Saturday, December 30, 2006

Taxi Story - The Kurd


Taxi drivers in this city are almost always foreign nationals – if not by citizenship then at least by birth. That makes for some interesting stories and I usually take the opportunity when riding with them to find out a bit about their backgrounds and their families.

One stands out and I am thinking about him today as I see news that Saddam has been hanged – and as we anticipate long queues at midnight of the New Year. He was a young Kurd who had been drafted into the Iraq Army (unusual) and placed in front line positions in 1991, and was one of the lucky ones to be captured by coalition forces. For which he was eventually thankful, but not before he spent time in a POW camp in the Saudi desert, some time in a camp in Kuwait and then returned to his home town in Iraq. Which by now had been cleared of all Kurds and he found himself on the run. He tried to leave Iraq and headed for Turkey but was picked up by coalition troops in northern Iraq and returned home. Deciding Turkey was not a safe exit route he decided to make a run for Lebanon but was ignorant of how well that border was stitched up – by both sides. He was turned away by Iraqi soldiers who did not trip to his Kurdish ethnicity. So he made a run for Saudi but got picked up, interned and returned to Iraq. His final run was out through Afghanistan and Pakistan and to Malaysia via that now infamous route. After a year in a Malaysian detention centre (very unusual) he was accepted into Australia as a genuine refugee applicant but still had to spend time in one of our centres. I can’t recall for how long.
Now he drives a taxi in Sydney and is studying at night. He told his story without any bitterness. Just with a sense of relief that he had made it. He would not be drawn on his family story and I did not press too hard.

I guess he will be one person that has a sense that justice was served today.

And he is one part of the taxi driver tableau that makes me reserve judgement when we all want to grump about what sort of service we get from our cabs. Sometimes I just want to say “Forget the service, listen to the story!!"

Friday, December 29, 2006

Eel Art

I was explaining to a colleague today how the Pickled Eel came about.
It has a lot to do with alcohol.
The story is here.
In an attempt to "brand" the blog a little - and stop being so darn serious about everything - I whipped up a quick sketch of an eel (with apologies to all the morays out there) and a very talented colleague (Matthew) of mine has morphed it into the button over there at the top of the column. Being a typical artistic perfectionist,
he wants to fine tune it - sort out contrast and so on. Being the impatient fellow that I am I couldn't wait to see it up on the page.

Matthew has an excellent photo and diary website - he is an excellent photographer and his shots of the Antarctic and other places around the world are worth a look.

So too his "Pie of the Day" section. Did you know, for example, that
Pies are illegal in 3 US states due to the pie massacres of 1987, an event kept quiet by Pie fanciers all around the world.

Of course you didn't, but beware his sense of humour...



Transformation

Previous Chapter
In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next fortnight.

And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.


David’s upbringing shifted gear in Easter 1966 when he and a few of his friends from the district travelled south with our family to a place called Pukerau. An unmanned, train station dot on a bleak map, but the site of a wonderful camp site where, for that Easter these teenagers were to decide that they should dedicate themselves to Jesus. It was a decision that was to transform some, afflict others and in David’s case have a “butterfly effect” into the lives of young boys and men like myself. Oddly (for I was quite young), I remember that weekend well. We camped in a storage shed full of supplies for the camp. I can still smell the musty dryness of it. Pukerau was to have a major impact on me five years later when I attended my first boys camp there in the August school holidays. David was the camp leader. But that Easter was the beginning of a remarkable journey that saw a group of newly enthused young Christians, many with limited formal education, and certainly no graduate qualifications, spearhead a Christian witness in the same way unschooled fishermen had done two thousand years earlier. And those young people grew into a team that had a wider impact on numerous others, including hundreds of boys who attended boys camps at Pukerau, and in the case of David, camps on his own farm, and those held later at another site at Waihola. Mrs Paton prayed for her own children but the response was a harvest and influence that reaches far beyond what she asked. As we might say today, she got it back in spades.

Apart from the influence of my own father David easily was the most influential person in my formative years. Five to fifteen. He did nothing with me by way of formal training. We had no mentoring arrangements. We had no counselling sessions. There was no program. But he was role model, Christian guide, manly example, and character builder all rolled into one. This is some feeble attempt to try and capture what he was in my life and to reflect on the amazing way God works through even the smallest things we do. For there is no doubt David would be surprised at the affection and respect we have for him, for the influence he had on the lives of myself, my brothers and on other young men with whom he had contact. So far as I can, this is a personal recollection. But there are matters of legend that are worth recording as well.

Who was he? A product of that kitchen no less. Steady, kindly stern, with a transparent face, dark eyes that always caught you out and a smile always waiting to break out. In our early days we were careful how we stepped with him but as we got to know him better, glimpses of larrikin would show themselves and we would revel in his adventurous thinking. I think the following catches him nicely. One of David’s favourite hymns had a chorus that went like this: “Count your blessings, count them one by one, Count your blessings and See what the Lord has done.” Younger brother Rob crashed into our shared bedroom one night, closed the door and in glee recounted a version David had just sung him with a wink and a nod – it was shortly after David’s son Paul was born and it went like this: “Count your children, Count them one by one, Count your children and see that you have done.” We were old enough by then to understand what the wink and nod was about but that paled against the deliciousness of the irreverence that simple alteration contained. Growing up in a manse, it was too easy to have everything straightened and proper. Here was an elder singing about sex but using a Sankey hymn to convey it. We sang the lines for a long time after with a grin and shake of the head. More shocking but even more delicious was his recounting to us how he had met his wife, Alison. We were sitting up at his house that he was refurbishing - just a short walk up from Mrs Paton’s - and in a moment of startling frankness he told us that during his time in hospital following his tractor accident he had been unable to look after even his most basic functions. Including ablutions. So, he argued, he figured that if someone, a nurse in fact, had wiped his backside for him for that period of time then at the end of it he had better marry her. Couldn’t have someone running around with that sort of knowledge outside the family. And he then appealed to our own sense of teenage order and asked if we would do the same. And grinning the whole time. We were stunned by the frankness of the description, appalled by the notion that adults needed that sort of care, and by the fact that this otherwise competent fellow had the need for it. He never finished off the reasoning or the thinking. Just left all this hanging in the air. But as with the chorus we revelled in the irreverence, in the latitude of the thinking, in the provocation, in the wit and in the gentleness of his care.

Next Chapter

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Aardvark (Pig) - F111

OK, I am a tragic F-111 fan. Just found this video on YouTube. It is a montage of Royal Australian Air Force F-111 video clips which contains a couple of people I know. I may be mistaken but at the beginning of the clip the crew member doing the preflight walk around looks remarkably like Shorty. (internal Blog link) Lost with Hobbs in Malaysia in 1999. And later on in the clip the reclining pilot is Geoff Shepherd(leaving site). He was CO at 6 SQN when I was there and went on to become the Air Commander, Australia and is now the Chief of the RAAF. Affectionately known as "Blinky" throughout the squadron for an involuntary tic he had, which only went away when it was time for his aircrew medical - the worst kept secret at the unit. His fellow pilots attributed that tic to his Mirage III ejection. Probably part of the squadron "urban legend" fabric but it made for a good story.

