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Edition 21

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Memoir

A war, an attic, a gun

WHEN MY SON was young - six perhaps, or seven – my mother made him a promise. We were stacking books and cleaning shelves on a soupy summer's day, the three of us preoccupied until then with dust and wasps' nests in spines. Brisbane's humidity plays havoc with old books. I remember a kind of honey from an abandoned nest on the cardboard cover of A.A. Milne's The Day's Play, and wondering how to dissolve it - eucalyptus oil? – when I heard my mother's voice. If they ever bring back conscription for an overseas war, she said, you won't be going. I'll hide you in an attic. Or in a secret room somewhere.

The groove of the P in Play was sticky. I frowned, glanced up; my mother had paused with a pink cloth bunched in one hand and a book in the other. She looked into her grandson's wide, brown eyes. If I have to,she said evenly, I'll get a gun and shoot one of your toes.

I watched Dane's eyes register his grandmother's sudden and violent emotion and its string of images: a war, an attic, a gun. He nodded, and finally he smiled, recognising even then the mix of menace and levity in her voice and in her eyes. She smiled back at him. I went in search of the eucalyptus and touched Dane's head as I walked past. She means it, I said cheerily. I know, he said, and shuffled his collection of Puffins into order on a clean shelf.

I remember this conversation as if it happened yesterday. I can see the polished dark wood of the bookshelves, the sun through sash windows, my son's flushed, serious face. The funny elongated freckle on his nose. My mother's eyes and the slight twist of her mouth when she was deadly serious about something, the way it softened, that day, to a half-smile over shoot one of your toes. I remember wanting to add my own words, to back hers up but qualify them – maybe a toy gun – but I saw just in time that I couldn't, that this was a pact between the two of them, as binding as any treaty.

What I don't remember about that day is the name of the book my mother had in her hand. I'd like to know the title or what was on the cover. I didn't think to look, or to ask.

This exchange happened in the mid-1980s. It had been twenty years since the Vietnam War, which had reopened a bigger and unfinished conversation in Australia about the notion of conscription, about the 
nature of war, about individual conscience. Twenty years since an anxious and angry generation marched in the streets, dodged the draft and rallied under banners like We Won't Go, Don't Kill, Don't Register 
and Save Our Sons.

I was only ten in 1967, the year of Brisbane's first big anti-conscription protests, and my two brothers were eight and one, a long way from the draft. I can't remember any family discussion around the issue at all. As far as I knew, my mother took little interest in the protests, and passed the '60s in the quiet of our home in New Farm, largely unaware that the city around her was simmering with radical resistance and revolt.

So her promise to Dane that day over dusting cloths and books came seemingly out of the blue. I wondered fleetingly if she'd been a covert member of a protest group when I was a child, perhaps one of the women in Save Our Sons who donned their best frocks and hats and gloves to demonstrate outside recruitment offices, waving placards and politely blocking stairs and entrances. It was a romantic notion, my mother as dissident, and it didn't last long. A year after the promise to Dane was made, I found out the real reason behind it, but back then I didn't see it for what it was. It's taken me another twenty years to work it out.

 

CONSCRIPTION WASN'T NEW to Australians when it was introduced in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War. We'd had a wild flirtation with compulsory service during World War I, when the country began to run out of eligible volunteers to fill the gaps in the trenches left by the dead. Despair and bleakness rose with the casualty lists and with the confronting sight in the streets of returned soldiers with horrible disfigurements and missing limbs. After the initial patriotic scramble, few men wanted to go.

So it's no surprise that the arguments around conscription were bloody and bruising, literally, before the narrow defeat of the first referendum on the issue in 1916 and again around the second in 1917. Both sides slogged it out viciously. Political parties, cities and families were left bitterly divided; fists and white feathers flew.

The grey and damaged spectres who made it back alive didn't diminish the zeal of either side. If anything, the loyalists – sensing the national mood – fought the ‘shirkers' even harder. Perhaps they had to. Perhaps, with their sons or brothers already in the trenches or on the black-framed lists of the dead, they had to believe it all amounted to something, this war to end all wars.

