THE GHOST OF LONG TAN
© Tom McIlveen, 2013
Winner, 2013 ‘The Bush Lantern Award’, Bundaberg, Queensland.
Sedated by a morphine shot, I lay in some abandoned plot
of rubber trees and jungle scrub, just east of Nui Dat.
Torrential rain had caused a flood of saturated, seeping mud
and washed away my cigarettes and tattered hootchie mat.
My leg was numb from hip to toe and bandaged to control the flow
of blood that dripped from gaping wounds, that pierced me to the core.
A rubber tree was bleeding too, with blobs of gummy latex goo
and wept in condemnation of this God forsaken war.
The soldier who had come for me and hauled me underneath that tree,
was Private Bluey Wilson…trusted confidant and friend.
A dinkum cobber and a mate, who’d always punched above his weight,
and one on whom, implicitly, I knew I could depend.
His family had lived near mine since I was only eight or nine,
and he and I had bonded like a pair of musketeers.
The other kids had understood that Blue and I were brotherhood,
and deemed to be invincible, despite our tender years.
He’d dragged me from a dozen brawls and arguments in dancing halls,
where I would charm the ladies and antagonise their beaus.
And once or twice he’d saved my hide, when I’d been dumb enough to ride
the crazy bulls that run amok at outback rodeos.
Undoubtedly I would have drowned, if Bluey hadn’t been around
that afternoon at Oakey creek, behind the shearing shed.
If he had failed to pull me out, it would have taken years of drought
to find me washed up miles away, on some old river bed.
I somehow managed to survive till March of nineteen sixty five,
when fate had intervened to deal an unexpected hand.
According to the telescreen, it seemed my date of birth had been
selected for a tour of some exotic foreign land.
I’d never heard of Uncle Sam, nor Ho Chi Minh, nor Vietnam,
till Bluey told me bluntly, ‘Mate, it ain’t no paradise!’
He said the government decreed that communism was a weed,
to be eradicated, irrespective of the price.
Conscripted on the first of May, I’d started training straightaway,
enlisting at Kapooka, with the other new recruits.
My reservations disappeared, when Blue had rashly volunteered
to join us there, in baggy greens and khaki army boots.
The Sixth Battalion’s N.C.O’s were seasoned veterans and pros,
who’d done a tour of Vietnam in nineteen sixty two.
They pruned our wings and cut our hair, and taught us how to fight and swear;
then showed us how to fold our hats and pivot them askew.
They honed us into mere machines, with war embedded in their genes
from years of conflict, fighting Germans, Japanese and Boers.
Gallipoli had been the seed, from which emerged the noble creed
of waging war and dying for another’s needy cause.
It rained the day we disembarked and Dad had randomly remarked
that army ponchos hadn’t changed since he had served abroad.
He’d left his lying in the sludge, when they had made the final trudge
from Singapore to Changi, under bayonet and sword.
Emotion welled behind his smile, as we approached the final mile
to Brisbane’s Royal Airforce Base, just out of Amberley.
As we prepared to board the plane, he tried to hide his tears in vain
and hugged us unashamedly, for all the world to see.
All done up like a city toff, he’d come with mum to see us off,
and shouted unconvincingly, ‘Go giv’em curry boys!
Remember not to get too lax, and always watch each other’s backs!’
His final words were muted by the Boeing’s engine noise.
Awakened by a piercing scream, I stumbled from a morphine dream
of opiated fantasies and memories of home.
Returning to my black abyss, I felt the cruel corrosive kiss
of Vietnam caressing me through clods of clinging loam.
Again, I heard that piercing sound, which seemed to come from underground,
behind the tree that shielded me from mortar overhead.
A voice I knew so very well, resounded from the bowels of hell,
to chill my blood and fill my heart with cold impending dread.
Relentlessly he called my name, till overwhelmed by guilt and shame,
I shook away the hazy shroud that lingered like a veil.
I found him lying in the mud, immersed in gore and pools of blood,
with broken limbs extended, looking piteous and pale.
From somewhere deep within his soul, with eyes as black as burning coal,
there lurked an apparition, I had never seen before.
A ghost who didn’t understand, that Blue and I had always planned
on standing by each other, through this God forsaken war.
Behind his brazen thin disguise, the phantom seemed to vaporise,
as Blue began to mumble some bizarre forgotten prayer.
Although his voice was faint and slurred, I hung on each and every word,
and bowed my head to weep from wells of dismal dark despair.
The rubber trees were weeping too, as I had tried to comfort Blue,
whose final words were muffled by the roar of battle noise.
‘Remember not to get too lax, and always watch each others backs!’
My father’s words, verbatim ? ‘Go and give’em curry boys!’
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