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Called or shunned by Vietnam war conscription



They belong to centuries smothered
in myth and mist, ruled by ritual
and attendant priests. A woman and
a man, deformed and unprepossessing,
were paraded along the pathways
of a settlement, he decked with dark
figs, she with white, all the while pelted,
cursed for every evil, damned for
every ailment, then dragged beyond
the gates, lashed to propitiatory stakes 
and burned alive, purifying all
who dwelt within the walls' embrace.
When superstition evolved from
prophylaxis into blame, the Pharmakoi
were cursed no more and misfortune's
maledictions, cultivated in disregarded
darkness, were flung upon others:
dissenters, the different, disturbers
of stained silences, cranky prophets,
strangers importuning on the borders —
no garlands of figs and fire, instead
denigration and stigma, sometimes
bullets, blades and wire, always
a clang of iron clamping safe the heart.
Between May 1964 and February 1972 Australian men, after turning 20,
became eligible for conscription by lottery to serve in the Vietnam war.
I'd never met a Vietnamese, needed an atlas
to find the place, couldn't figure what we had
against them. But we were raised in shadow
of returned men, the shimmer of lapelled
bronze, a presumption we in our turn would go
when ordered. Suddenly it was fortunate to be
too old or too young, to not find your birthday
plucked from the Tour of Duty Sortition,
a practice nurtured in Athenian democracy
reprised to coerce the unfranchised to arms.
My brother was called but ultimately rejected;
a shunning that broke no hearts. Ian studied
year after year, submitted his doctoral thesis
on Monday after Whitlam won in '72. Lucky
John was too young — his mother insisted
every man's duty was to serve if summoned.
Kevin, a Chinese Australian, deferred until
he taught away the bond of his studentship.
A pupil in his fourth form maths class asked,
'How will they know you from a Slope, Sir?'
Most of us dodged gap years of sweat and khaki,
missing madness, maiming, napalm, agent orange,
learning how to kill and to piss ourselves out
of fear. Instead we were granted head starts
with women, front marks in the greasy pole dash,
a less congested clamber to unremarkable lives.
How we quaffed the heady booze of freedom,
the privilege of stuffing up without military
intervention, never obliged to contrive answers
to questions we knew would never be asked.
Chicago '84
Time edits the memory. Maybe it was a block or two
west of the shabby end of Michigan Avenue. Cheap,
clean, convenient — all things my student guide claimed.
I've forgotten the name. A wit suggests The MLK Hotel
because I achieved instant, albeit brief, minority status.
I arrived in darkness. The desk clerk was young: sharp
suit, gold jewellery, rapid-fire speech. I asked where to eat.
Go out front, he said. Go left. Walk 300. You're outside
a diner. Don't turn right. I repeat. Do not turn right.
I obeyed, ate, retraced my 300 steps, turned in, and slept.
By morning's light I ventured out — and looked right
into the maw of hell: incinerated cars, beheaded parking
meters, dogs scavenging in rotting refuse, riven
pavements aglitter with diamonds of smashed glass,
a man sprawled in a gutter, trousers about his ankles.
Some young men stared back at me. One gestured.
I retreated left. Later, when the fast talking clerk was
at the desk, I thanked him for saving me from turning
right. Sir, he said, as if humouring a child, who'll settle
your bill when you don't come back? He didn't smile.
Not for me lists, those sentimental hits, easy tunes
from once upon my time. Just one canon, I want
the lot, secular or sacred, it matters not to a latter
day doubting Crusoe. My wind-up turntable will
broadcast cantatas, concertos, preludes and fugues,
the clavier so pleasingly tempered, that oratorio
for Christmas, a mass for occasional Sundays.
Before Easter come sundown I'll spin the Passion,
send exultation soaring on contrapuntal wings
to fly to my audience of indifferent stars, while
a lord of his wreckage, alone and forsaken, day's
catch on the fire, sand scoured for footprints,
keeps scanning dark waters for glints of salvation,
waiting, hoping — eager for the advent of Friday.

B. N. OakmanBN Oakman, formerly an academic economist, lives in Central Victoria. He has published many poems in Australia and overseas in journals, magazines and newspapers as well as two chapbooks and two full-length collections, the most recent of which is Second Thoughts (Interactive Press 2014).

Topic tags: B. N. Oakman, poetry



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Existing comments

Thank you, BNO, especially for Sortition. I'll be looking out for your book.

Ginger Meggs | 09 November 2015  

I've just read your poems on Eureka Street - a discovery, quite wonderful.

Dorothy Horsfield | 10 November 2015  

Just for the record, the birthday ballot started in 1964, not 1966, and I turned 20 in 1965. Lucky I was born with a hearing loss.

brian finlayson | 10 November 2015  

Strong stuff expressed in such a masterful way I immediately thought of Wordsworth: 'poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. (Lyrical Ballads, Preface). Thank you, Mr Oakman, for stirring up in me emotions that I thought were long dead - my revulsion at scapegoating, conscription, urban violence and such like. Maybe in my old age I have become a castaway on an island of lost dreams and a few regrets. For a moment I stood up and said to myself: Let's go for a swim.

Uncle Pat | 10 November 2015  

"Sortition" is brilliant and chillingly true. Ta.

Peter Goers | 10 November 2015  

Brilliant stuff! Beautiful, witty, disturbing, heartbreaking, and compassionate. Loved the irony of "Don't turn right. I repeat. Do not turn right."

Annabel | 10 November 2015  

Sortition is a great poem. And in my country the USA there's a shameful story to be told about the way the returning soldiers - the ones who couldn't afford to get away into university, Canada, Europe - were treated by the anti-war movement, which was greatly accelerated when the draft was extended to the middle classes. Bruce Oakman reminds us that the forced soldiers are also victims, particularly relevant today (11/11) on the anniversary of another such catastrophe.

Marcia | 11 November 2015  

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