But looking back, the real surprise for me is the physical role played by women in the stoush. They hurled themselves at the debate and at each other with voices, hat pins and umbrellas raised, famously engaging in a punching, scratching, clawing free-for-all at one Brisbane meeting later described as ‘the most disgraceful scene that ... ever occurred at a women's meeting' in Australia.

And that's the other surprise: the emergence of Queensland as firebrand and militant, perhaps the most radical state in the new federation, its government alone in all the Empire with an anti-conscription and a socialist platform, as well as a willingness to fight for free speech. Of course, since then the pendulum has swung. We've endured repressive and reactionary governments for long periods, so the old labels might now seem quaint but for their reappearance in the anti-conscription and free speech campaigns in the '60s. Once again, Queensland arguably became for a while the state with the most active and effective radical movement in the land. Some would say that with a corrupt government, an audacious secret police force and archaic restraints on public protest, we had little left to lose. But a generation of men and women who took the beatings, saw the inside of watch-houses and prisons, and whose lives irrevocably changed course would beg to differ. The Brisbane movement, they would say, was just like the city: a ‘tell it like it is' movement that, isolated from the ideologies of the south, operated as humanist, committed, genuine and irreverent.

 

THE OLD AND SEMI-SERIOUS argument amongst the protesters of the '60s about which was the more radical city, the more genuinely activist, back then – Brisbane or Melbourne – is occasionally put to the test in a formal debate. The most recent was late last year in Melbourne, at the State Library of Victoria, and the vote was by approbation. Brisbane won convincingly. That Sydney is left entirely out of this equation is one thing, but that Brisbane should triumph over a Melbourne home crowd on this particular topic is quite another. Even the members of the Brisbane team – Humphrey McQueen, Carmel Shute and Ray Evans – were shocked. The sun-dazed northern capital, in the public imagination at least, is linked more often with repression than dissent, with arch-conservatism rather than radicalism. But the Brisbane team gave a spirited portrayal of a city that was wilder and far less respectable than staid and proper Melbourne, a city that led rather than followed, and cared little about its reputation. Brisbane, they argued with the perspective of hindsight, was always different.

Even before the first anti-conscription stoushes in the mid-'60s, the city's radical sensibilities were more eclectic than Melbourne's, where Maoists' and Trotskyists' and Marxist-Leninists' views held sway. Without those constraints, Brisbane could be more open to the influence of the American and European student movements, which were essentially left libertarian, and of the humanist traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King – and far more interesting. This certainly applied to the state's police Special Branch, whose members were familiar with individual protesters and called them by name. The Special Branch appears to have had a dual role in the shaping of Queensland's resistance: the threats and intimidation spurred protesters and fostered a resistant culture, but its pernicious effects – halted only when the branch was disbanded and its files destroyed by the incoming Labor government in 1989 – saw many flee the state.

Jim Prentice, who was a ‘psychologically fragile and immature' arts/law student in 1967, says the branch created a sense of menace in Queensland, a feeling of being constantly watched. ‘They weren't the Gestapo, but you felt you were at their mercy,' he says.

Privately schooled and anxious, Prentice was soon drawn to the ‘seriousness and rebelliousness, the moral genuineness' of the radicals on the University of Queensland campus. He identified with them rather than with young lawyers, sharing their alienation from ambition and from wealth, and soon became involved in anti-conscription and right-to-march demonstrations.

‘Everyone ended up in the watch-house, knocked around by heavy-handed police. We had no protection,' he shrugs. He survived these encounters well enough, but it was the night he was picked up, thrown into the back of a police car and driven around Brisbane with a gun to his head that defined his life and actions for years afterwards.

‘They drove me around like that for a while, holding this gun at my temple, threatening to plant drugs on me. At the watch-house they punched me up and made me sign a false confession about damaging CMF (home guard) property,' he says.

What he'd done to merit that kind of attention is something he's never figured out: he marched against conscription, helped print leaflets and fill out false draft cards to clog up the system, got involved in the moratoriums. But then so did thousands of others.

