David Slack: 'The going down of the sun, again'

Weary New Zealanders are evacuated from Crete in World War II.
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Weary New Zealanders are evacuated from Crete in World War II.

OPINION: You can say they died for freedom, for peace, for a better world. I think they died for each other.

The first time I took our daughter to an Anzac Day service, she was three years old and I lost her inside of three minutes. The first thing you do when your child goes missing is call their name loudly and often, but not when there's a hush over the whole of Devonport and they're about to play the Last Post.

Now she's 16 and wears a blazer that says head prefect and tomorrow morning she will walk down into the village to represent her school to lay a wreath and she will not get lost.

David Slack's grandfather served in both world wars.
CHRIS SKELTON / STUFF

David Slack's grandfather served in both world wars.

She knows her way in the world in a way I never have. She knows when to use diplomacy and she knows when to ream out a school bully with language that could strip paint.

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She has misgivings about the way we commemorate our wars, but she won't raise her voice at that hour, not when there's a hush over the whole of Devonport and they're about to play the Last Post.

When I was her age, the school invited me to speak at the town's Anzac service.  They asked me what I was going to say. Two returned servicemen on the staff threatened to resign. I scoffed, but those men did me a huge favour. I intended to be disrespectful, mostly towards the prime minister, and I'd have been a sorry spectacle.

I've chosen not to live  in Feilding since I left school, but thanks to those teachers, the option remains open to me.

My grandfather, Mum's father, had his life shaped by the world wars. He fought in both, he lived for the RSA. When he and his brothers and father went to fight the war to end all wars they'd have walked down the main road in Devonport, past where the memorial statue now stands, past where Mary-Margaret will be in her blazer holding a wreath.

Where were they going? To a ship, to the sea, to an adventure, to fight for the King, to see their mates blown to pieces.

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We want to be able to say "this was the point of it all". We want to say: "this had to be done." But the Great War doesn't make it easy.

Suppose Germany had won. Suppose, even, Britain and her empire had stayed out of it. Where would we all be now? Would there still have been millions of Germans buying bread with wheelbarrows of notes? Would they have found any reason to embrace a Hitler?  Imagine a history with no Hitler, and no Holocaust, and no second, total, war.

Is it possible  we could have been better off not fighting that first one, and thereby avoiding a second?

My grandfather was Jack Oakden. He came to see us each Sunday. We'd have a midday dinner and then he'd watch a movie, and usually it would be an old war one, and sometimes his eyes would fill. He talked endlessly about the RSA and about his returned mates. But not the war itself, not to us kids.

He told my uncle more. They were  in Crete, or Greece. Stranded in the open. Strafed by dive-bombing Stukas. Running for their lives, terrified. "Like rabbits" he said.

A war has to have a point. Doesn't it? Mary-Margaret has misgivings about other young people in blazers saying "they died for our freedom." She hears empty recitation.

He smoked Capstans and Pall Malls, one after another. He lived into his eighties. He went to the funeral of each mate as their turn came. He worked out a way to drive home from the RSA each day without making a right-hand turn.

I had one whisky with him, once, at the club. We didn't talk about the war. We didn't talk about politics. I think by then it was clear it might be a sorry spectacle.  He introduced me to his friends and we had a great time.

They looked after each other and they went through hell together. At the funeral, a man introduced himself to my brother, told him: "When I came out of jail, your grandfather gave me some money to get back on my feet. He was a good man."

You can say they died for freedom, for peace, for a better world, but I think it might be truer, and better, to say they died for each other.

 - Sunday Star Times

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