A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. Not what you are thinking, nights can be remembered for many things; a birth, a meeting, new love. This one had its origins in South Vietnam 11 years previously. Our section of armoured vehicles had been deployed to a small ARVN outpost. Half of the section would stay there at night and the other half would perform ambushes in the area. We’d settled down on the far corner of a rubber plantation and set the ambush. At about 11pm the Viet Cong attacked the outpost. We stood to and listened to the calls over the radio network. Then watched fascinated as the Cobra gunships came in and laid fire down, long streams of red light, formed by thousands of rounds coming from their Gatling guns. These were followed by a Snoopy Gunship, a large plane bristling with weaponry. The boss decided we should move out of the ambush and head back to help.
There is nothing quite like rumbling along a dirt road in the dead of night. Six 12 ton vehicles, tracks rattling, rainforest on one side and rubber trees on the other. Your eyes feel as if they’re on stalks as you try to see past the light from the turret mounted spotlight. Halfway there we were ordered to pull up and move back into the rubber. It appeared that we were going to be ambushed further up the road. A long sleepless night ensued. None of our men were hurt but I think no one ever forgot it.
Come back to Tuesday night, a country police station, another phone call – a security guard under fire at the dam pumping station work site. Our vehicle radios were not what you would call the best and once you were a certain distance away they wouldn’t receive. The fatality from the night before was still fresh in my mind. Once I left the highway the topography changed, it became rugged, the road narrowed and the rainforest began to encroach. My whole perspective changed, I wasn’t in country Queensland I was back in Vietnam, making the run from the rubber plantation. The radio crackled into life again, this time from another police station listening in on our frequency. The only thing wrong was I began talking on the radio not to them but to our headquarters in Vietnam, a tad confusing. They were relaying the security guard’s messages; he was in dire trouble under fire from inside the work compound. It wasn’t hard to miss, a huge front fence and gates, five metres high. Spotlights shone down onto the cement driveway, bringing into stark relief a small car with a man lying face down on the ground next to it, arms outstretched. My first thoughts were that he was dead. In fact he was trying to melt into the concrete driveway. In the finest tradition of police TV shows I slid my car in between the guard and the fence. That was good for him, not for me.
This left me open to the gunman inside, who apparently had an unlimited amount of ammunition. After checking the guard I took his keys and crouching like a constipated monkey, revolver in hand headed towards the gate. He actually followed crouching, trying to hide behind me. I have to chuckle at the visual. I felt a little better when we moved out of the light, it didn’t stop the bullets hitting the massive steel uprights in front of us though. The shooting couldn’t drown out the sounds of my yelling police.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, now I would’ve waited for backup, then it felt as if I had a 10 litre reserve of adrenalin pumping through my system. The ground inside was typical of a work site, rutted, craters here and there, pieces of equipment. A caravan was located about 50 metres away, I could see a man in the doorway, arms in the air. The shooting stopped and a huge bear of a man loomed out of a crater in front of me, arms outstretched no weapon in sight. A tiny part of my mind must have still been operating and I didn’t pull the trigger. Instead I leapt at him, clubbed him to the ground and began pistol-whipping him. The next thing I knew several pairs of hands were dragging at me and a familiar voice kept yelling in my ear. They couldn’t get my gun away from me and I stuck it in my holster. I never thought I’d be glad to see so many Detectives at one time, God bless ’em. They’d been having a quiet ale in a pub back in the city and heard the call on their hand-held radio. A drive at the speed limit would normally take 35 minutes, it took them 13.
The end result was that the two men worked on site and decided to stay at the site office overnight. They drank heavily and when they saw the guard checking the gate thought he was trying to break in. One of them had a .22 semi auto rifle, converted to fully automatic and decided to take matters into his own hands. He ditched the rifle when I came to close, one of the Detectives found it in a crater. I left it up to them and returned to my little hotel room. The shooter didn’t make a complaint against me, he had enough to contend with over the shooting charges. The following day it felt as if nothing had happened, life went on. Inside my mind forces were at work that would change my life forever.