Prentice is a mild-mannered man, an academic and intellectual who has spent years researching and analysing the '60s protest movements and their antecedents. What happened to him in Brisbane in the late '60s and early '70s utterly changed his life. Along with many others, he began to see himself as an outsider in his own society, someone marked and different, at odds with the whole place. But the brutality he experienced pales in comparison to his nightmares about being called up and sent to Vietnam – or, more likely, to prison.

‘We had these threats hanging over our heads – being sent to Vietnam and killed, or to prison. I didn't get called up, but I wouldn't have coped with what they dished out in jail. There's no room for fragility there,' he says.

According to Prentice, Queensland's political hypocrisy was rampant and transparent, even to teenagers. ‘It was so clear to us,' he says. ‘They were conscripting eighteen-year-olds for an immoral war – fighting for "democracy" in Vietnam when there was no democracy on the streets of Queensland.' Protesting conscription by marching was illegal too – you were arrested, bashed, threatened. All this meant, he says, was that Brisbane stayed true to its origins: ‘We had a broader perspective because it was all real to us.'

Jim Beatson and Gail Parr agree. Beatson was famously beaten up on live television during a demonstration and Parr was thrown into Boggo Road jail after an illegal march from the university to the city. This was no surprise: ‘There was this copper in a pork pie hat who would sidle up to me at the uni bus stop in Adelaide Street and say, "We're going to get you, and when we do we'll put you in with the boongs, you know that, don't you?"' Her frequent visits to Brisbane's waterfront, where she'd yell anti-conscription speeches to wharfies and thrust pamphlets into their hands, meant she was firmly in the enemy's sights. She was constantly shadowed by Special Branch police, and at home the phone was tapped. ‘They'd break into conversations,' she recalls. ‘They'd say: "We're listening to you."'

Beatson was also well known to the Special Branch from his activities with several anti-conscription and protest groups. When he turned up at a strategically timed demonstration in the city to burn a draft card, he knew they'd be looking for him. ‘When I got to the intersection of Queen and Albert streets at 5.30, the television cameras were already there, along with twenty or thirty cop cars and black mariahs – it was packed with people,' he says. ‘I had my arm in a sling from a motorbike accident but as soon as I got out my dad's Ronson gas lighter I was immediately set upon and beaten up. The police even twisted my broken arm behind my back.'

He lost the Ronson lighter too, but it was all worth it, he says. Television news bulletins broadcast the mêlée live and Bill Hayden, then a local federal member, later made a speech about the beatings in Parliament.

Beatson had co-founded Youth Against Conscription in the mid-1960s along with Anne Rook, the daughter of a prominent Brisbane Quaker family. Quakers, who are committed to non-violence and supported draft resisters and conscientious objectors, held all-night vigils outside Boggo Road jail whenever a protester was imprisoned. Beatson was not a Quaker but attended meetings at their rooms. ‘We were hopelessly idealistic but not remotely interested in Trotsky or Mao,' he recalls. ‘We had no role models, no one to help us. So we did it ourselves. We had a printing press four or five years before anyone else down south, and we churned out leaflets every day and worked on them all night. There was that level of commitment and sincerity. We really did believe in it.'

 

MY MOTHER WAS only nine when World War II began, too young to understand the realities. She probably didn't know about conscription in that war; the word was barely used. But she did know about her uncle who, as a member of the CMF or home guard, was sent to New Guinea. New laws brought by the Curtin Government in 1943 extended the boundaries of ‘home' for the home guard, compelling them to serve in New Guinea and the South-West Pacific. It was conscription by any other name. Like many others, my mother's uncle returned from the Kokoda Track with his skin blackened by malaria, and died shortly afterwards.

