The Babies of Walloon Award – Open Age Bush Poetry
What They Learned Me in the War
by Bill Martin
Mothar Mountain, Qld
Denny was a different man when he came home from the war.
He rarely spoke, he rarely broke his gaze up from the floor.
People whispered 'shellshock' and many proffered kindness shown,
But he paid them no attention, he just walked with Pat Malone.
Nugget was a different man, never gone to fight the war,
His way was brash, his tongue could thrash all comers to the floor.
Needed in the black coal mines, he stayed in his hometown,
Carved a kingdom of his own in darkness underground.
His word was likened unto law and knuckles spoke his will,
It always came to blood and pain, suffered silent and still.
But his eyes squeezed to smouldering slits at the new man he saw,
"You think they learned you mining when you went off to the war?"
"What the hell you think you're doing, ya half-baked broken wreck?
I never thought... I really ought to wring your scrawny neck.
Ya really think you're man enough to dig the black coal dust?"
Denny whispered to the floor, "Man's still gotta make a crust"
So he joined up with the mining crew, Scotty, Mick and Sid,
Made a crust from black coal dust is exactly what he did.
But Nugget's tongue was on his back, a snaking slicing lash,
Never satisfied until he burned his man to ash.
And Denny with his vacant eyes, he never seemed to hear,
Though men could tell, who read a face well, that Denny's had no fear.
His heart was held in the strangling grip of memory's cruel claw,
That was more his demon than, "What' they learn ya in the war?"
So he cleansed his soul with good hard work till a dark day arrived,
The tortured ground made a snarling sound and the crew ran for their lives.
From death overhead as the roof collapsed they escaped to the sun,
And they prayed their thanks they made it out... all of them bar one.
Taking not one hesitant step, Denny turned and went back in,
Took a deep breath and strode toward death; on his face, a madman's grin.
He crawled on his guts where he couldn't walk, straining for any sound,
He wouldn't stop till he found the place where Nugget had been cut down.
"Me legs are broke and the roofs gunna go, you better not tarry about."
Grasping his hand, Denny told that man, "Then I'll bloody well carry you out."
And so he did for painful hours, till there was the rescuer's light,
Then gentle rough hands carried them out to a glorious starlit night.
Nugget's eyes welled up with tears, and he'd never felt such shame,
Denny had dwelled in living hell and Nugget was to blame.
"I treated you like a mongrel dog, you showed me dignity,
After all I did to knock you down, why come back for me?"
Denny reached out, gripped his hand, smiled and squeezed it tight,
Remembering screams and death that crept from out of the jungle at night.
"You never leave a man behind, never turn jack on your mates,
Each other is all we really got; hesitate, it'll be too late.
Fear's no shame, but all your strength is in loyalty right to your core,"
And smiling into Nugget's eyes he said, "They learned me that in the war."