Smokey Joe's Cafe - Bryce Courtenay

Bryce Courtenay is a popular Australian author who has written numerous books, many with an Australian theme. Smokey Joe's Cafe follows the fictional story of Thommo, a Vietnam Vet, and his fight to save his daughter's life. 

Genre: Fiction, Australian, Vietnam War
Year First Published: 2001
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: 5/5

Thommo returns from Vietnam to an Australia that does not want him. An Australia that has shunned its Vietnam Vets and treats them like they are guilty of war crimes. Not only that, Thommo also is plagued by many psychological and physicals problems as a result of his time spent in the jungle. He is assessed by many government issued medical specialists, who tell him there is nothing wrong with him. They tell him that any problems he does have is a result of a supposed childhood injury, a forgotten accident or just a general ailment. They tell him that agent orange is as harmless as baby powder. They tell him that his infant daughter's leukemia is just a coincidence. 

Thommo almost believes them, that is until he is reacquainted with his old platoon. Shorty, his platoon leader, shows up at Thommo's cafe one day. He brings with him the nine other surviving men who fought together in the Battle of Long Tan. Turns out they all too have similar physical and psychological problems, and they are not too happy with the way the government is treating them. 

Shorty has come up with a plan. A plan to not only get back at the government but to save Anna. Anna needs a bone-marrow transplant but Thommo and his wife Wendy do not match. They also do not have the money to continue paying for expensive surgeries and treatments. So Shorty, with the help of his platoon, and an ex-Viet Cong named Nam Tran, hatch a plan to grow and sell marijuana to raise the money for their plight.

When Wendy finds out about this she demands to be included and soon the plan changes from a simple, grow and sell, to a complex plot involving Nam Tran's special skills in making 'hash honey', Wendy's public relations skills and influence on the socialite set and the full force of a Vietnam Vet bikie gang!

This was one hell of a story! I laughed, I cried, I felt exhausted afterwards! Although this was a fictional story, the psychological and physical problems that plague Vets is all too real. The fact that children born of Vets who came into contact with agent orange, statistically suffer more illness or are born with more birth defects, is a fact. The terrible way in which the Australian government and the public treated these men once they returned home from war is also all too real. It is hearing stories like this, that make me feel ashamed on behalf of Australia. 

Regardless of what you think of war, these men fought and died. They deserve nothing more than respect and support. There is no justification for the way these men were treated. The fact that many men and their families continue to be affected by what happened in Vietnam just makes me so very sad. The fact that a generation of children have suffered is heartbreaking. Yet this is an issue which is rarely talked about in Australian society.

The Battle of Long Tan is a prolific event in Australian history. It is described and discussed in this book in graphic detail. This is a book every Australian needs to read at least once in their lives. This is the sort of history lesson that schools do not provide. 

Historical aspects aside, this was just such a sad story, yet also a story of triumph! These men, with their own problems to deal with, took on board the plight of a young girl. They risked arrest and incarceration in order to try and save her life. Can you imagine a army of 100 Harley Davidson's roaring down the highway in an effort to gain media attention to a child's medical condition and find that life saving marrow donor!? That is just all kinds of awesome. 

This is the kind of book that I am sure will stick with me for some time. One of Courtenay's finest!


The following poem was written by the wife a Vietnam Vet. It shows how the wives and families for the men who served in Vietnam must carry their burden. It is a long poem, a sad poem but a good poem. I found this on a military poetry site, I hope that Marilyn Masters doesn't mind me publishing it here.


for Tim (1949 - 1999) - 'a stuffed unit' - with forgiveness...

The ghost of the Iroquois flies at night, invades his restless dreams
its' thumping blades precede his flight, so real it nearly screams.
Tunnels dark and dank with fear, traversed within his head
beyond his dreams it scarcely seems an end could come to dread.
For 'Uncle Ho' and the yellow foe, they yet remain his plight
He thrashes out in deep despair, still desperate in the fight.
he can't escape the grim abyss that's been is home too long -
the cries of blasted, bloodied mates - for him his only song.
In dead of night their screams he hears - tears in to save a mate -
too late to change - by thirty years - his cataclysmic fate.
The M16's his Mistress, she alone can quell his dread...
just she and comrades now long dead can climb into his head.
The battlefields of Nui Dat - the hell that was Long Tan
have claimed the soul of this empty shell - that once was known as man.
For Phoc Tuy Province claimed its' prize way back in sixty nine...
this 'Tunnel Rat' of RAR will never more by mine.
The Army taught its' lesson; Price: a tragic list of names;
the 'prawns of war' to sacrifice, as Masters played their games.
'Search and Destroy' they cry went out - and men rose to the call -
Guerilla forces weakened as these soldiers gave their all.
With ANZAC pride of other wars, t hey charged straight into hell
while politicians fought their cause - a different tale to tell.
'Sensitive politically' would help conceal the truth...
A land aflood with Aussie blood - the martyrdom of youth.
They brought them home in midnight flights -
young men with souls aflame
Veterans of 'the War that's lost' - it had not other name.
defeat is seeped from every pore, the stench was rancid sweet...
its told the tale of their betrayal to fools on civvy street.
No 'Home Parade for Heroes' met return from Vietnam
just flak in pubs and bars and clubs for being in the scam.
The khaki, once so proudly worn, became a flag of scorn
For AAP and Reuters had denounced the legend born.
Demobbed - the khaki shed for good, I'd hoped you'd come to stay;
I thought somehow I understood, but from that fateful day
exhausted, you sat up all night... to keep the dreams at bay...
The Iroquois' ghost came then in spite - and named your price to pay.
Your days in brooding silence spent - 'friend' bourbon in your hand
sole occupant and jealous guard of dark and barren land...
The devil called the Viet Cong sat vigil at your gate...
that demon barred my way therein - t'was he who sealed my fate.
Rare 'windows' to your soul appeared - the bottom of the glass
and then you'd let me look, I feared, at what I couldn't pass...
As you knocked another bourbon back, you'd talk of deeds you'd done..
and then I knew - the end is black - my battle can't be won.
No solace left, the dregs all gone, Jim Beam has done his job;
but burdens shared have not moved on the wild and angry mob
Of phantoms thirsting for the kill - they still invade your head...
It's weary, spend and lonely still, you take me to your bed.
As you eased along the tunnels - torch and pistol in your hand,
you came to me in nights of dread to claim your wedding band.
Too glad, I welcomed your embrace, your gentle intercourse,
But fires of hate your soul encase - you took me then with force...
For memories flooded back to you of far off Vung Tau bars -
Where solace taken in the arms of pretty girls with stars
in eyes of black with depths unseen - took pay for where you'd been...
the forward scout who goes ahead.. and seeks to intervene.
You'd learned to trust in daylight hours = took solace there from fright;
That Village girl - your friend by day - turned Viet Cong by night...
You learned the lesson bloody well - to treat love with mistrust -
You made my life a tortured hell - for everything unjust.
You took me on a guided tour - I've walked the 'Halls of Hell'...
run the gauntlet underground, and dodged the mortar shell.
It's I who've held the dying mate - wishing it was me,
and I who've been the forward scout suspecting every tree...
But, more than you, I've borne the price - for me no help exists -
No band of understanding men - for me the War persists...
For me, no need of ANZAC Day recalling those who served...
My ANZAC Day is every day - my price is undeserved.
The Ghost of the Iroquois haunts my nights ... my days.. and in between
With mortar shell in 'Killing Fields' - YOU say I haven't seen...
My napalmed heart, with love bereft, is burning out my dreams...
My passions' spend... I've nothing left ... an empty shell it seems...
Lest we forget ....

Marilyn Masters (Copyright)
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