The other night I commemorated the anniversary of my conscientious objection case. This was a court hearing to determine that I actually held beliefs that prevented me from being conscripted for the Vietnam War. It was a while ago, but as you might imagine, trying to establish beliefs under cross-examination jolted me enough not to forget (existential threat does not permit complexities).
The alternatives of win or gaol loomed so large that, even three decades later, an exhibition on so-called National Service at the Australian archives in Canberra just made me laugh. For there was the tiny wooden Tattersall’s gambling casket from which they drew our life-and-death birthday marbles. And there was a typewritten letter from Minister for the Army Malcolm Fraser sending off young people with corrections scrawled in pen.
The other night was the anniversary of the day we were summoned back to hear the magistrate’s verdict on the evidence provided by me and two witnesses. My father Christopher and uncle Lawrence confirmed talking to me over the years about the issues. Both had fought in WWII, my father still saying it had been the right thing to do, and his brother believing he should have refused.
I have previously written that their father (my grandfather Alex) departed London for South Australia, never to return, based on his trench warfare experiences. Mind you, the strength of my views probably came even more from my mother; with two brothers and young husband away, she suffered at home.
Several supporters had warned against appearing without a lawyer, especially in front of a magistrate who by then had a string of knock-backs to his name. But I was only 20.
On that day, the magistrate entered, summarised my case, stopped, and, without mentioning anything asserted by the newbie barrister challenging me, found my case justified, and left the courtroom. I remain convinced he changed his mind half way through his prepared statement.
I was not going to gaol for refusing to train to kill. I was not, like so many peers, to
participate directly in death and destruction. Instead, my father took us out to dinner at the Fiddlers Three in Cremorne, where I was allowed to order anything I wanted – duck à l’orange and chocolate mousse.
On this anniversary, with my usual dinner companions at the Hannah Gadsby show (confronting in a different way), what was I to do? Celebrate alone at home with a bottle of red?
In the end, I decided to try the nearby Returned Services League club…
The club is decorated with medals, and a Tasmanian artist’s depiction of various WWI soldiers doing their thing (set number 962 of a run of 1000 prints). A glass case inside the entrance displays a book, whose pages would seem to be turned every two days to name soldiers to be remembered.
And the club has lots of poker machines, and bright lights and jangling sounds. Originally, at such clubs, ex-soldiers recalled dead comrades, but gambling facilities have subsidised expansion into mini-Trump casinos. Members, including presumably now even former enemies, can lose themselves in spinning images.
The club was surprisingly big and busy. As well as the Gallipoli lounge, poker machines reach into the “Kokoda Terrace outside smoking area with comfortable seating and table service”. The main dining is the “All You Can Eat restaurant – Buffet 88”. I went to the smaller, almost empty Poppies Cafe for the largest hamburger with the lot and chips that I’ve been served.
Many young men (mainly men) died for this, and others returned so damaged that their PTSD afflicts partners, and is passed on to the next generation. My grandfather, uncle and mother remain right.