Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Unknown Soldier.

"The Unknown Soldier."*

In my work as a cab driver I come across a wide variety of people, the beautiful, the ugly, the intelligent, and sometimes the almost insane. We drivers see just about everything it's possible for humans to imagine, the best and the worst of humanity. When we think we've seen it all, something else confronts that belief.

On Friday and Saturday nights we are always flat out, and there's always a shortage of cabs. In the early morning hours people will sometimes come to blows over a cab at a rank. Last Saturday was fairly typical, but it wasn't quite the early morning rush hour yet, though jobs were coming through the on-board computer quite fast. We don't like "time-wasters" on busy Saturday nights, which usually constitutes slow moving people. This could be the excessively drunk, or elderly people (with walkers) who take ages to get into the cab. It's not a nice mentality to have, but we are in the business of earning money, as much as we can, as quickly as we can, because we know we only have a few hours in which we can discriminate in who we pick up, and if we can avoid it, we don't pick up "time wasters". Nothing irritates a driver more than to see a wobbling drunk trying to approach a cab, or an elderly person shuffling towards the cab, and in many instances the latter usually only go short distances because they can't walk it. Another irritation is having to spend time filling out M40 dockets (government subsidised half-fare concessions), which most elderly people have. It's paperwork, and it takes up valuable time on a busy night.

I accepted a computer-generated job last Saturday to a club which can sometimes produce good fares. When I got there I saw an elderly gentleman shuffling towards the cab, with a walking stick, and I thought, "oh no, here we go, what have I done; short fare, M40, and he's probably going to crap in his pants". The first words he uttered was an apology for being so slow, to which I replied "it's okay" (not). When he was in the cab he said, "never get old". This brought me some light relief. Destination: Bulli. A decent $25 fare. Great start! I changed my tune. Even if it's an M40 it would be worth filling out the docket. We immediately struck up conversation, and I learned that the old bloke was a digger who fought in Borneo during the Second World War. I'm quite a war history fanatic, so I knew this was going to be an interesting journey. The old digger told me of some of his experiences, and I thought this is gold, some people would pay to hear this, and here I am being paid to hear it!

He told me about one of his mates, Jeff, who was killed in action in Borneo, aged 20. His platoon was ordered to advance 500 yards towards the "Japs" (his description), and he jokingly said being a coward he counted every yard, but his mate Jeff wanted to go farther. He told Jeff don't be silly, you're not going to get an award for bravery, but Jeff took off on his own. His body was later found, riddled with "Jap" bullets. Here was the old digger, now 84, recounting this event of 64 years earlier. By my calculation, this would have been about 1943, yet he was relating this to me as if it happened last week. I felt completely honoured to be listening to this, which a war historian would pay for. Because I was so riveted, I let him do all the talking, which brought the remark "I'm probably boring you with all this", which had to be the understatement of the century. 'No, no, no, I'm listening, please go on!" I was now thankful this was going to be a 15-20 minute trip, and wishing it could be longer. Every now and then he would pause and light-heartedly say, "never get old", obviously hampered by age, and possibly war injuries. He fought through the whole war, five years, including the Borneo stint. "How does it feel to be in battle?", I asked him. "You don't think about it, you don't think it's possible to be killed when you're young and invincible, you just get in and do what has to be done."

At age 60 he had a heart attack and temporarily "died". Probably brought on by smoking, a habit he said most of the diggers developed during the war. The first thing he told me before relating this experience was "Kerry Packer was wrong". Packer is famous for his remark, after also being temporarily dead after a heart attack, that "there isn't a F***ing thing there". No life after death. The digger said his experience was very different, and I relate his words as much as I can remember them: "I felt complete peace. It was wonderful, like floating, and I saw beautiful flowers in a place I can't even begin to describe." "Did you see God?", I asked. "Oh no, no, but I know this life is not all there is, and I'm not afraid of dying." I thought about his long gone mate, Jeff, who left this earth 64 years earlier, and how he must now be enjoying that place, while the old digger could only reminisce, and say, "never get old".

At the end of the journey, to my surprise, he didn't have an M40 docket, and paid full cash. He apparently had a few drinks at the club, and said he had, for the first time in a long time, "one too many", but he gave the impression he had only one, and that was enough to tip him over. He accidentally gave me $35, so I said "that's too much", and gave him back ten. "You're too honest", he said, "tell you what, take the ten and give me back five". He gave me a $5 tip. Wow, I thought, this guy not only pulls his own weight, but he's got a heart of gold. But then, he's a soldier. I told him not to move, and hopped out of the cab, opened his door, and helped him out, handing him his walking stick after. We bid goodbye, and as I drove away I thought I didn't even ask his name! Who was he? I don't know, and that's why I've called him "The Unknown Soldier".

Merry Christmas, and be thankful for life, because no matter how tough it gets, someone has done it much tougher than you have.

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

Ray Agostini.
*This was originally posted on a blog that is now defunct. 

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