Danny made many choices before he no longer could.
In 1967, at the age of nineteen, he decided to escape his life in Nottingham, England, and travel to the faraway land of Australia.
‘G’day, cobber!’ the country called, in its strange nasal strine. ‘Give us ten bob and the land of opportunity awaits you! Don’t worry about a passport – any identification will do. That’s how much we want you, mate. Our pale pommy-bastard brother. What are you bloody waiting for?’
Danny heard the call. And made a choice.
His father was a violent, alcoholic, IRA sympathiser. His brothers were a steely gang of trouble that bookish Danny just didn’t seem to fit into. This land of opportunity seemed too good to be true. So he put in extra shifts at the factory, saved up his ten pounds, kissed his beloved mam goodbye and set off to Australia.
On his arrival he got a job ‘on the roads’. Derby, Western Australia. A bloody long way from Sherwood Forest, but Danny had made a decision and this is where it led him.
Red dirt. Salt flats. Prickly, brown scrub. Snakes. Hawks. Lizards so big they had biceps. Danny’s pale English skin soon turned as leathery as a croc’s. His Aboriginal mates teased that he was ‘turning local’ as they lay bitumen together in the blazing sun. At night, they’d camp beneath a vast sky of stars and feast on bungarra and baked beans. Danny loved it. He slept soundly beneath those stars. He’d made the right choice.
Then, in 1968, Danny’s marble got drawn out of a barrel.
‘Where’s Vietnam?’ he asked.
‘South-East Asia, mate,’ replied Australia. ‘Just up the road.’
‘And what’s going on there?’
‘Bloody commies, mate.’
‘Right. What have they done?’
‘It’s what they could do, mate. What they could do.’
‘Okay… I think I’d rather go home, actually.’
‘Go home?! Go home? You can’t fuckin’ well go home, mate. When war comes, Aussies fight. That’s what they do. They don’t piss off home.’
‘But I’m not Australian.’
‘If you fight, you will be.’
‘No, really. I came here to work. I’m a pommy bastard, remember?’
‘You can’t go home. You don’t have a passport.’
‘You said I didn’t need one…’
‘Did we? Funny, that,’ replied Australia, tossing the marble in its hand and smirking.
So Danny made a new choice – he asked a mate to smash his face in, hoping they’d forget about the marble. His mate did a good job – left Danny’s nose on the other side of his face. But after a few weeks recovering, Danny got called up again. Ended up in Puckapunyal with a nice khaki uniform. He was wearing that uniform a few weeks later when a kombi van full of hippies bashed him while he was on weekend leave in Glebe. Broke Danny’s leg in two. After a couple of months in hospital, he got called up again.
‘Go on, mate,’ said Australia. ‘When you get back, you’ll get a tickertape parade. And citizenship. And a pension. Australia loves its soldiers. Ever heard of Gallipoli? No? Sit down! Let me tell you a story of legend and legacy, you pommy bastard…’
So Danny went. Not that he had much of a choice.
And this is where the story falls strangely silent (although it won’t be the only time). I’m not quite sure what choices Danny did or didn’t get to make in Nui Dat. What his 1969 narrative was, exactly.
Arriving to a sea of body bags.
Waking up with rats burrowing into his mouth in the middle of a monsoon.
Mowing weeds on his first day in Nui Dat and never having to mow it again. ‘Never,’ he says. ‘Those weeds never, ever, ever grew back. I could never work it out.’
Identifying a mate who’d been detonated. For some reason the hospital had covered the corpse’s mouth with masking tape. ‘Probably to stop the rats,’ he says. The sound of the tape being ripped off the dead lips by the mortician has never left him.
Danny cheekily confesses to dressing up like an American tourist – in Hawaiian shirt and tight checked shorts – and going ‘sightseeing’ in the jungle to entertain his fellow troops as they lay exhausted, huddled, hidden. They tell me the same story, all these years on. Shaking their heads and wiping away tears of laughter. ‘Mad pommy bastard. Could’ve gotten himself killed, just to alleviate the fucking boredom!’
Then they tell me Danny loved Moon. He chose her as his Vietnamese princess. I nod at their stories. I’ve seen her in his slides, smiling shyly, peeking out from behind him.
Danny recalls a different Moon. The moon. ‘Laying terrified under the stars in Vietnam and hearing there were men, at that moment, walking on that orb above me.’
Danny’s job was to prepare the supplies. When he was on recce in Saigon, Danny would make sure he’d get Playboys and beer and secret them into every supply order. But, inevitably, for Danny and his mates there was a weight. Carried in their gut. Getting waterlogged and heavy. As the war went on, eyes dulled. Thoughts tangled. Instinct was always prickling, just beneath the surface of the skin, just in case. A year of shallow breathing and eyes in the back of the head and maddening ruminations and wet feet and bad bowels and confused choices.
