For the second occasion in my life, I ruefully observed the appalling result of a child inexplicably lost to a parent – and a disquieting self-absorption from the sickening alterations to a once-vibrant, devoted domestic fold – with closed drapes again, signifying a yearning for isolation and insularity from a mad world – and that of a indistinguishable God – ‘Dev’s’ mother had undisputedly been cruelly robbed of her first-born – by them both!
No requiem mass or funeral service ever took place for a missing, possibly lost-forever combatant son and brother, unlike the immensely unfortunate household of my now long-deceased, prepubescent pal Hamish, those who, in the very least, held the corporeal remains of their mortally, mutilated child, albeit, one despairingly enclosed within a small wooden box – this was a ‘privilege’ not to be bestowed on the residents of No. 11 – the drawn curtains of their respective, tormented homes, remaining as the sole similarity that existed between them.
In the run-up to my 20th birthday, some three years later, I re-lived the trauma of witnessing, on no less than five further occasions – the closing-of-the-curtains procedure being carried out by members of stricken domiciles – thus transmitting to the wounded communities, the incomprehensible calamity that another Australian son was irretrievably gone!
The Vietnam War, in my personal experience, claimed not merely the young lives of serving offspring, it had too, without mercy, snatched their remains – ultimately, a total of six young Aussie soldiers added their names to a dire detail of over 1300 international combatants who were never truly accounted for – either in their home-lands – or within the foreign territory in which they were prematurely and murderously cut-down.
Many drapes and curtains were firmly drawn across the globe during the grief-ridden years, a dark hiatus then prevailed for those who remained – these gloomy, clothed barriers would eventually be parted again, yet for innumerable, surviving victims of the Asian conflict, the light would never return – mournful tenebrosity ultimately extinguishing the loving iridescence that once brilliantly shone between hundreds of families worldwide.
The First World War soldier and poet, Wilfred Owen, recalled the universal practice of drawing curtains and drapes in the line; ‘And each slow dusk a drawing down of the blinds’, in his nonpareil poem – ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
Come June of 1970, and as a newly-established citizen of Australia, I was soon to be informed of my own fate regarding conscription into the Australian Armed Forces – my mind soon becoming ravaged with torturous angst at the thought of my own mother, some 12000 miles away, having to draw her own curtains and lament the demise of yet another doomed youth – namely myself.
Ironically, my services to the lost cause that was Vietnam – were not required, however, I did become a member of the UK national militia – and remained so for over three and a half decades.
Throughout the duration of a long and unswerving commitment to soldiery – and having observed, whilst playing my part on operational duty, the grim consequences of inane, geo-political differences that existed between vehement nations, no fallen soldier of ours was ever unaccounted for, each man was lifted from the battle arena and ultimately interred with military honour, dignity and respect, that befitting the hero’s they all were.
Without ever being physically affected by the demands of contemporary warfare, I nevertheless failed to shake-off the memories of those soldiers who simply vanished on Vietnamese soil during the sixties and seventies – brothers-in-arms who paid the ultimate sacrifice – but never yielded the posthumous recognition they so richly deserved.
Come my official retirement of 2014 – and when pondering on how to best ‘celebrate’ the conclusion to a full and fascinating working life, I started to toy with the idea of venturing across the remote regions of former Indochina, largely to visit some of the place names that had become familiar to those of us who could only watch the abhorrent ravages of the Asian Armageddon on television – and then attempt to glean from the surviving, former defenders of the Vietcong credo, what precisely happened to the missing allied warriors who never returned to their own homelands – dead or alive!
It took several weeks to orchestrate a meaningful modus operandi – hampered somewhat through the tedious task of securing visas – to not merely Vietnam, but that of Cambodia and Laos – thus giving me access to the wider and highly relevant areas of this once scorched corner of the planet.
With rucksack packed, camera and binoculars stored in one’s hand luggage, that of which also contained my PC, an essential addition as this held a multitudinous volume of research that I had compiled in the approach to my day of departure – I came to occupy seat 28e on a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok on the 17th of May, with a view to connecting to Hanoi, courtesy of a previously-booked Air Asia flight to the principle city of this ancient nation – and once upon a time, the most dangerous place on Earth.
Once aboard, I immediately quashed the notion that one was enthusiastically embarking on a well-earned vacation – in effect, my break from routine was actually a lifelong quest to uncover the truth – that concerning the fate of soldiers such as myself, yet those who never made the road home – what I eventually uncovered was more than I ever bargained for!