Looking into the cockpit of her grandfather's jet.
It seems like it’s always been the still dark hours. As those soldiers, the “ANZACS”, prepared to land at Gallipoli and the armada positioned off Normandy, the peace of the night seemed juxtaposed against the human maelstrom that would unfold in only a matter of hours. Modern warfare has never known business hours and the bombings of Europe raged with equal vengeance through night and day. As a boy, the still dark hours came around for me every April 25th; ANZAC Day.
Each year it was a day afforded special reverence in our home. Old photos of young faces were placed on the mantelpiece, with their smiles frozen in time. For these were the family and friends I never knew, but always felt that I did. My mother and father had both served in World War Two while my father saw action for a second time in Korea a few years later. Along the way so many of these fresh faces had perished, buried in the corner of some foreign field at best or their fate remaining unknown at worst.
My mother tended to the photographs, placing a small red poppy beside each of them and a relevant page of verse here or there. For my father’s part, the faces stayed within his head and the photo albums in my bedroom cupboard. Yet despite their different forms of tribute, my parents never forgot those who had gone before and sacrificed their tomorrows. ANZAC Day was sacred in the Zupp household.
And in that dark household in the quiet hours before dawn I would be stirred from my bed by my parents; already dressed and ready for the day. As I dragged my young form into the land of the living my mother would fumble with the clasp holding her medals, while my father checked that his shoes were highly polished and his ‘Returned from Active Service’ badge was fastened in his lapel. His medals remained within his drawers for many years until I was on the verge of manhood when my mother finally had them mounted. His medals, like his service to his country, were treasured, but tucked away safely now that the job was done. Rather shy, he chose not to march on ANZAC Day, though he and my mother would always try to spot their mates on the television. For both my parents, the Dawn Service held the most significance and solemnity.
So each year we would climb into the car and sit on those cold, vinyl seats as we drove to the Cenotaph in the wee hours. The passing street lights were almost hypnotic to my drowsy eyes as we drove down the empty roads and finally parked. I would wake briskly as the car door swung open and the rush of April air smacked my cheeks, before straightening up and following my parents passed barricades and attendants offering paper programmes. Groups of servicemen were in huddles, their breath forming small pockets of fog as they exchanged greetings and rubbed their hands together. Looking back, these men were younger than I am today and the war was far more recent than I ever credited it being. Yet to me they were old veterans in their grey suits and felt hats; men to be respected.
I would stand quietly with my parents with the silence only broken by the low hum of conversation, or the odd squawk of the bag-pipes as the kilted musician tuned his instrument. His legs must be so cold I used to think. Then the service would begin and the voices would cut through the silence without the need for microphones or amplification. I would listen intently and grasp what basic understanding I could of the importance of this service of remembrance.
As the service passed through quotations, tributes and hymns, my father’s jaw never flinched, nor did his sharp eyes ever seek the security of the ground ahead. However, my mother would have her quiet moments, drop her head silently and shed a tear, not knowing that I could see. My mother had lost her first fiancé in New Guinea only weeks before her wedding when his aircraft erupted in flames over the target. Her first Dawn Service had been only days after that loss in the dark, silent rain at the Sydney Cenotaph; but she had missed very few Dawn Services in the subsequent years.
The ‘Minute’s Silence’ would be so very, very silent that I dared not breath until finally the bugle’s Reveille would offer a reprieve and signal that the fallen had now been properly remembered. The men would once more move into groups, but now their conversation was less muffled; more open. They would head to the RSL Club for breakfast and the chance to reminisce before the ANZAC Day march. We would shuffle back to the car and have breakfast at home where Mum would share some significant recollections of the war and Dad would agree with her.
As we ate our breakfast, the photos always seemed to have another dimension after the Dawn Service and I viewed them in a slightly different light. I would look at the uniforms and the caps they wore more closely and stopped to realise just how young they really were in the overall scheme of life. In retrospect, it was all rather deep and philosophical for a boy of my age, but I suspect that’s where the foundations for my strong sense of ANZAC Day was founded. And those faces have never left me.
In fact, they are so much more than faces today. Their sacrifice stayed with me as I grew and I yearned to know more. Today, I have their photos are in my home and their records of service sit in my desk. In fact, my own name hails from those of my father and one young face that was lost so many years ago. In recent years, I have spoken to so many veterans and the families of those who served with my parents. I do my very utmost to ensure that their service and its significance is not lost in a world where celebrity seems to grab the headlines over substance at every turn. In the last year I was able to arrange for my children to meet with one of my father’s squadron mates. A thorough gentleman, he is still as sharp as a tack and enthralled my children with tales of the grandfather they never knew. For me it was a truly special moment and a tangible link between my Dad and my beautiful family and further extended their pride in their Grandad.
Our veterans are special people, whether they served long ago, or if they are currently sweating it out in some distant land. Whether they failed to return, or survived to tell the tale. Whether they lie in a marked grave or perished without trace in some distant corner of the globe. They all made a sacrifice for the freedoms we possess today and are so often taken for granted.
After meeting my father’s Air Force comrade that day, we also visited the Australian War Memorial and walked along the rows of names enshrined on its walls. My oldest daughter began to grasp the enormity of what these names represented, while my young son raced along the pathway. As I went to bark at him to slow down in such a sacred aisle, I paused just for a moment. His grandfather and so many served so that he is free to run in the shadow of these sacred names. Even so, without my raised voice he came to an abrupt halt and stared at the plaque ahead of him. The plaque bore the names of those killed in service with 77 Squadron in the skies over Korea.
That was my father’s squadron.
Lest We Forget.