When is a Minute’s Silence Not a Minute of Silence?

April 26, 2016

poppy290Nothing is ever silent. Ever. Except perhaps in space but I have no point of reference for that experience and so have no capacity to comment. There can be a stillness, but never silence. There is that moment that sluices into seconds and the feeling of a lifetime of ages when a zealot of some stripe or another initiates his bomb. The crump resonates through every part of you and welds a connection of gazes as your eyes instantly lock on the eyes of others and you all wonder together if you are next.
You hear nothing but feel everything that is decent and right shiver and collapse in that stillness. Sounds then wake and drift in behind the thudding of the blood in your ears, and your thoughts start to shift from your own selfish hide to wonder at those who have been unfortunate enough to have been caught up in the periphery of that sound. Read more

A Gunner in Vietnam – Killed By His Own Hand

April 27, 2007

Funny how random things can spark random thoughts. The picture of Spud standing in the rain in Martin Place sparked thoughts over the last couple of days about a good friend I used to serve with. He was an Airfield Defence Guard. For those of us serving in relative comfort in the Air Force he was one of those strange few who elected to live rough, cold and wet. A kind of Air Force infantry who were trained to do what their job title says – defend airfields. During the Vietnam War they did just that but also served as the door gunners in 9 Squadron helicopters. They also mixed it with the regular infantry and in the case of my friend he spent some time with a US Marine unit patrolling the jungles.He was one of those guys you share a barracks with who was always boisterous, loud, happy and on the go. A larrikin. Prankster. Knew all the perks. Knew all the senior officers and who to see if you needed half a sheep for a bar-b-que, your car fixed, or a free ride to Darwin for a few days in the sun at the tax-payers expense. He was nearly ten years older than the rest of us so we all tended to defer to him. Trusted with the keys to the troop’s bar, he would always be the one who closed it, long after the duty barman had gone home. Many a time I woke to hear him singing his drunken ditties as he ambled back to the barracks by himself.

It is an evening that seems to get clearer in my mind as the years go on. I came into the barracks one evening and he was on the floor in tears. When he saw it was me he got up and locked the door and swore me to silence. Then he dragged a military issue trunk out from under the bed, wrestled with the padlock for a while and then pulled out dozens of photo albums. He went immediately to one in particular and spread it and its loose photos out over the floor. It contained a series of fading colour shots of him standing on a jungle clearing with the head of a Vietnamese soldier in each hand. He was grasping them by their hair and holding them out from his body like a pair of gym weights. At his feet there were other severed heads. They had successfully out-ambushed an ambush and his grinning face betrayed the relief they felt. So too the US Marines standing around and watching.

He put those photos away (there were others as macabre) and through his tears told me he could not reconcile, even these nine or so years after the war, how it was that he had been able to “play God”. And he proceeded to recount how, from the door of the helicopters he was able to tap a few rounds behind a running target moving across a rice paddy, make him stop by tapping a few rounds in front him, steer him left or right with rounds on either side, and then cut him down with a long burst just as the runner got to the safety of the tree line. Over and over again. With no feeling, except that it was somehow a game and he had complete power. Now he raged against the abuse of that power and I gained some insight into why this friendly, outgoing, very loveable guy was the way he was: it was all a front. A cover-up. A first class act to deceive himself and those of us around him.

Nowadays we like to think we catch these men before they self destruct with these dreams and images rotting their minds. That we get through all that male, macho bullshit that we put up and expect our buddies to put up. That we catch them and encourage them to talk these things out. We didn’t catch Ian. Ten years later he shot himself dead, still plagued by his “I played God” demon. I hope his Mum, who he loved to bits and who was always rescuing his adult boy, never found those photos.

Thanks Spud for reminding me to remember one of your Vietnam Vet colleagues who didn’t make it. Even though he pretended to.

Spud Murphy’s ANZAC Day

April 26, 2007

I love this photo, taken by Steven Siewert, in the early morning rain which dumped on Sydney yesterday. Wednesday the 25th of April is ANZAC Day and war memorials all over the country, and in New Zealand, have crowds gather around to remember our war dead, and living. For a period through the late seventies and eighties there was a fear these gatherings would fade out as our veterans faded away. But the dawn services and the parade that follows has a strong following today, with the younger members of our community taking a strong and real interest in the events and celebrations.

Yesterday the usual parade in Sydney took place, as did the dawn memorial service in Martin Place where it rained solidly on all who had gathered there. I don’t know Spud Murphy but he found his way onto the front page of the paper this morning. The rain is bouncing of his pate, his medals and shoulders. His suit is soaked. But he stands there as if there is no rain at all. No cringe or uncomfortable slouch. Rather a stoic and focused standing to attention with a purposeful look on his face. Knowing that he is a veteran of the Vietnam War somehow made the picture all the more poignant. Perhaps remembering places and friends and faces and his part in our history. And perhaps the sluicing rain of a Vietnam wet season. Who knows?