“On only this day” by Gary Walsh (for afl.com.au in 2008)

On only this day

Gary Walsh 10:31 AM Sat 26 Apr, 2008 afl.com.au

IT IS a day about remembering. A day for much more than just the nostalgia of a military band playing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and The White Cliffs of Dover, and Normie Rowe in full cry in the centre of the MCG, although these things have their place on this day, of all days.The Anzac Day march makes its way – more slowly year by year – towards the Shrine of Remembrance, and in the crowds that line its route there is more than a smattering wearing the colours of the day’s football combatants. And afterwards many of the veterans set out on another march, this time towards the ground, medals worn proudly on suits saved, in some cases, for this day alone.

In the Fitzroy Gardens there are groups playing kick-to-kick, and ecumenical families heading towards the MCG, mum and dad with two kids clad in the colours of the opposing sides. In the MCG car park it’s barbecues and picnics in the hazy autumn sunlight.

It’s cricket weather, but nothing is further from the thoughts of the people rolling up to the ground. They’re 10-deep around the outdoor nets, but with their backs turned as they face the grey walls of the stadium, and two Collingwood supporters are sitting eating chips on the base of D.K. Lillee’s statue. Sacrilege.

Sailors from HMAS Cerberus and blazer-clad students are selling trays of Anzac badges. One gestures towards an MCG employee who tugs at his lapel. “Had one, and I honestly lost it,” he says with a shrug. Around the ground, badge-vendors are doing a brisk trade, outselling the AFL Record. “Goin’ well, yeah. Everybody’s very generous,” says one RSL volunteer, his own service medals neatly pinned to his jacket.

Four hours before the game the members’ stand is filling up, the bottom deck with scarcely a space to be seen. On a normal football day, they would just be watching the grass grow, but today the Royal Australian Navy Band is practising, performing music from the war years.

And Collingwood’s Dale Thomas is also on the ground practising, but not for his set shots from 30m. He is practising what in earlier times might have been called Daicoses, the ball thrown at a 90-degree angle onto his boot deep in the right pocket at the city end and sailing through the sticks, or better still, bobbling and bouncing across the goal square and through for a goal. These days, of course, they are Didaks, Davises or, yes, Thomases.

Outside, dozens are gathered around a radio outside-broadcast van where Dermott Brereton is reminiscing about his one outing in the black-and-white on Anzac Day. Seven possessions and a goal, he is told. About five more than he remembered, Brereton admits. Next door, adults are shouldering aside kids to try to send a handball through a target to win a plastic drink bottle.

There are long snaking queues at the public entrances, and outside the members’ people are sneaking a last smoke before entering the cauldron. Within, the pre-match entertainment has begun, skydivers land in the centre of the oval bearing the match balls, and most movingly, war veterans in a cavalcade of vehicles slowly circle the playing arena to a standing ovation. In one car, one veteran wears an Essendon scarf, his companion a Collingwood one.

Then comes the dramatic contrast of the deafening roar as the teams enter the field and the minute’s silence that succeeds the playing of the Last Post. And so to the match.

As they enter the ground, few notice the plaques on a wall in the members’ recording the fact that during World War II US troops were stationed here at the MCG. The first regiment of the US Marine Corps, one plaque reminds us, was here in 1943, “and looked on it as their home”. Another notes that 200,000 members of the RAAF passed through the stadium on their way to battle stations. It begs the question: how many came home?

This is a day for remembrance. On the outer wing in the AFL members’ section, a few rows back from the fence, two flags fly together in the stiffening breeze. One Australian, one Turkish.

On this day. On only this day.

Exclusive to AFL BigPond Network

Mic’s bit: I am conflicted on ANZAC Day. On the one hand, I am immensely thankful to those who have had any part in defending this country and the “free” world. On the other hand, it worries me that we “celebrate” it means we are in danger of following down the American path of being in love with war and violence. (To be fair, this seems more unlikely today than it did a few years ago, but maybe that’s because I don’t get out now like I used to, I don’t know.)

But this is a terrific piece of writing, wherever you fall on the issue. Working with Gary was an education, and not just because he’d yell at me across the newsroom about incorrect usage of Brisbane Lions and Sydney Swans 🙂 He’s a great bloke (despite being an Essendon supporter), and a better writer. There’s only three or four writers who REALLY impress me, and Gaz was constantly one of them. I miss working with him.

I’ve put this up on my site because I can’t find it on the AFL site, and this is the small part I can do to preserve it.

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