ANZAC Tribute

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

ANZACDay commemorates the fallen, but with any war, there's always more to it.

ANZAC Tribute

My father didn’t go to war, he was an essential service person because of his milk pasteurising and bottling business, the first in the city. The business was known as Halswell Dairy, and I still have a blank invoice form framed on my wall. I can remember the names of six of the milkmen who came daily to the dairy for their milk, there were more but their names are lost to me. As well as the dairy, he had a milk round, and when he sold the dairy to the larger corporate in 1950, he continued with the milk round and expanded it because there were new housing developments nearby.

I must have been six, when I first went out with my father on the milk round. My brother was two years my senior, and we took turns at steering the truck, which was put in low gear and throttled back – the cops put a stop to this practice a year or two later. We started at midnight Christmas morning. It was a busy morning for Dad, he had nearly three hundred customers, and each would receive a calendar (printed by Fuller Bros.), which amounted to extra work, and there was the cream. Christmas meals even shortly after the war were as special as they are today, so cream was the luxury many were prepared to invest in. As well, we gave the ‘widders’, a free half pint of cream. I didn’t have a clue what a ‘widder’ was, but I delivered a bottle into their front doorstep as I was instructed. It wasn’t until a few years later that I tumbled to it… he was saying, ‘widows’. I didn’t think to ask then, but I’m guessing now, that many of the widows would have lost their husbands during the wars. I know that some of my school mates had lost fathers or uncles.

After 1950, Christmases were even busier, as well as the calendars, cream to deliver and the widows to look after, we started to receive appreciations. Bottles of beer, packets of cigarettes, and the occasional handkerchief or cake of chocolate were left out for Dad. The smokes were stored in a couple of drawers in my bedroom tallboy, and the bottles were stored in a cool part of the garage because nobody in the house was interested in tobacco or alcohol.

I’ve no idea what started it, but on ANZAC Day, Dad would leave his truck out of the garage, and we would make up rough seating with boxes and planks. From about 10:00am, men would drift in and we would hand them a glass and a bottle of beer, cigarettes and matches were left on a table. I knew some of the men to be the fathers of other kids at school, but the others, I have no idea who they were or how they knew to come. Some of them were still dressed in the clothes they had worn to the dawn service, and one or two wore medals, all of them were returned men, so Mum had told me. I used to listen for talk of the war, which was fresh in my young mind because of the movies and comics of the day, but none of them talked about war. There was spicy talk and a good amount of swearing, a bit about rugby and horse racing, but nothing about the war. It didn’t occur to me that they didn’t want to relive it… ever. They seemed not to be morose though. Nobody was drunk or outstayed their welcome and I found out when I was older, that the remainder of the beer and smokes were taken to the local Returned Services Association.

1962, during my first year as a Ranger Trainee, at the tender age of eighteen, I ended up at Hanmer Forest, staying in the single men’s camp, which consisted of a cookhouse/dining room, an ablution block and three rows of huts. There was a slat bed in my hut, with a rubber mattress and drawers underneath, a small wardrobe, a bin for firewood, a narrow cupboard with a mirror on its door, the cupboard was for storing soap and a razor, and there was a pot-bellied stove. There were a couple of windows that opened. We had no insulation and although the winters could be cold, the little stove and larch firewood kept us all warm.

Queen Mary hospital was in the Hanmer township which is 90 miles from Christchurch. The distance from Christchurch was the probable reason the hospital was established there, because it was for the rehabilitation of alcoholics and drug users. The hospital had a unique relationship with the forest management… when some of men were ready to leave the hospital, they first came to the forest to work and stay in the single men’s camp. Probably to earn some money and to help them re-enter the world. A good many of the men that came to the camp were war veterans who were having ongoing issues related to their war experience. There were other itinerants in the camp too, who were sent out from Christchurch by the police. They hadn’t done anything particularly bad, but the police thought a stay in the wopwops would be better for them than staying in the city.  

Most of the work was cutting rows through scrub and planting trees, but some days not much work was actually done. Some of the men would lock themselves in their hut all weekend drinking, and on the Monday, they would sit nearly all day in their row with their head in their hands. At night there were muffled… yells I suppose. Some weren’t in very good condition at all. However, in the dining room, they were mannerly, friendly and would talk to us. There wasn’t any theft of clothes in the drying area as I’d seen in other camps and of course parties were banned. The cook ran a store, but if anyone wanted booze, they had to walk the four or five miles into town and they couldn’t carry much back.

Piri used to call at my hut because I had a small collection of Alistair MacLean books, and he’d bring one back and take another. I’d often shout him a cup of tea and a biscuit…or a slice of my sister’s fruit cake. I’d noticed him every now and then, eyeing the .303 rifle I had hanging on the wall and wondered what he was thinking. He’d tell me about his life was a boy in the Bay of Plenty, and one time, how he’d lost his brother when a wild pig gored his leg and he bled to death.

ANZAC Day fell on a Wednesday that year, so we had a day off. Different to today, ANZAC Day was fairly sombre, and it would’ve been looked down upon if I went off hunting. So I read and listened to the radio on my bed. Midmorning, I answered a knock on the door and found Piri standing there. He was a little unsteady on his feet, so I knew he’d had a drink or two, so I invited him in for a cup of tea. He was ok, but kept glancing at my rifle.

‘ANZAC Day it is.’ Piri said softly.

‘So it is.’ Says I.

‘I served in the Maori Battalion, y’know.’ He said softly, and yet proudly.

I looked into his brown eyes, because I knew there was more.

‘I miss my mates… I miss them.’ He said shaking his head. He continued. ‘I want to honour them…’

‘What do you want to do, Piri?’ I asked.

‘That rifle…’ he nodded towards it.

‘Uh-oh,’ I thought but out loud I said, ‘What about the rifle, Piri? It’s always empty.’

‘I just want to do the drills.’ His voice was still soft. ‘I loved doing those drills.’ And he smiled at the memory.

I handed him the rife and said, ‘Pity it isn’t fully-wooded.’

‘It’s ok.’ He had a tear in his eye.

Piri perfectly performed the rifle drills, from ‘at ease’ to ‘attention’ to ‘slope arms’ to ‘order arms’ and back, again and again, saying, ‘one, two three, one!’ as appropriate. I wondered if the hut would hold together with all his bouncing around! He kept it up with obvious Maori  flourishes thrown in, until he was sweating heavily, and finally he ‘presented arms’, ramrod straight, he sort of hummed-cum-trumpeted The Last Post! He was clearly emotional and frankly, so was I. He shyly handed the rifle back to me and I rehung it on the wall.

‘Thank you.’ He said softly, he shook my hand, and at attention, he ceremonially saluted, so I saluted him back. And he was gone.

Wars don’t end, they have a lingering affect… that’s why we pay homage to them all.


Submitted: April 24, 2021

© Copyright 2021 moa rider. All rights reserved.

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