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Authors: Bryce Courtenay

Smoky Joe's Cafe


About the Author












Also by Bryce Courtenay

About the Author

Bryce Courtenay is the bestselling author of
The Power of One
April Fool's Day
The Potato Factory
Tommo & Hawk
Solomon's Song
A Recipe for Dreaming
The Family Frying Pan
The Night Country
Smoky Joe's Cafe
Four Fires
Matthew Flinders' Cat
Brother Fish
The Persimmon Tree
Fishing for Stars
The Story of Danny Dunn
Fortune Cookie
Jack of Diamonds.

Power of One
is also available in an edition for younger readers, and
has been made into an award-winning television miniseries.

To the men of 11 Platoon, D Company, 6 RAR, those who are alive and those who gave their lives at the Battle of Long Tan.

Also, to the combined Australian Forces who served in Vietnam.


ightmares, don't tell me about them. Every night as it begins to grow dark I open a bottle of Scotch. I tell myself, if I can get pissed enough they won't come. I'll be so motherless, so brain dead by the time I crawl into the misery of sleep that my subconscious will leave me alone, let me get through the night without the terror.

It works sometimes, but not often enough. It's the night noises; I wake to a noise, any noise, and the anxiety builds. Before I know it, I'm up with the knife and on patrol around our living quarters upstairs, then downstairs to the cafe, then into the backyard and the storage shed, I even check the pavement outside Smoky Joe's before I come back to bed and lie awake shaking like a sheila. I sleep with a Confederate Bowie, a real bastard of a knife, a copy of the standard army issue
used by the Confederate troops in the American Civil War.

I took it off a Yank Marine at Vung Tau. He was so pissed he could hardly stand up and he reckoned he'd been dudded by a bar girl and it looked like he was about to use it on her. I grabbed his arm and took the knife just as the provosts, the military police, arrived. They took him away and I still had the knife. I reckoned I'd earned it anyway. The little whore lost no time demonstrating how grateful she was to me neither.

The Confederate has an eleven-inch blade forged from Damascus steel, it lies safe under my pillow where I can get to it fast. If the bastards come for me I'm ready. Wendy has begged me to throw it away. She's terrified I'll wake up screaming, like I've done a hundred times already, and use it before I'm truly awake. On her, me, the kid.

More than once I've wrecked the joint before I've woke up properly. Or I've grabbed her and covered her with my body screaming, ‘Hold on, Mo, the dustoff's coming, you're gunna be okay! Hold on, please, Mo, I love you, mate! Don't fucking die on me, you bastard!' Looking down at Wendy, Nog AK47s going off,
, our machine gun,
, the noise all about me, grunts
shouting, firing every which way, the noise of the dustoff blades
as the helicopter comes in to pick up the wounded, her head is missing, blood everywhere. Wendy's head is Mo's head and then it switches around again. But in the nightmare I tell myself, ‘How can me mate live with no head?'

So here I am, a screwed-up Vietnam veteran. No better or worse than my mates and not quite knowing what's gone wrong. Flashbacks, nightmares, rage, dizzy spells, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, depression, sometimes long periods of impotence, and a whole heap more, that's me. Bloody pathetic, isn't it?

The quacks at Repat shake their heads, say they've done all the tests and nothing shows up. Veterans Affairs, taking directions from Canberra, who, taking their brief straight from the Pentagon, simply repeat the official line. One bloke who interviews me has this half smile on his face, ‘Mr Thompson, as far as the department is concerned your psychological problems are not caused by your war experience. You have been diagnosed with a personality disorder. Maybe it was something that happened in your childhood, something your mother or father did to you. And as far as Agent Orange is concerned it's about as harmless to humans as baby powder.'

Baby powder? Now that's real funny, but the bastard doesn't know it.

Once, we'd been out in the jungle for three weeks and we know exactly where we are, we've just used a smoke grenade and a passing chopper has radioed in to give us an accurate location. So we know from looking at the map that there's a lot more deep j ahead, at least four days of scrub bashing before the operation is over.

Then suddenly a couple of hours further into the boonies and it's not there, the jungle's missing, a miracle. Instead of visibility of maybe six yards we can see ahead of us for five hundred yards. Everything in front of us is dead and we're kicking up this fine white powder. Touch a dead tree and the dust comes down to cover your greens, smells weird too. (Unbeknownst to our intelligence, the Yanks had defoliated the area two weeks previously.) What was supposed to be in the middle of primary rainforest is like a dead world.

