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U3A Writing: Not for Posting

Frank Garner, unable to fight in the Great War because if a minor disability, receives the most dreaded of all symbols, as Wilma Schmidt reveals.

Frank Garner untied his horse from the rail and swung his body up onto the dray. He turned his back on the Recruiting Office, and took the road back to the farm at a furious pace. Curious folk, walking along the footpaths wondered what had happened as the large dray wheels churned up the dust.

In this small Gippsland town, like many others around Australia, Lord Kitchener's call to arms was having its effect. It was 1915, and Frank had gathered with other young men that day to enlist in the Australian Infantry Forces to fight England's foes. Even though it was not Australia who was under threat, Australia's sons would fight against the Hun in strange far-away places.

Frank was evasive to his parents and his sister when they wanted to know if he had enlisted. He mumbled something about being medically unfit because of varicose veins, and, putting on his work clothes, strode out to the paddock to harness the horses for work.

He could think of nothing else. The feeling of rejection was eating away at him. His friends would all get postings to France or maybe Egypt, and he would miss out on the whole adventure and the camaraderie while they trained in Australia. Many people were saying that it would be all over by Christmas! Because he had been rejected as unfit, he was cut off even now from his friends in their hurried preparations.

How embarrassing to be passed as unfit! But doctors in their wisdom chose only the strongest men. Any man who succumbed to the extreme conditions and couldn't keep up endangered the safety of the whole company. Even more embarrassing was the fact that the varicosity was in his scrotum! He wasn't going to mention that to anyone. His mates would turn it into a joke, and the ladies, - well, you just didn't talk about such things in polite company.

As the days passed, he was aware of the stares from people when he came into town to buy stores. Some of his previous acquaintances wouldn't acknowledge him. On the day of departure by the enlisted men for military camp, the whole town turned out to farewell these brave boys.

The band on the rotunda was playing "We're soldiers of the Queen, my lads', and the mayor made a speech commending them as fine examples of Australian manhood. Little girls in pastel dresses and boater hats strewed rose petals in their path as the men made their way to the train station.

There were tearful farewells while siblings embraced the uniformed ones good-bye in family groups. Archie Collins, who was four years younger than Frank, was attempting to make light of the whole matter, while his mother could no longer hold back her tears. It had been easy to lie about his age on the enlistment papers, but not so easy now to release himself from her desperate embrace. She knew in her heart that he might not return. Stern-faced fathers everywhere, unable to betray how they felt, shook hands manfully with their sons and wished them 'God speed'.

Frank watched all this from a distance, his despondency growing. He felt the guilt which had been imposed on him by this small community. It was his job now to work hard on his father's farm and to keep the nation supplied with its produce, for now there would be a manpower shortage. There would be few accolades for that particular duty.

Ten days after the troop train pulled out, the mailman left him an envelope. He immediately recognised the handwriting to be that of a previous girlfriend, Esme Scott.

There was no letter inside the envelope, - just a white feather.

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