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THE METAMORPHOSIS

I

Growing up the hunter, a small kid amongst big
men and Captain Cookers and the wily rhusa out
there on the steep hills of the back of beyond
amongst gut-busting pig fern and ghostly mist,
where the Urewera trees were so tall
I agonised for the pierced belly of the sky.
Remembering too my cutting of the first deer's
throat and the sweet smell of gouting blood
falling with my innocence upon the warm pungas,
laughing men, Maori and Pakeha, sitting high on
their saddles content that the wairua of the
hunter had been passed on - well signified by the
first blood on my face.

The purity of my youth sucked up the Anzac legends
glowing from the sepia-toned photographs on
Grandfather's wall. Images of honourable
men-at-arms with drawn sabres and lemon-squeezer
hats upon the Plains of Palestine. My boyhood eye
sensed the magic lines of history that whispered
the Gallipoli legend and the bloody birthing
of our nation in the glorious annals of war.

And I was plucked from the depths of sleep on
Anzac Day to uncountable dawn parades and the
sound of marching feet, where I shivered in the
utter stillness of first light and felt the
delicious horror of it all mingling in the dark
places of my mind. The sun raised its warm hand
from the sea and glittered upon the tears of
remembrance falling from the faceless ranks of men
lost in the awful violation of their youth.
And I stood in awe of the bands of silver
paid out by grateful nations for lost sons and
fathers, their names inscribed upon the great
stone by the shadowed gate.

The neck hairs of my youth standing erect
at the lament coming from the darkness of the
marae, greeting the spirits and marching men;
and there in the far ranks, my father,
a survivor of the bomber's moon.
I clutched my mother's skirts
in the pride and recognition of the moment,
quite seduced by the purity and glory
of the bugler's notes calling the soldiers'
angels. Sharp, soul piercing notes fluttering
from the dawning sky and in their beauty stilling
the sound of the great waves crashing upon the
rocks of Whakatane's mouth.

We had black and white movies in those days
with the hot breath of young love in the back rows
competing with the Pathe newsreels and magnificent
deeds of Dominion's sons upon the battlefields of
the world. And we, the children of your land,
cheering as you taught the Japs and the Jerries a
lesson, not recognising in the innocence of
childhood the agony of defeated men and nations
shuffling through the mud. And so in the end I
too would learn to hunt the most dangerous animal
in the world - cunning thinking man.

II

Dear Mother, thank you for letting me join the
Army. I didn't really want to be a carpenter,
as every time I drove the lead-head nails in
I heard the sounds of machine-guns and adventure,
and I am proud to carry on the tradition
of three generations of our family's service
to the land we love.

Sixteen years old and drilled to perfection
by godlike men in Waiouru's sun.
Can strip a Bren gun blindfolded in a minute
and learning about instant obedience,
crawling on our guts in the winter slush
with compliant straw dummies hanging on Gory
Green, and enjoying the bayonet drill once a week,
you know, IN, OUT, ON GUARD, put your boot on his
neck. Learning new concepts like dirty communists
and yellow hordes, but I'm not quite sure what
their semantics are.

Eighteen years old and a qualified sniper,
points our sharp edges patiently honed to killing points
by the experts who go to the pub at nights
and obliterate the memories still coiled within.
We sleep on hard ground beneath the stars,
a greatcoat and a blanket, that's all we have,
our spit~polished boots in unison eating up the
land. Twenty miles on the back roads today
and quite exhausted at the end as we staggered,
steaming bodies to cold showers.
There's no room for false modesty here,
we are part of one body -
the mysterious host of the Regiment.

Nineteen years old and jungle warfare training
in the bitter beech forests of Little Malaya
with green painted faces and snow on the hills,
learning to walk like ghosts in the night.
Being judged by hard-eyed men who have done it
before - Korea, Malaya, Indonesia, Borneo,
places of promise which we think about while shooting
out the faces of plywood targets with German
bodies and coal-scuttle helmets posed in the full
charge and we without thought pasting up
the dreadful wounds with paper patches and putrid
flour. I wonder if the other side have our faces
and floppy hats on their targets?

Twenty years old and a pot-bellied stove glowing,
ten men to a room in winter's barracks
with no privacy or doors on our toilets
and the green machine eating up my adolescence
with no teenage hell raising for this by-product
of the expression of the national will.
There is no right or wrong in it,
our shoulder flashes and collar badges
signify the licence of our violent profession,
while the men who taught me this trade
grow old and are discarded with expediency -
for even men are beyond economical repair
eventually.

We have some good officers and bastards too.
Thin-souled martinets omnipotent and awful in
their power, bitter in their scrabbling for
promotion and quite transparent in the
dispensation of justice. But there are good men,
too, sons of the earth, leavened with the certain
knowledge that men whose lives rest lightly
in their hands will only be led into the crucible
by men of substance and example.

Twenty-one today, Mother, and writing from
Australia where I am learning to be an officer
and a leader of men and having all the rough
edges polished off with dancing lessons and being
bastardised by big Australians whom we beat at
rugby almost every weekend - but at least the
luxury of doors upon our toilets where I can
ponder the intricacy of tactics and the awful
responsibility of commanding men to follow me.

III

Yes, I am ready now to replace the faces,
the brittle portraits hung upon the walls
of Casino, Kokoda Trail, Korea and other lands -
the last touch to the blade is done
and we are ready, your soldier sons.
I still hear the soft seduction
of the Anzac myth calling
the innocence of our youth
to the muzzle of the guns,
for the hope of freedom
and the dignity of man.
If it is within our power
there will be no more Dachaus,
but the will of wiser men than I
will commit us, it is rumoured,
to a place called Vietnam.

Yes, Mother, the transmutation is complete,
ripped as we are from the womb of political reason
and held up in the reflected glory of battles
past. We the sons of proxy immutably birthed in
tradition, pushed to the trench-tops by old men in
RSA clubs busily dressing up in bright colours the
horsemen of the Apocalypse - not for the might of
the British Raj this time, boys, ANZUS is now the
face behind the killing mask. The sounds of sabres
leaving the scabbards of memory rattle and clatter
through the land and the voices of our fathers
at last prevail. Remember the Battle of the Coral
Sea and the saving of our nation from the yellow
hordes - God bless America, the time of recompense
has come and we shall march away and do our duty
upon the muzzle of the guns. Yes, Mr Holyoake,
swords, to swords we say, not words.

IV

Will the kuia call in lament from the gate of
shadows for the sons of the land who march away in
innocence, and return in shining un-substance to
take their places upon the inscribed stone by the
entrance of the marae? Will the sombre notes of
the bugles call their angels to the parade of lost
sons and fathers standing there in endless rows in
the dawning light?

Remember us marching away to duty for our country
and the many faces of democracy, to dark places
upon the earth which we shall know. The fiery
crucible of war is without morality and in our
coming home it is with the hope that you may
understand the agony reflected in the eyes
of your prodigal sons. At the going down of the
sun, and in the morning, do not judge us.

John A. Moller
Whiskey Two Company RNZIR

 

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