Like a song that takes you back to the place where you first heard it, Hugh Lunn writes how the date of this year’s federal election brought back the memory of one of the most crushing days of his life.
When Scott Morrison announced the federal election would be held on May 18, all thought of politics, the economy and balanced budgets immediately went out the window.
Of all the dates in all the world he had to pick that one
The 18th of May: a date seared not only on my brain, but also on my heart, for the last 59 years.
A day that has shaped my life ever since.
That’s the thing about reaching what the Vietnamese agreeably call “high age”. As you grow older you accumulate more and more dates of great significance, and thus ever so slowly create your own precious list of days. And you keep them close by for the rest of your life.
As a child, there are just three big days on the calendar: birthday, Christmas and Easter – because each means presents. But now that I’m part of what J.K. Galbraith called “the still generation” my mind has become a hoarder of dates.
Like that difficult Thursday on October 8, 1964, when I left home for the first time, aged 23, to fly overseas to find work in Hong Kong. I said I’d be back in six months, but it took seven years. As a Reuters war correspondent aged 26, I was caught up in the Tet Offensive on Wednesday January 31, 1968, when the Viet Cong invaded Saigon and captured “Pentagon East” – the American Embassy fortress – effectively ending the long war.
I watched and wrote as they fought it out.
Three months later, my roommate Bruce Pigott, my replacement Ron Laramy, and my two Australian journalist friends Mike Birch and John Cantwell were gunned down in Saigon: May 5 1968. As Mike’s gravestone in Perth says: “To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die”.
There were the good times. Like that Tuesday March 8 evening in 1977 when I first saw my wife; and the night, aged 48, when my childhood memoir Over the Top with Jim was launched at the Boomerang Theatre in Brisbane on November 13, 1989 – a Cold War book released the night the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
Australia’s Chief Censor, John Dickie – who had been in my class at Mary Immaculate Convent, Annerley – flew back to Brisbane from Sydney to publicly censor my work.
“I’m impressed by the number of occasions the notion of impure thoughts is mentioned,” Dickie told the audience.
“Impure thoughts played a major part in all our lives. When we were not having them, we were being warned about the ever-present possibility that they would appear … In my present job, I’m into the impure thoughts business in a big way! As Chief Censor I should state that this book has not been submitted to me for censorship classification. Although it is an affectionate, slightly wistful, embarrassingly accurate, sometimes scarifyingly brutal account about the way I remember growing up … there seems to me to be no danger of prosecution.”
And now, on the cusp of 78, nearly every day I’m reminded that J.K. Galbraith was right.
People look at me suspiciously and say: “You mean to say you still play tennis”? “Are you still writing?” “Do you still look at pretty girls?” A young male tennis player I was partnering leant on the net and suddenly asked: “Do you still kiss your wife?”
“Yes I still do,” I said.
He asked why I didn’t marry until 40. I said it was probably because at school in the 1950s the Christian Brothers taught us plenty of Latin, Maths, Physics and Chemistry but we learnt nothing about girls. The Brothers knew nothing of girls – or, if they did, they weren’t going to tell us.
My only connection with girls was in the poetry we studied every day.
Lord Byron’s “She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies…” Shakespeare’s “Oh you so perfect and so peerless are created of every creature’s best.” But not Coleridge’s line about the Lady Geraldine in Christabel: “Behold her bosom and half her side; a sight to dream of not to tell.” I preferred his adoration of Christabel: “Her gentle limbs did she undress, and lay down in her loveliness.”
The closest our teachers got to girls was a Saint’s warning: “Look not upon a maiden lest her beauty be a stumbling block to thee.” And the Knight of the Round Table who proudly proclaimed: “I hold my sword with a steady hand, my lance it thrusteth sure; my strength is as the strength of ten – because my heart is pure.”
So I wasn’t at all, in the least way, prepared when, at 17, I fell in love with a girl from a nearby all-girls school whose hair was the colour of ginger ale. We went to dances, school sports and Saturday night pictures. We saw Johnny O’Keeffe shake up the crowd at Milton Tennis stadium. I hitched rides and slept in the sand dunes near her family’s beach house just so I could see her during the holidays. In army cadet camp I got a long letter signed “fondest regards”. Which I still have.
But five months after we left school and went out into the world – on Wednesday May 18, 1960, at 10 minutes to 3 in the afternoon – she rang me at work to say: “I don’t feel the same way about you. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
I panicked. I couldn’t believe it. I thought couples stayed together forever. Like my parents and hers. I ran down the four flights of stairs and caught a tram to her home – but only her mother was there. She told me to watch TV and I’d get over it.
I slept by the phone in the lounge room in case she called to say it was all a mistake: I didn’t want to miss it.
And when she didn’t ring, six months later I took my favourite photo of her and wrote on the back: “Where the treasure is, there the heart lies” and put it in a sealed envelope. I’ve still got that too.
But don’t worry, I’m over it.