A welcome guest of the Old Paradians’ Association at its recent annual Vietnam Veterans Luncheon was Brian McGrath. A final year student of Parade’s Class of 1954, Brian is not a Vietnam veteran - and yet he has a profound respect for all those who served.
When Brian set foot into the Frank Mount Social Room for the occasion, he came armed with a poem he'd penned more than 30 years ago. The poem, entitled Bangkok to Tokyo – via Da Nang 1987, A Reflection, powerfully pushes the futility of war, and was completed “in about half an hour”, on what was a laborious return flight to Melbourne from Greece.
“The trip took 42 hours, I can remember that,” Brian, now 82, said. “I was supposed to be flying Qantas but the airline couldn’t find a seat for me, so it put me on a Japanese airline that got me to Tokyo for a connecting Qantas flight to Melbourne.
“I remember that there was a stop in Bangkok at the end of the day, next stop Tokyo, and I managed to get a window seat. During that flight, I heard the voice of the captain over the intercom, and the words: ‘If you look down at those little huts down there, that’s Da Nang’.
“On looking down I became quite upset, but I couldn’t quite work out why, so I did what I normally do in such circumstances – I got out a pen and pad and started writing.”
On reflection, Brian believed his motivation for penning the verse was influenced by his personal friendships with other veterans who struggled with civilian life afterwards.
To quote Brian: “They were shattered men and one of them, in particular, was a very good friend of mine . . . so that was what motivated me to write that poem – to work it through the system as it were”.
Brian's poem continues to elicit poignant response, as was the case back in '87 when he caught up with an old pal who'd served in Vietnam.
“We were having a drink in a pub and I showed him the poem,” Brian recalled. “I said to him ‘What do you think of this?’. He looked at the poem and said to me ‘How do you know? How do you know? You weren’t there. How do you know what it was like?’ and he wept. He was so damaged by the war that he couldn’t see a war film . . . ”
Brian’s love of poetry, which remains intact after many, many years, first materialised in “rather peculiar fashion” as he puts it, after he resolved not to pursue a career as a pianist despite an inherent talent for playing piano.
The following is Brian’s poem – a work he considers “a very individual response to a war by a person who was a non-combatant”.
Bangkok to Tokyo – via Da Nang 1987
It was a stretch of land as any other,
A littoral distinguished by the small white line
Of little waves, then beach, then verge,
Then forest dissected here and there
By the thin ribbon-line of roads,
A scattering of thatches, small abodes
Telescoped to toys by forty thousand feet.
The plane moves on into a cloudless sky,
And evening across the sky is calm and peace.
But Oh! The ghosts that still reside down there
Of native-born and foreign born, the dead, the living!
What secrets still are hidden by the silence
And the normalcy of landscape far below!
Do I hear faintly the sharp staccato stutter
Of a sten – not close or distant,
But muffled by the steady drone of engines –
Plane or planes? Copters far away?
No. Silence rules up here. Silence rules down there,
The booming silence of the sepulchre.
But ghosts remain and play their ghostly games
With their special sounds of memory,
And the living must dance life to their grim rhythms
While dead men’s bones grow white, and old aspirations
Just as dead are grown just as white –
No purity though, unless death makes them pure.
The living are not pure, but forever tainted
By the fratricidal games a vicious war
Too recently played out in this fair land
To rules too brutish event to recall.
And those who walked across this ghastly stage
Even today live scared – their souls misshapen
By the hellish vision shown them
Of fire, fission, pharmaceuticals
From which they long respite, relief, release.
Distance of time is no more anodyne
For these poor souls, as forty thousand feet
Makes beautiful this graveyard of deceits
So I pass on. The beauty of this land,
Heightened by sadness at such retrospect,
Has gone now – only the endless azure of the sea
Calm, at peace, unchanging, eternal foil
To man’s ambitions, cruelties and fate.
And I who otherwise will remain a prisoner
To these musings and memories of war,
Welcome its distraction.