If you visit the Teodo family’s sugar cane farm in Far North Queensland and head straight for the stream, you might notice an unassuming hole in the side of a hill.
The secret cave, in the southern part of Cairns, Edmonton, will have a few vines shrouding it, if Frank Teodo hasn’t swung the cane knife recently, and it won’t look like much to the untrained eye. .
For a child, it’s a portal to a world of adventure.
The fascinating story of how this man-made cave came to be – thanks to an “abnormally strong” ancestor who survived the horrors of war – is a story, of hardship and a triumph, and it’s a story that Frank is not. only too proud to tell.
“You have the creek right next to it and we could camp in there,” he recalled.
“We would start a fire and smoke all the mosquitoes first.
“I remember a big bull called Topaz, a bull from Santa Gertrudis, a nice big guy.
“He stuck his head in the door one day.
“He wanted to come join us but he couldn’t fit in with the rest of us so we left him outside.”
From starving child to elite soldier
Frank’s grandfather, Giovanni Teodo, had known more of the darker side of human existence as a child than most people do in a lifetime.
“He was probably one of the original ‘homeless youths’,” says Frank.
“He left home very young and wandered around Europe.
“He was just hungry when he was a kid.
“It’s hard to imagine the poverty and deprivation where your family can’t even afford to keep you.”
He joined the army when he came of age because he heard soldiers being fed every day, and rose through the ranks to become a sergeant in the Arditi – a select squad of elite commandos whose name translates to “The Daring Ones”.
Giovanni was thrown into the thick of things when World War I broke out, with a rifle and bayonet aimed at repelling a German onslaught.
He survived the horrors of war and decided to return to his hometown to seek a normal life, which for him had to include a wife.
The search for a partner begins
The handsome young veteran has taken a very hands-on approach to finding the perfect partner.
“He looked at all the girls working in the vineyards, and he studied them for a while,” Frank says.
“And he said, it’s true, he’s the best worker.
“He was feeding heavily on those days, so he couldn’t afford to have a sick wife or a wife who couldn’t survive the hardships.
“So he picked one, walked right up to her, and said, ‘Do you want to get married?'”
It was a pretty steep courtship, and she wasn’t going to accept the offer without her family’s approval.
The young woman’s people said Giovanni had to prove himself worthy and they weren’t impressed enough with his war medals to hand over their blessings.
“They said you can’t eat medals,” Frank says.
“So he said, ‘I’ll show you. I’m going to Australia. It’s full of jungle and desert.”
“He heard about Australia during the war.”
The couple married despite family friction and had two children with another on the way when Giovanni boarded a ship bound for Australia in 1925.
The baked bun was Frank’s father, who would not meet his father until a decade later when the rest of the family made the trip to Australia to join Giovanni.
Crowbar, shovel and abnormal human strength
Giovanni was a small man, but strong as an ox and with a work ethic that would make the ant in Aesop’s fable blush.
He ended up in Sawmill Pocket on the outskirts of Edmonton and saved up enough money to buy a property from a man called Horace McGuigan – the same man who took him under his wing and taught him to speak English. .
All the pieces were finally in place and he was ready for his family to emigrate from Italy.
World War II broke out shortly after their arrival – and the torment of his blood-soaked predecessor was still fresh in Giovanni’s mind.
“He remembered, okay, I have to do something to protect them,” Frank said.
“So he dug this hole in the side of the hill, this cave which he called the air-raid shelter.”
It was a colossal effort.
He used a crowbar and a shovel to dig a cavern big enough to protect his family if the planes ever started raining down death.
“There’s a whole mountainside above,” Frank says.
“So they could have dropped the bombs they had at the time from an airplane and it wouldn’t have bothered the air-raid shelter.”
An air-raid shelter becomes a children’s paradise
Fortunately, it never came to that.
What remains is an 83-year-old cave that has survived cyclones and landslides to provide generations of Teodos with the perfect hideout.
It was only about 150 yards from home, but it felt like a world apart for Frank and his friends.
“Any type of camping is good for a small child,” he says.
“We were always in the stream and hunting and fishing.
“You know, we always had a pack of dogs with us.
“It was a good childhood. Couldn’t ask for more…and that comes from my grandfather.”
The cave serves as a physical reminder of a man who made something from nothing and laid the foundation for his family for decades, if not centuries, to come.
“It’s hard for any of us to understand how poor these people were,” Frank says.
“He loved Australia. I mean, he’s the most patriotic man you’ll ever meet, in any way, in any walk of life.
“He used to kiss the ground. He hated Italy, never wanted to go back.
“He hated all of Europe and said, ‘They can have it, but here in Australia you come here and you have a job. You take a cane knife and cut cane all your life, work from morning till night and plenty to eat.”
An elderly stranger arrives
Giovanni rarely spoke of the war, but he was marked by what he had seen.
When he shared memories, they were usually of the nurses whose “golden hands” had helped save so many of his compatriots.
It was only after his death around 1980 that Frank and his father received a proper education.
They had just gotten off work and ducked away for a beer at the Grafton Hotel where they met an old Italian man who looked to be almost 90 years old.
Frank’s father started talking to him in Italian and the old man’s eyes lit up.
He had traveled the east coast of Australia in search of his old friend Giovanni, but it was too late to see him alive.
“They were in the army together,” Frank says.
“In every town he went to, he tried to find my grandfather.
“He told us stories of how my grandfather used to entertain the troops during the war – he was like a circus strongman [or] acrobat, he did somersaults.
“In the vineyards, they have these big concrete tanks that they fill with water and drip irrigate the grapes and the vines.
“He used to pick up one of those tanks and lift it over his head.”
Giovanni was the complete package – singing, dancing and performing at a time when entertainment didn’t exist unless people made it themselves.
For Frank, hearing this serendipitous revelation from an elderly stranger at the pub felt something like his grandfather coming back to life, if only for a moment.
It’s a moment he will treasure forever.
“He was a calm, humble, decent human being, you know,” he says.
“Australia is full of wonderful people in all walks of life.
“If you ever see an elderly person, male or female…go upstairs and talk to them.
“They are fascinating.
“They led lives none of us could even imagine.”