The Purpose of Sandy Thompson
by James Cumes
I met Sandy Thompson in Brisbane, just after the outbreak of war.
He was a big man – well over six feet and I’d guess about thirteen stone in weight. At that time, he was not yet twenty-one.
He was an attractive sort of young fellow. His nickname reveals his colouring and he had good, regular features. He’d spent his early life in the far north of Queensland and been educated at a private school on the Darling Downs. With this background, it wasn’t surprising that he spoke with a slow country drawl, with an inflection at times like a character straight out of Steele Rudd’s “On Our Selection.” Most of what he said was spoken with a wry smile.
When we first met, Sandy and I were working in the same office. He wasn’t the sort of bloke who made close friends quickly or easily, but, after a time, we took to drinking together regularly at the old Wool Exchange Hotel, right across the road from our office in Eagle Street.
The Wool Exchange had a saloon at the end of a long, cool corridor, where you could sit up at the bar and drink in quiet ease. Since the bar was rarely crowded, it was the sort of place where, after a drink or two, a couple of blokes could get down to exchanging confidences.
There was one odd feature about our drinking together.
The first time Sandy asked me what I’d have, I said I’d stick to beer.
“One schooner,” he told the barman, “and a crème de menthe.”
For a back-country Australian, that was a queer sort of order; and it stayed like that all the time. If it wasn’t a crème de menthe, it was a crème de banane or a Benedictine or some other drink equally outlandish by the standards of most decent Australian drinkers.
The habit puzzled and intrigued me for a while, although I didn’t query anything to Sandy himself. Over time though, it seemed to me that Sandy was a man who wasn’t even enjoying his fun – if a serious pastime like drinking can be regarded as fun – and that all he was doing was seeking some idle novelty to add some sparkle to his life.
In our sessions at the Wool Exchange, I didn’t draw him out deliberately but some of his more intimate background gradually unfolded.
His father seemed to be the central figure in the development of his personality, but, to me, Thompson père always remained a shadowy figure – powerful but undefined – because Sandy seldom mentioned him except incidentally.
I gathered that, not only was he a man of some intellect – although, I think, of little intellectual training – but also he was a man of inflexible purpose. This inflexible purpose had been directed at Sandy’s upbringing as long and intensively as his father could manage and had produced a not unusual result: a marked antipathy by Sandy towards anything in which his father believed. The more fanatically his father held to any idea, the more thoroughly and vehemently Sandy rejected it.
“The old man reckoned I should be an engineer,” Sandy confided to me one evening when a few drinks had mellowed both of us. “That’s why I enrolled – or WAS enrolled – in engineering at the ‘Varsity in my first year. He reckoned that way I’d do something a bit useful in developing the country. Did you ever hear such nonsense?”
“It’d be all right, I suppose, if you had any talent for engineering in the first place,” I told him.
“Exactly – and I had none. That’s why I gave it up after my first year and took a job – any job. Now I can please myself what I do.”
What in fact he was doing was working in an office by day and submerging himself in the impracticalities of an Arts course in the evenings. It was about as curious in terms of a suitable career for him as ordering crème de menthe to drink.
Perhaps the main value of the Arts course was that it gave him a continuing place in the social life of the university. He seemed to belong to every society in the place and did some job for every one of them from time to time. He’d join in a debate, act in a student burlesque, or accept some assistant secretary-ship or other of the Student’s Union at the drop of a hat. He was bursting with activity, virtually the entire time, creatively enough but nothing was integrated with anything else.
The trouble was just that – his activity seemed to be unplanned and ultimately pointless. I’ve said that his drinking habits suggested that he didn’t enjoy his fun and this became clearer when you saw him active and unfocussed in the office or at the university. He never fixed any roots – either in work or play – that ultimately would mean anything to him. I suppose it’s not unreasonable to speculate that he raced from one thing to another so fast that he failed to realise that he was neither enjoying nor achieving much, if anything at all.