And nicely slipped into the middle of it all is a brief extract from the controversial Pavetack image run on the Australian Defence HQ - sometime in 1988 or 1989 if I recall correctly. The Air Force made the pungent point that those crosshairs could be placed on anyones office pretty much at will. It was an exercise that upset a few politicians and bureaucrats but the F-111 folk loved it.

The video quality is awful - just go along for the ride!!

The House that Jack Built

In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next fortnight.

And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.

I have no memory of the beginning but for me David’s story really starts with his mother. Nell to few and Mrs Paton to us. I remember her as a grey haired, diminutive old lady. She was married to a laughing grandfather with hair growing out his ears, a tanned but balding dome – save for the occasional wisp of forgotten hair, woollen shirts and bushy eyebrows under which danced one sparkling eye and another that would occasionally drop out of its socket, to the consternation of my sisters and the delight of my brothers. A glass eye. Appearing among the mashed potatoes after grace was said. His name was Jack. He had a stumping, gruff walk – told us he had “a bone in his leg from the war” when we asked why he walked like that. Jack and Nell had three sons and one daughter. The children went off and did their high schooling at boarding school so we did not see them too often although David had finished his schooling by the time we arrived in the district. So David was always around. A highlight, and a delight, was to spend any time – a day, a weekend, school holidays – at “the Patons”. Their house was an old unpainted place surrounded by vegetable gardens, cats, fruit trees, and an old wire fence that kept poultry out. You walked through a wire gate with a frame that went up over your head on top of which for many years two little wind vanes spun, made from the tops of jam tins, soldered into shape and painted red and white by Alistair. After letting the gate clack shut you stepped across a little courtyard, rainwater tank to your right, and walked in the back door from which hung a perpetually loose brass door handle.

(If you Google Earth you can find the farm house - simply copy these coordinates and paste them into the "Fly to" box on Google Earth 45.2622752159 S 170.482736555 E )

Behind that unpainted door was a cosy den, a very special place. It was Mrs Paton’s kitchen. As you walked in, immediately at your left shoulder was a blackboard and underneath that a bench seat. Whenever we visited we drew all sorts of things on that board, the profile of a Cessna being one of the favourites of Butch Thurlow. Butch was a neighbour who would sit in this kitchen on Sunday evenings and chew the fat. I copied that Cessna assiduously (and am sure I could draw it from memory thirty five years later with my eyes shut) and which David would occasionally mimic. On this board were usually notes about the farm. Jobs to be done. People to call. Number of sheep crutched. Ear tag numbers. Phone numbers. And the occasional Cessna. I have memories of local lads, Butch, and Grant sitting jammed across that bench with David, legs stretched out into the heat of the kitchen and blocking all traffic, laughing and talking and enjoying each other’s company.

Stand in the doorway, doorhandle threatening to fall out as you hold it. Cast your eye around the room from left to right, and immediately after the blackboard is a door which lets you into the rest of the house. Let’s digress there for a moment. It was usually a lot cooler out there than in the kitchen. But out there, on special Sunday afternoons, Westerns were shown on a black and white television. A real highlight on a wintry day, with a fire choking on damp pine cones in the grate. We did not have television at home at the time so even today a black and white Western, with lots of shooting, improbable chases and even more improbable Indians falling off every rocky outcrop, transports me back to that room. But back to the kitchen.

To the right of the “close that thing, you will let the cold in” door was the source of memorable meals and continual warmth. A coal range burned night and day it seemed. The oven was warm when you went to bed. It was warm when you arose, regardless of the hour. From here everything from roast poultry - geese, turkeys, hens and ducks all headed for her table or tables around the parish. Mrs Paton was famous, in our house at least, for her sponges, made with her secret ingredient - duck eggs. I recollect that the rest of the district were familiar with them as well. Above the coal range was a mantelpiece littered with everything a mantelpiece should be littered with. Casting your eyes right and looking at the third wall you looked out across the sink, set in a wall to wall bench and backlit by a window that gazed out across the vegetable patch. Sometimes that window was the source of our undoing as we attempted covert samplings from the garden. Peas were a favourite target. In the middle of the room, but erring to the fourth wall, set on a threadbare carpet, was the wooden kitchen table, scrubbed smooth but always covered for a meal by a large table cloth. Around this we would scrunch up for meals, caught in a cosy haven, warmed by the ever radiating coal range oven, bustled over by Mrs Paton, and gleamed at by Jack who always loved all the madness. Bowls of steaming greens. A small mountain of steaming mashed or boiled potatoes with more butter melted across it than is good for anyone, and the ubiquitous roast poultry with seasoning we would ache for.

I never knew David’s upbringing. He was 20 when we arrived in the parish and I was a newly minted 5 year old, with a new yellow toy car and a fear of his dogs. It was 1966. 15 years difference at that point is more profound than at the other end of the continuum. But over the next ten years I was fortunate to have a taste of what David grew up in and what he came back to after he finished school. And, in a sense that from which he never really left. It is a context that is made all the more poignant when I later learned that Mrs Paton prayed for twenty one years that someone would come to the parish to teach her children about Jesus Christ. For those 21 years the parish pulpit had either been vacant or had been led by pastors who suffered the liberal thinking of the times. Naturally as a 5 year old I was ignorant of these things but the whispers of those dead times came to my ears as I moved into my teens.

Next Chapter

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Your Home is My Home - Sudanese in Tamworth

Just before Christmas our news was full of the incomprehensible - the mayor of a country town (Tamworth (Google Earth31° 5'58.45"S 150°55'22.31"E)) here in Australia declared a group of Sudanese families unwanted in his town. Some rolled their eyes and simply put it down to our redneck community. Others, including many in Tamworth, were outraged. In the middle of it all the Sudanese remained poised, apolitical and out of the fray. The Australian Refugee Council put it all down to ignorance.

They are partly correct. If James Treloar (the mayor no less) had been on an Emirates flight out of Dubai last year and shared the same experience with these Sudanese families as many of us did, he may have a different perspective.

As we prepared to board our Airbus back to Sydney a large group of tall and elegant Africans were herded out of a side door into the departure lounge. They were all dressed in the same light blue tracksuit. They might have been all part of a sports team except there were no logos and these people were unusually shy and unsure of themselves. It was clear they were relying on a middle aged woman who behaved like a good master sergeant and saw them through the checkpoints and into the aircraft.

I had settled into my seat - well up the back but where I could get a window seat, some peace and quiet (it is a 14 hour flight) and some leg room. I was doubly blessed by having the seat beside me vacant. We were delayed by about 30 minutes as the Emirates staff reorganised all the seating to put these Africans all in one place - right down the back of the plane. They asked if I would prefer a seat up the front, instead of sitting with these people. I felt slightly affronted but the European flight attendant hastened to add that their BO was offensive. I declined - I am at the very least, a window seat hog. But I did not think BO was enough to deter me.

