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Posts Tagged ‘post-traumatic stress’

I recently had occasion to reread the in-depth review (below) by Paul Smith, and thought his unusual take on the story might be of interest to others.

Paul Smith

Paul Smith

Back in July 2014, he reviewed “Remains to be Seen”, the 3rd story in my linked short story collection entitled Dropping Out: a tree change novel-in-stories. Paul has a blog at  http://twogreytoes.blogspot.com.au/ The unusual title for the blog comes from a cat he once owned, which he and his partner called Two Grey Toes.

Two Grey Toes

Two Grey Toes

Below is Paul’s review of “Remains”, reprinted with his permission.

VIETNAM VETERAN BUCKS THE TREND

REMAINS TO BE SEEN BY Danielle de Valera – Some thoughts

Remains-cream-khaki

What is it about human nature that, no matter how much some blokes get blown off course, their homing instinct swings them back around so that their deepest urgings drive them to have a crack at what evolution made them for. Just being born male is enough to be led in the wrong direction. Peer pressure to transgress for the hell of it is just the start. Being born working class ensures that options that lead to independent success, taken for granted by the privileged few, are rarely considered. Going to war all but seals the fate of too many who take that route, whether voluntarily or by ballot. Existing, even if only briefly, as an agent of human destructiveness all but strips away the tissue of connectivity that makes us human – all BUT! The bond that men form with one another when the life of each depends on the loyalty of others endures more widely than marriage. That bond makes it difficult in some cases to overcome the nearly universal condescension of their gender towards women. Women therefore exist in the lives of such men as a convenience at best or an unavoidable encumbrance. Children, the evolutionary point of there being men and women in the first place, are a fearful and even distasteful prospect. Yet, here’s the story of a bloke and his woman, mired in pitiful relationships with his peers, who choose each other and embrace the prospect of having children – even if the likelihood of failure can’t be ruled out.

Danielle de Valera has done something I once thought I would never tolerate: writing in the first person about the life of a Vietnam Veteran. I first encountered this phenomenon in a writing course. One of the other students wrote about an incident in Vietnam, not only as though it had happened, but as though he’d been part of the action. I was incensed! In that moment I understood the outrage of indigenous people when a non-indigenous person writes (or paints etc.) as though they are indigenous. Anyone remember Wanda Koolmatrie? Or Eddie Burrup? Well, Ms de Valera has cured me of my possessiveness. (Yep, I am a VV.) I think what made the difference was that, in her use of first person narration, she does not come across as a “wannabe”. Her extensive knowledge of David Hackworth, one of the most acclaimed Vietnam Veterans certainly helps her achieve an authentic sense of “being there” without intending to claim as much. She also strikes the right tone in narrating events in Mullumbimby in the mid eighties – not as they actually happened, but as they would have, given the cast of characters in her story. There can be little doubt that she was there – as participant and as observer.

Ms de Valera’s story alternates between events in Mullumbimby in post-Vietnam war times and moments in the thick of it in-country, as we used to say. Each episode is a panel of an unfolding mural. The first combines inconsistent messages about the Japanese – as a former enemy on the one hand, and as purveyors of the stuff of our prosperity on the other. Being denied entry to the Ex-Services Club provokes cynicism and confirms the sense and fact of isolation for the two Vietnam Vets. This commonplace episode resonates with the animosity of Second World War Returned Servicemen towards Vietnam Veterans until 1987 or thereabouts. As they drive away in the slashing rain the story segues to an operation in Vietnam, as chopper-borne Diggers are dropping through the rain into a clearing for a rendezvous with US forces for what was to be a joint operation. Not for the last time in this story would the Diggers be let down, and worse, by their so called allies. Do we hear the voice of David Hackworth, disillusioned with his own country’s military, in this story? It wasn’t just the Diggers who questioned the professionalism of their overlords. Each of the alternating snapshots has such issues embedded in the narrative.

