Readers' Submissions

Weighing Anchor – Detachment And Memories Of The 70s

  • Written by Ishiro
  • June 2nd, 2014
  • 10 min read



FIFA World Cup Bangkok


Weighing anchor is a normally-used term to describe the practical preparations for a ship's departure and the final lifting of the anchor as the capstan reels in the chain, with a rattle, to be stowed on board – but often, in a general sense, used to describe leaving somewhere. Leaving can be seen with eager anticipation of finding new things and experiences – yet can often be very difficult with the severing of contacts and familiar places and things that were once regarded as steady, dependable and comfortable.

Metaphorically, it can also refer to a withdrawal of interest in a place or activity that has occupied a large space in the psyche and heart for a very long time. That is where I am at this point in time. After careful consideration, I called my Bangkok lady to tell her I will not be coming back to Thailand – and I have drafted a letter to her in Thai script, explaining the detailed reasons for my decision. I posted it yesterday. It has been extremely difficult to address this – but some things are inevitable and best faced head on. As I stated in a previous sub, I will not return to Thailand again. Of course, it crossed my mind to ask her to come to Australia – but she has aged parents and Papa is in poor health – and her son is just finishing school this year and hopes for a career in the military – so that is not really an option, with her commitment to taking care of those people. I am at a loss to understand where that leaves things for us. I guess time will tell.

Memory and recall can be seen as a computer hard disc that needs a good defrag – with bits of this and parts of that stored randomly at hundreds-of-thousands of places on the disc, each individual cluster of bits being able to trigger recall of specific areas of experience in life. As most readers will know, music occupies a large part of the way I see things and, today, I put on a disc by Thai group Potato – titled "A Taste Of Potato" – and listening to those 16 tracks put me in a place of peace and contentment – just so easy to listen to. Prior to that I had played a disc of Cold Chisel – their "Last Stand" concert at Sydney Entertainment Centre on 15 December 1983 – and I was thousands of miles and years away from Thailand, back in the late 60s/70s in the years of The Vietnam War. Chisel's hit song of the time, "Khe Sanh", always brings a few moments of sadness – and it did today, as I listened to "Barnsey" (Jimmy Barnes) belting out the words over the solid beat of Steve Prestwick on drums and Phil Small on electric bass, Don Walker on keyboards, Ian Moss on electric guitar – with the harmonica of Dave Blight soaring over it all. Sadly, Steve Prestwick passed away on 16 January 2011, aged 56 – just two weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Detaching from Thailand is extremely difficult for me – it is half of who I am. The other half is made up of millions of those little clusters generated from so many times in so many other places, almost all of them revolving around music in one way or another – and relationships – or just trying to work out what it's all about. I was working for Queensland Newspapers in 1964 – the year when National Service was reintroduced and I saw some of the younger guys get called up. Then in May of 1965, it was decided that conscriptees would be sent overseas. The slogan at the time was "All The Way With L.B.J" to show our unwavering support for American President Lyndon Baynes Johnson. Some of those young guys never came back home. Even in the face of this tragedy, there were demonstrations by student activists in the streets, trying to undermine the support and honor for those soldiers' bravery. But, worst of all was when the troops returned, on 11 January 1973, after 521 of our soldiers had died and over 3000 were wounded from a total of almost 60,000 – those who did return were greeted with jeers and insults as they marched through the streets. That period of life was seminal in shaping who I was to become and that song, Khe Sanh, and all of Cold Chisel's works, were testament to the mindset of those times and of what those vets saw and felt after being so callously rejected.

The thing I found most appealing about Chisel's work was the raw honesty that was their music – the hard-driving beat of drums and bass, the slick and inventive guitar of Ian Moss and the gritty voice of Jimmy Barnes. They were always described as Pub Rock – but they were so much more than that – they were an icon of that era that no other band could even come close to emulating. They were rough, they drank hard and fought with each other – but we loved them all because they sang about things we understood.

