Anthony W. Pahl

COMING HOME

The silver freedom bird banked steeply to the left. From my aisle seat, I was able to glimpse the lights of Sydney for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime. The glittering neon ribbons below were vastly different to the deadly tracer ribbons under which I had lived for the past year. Elation overwhelmed my mind. I was nearly home – only one more hop from Sydney to Adelaide and then I would enjoy an extended holiday with my wife Maria and seventeen-month-old baby daughter Sonia.

There was silence in the cabin and as one, almost two hundred young men looked up as the musical “ding dong” heralded the “No Smoking” sign. Seconds later, those same notes drew their attention to the illuminated “Fasten Seat Belt” instruction.

As my hands gripped the arm rests in anticipation, my mind recalled how I started to smoke less than a year ago, and how I was nearly grounded because I was caught smoking in the left seat of the Bushranger after a particularly long and adventurous day. I had felt proud that I had got away with it because the CO was the pilot – and “Nugget” was a good bloke but a stickler for safety. I smiled as I remembered the promise I made to Nugget not to be caught again – and I wasn’t.

I was twenty years old. My auburn hair, bleached ginger by the tropical sun, was receding but only because the vibrations of the chopper caused the bone dome to rub against my scalp – rubbing the hair off. At least I had convinced myself of that. My slight but muscular seventy inch frame was marred by a slight paunch but I felt fit except my left leg ached from the twelve hour flight – I wasn’t about to let on that my back was aching like hell. After all I was a hero and was about to receive a hero’s welcome.

There seemed a disquieting serenity in the demeanour of the blokes sitting around me – a serenity that forced an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. What did they know that I didn’t? I leaned over and spoke to the bloke next to me. “Hey Wally, that was your second tour – what was it like when you got back home the first time?”

Wally was a huge guy – two hundred pounds, beefy and even sitting down, towered over me by some three inches. Wally scowled and in an unusually subdued but discernibly angry voice replied, “You’ll find out.”

Shrugging off the eerie feeling that seemed to emanate from my bladder, I decided that clearly, Wally didn’t know anything. After all, I had just completed a twelve month tour of duty in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner, clocking up six hundred and fifty flying hours, and anyone who knew anything knew that I deserved a hero’s welcome. Most of all, I knew so I sat back and waited for the freedom bird to land. Only a few more minutes and once more would I step on the ground of my birth – back to the world.

It was the 5th of June 1970, five days before Maria’s twenty second birthday.

I recalled the last time he had seen my family – four and a half days in February. I had decided to spend my Rest and Recreation leave at home in Murray Bridge, timing the leave so I could celebrate my twentieth birthday, Sonia’s first birthday and our second wedding anniversary. It was hard to comprehend that I had travelled all the way from Vung Tau to Murray Bridge in order to spend five days with my family. Added to the unreality of that situation, the plane had a mechanical fault and left Saigon twelve hours late. There was no way I could contact Maria to let her know exactly when I was due so when I finally arrived at the Adelaide airport, no-one was there to meet me. I took a taxi to Norwood, where my father was living and rang Maria at Murray Bridge. About an hour and a half later, she arrived with her father and Graham, our brother-in-law. By the time we finally reached Murray Bridge, it was about one o’clock in the morning of the sixth of February – I was due to leave to return to Vietnam on the morning of the tenth.

The very first thing that I did when we arrived at Maria’s dad’s place was to look in the bedroom where Sonia was sleeping. She was only two months old when I last saw her. Here she was, only four days short of her first birthday. I wanted to pick her up in my arms right then and there, but Maria wouldn’t let me. I did anyway and as Sonia gradually awoke, she looked at me and smiled – and then started to cry. It was time for a bribe! I had a mate of mine purchase a large teddy bear in Penang while he was on R&R leave and I gave that to her. She loved it and at once forgot about me. I wasn’t too upset because I would be spending all my time with her over the next few days.

My mates, so they said, never believed that I did not participate in casual sex during my tour of duty in Vietnam. Not only were all varieties of sex readily available in Vung Tau; sex was cheap. Notwithstanding their scepticism, I remained faithful to Maria. This decision was rewarded during my leave. The love she displayed towards me was pure pleasure – both physically and mentally. I felt that I had never been so close to anyone before.

The sixth of February was a Friday. All day, friends and relations visited. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. All I wanted was to be alone with Maria and Sonia Saturday was a family day. Maria and I spent time talking and making plans for when my tour was over. That night the family organized a party to celebrate my Sonia and my birthday party and our wedding anniversary.

After all the guests had departed, Maria and I lay together on the front lawn. The night was balmy and a gentle breeze wafted over our skin. We looked up at the diamond-studded sky – easily locating the Southern Cross. When I realized, and told Maria, that the Southern Cross was not visible in Vietnam, we both wept. In all the places we had been together that cross always kept us company. We only had two more full days together before I went back. Never before had we been so far apart for such a period – and right then we solemnly vowed that after Vietnam, we never would again.

