It’s early when we leave. It’s going to take a while to drive across town, where we’ll pay our visit. Our host, he has no idea we’re coming. There’s me, my Dad, and two of his old mates, Des, or Dessie, or Crummer, and Tony, or Tone, or Ten Ton. These are my Dad’s old Vietnam buddies, all in the same company. Or is it platoon? They share memories that need a Seventies soundtrack, tell stale, sexist jokes and they compare war stories, always avoiding the bad stuff. Never the horror stories.
‘Grab the hammer from round the back, yeah?’ Dad tells me as the guys pile into the car.
There’s a hesitance to call Vietnam a war. It was a conflict or a situation, or just ‘Vietnam’, but the term war is often left out of the discussions. In movies, the old veterans call in ‘‘Nam’. I’ve never heard the guys call it this. The Vietnam war feels like it was a big mistake. A mistake that was the defining period of these men’s lives. That which would change all before and after the event for them.
They know what it was.
These three men in the car with me share a recognition only those who’ve been through such an experience will ever truly understand. It’s this between them, the indescribable that leads us on through the early morning darkness.
Where we are going is a house across the other side of the city. We’re going to visit another veteran, only this guy is different. This guy is a pillar of society type, has been a local government councillor, has a good job. This guy recently accepted an award from the town for his bravery and achievement. He has two daughters, a wife, and a firearms license. He has spoken at district schools about his Vietnam experiences and tried to make them understand what young Australians went through in representing their country. He leads the Anzac Day parade through town and is a prominent member of the RSL club. He wears his service ribbons with honour.
But this guy is different. This guy has never met my Dad, Des, or Tony. This guy is different because he’s never been to Vietnam. This guy is a faker, cashing in on being a war hero. We’ve looked up the history, this guy’s story. He’s a liar, a faker who’s built an entire life around this lie. A faker who talks about how hard it was over there. How the helicopters with Agent Orange on board would dump it right on top of you. How you never knew who to trust because North and South Vietnamese look no different. A faker who is taking credit for something he never had anything to do with. And today we’re paying this faker a visit, with a hammer and four guys.
Dad asked me to come along to watch their backs. He said because I’m young and fit and quick, if anything happened I could help, but, he assured me, nothing will happen. He told me what they do is go to these fakers’ houses and just have a quiet chat with them, tell them that we know they’re lying and if they don’t stop… I kick the hammer at my feet, hiding it under the front seat. Dad said that they’d only ever had to beat up one guy, and he started swinging first. But someone has to pull these people up and reveal them for the fraud they are. So we’ll just be going for a chat, Dad says. But just in case.
My motivation for coming along is to make sure my Dad doesn’t lose control. He’s been going through red tape for years to prove he’s eligible for a service pension. To prove he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Talking to person after person to prove to them that he has been affected by the war. Person after person who’ve never had him go over the details again, re-live everything he’s seen and done. If it weren’t for the drugs Dad was on to keep him calm, it’d be much worse. He carries his little pillbox around with him, little sections, each marked with a day of the week along the top and a time of day down the side, to make sure he doesn’t miss any. Some regulate his heart beat. Some relax him. Some are anti-depressants. If it wasn’t for his drugs, I wonder whether it would have been more than just a hammer he asked me to bring.
‘Hey’, Tony says, next to me in the back seat. ‘I heard this guy wears his fake service ribbons to formal dinners and meetings, with his suit y’know.’
‘Just wears ‘em around.’ Dad says, shaking his head in disappointment. The tension level rises quickly, encased by the cabin, and I have to open the window. Des taps on the steering wheel. I can hear his finger on the plastic.
‘What do you think about that, mate.’ Tony smiles at me. I laugh, wonder what those eyes have seen in their lifetime.
We stop in a town for lunch, sit on a public seat and eat sandwiches together. Des and Tony have pillboxes too, but different colours. They talk more about the guy and as they go on, I feel a hate for him growing. I’m thinking about the hammer lying underneath the seat. This is what we have to do. Someone has to do this.
I remember once, when I was eleven, asking my Dad if he’d ever killed anyone. He didn’t know how to answer, looked away, tried to avoid our eyes meeting.
‘What… what do you want me to say?’ Dad asked. ‘I shot at them…’
Later on, I saw Mum with her arm around my Father, comforting him as he cried into his big hands.
The guys laugh and compare pills. Des has nicknames for each of his.
I can feel my hands shaking as we drive along the faker’s street, looking for house numbers. The faker’s car in the drive way has the Vietnam sticker on the back window. The green, white and red lines of the service ribbons. The sticker is on the back of our car too. This makes Des next to me even worse. Dad takes a deep breath.
