Damian Balassone, who has been a Collingwood member for 35 years and has previously written for this website about the exploits of Peter Daicos, has written a very entertaining new book, Strange Game in a Strange Land.
The book concludes with a piece called The Black and White Song and Dance, which chronicles his family’s connection to Collingwood, tracing his dad’s journey as a boy from Italy to Melbourne in 1950, through to him taking Damian to his first game at Victoria Park in 1980.
The book can be purchased from Wilkinson Publishing by CLICKING HERE.
The Black and White Song and Dance by Damian Balassone
The first VFL game I attended was Collingwood versus Essendon at Victoria Park in 1980. I was seven. Driving in from East Doncaster, dad took the Eastern Freeway before veering off at the Chandler Highway exit. We then snaked our way through Yarra Boulevard, before parking up at Yarra Falls and commencing a long, but enjoyable walk to the ground.
My reasons for becoming a Collingwood supporter were quite trivial. A Jewish kid across the street who I looked up to barracked for them and used to talk the Pies up during our one-on-one street matches. But a more likely reason was that my favourite TV show was ‘The Incredible Hulk’ starring Lou Ferringo. Due to a striking resemblance to Ferringo, Rene Kink, one of Collingwood’s stars at the time, was nicknamed ‘The Incredible Hulk’. Whatever the reason, I was hooked and became a black and white fanatic from a young age.
As we walked towards the ground, dad was like a tour guide pointing out all the local landmarks. He had grown up here after migrating from Italy in 1950. I soon discovered there was a strong family connection to the area…
Donato Balassone was born in 1943 in the Italian town of Sulmona in the Abruzzo region. Donato means donation and thus Donato has always marketed himself as a donation to mankind. Some have speculated that Balassone means ‘song and dance man’, so if we are to interpret his name literally, his singing and dancing have been a gift to the world. Sulmona is located at the foot of the Maiella massif and is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the poet Ovid, whose bronze statue stands in the town piazza. Donato’s parents Alfonso and Concetta married in 1936. Their first son Pasquale was born in 1939. Not long after Donato was born in ’43, Sulmona was subject to an American air raid. During the strike Concetta wrapped Donato in a blanket and ran for safety. When she finally found shelter she uncovered the blanket to find a blue-coloured baby, almost suffocated to death.
Sulmona is an ancient Roman town surrounded by farmland. Most of the families who lived there owned plots of land a few miles out of town. The Balassone’s owned about five acres. Pasquale, who later became known as Peter, and Donato, who later became known as Don, helped out on the farm. Peter took the sheep to the mountains to eat grass, while Don assisted in digging crops – although being a small child meant he could wander off from time to time and pluck the luscious cherries from the trees. Don’s first moment of self-awareness came while standing by a mountainside and being lit up by the Abruzzo sun. In an instant, he felt a oneness with the earth, universe and creation.
At about 10:30 each morning, the women arrived with baskets of food for a well-earned break. The diet consisted mainly of pasta, vegetables, corn, figs and cherries. Meat was a commodity they could not afford and the sheep they grazed were eventually sold for cash.
At this time there were numerous relatives living in the family household. Hence, there was limited space and resource to adequately cater for all. On top of that, Alfonso had two sisters who he felt were not chipping in. The last straw for Alfonso came when one of his sisters decided she wanted to become a nun. It was time to leave. He decided on Australia. There would be opportunities for the kids there.
Alfonso sailed for the antipodes in 1949. He would spend a year working and establishing himself in Melbourne before his wife and two sons would arrive. Later that year, Concetta, Peter and Don went to Rome to acquire the necessary paperwork for their immigration. One of Don’s endearing memories of this trip is being surrounded by the grand beauty of St Peter’s Square.
In early 1950 they boarded the ship The Sorrento from the Bay of Naples. As the ship departed, with the land of his birth slowly receding before his eyes, Don was filled with a sense of wonderment. For the next six weeks, Don and Peter roamed the ship barefoot while their mother Concetta was holed up in her cabin with severe seasickness. There were twenty or thirty friends from Sulmona on board, so the kids were treated like kings.
The imagery of the voyage was unforgettable: different coloured people in different coloured attire at African and Arabian ports, enormous barrels of bright-yellow bananas at Colombo, schools of dolphins following the ship, monstrous waves, migrating whales, flying fish leaping twenty feet into the air. But none of these sights were daunting to a little boy, but rather wondrous. This was the adventure of a lifetime.
As the ship approached Melbourne, six-year old Don somehow spotted his father Alfonso amongst the massive crowd at the port. He had not seen him for a year. Alfonso had two ice-creams in his hands, which he miraculously managed to get to his sons through the portholes of the ship.
