Yesterday was Anzac Day, one of the biggest, most feted days on the Australian calendar. It’s the day we commemorate the memory, and pay tribute to the Diggers who have fought for us over the years. Every year there’s a dawn service all over Australia, in the big cities such as the Shine of Remembrance in Melbourne, and in the little towns and hamlets dotted across our vast expanse. There’re similar services in other parts of the world, in London, in the battlefields of France, and at the place where it all began, Gallipoli (where I attended in 2004).
For a hundred years veterans have marched the streets with their comrades of war, cheered on by crowds grateful for their sacrifice. Many of them are old and frail, wearing their best suits with medals splashed across their breast telling the story of long ago campaigns and feats of courage. Afterwards, many of them will adjourn for a beer and a catch-up, or a round of two-up somewhere, or will even head off to places like the MCG, where another great contest will unfold.
Every year that happens, until this year.
This year the lockdown means we couldn’t congregate and remember. There were dawn services in the cities which no-one could attend, and the streets were empty of marchers. The old diggers didn’t meet up, and there wasn’t even a game of footy to go to.
In its place came what might become a new tradition. We were asked as a community to be out of our bed by sunrise and at the end of our driveway with a lit candle in our hands. To those who were able, it was encouraged they should get out their instrument and play the Last Post as the first rays of sunshine came over the horizon at 6.03am.
I was there. I set the alarm and was up in time and with Rigby stood at the end of the driveway, not knowing what to expect. What happened was slightly eerie, but very moving. Up and down the street, you could see flickering candlelight. To my great surprise, the poignant notes of the Last Post wafted in the air to me, first from one direction, then another. It was cool and solemn.
Across the road from me on the diagonal was a family, parents with children under ten – it was hard to discern in the dim light. I felt so touched to see them. I imagined, as I do, the conversation of the night before and the children excited knowing they would wake to this. I felt so proud of them, the parents telling the story of the occasion and imparting the importance of it, and the kids wide-eyed with wonder. Now they stood with candle in their hand with maturity beyond their years.
It was the same everywhere it seems. The occasion struck a chord, and much of the community responded, including most of my friends on Facebook, it seems. It was a lovely gesture. Standing there yesterday I felt so pleased to be part of it. It was an expression of solidarity and common cause. While we’re there for the Anzacs, what draws us together is the sense of belonging that we all need.
In the past, I joined the march wearing my grandfather’s medals. That was an experience like no other. I was proud to be there with my nephew, proud to represent my grandfather, proud to be part of such a noble movement. And I was astonished at how it felt and to have people applaud as I went by. I felt as if I was part of something momentous, and I had a share in it.
Many times over the years I’ve written of Anzac Day. It’s an important day in my life also. Often I would make my way to the MCG in the aftermath of march and settle in to watch a game of footy with 90,000 others. It was always such a chilling occasion. The crowd would silence. The Last Post would be played once more. The commands of the soldiers attending would ring out in the packed stadium. Then, at the appointed moment, a roar would engulf the place.
There was none of that yesterday, but in times like these, you try to make up for what you don’t have. After a long walk with Cheeseboy in the morning, and jobs around the house, late in the afternoon I settled down to watch a replay of one of the greatest Anzac Day matches of all – the famous 2009 match when Zaharakis kicked the winning goal in the dying seconds of the game.
Times are different now, but yesterday was a good Anzac Day.