I admit they are not my poems; they are written by relatives of mine. My father was in a protected occupation, producing milk for the American air base in Queensland and he and his farmer-mates were not accepted for enlisting when they fronted up. In my role as a pastor and chaplain, and now in Well-Being Australia, my respite mission, I have encountered many returned servicemen and women with adjustment problems. It goes back three generations.
One of these poems is from a Rat of Tobruk, who is still writing poems and stories at age 99 – he will also be 100 in April 2015; and the other is a response to this poem by his niece who grew up knowing many ex-servicemen after WWII and had friends who returned from Vietnam in the 70s.
'Ee's still me mate by Colin Thomas, Como WA, aged 99.
I told you we would meet again
One sunny afternoon.
Here we are both sitting here,
Old mates again in tune.
What have you been doing mate?
Now me, I catch a bus.
Go to the shopping centre too
For an amble without a fuss.
Of course I get me a bit of grub,
To ease my empty tum,
Although those seats are kinda hard,
Give me an itchy b-m.
When on your own you feel quite sad,
Without another voice
That you've been hearing all those years -
You know I miss my Joyce.
She was a lovely, happy lass,
I met her at a ball,
But what we both were doing there
For sure, I don't recall.
For 60 years we were together
She was a good pal and mother
I'll never find such a good girl
Nor do I want another.
So how about you, old man,
How have you spent your life?
I 'spect you have a tribe of kids
And a nicely rounded wife.
I'd like you to meet my daughter
She's here to take me home,
Gets upset if I am late
And hates to see me roam.
But still, I says, it's part of me
Dear Jess, I've got to walk;
Old soldiers need to get around
… and talk!
One story - many stories: behind closed doors by Colin's niece.
The figure in the wheelchair looked out of place
Over by the fire in the corner
Watching the babbling crowd with a century of memories.
Elsewhere in the reception room the champagne flowed
"G'day" "G'day" "Can I get you a drink?" "I'd kill for a hot cuppa"
So cuppa it was, eventually brought with aplomb in white china on a silver tray
I enquired if he belonged to the bride or the groom, he answered "both".
He had introduced his grand-daughter to his old mate's grandson at some family party;
Both sides were relieved at the match of these thirty-somethings on the shelf!
Gradually the hot tea lubricated his vocal chords.
I was happy to be off my high-heeled feet; I sat and listened between the lines.
He was one of Life's survivors, unlike some of his less fortunate mates.
And the "less fortunate" he mentioned were the ones who returned.
Physcial injuries healed and were cared for, like his missing leg;
Widows and kids were looked after by Legacy;
Social needs were met by the RSL – "well", he said with a sneer – "at least until Vietnam".
It was Peace. Normality. Right?
But behind closed doors there was immense suffering in silence.
His mate, the groom's grandfather, had nightmares until the day he died,
And he was one of the lucky ones, with a loving family
And a wife who stuck by him though she never slept a full night
Since the lover she waited six years for came home in a different guise.
The old man's eyes grew grey and clouded
As he remembered the sufferings of his own father after the Great War
And he saw the same problems with his son's mates in the seventies
And he lamented that those returning now are still hiding behind those doors,
Even though they now have a name for it (a medical term he couldn't remember).
Just then the Bride floated up on a cushion of excitement.
"C'mon Grandad, we are going to do the wheelchair dance, here we go..."
And his grin was so wide you could see it round the back of his head
As they sashayed off to the future he had fought for.
There is Hope
For all those suffering from trauma and feelings of misunderstanding, whether you are military people or others, I pray you will come out from your dark tunnel soon, and take comfort from John 1:5: "And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it."
For help, comfort or just a kind word, your local pastor or chaplain is always available, or you can contact sympathetic souls through these contacts:
Lifeline – phone 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au
Beyondblue – www.beyondblue.org.au
Mens sheds – www.mensshed.org
You can add your own stories to the archives - Australian War Memorial
Some of Colin's memoirs have been submitted to the Australian War Memorial. They are interested in anyone's stories or reminiscences or memorabilia: www.awm.gov.au
Two of his poems were published in the Anzac edition of The Australia Times Poetry, April 2014 www.theaustraliatimes.com
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html