Father at war

 By Jack Buckingham

He spoke with warm misty eyes and choking voice
Of his training days with new knockabout mates
And the places he’d seen as such a young man,
Like the steaming islands of swaying tropical heat
Where the back laneways off local bars
Were walked with nerve in inky blackness
Past single spots of menacing cigarettes
And the ringing stories of last month’s cut-throat knifings,
Like the jungle, where you never saw the sun,

And the time he was separated from his platoon
After a skirmish, with three other soldiers, young like him,
And they crawled back through crocodile-infested swamp,
Burning the leeches off each other’s necks
With cigarettes, smouldering only, for the enemy was everywhere,
They set him up as lance-corporal for that,
But, a willing hostage to a filial code in arms,
He deliberately lost it on a bender with the boys
The night of the major general’s visit.

And later on he was glued to the glorious early 60s shows,
Anzac, Combat, even The Gallant Men,
And he testily defended all the horror of Hiroshima
As if his world was still not safe,

But he sat white-knuckled, in extra tight-lipped silence,
And stonily read every syllable written
In the smoking aftermath of My Lai

As my twentieth birthday loomed, and with it
The lottery national ballot for marbles of conscription,
And in all his often repeated stories
He only once mentioned the morning patrol
When his new best friend, the next man ahead,
Sprawled suddenly, spread-eagled, shot dead,

And in a searing flash of answering fire
My father killed directly his first and only man,
Sent him crashing from an ambush tree,
And a rough rummage of his blood-splattered pocket
Revealed the bullet-pierced photo of a young family man
Of Japan, and a pretty wife and smiling baby daughter
Whose lives he had certainly changed forever,
And all in the days before counsellors in grief.

A brittle, fidgeting man thereafter
Who held a grudging soft spot for the Salvos
Just for staying up there at the front,
And he watched the televised Anzac Day parades
But religiously kept away himself,

He would spring awake in drenching sweats
At the click of dawn for a decade after,
And spent a fitful remainder of his lifetime
Driving to work on empty roads before birdsong,
Relaxing only at the banks of country trout streams
Before the light lifted to face the day.

Not a man to retire. it was barely a year
That they turned him almost roughly
And set the air rasping in release
As a prolonged bubble of sound spelt his last seconds,
While three steps in from the hospital doorway,
I silently stood, diminished by his loss,
And watched his face fall somehow into peace.