Monday, June 15, 2015

Lest We Forget: A Beach Memory

Lest We Forget at the Beach (Terrigal Australia June 2015)

Quite a few years ago in a poetry class the teacher asked us to write about our strongest beach memory. Not as a poem, just a short piece of prose describing the memory.
This is what I wrote. Well it’s been slightly edited, but not in any way that changes the original meaning and content. I came across it today as I sorted through some files. As we are actually staying across the road from a beach on the same coast right now, I thought it was a good time to resurrect this still powerful memory and to share it with you all.

I’m not really a saltwater person. Never have been. Sure, it’s true I’ve spent time swimming in the sea: you can’t grow up in Australia and not spend a heap of time at the beach and in the water. I never liked it much though. And after the Boxing Day Tsunami in ’05, I just was not physically able to go anywhere near the sea for a long time—and I was sure I would never ever get in the water again.
But, time passes, and I did eventually get back to the saltwater. But, let’s just say that even now, it’s pretty rare for me to actually swim in the sea. In fact, I think the last time was on the Gold Coast, that soulless, heartless strip of concrete lining the coast up near the tropics. Lived there for a year.
Anyway, I did swim up there a few times. But I stopped after a few shark scares. The final straw when a shark took a Japanese tourist. Bitten in half he was. Still and all, there are some fine beaches on that stretch of coast, which have left me with some pretty nice memories of walking the dunes, picking up shells, sitting with my hood up on the sand listening to winter waves pound the shore.
 Funny thing though, none of these are among my strongest beach memories. That honor belongs to a memory that goes a long way further back in time that also involves a chopped human.
1967. Balmoral Beach in Sydney. It’s a lovely, sheltered beach with the usual assortment of palm trees, chip shops and coin operated BBQs. I was 13 and my father was in Vietnam. Not yet a pacifist, and not yet ready to be disloyal to him, I eagerly took part in the picnics put on for families of soldiers fighting ‘over there’. Fun really: a lot of other kids to muck around with, some cute girls and plenty of food. Even better, there were sometimes presents: one time I got a string tied bundle of over one hundred comics. Very cool. I had those comics for years. Wish I still had them: some would be worth good money.
Anyway, on that summer’s day in 1967, I was at the beach for one such picnic. As I recall it now, I was just wandering around early in the day, just checking out what was going on, who was there and whatever.
Then I saw him. A young man (though to my 13-year-old eyes he looked old. But he couldn’t have been more than 20) on the sand sitting bare chested and wearing board shorts. Well, was he sitting?  He had no legs you see. He’d been chopped in half, just like the Gold Coast Japanese tourist. I was stuck to the spot, just staring. Sure, it was very rude of me. But I was shocked, and the sight mesmerized me. I just could not get my head around the image that was burning itself into my brain. Still can’t really—and now I’m all grown up.
I wondered, as I stood staring, how did it happen? And I thought, with the simplistic perspective of a naive 13-year-old, how can he live like that? As if in answer to my stupid question to myself, his eyes met mine. He’d caught me staring. Before I could turn away in shame, he lowered his eyes and bowed his head. Deeply ashamed, I walked away, very confused by what I had seen, what I felt.
A bit later that day (the picnic went on all day of course), a mate told me about the bloke with no legs sitting on the sand.
‘Oh yeah, that’s ... ’, my mate said. I forget the name now. And my mate knew what had happened to him as well: Landmine. In Vietnam of course. Seems the legless guy had stepped on one. Also, my mate told me, the poor bastard was an especially invited guest at our picnic.
Now, if I’d asked the organizers why they’d invited him, why he was an ‘honored’ guest, I am sure they would have told me that he was a war hero; he’d paid plenty, sacrificed his legs, for his country. For me and everyone else.
But I never did ask them. And back then, in my immature 13-year-old mind, I thought it was bizarre. It was like he was some kind of prized exhibit, a freak to be shown off. But he wasn’t. He was just some poor kid whose number came up one night in a bloody lottery. They told him to go and fight, so he did. Then he stood on a landmine, got his legs blown off and had his whole life buggered.
I wouldn’t say I am a pacifist solely because of that chopped up boy on Balmoral Beach back in ’67. I’ve seen a lot, and learned a lot in the many long years since. Still, as I think of it now, it wasn’t long after that day when I’d turned my eyes from this bloke in shame, that my father came home and I saw what the war had done to him, and then I saw what it did to me and my family. Then later still, I saw that we weren’t alone: the war had really messed up a lot of people, destroyed a lot of lives, ruined families and left a legacy of pain and suffering that is still with us now. No, I guess you could say that the legless guy on that beach simply planted the seed. So he sure played his part.
I thank him for that. And I am sorry I stared; I am sorry that my childish and ignorant behavior forced to you bow your head in what I now know was a sign of your own shame (not that you had any reason for shame of course) and sadness. I see you now, in my mind, sitting on that beach so many years ago. Lest we forget? We always forget the things we ought to remember. But, don’t worry: I’ve never forgotten you.
            This is my strongest beach memory.
Lest We Forget

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