“I know the nicest thing I ever had on the Kokoda Trail was a cup of tea given to me by the Salvation Army. And I hated tea that never had milk or sugar in it; this didn’t have any in it and I loved it, I wanted more. I had half a cup, that’s all they had. I never forgot that one.”
-Interview with Syd Heylen, 39th Battalion, June 1989, from the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, Australian War Memorial
I’ve just come back from a Dawn Service to mark ANZAC Day, and, to be honest, it didn’t go well. Whilst the gardens are lovely, the West Torrens War Memorial is really good and there were hundreds of people, the ceremony was very sadly lacking. Firstly, the Council had clearly bought their sound amplification gear via eBay, second-hand, from a shoe shop spruiker. It would have been enough for about 6 people to hear. It had one little speaker facing forwards, which is of course particularly ineffective in a 360-degree event. At least the local dignitaries could hear the sound of their own voices. Unless, of course, a plane was going overhead, but how likely was that one kilometre from the airport, on the flight path, during an event that occurred at exactly the time the airport curfew ends? Still, the airport was only commissioned in 1955, possibly the council haven’t noticed yet.
Firstly, the Council had clearly bought their sound amplification gear via eBay, second-hand, from a shoe shop spruiker. It would have been enough for about 6 people to hear. It had one little speaker facing forwards, which is of course particularly ineffective in a 360-degree event. At least the local dignitaries could hear the sound of their own voices. Unless, of course, a plane was going overhead, but how likely was that one kilometre from the airport, on the flight path, during an event that occurred at exactly the time the airport curfew ends? Still, the airport was only commissioned in 1955, possibly the council haven’t noticed yet.
So, to start with hundreds of people silently streaming through darkened, cold streets is very eerie and moving. Then to score half an hour of vaguely heard mumbling is really disrespectful for the occasion. The bugler was first rate, the only other thing I heard was a few of the more religious types voicing the Lord’s Prayer at the appropriate juncture.
The minute’s silence, sandwiched by the bugler, made it all worth it.
Anyway, as I made my way back through the 6 weeks’ worth of roadworks that has just entered its seventh month (don’t get me started) I was thinking about all of the people who had been disrespected by this pretty poor service. The boys as young as 14 and men as old as 60 who had given up civilian lives in 1914/15 to sail around the world and take part in a conflict not of our making, just over a dozen years since the birth of our nation. The thousands who perished in France in both World Wars. Members of my own family who were Rats of Tobruk.The brave women and men who tended the wounded whilst shells fell about them in all conflicts. World War I, World War II, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, East Timor, Rwanda, Somalia, The Solomons, Kuwait, Iraq, East Timor, Afganistan, barely a conflict where Australians, usually with our great ally New Zealand have gone to lend a hand, at times when “lending a hand’ often meant paying with your life.
And then I remembered a story I had heard many years ago, and I realised, that instead of a good old rant on Facebook, I should write this post.
I had some dealings with the Salvation Army many years ago, as I worked for a company that was selling stuff to them. I’m not much of fan of theirs, to be honest, as they have a dismal track record in child exploitation. On a better note, my late Grandmother loved them, and they did pop round under her window with a brass band to thank her for her years of service when she was likely to die. For years she sent my Dad as a small child every Sunday to Sunday School at the Salvos with a small donation for the poor, ironically, they were incredibly poor themselves. My Dad’s decision to mostly spend the money on ice cream and go exploring the river can be seen as a sort of Robin Hood manoeuvre in this light.
Anyway, the Salvos have been involved in every major conflict that Australia has turned up for, and always, they’ve bought the tea.
If it takes courage to go to the front lines after a few months training and armed with a rifle, how much more must it take to head there with an urn? Seriously, it’s an incredibly brave move.
So, to return to the thread of story I’ve lost a few times, my boss at the time, Paul, pointed to a picture on the wall on a visit to Salvos HQ, and told me that a story was related to him on his last visit.
“See that guy, he’s a bit of a local hero. He was in Papua New Guinea in WWII, and he was sent to meet Australian and British troops at a jetty. He set up on the end of the jetty, with a little canvas tent and an urn full of tea, all by himself. But instead of the Aussies and Brits, five Japanese motor boats turned up. He’d been sent to the wrong jetty.”
You know the sort part of my story? Paul had not thought to ask the obvious question “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED NEXT?”.
His final thoughts: “Well, he came home. This photo shows him in 1970″.
I love sharing tea, I love making tea for others and I’m often proud of the way I can knock up a decent cuppa under trying circumstances. Would I have the courage to do what that Salvos guy did? I’m lucky I’ve never had to find out.
There are so many untold stories. Australians who were born here, or arrived here from every corner of the globe gave their lives in so many conflicts, and today, our whole country stops to remember them.
We are remembering tens of thousands who never came back, and tens of thousands who came back damaged in mind and body, and in amongst all of that, let’s remember the tea dispensers of all nations whose contribution was to just make the unbearable a little more bearable.