I was fairly warned. The BO was easily the worst I have ever experienced - and I have experienced my fair share in the military while in the field. Terrible. Pungent. Acidic. For 14 hours!

These Africans were very subdued. But they were an interesting mix. Young couples with children. Unsure of what they were to do in the plane. Very reliant on their Master Sergeant to translate for them. To help them with their meals. The Emirates staff were brilliant and went out of their way to look after them. Patiently explaining things to them. Showing them how the inflight entertainment worked. How the headphones worked. Giving them a tour of the toilets to show how they worked. How to work those infernal folding doors. Watching young children work out a Pokemon game was pretty special. Can you imagine it? What a flurry of overwhelming experiences these kids were soaking up. The Master Sergeant was later explaining only a couple of the adults had seen a TV screen before. For everyone else this was all so very new.

In a quiet period I went and spoke to the Master Sergeant. She told me they were Sudanese migrants to Australia. That this was the second flight in their lives, the first being the Russian cargo plane that had flown them out of the desert into Dubai. In Dubai they were taken out of their rags and placed in the tracksuits, with no opportunity to bathe or shower. Some of the children were wearing clothes for the first time. All of these young couples had no extended family - they had all been killed or had died through malnutrition. But mainly killed. The lack of other family was one of the factors that determined their eligibility to migrate to Australia. No wonder they looked shy and unsure of themselves. Twenty four hours earlier some of them had never seen an aircraft before.

As we approached Sydney I was delighted to discover that my seat was going to give me a view of the harbour, the bridge, the Opera House. With the sun just rising over the Pacific Ocean this perspective is Sydney at its shiny and glistening best. Dragging my eyes away from the window as we straightened up over the bush north of Sydney to start our run in I could see the boys, about ten to twelve years old years old, sitting in the centre, straining to see out the window. The attendants had just strapped themselves in so I signed for the boy closest to me to come over and sit at the window (I had that spare seat next to me). He was quick to understand and unbuckled and jumped the aisle, we swapped seats and he pressed his face to the window, both filthy hands grasping the wall.

The Harbour slid in to view and the bridge, buildings, harbour, Opera House and bush were all set off in a glorious landscape under a gorgeous blue sky. It is a fantastic sight. As we descended over this scene and it started to drop behind us the face at the window turned to me with saucer eyes which were full of wonder. And in one breathless, rasping whisper exclaimed to me in a quizzical tone of discovery "Australia?!" It actually sounded more like "Oh-dah-lia".

Never have I been so glad to give up a window seat. It took all of me to compose myself and not weep, and to assure him it was indeed Australia. I smiled, wiped away a tear and assured him again that this was so, and that he was very welcome to be here. He nodded and turned back to the window - in time to watch the suburbs close up and to experience the rush over the perimeter fence to land with a steady bump and to arrive at his new home.

While we taxied in to the terminal I sat there and watched this lad and silently gave thanks that I was part of a country that could offer itself as a refuge. That could share its wealth and resources and opportunities with those who had nothing, and with those who were losing what little they did have(family).

Since then I have often wondered where they ended up - now I see they are in Tamworth. With the same composure I saw in the Airbus. And clearly out of their tracksuits. I hope they understand the mayor is out of step, and that there are many in this country who love the fact we can share what we have. I hope James understands his role of custodian carries with it a requirement to be generous. For except by the grace of God there go the rest of us.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Love is Born


Sharing something here from my Christmas Day.

Love is born
With a dark and troubled face
When hope is dead
And in the most unlikely place
Love is born:
Love is always born.

From
"When I Talk to You
A Cartoonist Talks to God"
By Leunig. A brilliant cartoonist, satirist, and social commentator. His website is worth a visit.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Bethlehem

Our newspapers are reporting a downturn in tourists visiting Bethlehem at this time of the year. Just as they reported last year. I visited Bethlehem a few years ago when tensions were escalating and getting across the border into Palestine was problematic. The checkpoint was a flux of tension and a crossroads of hate. Those in uniform treated us with disdain and we were pushed around. Regardless of what passport we were carrying. I was walking through with some French and Germans. A French lady who had been through before, and who had become our guide, advised us to make like the Palestinians and to keep our mouths shut. So we did and after a long, hot, and dusty wait we were through.

In Bethlehem we found a hive of activity and the winding walk up to the Church of Nativity was one long construction site as new buildings were going up, new fibre optic was being laid, and plumbing dug in. There seemed to be a real energy in the air, and we were chatted to by children in the street and waved at by Palestinians who were keen to sell us trinkets and badly made brass souvenirs. An enduring highlight was a schoolbus that crept past us with smiling kids at the windows, many of whom yelled out “hello” and “bonjour” – a telling counterpoint to the border crossing experience of a few minutes earlier. Children are great equalisers.

I visited the regular tourist stops and was impressed with the various claims made by those who insist Jesus was born at this or that spot. But I was more convinced by the presentation of a cave, one of many stables around Bethlehem, that seemed to my imagination to be a more credible place of his birth. And I was even more impressed by the realisation that these hills and vistas were those also walked and seen by Jesus – those impressions had more impact than any particular church site.

Church of the Nativity Forecourt
But over the years the enduring remembrance of Bethlehem has been the profound divide between Israelis and Palestinians, all on top of the place where the Prince of Peace was born and not too far from where he died. There is a terrible irony and pathos in what Bethlehem stands for today, when in its roots there is something more powerfully contained.


Micah knew as much 700 years before his birth.


"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times."

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labour gives birth
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be their peace.

And there was a final irony that I have never understood – it was more difficult for us to cross the border from Israel into Palestine to visit Bethlehem than it was to return to Israel. Over in seconds and after an idle glance at our passports. Maybe we had just struck an ornery security detail on the way in.

On this Christmas Day, and hereafter, may He be your peace.

Bonjour Vietnam

A remarkably evocative clip. Sung by Quynh Anh, an expat Vietnamese living in Europe. Having been to Vietnam I found it an evocative piece of video and music. All the more so for their disastrous past and their passion for the present. The English words contain none of the magic of the lyric French, or the romance of that language. In any event, best watched and heard, not read.



Nonetheless, the words are below!He

Tell me this name, strange and difficult to pronounce
That I have carried since my birth
Tell me the old empire and the feature of my slanted eyes
Describing me better than what you dare not say
I only know you from the war images
A Coppola movie, (and) the angry helicopters

Someday, I will go there, someday to say hello to your soul
Someday, I will go there, to say hello to you, Vietnam

Tell me my color, my hair and my small feet
That I have carried since my birth
Tell me your house, your street, tell me this unknown entity
The floating markets and the wooden sampans
I could only recognize my country from the war photos
A Coppola movie, (and) the helicopters in anger

Someday, I will go there, someday to say hello to your soul
Someday, I will go there, to say hello to you, Vietnam

The temples and the stone-carved Buddha statues for my fathers
The stooping women in the rice fields for my mothers
Praying in the light to see my brothers again
To touch my soul, my roots, my land..

