Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Australian War Memorial - a different sort of journey...

It has taken me some time to write about the War Memorial. That is a Lancaster bomber in the photo. My father flew these, and other bombers, during the second World War. This seems an impossibly long time ago now, but in my childhood it wasn't that much longer than the decade that has just been marked since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Between 1943 and 1945 my father was part of the Australian Bomber squadrons that flew over Europe and tried to wipe out the industry of Germany. He was aged nineteen to twenty one. I used to think that he was too young then to have done anything really dangerous, or courageous. At the War Memorial, it says the average age of the young Australian pilots was twenty. 20. Let me tell you about what I remember of my father just now. He used to throw back his head and laugh out loud. His laughter moved his whole body. He used to say 'Whackothedidlio' and when watching the Broncos, he would lean forward and say, 'you beauty' in a long and drawn out exclamation. YOU BEAUUUTYYY. When we were small he taught all five of us to body surf, guaging the right moment to throw our body into the curve of the wave and ride with absolute delight into shore. On the edge of the surf, when we were even smaller, his legs were like pylons, dug deep in the sand, that we would roll and squirm and knock up against. He would stand there with the other dads, on the edge, while all us kids chased waves and dug holes that filled with salty water so quickly we would almost miss the shells that were sucked down and buried. From time to time he would lean down and pick one of us up and swing us high above his head, onto his shoulders, to scan the deep sea past the breakers for smugglers. At the end of the day, after dinner and before bed, when it was dark he would sit with us on the dunes again and look for the smugglers lights far out in the ocean. Our family played this game for years, then he played it with his grandchildren too, scanning the dark of Bribie Passage for lights blinking a code to shore.
Years later, as his time here was almost done, I found some old black and white photos from his youth. A group of young men in uniform larking around, smoking, smiling at the camera and each other. On closer scrutiny I recognised some of my father's friends - the other dads from the beach and the bar-b-ques, the beer garden and the park on Cracker Night. We talked together about the photo and for the first time in all those years he pointed to other faces and said, "He didn't come back. He didn't come back. Either did he or he." And I started to sink into the grief and the shock, the sadness and the courage of those young bomber pilots that flew off in the night, all those decades ago, and did not know if they would make it back. At the War Memorial it said that of the 10000 young Australians in the bomber squadrons, more than 3500 did not come back. I cannot remember the exact figures but the death toll was staggering.
Those that did come back built a life, determinedly, had large families and did not talk about those years. At least not to us, their children. My father did not go to Anzac Day, though he did play in the Army and Navy Cup at golf, with the other faces from the photo, the ones that did come back to inhabit my childhood neighbourhood, to cheer their footy teams, and their childrens and grandchildrens.

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