Bert, or Unc as we used to call him, had lived with my grandparents for ever. As a young man he had lived next to their family home. After the Great War he never settled down, so when my grandparents set up holiday cottages down at Sussex Inlet, South of Sydney, Bert tagged along. He became a kind of rouse-about. He worked on the cottages, fixed up the boats, he became Mr. Fixit. Bert never married, although he was a handsome mans Bert was the product of the First World War.
Bert had all these stories. Anytime children were around the property, they would be hanging around him, getting under his feet, for you see, he was mister fun-and-games as well as mister fixit. After a day of pestering, we would head for his bedroom, his den, to play with all his junk. And he had some junk, loads and loads of it. For example, he had one whole box of cigarette lighters in various states of disrepair. When we finished with them they were in a greater state of disrepair. But it was his stories, that's what was special. All those war stories.
You can imagine the type of stories they were. Like how the boys at the front had run out of timber and oil to keep the dugout warm, so they went off foraging. All they found was a French farmers outhouse. So naturally the outhouse was quietly dismantled and taken back to the front. "And do you know", said Bert, "the next morning the farmer went out and sat on the loo without blinking an eye."
Of course, at first I never did work out why war was so much fun. Yet, I am amazed how quickly I picked up the art-form of the stories. They weren't so much funny stories, but pathos. The more you thought about the stories the more they made you cry rather than laugh. In a strange way they carried in them an agony too painful to talk about. The horror of war could only be looked at through jocular stories. There was always something about Bert you couldn't touch.
Each ANZAC day Bert would head for the city to march with his mates. It was a kind of cathartic release I suppose, another way of getting out the pain. All to painful to my eyes. If ever there was a powerful denunciation of the total futility and immorality of war, then the march said it all. I was never able to watch them without tears in my eyes.
The march is not the same these days, a bit too jingoistic for me. Bert and his mates are all gone and only few of the Second World War boys are left. The Korean and Vietnam boys are not much into marching, so its down to relatives wearing the meddles of long departed warriors. Still! March on, for in the distance we see an age when people "shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more", Isaiah.2:4.