Someday, I will go there, someday to say hello to your soul
Someday, I will go there, to say hello to you,Vietnam
(twice)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

S&M

Cafe in Lane Cove, on Longueville Road. Two days before Christmas and the sweat sticks to my skin The day is overcast and threatens, then delivers, even more humidity as the sky lets loose a light shower, closes up, then releases another once the pavement has dried off.

The heat is exacerbated by a furious kitchen that churns out lunches and coffee. It is a busy place abutting a small village shopping centre that is bustling with last minute shoppers. Like myself. Who is not only a last minute shopper but a two minute one as well. A hunter gatherer approach to shopping.

Around the corner eight year old girls play a cello and violin and sing. They and their instruments are decorated with tinsel, as if to make up for the fact they are not in tune, in sync, and clearly have only put their ensemble together in the last two days since school closed for summer. And competing with the two boys playing carols on their trumpets two shopfronts down. Also out of tune but fervour and filthy lucre drive their performance. Each has an instrument case open which catches a generous shower of silver from bustling shoppers. It's that time of the year after all.

The obligatory black T-shirts and strappy tops adorn the girls behind the counter and those who rush around the tables which spill onto the street. Entirely appropriate attire for this glistening sweat day. And good for those who admire a tanned shoulder or decorously adorned decollete. Don't we all?

Kids saunter past with foam reindeer antlers on their heads, mouths rimmed with chocolate. Some are well behaved and fresh to the street. The rest have clearly been out all morning and are irascible and ready for home. Faces of their parents confirm it.

Plates clatter, bottled drinks clink as the fridge is raided. Cutlery chatters as it is unloaded from the dishwater. As the dishwasher door had opened the sharp smell of detergent bit the senses and a billowing cloud of hot vapour rolled to the ceiling and into the cafe, adding to the humidity. A five cent piece tings off the floors as a kid fumbles his treasure and argues with mother about ice cream flavours. Happy shouts as friends discover each other.

"Mate, whadayadoing?"
"Nothing mate. Keeping my head down. Going slow. Bugger of a day."
"Yeah, mate, need a coffee to keep going."

That it is a hot coffee is illogical but no one cares, or minds.

"Who's next please?"
"James! Howya doing?!"
"Next please!?" Shouted a little louder and through yet more friends focused on catching up first, before placing an order.

Traffic creeps past, all leaking condensation onto the road from air conditioners. A shower of rain waters us all then stops again. Indian accents. Muslim headgear. Irish accents. Australian "ocker". All mixed up and adding to the tableau. S&M arrive. Shane and Mark. (Apologies to any of you who have gotten this far and were hoping for something else).

We order lunch and spend a couple of hours talking about everything and nothing. Which is part of the pleasure of these sorts of friendships. Indeed, Shane referred us to C.S. Lewis (well known for his Narnia series but for the thinking person a deeper well in his other writings) who he is reading at the moment, and Lewis' description of four loves, one of which is affection - the sort of love that is delivered without any expectation of anything in return and which, in the view of C.S. Lewis is most commonly expressed in its purest form between men. Not erotic (Lewis discusses eros in another context) I would hasten to add, but those friendships forged between men through tough times, especially war. But also common through early friendships and which can last a lifetime. Something I must dig out and read for myself.

The converse is no doubt true. At a time when male suicide rates are at an all-time high in this country how little salve might have been applied through a firm friendship? And a death prevented? What tough times do we share with reach other. What welding of friendships occurs through heat? Not much these days. We are all individuals and are all the poorer for it.

Whatever the view of C.S.Lewis, a pleasant lunchtime interlude, with pleasant company, in a great city, all at a time of the year when we are full of goodwill towards each other and we are all grateful that we are alive. Even if it is humid!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Life is a Beach


Well, so "they" say.

At this time of the year we are inclined to believe that is the case. We usually take what we have at our doorstep for granted. Until someone visits and we take them to the beach. And wonder why we don't do it more often. Nephew Monty, out from England with his grandfather John, are in Australia to catch up with family and, well, just because they can. So naturally we take them to the beach if it is a nice day. Today it was (always is), so we went to Avalon Beach.







South Avalon














North Avalon














Trying something new in Avalon
- baby octupus

Bloody Feather Quilts

Well, the Joseph Sherfy story is starting to piece itself together. The material is a little thin at this point but the Library of Congress has been helpful, so too some resources at Carlisle Army War College and also a very hospitable group of on-line enthusiasts at militaryhistoryonline.com

This is by no means definitive or necessarily confirmed in every detail but some of the story is coming together and as it does so I will keep you informed. I am interested in the human story of Joseph and his family and the impact the Battle at Gettysburg had on them. Recall they owned the Peach Orchard at which I, and few of you no doubt, have eaten peaches.

Apparently the farm was owned, and the farmhouse built by Joseph’s father, Jacob. A sense of the effort it took to build the place can be gained by understanding that 250 cartloads of stones were used in its construction. The farm originally extended over Little and Big Roundtop. And Jacob’s holding originally included the Rose Farm, some being of the understanding Jacob gave that farm away as a wedding present.

Apparently, before the battle Joseph and others, drove their stock to a point on the south east side of those two hills and successfully hid them from both armies. So not everything was destroyed. However as some of those at militaryhistoryonline.com point out farmers, including Sherfy lost miles of fencing and looking after stock after the battle must have been a challenge.

Apparently Joseph and Mary Sherfy had seven children. Their names were Rafael, Otelia (spelt Ophelia in the 1870 Census), Mary, Anna (Annie in 1870), and John. In 1870 Earnest is added to the family, born in 1861, and Fannie was born in 1866. At least three went on to become teachers. According to the 1860 United States Federal Census Joseph was 48, making him 51 at the time of the battle, and his children’s respective ages 20, 17, 15, 11, 10 and 2. Sherfy himself was one of eleven children, nine of whom survived beyond infancy. It would seem that the family were part of the Brethren faith and, as with many of those congregations up and down the Shenandoah were staunch pacifists.

Some sources hint that Joseph Sherfy was a “Reverend” but I have yet to determine if that is the case. An index of all pastors and ministers in the Adams County does not reveal his name there but a Sherfy family was extremely active at the Marsh Creek German Baptist Brethren congregation.

In other parts of the country and at later times large numbers of Sherfys appear as Baptist Clergy. And in a war notorious for pitting brother against brother it is interesting to learn that two Tennessee Sherfys were Reverends – one fought for the south and one for the north. Their uniforms sit side by side in a museum in Knoxville. I am not sure of this family is connected to Joseph or not.

Back to Gettysburg and the Peach Orchard. The Sherfy house was used as a medical post.

“Every dwelling and farmyard left behind in the wake of the withdrawal by Longstreet’s troops had been ransacked. Notably Joseph Sherfy’s brick house on the Emittsburg Road was in shambles. According to a civilian visitor to the battlefield who gazed upon Sherfy’s property: “The rebels had searched the house thoroughly turning everything in drawers etc. out and clothes, bonnets, towels, linen etc were found tramped in indistinguishable piles from the house out to the barnyard. Four feather beds never used were soaked with blood and bloody clothes and filth of every of every description was strewn over the house.”

