Early evening, Friday, Alice Springs
It was rather like being among friends whom we had not seen for a while. It was not difficult for we had to learn about local things, things that were not familiar and yet which made sense. For example the Henley Regatta that took place every year along the bed of the dried-up river. Local “oarsmen” stood up in the holes in the bottom of their boats and raced one another on foot. The originators of this spectacle may have been a long way from family homes but there was no reason why they should be deprived of a key fixture in the boating calendar back in the old country.
Then there was the local school of the air. For primary age children from out of town there was no need to travel in to school each day; school was run by as a local radio station and children living in seriously remote places listened, sometimes with their parents and were taught over the radio. On the day we visited the studio we listened as the children sang happy birthday to one of their number. Their singing was perfectly in time so well did this system work.
For older children there was a boarding school in town. We spent a day in St Philips School and learnt about the students’ backgrounds and the school’s efforts to match teaching to local requirements. Some of the children were from aboriginal families and there were times when family culture took them away from the school which made special efforts to encourage them to return to complete their education. After a fascinating day our host, the deputy headmaster, asked whether we would like to visit the town’s war memorial. It would have seemed ungracious to have refused and we set off to a low hill just outside the town.
We were surprised to find a number of people there before us, more about our parents’ generation by the look of them. We were familiar enough with war memorials back home, where people gather on Armistice Sunday, the nearest Sunday to November 11th. Did these people come here very often we asked.
On Fridays was the answer and then it dawned on us that there had been a very important piece of history which we had not shared with Australia, the war in Vietnam in which Australians fought, many of them called up by ballot, to serve in the Australian army whether they wanted to or not. While I enjoyed my teenage years, the names of young Australian men were put through a kind of lottery and, if their names came up – and about one in four did – then they were conscripted and could find themselves fighting alongside American troops in Vietnam.
For Australians, remembering the war dead means remembering young men of my age who did not come home, and these people around us were not people with fading memories of losses long ago. Their memories were fresher and sharper and I am pleased that we were able to stand there with them.
What was different about this war memorial in Australia?
Why do you think the writer remembers this particular Friday?