by Karen Lethlean
On one of my first Army duty rosters which included four days off I decided to make a trip home. A chance to rekindle fading connections with my west coast heritage. Leave behind changeable, wait a while for different weather Melbourne. Swap constant indifference for predictability, enjoy afternoon effects of a Fremantle Doctor sea breeze. Be a returned soldier. With my own wages, I phoned the airline and booked a ticket.
Perhaps because I went straight from on-duty shift to airport departure spaces, I wore my uniform. Out in public, displaying visible trappings of my new Army girl status. Making a statement about my profession as a public servant. Needed to store my hat in overhead locker. Listened to announcements about, ‘items may shift…’ At least hats issued to army girls would take more movement than the minimal required to crush a serving male soldier’s slouch hat. Maybe an advantage of getting a different uniform than non-WRAAC (Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps).
Air travel eats away huge distances. Shows small towns appear to possess all roads lead to notions. Pasts gobbled up. I’ve done this cross-continental thing once before, so in youthful naivety am a seasoned air traveler. Almost no reason to look out windows and contemplate what’s left behind, consider potential futures, or examine reasons for human behaviour.
Instead of new beginnings, or a life unimagined on this short homecoming I looked forward to no marching, no orders, and no sergeants. As my plane taxis along familiar runways, I wonder about potential greetings, Maybe, maybe not, I would gain adult status, or receive affirmation for recent successes involved in making it through recruits and corps training.
“What’s this string?” My little sister asked, while we waited for my suitcase to arrive.
“Lanyard, identifies which corps I am allocated to, dark green is for Signals.”
I now knew what other colours signified. Purple of MP. Dark blue of signalmen. Insider knowledge gave me a little inner grin. Yet an awareness of terminology and specific knowledge further isolates. I’ve gone through a transition from schoolgirl wearing a uniform into a military member, someone charged with our country’s defence. Gained an important role to play. No one appeared to notice. Didn’t I look older, and more matured? Couldn’t anyone see differences? In my eyes, I walked taller, wasn’t so downtrodden.
“Aren’t you just WRAAC?” Dad said.
“Yes, we are WRAAC” I pointed to a dominant triangular badge on my hat. “But we are allocated to other corps. I finished corps training.”
His expression is dismissive.
I liked to call myself a member of the real man’s army. No separate one for women. Not CMF – citizen’s military force. Full time soldiers talked about these as part time troops, cut lunch commandos. Tuesday night parades, going out on exercise only after getting permission for time off their real work. I was a serving member, a shift worker an operator in Signals Communication Centres (commcens). Aware of soldier’s speak and in-jokes, like…if God wanted us to be in the Army he’d have given us green skin and shiny black feet.
“Women were only nurses during World War II.”
“WRAAC aren’t just nurses. You can identify nurses because they wear different colour uniforms, grey and wear red hats,” I said. Convinced Dad isn’t listening.
So much written about combinations of three essential female traits – to nurse, nurture, and serve. I also want to remind Dad about women who did men’s jobs during the war. Insist I am not deviant because I gained Army girl status. No affirmation, no expression of pride emanated from my father. In fact, I perceived just the opposite. His face dismissed and cautioned me. I scrambled for reasons behind this reception, tried to understand. His daughter, a girl who made good, left home, maybe he couldn’t handle this.
Neither of my brothers managed to gain access to the Army. One colour-blind. The other, Greg, would never try, epilepsy a way of limited boundaries of his career pathways. Yet never once did my father express pride in his middle daughter. Nor any of us daughters, for that matter. I don’t remember even overhearing whispers about any of our qualities to his mates. I have tall, healthy kids – except for one boy. My eldest daughter has already presented a tough, energetic grandson.
My memory of how I spent time during those few leave days resisted recall. Maybe I went go off on my own. Strolled around, Dog Swamp Shopping Centre. Yes, a real name for a location near my home, a cultured used to be swamp, shaped like a dog’s leg. Perhaps I wandered down Banksia Street hill toward my old school. Re-imagined my curiosity about staff cars parked along street verges. Saw myself in a uniform other than Tuart Hill High green and grey combination. No longer an ugly student wearing glasses and buck teeth, complete with metal straightening braces. Trying to be invisible as I walked with a knock-kneed, pigeon toed gait. Revisiting this place, I mumbled a declaration to myself. Promised to attend a reunion one day and do the whole Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, going back into an exclusive dress store which previously ejected her. I too would re-enact that scene, and say…Big Mistake…huge…! Make all those school bullies sorry.
I looked and actually saw how my mother operated in Dad’s sphere of dominance. Sat near but let him select television programs. Followed his instructions on where linen or kitchen utensils ought to be placed. Especially after washing up, when he hovered, grunted, and pointed rather than spoke. I remembered his sprinted movement from parked car to our back veranda, as he carried a precious cargo of beer bottles, secured in brown paper bags. Those same vessels still took pride of place on our family dinner table. “Man can enjoy a beer with his food,” he said in response to my creased brow.
I can’t shake sensations my parents still colluded to keep family secrets. Neither ever expressed repulsion about thinly veiled violence. I faced Mum long after his death and tried to broach discussion about my horrible childhood.
“Well you turned out fine.” Her response choked any further talk.
On my few days leave I thought I’d come home. I never realized that home is never the same once you have left it for any length of time. Home is a secret world behind closed doors, hides evils during your absence and never lets you find it again.
