Wednesday, October 1, 2014

SHOTS IN THE DARK


All right, I’ll admit it. When we rode out into the dark on those distant nights, we felt more like cowboys than infantrymen. But instead of horses, our mounts were two open-topped jeeps, with steel pickets like ships’ prows welded to their fenders, ready to slice through the lethal, invisible steel wires the enemy stretched across dark mountain roads at just the height that could chop off a man’s head. It was the winter of 1956, and the enemy was EOKA, a private army of Greek Cypriot partisans bent on wresting independence from the British in Cyprus, led by the same men who’d harassed and demoralized the Nazi and Italian fascist occupying armies in mainland Greece eleven years earlier, at the end of World War II.
Now, under a cold, cloudless sky at around 2:00 a.m., we swung out through the heavily guarded gates of our camp into a moonlit landscape. We drove fast, our engines reverberating in the narrow streets of the sleeping villages along the way. As the leader of  the patrol, I drove the front jeep. Beside me sat Private Lou Davies, a chirpy ginger-haired draftee who, only months earlier, had worn another uniform as the driver of trains between London and Birmingham. Now he crouched behind a spotlight and a Bren medium machine gun, its bipod resting on two sandbags like cement pillows on the hood of the vehicle, while his eyes swept the terrain around us. Behind Davies sat my radio operator, Freddie Higgs, an amateur boxer, his head wrapped in an oversized headset under a swaying twelve-foot aerial, from the top of which fluttered a yellow pennant. Squeezed into the back seat next to Higgs, ‘Tiny’ Mustapha, a massive Turkish Cypriot police sergeant with the girth of a Sumo wrestler, chewed tobacco throughout the patrol, occasionally clearing his throat and spitting out of the jeep. In the second vehicle, towing a two-wheel trailer with mail and rations, Lance Corporal Peters and three privates followed closely behind, their rifles and a Sten sub-machine gun covering our rear.
They called this nightly routine ‘The Dynamite Run,’ one of the least popular missions in a five-year terrorist war about which hardly any Americans have ever heard.  Our destination was Mitsero, one of many copper and asbestos mines that lay in the shadow of the 5000-ft Troodos mountains that form Cyprus’s rugged backbone.
Where there are copper mines there are always plastic explosives, the essential ingredients for making primitive bombs and anti-personnel mines. Mitsero was therefore a priority target for EOKA.  About twenty miles from our base, Mitsero stored the demolition equipment for a dozen other mineral mines nearby. The stone building was ringed with a wall of sandbags and razor wire, and a circle of outward facing floodlights. A group comprised of a sergeant and nine men, armed with an arsenal of light mortars and automatic weapons, manned it day and night. Every night, a patrol such as ours took out supplies, but also gave moral support to isolated little units like this one, which was from time to time a target for snipers from the mountains that towered over it.
For the first fifteen miles or so we sped through rolling countryside, past olive and carob plantations and a dozen darkened villages. But in the last few miles we were forced to drive more slowly when the road to Mitsero snaked and climbed, narrower now, its unfenced curves carved out of the mountains, and often hanging several hundred feet over a sheer drop.  From here on we were perfect targets. The corkscrew track passed over dozens of culverts in which it was only too easy to plant remotely detonated mines. Weeks earlier a member of our own platoon had been crushed to death on this strip of road after his scout car overturned. But what made these missions even more hazardous was the fact that there was only one usable road to and out of Mitsero.  If EOKA were looking out for us on any night, they knew we’d be every bit as easy a target heading home as we’d been going out.
And so it was that night. We’d reached Mitsero without incident. For half an hour or so we sat around a table in the store, by the light of a hissing Colman lantern, drinking tea laced with rum, smoking and chatting with the few men in the unit who were awake.
