Saturday was Anzac Day. I was up early – not for remembrance but for a walk. Like a lot of Aussies I occasionally turn up at the 11am march, stand in the sun, get hot, wish I’d worn a hat, contemplate the unreality of going to war, pay my respects, then go home and enjoy a barbeque on the public holiday that our ancestors fought and died for. No one in my immediate family fought in any of the world wars; my grandfather had flat feet. That’s all I was ever told, as a child, when I asked why my grandfather didn’t have medals like my friend’s grandfathers did. For some reason, flat feet forbade you from combat. Perhaps the feet were too unattractive for the rest of the unit to deal with in such close quarters?
As a child, I wondered about flat feet. I found myself checking my own feet, and to my relief I found nicely formed arches. I have hero feet. Not the loser feet of my ancestors. The cowardly flat foot. Apparently they thought flat feet were clumsy. Your unit would be on a stealth mission, running through the forest. The enemy was close. You were quietly approaching, ready for the surprise attack, except Norman, the bloke from the country town who has flat feet, he’s fallen over again, dropped his backpack, his gun has fired, and now he’s fumbling with his military issue cutlery, the metallic clanging resounding in the quiet damp morning. Flat feet were the tootsies of defeat. Flat feet was a disqualifying factor when it came to enlisting for service in World War II. There were a lot of beliefs about the flat foot that have since been shown to be the stuff of mythology. Flat footers, like flat Earthers, may be annoying, but they are now eligible for military service. It turns out that people with flat feet actually incur fewer injuries than those with significant arches. They should have taken the flat-footed fucker.
I say that with the utmost respect, acknowledging the war and the ruin my grandfather stayed home to effect on his own family. That kind of war has no public holiday. The women and children who survived the nightly bombings, on his return from the pub, got no medals. Like returned servicemen their trauma also stained the generations that followed.
It’s dark, I’m drinking tea. I hear a lone bugle play The Last Post. Its mournful notes float in the darkness high above my small town, lingering in the silence. This year is the year no one can gather. The notes are all that connect us. This haunting mournful reverie – a reminder of the sacrifice of men and women long gone. Those men who, when boys, fought the battles of old men who used the poor and dispensable to fight their battles. The thought of no one being able to gather in remembrance made The Last Post even more melancholy. On this day, men who don’t speak of their trauma gather quietly in the dark to cry. By the time the sun comes up they are having a beer.
I find myself in tears. I move to my verandah to cling to those wavering notes that hover in the air. From my perch I see a lone woman holding a candle-lit vigil in her driveway. Somehow this is more poignant than the communal gathering. I think about what ANZAC Day means. About the unfathomable experiences of young men my sweet and gentle son’s age who were killed, or if they weren’t killed, if they lived through the horror, returned so traumatised they became the ‘enemy’ in their own families.
Whole generations of broken and damaged men used as pawns in a government war machine. The bugle notes are rising; I think about the resilience of that generation. I think about how soft we are; complaining of our hardship in lockdown in our nice comfortable homes.
I think about the old people. ANZAC Day always makes me think about old people. Many of them now very alone, either in isolation at home, or in nursing homes, with no family to visit. It’s their wartime again. They are on emotional rations. This time it’s not the young, it’s the old who are falling on the frontline.
It occurs to me how little we value them. There will be no march for them when they’ve gone. No public holiday. No one will gather at their funerals. In the time of COVID-19 these old people will die alone. The Last Post finishes. I wipe my face, finish my tea, and head to the beach. Lest we forget.