Lest We Forget
i had a dream last night, a dream so realistic and fantastic that I hardly know what to do about it. I have decided to put it down on paper. It is nearly three days since this occurred, and I have finally decided to go ahead with it. I have been back in town for nearly a week, having recently returned from the North Island, where my wife and I attended the unveiling and opening of the 28th Maori Battalion Memorial Hall at Palmerston North. To begin my story.
It is Monday evening and I have just lit the fire in our lounge grate, and placed my TV in its usual place in preparation for an enjoyable evening's programme. I have made myself a light snack so that when it is supper time I have no need to go out to the kitchen and make it. So after all is prepared, I am settled down comfortably. My friends, please bear with me a while longer. The programme is ended, I have eaten my supper, and now for a pipe of my favourite aromatic before going to bed. But I am destined not to get to bed until the early hours of morning.
I remember finishing my pipe, then waiting to see the fire go down a wee bit more. The embers in the grate are glowing and my tired eyes are gazing sleepily into the red coals. My thoughts make pictures down there in that glowing fire-box, pictures that take my mind back over the events of the past few days. My thoughts carry me across the sea, to a place where I see a great concourse of people gathered together with singleness of purpose: to pay homage and to honour a famous New Zealand fighting force, the 28th Maori Battalion. There is a strange expression on the faces of the kuias or elder wahines, and the middle-aged wahines, as they cry their lamentations and make their gestures of welcome in the powhiri: an expression of great pride and greater regret, mingled with a calm, unselfish humility.
A funny thing is happening to me, everything seems to be changing. I am somehow being transported to somewhere in the bush; my chair has vanished and the room has faded away, and I am standing near a great timber sawmill. I am dressed as a lumber-jack. I do not know this place, but I have a feeling I have been here before. I can hear the hum and howl of great powerful saw-teeth tearing their way through the tall stands of timber which stretch for miles into the hazy distance, and I am pulling huge slabs of timber off a moving bench. Funny thing, I know I have never worked anywhere on a job of this kind.
There are hundreds of men and machines working here, great log-hauling trucks of all descriptions. I am working in a very wet job. I am thinking of getting a change-over to something better, perhaps I may get into one of the trucks with my friend Robbi. Ah well, there is the whistle for lunch. I had better get cracking in case Mum goes rude. I am always late. So long.
I live just a stone's throw away from the mill. Here we are.
‘Hey, no you don't, out you go, not on my clean floor. You boys seem to think that we mothers are here just to scrub and clean the house, so as you can walk in any time of day with your dirty boots on.’
‘Aw break it up Mum, I'll be late. Oh, all right Mum, anything for a quiet life.’
‘You are just like your Dad Wi. All you think I am here for is to slave all day and night.’
‘Aw come off it Mum, you know that you are the sunshine in Dad's life.’
‘You are just like your Dad, full of ballyhoo. He knows how to get around me. Come on now son, you'll be late as usual. Clean up, and sit up to the table. Quickly or the food will get cold, hurry now.’
‘Gee, smells good too. You know Mum, the boss said….’
Hey the table, the whole place, everything is folding away, I must be going crackers. Everything is misty and hazy and now I am in the middle of a great plain or swamp, no it is a lake-side place. It seems to be different here, it is a sort of tourist resort. Hello, here is a building or hall. No, it's a meeting-house.
There must be a party or a dance being held there. I'll go inside and have a look. Boy those fellows can certainly play. Not bad for a Hori band, very good, this will do me, I wonder how much is it to go in.
‘You talking to me, boy?’
‘Yes, how much to go in?’
‘What's in hell the matter with you. I just gave you a pass to go outside.’
What's the matter with me, of course, I live here.
‘Where have you been all this time Rangi?’
‘Who me, oh I have been outside for a breath of fresh air.’
‘You want to dance this one Rangi?’
‘I don't mind, Kiri, it's the second to last dance. The last is a waltz, and I know you love to waltz.’
‘Yes I do Rangi, so we will have both.’
‘You know Kiri, I can follow your steps anywhere you go. You are a pretty good dancer.’
‘Ah you Rangi, I'll bet you say that to all the girls.’
‘Now Kiri you know I've only got one girl.’
‘Silly, I like teasing you Rangi, you are so serious.’
‘Of course I am serious, and when we get married and have our own little home, I shall tie you up to a ball and chain so that you won't get away from me.’
‘Oh Rangi, do you mean that?’
‘I am just waiting for the day.’
We are having our last waltz and then for home.
We are nearing Kiri's home and the road is fairly dark, with a solitary light glowing through the hall door.
‘Must you go in so soon dear?’
‘Yes darling, Dad doesn't like me to stay out too late.’
‘Kiss me goodnight.’
‘Goodnight dear Rangi.’
‘So long Kiri.’