Still, there wasn't a lot of time to think about it. A year after the war and shortly after her sixteenth birthday, my mother was courted by a charismatic man who first noticed her behind the counter of a restaurant in Rowes Arcade in Brisbane. Michael was seventeen years her senior, a handsome Greek who came bearing an irresistible gift: the promise of a new life. Within a year, she'd run away with him to North Queensland, and shortly afterwards she bore him a son. They named him Peter. He had his mother's dark eyes and the almond-coloured skin of his father. Peter was still a baby when Michael pushed our mother down a staircase, hurling a wooden cupboard down behind her for good measure. Unsurprisingly, this induced a miscarriage. The new pregnancy was far enough advanced for her to see that the lifeless foetus was another boy. Despite this, and the beatings that preceded it, my mother couldn't leave her husband. Weak with malnutrition, catatonic with fear and shame, she was relieved when Michael spent all weekend away at a poker game, leaving her with the baby and an empty pantry in the humid flat, and no money to buy food – or, of course, a ticket out of there and home to Brisbane. The ticket would appear a few months later, sent by her family. They'd been tipped off by a neighbour in Cairns who told them about the abuse and said simply, get her out of here.

 

WHEN A CONSERVATIVE federal government committed a small number of Australian troops – or ‘advisers' – to Vietnam in 1962, and even when numbers were radically increased in 1965 in response to the US escalation, there was barely a dissenting voice to be heard around the country. The landmark legislation in 1966 that allowed the conscription of eighteen year olds and their subsequent posting to the war zone only distressed a minority – Harold Holt was returned as prime minister in the same year, despite an anti-war, anti-conscription campaign by students and the new left.

The year before, in Townsville, a young husband and wife just returned from a teaching stint in England had been woken from somnolence by the then opposition leader, Arthur Calwell, who bravely came to the garrison town to preach anti-conscription. Margaret and Henry Reynolds were scarcely politically naïve even then, but Margaret was politicised, she says now, by Vietnam and conscription. In her autobiography, Living Politics (UQP, 2007), she recalls that the conscription of friends had a ‘tremendous' impact on them both: ‘I changed almost overnight from an apolitical girl of the '50s to a very strong activist.'

It seems breathtaking now that she would, as a young mother, establish a branch of the anti-conscription group Save Our Sons in a fiercely military town. Only a few women came to that first meeting in the Reynolds home, mostly the mothers of sons of conscriptable age. But they immediately attracted media attention and Margaret, at least, promptly lost friends. One woman told her she could no longer continue the friendship because ‘her priest had warned her not to associate with communists'.

Save Our Sons was busy with its message everywhere. In southern capitals, members picketed defence offices and demonstrated – famously, five women were jailed in Melbourne for wilful trespass. Journalists tried to diminish the organisation by painting it as middle class: they wore gloves and frocks, after all. Others saw this as part of its genius. At any rate, in Queensland the movement was organised by the wives of trade unionists, women like Vilma Ward, and it was identified as working class to its stiletto heels.

For Margaret Reynolds, the experience with Save Our Sons soon translated to a successful political career, but she vividly remembers a day, thirty years later, when she was approached by a student after giving a lecture in North Queensland. He had, he said, been a young ASIO officer sent to monitor the activities of Save Our Sons in Townsville in the '60s, and had followed her on several occasions. The story was later verified. It was a ‘tantalising reminder', she says, of the attitude to the peace movement in Queensland at the time.

Reynolds' story and those of the protesters are the tip of an enormous iceberg of memories about the anti-conscription movement in Queensland. Everyone over the age of fifty, it seems, has a story about illegal marches, false draft cards, police beatings and the charge of camaraderie felt by anyone who waved a placard or resisted the call-up. But I've been surprised to find absolutely no memory or evidence of the network of safe houses run by sympathisers to hide young men dodging the draft. Everyone says they were there all right, along with a system of intercepting Defence Department mail. But the protesters, the students, members of Save Our Sons and the Quakers were too obvious as Special Branch targets to run safe houses or to use them, and no one seems to know who did. I'm no historian and so perhaps I've missed them, but what this tells me is that these memories are disappearing, dying with the generations. They were secrets well kept – too well – and now they need to be told.

 

CAIRNS RAILWAY STATION, far North Queensland, summer of 1949. A girl with fugitive eyes and an infant on her hip. She is thin, gaunt even, but still it is easy to see that these two are a pair, dark-haired and dark-eyed. She hurries down the platform towards the second-class cars, slowed by the weight of her son and her cardboard suitcase. It holds everything they own, everything she dared to take.