The Sunday was beautiful. I took dozens of photographs of Maria and Sonia. We had a family barbecue and just sat talking together. I had never felt so contented while at the same time I knew that there was only one full day before I had to leave again. We spent Monday shopping for new clothes. I couldn’t get over the cleanliness of the place and the choices available. It seemed all new and unreal to me. How could a place like this exist in the same world as the hellhole that was Vietnam?

Never had I to make a more difficult decision than I made at that time. How could I return to Vietnam when I had to leave my family for another five months? But there was no way I could even contemplate putting them through the traumas of living with a deserter. Besides, I had a job to do and there were a lot of mates depending on me.

The jolt of the main landing gear awoke me out of my reverie. So here I was, on the way back to the world – just about to land in Sydney. And this time I wouldn’t have to leave.

I glanced at Wally. He was deep in contemplation but his face gave no indication of his thoughts. I wondered again what he had meant by his earlier comment. He surprised me by saying, “Tony, when we get to customs, just hang loose.”

I didn’t have anything illegal or over the customs limit so I had no idea as to what he was getting at. Wally continued, “… but it won’t be as bad as outside.”

I was getting angry. I had to know what he meant. “Wally, me old mate, you can’t just say things like that. What the hell are you getting at?”

He sighed, “You must have read the papers from home. Don’t you know how the world feels about Vietnam? And you’re part of that war!”

Now I was angry and not a little confused. “But not everyone feels that way. The pricks causing all the problems are just draft dodgers and cowards.”

Wally replied almost resignedly, “Tony, just don’t over-react. Think first. Now let’s get ready to disembark.”

With that rebuff, and with anger threatening to cause an argument, I kept my mouth shut. I really couldn’t work out what Wally was getting at. I didn’t have any problems when I came home on R&R. What could have changed in five months?

We deplaned at about 6:30 am and were shepherded down the gangway to the International Terminal’s enormous customs hall. By the time I reached a Customs Officer about three quarters of an hour later, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Every veteran was required to open all suitcases and boxes which were thoroughly searched. I guessed that they were looking for drugs and weapons. I figured that that was fair enough but as I didn’t have any contraband, I wouldn’t have any problems.

I was wrong!

I had purchased six small portable transistor radios, each about the size of a cigarette packet. I was asked why I had so many and despite the fact that I told the official that they were gifts for my relations he confiscated four of them. I had a camera with a half exposed film. The official wouldn’t even allow me rewind the film before ordering me to open the back. I lost film taken on my last night in country that included shots of my mates and me celebrating my farewell. My clothes and personal effects were dumped onto the counter and after the clothes and the bags were searched, I was told to repack. Being pretty pissed off by this time, I inquired as to the reason for the rough treatment. I was advised that it was well known that all veterans became addicted to, or at least tried drugs, and some tried to bring back weapons with them.

Then Wally’s words came back to me. I took his advice and stayed cool but couldn’t help commenting to the official, “You’re thinking of the Yanks – not us!” But he wasn’t!

Christ, if Wally foresaw the drama at customs, what could I expect when I left the terminal? Well, as some of us had to catch busses which were arranged to take us to the domestic terminal from an isolated departure point, thankfully, nothing further untoward happened to me at Sydney. I reckon that I probably would have exploded if anyone had even looked at me sideward.

The domestic flight was soon winging its way toward Adelaide – the overwhelming prospect of being with my family easily offsetting the irritations of the hassles in the customs hall. The adrenalin started pumping as the plane turned on the final leg at Adelaide airport. Only a few more minutes! I looked out the cabin window half expecting to be able to see Maria and Sonia – almost disheartened when I couldn’t. But I was home – for good. The cabin doors opened, I grabbed my hand luggage and almost ran off the plane.

The plane was parked about thirty yards from the terminal. I saw Maria in the observation area. She was holding Sonia and they were waving. I broke into a run – I just wanted to be with them, to hold them and to and to hug them. They were beautiful. They were my family. Tears whelmed in my eyes.

All at once this great fat Sergeant from Movements Control grabbed me. How he knew that I was in the RAAF I’ll never know because I was not in uniform. Perhaps it was the short hair. After confirming who I was, he ordered me to accompany him to the movements control area.

“What for?”

“There are some papers for you to sign.”

“F… the papers! I want to be with my family.”

“Come with me now or you won’t see your family for some time…”

So I went with the fat bastard. I could see that Maria was wondering what the hell was going on. I signed the papers without looking at them or even asking what they were, turned and raced to where Maria and Sonia were standing.

“Where’s the mattress?” I asked. I had written to her and jokingly suggested that she had better meet me at the airport with a mattress strapped to her back.

She grinned and with a glint in her eye replied, “You’ll just have to wait.”

She handed Sonia to me. Sonia looked me straight in the eyes, started to cry and held her arms out to Maria. I felt like crying too and knew then that I had a lot to do in order to catch up being a husband and father. I would really have to work at it.

But I was back in the world…