Just over an hour’s drive from me, a simple graveside ceremony is about to get underway. I’ve just opened my email to learn that Alex ‘Bluey the beast’ Thompson is going to his grave, aged 82.
I can’t make his funeral ... and also can’t ignore his passing. Wished I had have known, would have gathered a few mates who served with the Regimental Sergeant Major of 7RAR, in South Vietnam in 1967. But at Orford we don’t connect much any more. Once the RSL was the focal point for we men who shared time as ‘Nasho’s’ both in intensive training and on Active Service.
Even on Anzac Days now, for the past two years, my ceremony has been simple. Slouch hat on the balcony rail, pointing to the rising sun, three beers at dawn, mutter three names of mates who never came home and go back to bed. No dawn service, no midday service, no march.
But today, June 6, first day of the Queen’s Birthday long-weekend, I’m heading north from Orford to Triabunna. Need a very cold beer and you can’t get it colder than the Spring Bay Hotel, where there’s a beer-line direct to The Antarctic.
Behind me there’s an impatient Targa car, garish, loud and too close to my tail, passes on the strait and flashed past a sign that’s been saying for ten years now ‘something exciting is happening here’.
“What was that you said,Private?”
“Didn’t think anybody was listening RSM”
“What was that you said as the sergeant walked by, private?”
”What’s a Pommy Bastard doing in an Aussie uniform, RSM.”
“How many sandbags did he give you, Private?”
“A hundred, RSM, almost done.”
“Make that two private.”
“Don’t call me sir, I’m not an officer.”
Well he was to become one. I never knew much more about him until his death- notice. Alex Thompson made a full career of his soldiering and I often wonder perhaps that I too should have done. But little time for thinking. Two Hueys chop the air and land near our operational zone. We’ve been told to pack our gear and get ready for an airlift.
“We’re we heading?”
Back home, nothing now but memories of mates who shared bamboo strands tearing at our faces, putrid human smells of men who never changed clothing for ten days, living in slit trenches, ever-itching arses, flares at night, ‘stand to, stand to’ where either humans, bush-pigs, or mongooses set off the alarm-wires. Back home to nothing.
“Haven’t see you for a while, where’ve you been?”
I had passed Stage One of my Chartered Accountancy exams, but was sacked by Layh, Hart, Room and Hyland, the day I was notified of doing national service.
Perhaps, Like the RSM, I should have made the Australian Army, my home and my career.
“You will never have a bigger family than the Army,” the RSM had said as he heard me grumbling while attending to yet another chore from loud-mouthing the unfairness of a charge ... this time for taking a movie camera with me on ops. I had arranged for a mate to carry my bandolier of M60 Machine Gun ammo to the landing zone. The Pommy Bastard saw the exchange and put me on an A4. Ironically, my footage of choppers, Diggers on patrol, mortar boys in action, Chinooks over cornfields, APC convoys passing through friendly Montagnard villages; ariel bombing, even a bush Officer’s Group meeting is now in the prize collection at the Australian War Memorial.
The RSM was right. I missed the army from day one. I miss it today. The camaraderie; the memory of a big jungle-green family I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to. I had been alien-abducted, given alien-weapons, taken to a hostile alien shit-hole, near-missed with an American Huey rocket who mistook us for the enemy; slept near a B52 bomb-crater with rotting VC corpses and came home to a country that knows no discipline and intellectualises the Australian commitment to security in almost seditious terms.
The last I saw the RSM was at the Kingston Hotel. A long time ago now. He must have been retired but that gravel voice, and its distinctive timbre coming from a beer garden was a magnet.
Yes it was he. The Beast from my past. The Regimental Sergeant Major, the most feared rank in the Australian Army. At a table with a woman. No mistaking.
I went to the bar and bought a 20 ounce beer. Walked soldier like to his table. Plopped the beer before him.
“This one’s on me, RSM”
And walked away. Impossible to lower a commanding, authoritative voice as his, I heard him say to his partner, “I think that may have been one of the lads I disciplined a long time ago.”
At the Spring Bay Hotel, the fire was warm, the reception warmer and the beer icy cold. I think licensee Liza Gadd, knew I was on some sort of mission. Rarely do I not have my wife with me.
I held the glass high and pointed it to the ceiling.”
“Who’s it for Tappy?”
Liza knows me well. I’ve been dawn-servicing at her pub since she was a kid. Her family has owned the pub for 27 years. Her father Keith, a former Veterans Affairs officer salutes the fallen with lowered flag each year.
“Springy” is a good place to be, today.
It’s just gone midday, Alex Thompson is going into the ground. I have passed the Triabuna RSL. There’s no flag at half-mast for Bluey, but my cold, cold beer can’t get much higher.
I feel like saying ‘to an unknown soldier’ but that is not true. Alex Thompson is the embodiment of every Australian who wears a uniform in the workplace, whether it be here or ‘over there’.
The email from the 7th Battalion RAR website will viral across Australia to those who knew his professionalism and commitment, from baggy-arse privates as me to the highest ranks in the nation…and to perhaps some RSL clubs who might have lowered the flag for a soldier called Bluey.
“To my RSM, Alex Bluey-The Beast-Thompson. I thought he would live forever.”
“To Bluey,” Liza Gadd said.
I made a resolution. No more lonesome dawn tributes from my balcony. It will be a beer under a lowered flag at The Springy. If it’s good enough for them to open their doors for the dawn service aftermath, it’s good enough for me to be there.