Brisbane, 1968

He mumbles a prayer and it ends with a smile

You gather in the dust bowl of the old schoolyard. Heading off, walking in line. Little sheets of paper in one hand with your list of sponsors.

In the other hand a little radio. An excitement spreads when the song comes on…the order is given/they move down the line. The piper plays. And in real time, over in that other place, you know what happens from the footage on nightly t.v.

You walk the miles for your school, salute the flag every morning. Words such as ‘honour’ and ‘country’ are intermingled with ‘love’.

You carry little. You’ll be back at school in a few hours. You’re here with friends, listening to the sounds from the radio and this new sound, ethereal, like nothing you’ve heard before. You hear the lyrics in fragments: young men…battle zone…remembers the words… not really understanding the significance of the military chaplain, piloting his flock to war. Instead, you do think about those young men flying planes, engines screaming. It’s there on the soundtrack.

There’s an uneasiness about this ballad, these are uneasy times.

As the young men move out into the battle zone, your brother’s numbers are called. He doesn’t believe the fate of his country is in his young hands. Nor does your family who know the mothers and fathers back home they will cry.

 

Ho Chi Minh City, 2007

Standing on the steps, in the hot morning air, thick with the scent of a city under siege, with tears in their eyes/the stench of death drifts up to the skies.

You are at the American War Museum with your daughter. Same age as your brother was back then. No life and death decisions in her life.

You are both met outside by a camouflaged American fighter plane. It has a number on its tail fin. Something about numbers but you can’t explain, how they add weight, how they feel like a measure of time.

You’re already anxious before you go inside. A man and woman are on the steps. You hear the woman’s Australian accent as she speaks to the man. The man is sitting down, head in his hands. The woman is standing beside him, patiently waiting as if she’s been doing this for a very long time. You construct a narrative and unless you go and talk to them, you’ll never know. But he’s in no state to talk. He’s your brother’s age.

Your daughter writes in her diary that the Museum is “utterly depressing”.

Inside are the photos you’d both rather not see. Children’s books and satchels from a bomb blast in a glass case. A huge room devoted to the Agent Orange aftermath.

‘No one ever wins,’ someone said once.

How high can you fly

You’ll never, never, never reach the sky

He mumbles a prayer and it ends with a smile

You move out into the daylight and the heartbeat of the city. Old men and young men. Old and young women.

The Continental where Graeme Greene stayed and the Majestic where he visited stand to remind us of a past, like the museum, marking and erasing time.

You and your daughter go for an evening walk. Of a night Ho Chi Minh City is alight with movement and sounds. Happy sounds. Lovers gather around the fountain. It’s  a hot, steamy night. You think of another song, entirely different: love is in the air, every sight and every sound and while it’s incongruous, out of place, out of time you skip to the beat of the whisper in the trees and know that words are just the half of it.

 

Annette Signorini was a participant in the first Stereo Stories writing workshop, Williamstown Library, July 2019.

Annette Signorini lives a stone's throw from Newport Lakes (Victoria, Australia) and has contributed to Radio National's Earshot series Hot Summer Land. She has also collaborated with artist Debbie Harman-Qadri, writing poems based on artwork from the exhibition Abandoned Selves.