We were more than half way home when they got us, passing through Kokkino Trimithia, a dot on the map with a picturesque church, a coffee shop and a few dozen unremarkable stone houses, surrounded by olive groves. We’d just entered the village when a short burst of machine gun fire crashed into our offside fender.  I braked and, with the metallic reverberation of the shots still shrilling in our ears, we scrambled from our trucks and spread out, taking what cover we could behind the concrete-mixers and stacked bricks around what was clearly a building site. Peters, in the second vehicle, had spotted the flashes from the weapon, in a building maybe thirty yards away, up a steep gradient. His alert co-driver, crouching behind the now static jeep, swung his searchlight up the slope, training the powerful beam on a half-built, roofless single story cinderblock house. For a fraction of a second, in one of the building’s hollow window frames, we spotted two men crouched over a weapon, caught like road kill in the headlights. 
      While Peters and his team gave us covering fire, Davies, Higgs, the Turkish sergeant and I spread out, to be halted momentarily by a burst of automatic fire.  Seconds later there was an ear-splitting explosion in one of the unfinished window cavities of the house, and then a total, mystifying silence.
      In a minute, still covered by Peters and his crew, the four of us had run on up the slope and made a cursory search of the shell of the little four-roomed house. There was nobody there, but the sharp smell of Baratol explosive hung in the building’s open room spaces.
Tiny Mustapha was breathless by the time we reached the little house. But, leaning, panting against the stone wall he removed a brown, folded envelope from his tunic pocket with the letters OHMS printed on it – On Her Majesty’s Service. Armed with a flashlight, he unfolded it and was soon crawling around on the sandy, unfinished floor of the room from whose windows we’d been attacked.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“You not see blood in the doorway?
I hadn’t seen any blood. Maybe my being colorblind didn’t help.
Still kneeling on the floor, the big policeman held up his envelope to me.
“Then, you look in here, sir.”
Taking his flashlight I peered into the envelope, at the bottom of which seemed to be one or two small pieces of . . . of what?
“What are they, Tiny?”
The Turkish policeman literally left me holding the bag.
“That big bang, sir,” the Turk said, “They throw a grenade. A Number 36 Mills bomb. See . . .?”
He held up a small, threaded metal disc. “This is base plug, and here is striker lever.  But it go off too quick, see? Maybe blow off his whole hand. Now I collect it up. If we get bigger pieces of fingers like these, we get good fingerprints! We look for more. You help?”
While the crew of the other jeep followed the trail of blood from the house with their flashlights, Davies, the gunner, watched over us while we searched the floor inch by inch. Scrabbling in the dirt, in addition to a handful of used 300 caliber cartridge cases, we found a few unidentifiable pieces of flesh and bone, and had soon accounted for what were later identified as pieces of three fingers.
“No thumb,” Mustapha said. “Big pity. Thumbs make best prints.”
We searched for a while longer until, with a joyful whoop, the Turkish sergeant pounced on most of a right-hand thumb.
“With this,” he said, holding it up, his eyes popping with excitement, “we get fingerprints. Now we can do something!”
But for all of our patient searching that night we achieved nothing. It was a mystery. The trail of blood led some fifty yards round the back of two houses and disappeared without trace on the narrow street through the village. The forensic people at the police headquarters in Nicosia got good clear images from Mustapha’s trophies, but their CID – Criminal Investigation Department – colleagues could find no prints in their files to match them.
Why hadn’t he thrown the grenade? There were two fuses available for a Mills bomb, for four seconds and seven seconds. Maybe he had a four second fuse and thought he had a seven second one. And why wasn’t he killed by a bomb that had a killing range of up to fifteen feet? Had the bomber maybe been killed instantly and borne away by his comrade? Or had he lived to tell his own grizzly tale? 
.  .  .