Joseph and his son returned on the 6th, the rest of the family the following day. It would not be too much of a stretch to guess that the Sherfys came back to find their home was a carnage house, with blood now black and congealed, body parts and gore through the house. “Filth of every description” should probably be read as a polite euphemism for human offal, refuse and other waste. Photos attest to the bloated bodies left in their fields.

To make matters worse the their barn which burned down still contained the charred of those burned alive in there. A member of the 77th NYI Referring to Sherfy’s barn burnt by cannon fire on 3 July 1863: “As we passed the scene of conflict on the left was a scene more than unusually hideous. Blackened remains marked the spot where, on the morning of the 3rd, stood a large barn. It had been used as a hospital. It had taken fire from the shells of the hostile batteries, and had quickly burned to the ground. Those of the wounded not able to help themselves were destroyed by the flames, which in a moment spread through the straw and dry material of the building. The crisped and blackened limbs, heads and other portions of bodies lying half consumed among the heaps of ruins and ashes made up one of the most ghastly pictures ever witnessed, even on the field of war.”

This is all getting a bit morbid I suspect. But imagine these people with their teenage family (and younger) coming home to confront and clean up this mess. We understand the people of Gettysburg, due to stench from the dead animals, men, blood, piles of amputated limbs, carcasses from the animals butchered by soldiers, outhouses and sinks (latrines) filled to capacity “most everyone walk around with a bottle of pennyroyal or mint oil” to alleviate themselves from the noxious odours and that many folks were unable to open their windows until the effects of frost and cold weather arrived (thanks Ed). That gives us some idea of what the Sherfys would have had to tolerate. What impact did this have on the kids?

So imagine if you will the appalling things this family confronted. Bloody quilts. Their clothes and fittings bloodied and scattered in bloody heaps across their yard and through their house. Blood covered floors and walls. Stinking carcasses. Severed limbs. Human offal. Life could hardly ever be the same. There is more to the Peach Orchard than eating those peaches!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Jocelyn

Family is having a handicapped kid.
Family is having a handicapped kid, who some close to you want locked up.
Family is having a handicapped kid who prompts parishioners to shift to different pews.
Family is having a handicapped kid which means siblings friends won’t stay over.
Family is having a handicapped kid who community services don’t want to know about.
Family is having a handicapped kid about whom some relatives just don’t want to know or understand.
Family is having a handicapped kid which means holidays are not.
Family is having a handicapped kid that destroys your goods and chattels.
Family is having a handicapped kid who can’t be managed at school.
Family is having a handicapped kid who others laugh at.
Family is having a handicapped kid who does not know her own strength and hurts you.
Family is having a handicapped kid that requires 24 hour care and supervision.
Family is having a handicapped kid who prompts other patients in the waiting room to leave.
Family is having a handicapped kid with a syndrome not understood and for which there is no cure.

Yet...

Family is having a handicapped kid who loves unconditionally.
Family is having a handicapped kid who does not give a tinkers toss that the parishioners moved to another pew!
Family is having a handicapped kid who loves life.
Family is having a handicapped kid who is your own!
Family is having a handicapped kid who lets us know very quickly who are worth knowing and those who can go their own way.
Family is having a handicapped kid who has a wicked sense of humour.
Family is having a handicapped kid who loves practical jokes.
Family is having a handicapped kid who is her own person.
Family is having a handicapped kid who teaches us humility (learned very slowly).
Family is having a handicapped kid who has introduced us to people worth knowing (have I said that already? Must be important).
Family is having a handicapped kid who is, well part of the family.
Family is having a handicapped kid – for which we would do it all again.
Family is having a handicapped kid – well part of it anyway,
Meet Jocelyn.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Peach Orchard - Will the Real Joseph Sherfy Please Stand Up?

The Peach Orchard at Gettysburg is understood by military historians to be significant in this particular battle for the Confederate breaking of the Union line. Under General Sickles the Union line had been drawn from the Devils Den, anchored at the Peach Orchard and then drawn up Emmitsburg Road. A map always helps, so here is one courtesy of Wikpedia.

One of the things I appreciate about Gettysburg, so long as I don’t arrive there behind 43 coach loads of boy scouts (!) is the sense you get of what impact the battle had, not just on the soldiers, but the community as well. There is something about the way the battlefield is preserved that engages you, at all sorts of levels. That “something” is assisted by the way the National Parks have attempted to keep things as they were in 1863. So the Wheatfield has an impact born of souls you seem to be able to touch. The Peach Orchard gives you a similar sense, of being on the farm as it was. You take a peach and eat it and keep half an eye on the farm house just in case Joseph Sherfy appears, brandishing his shotgun.

Joseph Sherfy was the owner of the Peach Orchard. Larger then than it is now, Joseph also grew apples and operated a cannery here. A label here from one of his cans.

But Sherfy for me encapsulates all that you wonder about Gettysburg and those who lived on the battlefield. He got his wife and five children away from the place before the shooting started. But in the course of the three days troops ransacked his house, used it as a shield, and thereby drew fire onto it. His fences were destroyed and his barn burned to the ground (where most things head when they burn!). And his fields were covered with dead and dying soldiers.

What on earth did he make of all this? Did the State of Mississippi make good the destruction? Confederate Brig. General William Barksdale had assaulted the Union line there? A naive question of course – but did he get any repatriation from anywhere at all? Did anybody? What did Mrs Sherfy find when she came home? What trauma did the children experience? Did they arrive back home before their fields were clear of the broken and rotting bodies – they bloated pretty quickly in the heat. Did anyone help them repair? What hellish horrors did Joseph find in the ashes of his burned barn?

I can’t seem to find anything about Joseph and his family after the war. They seem to have been fused into the background story of Gettysburg. The war moved on. We remember the heroic and move on as well. Their house is a monument but we don’t enter it with our imagination – just as we don’t really enter all the others that are scattered over the battlefield. A useful marker and that is about all.

One warm afternoon I stood with Andre and ate peaches from The Peach Orchard. It was a still hot day and there were no other visitors on the field. That helped us cast our imagination as far as we dared. I know it has been replanted, and these trees are not those that he tended. But we fancied we were eating Joseph Sherfy’s peaches. And as we ate we looked around the trees and wondered at the soldiers that sniped here, observers that watched here, artillery that blasted here and men that died here - and wondered at the family that was blighted here by those three days in July.

Follow up post on Sherfy family...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

White Trash

The pair of us landed in San Francisco and had four hours to spend before connecting to our flight across the Pacific and home. We had been on the road for a couple of weeks and were in no mood to hear from a clerk that, having checked in, we were not to leave the airport. After solemnly promising to stay on the premises James and I fled out the front door, jumped a cab and headed downtown to the wharf district - a popular but garish haunt.

