If you visit the Teodo family’s sugarcane farm in Far North Queensland and make a beeline for the creek, you might make out an unassuming hole in the side of a hill.
The secret cave, in the southern reaches of Cairns, at Edmonton, will have a few vines shrouding it, if Frank Teodo has not swung the cane knife recently, and it will not look like much to the untrained eye.
To a child, it is a portal to a world of adventure.
The fascinating story of how this man-made cave came into existence — thanks to an “abnormally strong” ancestor who survived the horrors of war — is one of history, hardship and triumph, and it is one Frank is only too proud to tell.
“You’ve got the creek right next to it and we could camp in there,” he recalls.
“We’d light a fire and smoke all of the mosquitoes out first.
“I remember a big bull called Topaz, a Santa Gertrudis bull, a nice big fella.
“He stuck his head in the door one day.
“He wanted to come join us but he couldn’t fit with the rest of us, so we left him outside.”
From starving child to elite soldier
Frank’s grandfather Giovanni Teodo had experienced 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 youth’,” Frank explains.
“He left home at a very early age and wandered through Europe.
“He was just hungry as a kid.
“It’s hard to imagine the poverty and the deprivation where your family can’t even afford to keep you.”
He joined the army when he reached the age because he heard soldiers got 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 rifle and bayonet aimed at fighting back 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 took a very practical approach to finding the ideal partner.
“He looked at all the girls working in the vineyards, and he studied them for a while,” Frank says.
“And he said, right, that one’s the best worker.
“He was flat-out feeding himself those days, so he couldn’t afford to have a sick woman or one that couldn’t survive hardship.
“So he picked one out, walked straight over to her and said, ‘Would you like to get married?'”
It was a fairly abrupt courtship, and she was not about to accept the offer without the approval of her family.
The young lady’s people said Giovanni had to prove himself worthy, and they were not sufficiently wowed by 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 in the war.”
The pair got married despite the familial friction and had two children and another on the way when Giovanni boarded a ship bound for Australia in 1925.
The bun in the oven was Frank’s father, who would not meet his father until a decade later when the rest of the family made the journey to Australia to join Giovanni.
Crowbar, shovel and abnormal human strength
Giovanni was a small man, but strong as an ox and equipped with a work ethic that would make the ant of Aesop’s fable blush.
He wound up in Sawmill Pocket on the fringes of Edmonton and saved enough money to buy a piece of property from a man called Horace McGuigan – the same man that took him under his wing and taught him to speak English.
All of the pieces were finally in place and he was ready for his family to emigrate from Italy.
World War II broke out soon after their arrival – and the torment of its blood-soaked predecessor was still fresh in Giovanni’s mind.
“He remembered, right, I’ve got to do something to protect them,” Frank says.
“So he dug this hole on the side of the hill, this cave that he called the air-raid shelter.”
It was a mammoth effort.
He used a crowbar and shovel to carve out a cavern big enough to keep his family safe if planes ever started raining down death.
“There’s a whole mountainside above it,” Frank says.
“So they could have dropped the bombs they had in those days from a plane and it wouldn’t have bothered the air raid shelter.”
Air raid shelter becomes child wonderland
Thankfully, 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 hidey hole.
It was only about 150m from the house, but it felt like a world away for Frank and his mates.
“Any sort of camping is good for a little kid,” he says.
“We were always up in the creek and hunting and fishing.
“You know, we always had a pack of dogs with us.
“It was a good childhood. You couldn’t ask for better … and that’s 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, or even centuries, to come.
“It’s hard for any of us to understand just how poor those 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’re coming out here and you got a job. You pick up a cane knife and cut cane all your life, work from morning till dark and plenty to eat’.”
An elderly stranger arrives
Giovanni rarely talked about the war, but he was scarred by what he had seen.
When he did share memories, they were usually about the nurses whose “golden hands” helped save so many of his countrymen.
It was not until after his death in about 1980 when Frank and his father got a real education.
They had just knocked off work and ducked out for a beer at the Grafton Hotel where they ran into an elderly Italian man who looked to be almost 90.
Frank’s father started talking to him in Italian and the old man’s eyes lit up.
He had travelled up and down the east coast of Australia searching for his old friend Giovanni, but he was too late to see him alive.
“They were in the army together,” Frank says.
“In every town he went to, he was trying to find my grandfather.
“He told us stories about how my grandfather used to entertain the troops during the war – he was like a circus strongman [or] acrobat, he’d do somersaults.
“In the vineyards, they have these big concrete tanks that they’d fill with water and trickle irrigate the grapes and vines.
“He used to pick up one of those tanks and lift it above his head.”
Giovanni was the full package – singing, dancing and performing at a time when entertainment did not exist unless people made it themselves.
For Frank, hearing this chance revelation from an elderly stranger at the pub felt something like his grandfather coming back to life, if only for a moment.
It is a moment he will hold onto forever.
“He was a quiet, humble, decent human being, you know,” he says.
“Australia is full of wonderful people in every walk of life.
“If ever you see an elderly person, men or women … go up and talk to them.
“They’ve led lives that none of us could even imagine.”