The theme for this week’s JVG Radio Method poem is “Vietnam“.
Well, this topic came as a complete surprise and a bit.
I truly can’t believe that JVG let me put it to air and even more surprised that he liked it
Here, in all of it’s nine and a half minute of glory is today’s piece.
Ed Bates provided the guitar backing, have a listen to how it went below…
To play this poem directly in your browser – just click the “play” button below:
By the nineteen seventies The Worker’s Rest Hotel was a pub out of place and out of time – literally.
The workers and the factories that employed them had long since migrated to the outer suburbs and female patrons wishing to relieve themselves were forced to exit the bar onto the street and re-enter via the Ladies Lounge.
The client base was by now almost exclusively the angry and the dysfunctional, those unwelcome at other establishments, cash poor students and the occasional naïve dreamer with the romantic notion of discovering one of the last remaining old pubs, only to leave sorely disappointed without finishing their pot.
The best you could say about the place was it sold beer and had a pool table.
Jim arrived sometime in the mid nineties and almost immediately became a fixture.
He always opened his account with a pot and a whisky chaser – always.
Undeniably an alcoholic, he was solitary more than antisocial, though it took around half a dozen beers for him to acclimatise to company.
Until then he sat alone at the corner table and didn’t appreciate anyone encroaching on his space.
When he was ready, he’d relocate to the bar.
Once primed he became more convivial, if a little unpredictable and at times contradictory.
He had a strong dislike of questions and abhorred fools, particularly loud, opinionated ones, often leading to fiery exchanges.
And yet on more than one occasion I witnessed Jim hug complete strangers, having sensed a real or imagined sadness.
Daryl, the licensee of the pub took an unlikely shine to Jim.
Unlikely, because Daryl was renowned for his low tolerance of any misbehaviour, even minor breaches.
People joked that when Carlton lost it was easier to get barred than get a beer.
With Jim it was different.
When he became a bit untidy, Daryl would pull him aside and quietly suggest there was a good movie on television, and Jim knew it was time to make the four kilometre trek back to his bedsit.
Even drunk he appreciated the lenient treatment.
Sometime later I learned they were both Vietnam vets. I’m not sure if they ever had the discussion, or if Daryl instinctively knew.
Some experiences become etched on your face, bared in your eyes, betrayed by your demeanour. Although invisible to most, they reveal more than words are capable of conveying to the few who understand.
One night after a longer than usual session, Jim became involved in a very willing discussion with a group of bikies looking to lay claim to the pool table.
Wielding the cues more like Errol Flynn than Walter Lindrum, the bikies were barred for a month and Jim was sent home to watch a movie.
Perhaps concerned the bikies might attempt to continue the discussion outside, Daryl ordered Jim a taxi and asked me, despite Jim’s protestations, to accompany him home, with the promise of a free beer when I returned.
When we arrived at Jim’s, he invited me in, a surprise in itself.
A neat though tired lodging; a bed, a heater, a small record player, and to my amusement, no television.
I noticed a tattered photograph of a small child that was pinned to the bed head next to a bus timetable.
“My daughter” Jim volunteered, without offering her name.
“She’s about two in that photo, haven’t seen her since. She’d be twenty now”
“Hope you like Normie Rowe” he quipped, turning to his little mono portable record player. “The only record I have, lost the rest in one of my moves. Normie’s my favourite anyway”
At the pub Jim drank beer and the odd whisky. Here, I discovered, he drank cask wine exclusively, whatever was on special.
Red, white, sweet, dry, table or fortified, it mattered not.
Jim didn’t drink for the taste.
“No fridge” he shrugged “and I’d rather warm wine than warm beer”
Several coffee mugs into what tasted more like battery acid than moselle, Jim took a long draw on his cigarette, gazed up at the ceiling and exhaled.
“I was in Vietnam, no-one knows that at the pub and I’d like it to stay that way. Shit of a war.
I was based in Saigon, a cushy job in many ways, ferrying dispatches, documents and the like, anything that had to be hand delivered between headquarters, the embassies, the Yanks, government departments.
We’d been warned that the VC had infiltrated; men, women, young and old, disguising themselves as locals and targeting troops.
Off duty soldiers in town for a good time were pretty easy targets.
It was impossible to pick the cong from the locals, and when you’re out and about every day it starts to eat at you and everyone begins to look suspicious. You get jumpy – shreds your nerves
Two young soldiers barely out of school were shot just around the corner from one of the embassies and not long after I passed what was left of a jeep that someone had rolled a grenade under.
A week or so later I was crossing a crowded street when I heard yelling.
I swung round to see a kid in his late teens run out of a lane and head straight toward me with his arm outstretched and holding something in his hand.
I wasn’t even aware of drawing my pistol, next thing I’ve fired and he’s lying on the ground at my feet.
I found out later he was running after his mother to give her something, I have no idea what, and you know, it doesn’t fucking matter what it was, except that it wasn’t a gun.
A couple of Yanks bundled me into their jeep and got me out of there before it turned nasty.
I was counselled that these things happen in war and not to dwell on it.
Not dwell on it? I killed an innocent kid and I saw the look on his mother’s face.
How do you erase that?”
Jim lit another cigarette and leaned back into his chair.
Neither of us spoke, leaving Normie Rowe to fill the silence.
Seconds later his cigarette fell to the floor, Jim had dozed off.
I picked it up, put it in the ashtray, turned off the record player and left.
Our conversation was not mentioned again.
Within two years Jim was dead.
Collapsed in the hotel toilet on a Tuesday, and given a week, two at the most on the Thursday.
I visited him the next afternoon.
“You know I’m dying?” he laboured, in a tone suggesting relief more than anguish.
Mercifully they allowed him to drink as much as his ailing body could cope with, his liver way beyond hope of salvage by abstinence.
Daryl made sure he had the best too, no cheap cask rubbish.
“I’ll put it on your tab” he declared with only a hint of a smile.
We asked Jim if there was anyone he would like us to contact, and without hesitation he shook his head in the negative.
As per his instructions, there was no funeral service and his ashes were disposed of by the undertakers.
The hat was passed round the bar to cover the funeral costs, with Daryl making up the significant shortfall.
By the end of the year his lease had expired and he headed north to manage a motel somewhere on the central coast.
I haven’t heard from or of him since.
Politicians carry the heavy burden of deciding when a country should go to war, passing that burden on to their successors.
Soldiers carry the heavy burden of fulfilling their government’s declaration, with some fated to carry that loathsome, inequitable weight for the rest of their lives.
And then there are the countless innocents, those directly affected by the fighting, and those caught up in the sufferings of the soldiers on their return.
On a busy Saigon street, a single bullet killed two people, though it took one of them almost twenty years to die.
© Copyright 2020 Ian Bland
Also have a listen to “Everything or Nothing”