This was the first time I'd seen what Agent Orange could do, though, of course, I had no idea at the time what it was, or how the dense jungle came to be defoliated. Let me tell you, there was nothing left alive. We saw dead bats, birds, spiders, every kind of insect you could imagine and not a green leaf on anything, everything
silent, all of it covered with this fine white powder that looked just like baby powder.

I'd have liked to have told the arsehole in Vets Affairs that story but he wouldn't have listened anyway, they're experts at nodding your life into non-existence.

In Vietnam we fought with the Yanks, though not alongside them. A lot of them were half stoned most of the time, which we soon learned wasn't an addiction but a bloody necessity. At their Blackhorse Base in Long Khanh province, the US Army divided their platoons into potheads and non-potheads. The potheads did the day work and the non-potheads the night work. Though not the Marines, Airborne and Special Forces, the professional soldiers, they stayed clean and as warriors they don't come a lot better.

If the Yank conscripts had stayed off Mary Jane, their name for dope, I reckon there'd be a lot less names carved on that granite wall they've got in Washington.

We used grog not dope for the same purpose. Frankly, you needed something just to get the jungle and the fear out of your head for a while. You couldn't go into the jungle half stoned, gung-ho, thinking you were John Wayne, and hope to stay alive. No way, grog or dope was always for afterwards.

There's another point I should make here in case
you think I'm knocking the Yanks. The kids they sent to Vietnam were like eighteen years old, just out of high school, they were still boys. The youngest of our Australian conscripts were closer to twenty-one. Those three or four years make a bloody big difference in a bloke's life. Then there's the training. Compared with us, your average Yank recruit hadn't even received the basic instruction for survival in jungle warfare.

The Noggies or Nogs, they were the two names we used mostly for the Viet Cong, other names were Charlie, Cong, VC and NVA, they used weed too. But, like the Australians, not when they were fighting. Without the help of one substance or another, I count grog as one of them, the warriors on both sides would have laid down their AK47s, SLRs, M16s or Owen guns and gone home to their wives or girlfriends.

That was the whole point of Vietnam, us and the Nogs were shitting ourselves every time we went into the jungle. I once heard a black American sergeant explain what it was like in Vietnam, ‘Your asshole's turned inside out like permanent, man!'

The bloody jungle was the enemy as much as the Viet Cong. Sometimes it was dense with a tall canopy of big trees, like the rainforest in New Guinea, or up North, which wasn't hard to work. But in areas where
it had been bombed it became secondary growth with lots of bamboo everywhere, all of it tangled and dense and bloody hard to see into or move through. Or when you fought around the river, the mangrove forests were like a jungle. That is, before the Yanks come up with their big idea.

There wasn't only Agent Orange, but Agent Blue, Green, Purple, White, you name it, they had a colour for everything and every colour killed something. They sprayed this shit over the jungle like the monsoon rains had come early. Only this time the clouds were coming from the helicopters and the C123s fitted with spraying arms that swarmed over the jungle like huge insects pissing down on the trees.

At the time nobody really asked if it was dangerous, we all reckoned if they were spraying this stuff where we were fighting and even living it couldn't be harmful to us. Nobody in their right mind would put their own troops in danger, would they?

The Hygiene Unit at Nui Dat sprayed insecticides like DDT, Malathion and Dieldrin round the camp on anything that moved. They sprayed it in our tents, in our weapon pits, in our kitchens and mess halls and in our latrines. It would be on the plates we ate off and the cups we drank from. It's so toxic, Dieldrin is now
banned in every country in the world because it's a carcinogenic and deadly to humans.

That's just one of dozens of chemicals used. Of course, we were told the stuff they sprayed everywhere was deadly to insects, leaves, rice paddies, rivers, mozzies, spiders, in fact to everything that grew or breathed except humans.

I guess when you're twenty-one years old you'll believe just about anything the army tells you. And, if it isn't quite the whole truth, well, what the hell, they just kept denying everything. She'll be right, no worries, trust me, son.

‘Mr Thompson,' the quack from Veterans Affairs said, ‘it's probably a slight blood disorder, perfectly natural in some people, the severe acne, it will clear up in time, I should think.'

I remember how he examined the lesions on my cheeks, behind the ears, under the armpits and into my groin, deep cysts and acne, blackheads the size of your pinkie nail. ‘Hmm, interesting,' is all he said. I showed him how my palms were sweating all the time and took off my shoes and showed him my sweating feet and the peculiar smell that came from them. I pointed to the sores and blisters on the back of my hands.

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