Three years later, a civilian again, I was back in Cyprus on contract to the British Government as the press officer for the colony’s emergency police force. On my last day on the island I stood, incognito, on a sidewalk in Nicosia, the island’s capital, within sight of the saluting base as Sir Hugh Foot, the colony’s last governor, relinquished the government of Cyprus to Archbishop Makarios, the new Republic’s first president.
After the hand-over, the handshakes and the hymns, a military band struck up. Leading the freedom parade, marching past the Archbishop and his fledgling cabinet ministers, came the heroes of the revolution – the men of  EOKA.
Remembering that night in Kokkino a few years earlier, I searched for a marcher with no hand with which to salute. In the first little squad there seemed to be no such man. And nor was there one in the second group. But as the last squad passed there was, indeed, a limping man who, with his right sleeve hanging empty and pinned below the elbow, saluted with his left hand.
Could that have been he? I’ll never know. Looking back over more than sixty years I accept that, while to me and my comrades he was simply a terrorist thug, to himself and his fellow countrymen he was a freedom fighter and more than that, a patriot.
I’m old now, and I don’t care anymore. At least in our own minds, didn’t each of us have right on his side?
                                

                                 * * *

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

AFTERMATH OF 9/11

This month, September, marks the

13th anniversary of the 9/11 attack

on the World Trade Center.  A few 

days afterwards, Lynn and I were 

staying at the house of friends

in Ojai, California,when I read 

an account of the aftermath in the

New York Times.

 

Here’s what I wrote that afternoon:




Aftermath 9/11


Ojai, California
September 14, 2001

Here, all around me, is a landscape
begging to be painted.
Beyond a redbrick terrace
blue and purple plants crowd in;
species that I’ve never seen before.
drifts of giant sage, lucantha,
and here and there a common rose.

Beyond all this stand orange trees and limes
and lemons. Further out, beyond the reach
of  water pipes and hoses,
are arid places with clusters of spiky succulents,
and part-dismembered, unattended cacti.

Above the borders, bees dart
among cascades of flowering herbs,
while butterflies, like shreds of tissue paper,
swirl and rise and fall.

The scene is mute and motionless.
No foreign sound, no breeze, no barking dog,
no distant drone of planes or traffic,
or the laughter of playing children.

But now look down. Here, open on my lap,
the Sunday paper shows an anguished and
chaotic scene two thousand miles away.
A photo shows the silhouetted,
criss-cross lattice of the shattered towers’ remains.
A devil-made design that could,
were it left unsalvaged where it stands,
become a starker and more telling monument
than any man-made memorial.
And on another page, portraits of two
dozen wanted men, their faces
grave and troubled, even shameful,
as though they’d had some premonition
of their act’s outcome.

Two pages on – the tragic flip-side of the assault
– are fifteen portraits of dead and missing victims,
their faces smiling, or in repose. Each bears
some eulogistic paragraph:
the scoutmaster; a man called Yang,
who earned ten bucks an hour; Katherine who
loved the stage, Ruben, the Michael Jordan fan
who lived for sport.

Hundreds of such pictures have appeared
and there’ll be thousands more.
Reflect. How different did these gentle faces look
in their last fear-frozen moments?

Meanwhile, the nation reels,
vowing not to turn the other cheek,
and speaking of revenge, and war.
And after this carnage, dare I demand:
where is God, all-knowing, just and merciful?



John Birch
2001


Monday, August 4, 2014

A PASSING ACQUAINTANCE


. . . something odd and unwelcome happened . . .  I withdrew
my hand in a quick, impetuous movement . . .


