In a suburban Pittsburgh home on Sunday, people who grew up in Australia and their long-suffering spouses (mine is one) celebrated Anzac Day, the Australian memorial day.
Meat pies and Aussie hamburgers — topped with a fried egg, beetroot and pineapple slices — were served. (Beetroot on hamburgers is a particular torture for American-born spouses, but it serves them right for marrying us. Richer and poorer and beetroot are the marital vows that work for me.)
Anzac Day actually falls on April 25, the date in 1915 when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (hence the acronym Anzac) stormed the beaches of Gallipoli in an attempt to knock Turkey out of World War I and thus ensure Germany’s swift defeat.
Well, so much for that. It was a disaster from the start, and the effort was abandoned after eight months of stalemate when the invading Anzacs were withdrawn on a single dark night.
Although Gallipoli was a strategic defeat, that didn’t stop its anniversary from becoming Australia’s day of remembrance, which is a very Australian thing to do. If the odds in a fight are hopeless for the Aussies, they just think the contest is more sporting. National identity was also involved — for the first time, the heroic Anzacs were fighting as a distinct force separate from Britain.
In Australia, Anzac Day is solemnly observed with dawn services, speeches, marches and, ahem, an amber flood of beer. (This is not the solemn part.)
Last month when I returned to visit Australia, I got a preview. Four of us in the same unit in Vietnam had a reunion in Sydney. It was the first time we had all been together in 43 years.
I was drafted into the Australian Army in 1968 but had an exemption at first for night classes in journalism. Being young and stupid at the time — some would say that hasn’t changed, but of course I am no longer young, so a bit of fairness, please! — I chose to give up my exemption and take my chances. Sometimes, fortune favors the young and stupid.
In 1970, I found myself in Saigon as a corporal in the Australian Army Public Relations Corps — roughly the same rank as Hitler in World War I, but it never went to my head as much. My job was to write press releases and read the Australian news over the American Forces Vietnam Network. Think of the film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” G’day, Vietnam.
I did not damage my teeth by pulling out grenade pins, but the unit had its heroes and their names were Peter Ward, John Fairley and Don Campbell — my old mates who came to the recent reunion.
Peter and John were combat photographers. The images they took then can be found today in books and war museums. Don already had a tour in the infantry before he joined Army PR, so wild and crazy Saigon was tame to him.
The reunion had a special poignancy. Peter, who in civilian life worked for the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne and went on to win Australia’s highest prize for photography, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Last Anzac Day, he was in a wheelchair. Now he’s up and fighting on. I hadn’t seen him since 1970, and it was as if we were never apart.
The Daily Telegraph in Sydney did a pre-Anzac Day story on the reunion, which was a shock. What could be the news angle? I imagined the headline in advance: “Aging Vets Meet, Tell Stories, Drink Beer.” It wasn’t so far from that.
While the reunion was a huge success, I can’t remember the exact details because the emotions were too overpowering, although it is possible that it might have been the beer. However, I decided it was so much fun that I returned the next day and met Peter and John and their wives in Sydney’s Chinese Garden, where I found them dressing up as Chinese warriors. For $10, visitors to the gardens could return to the Ming dynasty.
While I have no logical explanation for this behavior, I joined them in dressing up, too, because what I learned of military service — and this is surely universal — is that you make unique friends and you feel like you would follow them anywhere, even back to the Ming dynasty. Then we had a beer.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.