‘Okay, let’s go say hello, then.’
The four of us walk up the path, towards the front door. Instinctively, I curl my fingers up into a fist. Tony rings the doorbell. I can see through the window photos of the faker standing beside war monuments and statues. Standing at the memorial in Canberra, proudly wearing his fake service medals. You can buy them through a mail order company. Send them money and they send you a history. They justify this by saying collectors don’t necessarily have to have been a part of Vietnam. The faker is not a collector though. There’s a photo of the faker and his family. He probably used his lie to pick up his wife and couldn’t take it back after that. She’d never trust him again.
One of his daughters answers the door, tiny, dark hair, pink tracksuit. She looks up at the four of us crowding onto the front step. Tony asks her to get her Dad for us, and she skips away, yelling for him. The faker walks in big strides towards the door. He offers his hand out in a manly handshake.
‘How are you fellas, what can I do you for?’ The liar. The fucking son of a bitch. Tony shakes his hand, grabs it tight and hard. I think for a moment that Tony is going to pull the faker out and we’ll all begin belting into him. Dad will yell at me for the hammer from the car and we’ll knee cap him in front of his skipping daughter and his soldier-loving wife. But Tony just asks for him to come outside and have a talk.
‘We’re from a Vietnam veterans group,’ Des adds. We stand on his green lawn talking about him faking. The liar denies it and goes inside to get his medals. I notice Dad’s hand is in a fist now too. Des looks like he has his teeth clenched inside his mouth. And Tony, Ten Ton, the biggest guy here, is calmly talking, telling the faker he’s wrong, he’s lying and we know.
After some time trying to reason with him, the faker is asking us to leave. Tony has a firm hand on the faker’s shoulder as he gestures us off his lawn.
Dad speaks up: ‘Come on, mate, we know you’re a faker, just…’ Dad’s agitated, a vein pumping extra blood through his forehead.
‘No, no, just settle down.’ Tony says, holding his hand out toward us. Tony’s big right hand moves up to behind the faker’s neck. In the window, his wife is looking out at us on her lawn, making sure we don’t step on her plants. Tony leans in and says something quietly into his ear. Tony grips the back of the liar’s neck, pushes his fingers harder into the faker’s skin, his scarred thumb forcing its way into a pressure point. I rub at my neck just from seeing this. Tony is talking quietly, too quiet for us to hear. All I can hear are his ‘s’ sounds. And the bastard’s eyes are going all glossy and moist. Tony lets go, pushing the faker’s head slightly as he does. The faker’s expression changes, no longer the proud war hero.
‘We understand each other?’ Tony asks.
‘Yes.’ The faker has his head down, looks like a child whose been caught stealing money from his Mum’s handbag.
‘’Cause we don’t want to come back here,’ Tony leans down to make their eyes meet, ‘but we will, okay?’
‘Good.’ Tony walks towards the car. Des follows after him. Dad just glares at the faker. The faker is staring down at his lawn, his wife’s plants. Dad still holds his right in a fist, pushing his nails into his palm. The faker looks up, a tear rolling down his cheek.
‘Get on your fucking knees you prick,’ Dad says to him, staring him down. The faker looks afraid, unsure what to do. Dessie and Tone whip around and I run to Dad and try to calm him down.
‘Didn’t you hear me?’ The faker realises that Dad isn’t joking and starts dropping, looks to Tony for sympathy.
‘Hey, it’s alright, let’s go now,’ Ten Ton says, walking back over to get Dad. I put a hand over Dad’s rock solid fist.
‘Get the hammer,’ Dad says. The faker is crying and his wife opens the front door, runs out and falls onto him, screaming.
‘Get the fucking hammer.’ Dad yells and his teeth are clenched together. His eyes, red, ready to unleash hell. Tony drags Dad away, back into the car and we drive out. If Tone’s speech didn’t convince the faker, then Dad’s hammer definitely did.
I watch the faker, a broken man on his knees, his wife draped over him. I watch them till they are out of sight.
I stare out the window at the passing cars, some have their lights on in the sunset. Me and the Vietnam mates, driving in silence. There is no sense of achievement or happiness at what we’ve done. We did what we had to, I think. I never experienced the war, or the confusion, or being relieved to finally come home. I never had to re-adjust to normal life, pretend everything was okay, struggle with the dreams that you can’t stop.
I never found out if my Dad had killed anyone.
I remember once, when I was eleven, he tried to kill himself. His fist around the handle of Mum’s shiny kitchen knife.
I take Dad’s hammer when we get home, slide it way underneath my bed.