Soon after the family settled in Hotham Street, Collingwood. Alfonso was initially a labourer and later a storeman, while Concetta worked as a machinist in a shoe factory. Don vividly remembers his first day at school. A bully, sensing an easy target, was mouthing off at him. Though Don didn’t understand a word of the tirade, he knew it wasn’t nice and he thus proceeded to beat the daylights out of the bully. At St Joseph’s Primary School he was a notorious fighter who never backed down, particularly from fights with bigger kids. His older brother Peter expressed his concerns to father Alfonso, who merely smiled.
Despite the propensity for fighting, Don maintains racism was never an issue for him. It may have been because he possessed blue-eyes and fair skin, or perhaps because kids would no longer pick on him because they knew they’d be trouble. An incident that had a profound impact on him and won him over to the Aussie spirit occurred after his father Alfonso was hit by a car and spent time in hospital with a broken leg. During this period Don recalls some strangers at the hospital befriending him, even though only years prior their respective countries had been at war. He was quickly drawn to the Aussie spirit, this ideal of mateship, the willingness to give someone a go, and sensed the positive implications of adopting such an attitude to others.
He was soon introduced to the Collingwood phenomenon. On Saturday afternoons he heard the roar of the crowd from the football stadium across the road. What was this strange game in a strange land? He was curious. Around this time he recalls an old man with a cap from across the street, looking down at him and telling him about the great Collingwood Football Club, the mightiest and most successful team in the land – the old man relayed the history of the club with such zeal and passion that it was infectious. Not unlike the incident at the hospital, here was an Australian taking time to converse with a migrant kid. That was it then, Don would become a Collingwood supporter. Before too long he was standing in the outer with his godfather Otto Zampichelli at Victoria Park, and had frequented several other suburban grounds, as well as attending a packed final at the MCG in the late 1950s. He also watched games from the balcony of his Uncle Jim Biffi’s double-story house in Bath St, Abbotsford, which overlooked Victoria Park. In particular the powerful figure of Murray Weideman made an impression. The ‘Weed’ was a barrel-chested man of strength who put fear into the opposition like no other. Perhaps Don saw a bit of himself in the ‘Enforcer’.
In the Olympic year of 1956 Don started secondary school at Collingwood Tech, widely regarded as one of the roughest schools in Melbourne. But his reputation, acquired from his infamous primary school scuffles, preceded him – people knew he was not to be messed with. A notable school friend was Graeme ‘Jerker’ Jenkin, best remembered as Alex Jesaulenko’s stepladder in the 1970 Grand Final, but also a fine ruckman in his own right who went on to play over 100 games with the Pies.
Don excelled in sports at Collingwood Tech and became a school boy discus champion. Later that year he joined another great Collingwood institution, the Collingwood Harriers Athletics Club. During this period he trained and competed with Australian discus champions Ves Balodis and Harry Mitsilias, as well as sprinter Peter Norman, who later won a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics (famously sharing the dais with the ‘Black Power Salute’ medallists). Many years later Don returned to Collingwood Tech as a Maths and Science teacher before eventually becoming a Production Engineer and starting his own lighting and power business, lighting up the world with his torches.
After parking the car at Yarra Boulevard, we took the track past Dight Falls, where the salt water from the sea meets the fresh water of the Yarra River. Innumerable Magpies occupy the area and it is said that the Collingwood mascot was inspired by the magpies at Dights Falls. To a seven-year old kid it seemed remarkable that such a tranquil place was located so close to the noise and chaos of the city. All the while, dad filled me in about his youth. All these stories strengthened my sense of attachment to the area.
We then stepped out onto Studley Park Road. Slowly etching our way towards Mecca. We turned right onto Trenerry Crescent, before marching down Turner Street with the faithful. The black and white colours were everywhere. The exterior of the Rush Stand was adorned with black and white stripes. Stalls were selling scarves, flags, badges and posters. An old raggedy man was hawking peanuts. Scruffy kids were collecting aluminium cans. A large queue was gathered outside the Rush Stand gates. There was a strange inner-suburban smell in the air. Hot dogs, pies, chips, vinegar, jam donuts, beer, nicotine. Oh the excitement of passing through the turnstiles and into the stadium.
We settled in the outer on the half-forward flank as the Reserves were concluding. Had the game already started? Dad explained the concept of the Reserves to me. Thank God, I hadn’t missed anything. The crowd continued to build. The Reserves trudged off. Suddenly a deafening roar pervaded the stadium and the banners were raised. It felt like the earth was shaking. Dad lifted me to his shoulders and I saw my black and white heroes emerge from the race of the Ryder Stand and burst through the banners.