Friday, March 09, 2007


Through June and July 1942, a ship sat anchored between Narrowneck Beach and Rangitoto Island, just beyond the last of the minefields that the local coast guard had laid along the approaches to the inner Waitemata Harbour. Unlike the cruisers, troopships, tugboats, and other hospital ships that also visited New Zealand waters in 1942, the vessel was not named after an Admiral or a President or a famous battle. When the Auckland harbour master guided freighters and minelayers into port by shortwave radio, he would call the rusty listing island in their way the 4th Mobile Naval Hospital.

None of the one hundred and six men on 4th Mobile was wounded. A hospital ship floating in its reflection in the Waitemata Harbour was no place for a wounded man in 1942. By the middle of that year most of Auckland’s young men were fighting in the Mediterranean, as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The few who travelled home, using a glass eye or a wooden leg as a passport, found themselves suitably honoured. Taxi drivers refused to charge them for the long drive from North Shore hospital to the bottom of Queen Street, and young women in dungarees competed to push them up the street, and then wait outside the London Bar while civil servants, bricklayers, and other men in reserved occupations bought guilt pints of Waitemata Bitter and asked halting questions about the weather in Egypt or Crete.

In April hundreds of wounded Kansans and Alabamans arrived, in hospital ships named after dead Admirals and corrupt Presidents. Instead of walking their dogs and children through Cornwall Park, mothers and sisters would visit the tent city that boy scouts and Home Guardsmen had erected over the ruins of the rose garden at the southern edge of the park. Gloved and scented hands would push hardboiled eggs, pound coins, and pairs of pantyhose (bleached white wool with imitation lace trimmings, bought for six shillings at the Smith and Caugheys post-Christmas sale) into the bandaged palms of airmen and marines with plaster legs and turbaned heads, airmen and marines who lay back in sagging beds, training broad morphine grins at their benefactors, or at rips and tea stains in the flapping canvas walls.

There is no plaster cast for depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, or ‘extreme ongoing disturbance of the nervous system resulting from combat trauma’, to use the words of the United States Armed Forces Psychiatric Manual, 1938 edition. In mid-July, 1942, the staff of the 4th Mobile Naval Hospital were instructed to make their charges ‘fit for service’ within three weeks. Assaults on a string of Pacific Islands were being prepared, as the first part of a campaign to retake Japan’s recent conquests.

When an ad hoc committee representing the ship’s psychiatrists, galley staff, and chaplain cabled a protest at the 'grossly precipitate' order, US Pacific General Command dispatched Colonel Mitchell Lowell to take charge of the salvage operation. A First World War veteran with little interest in Jung and Freud, Lowell began by throwing the ship’s three ping pong tables overboard and confiscating the fishing lines several patients had improvised from old wire and shaving razors.

Convinced that 'psychic shirkers' needed to be treated with the ‘hair of the hound that gouged their legs’, Lowell began to drill the patients on deck, five nights a week. In the memoir he published pseudonymously in 1973, Frank Fox remembered that “Lowell would stride up and down in the moonlight with a cigar in one hand and a bottle in the other, barking and gulping and spitting, ordering this private to do up a button, demanding that this lieutenant repair his left slipper…” Archived cables from Lowell to central headquarters confirm these claims.

With the assistance of the commanders at the Whenuapai air base, who were eager for an opportunity to test their new pilots and the Tiger Moth biplanes they had confiscated from Dairy Flat crop dusters, Lowell plotted the invasion of the North Shore of Auckland. On an unusually balmy night in the last week of July, the old general led one hundred and six depressives, psychotics, and obsessive-compulsives ashore at Narrowneck Beach. Off-duty sailors at the naval base had dug slit trenches for the invaders to cower in, as Tiger Moths rattled in low, dropping their loads of dummy bombs, a machine gun fired thousands of blank rounds from an upstairs window in the Officers’ Club, and a wind-up gramophone played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at maximum volume. At midnight the bombardment ended, and Lowell marched his army back to the wharf at the end of Narrowneck Beach, where a ferry waited to return them to Mobile Naval Hospital no. 4.

“Despite the warmth of the evening and the mixture of dressing gowns and overcoats we had been issued, most of us were shivering piteously", Frank Fox remembered. “Perched in a lifeboat mounted on the stern of The Kestrel, Lowell had to shout over the whimpering of his soldiers and the palpitations of the old steam engine. ‘You have seen battle again, and the sights and sounds of battle have not brought death', he told us. 'You’re soldiers again. You’re men.’”

Noting the alarm that the battle for Narrowneck caused up and down the Shore, a radar operator at the Naval Base wrote to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to suggest the production of a film that would ‘simulate reinsertion into battle in a controlled indoor environment’. Special Commodore Jeremy James imagined ‘a loud soundtrack, perhaps a mixture of Beethoven, Bruckner, and a Maori war party chanting in Japanese” combined with a succession of ‘war-themed images, possibly culled from censored newsreels’. James’ suggestion was never pursued; Mitchell Lowell left for Guadalcanal in the first week of August 1942, taking one hundred and five salvaged soldiers with him.

We had stopped suddenly, half way between Narrowneck Point and Rangitoto. The stones were round and flat and surprisingly dry, and Conrad had counted them matter of factly as he hopped out in from of Andy and me. Now he turned and stared at us.

‘Only three stones left, anyway. The tide’s just taken number twenty-three’.

‘Thought you said you were going to walk to Rangitoto.’ Andy was bent low over number seventeen, trying to light a smoke in the gentle breeze. ‘What happened, Con?’