Khe Sanh – written by Don Walker (Chisel's keyboard player)

I left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh
And my soul was sold with my cigarettes to the blackmarket man
I've had the Vietnam cold turkey
From the ocean to the Silver City
And it's only other vets could understand

About the long-forgotten dockside guarantees
How there were no V-day heroes in 1973
How we sailed into Sydney Harbour
Saw an old friend but I couldn't kiss her
She was lined, and I was home to the Lucky Land

And she was like so many more from that time on
Their lives were all so empty, till they found their chosen one
And their legs were often open
But their minds were always closed
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains
And the legal pads were yellow, hours long, paypackets lean
And the telex writers clattered where the gunships once had been
But the car parks made me jumpy
And I never stopped the dreams
Or the growing need for speed and novocaine

So I worked across the country end to end
Tried to find a place to settle down where my mixed-up life could mend
Held a job on an oil-rig
Flying choppers when I could
But the nightlife nearly drove me round the bend

And I've travelled round the world from year to year
And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear
And I've been back to South-East Asia
But the answer sure ain't there
But I'm drifting north, to check things out again

You know the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone
Only seven flying hours and I'll be landing in Hong Kong
There ain't nothing like the kisses
From a jaded Chinese princess
I'm gonna hit some Hong Kong mattress all night long

Well the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone
Yeah the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone
And it's really got me worried
I'm goin' nowhere and I'm in a hurry
And the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone

This masterpiece of songwriting by Don Walker says it all – just how it was way back then. "There were no V-day heroes in 1973" – no there were not – shamefully, these men were not given Official Recognition from The Government until 2006 – the 40th anniversary of the battle for Long Tan. Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome is the debilitating condition that is, even now, destroying the lives of so many men coming back from Afghanistan. It is recognized today and there are attempts being made to treat it – but, for many of those who returned from Vietnam in 1973, there was no treatment given – and other substances were all they had to deal with life. Isn't it so true that, even if some place holds bad memories, we seem to be drawn to go back again – always looking for something but never knowing what it is – or even how to find it. It's like a default action that brings us back again like a homing pigeon – even though it isn't really home. Perhaps this is why so many of us keep coming back to Thailand – living on a dream that faded away long ago.

John Schumann, from the band Redgum, goes even further into exploring the feelings of those young men sent to Vietnam. The song is called "I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk In The Light Green)". On topographical maps, "light green" indicated thinly wooded areas with little cover and a high likelihood of land mines present. John Schumann wrote this song from detail provided from his brother-in-law, Mick Storen – and from Frankie Hunt and other veterans.

I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk In The Light Green) – written by John Schumann (Redgum)

Mum and Dad and Denny saw the passing-out parade at Puckapunyal
It was a long march from cadets
The sixth battalion was the next to tour and it was me who drew the card.
We did Canungra and Shoalwater before we left

And Townsville lined the footpaths as we marched down to the quay
This clipping from the paper shows us young and strong and clean
And there's me in my slouch hat with my SLR and greens
God help me – I was only nineteen

From Vung Tau, riding Chinooks, to the dust at Nui Dat
I'd been in and out of choppers now for months
But we made our tents a home, VB and pinups on the lockers
And an Asian orange sunset through the scrub

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can't get to sleep?
And night-time's just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
And what's this rash that comes and goes – can you tell me what it means?
God help me – I was only nineteen

A four-week operation when each step could mean your last one on two legs
It was a war within yourself
But you wouldn't let your mates down 'til they had you dusted off
So you closed your eyes and thought about something else

Then someone yelled out "contact!" and the bloke behind me swore
We hooked in there for hours, then a God-almighty roar
Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon
God help me – he was going home in June

I can still see Frankie drinking tinnies in the Grand Hotel
On a thirty-six-hour rec leave in Vung Tau
And I can still hear Frankie lying screaming in the jungle
'Til the morphine came and killed the bloody row

And the Anzac legends didn't mention mud and blood and tears
And the stories that my father told me never seemed quite real
I caught some pieces in my back that I didn't even feel
God help me – I was only nineteen

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can't get to sleep?
And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what's this rash that comes and goes – can you tell me what it means?
God help me – I was only nineteen

I did not serve in Vietnam – my number didn't come up in the draw for call-up – but the reason for losing so many lives (Asian and Farang) completely escapes me when I see the political climate of today in that country. It is another classic example of why we should never trust politicians – so much destruction and so many innocent civilians killed and maimed as "collateral damage". It is unconscionable to reflect on such a waste of life – for no purpose other than to satisfy political egos. Thank God for writers such as Don Walker and John Schumann for reminding us of how it was.



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