In fact to be fair to San Francisco it is hardly representative of the city. There are parts of that wharf area that are uniquely American and distinctly San Francisco. My first trip there is especially memorable – eating seafood at Fishermans Wharf while ensconced in bibs, with the otherwise straight and proper colonel I was working for at the time, getting very tactile with his food. Something of a revelation to me – hard to look at him the same way when you have seen him with sauce running down his chin. But there are parts of that tourist area that are no different to any other cheap tourist trap which hustle imported t-shirts, cheap prints, bizarre postcards and strange wood and glass artifacts.

We were idling through the crowd, avoiding the hustlers and steering away from the buskers and beggars, with one eye on the watch and one hand on the hip pocket. At one point, to avoid some brightly lit, cheaply priced shops we moved towards the kerb though were kept from the road by a wrought iron fence. We shuffled along trying to outflank the cheap pits and while we did so were completely startled when a loud voice bellowed from beside us “Nickel for some white trash?!”

For a moment we had no idea where the voice, increasingly strident, was coming from until we looked into the bin at the side of the road and saw a pair of eyes peering out at us from inside a trash can - built in the style of those found at MacDonalds or other fast food places. Somehow he had gotten in there and had hung a little tile out the front simply titled “white trash”. If a passer-by missed the sign he yelled out instead – lifting the flap to get their attention. I don’t recall if he got a nickel from us but he sure made us laugh.

I hope he made a lot of money. A very self deprecating approach to begging, nicely claiming a pun as a way of life, employing some self mockery at the same time – and touching a raw nerve in US culture that is not always seen in such a humorous light. In southern states reference to white trash can often have a pretty raw edge to it.

We made the flight with time to spare, no one at the airport missed us. And "white trash" still makes me laugh when I think about him. I hope he is OK.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

USS Arizona Rebuilding

USS Arizona still leaks fuel oil in a steady blobby rain, called by some the Black Tears of the Arizona. You can watch it leaching to the surface in black blobs of ink, and in the light chop of a protected harbour the peacock tail colours of petroleum on water glint the sun hard back into your face.

Iconic as the image that symbolises that “day of infamy” USS Arizona now lies just below the surface of the harbour. As a visitor you can spend some time looking at the hull shadowed in the water, and be startled by the wall of names that remember the hundreds of men who perished in her. Many from the same families - see how fathers, sons and uncles all vanished together. An assignment policy the US Navy overturned as a result of this disaster.

That wall of names was a revelation for me one hot Hawaii afternoon. I was the only Caucasian on the tender that ran us out to the memorial. More to the point every other person on that tender was a Japanese tourist. All carrying mountains of flowers. I boiled with indignation. How dare they?! Gloating no doubt. Having a look at what they had achieved in 1941. Reliving the glory. I felt a mix of agitation and anger and irritation. How dare they interrupt my own spiritual journey out here. I was even more appalled when I stepped onto the memorial to discover even more Japanese quietly waiting the return tender trip. There were thousands of flowers on the water, all being gently pulled away from Ford Island by the breeze. At that point their significance was lost on me. I stepped over to a National Parks officer and asked him what was going on.

He had the good sense to keep the brief simple. He said they were here to grieve, to express their regret. And suggested I walk up to the wall and see what was happening up there. He added that his grandfather was killed on 7 December 1941 but that he wished his grandfather could see what was happening here today. Then signalled with his chin for me to make my way through the crowd to the wall of names. Perhaps he sensed my agitation. Or heard the indignation in my voice.

I paused for a moment, caught in a crowd and noticed for the first time the serious stripping of garlands and the tossing of flowers onto the water from the edge of the memorial and through a hole in the floor. Everyone was doing it. I was the exception. All were sober. All were silent. The slap of the water on the barely visible turret housing, and on the memorial pylons was all that could be heard.

Finally making my way to the wall of names I was confronted by a wall of flowers and a veil of tears. The flowers were heaped up over a plinth that is located in front of the wall, and over the rope that keeps visitors away form the wall. The tears coursed in silence down the faces of elderly Japanese who stood stiffly at attention. Before they bowed gently and about turned and made way for others. Here was a very different perspective altogether and my about-face was total and instant. In humbled shock I could not tear myself away.

Nor could one old Japanese gentleman who was bowed from the waist, at complete right angles. His tears splashed on the deck. But there was no sound. With a tight timetable of tenders coming and going with visitors a Parks officer had to gently help him away from the wall and back to the boat. I followed, the last to leave. As I did the Parks Officer who had suggested I see what was happening at the wall nodded to me. “Those Japanese who visit this place are usually more sorry about what happened here than we are” he said. Words that rang in my ears. The return trip, only 20 minutes or so since my outward leg, carried a very sobered and humbled me. These people had taught me a lesson about humanity that I hope I don’t forget.

It was certainly all brought to mind with this photo in the weekend paper of Zenji Abe, former Japanese pilot who was one man whose bombs struck the USS Arizona in 1941. His posture suggests to me the same regret I saw the day I visited the memorial. See his hand touch the names. And see the names below – was that a Johnson family who lost four men in one fell disaster?

Some of the great things that have come out of conflict have been the powerful reconciliations forged afterwards. We are capable of so much which is corrupt. But capable of so much compassion as well. It’s a shame the latter is often most profound when it is born out of the former.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Train Nazi Postscript

20 September 2006. We finally dropped into Lanzhou at about 7.15 am. I managed to get back into the carriage via the platform as recounted earlier (Train Nazi). We eventually were pressed out through the exit with a throng of fellow travellers into the cool morning air. We were immediately struck by how different this town is. Hard, gritty, flinty even. Hard faces. Heads down. Worker’s clothes, impassive responses to our proffered hellos. Here we met Richard our driver after running the usual gauntlet of no hopers that crowd around the forecourt of any rail-station anywhere in the world.

Including a bunch of soldiers preparing to board a bus, looking surly and half asleep, Captain trying to get them to line up properly and to stand in order while their baggage was being stacked high on the bus. That made me grin to myself. Military conscripts anywhere in the world are all the same. They know what a straight line looks like but passive surliness, spiced with some insouciance, without direct disobedience, is just the perfect mix with which to get your own back at your officers. I know the formula well and fancy I was rather expert at it. The Captain was clearly rattled enough for me to keep my camera in my pocket. No need to prod the dragon.

We were dropped off at our hotel which boasted “grand” in its title somewhere. It was a pile of rubbish actually. With the usual Chinese inability to provide quality service. The one thing it had going for it was the size of the room. However the whole place was remarkably musty and we were forced to open windows – onto the city reputed to be the most polluted in the world – clean the bathroom with bleach (that shopping expedition is another story in itself) and to keep the air-conditioning turned off. In fact I think the whole musty/mould problem was the air conditioning. But we slept there in the warm air of late summer, mixed with dust and smoke, together with the noise of people and traffic bustling away six stories below and the trains bellowing through to the Russian border, Tibet, Urumqi and other remote points directly beneath us. Whatever shortcomings we have in this hotel, it is probably is far beyond what those soldiers are putting up with right now.

