By Christopher Greenwood
Someone asked me the other day what I thought it meant to be an Australian. At last, me thinks, an easy puzzler to answer. And no, I’m not visualizing a speeding car with two flags protruding from the rear passenger windows. For me it is the pride I get out of being asked to assist a bloke by the name of Ernie Redman. In the town I live in, Ernie is a living legend. Every year at about this time Ernie comes to my shop and asks me to check over his video camcorder. He needs to know that the battery is charged and the camera is in good working order. It’s not as though Ernie knows how to use it. He doesn’t even know how to turn it on. The point is he knows someone who does.
A local high school student will take on the role of camera person for Ernie when they accompany him with other students on his annual vigil. Ernie is a veteran P.O.W. Every year for the last eight, Ernie visits The Burma – Thai Railway which he helped to build during World War II. The tour is named The Quiet Lion Tour, after Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop as a tribute to his brave, compassionate work alongside the likes of Ernie during those torturous years.
The camera will capture Ernie walking the line with his new batch of students, talking about the hardships his mates battled. He rarely talks about how much he suffered. He and his mates weren’t much older than the high school students who accompany him, when they were thrust into this “hell hole”. He talks about how torturous some Japanese soldiers were on their fragile spirit. He never blames them for anything. Ernie understood that the Japanese were doing what they thought was right for their country. They were affected by war and they were proud people. They did as they were told.
The camera continues to roll as Ernie takes his new friends to Hellfire Pass for the A.N.Z.A.C. Dawn Service. Here Ernie sheds a tear for his mates; mates who never made it, the same mates who helped him to survive. He’ll always be indebted to his mates. Ernie is also deeply thrilled that his new young friends can gain a greater sense of what A.N.Z.A.C. really means. Ernie’s small camcorder continues to capture it all.
The thing is, Ernie, who turns ninety one this year, has had to endure small battles himself to make sure students get the opportunity to take the tour each year. He sits in the Post Office Square selling raffle tickets for two months. He talks to local councillors and parliamentarians for six months; then sells more tickets for Easter buns and quiz night tables. Every year his efforts help to reduce the fare for all the students. He gets a major kick out of working alongside his new mates to make it happen.
Every student or ex-student I spoke to who has accompanied Ernie to The River Kwai and Hellfire Pass talks about how lucky they were to have experienced it with such a good bloke. They all refer to Ernie as “the best”.
Ernie is due to pick up his camera in the next couple of days. He’s going to ask the same question. How much do I owe you? It is at that moment that I’ll think about how good it is to be an Australian and how responsible Ernie and his mates are for that feeling. Once again I’m going to give him the same answer, “Nothing mate”.