I am nearly home. I had better take off my shoes and creep in, so as not to wake Mum. Hang it all, I've dropped one of my shoes.
‘Is that you son?’
‘Yes Mum, I am just going to bed.’
‘Wait, come in here a minute, I want to talk to you. I can't go to sleep. Did you have a nice time at the dance?’
‘Yes, pretty good Mum.’
‘Was Kiri there?’
‘You like her, don't you Rangi?’
‘Yes I do Mum, very much.’
‘Well, your father and I like her too. So now you run off to bed now. Kiss me goodnight.’
‘God bless you Mum.’
‘Go quietly past your father's room, he has to start work early in the morning.’
I close the door slowly, open my bedroom door and switch on my light. Hello, the light must be broken or fused. And now once again that eerie feeling is with me.
Although I am still in the darkness there is all-pervading cold, and a swaying motion under my feet. I am dressed as a fisherman. Where I am I have no idea as yet, but I am holding fast to the rigging of a fore and aft schooner-rigged fishing ketch. She is sailing into a fairly heavy running sea. Something tells me we are off the coast, way down south aways, for I can feel that pulsating swell underfoot which is so much a part of a sailor's life when riding those mountainous rollers that sweep mightily up from southward of the Solanders, and on to smash their way through the straits. I am there and it is my first trip out and I love the feel of the wind and sleet in my face. It makes me feel just as my migratory Polynesian forbears felt, who were the most fearless of the Blue Water Breed.
My salty reverie is suddenly broken by the voice of a fog horn.
‘What the hell are you doing up there Boy? Get down below now. Belay or I'll skin you alive.’
My gosh that was my old man. I'd better get going smartly into the focsle. Me for the sack.
‘What do you think you were doing up there lad, looking for mermaids perhaps?’
‘No Dad, I was doing a bit of thinking.’
‘Getting homesick are you?’
‘No Dad, nothing like that.’
‘Oh yes you are, I know. Never mind, you can't help it I suppose. Your mother is always making a fuss over you. I'll never make a man out of you. You talk about wanting to go to the next war. If there is one they'll make mincemeat of you in no time at all. So long now lad, turn down your lamp.’
My eyes close and I am asleep. No, wait. I am in a long barracks type of room and there is a tense, electrifying atmosphere everywhere. Hundreds of men are queued up—waiting for what? Yes it is war. War at last. They have been talking about war for a long time, and now it has come. There are men from all over
this wonderful country of ours. I wonder why there do not seem to be many Pakehas in this building, only a few; maybe they are part Maori and part Pakeha. I suppose that's it. Hello, my turn now.
‘Yes come on there, snap out of it. Don't loiter, step up. What's your name, John? Address? Age?’
‘Twenty-two my eye. Come on lad what's your age. You're not twenty-one yet are you?’
‘No sir, I am twenty-two.’
‘That sounds like something to me but I'll believe you lad. All right, on the dotted line. Right, hop it now. Next please. We'll let you know whether you make it or not, my lad.’
The scene has changed again and all that I see is dust and clouds of it. Tramp tramp tramp, we're marching. Halt, attention, stand easy, tramp tramp tramp. More marching, more halts, attentions and stand at ease until I could go to sleep on my feet. Left right, left right, night and day, day in and day out. Right wheel, left wheel, left right, left right. Present arms, slope arms, present arms. All day long this goes on.
Then leave, final leave whacko. I am at home and I am the favourite son; and somehow, wherever the boys are I am a part of them also: I am every mother's son of them. I am trying and yet not managing to make things pleasant for Mum, for she is doing her very best to hold herself up under the terrific strain of these last few days. I feel a great sorrow in my heart for Mum, I wish I had never enlisted now. No, no, what am I saying. Mum would never forgive me if she thought I felt like that. For upon that face, so beautiful and lined with care, is an expression of great pride, and a tranquility which seems to come from the very depths of her being.
Now I am on board ship in the middle of a great ocean. It is nearly dark, and quite close to us there are other, darker shapes. They are other ships. Everything is quiet. I am writing to my girlfriend, to my brother, to my sister, and last of all to the most wonderful of all God's creatures, my mother.
Time passes quickly on board; we are somewhere in this great expanse of water. Troops are trans-shipping; now they are all aboard their respective ships. The great liners move slowly apart, and the lads are singing ‘Now is the hour,’ as the evening sun goes slowly down in the west. Thousands of throats are singing a million regrets for loved ones left behind. When shall they meet again, who knows?
The painfully sad music fades away with the breeze. It is still night, but now I am not on the sea, but in a valley. There are hundreds of us there, lying quietly, waiting for something to happen. There are hundreds of us in a hundred different theatres of conflict, waiting this night, for what? A silence of approaching doom is in the air and in the earth, and in everyone of us is the fear of the unknown.
