12 March 2014

Over There

There are a lot of wars going on around the world at the moment and there seems to be a great deal of political unrest as well. I am almost afraid sometimes to turn the news on because of the violence and scenes of devastation and destruction. It seems that blowing up things and shooting people is so common place that we take it all for granted.

It is a dangerous world that we live in.

These are precarious and portentous times and it is scary.

I have many Ukrainian friends here in Singapore and I am good friends too with some Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese people. I have met some Syrians and Iraqis as well recently in my travels and I work closely with many Indian and Pakistan colleagues. All of these people have in some way been touched by conflict in their countries and they have stories to tell about how violence and wars have impacted them directly. It is terribly sad and I have seen much despair and dismay and fear in their eyes when I have asked them questions. I can't seem to stop asking questions. 

Uncertainty and combat are terrible things.

Conflict and violence of any kind is horrendous. My Dad was a career soldier in the Australian army for all of my childhood. He was an officer. We moved around a lot when I was little – always to army bases where my Dad was in charge of moving supplies and teaching other soldiers stuff. Army stuff.

Dad was a natural teacher who loved history and he related to people very well. He still does. He was sent to different countries all around the world to learn and teach military matters for the army and we of course moved with him.

It was mostly fun for we kids but it got a bit tougher as we got older. We never stayed anywhere for very long and we had to change schools all of the time. We made a lot of friends but we knew never to get too close because we would likely pack up and move on with a moments notice.

My big sister Jane and I would always be sent to our new schools with a big block of Cadbury chocolate each and were told to share it with our new class mates. It was a sound social tactic that worked well. As a new boy though I was often the target of the class bully so I had to learn quickly how to talk fast and how to fight.

I became pretty used to being the centre of attention and fast-talking but I have never been much of a fighter.

I had a lot of black eyes growing up.

When I was about eight or nine we moved back to Australia after a stint in the UK. Dad was first was a student and then he began teaching in an army staff college. We had caught a ship to London and then caught one back to Australia and I remember well the fun months on board. We stopped in exotic places like Italy and Gibraltar and Durban in Africa on the way - and as a family we explored a lot of exciting places.

I remember sailing back into Sydney harbour and standing up the front of the ship as the sun came up. Mum and Jane were still asleep and this was a father and son moment. Coming home was very heart stirring and dawn breaking over Sydney harbour simply took my breath away. That memory is forever etched. I recollect very clearly holding my Dad’s hand as we gazed at home and Dad telling me that he was going to be going away on his own for awhile.

We had always travelled before as a family so I remember asking Dad why we couldn’t come with him and he told me that there was a war going on and it wasn’t safe to take us this time. He then told me all about a place called Vietnam and how the country had been split in half and people were fighting and dying. Not just soldiers but women and children. He explained that the Australian Government had decided to send their army to try and help out. Dad told me it was his duty to go and protect the people whose land was being invaded.

I knew all about duty. Dad taught we kids very early about responsibility and duty and how we all had an obligation to help people less fortunate than ourselves. As a family we did this all the time.

I remember asking Dad if maybe just I could come with him to that place called Vietnam and him telling me that I couldn’t. He told me that my Nanna and Grandpa were going to be staying with us in an army house and he wanted me to make sure that I looked after my Mum and my sister and my little baby brother who had just been born.

So I promised him that I would.

It was a dizzy times those few years and it was difficult and sad not having Dad around. After a year or so we moved to an army house in Melbourne. When I went to my new school with my block of chocolate and kids found out that my Dad was a soldier in a city that used to be named Saigon a bully kid told me that he was going to get shot and die. It terrified me as much as it infuriated me - and this time I think I gave a black eye as well as receiving one.

I used to get very scared watching the news on TV and seeing planes bomb and burn villages in faraway lands where my Dad was. My Mum didn’t even like to say the word Vietnam. She used tell people that Dad was ‘over there’. The US army incinerated whole villages in Vietnam with a horror weapon that was called Napalm.  It was a weapon of mass destruction that set the air on fire and burnt everything.

When I was much littler and before Dad went over there I used to like playing soldiers – like most little boys – but I didn’t like it any more. I hated it in fact and when Dad was over there I threw all my toy soldiers and guns away.

I recall with absolute clarity a moment after school watching the news with my Mum and seeing film footage of the napalming in Vietnam and the bombing that had started in countries called Cambodia and Laos. I remember asking my Mum in a shaky voice if my Dad was going to be OK.

I remember this like yesterday.

The memory of my Mum's hesitation at answering my question is indelible and even now – so many years later – I recall how it felt like my heart had stopped and it had somehow pushed it’s way up into my mouth. I had never before seen my Mum so uncertain or frightened. I remember that she seemed terrified by the question.

I recall feeling really petrified at that moment and running into my bedroom and laying under the bed. It was the first time in my young life that I actually tasted fear and terror. It was piquant in my mouth and my stomach. 

It was like animus and bile and rancor. 

The acidity of it burned and it choked me.

It was a tough time then when my Dad was away at war.

When he was over there.

We were full of fear a lot of the time.

Dad came home from Vietnam twice and I recall him staying only for a week or two. He wouldn’t really talk much about what he did. Then he went back again and the dread started all over again. He came home a third time and this time he stayed. Then the war ended and I finally felt safe again.

Years later I tried to talk to Dad about what he had seen over there. I wanted to know where he had been and what he had done. He always just told me that wars are bad things and that conflict and death should not be talked about and should be avoided.

Movies came out about the Vietnam War – films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now and the Deer Hunter - and there were many others. I watched them all - but Dad didn’t.

He said he that he wouldn't and he couldn’t.

So I think now about places like Syria and the Ukraine and Iraq and Afghanistan and I worry and wonder about the little kids who were like me. Kids and mums whose Dads are over there.

It is a terrible and harrowing thing.

It really is.

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