His name was Patrick Gallagher. I met him in my mid-20s more than 50 years ago, when I was alone in Cyprus, on ten days leave from my regiment in Egypt. The hotel was perched on a cliff outside Boghaz, a dozen miles up the east coast from Famagusta.  It had only a few spartan bedrooms, a small, barely patronized restaurant and a lounge that was open to a big stone terrace with a view of the Mediterranean. I’d had a late dinner and sat reading in the lounge in a deep wicker chair. It was dusk, and the proprietor had lit the lamps. There was nobody else staying in the hotel that early in the season.
         Gallagher walked in and nodded to me in silent acknowledgment. He was a tall, bony man, with sad deep eyes, thinning red hair and a slight stoop. The manager seemed to know him well, and they conversed in Greek. He ordered a cognac and took a seat across the room. I had no doubt he was English; his khaki drill pants, suede desert boots, service style shirt and an Ascot made this obvious. Besides, he was carrying a copy of the Manchester Guardian Weekly.
         Far from home, I’d have welcomed a chat with a fellow Brit, or with anyone, for that matter, but he seemed absorbed by his newspaper. I returned to my book and was thinking of going to bed when he looked up and spoke.
“What are you reading?”
I closed the book and held the cover up to him.
         “Evelyn Waugh. ‘Men at Arms,’ It’s only just come out.”
         “Like it?” he asked.
         “Very much.”
         “So did I,” he said. “I’d guess you’re a military man yourself.”
         He came over and held out his hand.
“Patrick Gallagher.”
It turned out that he was a retired army colonel. After World War II he’d settled in Cyprus, where he’d served in the Intelligence Corps ten years earlier. He was on the board of Cyprus Airways and one or two other local companies.
         I guessed he was in his mid-fifties, which would have made me twenty-four, and a mere lieutenant at the time, thirty years his junior. He was widely read and had interesting views, but an attentive listener. At that age, with few profound opinions about anything, I was interested in books and writers, and flattered when he asked what I thought about this and that. We found we were both Catholics, and he talked interestingly about Waugh, Greene, Joyce, Wilde and others who’d been influenced in widely different ways by Catholicism. He seemed to have a special affection for Wilde, and often quoted him.
         We talked for an hour or two, quickly becoming open and intimate in that way that can happen when two expatriates meet, isolated from their own world. Although our ages were different, we found we had much in common. We’d both graduated from Sandhurst, Britain’s only military academy, shared the same tastes in the arts, and political affiliations.
         During the evening he showed deep concern about a recent upsurge in terrorist action in Cyprus. It was April, 1955, and Archbishop Makarios was pressing for enosis, union with Greece. Several British-owned properties had been burned down, and bombs had exploded in bars and clubs in Nicosia, killing British soldiers. There were rumors that George Grivas,  the Greek partisan who’d harassed the Nazis in occupied Greece, was already training guerillas in the Troodos Mountains.      
Before we went home, after a couple of drinks for the road, he shook my hand.
         “When are you going back to Egypt?”
         I told him I had just two more days.
         “Oh, right,” he said. “You must come and have dinner with me before you go. What are you doing tomorrow night?”
         I apologized, explaining that I’d met a girl in Famagusta. Tomorrow would be my last chance to see her, since she’d be unavoidably away in Beirut on my last day.
         He laughed, uneasily, I thought. “You’re a fast worker. Is she beautiful?”
         I said she was indeed beautiful, and felt myself blushing.
“She’s pretty special,” I said. “Her name’s Carmina. Her mother’s Venezuelan and her father’s American.”
         “And you’re in love?”
         I shrugged, unable to express myself.
         “Well, you know how it is.”
         “Yes,” he said. “I know how it is.”
         We arranged to meet for dinner on my last evening on the island. Before he went home, he drew a map showing how to get to his house, which was somewhere in the hills behind the hotel.
         I forgot Gallagher for all of the next day, driving in my rented car to Famagusta to see Carmina. We sailed alone down the coast in her father’s boat, swam in sea as clear as tap-water, and lay together in the warm spring sun in a deserted, sandy bay near Cape Greco. Later we found a taverna where they broiled fresh red mullet on charcoal, and served jugs of retsina from oak casks. By the time I returned to the hotel next morning I was utterly entranced by Carmina. I began to feel the wrench of leaving her in Cyprus, little knowing that, in only a few months, my battalion would be sent to the island for two whole years.
         The next day alone at the hotel passed slowly. I swam, read my book, did some packing to save time the next morning, and had a leisurely lunch. With Carmina away in Beirut, I began to look forward to the company of Patrick, my new friend.
