily exercise; not a measly five days a week like me, but the full seven.

I was wrong. It wasn’t discipline at all; he’d dealt with that part of it decades before.

By the time I came along, exercise was part of my father’s life, a daily routine he never had to decide to do. He did it because it was like breathing for him; part of life.

(I can tell you, it certainly wasn’t like that for me. I had to apply a heap of discipline and sometimes it didn’t work.)

Living On the Base

When I was two, my father was appointed Commanding Officer (CO) of the Small Ships Squadron based in Chowder Bay, in the Sydney suburb of Mosman.

It was here that our family of five lived on the base for nine of the 18 years that Daddy was in charge.

(Oddly, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust still calls our old home ‘The Sergeant Major’s House’. Perhaps it was back in the 1800s, but it certainly wasn’t in the 1950s. The CO and his family lived there!)

The ex-army base at Chowder Bay now

Instant Impact

Daddy made an instant impact in the new job.

He did what was he thought was perfectly normal. It may have been to him but certainly not to ‘the other ranks’, soldiers below officer level. He felt they were overweight, overindulged and unfit. He set about to change all that.

He commenced commando-style fitness training at 7am every morning.

He’d lead the troops up the steep stone steps and narrow dirt tracks to Georges Heights, around the top ridge and back down again, at a very fast clip. (The tracks are still there.)

That was five days a week, rain, shine or maelstrom.

You see why he might have been unpopular.

The Loathed ‘Old Man’

Years later, we heard that the troops loathed the new ‘old man’ as they called him; he was all of 34 at the time.

Who told us? My then-husband and I attended Daddy’s farewell to the army in 1972, which was held at the now-demolished Officers’ Mess, on the Clifton Gardens’ side of our old house.

In more than one speech, this loathing was mentioned but other sentiments were, too: like the love and respect they later developed for the old man and his bizarre, health-nut ways.

Sounds corny, doesn’t it? A bit like those syrupy US army films like An Officer and A Gentlemen.

Well it wasn’t and Daddy was no Richard Gere.

The catalysts here were women: the wives who started to notice and comment on their husbands’ newly-lean, fit, muscular bodies. Mmmm. Nothing like a bit of flattery to keep a guy doing something!

‘We Don’t Have Time’

My father was also always very time-focused; some things he’d make time for, like exercise; others he wouldn’t.

Some of his most-remembered quotes have to do with time. This was especially when others, like my always-late-to-rise brother, Greg, tried to waste it.

‘We don’t have time for coffee’ and ‘We don’t have time for chips’ are two of the most oft-used and famous refrains.

Considering how late Greg used to sleep in, it’s not surprising there was never much time for anything.

Metho To The Rescue

Metho: the answer for everything

Don’t get me wrong. Not all of my father’s habits were healthy. Some were downright alarming.

From years ‘on exercise’ when he camped in tents and ate delicacies like bully-beef and butter concentrate on rock-hard biscuit substitutes, he discovered that the only portable, clean solvent was metho (methylated spirits).

Daddy used metho in ways its maker never intended: he used it to flush out his ears, and he made a suntan lotion with it and olive oil.

Inventive, sure, but not great for his hearing, which failed far too early in his life. None of us was keen to share his stinky suntan stuff, either.

In the End: Cancer

Daddy remained physically active until the very end. At the age of 73, he was still riding horses, swimming, stationary cycling and lifting weights. He drove an old Porsche, too.

We always expected Daddy would live to be a hundred, eventually succumbing to a heart attack, doing something he really loved,like riding.

We were wrong.

What did him in was his exposure to carcinogens much earlier in life.

He’d been with the Australian WWII occupation forces in Japan long before the wider radiation risk was acknowledged. He served in Vietnam, too, where Agent Orange was sprayed around like garden water.

What He Wanted

Mercifully Daddy’s end was very swift.

By the time it was diagnosed, what began as prostate cancer had spread to almost every part of his body.

The cancer was so advanced, that he died within 6 weeks of the family being told about it. Thankfully for him, he spent just one night in hospital.

At the time, we family members were numb with grief and shock.

Yet, looking back nearly 30 years later, I think it’s exactly what Daddy would have wanted.

I can almost hear him saying ‘Hospital? I don’t have time for that!’


When it’s time for me to shuffle off this mortal coil, I hope my end is swift like Daddy’s.

That said, few cancer sufferers die as quickly and as free of pain as he did, and after only one night in hospital.

My dear, much-missed mother, Mot, wasn’t as lucky as Daddy.

She outlived him by 26 years.

Mot never wanted to reach 90 years of age and was annoyed when she did. She didn’t die of any specific disease either, just old age.

Sadly, Mot ended her colourful, active, happiness-filled life in nursing care, the last place she ever wanted to be.

I don’t ever want that to happen to Kim or me or the ones we love.

You can find out more about modern-day causes of cancer in our eBook (see below). These days most cancer causes are much closer to home than atom bomb radiation or Agent Orange exposure – and how to avoid them is far more under your own control.

Cancer: Make Your Own Luck


Discover how Aussie boomers can take control & cut the risk

Kim Brebach

Tracey James

Hello, I’m Tracey James, boomer, former scientist, technical writer and Fixer of Things at M&M. In my spare time, I like to walk, swim and garden.   

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