At first, women didn’t seem to count much with Sandy. Certainly, he acknowledged them as desirable – much as he followed another young man’s convention of acknowledging booze as one of life’s natural pleasures. But any of the women he knew seemed only to exist on the periphery of his multiple interests: they did not help him to establish any core of living.
But a woman it was who led him, by a route that must have come at a certain stage close to despair, to what eventually gave him physical and, above all, spiritual satisfaction. It came about like this.
I’d known Colleen Foster a long time. We’d gone around together quite a lot. She was a good-looking girl, bright, intelligent, good fun.
One night, I took her to a university “hop” that Sandy, in his indefatigable way, had helped to organise. At supper, I introduced her to Sandy.
That was about the last I saw of Colleen. As soon as they started talking to one another, you could see that something had clicked. For the rest of the night, I was just a nuisance who would have been better employed, let us say, keeping the balloons blown up, than pretending to be Colleen’s escort.
When the dance ended, it was tacitly assumed that Sandy would take Colleen home and I faded out. Even though Colleen and I had never really believed that we were soul mates destined for one another, I did think ruefully that Sandy had, after all, snatched a very pretty girl away from me.
But I’d always wanted to see Sandy having a good time and the next few weeks suggested that I’d helped him along the road – although I certainly couldn’t take all the credit and the credit I accepted was pretty fortuitous. However, I didn’t chase Colleen any more and, when I had a drink with Sandy, I could see that, most of the time, he was dreaming of the blue in Colleen’s eyes. I was pleased to see that he had even started drinking beer.
He was now, to all intents and purposes, normal.
And then one night at our usual place at the bar of the Wool Exchange, he dropped his bombshell.
“I’m joining up,” he said.
“You’re what?” I asked, thunderstruck, because he’d never shown any military pretensions before.
“I’m joining the AIF. I’m going along tomorrow for the medical. I told the boss just before we left tonight.”
“But why go now?” I asked him. “Why not at least finish this year at the university. The army can do without you for another six months.”
“Maybe so, but there are a couple of good reasons. We’ve been kicked out of France. England’s fighting alone. I’ll never be needed more than now. But that’s the high-falutin’ reason. The real reason’s Colleen.”
“What’s Colleen got to do with enlisting? If anything, I’d have thought she’d be a damned good reason to stay at home.”
Sandy laughed wryly.
“You’re right. She should be. With a girl like that, the average bloke would be wise to stay at home and consolidate his position. I wish I could do that. But it’s just not for me.”
He sipped his beer and looked across the bar at nothing.
“You see she fits in as part of a picture – as part of a superb picture in which I’ve got a career that’s worth something – and that’s worthy of her. And what career have I got so far? Or look like having? None! That’s the absolute truth. And I’m not going to stay around and be drawn into marriage with Colleen – as I would be if she’d have me – until I’ve put some real guts into my life. As I see it, I’m lucky there’s a war on and I can get out of a tricky situation more or less gracefully.”
Within a week, he was in uniform.
When I saw Colleen, she was – as they say of someone who’s at mortal risk – taking it “as well as could be expected.” She was an intelligent girl. She wasn’t fooled by the story that Sandy had apparently given her about “duty” and “being in it with the other blokes.” She sensed a clear connection between Sandy’s enlistment and their own association; but she hoped that, in the end, Sandy’s service would only strengthen their love.
I didn’t see much of Sandy before, as they said in those days, he “embarked”. Nor did Colleen. When I did have lunch with him one day just before embarkation, he seemed to have changed very little. He said that Army life was “fair enough” and might give him a chance to settle his ideas about his future.
While he was in the Middle East, he sent me the occasional letter. He saw quite a bit of action, mostly in Syria, I gathered, but also in Libya. His letters were pretty bald – as they were bound to be under wartime censorship – but they struck me as being pretty soldierly too. He didn’t try to make up any stories and he seemed to have a sober satisfaction about what he was doing that was pleasing in the light of what I knew of his background. In Syria, he “got a piece of skin off his leg” from a French mortar and, just as the campaign was folding up, he caught a mild dose of fever; but, apart from that, he was unharmed when he arrived back in Australia in the middle of 1942 to help turn back the Japs.