‘I can walk to Rangitoto, if I want. If I believe, I can skip out across the moonlight. I don’t need stones. Stones sink.’

‘Mad bastard.’ Andy was muttering at his shoes. He’d almost given up on the lighter, which hadn’t worked for hours.

‘Con’, I said, ‘Could you have a look at your watch, man?’

‘Time is a concept of the mind, my friend. What does time mean for happiness? A cicada lives a contented life in a matter of months. Certain micro-organisms thrive and die in a split second. If we lived on Mercury-’

‘You’re right, you mad bastard.’ Andy wasn’t muttering now. He flicked his lighter into the moonlit water, which swallowed it without complaint.

‘Time doesn’t matter. I’m not driving you back, til…’ Andy stopped, and half-turned, and put his smoke back carefully in its packet. ‘Nate?’

‘The tide’s coming in. Let’s head back, guys, before we get wet.’

The tide wasn’t coming in very fast, but that didn’t matter: Andy led off and Con followed me, counting down the stones. When we reached the beach, and started back towards the carpark and the taggers’ grove of pohutakawa, he resumed his discourse on time.

Time existed, Con explained, to stop everything happening at once, though everything happened at once anyway. Time wasn’t a river: it was more like a sea, like this sea, breaking on the same shore again and again, full of events as insignificant as the condoms and tiny phospherescent jellyfish that washed up here. Most of the condoms belonged to Poseidon, who liked to spend his Friday nights in this water, prowling for slutty mermaids and tipsy rich chicks skinny dipping off Takapuna Beach after The Poedium closed.

‘We’ve been walking on this beach forever’ Con suddenly announced, stopping beside an old concrete pillbox filled with sharp grass and green shards of bottle.

‘Just you and me, Nate, not Andy. I formed Andy out of mental energy. He’s a sort of familiar.’

Andy kicked over the crumbling outer wall of a castle some kid had built on the high tide line. ‘Let’s talk pills, Con.’

Even at Rangitoto College, Andy had never been a friend of the boy with the bottle blonde mullet and three-wheeled skateboard. Since school he’d only encountered Con once before, at a party in Huia that I’d dragged him to with the promise of a mushroom hunting expedition in the Waitaks. That was the night the owners of Japanese cars put a curse on Con, making cicadas swarm on every centimeter of skin he exposed.

After leaving the party with Katrina Devon’s stockings over his head, Con had keyed the Sunny Datsun parked in the driveway, broken a bottle over its bumper, and written BEWARE: MY DOG KNOWS YOKO ONO AND OTHER DISGUSTING JAPANESE SWEAR WORDS in red on the windscreen. The Datsun belonged to Andy’s Mum.

Andy was here because I’d needed a ride, and because I’d convinced him that Taharoa Clinic was a massive pharmacy run by its clients. Andy was coming down from a lot of speed, which meant he was more paranoid than usual. Anyone in a uniform freaked him out, even the fifty year-old matron at Taharoa in her undersized blouse and skirt. He’d sat in his Mazda with the engine running while I’d signed Con out for three hours, promising to bring him back as soon as he’d visited his other brother in the Critical Ward at Middlemore.

We’d taken Con, who was still enjoying his afternoon shot of lorazepam, to some faux-Irish bar in Milford, loaded him up with Murphy’s Stout, then brought him down to Narrowneck, where he could shell out some of his supplies. We’d forgotten that he hadn’t seen a beach for a year.

‘Con, mate, you hate being dry at Taharoa. It’s the worst thing, right? Well, we bought you some beers - lots of piss.’

‘On my card, friend.’

‘We took you there man. We signed you out. You needed us. Can you spare some pills, man? Some clozapine for Andy, and some benzedrine for me? Lorazepam, even, if that’s all you’ve got.' I was coming down from K. It didn’t make me paranoid, just worried.

‘Look at the moon, my friend.’ Con swayed slightly as he pointed to the sky over Rangitoto.

‘Sure. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful man. But-’

‘We’ve been there, my friend, haven’t we?’

‘Sure. Sure we’ve been there Con. Heaps of times.’

‘Oh fuck this! I don’t need this! You too can have each other. Pair of fucking loonies. You’ll both get done…’

Andy’s voice was already distant enough to be almost drowned out by the little pink waves breaking near my feet. He was probably running and shouting back over his head. I didn’t turn to check: I was staring at the moon, which suddenly seemed larger and closer than Rangitoto.

‘It’s beautiful man, I’ll give you that. Must be beautiful up there.’

The Guinesses and shots of G and T were hitting home nicely now. If Con’s card could pay for them, it could pay for a taxi too. Andy could drive home by himself.

‘It’s not beautiful up there, my friend. In fact, it’s a rather awful place. Surely you remember, my friend?’

‘No. Uh, yeah.’

‘Rock and more rock everywhere you turned. Some of it hard, some of it crumbling to dust as you watched. Like Rangitoto back in the eighties, before it had trees. Nothing to drink. Nothing to smoke. No pills. Awful place. Dead place. Nothing alive but cicadas, a tribe of immortal cicadas playing the same frequency day and night, forever. Millions of them. Awful.’

‘Geez, Con, I didn’t mean to-’

‘Come on, my friend. I’ve got to get home soon, or the matron will punish me with another root. Punish you, too. I can score you some lorazepam, a dozen quetiapine…’

As I turned to follow Con I noticed that the tide had over-run me, wetting my sneakers and coating the bottoms of my jeans with slightly pink foam.


Post a Comment

<< Home