Golden Wisps of Pale Men

Reflections upon ANZAC Day 2004 - David Sidwell

I went in search of gold and there, in the filtered light, I found the leg.

It's probably 25 years ago and I am in my mid-teens; a cocktail of straggly long hair, Brut with a dash of Uncle Sam and all bubbling under something brightly polyester. My grandfather has not long passed away and I'm in his back shed.

I'm not really looking for the gold, but it is in the back of my mind as I politely peek and poke through the shed. I remember that he used to take any gold he found from his panning and push it into bush clay. From there the clay was slipped into a clear plastic pill container, with a faded white lid topping it all off.

Both Pa and his brother (my Great Uncle Harry) had served in World War II. We had known about Uncle Harry. He had travelled the world in the 1960s with a Super 8 film camera, capturing memories that are now lost forever. But before that he had been up in Singapore and been captured. He had his infected leg amputated, without any anaesthetic.

Even as a child I found this incomprehensible and appalling. Our family had a series of quite crisp black and white photos of the prison camps. From memory these were second generation images; photographs of another album's pages. Uncle Harry's photos were deemed too upsetting for us kids to see and rightly so too. Second generation they might have been, but when I finally saw them it was first generation horror for my teenage mind.

They didn't look like human males, these brave lads. They were rag dolls; all skin, ribs and jutting eyes, being held upright by two mates. Yet, some still smiled. A smile of relief and defiance.

Uncle Harry had died when I was quiet young. He was famous in our family for having a wooden leg. I never really knew him, but I certainly knew about his wooden leg. I also knew that my Pa had remained quite close to him.

So I'm in the shed. One eye on the oil paints and turpentine, the other looking for a glint of that special clay in plastic. Under a bench I find part of an old table. It's dusty and worn. But then it hits me: it's not a piece of furniture, it's a wooden leg. There in my hand is my Great Uncle's wooden leg!

It's a tangible, but very sad, link back to Singapore. To the photos, the war and what he – and his mates - went through. I dusted it off and gently put it back to its resting place. I've never seen it again.

I recently had cause to think of all of this. I've parked in South Melbourne on Boxing Day 2003. My plan is to walk through the gardens, past the Music Bowl and down the hill towards the MCG for the Test. I glance up and I'm standing, surrounded by sunshine and silence, at the feet of Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop.

I'm not even sure if Sir Edward operated on my Great Uncle, but it makes no difference to me. It all comes together and I'm thinking of the shed again. I take off my sun hat and wish the statue of Sir Edward a good day. As I leave I add a loud “thank you.”

Behind him I can nearly see the thousands of pale and wispy men in uniforms. I scan them until I find what I'm looking for. Two men. One with a paint brush in his hand, the other limping. They're chatting away about fishing, gold panning and travel; unaware of what I owe them. They fade and fade, but never vanish.

Copyright © 2004 David Sidwell (Artwill Services) Back to Freelance Writing