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Anzac Day

Guest TelephotoMarigold

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Story Title: Anzac Day
Type of story: One Shot
Main Characters: Alf Stewart
BTTB rating: A (V/D)
Genre: Drama
Does story include spoilers: No
Any warnings: Mentions of War.
Summary: Alf pays his respects.

Anzac Day: national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders "who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations" and "the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”.

Better Run through the Jungle

Alf Stewart arrived at the firebase so green his uniform was still showing the marks where it had been ironed. He saluted his Lieutenant and received a half raised hand saluting him back before a Sergeant, the first of many showed him to the tent that would be his home for the next eleven months and sixteen days.

He stowed his gear and looked around at the guys in the next bunks. They were quietly avoiding making eye contact with him and later, much later, he would learn about the curse of the ‘newbie’, the green replacement for someone heading home in a body bag. But that day he greeted the guys who would end up closer to him than his own family, and grimaced as they barely looked at him. He could feel a trickle of sweat dripping down the back of his neck as he looked around the small tent. Eight beds occupied it and his was the one nearest the opening.

As he sorted out his kit he noticed one of the guys was field stripping an American issue M16 and he frowned, his training had been on a different rifle and he didn’t know how to use that gun. He supposed it was something else he would have to learn.

“Y’know I think we have company,” one of them drawled.

“Newbie,” came the response.

“Fresh in country.”

“Fresh meat.”

Alf listened to the voices picking up different accents, Aussie of course but subtle tones and inflections from different regions, Victoria, the Outback, Queensland. He wondered what he could have in common with any of them.
Seven months later he remembered those thoughts and grinned to himself as he loaded his own M16 with a fresh cartridge. He was no longer the fresh meat or the newbie but one of them. They shed blood together. Fought together. Traipsed through this stinking jungle together. Suffered under the burning sun together and then had rain fall on them that came down so hard it felt like needles hitting their skin. Even during the worst storms back home he’d never seen rain like it. Incessant rain that fell for days, for weeks. It rotted his clothes, rotted his socks when it soaked through his boots. And when the American planes flew over spraying the jungle it smelt like sulphur, like the devils rain.

He hated when that happened, refused to fill his canteen with the stuff even if it meant he had to go without water because it tasted funny. Others said it rotted their insides but he didn’t know anything about that, he was just a grunt, just one of the nameless, faceless people who did what they ordered.

They were in ‘Nam because Aussies and New Zealanders were more adept at jungle warfare. That was why he was a 23 year old conscript. That was why his feet rotted in his boots and insects bit as his skin until he felt like they were crawling inside of him. They weren’t like the Yanks, they didn’t have the firepower the Yanks deployed, no, they swept the jungle trails, clearing them of booby traps and punji sticks. They dealt with the bouncing bettys and the C4 and the claymines and the grenades. They moved as one. As a unit. Closer than brothers. They talked in shorthand, gesturing with their hands following directions, instructions.

The Tet offensive at the end of January ‘68 meant they were stationed near the capital Saigon. Alf hadn’t minded that being away from the stinking jungle. He’d got caught up with letters from home learning that his sister Morag was part of the Peace movement and was threatening to drop out of Uni. Considering that she was usually in the middle of the arguments between all of his sisters he couldn’t see her as an advocate of Peace.

He would be back home in Summer Bay when he heard about the Battle of Bing Ba a small village in the Phuoc Tuy province south of Saigon where after fierce fighting only one Australian solider was killed during the whole battle. It was June ’69. The surf was cresting on the golden beach and he was dating Martha Baldivis. He should have been happy. Should have put the war in the past but a part of him regretted coming home and missing that battle, missing the war. He missed his mates too and couldn’t explain to anyone what was wrong. They would look at him strange, would not understand what he went through and what it meant.

They certainly wouldn’t understand how he woke up in a cold sweat feeling guilty because he’d come home. Because he’d come home and left others behind. Because he’d come home unharmed. Because he hadn’t died.

They wouldn’t understand because he didn’t.

Some people talked about the glory of war, but there was no glory in war, Alf Stewart knew this from his twelve months in a small jungle in South East Asia and if he was withdrawn sometimes, if he was quiet, if all he wanted to do was stand on the pier and do some fishing then surely that was okay? Surely he should be allowed that?

The years went on, soon he was married to Martha and they had a daughter called Ruth. He’d kept in contact with his army mates at first but then the months stretched into years and then a decade had gone past before he realised he no longer wrote to them, no longer received letters from them.

He still had his family around, his sisters Debra and Barbara. Barb’s was married with a family of her own. His sister Morag was no longer the peace advocate she’d been in University, now she was a lawyer. The sister he tried to avoid was Celia. She’d been engaged to Les Palmer, a good bloke and one of the few who’d never come home from ‘Nam. He wanted to comfort her as she grieved but he couldn’t. Les hadn’t deserved to die in some foreign jungle but he had. Les had died and he, Alf Stewart had lived.

Alf felt guilty about that too.

Every year when Anzac Day rolled around he remembered those he’d served with, those he’d seen die in front of him as they called for their mothers, for their sweethearts. He didn’t want anyone else to go through what he and a generation of others went through but he did want younger galahs along the likes of that Aden Jefferies to respect the uniform to respect the sacrifice that people made.

Wasn’t just him that attended the dawn ceremony on April 25th each year to commemorate all those who had died, who were injured, Anzac day was honoured in far off places. Across in England, places like Oxford, Gloucestershire, and London remember the sacrifice of Australian and New Zealand forces, as they do in Ireland, in America in France and even in Germany. A dawn service is held in far off Thailand remembering those who fell building a railway, POW’s not more than skeletons hacking though mountains and jungle.

So Alf Stewart awoke before dawn on every April 25th, he dressed with care and made his way to the memorial. He watched as the sun rose though the sky and listen as the mournful notes of the Last Post reached the crescendo and he remembered the ones he’d had to leave behind, the ones he’d lost. Every year there were fewer old timers there, and as the number dwindled he knew that one day he would fade away too. He hoped when that happened he would have inspired someone to come and stand in his place, to honour the ones who’d sacrificed everything.

That was what Alf Stewart wanted.

As he woke up that day he acknowledged the ache in his bones. Approaching 70 years old he knew that his time was limited but this was important. Not Anzac day, no that had been and gone, but he was still heading to the memorial at dawn because today marked the 100 years since the outbreak of World War 1 and there were people to honour, souls to remember.

Easing out of bed he shuffled quietly into the bathroom and got into the shower. The hot water eased some of the old age from his bones so that by the time he was dressed and downstairs grabbing a very hasty breakfast he walked like a man with purpose again and not the old man he was becoming.

The ute made the journey like it was programmed to reach that particular destination and he parked up just as the sun was beginning to peak through the low hung clouds. He got out of the vehicle and made his way over to the side. Looking out at the sea he gave a sigh thinking of the ones who never made it home, over 8,000 men died at Gallipoli, 17,000 were wounded.

He thought of the other casualties of World War 1, all told nearly 63,000 had died during the conflict, another 150,000 were injured, such young young men that would never be whole again, young men that wouldn’t come home. So now, Alf Stewart stood to attention ignoring the twinge in his back as he straightened his shoulders and listened to the plaintive notes of the ‘Last Post’ as a single trumpeter in full uniform played.

He stood there as the last note played and knew he’d stand there again, next year in remembrance of Gallipoli. He’d wait as the ‘Last Post’ played and maybe he’d say a silent prayer. Maybe, he’d remember the guys he’d served in ‘Nam with.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest we forget.

(Taken from a Poem by Laurence Binyon - For the Fallen published Sept 1914)

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