Alan Burgess, former World War II tank driver and world's oldest-living first-class cricketer, passed away yesterday, aged 100. Herald journalist Kurt Bayer who spent many hours chatting with Burgess at his Rangiora home takes a look at a remarkable life.
He told the best yarns. Leaning back in his chair, blowing the froth off a Speight's, his eyes would sparkle.
"Did I ever tell you about the time in Italy that I nicked an ambulance?"
Or the time in Rome when Claude Mortimer, a "cocky little publican from Tekapo, with a handlebar moustache and suede boots" stole a public bus – complete with its public.
Or when he and his mates came across a Vermouth factory. It was "knee-deep in plonk" and so they spent a day filling jerrycans with boozy loot before tearing off again.
But they weren't always light-hearted. Cricket and war. Life and death. The darkness and the light.
Alan Burgess had been around. Born after the 1914-18 Great War, raised in the Depression, he played first-class cricket and drove blazing tanks into Nazi machinegun nests.
So when he started talking, you would do well to pay attention.
Burgess was born in Sydenham, Christchurch in 1920, the son of Thomas Wills Burgess and Vera Adelaide Eldridge.
His father was a World War I veteran who was wounded at Ypres and a top cricket umpire who stood in one test match, New Zealand vs England in Christchurch, 1933, where Wally Hammond plundered a double-century.
Burgess and his sister Rona grew up in Linwood, near Lancaster Park, attending Phillipstown School alongside future All Blacks great Fred "The Needle" Allen. Allen nicknamed him Birdshit, after his surname, which soon became shortened to Crap. "I got called Crap for years," he chuckled.
After school, he became an apprentice upholsterer but sports were his passion. His father taught him how to play cricket out on the street, using a lamp-post as stumps.
His father even umpired him a few times. "In one match at Sydenham Park, he gave me out, run out," Burgess recalled. "I reckon I was well in. When I got home, I said, 'Crikey, Dad. I was in by a foot', and all he told me was, 'Have a look in the scorebook'. That shut me up."
He was playing senior cricket in his teens for Sydenham, captained by double cricket and rugby international Charlie Oliver. His solid right-hand batting and wily left-arm spinners soon got him noticed and by December 1940, with war raging in Europe, the 20-year-old Burgess made his first-class cricket debut against Otago, taking 6 for 52 and 3 for 51, and getting on the honours board at Lancaster Park.
But the war got in the way. He would always wonder how good he could've been, and how far he might've gone, if those war years hadn't intervened.
When he turned 21, he signed up for the New Zealand Army and after training in British-made Valentine tanks at Waiouru was soon posted overseas.
He sailed to Egypt and trained in the desert in US-built Sherman tanks. But while there, he also played a lot of cricket against other armed forces teams, including a near-test strength South African side.
But after months of training and manoeuvres, they were sent to Italy to finally face Hitler's Germans.
Burgess was soon in the thick of the action, with his tank commander the legendary New Zealand cricketer Martin Donnelly who he admired enormously and affectionately called Squib.
Like many of his contemporaries, Burgess always preferred to tell the funny stories. And he had plenty of them.
Take the ambulance yarn: he'd been staying at a hospital at Bari when he'd been out socialising with "a few cobbers from back home" when he missed the ride to base camp. Worried he was going to be left behind, he "borrowed" an ambulance and caught up with his unit, leaving the ambulance with mates who could return it.
Another time, he was walking with Nobby Walsh, a travelling chocolate salesman from Christchurch, when they came under fire from German machineguns, sending them diving into a shell hole for cover.
"It was to be Nobby's birthday," Burgess said. "He had a big demijohn of wine in a wicker cover carried on a string over his shoulder. And when he dived in the hole, crack went the wine bottle. You should've heard what he called Hitler and Mussolini! That was all of our wine rations flooding a stinking shell hole."
Another of his tight war mates was Bob Hamilton from Greymouth. He was a sergeant who near the end of the war was reluctantly promoted to sergeant major. "You! Sergeant Major!" he laughed. "We grabbed him and tossed him into the sea."
The 2nd New Zealand Division which fought, drank, and sang its way chasing the Nazis up through Italy was nicknamed "Freyberg's 40,000 thieves". That tickled Burgess. They got away with all sorts, he admits.
"Sometimes I think we should've all been thrown in jail, the things we got up to," he looked back.
"But we were never bad buggers. We weren't rapists like other armies. We never killed a civilian. We were just all different personalities. There were quiet guys who did their own thing, and there were us who got pissed and got into trouble. We were never pulled up, really."
But not all of his stories were humorous. Burgess also spoke frankly about the horrors of war, in a matter-of-fact way.
He used to speak about fighting at Orsogna. A "nasty place" on a hill that they found tougher than even the more famous, bloody Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.
