A Beer for Bob

22 April 2016 Peter Huxley

A Beer for Bob

Image by istock

Back in 1991, I was 25 and working for a finance company, right in the middle of Sydney. There were about 30 full-time employees, of which I was one, and also some contractors. One of them was an older bloke, named Bob. Bob would have been in his fifties, I suppose. He was a collections officer.

I didn’t pay much attention to Bob to start with. After all, he was more than twice my age. He wore older-guy clothes. He always wore a jacket to work and his shirt was usually in need of an iron. Worse than that, he had a rather bad BO problem. Bob could really stink up the joint, and the other staff members, particularly the women, were pretty much disgusted by him. They’d talk about him behind his back and say things like “We shouldn’t have to put up with this at work, he’s disgusting.” I’m sure Bob would have overheard these comments, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He was just Bob. Turning up in the morning, doing his thing and then leaving. He rarely, if ever, cracked a smile. He seemed to be getting through the day as best he could and that was it.

After a couple of months working there, I was settling in to the social side of the office. We’d often go for a drink after work at a bar on the ground floor of our building. Bob would always be there, but not with us. He would just sit at the bar nursing his beer. This bar also served counter lunches, and I’d sometimes eat lunch there, too. Sure enough, Bob would also be there at lunchtime. At the bar, nursing his beer. Geez, he drinks a bit, I thought.

I suppose I felt a bit sorry for Bob. So, one lunchtime, I went over and sat next to him. I was quite comfortable sitting with Bob – despite his pretty strong BO. We chatted, and it turned out he was a surprisingly good bloke. He was down to earth and had a dry sense of humour – just the kind I liked.

It wasn’t long before Bob and I were having a beer after work once or twice a week. Nothing planned, but I knew that if I felt like a beer, I only needed to head downstairs and Bob would be there – at the bar, nursing his beer. He knew people talked about him, and he knew he wasn’t well liked, but Bob didn’t seem to mind.

I started to learn more about him, through our chats. He had a couple of kids, but they didn’t live with him anymore. They were living with his ex-wife, in his ex-house, which he’d bought and almost paid off – with the special home loan he’d got at a very cheap rate. He seemed more annoyed that his wife had taken over the cheap loan, than that he’d lost his home. He was now living in a rented room at The Woolpack Hotel in Parramatta.

Things were falling into place. Bob had a drinking problem, and his wife had left him, probably over his drinking. He rarely washed his clothes, which explained the BO, and of course he didn’t use an iron either, which explained the rumpled shirts. He didn’t have a home to go to other than the pub he was living at. That’s why he was at the bar every afternoon. He had nowhere better to go.

I resolved to just be his mate. I didn’t need to know anything other than that he was a good bloke, so we just continued to have the odd drink and chat. Strangely, I started to feel a bit ostracised in the office. Word got around that I was friendly with creepy, disgusting Bob. I was no longer invited out for drinks or lunch with the girls in the office. I was a bit put out, but not greatly.

I was having a few with Bob one afternoon when the subject came up, as it did, of his ex-wife. Again he mentioned the cheap home loan. As we were in finance, I had always assumed that Bob’s cheap loan had been a work perk. It turned out it was a war service loan, at 3.75 per cent. Bear in mind, this was the era of 14, 15, 17 per cent home loans. But the more interesting thing was that Bob had been in the armed forces.

Bob had never once mentioned that. We had been mates for a while, and I should have known that if he hadn’t brought it up by now, he probably didn’t care to speak about it at all. But I was young and had a few beers on board, so I asked. It turned out that Bob had been in the Vietnam War as an infantryman.

We had a few more beers and, at my urging, Bob told me about his time in Vietnam. The flies, the mozzies, the heat, the rain, the dysentery – and the fear.

His company had about 20 blokes in it, and they became very close. They hardly ever saw any Vietnamese fighters. But there was always the unknown – the snipers, the booby traps, the not knowing who or where your opposition was. 

“They were great blokes,” Bob said to me, about his company. “Champions, every one of them. We did everything together. We vowed that we’d look after each other and never let any of our mates down. We were in it to survive. You just don’t know how close you become over there. We were all prepared to die for each other. We were closer than family.”

Bob was getting choked up, but he continued. “We went out one day. It pissed down all day and we were crawling through grass and bushes and shit all day long. That night I got crook. I had the gallops and I was throwing up. I was so weak. I just couldn’t go out there the next day.” By now there were tears running down Bob’s face.

The next day, Bob stayed in camp with the medic looking after him, too weak to move. That evening his commanding officer came to break the news to him. Bob’s company had been patrolling, as per usual. They came across a bridge and tried to cross it. They were ambushed as they crossed the bridge.

“The officer told me what had happened. They got taken by surprise. The VC blew up the bridge. Not a single one of my mates survived. They all got killed. I was the only one left. I should’ve been with ’em, mate.” Bob was whispering and his head was down. He could barely get the words out.

I was stunned. Tears were running down my face now. What do you say to that? Bob had been carrying this around with him for 25 years. He was probably younger than I was when all of this happened. It wasn’t his fault, but he would always wonder if he could have been the one who made the difference. The one who noticed something that could have stopped the massacre. Bob had been left to carry the guilt, and to agonise for the rest of his life over why he had been spared and every other man in his company taken that day. No wonder he was a shell of a man.

Bob was put off a couple of months later, and I followed him a month after that. I couldn’t work there any more knowing that these people thought of Bob as some stinky old piss-head loser. I never heard from or saw Bob again.

As a result I have tried to teach my kids that everybody deserves your respect, no matter what they look like or how they seem. You should never judge someone by appearance. We forget this all too easily. Bob should have been a hero. No less than a hero. Instead he was spat out and left on his own to deal with unimaginable mental scars.

On ANZAC Day, I always raise a glass for Bob and his mates. And I wonder who got the worse end of the deal that day: those who died, or the one who was left behind.


» Peter Huxley has been carrying this story for 25 years.