Sunday, October 28, 2007

Some memories never die

A blog entry of a writer friend brought back a memory I thought I'd safely buried and the bitterness of it was as bright and new as the day it happened.
It was the at the height of the anti-Vietnam rallies and I was caught in the traffic jam outside Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, my car stopped alongside a tram stop. Standing, waiting for a tram, was a senior ranker, a sergeant I think, and the medal ribbons on his breast included three for personal bravery. I didn't know him personally, but his unit badges proclaimed him a fighting soldier from a battalion that had covered itself in honor in Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The demonstration was proceeding noisily down the other side of the street, one of the major Melbourne thoroughfares, and a group broke away from the main stream and, evading the police cordon, approached the soldier. One young woman, grubby in her frenzied support for a cause she may have barely understood, spat in his face.

Anonymous in my civilian clothing, I eased the car door open, prepared to go to his support, but he dealt with it magnificently, regarding the young woman with quiet contempt while the spittle dribbled down his face. The police intervened at that moment and led the group back into the stream of people.

"Can I give you a lift, Digger?" I asked, shamed by my inaction.

"No, thank you. I'm just going to the station." He waved aside my apologies for the incident. "Some of my friends died to give her the right to do that. I honor their memory."

The tram came and he got on and stood wiping the spittle from his face with a handkerchief as it pulled away.

The next day, the Army issued an order restricting the wearing of uniform to within the precincts of the Barracks.

For myself, and the rest of us with personal experience of Vietnam, we understood the protesters better than they thought and the young woman was just an unfortunate side effect of their frenzy, but turning the Australian uniform into something to be hidden from sight hurt.

Even after all these years, it still does.

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