She finds a seat in one of the last cars – perhaps it feels safe, perhaps she is already getting as far from this place as she can. Peter – that is the boy's name – is tired, fractious, out of routine. Somewhere in her own tired brain she knows he is echoing her, responding to her own fear, her own curdled mix of terror and sorrow and the adrenalin it has taken to get her here. She talks to him quietly; she hopes he won't cry. She doesn't want anyone to hear him.

Later – for the rest of her life – she will sift through the memory of the minutes that followed; she will turn each moment in her hand, looking for ways she could have changed them. But always she gets stuck at the image of Michael, the terrible smile as he enters the carriage, walks towards them, pulls Peter from her arms. For more than forty years, when she dreams of her lost son she will dream of Michael. He will always be walking towards her, wearing that smile.

Whatever happened next is vague. I only know he took Peter and threatened to kill her if she got off the train. And this is where I get stuck, at the moment her son disappears. It is the moment, a fine sharp point, on which all our lives – hers, my father's, those of us yet unborn – will spin. I want to get past it, to open it up. Did she plead with Michael in those minutes, beg for her son, tell him she'd stay? Did she try to strike a bargain, some pathetic deal? I don't know, but I doubt it. She had nothing to bargain with, I know that much – no cards to play, in the parlance of the poker games to which he was addicted. She had only herself, her own bruised and flimsy body, her poor bullied heart. He didn't want her.

 

A COUPLE OF years ago, I came out of a building fronting the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane to find myself surrounded by white uniforms. The US Navy was in town. The novelty of the sight had worn off when I was a child living in New Farm, when US ships were frequent visitors to New Farm Wharf. This day was different, and shocking. The boys wandering up and down the Mall in their crisp white stood out for two reasons: most of them were well under twenty, and most of them were black.

It was shocking but it made sense. If you are young and black in America, where there is no minimum wage for the young and you're lucky to earn six dollars an hour, and if your folks are poor and can't afford college, then the military's pitch – jobs, skills, training, travel – must sound like a siren song. I watched these boys mucking about, taking each other's photos, drinking Coke, and saw that this was a de facto kind of conscription in action – the children of the poor as expendable, as numbers. I wondered how many of them realised, when they signed up, that they'd soon be in Iraq. This was, of course, what the legendary American journalist Gay Talese was talking about when he called recently for conscription to be reintroduced in his country. The Iraq war would be over in days, he predicted, if the sons of congressmen and governors were suddenly thrown on to the front line.

Overseas, conscription still exists in some places, but in a form so removed from the Australian experience that it should have another name. The Scandinavian countries all use a form of mandatory national service, and men and women remain on call for duty for the term of their active lives. But these are countries with a history of neutrality. Their citizens know that any skills they acquire with guns or missiles or tanks will be used not to attack on foreign soil but to defend on their own.

Interestingly, countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland also have a history of looking after their own people in peacetime, and refugees from overseas conflicts. Sweden's ‘cradle to the grave' socialism, though slightly weathered now, has ensured high standards of living for people of all ages and from all backgrounds. People with disabilities and their families are particularly well catered for. Generous maternity and paternity leave provisions, high-quality, affordable child care and family-friendly workplaces mean families receive support at crucial times. Despite ancient complaints about taxes, there is a certain level of trust in the community that the government has the welfare of its people at heart.

The ‘Manifesto Against Conscription and the Military System' first mooted in 1926 and signed by such luminaries as M.K. Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells and Selma Lagerlof, declares that ‘the State which thinks itself entitled to force its citizens to go to war will never pay proper regard to the value and happiness of their lives in peace'. It seems to me to come down to a matter of trust: who among us would trust an Australian or American or Chinese government with the lives of our sons? Is there any level of trust that any of our governments have had our welfare at heart?

Recently I asked a couple of women, the mothers of young sons, what they felt about the idea of conscription. Their replies were honest and forthright: the notion was abhorrent to them, and each had sly ways they might hide their boys, but each also knew that the equation involved others. If not my boys, whose? None, they decided. Their replies were all filled with expressions of distrust of our country to look after anyone's sons, to keep any kind of promise about their safety.

