I was invited to a show at a local Returned Servicemen’s League. It’s not something that I would usually go to, but I’m a sucker for Remembrance Day activities, so I thought: what have I got to lose?
I crept in late, found my friends and slid into my seat, stopping at the bar for a light beer – very cheap! – on the way through. Disorientated by my late entrance, it took me a few seconds to acclimatise to the dim light. I focused on the room, my brain playing catchup.
Rows of tables – crowded, communal style – lined the smallish room. Punters were seated elbow to elbow, most with snow on the roof and padding around the middle. The men had pinned their RSL badges to the collars of their well pressed shirts. The women nursed their glasses of white wine, the warm air encouraging the slide of moisture beads down the side of each bowl. The room was hushed, mesmerised by the thin man at the front of the room.
The hushed room focused on photos of war being projected onto a large screen. The man, standing off to one side, harmonica around his neck, sang brutal, funny, sad songs about his time in Afghanistan as a diplomat. And he told brutal, funny, sad stories. His other companion was a guitar, mellow strings strummed and picked in time to the pictures moving on the screen.
The thin man’s name was Fred Smith – a stage name, I discovered – and he had created his show from a journal he kept on assignment, as he assimilated his Afghan experiences. His stories and music and pictures winged me gently in the direction of laughter and tears, and back to laughter, finally alighting on admiration.
For I admired this thin man. This Fred Smith. This man who had gone to Afghanistan, not to fight, but to rebuild a country. I admired his wit, his insight, and his perspective. I admired his presence and his courage. I admired his commitment to the stories of the men fighting there, and the stories of the men who died there.
But most of all, I admired his ability to make me feel, in that room, at that time, part of the Afghanistan story.