My Father’s Voice

© David Campbell

Winner, 2019 ABPA Blackened Billy Award, Tamworth NSW.

You cannot know the struggle to survive,
the things we did
to feed us all and simply stay alive
and earn a quid
when jobs were scarce in those depression years,
a time when laughter couldn’t banish tears,
a window was a hessian sack,
and home a dirt-floor timber shack.

The red-soil plains where dust storms cloud the sky,
that’s where we played,
a wilderness so barren, bleak and dry,
and yet we stayed,
not letting all the hardship get us down
although we lived a long way out of town,
refusing handouts, far too proud,
my parents resolute, unbowed.


He pauses then, and in his weathered face
I see the past,
a fleeting instant, just the merest trace,
a moment cast
in memory from times so long ago,
but suddenly it’s gone, yet even though
that life has well and truly died,
he lives it still, down deep inside.

But there is more, for then he looks at me,
his eyes ablaze,
and all I want to do is turn and flee
that piercing gaze
as it strikes icy terror in my heart.
Those days were bad, he says, a world apart,
but they were nothing, truth to tell,
before New Guinea’s gates of Hell.

Ravines and razorbacks stretched out of sight,
a sea of green,
with kunai grass full seven feet in height,
a nightmare scene
of narrow leaves as sharp as any blade
and steaming jungle where our boots decayed
in clinging mud on brutal slopes
that sapped our strength and shattered hopes.

Each minute sudden death was very near,
a constant threat
that meant we always had to live with fear
I can’t forget,
not even now, a rifle as my friend
through days and nights, just waiting for the end
in non-stop, soaking monsoon rains,
while dreaming of the red-soil plains.

Can you imagine what it’s like to die
a thousand times?
And yet to live, to daily wonder why
such dreadful crimes
were perpetrated in that ghastly war
that words can’t tell the awful things I saw
when men are trained to maim and kill,
sheer horror that can haunt me still.


He pauses once again, then takes my hand:
Please listen, son,
I simply need to know you understand
my race is run,
and, though the passing years have left their mark,
I hope the future will not be so dark
if only lessons that we’ve learned
are heeded and not blindly spurned.

What happens next requires some common sense
and careful thought,
the courage that is needed to commence
the things we ought
to do to try and save this fragile earth,
for, of the wars since man was given birth,
there’s one we simply cannot lose,
but time is short, and you must choose.

The current generation must decide
what moves to make
so thoughtless ignorance can’t override
the need to take
the path that science is proposing now,
the necessary measures that allow
our ailing planet to survive,
and, more importantly, to thrive.

If long-term climate plans do not prevail
then all is lost.
The politicians simply cannot fail,
or else the cost
of all the wars we’ve waged across the world
since time began, and all the flags unfurled
with promises of faith and trust
will be no more than clouds of dust.


At ninety-five my father passed away,
but not at peace,
for through his final days I heard him say
he could not cease
believing sacrifices were in vain,
for, to the very end, the sad refrain
from daily television news
just reinforced how much we’d lose.

So in my eulogy for him I used
the life he led
to warn that failure means we’ll be accused
in years ahead
of crimes far worse than any seen before,
not even on the battlefields of war.
It resonates, my father’s voice:
Act now, while there is still a choice.


---

RETURN TO AWARD WINNING POETRY INDEX