 

IT IS A clear Winter afternoon in Brisbane, 1985. She has walked home from the hospital laundry to the old highset wooden Queenslander – white bay windows, bricked in beneath – a fifteen-minute walk that is pleasant in winter, though in summer she sweats freely, mopping her face, hating the heat.

Today she's carrying a few groceries and doesn't stop at the mailbox or among the roses in the front garden, but walks straight past them and down the side path to the back steps. She doesn't seem to notice the car and caravan parked across the street, or the faces turned towards her. Well, it's a busy street in an inner-city suburb; there are always cars. She'd like to move, when the youngest is finished university, to a quieter place and a lowset house. A couple of years before, she'd fallen down these steps on her early morning way to work, needed surgery on a shattered ankle. It was the first bone she'd ever broken. She was proud of that.

In the kitchen, she pushes open windows and fills the kettle. She is spooning coffee into a mug when she hears the knock at the back door.

She opens it to a good-looking, dark-haired man. Perhaps he's somewhere in his forties, it's hard to tell. But her body feels a bolt of recognition; something opens inside her then slams shut. It's what she's taught herself to do.

He says, I'm looking for Yvonne Ball. Her maiden name. She feels invisible fingers claw open a possibility. The man – for some reason she thinks boy – tilts his head and smiles. You don't recognise me, he says.

The possibility.

Her heart, trained so well by now, lurches. She puts her hand to it, admonishing. Casts around for any other name, mutters one, not his. But the man on the step doesn't seem to hear. He's still smiling. Then: I'm Peter, he says, two words to stop the world. Her legs go to water. I'm Peter, your son.

 

I DIDN'T IMMEDIATELY link Peter's return – his arrival – with my mother's promise to Dane. We were all too dazed by surprise and shock. We spent most of our time watching our mother: though she didn't seem changed physically, she suddenly became this new and confounding creature, someone who didn't neatly fit the shape we'd made for her in our imaginations. In front of our eyes, she had grown a past that had nothing to do with us, a past that had existed before we were born. She became all at once exotic, a mysterious keeper of secrets, but fragile and hurt. I think we all tried to understand this but, to be honest, I think we were more interested in the new versions of ourselves that Peter presented to us. We were no longer just ordinary sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. We were connected to a mysterious and tragic secret; we were reclaimed, enlarged, special.

Even when our mother died in 2000, taking with her the answers to questions we were too afraid to ask, I wondered only briefly about all this as the five of us stood at her graveside. By then we were all individually preoccupied again, consumed with our own pain. Each of us had known her in a different way, had variously felt the effects of her buried sorrow, but each of us had adored her.

It wasn't until recently, when Peter asked me to write down his story, that many of the pieces began to fall into place. Looking at dates and times, matching up events in Peter's life with events in ours, I realised what my mother had known and kept to herself: throughout Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, she had a son of conscriptable age. A son who was missing from her life, completely absent – she had no idea where he was. As she watched the horrors of that war unfold and the death toll rise, she must have felt the terrible irony of losing him not once but twice. The possibility.

This is what I find when I hold up our family story to the mirror of my writing self. I can see, finally, how the loss of Peter defined my mother's life. It wasn't just her inability to protect him, to keep him safe. In those years after he was stolen, she lost her trust in the whole world to keep him safe. No matter that she'd done the best she could: in the end, it was the world that robbed her of her son. She saw that she lived in a place and a time in which a baby could be snatched from its mother with no legal recourse; in a culture that tolerated that, and told her to just get on with your life. Of course she was angry, of course she was cynical. She never trusted the ways of the world again.

This showed up in all the ways she mothered us – her protectiveness, her insistence on education, on the getting not of wisdom so much as resilience. And in the ways she grandmothered our children, she would be trying to stop this kind of loss happening again. It was there in her words to Dane: you won't be going. Four words to take some power. Four words to stop the world.


From Griffith Review Edition 21: Hidden Queensland © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review