By that time, I’d been roped in too and, after initial training, I was sent to Sandy’s battalion with a bunch of reinforcements.
My reunion with Sandy was over near Buna. When I came upon him with a bunch of his cobbers, he greeted me with the same slow drawl and introduced me around. I soon realised that Sandy got a lot of respect from everyone. He didn’t have any stripes: he’d had two and then three for a while but they’d gone after he’d had too good a time in Cairo. What was clear though was that any officer, from Lieutenant right up to Colonel, would have been proud to get the respect from his fellow soldiers that Sandy did.
The stories about him were legion. He seemed to have been at every danger point that his company had known since the end of 1940; and he seemed to have behaved with the calm courage that most of us can only dream about. He was a born soldier in the sense that he delighted in the action, the risk, the turmoil of battle and in the sense of manhood that soldiering gave him. He may have been moved by patriotic motives as well but it was doubtful that he ever gave much thought to love of country: he just took that as read.
There was no question that Sandy typified the sort of man and spirit that contributed so much to winning the war for the Allies. While he delighted in battle – and in victory – he was steadily fighting himself out of a job and – when peace would come – perhaps into oblivion and the personal misery of no longer “having a role.”
Out of all this, one thing obviously emerged. Sandy had got what he wanted. He’d got the satisfaction he sought from life and would continue to get it as long as the war lasted. When it came to living on memories each Anzac Day, that might be different – he might again become a purposeless derelict – but that was in the future and, in order not to spoil the present, he chose not to think about it.
I should have mentioned that, when he came back from the Middle East; he got a short leave before he went up to New Guinea. The inevitable happened – although the wise men would say it should not have been inevitable: he married Colleen. She was a lovely girl and she loved him. He couldn’t hold out any longer; he wanted her too much. He just hoped and prayed that, by then, he had done something worthy of her – and might be able to do something worthy of her in the future.
The honeymoon was brief; and, of course, by the standards of the bloke who subscribes to life insurance, the whole idea of marriage was a silly concept for them to entertain. Sandy had come through Syria and the desert; but the way he fought, he had been – must have been - very lucky. When he went up to New Guinea, again with his 2/24th Infantry Battalion, it was a fair bet that the sands would soon run out.
I wasn’t with him – or even near him – when he copped it in a fierce battle with the Japanese who were dug in on the high ground at Shaggy Ridge.
They managed to get him out of the front line and into a field hospital near Lae. There they did their best for him but his injuries, inflicted in close fighting, were severe. On 23 September 1943, he died of his wounds.
He was 23.
Since the war, I’ve been up to New Guinea a few times and each time I’ve made a pilgrimage – yes, that’s right, a pilgrimage – to Sandy’s grave.
You don’t put flowers on Sandy’s grave – he wasn’t that sort of man. When you see all the graves together, there must be sadness in the vision of so many fine young men lost, but, for me, that cross on Sandy’s grave stands up straight and – yes, I use the word very deliberately – glad. No need for tears. This ending crowned a life where any other might – probably would - have been bathos.
Just one note to complete the story: Sandy was Mentioned in Despatches and recommended for a bar to his Military Medal for his “courage and gallant individual initiative at the Battle for Shaggy Ridge.”
Colleen couldn’t get along to the investiture when the award was made posthumously at Government House in Brisbane. Their baby son – hers and Sandy’s – was a “bit off colour” and she was not going to risk the most precious thing she had on earth even to witness the distinction being conferred on the man she loved.
Sandy’s father took her place to receive the honour on his son’s behalf. “I always wanted him to be like me,” he was heard to say in the Governor-General’s presence, “but he turned out to be better – far, far better – than I could ever have hoped to be.”
© James Cumes, 2007.