How can I, and do I really want to get inside home? Being physically in my hometown, in my childhood house, became a dream like mangle of past and present. Memories still littered our back yard in the shape of, gymnastic parallel bars, cross saw, car wrecks, timber piles, and piquet fence high towers of empty beer bottles.
For the first time I noticed certain things about Dad’s beehives. How dead worker bees were thrown out, diseased or merely worn out both rejected. A pristine, swept-clean landing area in front of each hive, as if even these insects took housekeeping instructions from their apiarist – my father. He made and maintained these containers filled with too-busy-to-sting working females.
Impossible to stop flashes of memory, snapshots smeared with colour and magpie songs. Walks in the bush with Dad naming trees. Declarations to do with flowering seasons. Crouched admiration of massed early spring blooms, more variation in tones than rainbow same-sex marriage parades. Petals too fragile to be subjected to bees were mechanism of trigger orchids. Dad caused tiny plungers to flip across, explaining this as a strategy to ensure flower pollination. No actual harm caused to flies, grasshoppers, ants, or bees. Infrequent tender exchanges remain difficult to call up. Rather they were dominated by unbidden, unlooked for, stronger memories of anger, shouting, beatings, and cruelty. These memories made me uneasy. Formed points of colour, grey, angry purple storm clouds as air pleats. Insistent, like being shown how fleas could be removed from bob-tail goanna’s ears, leaving a reptile looking back at his rough, capable of such pain, hands, and dirty fingernails with new esteem. I conceded not knowing my father well. So many things competed for relevance. Often dominated by Dad’s grave face and aggressive, unknowable eyes.
He liked to walk as if he wanted to be far away from his home and family.
My view of our house a link with a past like seeing destruction after a fire, all those treasured items lost. No, more likely my views would embody an attitude of thanking God this place burnt – I didn’t like memories weighing me down. I appreciated my new life as forming a scab. Distance a force beginning to protect me.
Yet childhood still hovered in close distance, eerily intact. Not much altered by my living apart, in the east. Ghosts of schoolteachers, swim coach, now mingled with images of Regimental Sergeant Major. Forces of intimidation, dominance now emanated from another quarter. Would I ever be good enough for these imposed standards?
Perhaps over-compensating for leaving her alone with our parents, I bent over backwards to spend time with my younger sister. Although details of our activities vanish, folded into contemplation of why I returned and what were our sins?
On my last night I decided to book a table in fancy, fondue themed restaurant, in Cottesloe. Wide windows overlooked Indian Ocean. If this was to be my last few memories of my childhood home, I wanted to fill it with tranquil sunset into murmuring, non-judgemental waters. Also, a slight chance he, my first boyfriend, might be wandering around foreshore pathways, maybe holding hands with a new girlfriend. Evoke a means to remind myself breaking away from this world was a correct thing to do. I might never return to my home state. And if I did, would I be recognized as part of a family tree? would I ever really belong?
Glad I am able to leave, again. Find my way back to a new Melbourne world I still explored. This time no tormented thoughts, wondering if my new profession would see me becoming a female version of my father. I looked forward to flight hours returning across the country, filled with just sleep.
My flight was delayed. Universal air traveler experience. I wondered what to do? Call home, ask my family to return, keep me company. No, I decided to wait it out. They only just dropped me off. Only a delay, not a cancellation.
Realized somewhere across Great Australian Bight, dates changed, swung into a new day, ticked over into 0000 hours. Shit! I should front up for midnight shift today. Never been very good with numbers. Another of my numbskull, lame-brain attributes, as I were often reminded by my father. A real short coming or a parent-perpetuated fault? Didn’t even anticipate this new day problem when I booked. Only saw a prior to 2400 hours departure and date. Now what am I going to do?
Nauseous sensations gurgled up. I held my stomach, blamed rich food and red wine. Swept back anxiety about time and dates. Nothing I can do while this plane flew across wide brown continental land masses. Yet I was unable to relax and enjoy re-runs of my first escape. Getting away again. Face it, you’re out on my own now. Necessary to solve my own problems.
I knew I needed to do something. Not presenting for a designated shift could get me into a world of trouble. Rushed, I called a duty sergeant, frantically searching for a public phone, and rifling change in Melbourne airport. Gasped out an explanation, “Made a dreadful mistake. Missed my shift…”
“Get here,” his calm voice reassures. “Present yourself, explain the situation.” Then a clincher. “Or you will be reported AWOL.”
Quick stop at my barrack room to pull on my uniform. Seeing my father’s ropable face, his spitting accusations of my uselessness. I won’t tell him. No need to anymore. Besides, it’s part of family stories about how he jumped ship in Perth, returning from Pacific campaigns. Convinced himself no authorities would follow up a west Australian not going to Melbourne to be demobilised. Dragged from his future in-law’s house in company of provosts and charged with AWOL, by the time he’d completed punishment and been discharged it was well after those who completed their journey to army designated finish lines.
All is low key up at No 1 building. My supervising Warrant Officer said, “someone remarked you were in Western Australia. Your shift got covered, so there is no real problem.”
I muffled sentiments about, “didn’t want to let team down.”
Admitted to making a stupid mistake.
Afraid others would gossip about my stupidity I swore to myself I wouldn’t talk about my trip home, or this whole incident. Learn to keep my blabber mouth shut.