A rather unhappy story

What can I say...? Too true... Too sad...

A family acquaintance (we'll call him "Derek") claims that his life hasn't been too bad - a loving wife (we'll call her "Shirley"), a couple of great kids (now young adults, and one of whom is soon to present the first grand-child), successfully self-employed and a comfortable home in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. According to Derek, the one big mistake he made in his life is that he allowed himself to be born on 20 July 1949. Now for most people that birth-date would not be a misfortune, unless you happened to be a non-aboriginal male living in Australia in 1969 - for 20 July was one of the dates drawn out of the barrel in the national service lottery of September 1969. Consequently, early in 1970 Derek found himself involuntarily turned into that lowest form of life, a "nasho" at Puckapunyal and later at Singleton. At the end of his training, he was posted to 3RAR at Woodside as a rifleman. In February 1971, that battalion arrived in Nui Dat, for what was supposed to be a 12 month tour in Vietnam, but which got truncated.

Derek says he didn't like having his life set by a raffle and he remembers that prior to getting his call-up notice, conscription was the subject of several big rows between himself and his father, culminating in his father telling him that he hoped Derek would get called up because the army would make a man of him. When Derek received his call-up papers, his father made a big thing of it, boasting to their neighbours and to his mates at the bowling club. His sisters big-noted themselves to their girl-friends about their brother in the Army. Derek says that he never considered ignoring the conscription notice, trying to get deferment, being a draft-resister or anything like that - those sorts of things weren't done in country towns in South Australia. He was the only one in his group of friends to be called up. When Derek finished training and came home on leave for the first time, his father got angry with him because he was not wearing his uniform when he arrived home.

Derek never speaks about his experiences in Vietnam. Shirley says that every so often she shocks herself when she remembers that her gentle husband and dedicated father of her kids had killed someone, albeit in the service of his country.

When 3RAR arrived back in Australia from its shortened tour of Vietnam, most of the battalion was given leave. Derek says that before they left, they were warned by an Army officer to be careful. The officer advised them not to wear their uniforms off the camp, to keep quiet about being in Vietnam and to let their jungle hair cuts grow out. Derek says that he didn't enjoy coming home on leave. Many of his football and cricket friends had moved on since he had been called up, some had left town, some had married or got engaged and most weren't interested in renewing their friendships with him. He had a regular girl-friend when he was called up, but she disappeared off the scene soon after he went to Puckapunyal. People weren't particularly hostile towards him when he came back - they just didn't want to have much to do with him. His sisters were clearly embarrassed by having him around again.

However, his father still wanted to make a big deal out of Derek's time in Vietnam, and insisted that they had to go to the local RSL. So one Friday night, Derek agreed to go with his father to the RSL for a couple of drinks. They were walking up the gravel path to the RSL hall when the secretary of the RSL spotted them. The secretary walked straight up to Derek and said "Piss off. We don't want your sort here." He says his father looked bewildered, but Derek knew what the secretary meant - he had heard stories about the RSL's attitude to Vietnam veterans. So Derek turned and went home. Next day he left home and spent the rest of his post-Vietnam leave in Adelaide, getting and keeping drunk.

(Derek explains that in the 1990s, the local RSL branch learnt that he was a Vietnam vet and the secretary contacted him several times trying to get him to join. He declined each time, until the RSL secretary lost his cool and accused Derek of letting his mates down and being un-Australian. Derek told the secretary about his welcome home from the RSL in 1971, and gave him a precise anatomical description of where the RSL could place its membership offer. They left him alone after that.)

Derek says that he found it hard to settle down after he was discharged. For everyone else - family, friends, neighbours and towns-people - it was business as usual and he was expected to pick things up as though nothing had changed. But he couldn't go back to the way things used to be - too much water had flowed under the bridge since he was called-up. He had expected to resume his pre call-up job, but when he went to see his old boss about the job, he was told "I don't want any trouble from you. I've heard all about your lot." By law, he was supposed to get his old job back, but he says that after that welcome, he told his boss where to put the job. His relationship with his father had gone from bad to worse after the RSL incident. He was having nightmares most nights, and his mother often was in tears because of his language and behaviour at home. He went to Adelaide, got some casual jobs and generally mucked around for a couple of years. Derek says that by then most employers were wary of giving jobs to ex Vietnam types. In the mid 1970s, he got started on an electronics course, and later in the decade he met Shirley.

Derek admits that at times he still hits the bottle heavily. Shirley says that he doesn't get aggressive or violent when he drinks - he withdraws into some silent world of his own. She says that he still wakes her up at nights with his nightmares.

Derek and Shirley say they reached something of a change point in their lives in the late 1990s. The kids were getting ready to leave home and they found themselves talking about life, creation, belief, what's it all about etc. Derek's family had been occasional church goers, and he had been sent to Sunday School until he was about 12 or 13. Shirley, who had grown up in Adelaide, came from a churched family and she attended church regularly until she left home after completing teacher's college. Shirley had an old Bible, and she had begun to read bits and pieces from it. Derek says he doesn't really know why, but he and Shirley felt that they wanted to go to church. Since meeting and marrying, their only contact with churches had been the occasional wedding, baptism or funeral.

So one Sunday, Derek and Shirley went to one of the local churches (which one is probably not important). They didn't know anyone there, so it was, as Derek puts it, something of a "cold call." The way Derek describes it, no one made an effort to welcome them on that first visit. They were handed some sheets of paper by the person at the door and they found somewhere to sit. A few of the congregation stared at them for a while, but no-one came up to say hello. Derek was surprised by the majority of grey haired women in the congregation. It looked like they were the youngest there, apart from the female minister and a couple of children. At the end of the service, no one came up to speak to them, so they made their way to the door, shook the hand of the minister and left. No one had spoken to them, except for the friendly "hello" from the minister. However, Shirley says that she found the service reassuringly familiar. Even though she hadn't been to church for over 25 years, she remembered many of the hymns and the order of service.

The following Sunday, they went back. Once more, no one came up to greet them. Some of the congregation stared at them again. At the end of the service, no one spoke to them, so they shook hands with the minister at the door and left.

They went back on the third Sunday. This time, as they were leaving, someone called out to them "You can get a cup of tea in the hall." So they walked across to the church hall and each got a cup from the tea urn. They were standing by themselves when a woman walked up to them. Derek figures that she was someone "of importance" because she had a name badge on, she had given some of the readings and announcements during the services and she had an "authoritative bearing".

The woman began to question them: "Are you new in the area?" Shirley replied no, they'd lived in the suburb for over 20 years. Then the woman asked "Oh, well, have you changed churches?" Shirley replied no, they had not had much to do with any church since they were teenagers. Derek says the woman looked at them with some alarm: "You're not some of those new Christians, are you?" "No", replied Shirley, "I suppose we're more like renewing Christians." The woman was silent for a while as she looked at them. Then she said "We have our ways here. This isn't the right church for your sort.", turned her back and walked away. Derek says that as soon as he heard the phrase "your sort", he remembered the RSL secretary in 1971.

Derek and Shirley say they never went back to that church. As far as I know, they have not tried to go to another church.

Trevor


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