Friday, June 8, 2012
A Deafening Silence
When asked what was the most memorable, awesome, amazing, or outstanding thing we saw or did in Australia, I reply that I can't choose between two very different things: the wildlife or ANZAC Day. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day began as a commemoration of the soldiers who fought and died at Gallipoli in World War I. Now, similar to our Memorial Day, it more generally commemorates all who served and died. Whereas the date of our Memorial Day changes annually to offer a three-day weekend, ANZAC Day falls on April 25, the day on which the ANZAC forces landed at Gallipoli. This year, that fell on a Wednesday.
We knew that our Perth hostess and her husband wanted to attend the sunrise ANZAC Day service held in Kings Park. Their son is in the Australian army and in September will begin his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. The husband admitted later that when they invited us to attend the service with them, he almost declined on the grounds that he's not Australian. I pointed out, when I learned this after the fact, that as a Canadian he's closer to being Australian than I am. There was no way I would have missed this despite the fact that it meant getting up at 4:00 a.m. on what was going to be a long day anyway with an afternoon into evening flight from Perth to Melbourne. Fortunately, we didn't have to budget public transportation time into our planning given that our host's business connections provided access to underground parking at the bottom of the hill on which Kings Park sits. Walking up the hill to the park was as energizing as the morning coffee we skipped would have been. We were certainly not alone once we got there and spread out our blankets on the lawn. The attendance estimate we saw later was 40,000, not too shabby even for a city of some 2 million.
While the service per se took place at a monument in the park, there were remote viewing screens throughout; the image that started this post was taken from one of the two that we could see from where we were sitting. One of the reasons we sat where we did was that it would afford a great view of the sun rising over the city. The grassy hillside on which we sat was dotted with what are called "ghost trees." It's easy to see why they're called that.
Before the service itself began, a brief history of the Australian military was shown. During this, people sat, some drinking coffee they'd brought with them, some chatting, some just trying to wake up. Newcomers moved through the crowd looking for places to sit. When the announcement was made that the service would be starting, the crowd, as one, rose as silence fell. A good part of the service was the laying of wreaths, one after another by representatives of a myriad of groups, around the monument. As you might imagine, this would not be exactly dramatic, riveting viewing, but the crowd remained silent. There were various invocations and short speeches and, throughout the crowd, silence. There was even a formal moment of silence which, unlike some others in which I've participated, lasted a full minute. From the time the service began until the time it formally ended, there was not a sound throughout the crowd. No child piping up, no parent telling a child to be quiet. No dogs barking, though there were, indeed, dogs there.
I finally understood how silence can be deafening. For the time of the service, maybe 30 minutes, I heard not a peep but was instead surrounded by silence like a warm blanket. And when the service ended, the crowd seemed to awaken, and life was back to normal.
As I said, it was a sunrise service and we chose where to sit in part because of the view it would offer.
As we were leaving for the walk back down the hill, a formation of biplanes flew overhead.
It wasn't clear if this was intended to mark the end of the service, but it was noteworthy nonetheless and more in keeping with the spirit of the service and day than a formation of modern fighter jets would have been.
On the way to Melbourne, the husband and I talked about how moving the service had been. I have always disliked what seems to be the American version of patriotism, the chest-thumping, hoo-rah, we're better than you, sort of thing. It seems more appropriate in the context of a sporting event than a nation. While I will admit that I have never been to a Memorial Day service here in the U.S., I have trouble believing that it would be as quietly reverent as Perth's ANZAC Day service was. Quiet reverence is not what American patriotism seems to be about. Is it perhaps because Australia is an island, and even large islands can be shut off or embargoed from the rest of the world, adding to the need for and value of a military force? Or is it that the relatively small population decreases the six degrees of Kevin Bacon and everyone knows a family who has lost a member in military service? Can you say "sociology dissertation topic"? Whatever the cause, I feel honored (honoured) to have been part of the Perth service and truly do hold it up there with Bub the Caversham wombat as something I will never forget about my first visit to Oz.
Coming next: The Great Ocean Road or, in other words, "DRIVE ON LEFT in Australia."