Thomas plays tennis with my younger brother and is a good friend of the family. I saw him last Monday while I was waiting at the bus stop on the main street of Whittlesea. At first I thought it couldn’t be him – after all, Thomas had apparently cheated death by a whisker and had burns to his face and neck, all on his first time out. He should be at home and not in front of me now, proudly dressed in CFA uniform, ready to go fight the fires. But it was Thomas, and as he turned when I called his name I saw that he had gauze plastered onto sections of his cheeks and around the front of his neck. As he related the story of being trapped amid towers of flames, of a fellow firefighter grabbing him and plunging his burning face under a torrent of water, and of nine firefighters crammed into a single fire engine and bursting through fences and caravan parks to escape death, I saw his cheeky grin faltering a little. He was going out again. My bus arrived and I lunged forward for an awkward hug. Thomas’ uniform felt a bit too big on him. I couldn’t help myself. “You’re our Hero!” I cried, running off before I could hear Thomas’ embarrassed laugh.
It’s funny, but in the midst of these Bushfires – this national crisis – I have found in my heart a newfound fondness for the Establishment. I used to watch the ANZAC Day parade in Whittlesea with the scathing eyes of a mild superiority complex. All those Good, Upright citizens unquestioningly playing out their prescribed role in the Order – the police, the CFA brigade, the army reserves, even the Brownies – all so freakin’ Respectable, but all part of the same Machine. And even now, I don’t deny that completely: there is something about the way that the world pays homage to these roles that makes me slightly skeptical. But in this time of crisis there has been a surprising, possibly temporary, shift in my heart.
It began on Saturday night – the first night of the fires – when I heard John Brumby’s voice on the radio making some rambling, uninspired comment about the widespread nature of the fires. I was immediately disappointed. I expected so much more from a leader in these chaotic times. I wanted a voice that captured the anguish of a state, yet with the calm strength of a leader in control. I wanted empathy, reassurance, mighty will and strong resolve – I wanted nothing short of a presidential address! I quickly suppressed that thought, because it wasn’t very me and certainly wasn’t very Australian – Aussies aren’t so forthright and emotionally driven to require such a show.
The next day there was a turnaround from our surprise premier. I saw him on the TV, surrounded by survivors and flanked by prime minister Kevin Rudd and police chief Christine Nixon. And John Brumby gave me the words that I needed to hear. Choked with emotion, it was obvious that he was suffering as his people were suffering. And he assured us the government would go to the moon and back to support survivors and rebuild communities. The visual presence of the federal government and the police force provided hope and reassurance. I felt like a small, grateful child before gracious and loving parents, who would do everything in their power to save us.
A while later I did get the presidential-style address from Mr Brumby, complete with podium and Australian flags. I was most appreciative. I’ve felt like I’ve experienced something of what it must be like for my country to be at war. I suppose that Australia is at war now, but it’s not the kind of all-consuming, almost unquestioningly patriotic war that would have characterised the War Years of last century. I don’t know if we’ll ever again have the kind of popular backing that occurred in WWI and WWII – perhaps since Vietnam, we’ve collectively become skeptical about the need for war and the motives of politicians. But in a Bushfire, we see some interesting parallels to wartime. Towns through which the fires have passed have been likened to Hiroshima; investigation teams tell of houses that look like they have been struck by bombs.
And there is something in the national psyche that reminds me of stories I have heard my grandparents tell of the war years. Like the world wars there is a common, obvious enemy that requires a collective response from all Australians, regardless of previous affiliations. And like the wars, the people who are on the front line against this enemy – often our young men – become Australian Heroes. Mirroring the soldiers of old, volunteers like Thomas walk the streets of country towns like Whittlesea proudly wearing their ubiquitous uniforms. Men who aren’t CFA volunteers gaze at television screens, wishing that they had signed up when they had the chance. Unlike the war years, women are now important players on the front line as well. Everybody wants to be involved; everybody wants to be a part of the Bushfire Effort.
And so I find myself becoming gladly swept up in this Bushfire fervor. Without thinking twice I join Facebook groups like, ‘I appreciate all the firefighters risking their lives to save our communities’. It feels good to be part of a National Effort Against Something, because I missed out on the Terrorism thing for political reasons. Even the activist-types are in on the act – a friend sent me a link to a website where people with creative skills but no money can auction off multi-coloured crocheted book covers and vegan chocolate cakes, with the money going to the Red Cross Bushfire Appeal. This time, nobody is criticising a good dose of Bushfire Patriotism. It’s the police, the defence force, the CFA, the politicians, the Brownies and me – I’m a willing participant in the Establishment and it feels great!
So to the firefighters risking your lives on the front line, to the police force undertaking the grim task of sifting through ash and steel for the remains of people, to the Brownies who are making pikelets for the effort – I solute you all. You are our Heroes.