"We were all on our own there," he said. "Cassino gets all the write-ups but Orsogna was nasty."
He recalled seeing a particularly worried Kiwi infantryman walking in a crouch alongside this tank. Burgess looked to his left and saw one of his fellow tanks had been hit.
"It was on fire, all twisted metal," he said. "A mate of mine was killed, brewed up, as we used to say. At least he wouldn't have known what hit him."
Before a big attack on the Gustav line - a series of German military fortifications – he recalled one "bright, young reinforcement lad" who literally drew the short straw. The straw he chose meant his tank would lead the attack, which meant he would lead until he was hit.
"You could tell on his face. This is it, he knew. I can still see it," Burgess said.
"It was a funny thing, that attack business. You did it, but you somehow never really realised the magnitude of what you were doing. So, we went single file into attacking this village. I was at the rear when he copped it.
"We were approaching the village when an armour piercing shell dropped on him, killing him. My namesake, a new recruit also named Alan Burgess, got killed in that tank too. A lot of fellas who came past later, including my mate Dave Gibson in 19th battalion, saw the crosses beside the road and thought it was me who was dead."
He was only 20m away when George Hart, an All Black and New Zealand sprint champion, got killed at Cassino.
"We were out of the line when a shell screamed in and copped him walking around the corner of a farm building."
Every death was hard to take, Burgess said. Especially if they were mates but also if they were new recruits too because, he said, you hardly got time to know them.
One new recruit Burgess remembered was Neil Wright, a "well-educated joker from Christ's College" in Christchurch who had only just arrived in Italy when he got killed.
"I was driving an ammo truck at the time, and was sitting reading the New Zealand Times when a shell landed bloody close," he said.
"I never had time to dive into my slitty. And poor Neil, fresh in from reinforcements, was just climbing into the back of a truck when the shell landed. It landed even closer to me than him, but it was him that copped it. Poor little bastard, we didn't even know him. To us, he'd been there just moments."
After the war, Burgess visited his parents. "I felt I at least owed them, and Neil, that."
But Burgess never thought he was going to be next to die.
"I've often wondered why we thought like that," he said. "Coping mechanism, I suppose, along with the ignorance of youth. There were a few guys racked with nerves before a big offensive, but once the fighting started I never struck anyone who didn't stand up and fight."
Late on in Italy, Burgess was swimming in the harbour at Monfalcone on the Gulf of Trieste when he got called ashore.
"What have I done now?" he wondered.
He racked his brains all the way to the orderly room where an officer was waiting for him. He motioned for Burgess to sit down and looked at him for a moment before pulling out a bottle of whisky.
"We've known one another for about three years, haven't we," the officer said. "Although you never wanted rank, you were always cool, calm, collected; one of the boys. I've got good news for you, Burgess. You're off to England."
He was dumbstruck. "What the hell am I going to England for?"
"You're going to play cricket," the officer told him.
His old tank commander Donnelly had put his name forward to play for the New Zealand Forces XI against various sides in England that summer of 1945. Burgess didn't have to be asked twice.
He returned to the boys and told them the news.
"You lucky bugger!" they all said.
Burgess made the long trip from Italy to England by land and sea, meeting up at the Fernleaf Club in Knightsbridge, London.
There were some big names in that team, including Donnelly, Stewie Dempster, Roger Blunt, Ted Badcock, and Ken James, along with some cricketers who had been prisoners of war.
They toured the country playing some of the finest players of the pre-war generation and at some of the best grounds, in front of huge crowds: Hove, Brighton, Somerset, Edgebaston, and Lord's, where Burgess opened the batting.
It resulted in some of the best memories of his life. He had been offered an interview at Warwickshire County Cricket Club where he thought he had a chance of picking up a professional contract.
He was living the dream when he got a letter from home. His mother had suffered a bad stroke. By that stage, he had been away from home for four years.
"I decided to come home and be with my dying mother," he said. "That was the only decision as far as I could tell at the time."
After the war, he played nine more matches for Canterbury. But he always wondered what could've been, if the war hadn't come along.
Burgess passed away overnight in his sleep, aged 100, at the Charles Upham Retirement Village in Rangiora. He was the world's oldest living first-class cricketer.
His daughter Pip said he'd been in good form up to the end, and had spent much of yesterday watching the Blackcaps play Pakistan in the second test on TV.
Maybe he was thinking about the days he used to play against Old Boys on Hagley Park No. 3 ground against Walter Hadlee – another New Zealand legend. Burgess used to think the father of Sir Richard Hadlee wasted time by wiping his spectacles with a handkerchief between deliveries.
"For Christ's sake Walter, get on with the game," Burgess fumed one day.
"Alan, it's a hot day. My glasses are fogging up," Hadlee replied.
"Take them off then!"