In memory of the Ducks
Dedicated to Hendrick & Sylvia
For caring enough to put up with me
With love to ‘Red’
Wherever or Whenever you are.
is at the time when limbs begin to slow, eyes blur and hair seeks to pale as if
curse that falls upon us during this most damning time is that of memory made
clear by the distance of years.
courtroom existing only for the mind that created it.
hateful to have events once cloaked in the uncertainty of the happening made
plain and naked. To have rooms once softened by the demand of exploring others,
lit as the day with no corners hidden from the eye, with all truths exposed.
does our trial begin and for such as me, it has no end.
indeed are those that find no darkness and can move on.
are we who look back and find only emptiness of our own creation where happiness
could have resided.
where great feelings of joy could have lived.
given by our own hand, where just as easily, it could have been pleasure. Hurt
to those who gave none.
merciless court has but one punishment and that is the most terrible of all - to
live and remember … everything.
I never knew Harry during his time with the Mucky Ducks; we only met after the return from his 25-year odyssey. I used to drink with a few friends twice a week at a certain Brisbane hotel and often there was a solitary character drinking at the end of the bar. As an ex-mariner myself I quickly recognised a fellow seaman. He didn’t have to say anything; it was etched into his face and bearing. But there was also something else - something indefinable.
Harry never tried to join in any conversation; he was quite content to be alone. I noticed that he kept an eye on the door, checking the face of everybody who came in, as if searching for someone. He was never rude and would always reply with a strange smile to anybody who tried to strike up conversation, but he never seemed to want to take anything further than a polite hello. The two regular barmaids who served us were, shall we say, ‘a bit rough’ but I noticed that they were very protective of Harry and although they were at least 25 years his junior I know both of them had a crush on him. At the time this was hard to understand, as you would never call him in the least good looking.
Then one day my friends failed to turn up for some reason or other and I found myself alone at the bar except for Harry. I thought the situation needed to be resolved so went straight up to him, stuck out my hand and said, ‘You’re a seaman, aren’t you? My name is Hendrick.’
We shook hands and he didn’t try the old he-man trick of crushing my hand; it was just a good firm handshake. But for the first time, now that I was close, I noticed his eyes and I confess it shook me. It was hard to tell the colour, hazel or green, but they had been to hell and back and had definitely brought part of that hell back with them.
There was more than one lifetime reflected there. They were the eyes of a person who had seen too much, suffered too much and who was extremely alone. During our first conversation I noticed that even when he gave that funny tight-lipped smile of his, the eyes never quite matched the smile.
He told me he was ‘sort of’ retired. I told him that I had left the sea and now worked as a freelance journalist, mainly churning out articles about the marine industry. We talked for a couple of hours, not saying much, but at least I had broken the ice.
Over the next three years we became quite good friends. We only ever met in the bar but I would often go on days when I knew my other friends wouldn’t be there, just so Harry would talk to me, as he seemed to hate being in a group. I think that most people in the bar just didn’t meet his required standard.
in the early part of 2003 he rang me up and asked to meet in the bar and it had
to be ‘now.’ Normally I would have refused as I was fighting a deadline, but
seeing as it was this strange Harry creature, I immediately did as ordered.
was in his usual spot but that’s about all that was the same. The eyes were
shuttered but it was as if he were being torn apart inside. Nothing that would
show to the outside world, but I knew - and for the first time ever, I could see
he was the worse for drink. Harry could drink a lot but I had never seen him
show the least sign of being drunk.
He told me that he had a book to write and that he wanted my help in getting it onto paper. Now this is a journalist’s worse nightmare. Everybody thinks they have a story to tell. However, in this case it was different. I knew there was something hidden behind the scenes with this man and I was eager to drag it out. I was further intrigued when he said that nobody must ever know who wrote it and that even I must use a fictitious name. That was strange; people usually have an ego that demands recognition - but I agreed. All he had with him at the time was an article torn from a newspaper reporting a plane crash, but I got the impression that it had, somehow, been the trigger.
Between 2pm and 9pm we sat in that bar while he told me the fantastic story of the ‘Sea Eagles,’ or ‘Mucky Ducks’ as he liked to call them. The story was so strange and unbelievable that, at first, I doubted it was true. This doubt started to vanish when he showed me his ankle, chest and side where bullets had left their marks, plus the scar where one had been removed, but the clincher was when, for the first time, he smiled at me without hiding behind tight lips and I saw the usually invisible damage – then I knew it was true.
He also gave me the names of two other Ducks that were still alive so that I could confirm his story. This I did but only as a professional necessity; I knew before then that it wasn’t fiction. So, the book has been written.
It’s not difficult for me to imagine the younger version of Harry. The hair might now be grey and the waistline thick with age and sudden lack of activity, but the rest is still there, barely hidden by the years. If I had to describe him I would say, part white knight, part black knight, part romantic, part earthy realist, with a huge dose of Don Quixote thrown in. Given half a chance he would be off again, seeking dragons in windmills. I think that’s one word that also describes part of the look in his eyes – seeking.
Today you could pass Harry in the street and never give him a second glance. Unless you looked into his eyes you would take him for just another elderly grey-haired man. You would never suspect that he had been shot, stabbed, horribly tortured, blown up, cheated cyclones and had many ships sink from under him. You would definitely never suspect that he had also been involved in what is probably one of the most strange and tragic love stories of all time. But if you did see into his eyes, none of this would surprise you; it’s all there.
At least I now know why he always stands or sits facing the door. He’s waiting for a certain woman with red hair to re-enter his life. Even though, inside, he knows it will never happen. But that story is for others to tell; I wasn’t there but would give my right arm to have been.
The problem with hearing and writing this story is that I feel I have missed out on something rather wonderful. Tragic, terrible, brutal, extremely sad – but wonderful.
It was certainly a very special life but as a
certain woman, on a very fateful day long ago, once asked him: ‘Is the price
never too high, Harry?’
I think it’s only recently that he has been
able to answer that question, and I think the answer is ‘yes, sometimes the
price is just too damned high’.
That’s the trouble with really important questions. The answer usually comes far too late.
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