Friday, 24 April 2015

TOD Tour, Day 73 - Cape Hillsborough to Airlie Beach

Another early rise this morning to watch the kangaroos on the beach.

The event was ransacked by the over-eager photographers. Despite all appearing to have powerful digital SLR’s with long zoom lenses, they felt it necessary to be within touching distance. As a result, the seven or eight kangaroos who were present reacted to the tight circle of snappers, most of them with inbuilt and some with post flash units attached and popping regularly and left soon after the first sign of the sun. Meanwhile, some elderly folk and others who were just respectful of these wild animals, had their view blocked and any photos they might have liked to take full of human animals.

One of the invaders was even dressed in a yellow high-vis shirt! What small chance there was, that we wouldn’t already know he was a nong, was at least removed.

The irony came when the majority of the kangaroos hopped away and one, passing in the distance, transected the sun and my position and I scored the money shot anyway!

What did John Lennon say about instant karma?

We left the caravan park at about 9:00am and stopped again at the Old School Teahouse: this time for a few hours of tea and snacks and some blog and Facebook time.

A few other stops were planned but as I had laundry chores to do, we pressed on to Airlie Beach, where we will see out Anzac Day and tick a rather long vacant box on the bucket list, a cruise to the Great Barrier Reef and some snorkelling Nemo Inc.

Our digs are fantastic. We don’t usually like resort parks but the price was right and the staff really friendly. Our site is shielded on the north side by palms which means we didn’t need to erect the canopy for shade and with sunshine all the go for the next three days, we’ll have no need for coverage from rain.

Thanks to Sam – my avid researcher – while Sue shopped, I went on the hunt for a shock resistant, waterproof camera and managed to score a very good deal. For those in the camera know, the age old debate between Canon and Nikon has always been a spirited one. I shoot with two Canon cameras but the comparisons in the waterproof models leave the Nikon as the superior machine. In fact, Canon comes in a distant fourth behind a Ricoh (no 1 but too expensive), the Nikon and then a Panasonic. As a result, we now have a Nikon AW-120 in the stable for those times when the going gets rough and tumble.

I also bought a new beach hat as the old one disappeared about a week ago.

After shopping, we took a spin along the main drag in Airlie – bars, cafes, shops for cooler people than me and tourist dives. Lots of good looking sorts with perfect tans and blonde hair and that was just the blokes.

An early night tonight, as we’ll be attending the local Dawn Service and then returning home to watch the ABC coverage from Gallipoli, Villers Bretonneau and then Lone Pine, where we might even catch a glimpse of my great uncle’s name on the wall behind the speeches.

Great Uncle Albert Langston was killed on or about the 8th August, 1915, in the Battle for Lone Pine. He was listed as missing in action, presumed killed for eighteen months until a field court in Northern France identified a fellow soldiers who recollected seeing him fall. This fellow said in his evidence, “Albert was a good bloke.” Always fills me up when I read it. His grave is unknown. A few years ago, his great grandson, my boy Sam, found his name on the roll of the dead at Lone Pine.

Another great uncle, Jim Smith, my Mum’s uncle, lost a trigger finger at Gallipoli and was repatriated home to Australia.

It was Albert’s death that drove his brother, my grandfather Arthur, to join the AIF. He was shot and badly wounded at Villers Bretonneau, three weeks before the fourth ANZAC Day in 1918. Machine guns opened him up from his left hip to his right nipple but he survived 8 hours on that farmers field just south of the town, was retrieved in a cease fire, whip-stitched and eventually sent to England for surgery and somehow survived to return home with ghosts chasing him for the next twenty odd years.

My Dad had always wanted to return to that field in order to understand his dad. To pay homage to him, I guess, but he never did. In 2012, I had the chance to do so for him and I stood there, a committed pacifist, conflicted by family pride and the horror of what had happened there. It gave rise to “Poppy’s Paddock”, a poem from my last collection and I’ll include it here as my homage to him, to my dad and to all those incredibly brave men and women who fought, survived and somehow returned to “real” life afterwards, haunted by vapours and hard memories and the agonised calls of mates who didn’t come home.

Poppy’s Paddock
Arthur George Langston - my Pop

Standing among the sugar beet
as soft rain confuses autumn sunshine
I can hear them screaming
in this French farmer’s field
on the rolling Santerre plain.
Maschinengewehr rattle away,
cranking death or worse,
bullets traced on a starless canvas
finding flesh and bone to rent.
Slow turns take it all in:
maps and diaries and body tallies
no longer point and click accounts
or pages turned for reference.
I can smell the earth.
It sticks to my boot tread,
wedges beneath finger nails,
pancakes on my knee
as I crouch to touch it,
to make the connection
between this place
and home.

He’s lying out there in the dark
in a land for no man
full of fallen men,
this dying half kilometre of red dirt
to Monument Farm.
He is only stories to me,
told by my mother,
of my father’s father
and an old scanned photograph,
larrikin grin,
baggy suit,
fedora pushed back,
eyes sparkling trouble, even in sepia.

A farmer waves recognition,
one grandson to another,
steering his harvester through sugar beet,
working soil bought with obscene riches.
Standing in the fresh tilled field,
I’m close enough
to cross the gap of time,
to gather the experience
in small parcels,
standing in the crossfire.
Long terrible minutes of tears
tear their own damage
as I cry in loud sounds
and confusion.

I see him finally,
opened from one hip
to the other nipple,
lying for six hours in the mud,
refusing to die,
his mates changed by the experience
into corpses
or walking carcases,
the emotion hollowed from them,
replaced by steel
tempering their survival,
only to rust at home.
No telegrams for their families,
just a slow vacancy
of lunacy and grog.

I’m trapped in a conflict,
pacifist disgust confirmed,

family pride overflowing.
Nothing to offer
but tears I can’t stop.
I found the grandfather I never knew,
lay his medals among the sods
to be soaked in his reality,
bridged a connection to his son,
walked on the bones of conundrum.

The field of screaming ghosts remains,
just south of Villers-Bretonneau.
Southern Sons calling from the tilled rise
across the Hangard Road,
their voices low and tired,
groaning since that 4th Anzac.
I placated them with tales of Pop,
news from four generations
after their rough run
to Monument Farm.
I cried with their remnant memories,
scattered among sugar beets,
shook with disbelief
we could be so cold and cruel
over a point of view.

I offered gratitude inadequate,
spoke the Lords Prayer,
left them there,
another callous re-enactment.
My face washed clean
I’ll keep the deeper stains
as ammunition against hawks
with swooping points of view.

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