Four weeks after we were there the sorry story of Lanzhou’s air pollution was complemented by a broken sewage pipe which turned the Yellow River red. Something poetic in there somewhere.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

St Matthews


In 1981 I spent six months on a training course in Toowoomba. Semi rural Queensland. It was a bachelor's life. And thoroughly pleasant for that. I sketched this old stone church modestly posing behind a large pinus radiata, but parading with something more exotic in its other garden. These sorts of buildings lend themselves to sketching. But I may have been attempting some sort of atonement for my primary school stories of churches. Most of those stories and the accompanying sketches have the church burning down. A child psychologist would have a field day with that.

1949 Robinson Harvester


Other creative pursuits in the past have included pen and ink and pen and pencil sketching. Far too little of it though since my school days. In one summer holidays from school I worked on a farm in northern Victoria. It was 45 degrees and oven hot. Most days. I sketched this one afternoon when it was too hot to do anything else. The sweat evaporated before it reached the ground - though some remains smudged in my sketchbook to this day. I tried to catch the harsh light on the gums in the background by putting little detail in there. To no effect given there is so much white background. The harvester had long gone to the cracked timber and rusty frame boneyard found in every farm. I was wary of it because the occassional black snake would rest under there.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Remembering Shorty and Hobbs

Like the rest of the country I heard that we had lost two people in a helicopter accident off Fiji yesterday. But when I saw the papers this morning and the front page carried this photo I was jolted somewhat. Here was a face to the name. And somehow it still seemed that part of the family had died, even though I have been out of that family for many years now.


In April 1984 two Mirages collided above Bluff Downs in north Queensland. I was posted to RAAF Townsville, the air base from which the visiting Mirages were operating. I was at home at the time and the news spread over the back fences of the married quarters in a flash. I remember all the families standing out in the street in sobered silence. Even the scampering children were still. We were all saddened. Strangely, we had never met Wylie and Rim yet we behaved and felt like a member of our own families had died. This was really the first time the notion that the military could be a family came home to me. A grossly neglectful family. But a family nonetheless. So much so that thirteen years after they died, and after I had departed the service, I visited the little plaque, lost under the frangipani at the edge of the air movements pad at RAAF Townsville, which remembers them.

There was a similar personal and community sentiment a few years later when we lost our first F-18 after it ploughed into Palm Island during a late evening training sortie. I drove past the base from university to my married quarter and sensed something was up. There was more activity around the parked aircraft then usual so I called in and heard we had lost young Jefferies. And had nearly lost the CO at the same time if I recall correctly. But again we spent the next week sobered by the fact that we lost someone we knew so well but had in fact never met. One of our own. It is a strange sensation and is some sort of vicarious grieving. Surreal but very real. It happened later again when young McNess and his colleague were lost in a F-111 accident. McNess had just moved in across the road from me and I hardly had gotten to know him when I read his name in the paper. He was another of those keen shiny faces that came issued with every new F-111 aircrew member, reflecting their disbelief at the fact that they were actually flying these amazing planes. Yet revelling in every moment of it. Barely introduced and then gone.

So when the defence chiefs get up and declare to the press they are saddened by the loss I am inclined to believe them. I am not so sure about the politicians.

There are two exceptions for me – exceptions in the sense that the grieving was not vicarious. Shorty and Hobbs. Two F-111 crew who I knew well. Steady. Keen to be friends. Hobbs so ready to help in my first days in the squadron when I was still trying to work out which way was up under the stern gaze of the OC each morning. Shorty, always trying to know more, asking endless questions. Quiet but quick to laugh. And both forever forgiving of our (non aircrew!) shortcomings. Both keen to help, and both very inclusive, welcoming us into the squadron fraternity and making us feel part of the club.They died in a F-111 accident in 1999 in Malaysia, years after I left the squadron. That loss I felt keenly. And rued the inability to say goodbye or to somehow express the connection I had with them. I regretted not knowing them better than I did. Men’s men who were all that was, and is good about serving in the military. I remembered them both today when I picked up the paper and grieved the loss of Captain Bingley, a man I never knew.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Gratitude

Funny what prompts you, but I was just bouncing through another blogger's site where the author had a quick note to observe how grateful she should be for the things she has - but is often not. My own response is usually a glib line but it is a conviction as well if I test myself - that I am grateful every day that I awake, that I am breathing, and that I am upright. Sometimes I am OK with that formula if the upright bit is left out. But breathing is always a good start.

Anything from that point on is "up". That I have a family. Who loves. And who I love. That I have friends who pray for me. And the family. Who pray when the going gets tough. Who keep me grounded by reminding me that I need prayer - that is, I can't do all (any) of this by myself.

Five minutes in places like Yemen, China or Vietnam, or the Sydney Central Station reminds me that I should be grateful for he material things I have. A job. More money than most in the world. Fresh water. Choices of food. Ability to travel. Freedom to worship. To vote. To say what I think. All freedoms the majority of the global population, in all its history, has ever had, or even has today.

To the Author of all this and more - thankyou.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pickled Eel for Emperor


September 11 2006 Beijing: We met Liz and Al and took bicycles down to the Forbidden City, but via Beihai Park. I love the tickets they issue to these places – very sharp looking but only a few cents to buy. A collection of these tell your story by themselves. At Beihai Park we took photos and posed for photos. Even though the temple was under repairs – as a lot of the city is, for which everyone can thank, or curse, the 2008 Olympics. One of the tourist attractions up on the hill, popular mainly with local tourists it seemed, was to pose in emperor's garb for an outrageous fee.

None of us were too keen on the idea of dressing up but some parents with their four year old were having their young prince pose in royal garb. For some reason his grandmother decided I was “pretty” and wanted me to have my picture taken. Under increasing pressure I did so. We ended up having a picture taken with her sitting on the throne beside me, with my arm around her. She thought it hilarious. She was delighted to the point of paying for additional photos which she proudly showed me when they were printed. She got a kiss on her forehead for her trouble and seemed pleased with that. It certainly added to the spontaneity and atmosphere of the afternoon.

I did not come away with a photo of grandma. Only one of the Pickled Eel as Emperor!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Long Tan and Short Memories

Yesterday the Australian Prime Minister of Australia laid a wreath at the site of the Long Tan battlefield in southern Vietnam. It is rightly famous for the Australian infantry who beat off more than 2000 enemy.

There are criticisms by Australian veterans about how this battle was forgotten, nay even rebuffed by those in government at the time. That veterans received inappropriate, or worse, no recognition at all for their efforts. They accuse various governments of short memories.

But there are other short memories about that war that we should be thankful for. Visit Vietnam and discover how few are aware of the war. Vietnam has one of the highest under 25 year old populations in the world. And they are all hell bent on securing the materialistic future they see in the Western media. Drink at Starbucks, ride the latest Japanese motorbike, shop for the latest fashions and have the latest accessories. Some have never heard of the war of aggression we call the Vietnam War.

More remarkable is the handful of Vietnamese you might be fortunate enough to meet who hold no grudges despite their losses – material, social, filial, fiscal. And mental. I met an amazing woman we simply called Grandma who had fought the French, fought the Americans, lived in the Cu Chi tunnels, fought the Cambodians in 1979 (she lives on their border near the “Parrots Beak”.) On occasions she helps coach junior diplomats from the US Embassy. They know nothing of her background until the end of their time with her, when she takes them through a review of her martial life.

