Sadly, oak no substitute for living son

Former Waitaki mayor Alex Familton unveils an information panel at the North Otago memorial oaks...
Former Waitaki mayor Alex Familton unveils an information panel at the North Otago memorial oaks war memorial in Oamaru in this 2013 file photo. Photo from ODT Files.

Dear Mrs Porter,

At this time of year, you are often on my mind, though we will never meet. I know little about you except that your son John Alex Porter was the first man to enlist and leave the North Otago town of Tokarahi when volunteers were called for in the First World War.

A year later, almost to the day, he was killed at Gallipoli.

In 1919, you responded to the call from the Waitaki County Council for dead soldiers' next of kin to furnish details about them as a precursor to planting memorial oak trees in their honour.

Your letter said it would ‘‘mean more than a little comfort to me to see it planted on the road down which he travelled for the last time on the night of August 11, 1914''.

You outlined the spot where you would like it planted and pointed out it need not be in the way of traffic at any time, even when it grew big.

At the end of your letter you said, ‘‘I hope the committee in charge will not think me presumptuous in asking this favour.''

Presumptuous? You were clearly a much more polite woman than I am.

The reason you had to write the letter, I gather, was that the council could not readily identify where all the dead soldiers had come from. No separate district records were held, and the task of searching for them in the general records was considered too large and costly.

It was also thought such a search would be incomplete. Those were the days.

Today we have computers, which have ways of delving into all sorts of information about us, and people both within government and in business are dreaming up ways to meddle in our lives by using that information.

They want us to believe this will make the world and our lives better, but, as you know, we have heard those claims before somewhere.

I trust you got to see the tree planted. When you walked down that lonely road after John's death, how much comfort did you find? Did you go over and over the last things you had said to him? Did you wish you'd stopped him going?

Sometimes, did you pretend his death wasn't true, that somehow he would stroll down that road again and you would be there to greet him?Were you angry at the senselessness of it all? (I am not sure if you wore gumboots in your day, but I like to think you might have made good use of a pair like mine which have steel toe-caps.)

In your position, I'd be kicking and yelling wildly at any inanimate object I could find along the road. It wouldn't change anything, I know, and there would be the risk someone would report me to the mental health authorities, but I think it would make me feel better for a minute or two.

If you felt any anger, could you tell anyone about it, or did you keep it within? Was there so much sadness among the women you knew that it was too painful to talk about it?

Would it have been considered disloyal and almost treason to question the war? Would it surprise you to know that these days claims are made about how the bloodbath where John died helped shape us as a nation?

I know I wonder about revering a disastrous war which had nothing to do with us and which slaughtered thousands of young men.

Is there evidence it has taught us very much about the risks of jingoism and the folly of sheep-like behaviour?

All these questions were battering futilely about in my head as I stood under that oak tree this year in the warm, quiet beauty of a North Otago gently changing the colour of her summer clothes.

I can report the tree still has a fence around it and, after I visited, with my few twigs of rosemary and lavender, another visitor called to place red and white flowers in a jar by John's cross.

If I had paid more attention when we were studying that baffling trigonometry at school, I might have been able to work out how tall the tree is now. What I can tell you is that its girth is so large, a hug from me would reach only about halfway round.

There is no yellow ribbon around it, but it is streaked with what is (hopefully) a harmless yellow lichen.

It's a handsome tree, with its peppering of baby oaks beneath. Splendid in its own way, but sadly it and its offspring are no substitute for a real life son and the promise of grandchildren.

●Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.

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