Danny was finally returned to Australia. They snuck him and his mates in after midnight to ‘avoid the protestors’. Not a scrap of tickertape in sight. From there, they were told to make their own way home.
Danny stood on a dark Perth street corner with his pack and swag and felt true, ice-cold fear.
Home? Where is that? Not Nottingham. Not now, surely. How could Danny turn up in this uniform in his father’s IRA household? How could he have a beer with his brothers after all he’d seen? How could he kiss his mam after the things he’d done?
What choice did he have?
And so Danny returned to the roads of Western Australia. Geraldton, this time. A little further south of Derby but just as wild. Battering winds. Shifting sand dunes beside a sea teeming with crayfish, sharks and shipwrecks. Danny was allowed to stay and work in his new town but he was not allowed citizenship to the country he had just ‘served’. He was not invited to march in the Anzac Parade he’d heard all about. He was not welcome inside an RSL club. There was nowhere to go to talk. To question. To heal.
Danny forged on. He chose a good woman – Glenys. Spotted her across a rowdy Geraldton bar. He’d had the moon and now he’d found his sun. Later that night, she shared a beer with him. A few months later they married. Danny only knew a couple of people at the wedding – his soldier mates who stuck to the corners of the hall, their hands shaking slightly as they joined the toast. Many years and several unexplained miscarriages later, a daughter came along. Me. Born with cancer, but not diagnosed until three years later. Mum had always been told I just had a pot belly. It was, in fact, a tumour the size of a football on my left kidney.
The tumour, my kidney, adrenal gland, ureter and several ribs were swiftly removed. Months of chemo followed. My hair fell out. Skin bruised. Radiotherapy atrophied my left-hand back muscles and spine. I was left with an awesome scar across my tummy, swarming with black stitches. ‘Your zipper,’ Dad would joke. ‘Don’t open it or everything will come tumbling out.’
While waiting in a hospital foyer one day, my parents noticed an article in the newspaper. Something about Vietnam Veterans’ kids being born with weird illnesses. Club feet. Cleft palates. Missing limbs. Heart disorders. Spina bifida. Renal cancer. The kids in Vietnam fared even worse.
Of course they asked questions, my parents. Of course they demanded answers, those returned. But the ‘powers that be’ shook their heads. Blustered. Passed the buck. Tied us all up in red tape and covered our mouths.
My dad fell into enforced silence. We followed furiously. A household of angry conscripts. Exhausted by bullshit. We did as we were told and we shut up. Shamefully shut up.
Then Danny started having ‘whiteouts’. Strange seizures. He drove into a house. Mid-sentence, his jaw would open and he would choke air – like a voice was trying to escape from the pit of his gut. He’d come out of these strange moments having lost time. Exhausted. Like he’d never slept in his life. Glenys was exhausted too. What started with sharing a beer with a man in a bar was now a lifelong struggle in a bed wet with cold sweat.
I battled my cancer for several years and still battle the chronic repercussions of its path through my body. The debilitating pain from my half-grown spine became constant. The choice to bear a child was taken from me when the first political domino was flicked all those years ago, flattening my father along the way. His mates started dropping off from leukaemia. Cancers. Suicide.
When my father lost his choice, we all lost our voice.
Because, fuck that, we’re soldiers. Conscripted ones, sure. But we know how to fight.
Slowly but surely, Danny began speaking out. His voice returned. So did Glenys’s. And the voices of their mates. And mine. Together, we now demand answers and we’re getting results. My ten-pound-pom-Aussie-sapper father is now a citizen of the country he served. He is allowed to march at Anzac Day (even though some years he doesn’t feel like it). But at least he has a choice. He can now drink a beer in an RSL club. He is getting a pension and we have access to war-related counselling.
Two years ago, I took Danny back to Vietnam. He didn’t want to go near Nui Dat. He wanted to visit and assist the Agent Orange orphanages and communities. He spent the time playing games with children who still fight to be heard. Children who don’t have access to prosthetic limbs and so bounce around the ward on plastic chairs as transport devices. Children, who despite having claws for hands, are brilliantly and blatantly deft with an iPhone camera. Children who range from eighteen years of age to one day old. Yes. One-day-old dioxin babies. ‘Children of the mist’, as they’re known. Babies who have that awful concoction that stopped the weeds growing in 1969 imprinted onto their DNA.
Danny promised he would take up their voice. Demand their right to choice.
We join him, Glenys and I. This man who in 1967 paid ten pounds for a working holiday in Australia. This pommy bastard father of mine. This conscript. We stand beside him. We reclaim our choices and our voices and hold tightly to our marbles so that it may never, ever happen again.