Sitting in the warm Marlborough sunshine in the spring of the year I turned fifty, my mind wandered to a different time, another place....
I was sitting inside an airless tent, my shirt soggy with perspiration, prickly heat tormenting me. The sound of sporadic but heavy gunfire was deafening. It was a hot, humid, oppressive day, typical of South East Asia during the wet season. We were at a fire support base about twenty kilometres south east of Saigon. Around a folding table sat three others, two Australians and Don. We were playing cards.
Don was a twenty-year-old Kiwi soldier. I was a year older and had been in the Army a year longer. We were both ‘survivors' of the Army's boy entrant scheme and were returning to operations after being hospitalised with malaria. Shortly we would be rejoining our company on operations deep in the Vietnamese jungle.
Don looked older than his age, probably because his hair was rapidly disappearing and he had lost weight from the malaria. He was gregarious and amiable with a cheeky demeanour and was well liked in the company. I noticed the scars on his forehead were fading. They were a legacy from a bad car accident we had been in a year ago tomorrow. Recalling it I was still amazed he was here.
His dumb card playing brought me back to the present. "For Christ sake Don! I thought you called seven hearts. Don't you have the bloody ace?" I said testily. "No", he replied, "I never called it." "The hell you didn't!" my exasperation at his inept play growing. We were going to lose another game to the ‘Ockers' and I'd about had enough. The infuriating thing was that he didn't seem to care. Predictably, two hands later we were out the back door again. "I'm not playing another game with you, you wanker, you're bloody hopeless!" I grabbed my rifle, webbing and pack and dragged them sullenly out of the tent to the shade of a tree to await the helicopter, the prickly heat still tormenting. Don joined me shortly but I sulkily ignored him.
The wok, wok, wok of the chopper blades receded as I struggled into my pack. I followed the Sergeant-Major's direction to Three Platoon's location barely acknowledging Don, who was heading toward Two Platoon. The dank stillness and diffuse light that enveloped me was in stark contrast to the brightness above the jungle canopy. After greeting my section, I prepared my ‘basha' space, familiarised myself with the section area, ate some cold ‘C' rations, and got ready for the night routine ahead.
"Five minutes to ‘stand-to' Corp!" Reveille already! I groggily pulled on my boots, dropped my mosquito net and tent-half, put on my webbing, grabbed my rifle and quietly settled. In fifteen minutes or so, light would begin to penetrate the black entombing veil of the jungle night. I tried to ignore the prickly heat, unsuccessfully.
The cacophony of insect calls accompanying daybreak abated and we ‘stood-down'. After lighting some plastic explosive for a quick brew, I quietly packed my gear and cleaned my rifle. About forty minutes later I was making my way to platoon headquarters for orders.
Suddenly, a burst of AK47 fire shattered the morning stillness. It came from 500 to 700 meters away. Almost immediately the firing grew in intensity as the distinctive staccato of AK47s were dulled by M60 machine guns and SLRs replying in a crescendo of violence. Although some distance away, I still felt the sheer malevolence of it. Poor bloody Aussies have copped it I thought, recognising that ‘Charlie' had initiated this fight.
"Gear on, let's go!!" the Sergeant said, "That's Two Platoon." "Christ," I thought, feeling sick to my stomach, I didn't even know they were on patrol. We anxiously pushed through the jungle, faster than normal, the sense of foreboding palpable. On reaching Two Platoon's perimeter, now quiet, I noticed the field dressing wrappings, blood and the spent morphine phials strewn about. The Platoon Commander, John Sherriff, and one of the machine gunners, [Vaughan] Lowry, had been hit and were being treated by the medics. Lowry didn't look too good.
Turning away, I saw him. He was off to one side lying on his back, pale, still and surprisingly peaceful.
I stood, turned from the graveside where I had been sharing a beer with my still twenty-year-old friend, and wandered slowly off. "Six hearts, Christ what a wanker!"