We know it now, it is here, in that streak of lightning across the blackened sky. Now it seems that all the legions of hell are loose under our feet. And every mother's son rises to a man, to fight, to die, to suffer: for what reason, I wonder why. For that night which was turned to day by fire, blast, and flame, for that night mankind went back a thousand years.
High above the sound of battle is a dream-like hypnotic sound of stamping feet. Stand, parry, guard, thrust, where did I hear those words. Somewhere in the dimness of time, ka mate, ka mate, ka ora ka ora. Stand, guard, thrust, parry. Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru nana nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra. Upane, upane, kaupane whakawhiti te ra, a ha ha.
The sound of battle seems never to wane. Smoke envelops everything. Now I am on a hill, and at the top of the hill are a handful of men. We are surrounded by our foes who have been hammering at us for days, it seems for years. Our force is gradually getting smaller but we fight all the harder to retain our position. The hill is a shambles. I am there, and I am doing my damnedest, but every time I strike a blow at the enemy, I go right on through them. It is very uncanny. I seem to bear a charmed life.
The scene on the hill is now one of desolation. A most astounding thing is being enacted there. There are only two men left; one is down, and the other is standing but fatally wounded, hit by rifle fire. This man is only a boy in years, but he has the toughness of the true seasoned fighter. They are coming up the hill now, he has thrown his weapon at his foes. He still will not give in. He is fighting them now with sticks and stones. No wait, there are others there helping him, but they are not in uniform: they are naked, but for the piupiu which they wear around their waists. They seem to pass through the enemy as I did. I know who they are.
Alas, at last they have him down, but they
have to hold him there. Then it is finished. A great moment has passed into history. He lies there, it could be you, it could be someone else's boy. I do not know. I feel a terrible emptiness within myself.
The scene has changed and under my feet I feel a tremendous vibration, coming closer and closer, the sound of a giant's tread getting louder and louder until everywhere is shaking, it seems with an earthquake. The sky has darkened and the ground where the lad lies is the only place which is lit up. Ah, a deadly fear holds me in a vicelike grip, for as I look upwards I see a giant of a man taller than the highest peak of Hikurangi. But this is not a man looking down at the lad lying there. His face is emblazoned with scars of a thousand battles, fought down through the milleniums of time. Over his shoulders lies a great dog-skin cloak, and in his right hand is a huge taiaha. He reaches down for the lad and wonder of wonders, the lad stands up, but there are no clothes on him, only a piupiu. And the giant takes his cloak from his shoulders and places it around the lad.
I cannot look for long, for the blazing light of his body is brighter than a hundred suns, and I can smell the stench of battle which comes from that cloak of blood, sweat and doom. For who but the god of war could wear such a garment. He smiles at the lad, and hand in hand they walk away into the distance. In their wake, along that pathway of valour which leads to the stars, there follow thousands of warriors. As they fade away I can hear a distant wailing: maybe it is the wind, maybe some sound I remember in another life.
It is so peaceful and restful sitting here on this hillside overgrown with orange trees, or perhaps they are olives. I see at my feet many rows of beautiful white crosses glistening in the warm afternoon sun. They are in a far foreign land, and I see a smiling lad lying there beneath one of those crosses. He is gazing up into the eyes of One, whose intensity is like the stars and like the heavens in their depth. When He speaks, His voice is a familiar one, for the lad has heard its beautiful tones before, in the music of the winds and the roar of the mighty seas, as he roamed the shores of his homeland.
Then the Voice spoke to the lad.
‘What wouldst thou that I should do for thee, O son of sacrifice?’
Then the boy answered, ‘Tell me the meaning of this strife, and if I have died in vain.’
‘Come with me, and I will show thee.’
Then the Spirit reached out His hand to the boy. And then the boy saw the blood drops which fell to the ground, and saw for the first time that his friend was wounded. He cried out and pointed to the hand.
‘When did it happen?’
‘It was a long time ago that it happened,’ came the Voice, quiet and low, ‘but only since this war have they started to bleed again. See also my feet and my side.’
Then the flowers around seemed to stiffen their stalks, to raise them higher, and higher from the ground, and to bear them away to a sweet and cool region where war and pain are not, but peace and love and everlasting life reign forever more.
Dear reader this is the end of my story, dedicated to all the mothers of those brave boys who made the supreme sacrifice so that we who remain may enjoy peace, and live together in harmony with all mankind.
Mr Nick Karaitiana of Christchurch belongs on his father's side to Ngati Kahungunu and on his mother's side to the Rangiamoa hapu of Ngaitahu. He was educated at Tuahiwi Pa, North Canterbury, and at Hikurangi College, Carterton.
Mr Karaitiana, who is a carpenter by trade, has sung for many years on stage and radio, and in 1957 toured Australia and the Far East with the famous Kathrine Dunham company of Negro dancers and singers.
This is the first story he has written.