This is a story that can be re-read numerous times without exhausting all that is hidden between the lines. It is a Coming Home story that, in this and other works by Ms de Valera, unfolds over a number of years. That thought suggests a link with the film that bears the name of its genre. Is Michael O’Neill an Aussie version of Luke Martin – emotionally rather than physically disabled– who decides that the best way to help his mates is to escape the horror of their post-war life (for its destructive nature is every bit as horrific as their experience in Vietnam) is to throw himself into something resembling a “normal” life? Does Azure thus have her Lucky Out in Michael’s self administered “cleansing”?

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Anzac Day

This Australian day of remembrance always reminds me of my Uncle Charlie, one of the many uncles on my mother’s side and the one I knew best when I was growing up; he and my mother were close siblings in that large Australian-Irish family of twelve children.

Charlie got into World War I at the age of 16. Unlike my father who escaped from the dairy farm in Palmerston North at 17 by joining the US merchant navy “when the old man’s back was turned”, Charlie did the whole thing legitimately. After his older brother Dave had joined up, Charlie drove the family mad, pestering them to let him go, too. “You’re too young,” they said. “And you’re not strong enough.”

Charlie couldn’t make himself any older, but he could work on the other objection. From then on, locals were treated to the spectacle of Charlie hanging from various tree branches around the shire, doing pull ups between chores on the orchard. He made every dinnertime a nightmare for the family; there were 13 of them now with Dave gone — 7 brothers, 4 sisters and the long suffering parents. In the end, Daniel Doyle and Clare Donovan Doyle (not that she ever called herself that) gave way and signed the papers to let him go, hoping Dave, who was much older, would be able to keep him safe over there. (The Australian military kept brothers together.) Charlie celebrated his 17th birthday in London.

As far as I understand it, he wasn’t a part of the unsuccessful Gallipoli campaign that spawned the holiday Australians observe today: Anzac Day. Where he was and what he did over there in the trenches, I have no idea; he never spoke of it. He spoke freely though of his search for relatives of the family in Ireland, and I remember once seeing a photograph of him standing with a group of people outside a thatched house somewhere in Cork.

The only person he ever talked to about his war experiences was my father. And that was only after Dad had joined the army in WWII and had gone over the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea. On the few occasions that he ever got leave, he and Charlie would sit up in the kitchen drinking rum into the night, long after everyone else had gone to bed. Looking back on it now, I realise just how much comfort Charlie must have been to my father, helping him to debrief from the ongoing experiences of that war in the Pacific.

Back in 1919 after WWI ended, Charlie and older brother Dave were on their own. Like thousands of other young men fortunate enough to return home to Australia physically unscathed, they were suffering from post-traumatic stress, a phrase unknown at the time.

Pine Islet Before MovePine Islet Tower [Pine Islet Preservation Society]

At first, he took a job as a lighthouse keeper at Pine Islet, his way of trying to come to terms with everything that had happened to him. Older brother Dave, who’d also returned unscathed, simply became an alcoholic and remained one until the day he died. Neither of them ever married. And neither of them marched on Anzac Day. “All the marching in the world won’t bring them back,” Charlie said to me once with tears in his eyes. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.

All his life, Charlie kept a framed photograph of a young woman on his dressing table. She was no beauty, I always thought with the harsh judgement of youth, and she was rather stout — still the fashion in that early 20th century Georgian era before the coming of the Roaring Twenties, when boy-slim became the mode. I gathered from my mother that Charlie” had been sweet on her” before he went to the war, and that she had married someone else while he was away. Young women married young in the country in those days.  Obsession and suicidal depression ran in that 1st generation Australian-Irish family, but Charlie picked himself up, lived an organized life with a job in the telephone exchange, kept his little house spic and span and never ever, ever drank too much.

There are so many things now that I wish I’d asked him when I had the chance. But I was too young to understand that nothing lasts forever and elders won’t always be around. If you’ve got an Uncle Charlie in your life, better ask him those questions while you still can.

 

 

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