Yes that’s yours truly taken at about the time these events were going down. I’m wearing my issue bush hat. No it’s not Smoky the Bear.
THE REST OF THE WEEK. I would like to say that the rest of the week was a time of rest and happiness, it wasn’t. Wednesday afternoon I attended the death of a farmer electrocuted while shifting long irrigation pipes. He picked it up and it touched overhead power lines, zap – dead. Wednesday night was my night off and Bob ended up with a shootout between two warring families. Luckily the only thing damaged was a barn and a car. Thursday, normal office routine, then I attended the death of an elderly woman in her home across from the station. It was actually a peaceful interlude. After checking that no one had entered the home or that any foul play had occurred I sat by her bed and waited for the doctor.
The house was very old and her husband had been put into care. The small front room where she died held a lifetime of memories. I can still see her lying there; she’d obviously gone for a nap and passed with the late afternoon sunlight beaming in. By the look on her face she had left without pain. I felt at peace and sat on a chair next to her bed, actually I hadn’t felt quite so calm in a while. I’m shedding a tear as I write this, not for her, she’d lived a long life. But for me, I can see myself sitting there: the sunlight now dappled and highlighting her face, death had taken away the lines of worry, I felt like a little boy again sitting next to my grandmother when she passed. The sudden appearance of her doctor broke the spell and officialdom returned to the room. A granddaughter showed up next and I returned to the office.
Friday held the promise of a beautiful day and the morning passed with nothing but mundane police work. Country stations are also government agencies and you end up being office boy for everybody. Lunch passed and then came – the call.
You can only drive so far up into the hills in a squad car and then it’s out for a walk. Bob and I followed the old timber-getters track up, up and up. Two elderly men, (I’ll call them Bill and Ben)friends since the first day of school had taken their WW2 Blitz truck and an equally old Ford tractor up the old track to recover a felled tree. They had been timber workers since their teens.
Bill, a large, round shaped man met us coming up the track. He had stumbled and ran for several kilometres to ring for help and then came back. (He was 75). Bob stayed with him and I went over to where Ben lay in the long grass. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what had happened. The Blitz truck had been in the lead, a chain ran from the back of it to the front of the small tractor. A chain, now broken ran from the rear of the tractor and was wrapped around Ben’s body. Further down the hill a log, about 7 metres long and I reckoned over a ton in weight was lodged behind a tree, with the remainder of the chain.
It transpired that Bill had been driving the truck and towing the tractor that towed the log. Ben had noticed that the log had slid down behind the tree. Any amount of yelling and horn blowing didn’t help him, Bill was deaf as a post. He kept driving, the chains tightened and the tractor was lifted in the air. It speaks volumes for the power of the truck and the strength of the tractor. The chain towing the log snapped about 10 metres behind the tractor, swished through the air like a stock whip, wrapped around Ben, flicked him out of his seat and onto the ground.
Ben was a tiny man and he lay there crumpled and unseeing. Bill, in an obvious state of shock was of the strong opinion his mate was still alive. Bob took him away and called for an ambulance. I stayed with Ben and kept the large meat ants off his face. It isn’t hard to go back and see the ants running over his eyeballs. The location with its long grass, forest and warmth took me back to Vietnam. Ben’s broken body and the week’s events all conspired to take me over the edge.
The ambulance arrived at the scene, (they had a nice 4 WD) the paramedics went through the motions and thankfully took Ben away with them. The forensic photographer turned up and we all went home. It was my last day there and after finishing at the station I left. I had struck up a relationship with a lovely woman and stayed with her for the night. She made me feel alive and dampened the horror that bubbled beneath the surface. I returned home to the normality of my life, a wife and son. The relationship hadn’t been working for a few years so I packed my old kitbag. Then in the finest tradition of men through time – I ran. Hitting the highway on my 750cc Virago I headed north, hoping to find a mate I served in Vietnam with. He wasn’t there and when I looked behind me the horror was still there.