Listen: Anne Connor in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
ANZAC Day has changed over the years it has been marked by Australians. It was, at one time, an homage to glorious patriotism by a colonial nation assisting the great British Empire. It was a ritual of mateship and remembering by the thousands who served in World War One and World War Two.
The unpopularity of campaigns like the Vietnam War, and the thinning ranks of old soldiers made ANZAC day a different sort of memorial. Today, one hundred years since that first World War, our understanding of ANZAC Day is perhaps more nuanced. We think of loss and sacrifice, of the victors and the vanquished. We always remembered the fallen but understand more about the lasting impact conflict has on those who serve in war.
From Shell Shock to PTSD
In World War One it was called ‘shell shock’ now we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); the lingering manifestation of experiencing, witnessing or inflicting trauma. For generations it was not understood. Victims experienced anxiety, stress and emotional pain. However, it was shameful and cowardly to even admit there was an issue or to succumb to the various impacts of PTSD; so it was ignored. Some victims took their own lives, others found empty solace in drink, drugs or gambling. Most carried on as best they could. They suppressed it but were unable to avoid occasional outburst that could be by turns angry, regretful, morose, and tearful. Victims of PTSD can struggle to hold down a job or a relationship and end up on the margins of society. Aa great number slide into homelessness. Information and help for PTSD can be found here and here or talk to your GP.
Why was dad so difficult to live with?
Growing up, Anne Connor knew her father was touchy – she had often enough been in trouble for ‘slamming’ the door. Any yet for years Anne and her four siblings knew nothing of why their father could be moody, edgy, depressed, crying, or angry – all without apparent reason. It was not until almost two decades after his death that they learnt the horrible truth. There had been an awful accident in Papua New Guinea during his service in WWII. He had accidently shot and killed his friend. That tragedy haunted him for the rest of his life. Anne’s book, “Two Generations” is a fictionalised memoir of how that dark secret deeply impacts a family.
MY FATHER YELLED AT ME, ‘Come back here and close that door quietly.’ I placed my hand on the door handle and slid the door on its worn runners until it made the slight thud it always made against the doorjamb. Still too loud. He pulled the door wide open, making a clunking sound when it stopped. ‘Close it again and don’t slam it.’ ‘It didn’t slam.’ My voice was shaky and weak. He leaned his face closer to mine. ‘Don’t talk back. Close it.’ I blinked away the burning tears and slipped my hand through the handle again and moved the door until it was nearly closed, then paused and eased it against the doorjamb. Blood pounding in my head deafened me. My father yanked the door wide open one more time. ‘Close it.’ Shaking, I slipped my hand through the handle that made it harder to control the door – but, at last, success. No sound. I thought he’d be happy. But once more, he pulled the door wide open. ‘And again.’ By this time, more sensitive to the door’s movement on its runners, I closed it in one hushed movement. ‘Don’t ever slam it again, do you hear me?’ I stared up at him. Stop yelling, I begged him under my breath. ‘Did you hear what I said?’ He leaned over me again, ‘Answer me.’ ‘No. I mean yes, I won’t slam it again, ever.’ Ever, ever, ever. His cheeks flushed and his chest moved with his breathing. He turned and walked back to the lounge room where he flopped back into his chair with a loud sigh. I tiptoed to my bedroom, curled up on my bed and cried. Excerpt from ‘Two Generations’, by Anne Connor.
A long held secret, finally blurted out
The secret of the accidental shooting was revealed when Anne’s brother (one of five Connor children) attended an ANZAC Day gathering of her father’s old compatriots. As Galvin Connor was being introduced to the surviving men from the regiment who served with his father in Darwin and Papua New Guinea, one of the old men let the big, dark, Connor family secret out of the bag. Anne recounts that the information was just “blurted out” Galvin was told “Your dad’s the one that shot such and such.”
The secret at the center of the book, ‘Two Generations’ was also at the centre of Anne’s own life, although she didn’t know it at the time. The young man her father accidently shot was 22 years old. He was a mate of her father and died, 20 minutes after the accident, on the way to hospital. It had been a freakish accident following an arms inspection in the army barracks in Lae Papua New Guinea. Anne has fictionalised the name of the victim because her research at at the Australian War Memorial led her to believe that his family never knew the exact circumstances of his death. She says “They would have got a telegram saying he died on active service in Lae.”
Jock and Bess are the core of the story
Aside from the personal, emotional impact on her as a daughter writing the story of her family, Anne says writing ‘Two Generations” was not easy. That was one of the reasons she refers in the book not to Mum and Dad, but to Jock and Bess. “It was structurally difficult to write. I wanted his perspective, what was it like for him? I almost wanted a camera on his shoulder to capture his world.” Anne says “I didn’t want it all about me, I wanted it to be about his story – my parents story. It was quite incredible what they went through as a couple”
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