The impact is dramatic, and was for us too as she laid out her experiences with great pathos and compassion and humanity. What a remarkable thing to discover that in someone who had every human reason to harbour a grudge was a person who held no grudges. Resented no foreigner. Only wanted to build opportunities for her children and grandchildren.

We go to Vietnam today with something of a self conscious cringe, hoping they will not resent our visit. Worried about what they might think about those of us coming from aggressor nations that killed more then three million of their citizens. They welcome us with open arms, great humour, an earnest desire to know about us, to practise their English. And take our money. But through their open honesty and driving passion to build their nation they remove our cringe. A humbling experience, built on their thankfully very short memories.

Monday, November 20, 2006

High Water Mark of the Confederacy

Unless distant family was involved in the US Civil War there is almost nothing to connect an Australian with a war that threatened to rip a nation apart, eventually welded it, and which still resonates more than 140 years later as something sentimental and patriotic. And divisive -flint eyed southerners will tell you they are going to “do it again”.

As it turns out I have distant family connections that were involved in both the War of Revolution and the US Civil War. The first time I visited a US Civil War site it was in 1989 and I had no awareness of those connections. However I had the good fortune to discover in the Wheatfield a connection woven of common humanity, and I was fused to that place by bonds that have everything to do with the blasphemy of spilt blood and the gnashing of emotion as you realise you stand where brother slaughtered brother. Stand in the middle of the Wheatfield and be the only person there, in quiet, stunning lark punctuated silence, knee deep in grass, turn slowly and see how small the field is as the woods close in on you. And ponder the thousands who perished here in three short days. I connected with America in, of all places, the Wheatfield.

Years later I discovered the remarkable story of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who, on revisiting the battlefield in 1889 said…"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream, and lo! The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls."

Poetic language which says more powerfully something that touched me as I looked around that wheatfield. And since 1988 there are any number of stories about that battlefield I have gathered in my head. But one sticks out above all others. It is the story of an old man and the common spirit and vision we shared with him. It is my habit when visiting the Gettysburg battlefield, to park my car and then walk every inch of ground I can. Only in climbing or descending Little and Big Roundtop can you appreciate what tough ground it was to fight through. Lie in the Devils Den and understand the advantages and disadvantages of your lair – and just how close you are to sharp eyed soldiers across Plum Run. Or closer. How men came to be trapped there and die with no one knowing. And walk Pickets Charge and comprehend the despair and futility and hopelessness and unexplainable courage of the men who pushed the Union Line. It only takes twenty minutes to walk from Lee’s statue which marks part of the Confederate jumping-off point to the top of Cemetery Ridge, their objective. Stand there and marvel that anyone got that far in the face of canon fire and musketry. A steady walk across open ground into steady fire.

In 1997 I was walking Pickett’s Charge. It was September. Still hot but not with the high humidity that July can bring. I was walking with a friend from Slovenia, Andre, who knew the site well and who had been touched in some place by what this battlefield represented. Being from the Balkans he knew only too well what brother fighting brother was really all about. Chamberlain would no doubt be amazed that his battlefield would connect with two foreigners from opposite ends of the earth. We were of a generation he knew not, from afar, but most reverent.

As we climbed the shallow incline we were distracted by the struggling figure of an old man who was clearly making a hard job of the heat and the uneven ground, and we hastened forward to catch up with him. On reaching him we offered him assistance but he gruffly rebuffed us. So we offered him some water instead which he gladly accepted. As we spoke he realised from our accents we were not locals and so asked us from where we hailed. When he discovered we were from Australia and Slovenia he was overcome with emotion and for a moment Andre and I thought we had a heart attack victim on our hands.

As the old fellow straightened up (continuing to rebuff our offers of assistance) and wiped his eyes he told us he was 86 years old. That his grandfather had somehow survived Pickett’s Charge in July 1863. And that every year on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death he walked Pickett’s Charge. Had done so every year since before he could remember - he had been carried there as a baby by his grandfather who walked up there once a year to remember fellows ground into eternity by Union guns. And in the mind of this old fellow the best way to honour the memory of his grandfather was to walk this field alone, all the way to the low stone wall along the front of the copse where Meade has blasted Confederates all day at point blank range until many of his own men wept at the carnage and refused to continue the slaughter.

This old gent had it in his head that he had to walk this walk on his own, to reach the High Water Mark of the Confederacy (that stone wall) unaided. Regardless of health. Of weather. Above the protests of his family – he pointed out a car parked near the copse. Said his daughter was waiting up there with a first aid kit and oxygen tank “just in case”.

We asked him if we could walk with him and he was clearly moved. He was amazed to discover two foreigners who were familiar with the battle, familiar with the place it has in American (and world) history, but more importantly, who had discovered some other less concrete but no less tangible connection with this bloody ground. So we walked in a slow shuffle, probably no faster than the shattered bodies were able in the face of all the leaded fire, and under the rain of steel shot one hundred and thirty four years earlier. This day there was no noise or smoke or shouts or battlefield moan of expiring or striving men. Just the three of us. One American. One Slovenian. One Australian. All men. Silent in our shared humanity and companionship.

As the old gold Mercury slid slowly and silently over the ridge and out of sight towards the town of Gettysburg with our new old friend, it occurred to me that we had not asked about those in his family who might continue this tradition of remembrance. To have the power of the vision pass into their souls. As we looked at each other we knew we had not needed to ask. Without any words he had declared there were none.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Cu Chi

I have been asked about the reference to Cu Chi in the photo. Cu Chi (“coo chee”) is famous as the site for the tunnels built by the Vietnamese resistance, or Viet Cong, about 45 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Being this close to Saigon they were used to focus attacks into the heart of the South Vietnamese military and political administration, including that of the Americas during the Vietnam War. Earlier they had been used in the fight against the French.

In military history they are infamous for the fact that the US Army 25th Infantry Division set up base right on top of them. They are famous for the Australian and American soldiers (Tunnel Rats) who, armed with only a torch, a pistol and their courage, went into the tunnels to hunt out the resistance. But they are especially famous for the amazing length and complexity of the tunnels. Here people lived and ate and slept, and died. Here they had workshops, hospitals, schools, manufacturing plants, storage facilities, training rooms, generator rooms, kitchens and wells. First dug in the late 1940s and in used right up until 1975 they are a potent symbol of what lengths people will go to in order to secure their own land and take control of their own destiny.

I crawled through a one hundred metre section of these tunnels, apparently widened to accommodate bulky visitors. But they were still a very tight fit. It took some effort to negotiate hard turns left or right or up or down. And I was forced to take a deep breath when the lights went out and our guide vanished into the darkness. Thirty metres underground and no way to back out – and in complete, smothering blackness. And no way to see forward. You only have one choice and that is to feel you way forward until the little lamp of the guide finally came into view around a sudden corner and down a sharp drop into a hole. I made more of an effort to keep up. And did so with a newly inspired respect for those who lived and fought their wars in these places.