92 Sussex Street – The Accordion Master and the Wallet
by Mark Schuster
When does an event that seems to be such an astounding coincidence actually have a meaning that we should heed? Also, real life events can be even stranger than our dreams – and when they do happen, if only a few times throughout our lives, they can trigger emotions of the very deepest kind.
For many years, in the days when I was married to fellow old-time musician and collector of old bush tunes Maria Zann, we would visit the master button accordion player of Maryborough, Queensland. Living in a modest high-set Queenslander style house in 92 Sussex Street, Alf Radunz was a true master of that most ‘Queensland’ of the old time bush dance instruments – the double-row button accordion.
Alf was born, with his twin brother Otto, in 1910, to the musical Radunz family who farmed the rich chocolate soils in the vine-scrub country of Coolabunnia in the picturesque South Burnett. In the early 1900s when Alf was a boy the farmlands around his district were alive with accordion and violin music – the music that immigrants from Germany and nearby Scandinavia brought often as their ‘cultural baggage’- to remind them of long lost homes and bring some comforts to the harsh new lands they were pioneering. In the Radunz family, of the fifteen children, nearly all could play button accordion and at one stage a number of family members formed the majority of the Coolabunnia Scrub brass band. Both Alf and Otto were fanatically keen on their music and learnt many of the tunes brought out with settlers from the old lands – and then also developed home-grown dance tunes to merry up the settlers lives. In his early years Alf had won a gold medal for his button accordion playing in the Kingaroy Eisteddfod, an event which is still talked about in local folklore.
For many years our growing family would visit Alf in his home, where he would squeeze out his tunes and relate his many memories to Maria and myself. We would record his beautiful waltzes, polkas and powerful ‘set tunes’ onto our cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorder. The results of his playing and our ‘collecting’ labours now reside in the National Library of Australia in Canberra and his music will now never be lost in space or time. For more than 25 years Maria and I had gone out in search of the old tunes and players in southern Queensland and there was little doubt that Alf was a master player. Of the many players we had visited, both Alf and a brilliant three-row accordion player, Bill Fechner, who resided at Nerang, were the true masters of this humble but popular bush instrument.
We would visit him on many of our holiday excursions away from the cool climes of Toowoomba during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Our boys became like new grandchildren to Alf who was then in his late 70s. I can still picture Alf, as clearly as if I saw him a few days ago, sitting in his cane chair on the front porch of his home – either ‘taking in’ the morning sun or playing us a tune from his enormous repertoire. His working of the bellows, power or gentle flow in his arm movements, use of musical chords and his embellishments, made any tune he played a masterpiece and just to hear him play often brought the hairs on the back of my neck to attention. Even though I had heard his twin Otto on tape, to me Alf was ‘the master’. We recorded many hours of his delightful playing over many years of visits.
Of course, as we are all told, nothing good lasts forever. Even though Alf played until he was past 85 years of age, I eventually received a phone call from nephew Eric in 1996 informing me that Alf had passed on and again I made the long trip from Toowoomba down to Maryborough to pay my last respects and celebrate his remarkable life.
For a number of years all was quiet and I learnt to perform many of his tunes but in 2004 my long marriage came to an abrupt end and then for the best part of the next decade I would continue to visit the town again – this time not to visit Alf but to see my youngest son Ben who went through his later schooling years in this sleepy, steamy town on the Mary River. Often in the evenings I would try and relive old times and thoughts – and stroll past Alf’s former house in Sussex Street in the twilight. Was I trying to recreate the man, his music, past fun times or revive fond memories of my former marriage? Possibly my mind was trying to put all these elements together and was attempting to make sense of a very mixed up time in my life. Maybe 92 Sussex Street was a place of peace in a much-treasured place that had held very mixed and conflicting memories for me.
To continue my story, only recently (June 2015), I again returned to Maryborough, after a gap of nearly four years. My son Ben was returning from his studies in north Queensland and I thought the opportunity to see him – and the old town – was calling, so what better excuse did I need! During the four-hour journey northwards to Maryborough, many of my travelling thoughts, and even the music playing in my car CD player, centred around my old musical friend Alf Radunz.
After a hearty meal of reef fish, chips and salad, and a few (or more than a few!) drinks with Ben on Friday evening, I retired to my motel unit in town and awoke early for a brisk walk around the Maryborough CBD on a sunny winter morning. Taking a breather, I ventured onto the grounds of St Mary’s Catholic Church and found a seat under a large leafy tree. There had been a few overnight showers and looking down beside me I gazed a very damp dark leather wallet. In the next few minutes, in a quest to find and return the wallet’s owner, I discovered a driver licence – yes – Matthew Bonner and read the address on the licence – 92 Sussex Street, Maryborough!
After shaking my head in disbelief I sauntered westwards along Sussex Street and once again opened the gate at number 92. Climbing the front stairs, just as I did over a decade previously, I again saw an older gent sitting in Alf’s old cane chair – but this time not Alf, but the ‘new’ elderly owner of the residence. After a number of minutes of pleasant conversation with the owners, and the passing over of their son Matthew’s wallet, I left with both a sense of the marvellous and was very emotional, having tears streaming down my face.
92 Sussex Street, Maryborough – the old Queenslander where ‘accordion maestro’ Alf Radunz lived for many years of his long lifetime.
How on earth could all those possibilities have aligned to bring me back to 92 Sussex Street – venturing to the church, sitting on the very seat where the wallet had slipped out of a pocket, the owner having lived at 92 Sussex Street, and having had a long-term connection with that house through the amazing musicality of Alf Radunz. The probability of those events occurring on that chilly morning must have been statistically very unlikely, but it all was like a jigsaw puzzle fitting smoothly into place.
Incidents like this really make you wonder if forces other than just chance guide us through our lives and provide us with events that further shape our insights and directions. I do know that having the privilege of again seeing 92 Sussex Street has strengthened my conviction that forces operate far beyond our belief and control. Whatever the cause I thank the gods for letting me part of such a marvellous experience.
In fact, I hope I can visit 92 Sussex Street again one day.