         Around six that evening I drove to his home, along a rocky winding road about a mile from the sea. A handsome single-story house, with sky-blue shuttered windows and a long balustraded porch, it stood on a slope carpeted with blood-red anemones, brought out by the spring rains. A few spindly pines stood around the house to give it shade in the arid Cyprus summer.
         Gallagher sat on the porch waiting for me. A brindle bull terrier crouched on the floor at his feet, and growled as I came up the steps. Gallagher rose to meet me and shook my hand warmly, bending to pat the dog.
“This is Hannibal. He’s quite harmless. Too bloody harmless, under the circumstances -- I expect you’ve heard the news.”
         “No,” I said. “What’s happened?”
         On the table in front of him was a bottle of wine in a cooler, and two glasses. He filled my glass and topped-up his own, offering me a chair.
         “They’ve shot a Brit in Ayios Elias. A retired Army man, like me.”
         “How far away is that?”
         Gallagher thumbed over his shoulder. “Three miles back there. No distance at all.”
         “What are you going to do?”
         “There’s not a lot I can do.”
         Then, as though deliberately changing the subject, he added “Let me show you around the place.”
         The house was much bigger than it seemed from outside. The furniture was mostly locally-made, but elegant. There were several fine eighteenth century English paintings and some good porcelain pieces in the big living and dining rooms, in both of which were tall book-cases filled to the ceiling.
         Something odd and unwelcome happened while we toured the house. We were standing in his bedroom, looking out at the sea, when he slipped his hand into mine and squeezed it. He went on talking about the house as though nothing had happened. I withdrew my hand with a quick, impetuous movement, and stepped away from him. Suddenly confused, he muttered something that I took to be an apology.    
“It’s . . . it’s a beautiful house.” I said after a few moments.
         “It is, isn’t it?” he said. “Too damned beautiful for me to run away and leave to these savages.”
         The atmosphere was chilly for the next few minutes, and at dinner I noted he’d set our places at opposite ends of his long dining room table. He served a simple local meal: dolma, vine leaves stuffed with rice, mint and minced lamb; aphelia, a casserole of tender pork with red wine and coriander seeds, and a dessert of fresh fruit. He spoke disdainfully about Cyprus’s own wines, and we drank a light red Bordeaux.
         He was much less talkative now than he’d been two evenings ago. Was he shamed by my unspoken rejection of his approach before dinner, or disturbed by the news of fresh violence on his doorstep?  I searched in my mind for a topic that might revive the conversation.
         “You’re a sitting duck out here,” I said, “You need to do something to make this place safer.”
         Gallagher was decanting a bottle of port.     
“I’ve been thinking about that, naturally,” he said, pausing to pour the wine. “The nights worry me most. The bastards could get right up to the house without my hearing them. You’re more up-to-date with these things than I am. Any ideas?”
         We talked about reinforcing the doors, barring the windows, and setting-up a radio link with the village police station. We even discussed the possibility of his abandoning the house and moving into a better-protected building in Nicosia or Famagusta.  He was cool about all these things, especially any suggestion that he should, as he put it, “run away from the enemy.”
“I’d settle for a basic early warning system,” he said, “something that’d make Hannibal bark and wake me up. How could we do that?”
         I had an idea, though basic it was.
         “Do you have a workshop here?” I asked.
         He led me to a shed at back of the house, where we emptied a little pile of nails, nuts and bolts from a collection of old coffee cans onto a workbench. Then we punched holes in the empty cans and put just two or three pebbles in each, stringing them between the trees. The theory behind this Rube Goldberg contraption was that, if anyone were to approach the house in the dark, the loose pebbles would rattle in the cans, waking the dog.
         We talked and joked as we worked, our mutual discomfort and tension forgotten. Back in the house we toasted our ingenuity with port. When we parted that night he thanked me at the door. His handshake was firm and brisk. He promised he’d write when I was back in Egypt.
                                             *  *  *
         Gallagher never wrote. Almost three months later, the situation in Cyprus had become so serious that my battalion was sent into action there. For the first few months, armed only with shields and batons, we found ourselves face-to-face with rioters in the narrow streets of Nicosia. The crisis was escalating; every few days an Army truck was blown-up and its occupants killed on the lonely roads out to the Troodos Mountains, or the asbestos mines in Morphou. Much worse was to come as the Greek Cypriot population rallied behind Archbishop Makarios and his campaign for union with Greece.
         I didn’t seek out Gallagher. On the rare occasions when I had a few hours off duty I spent them with Carmina. But late one night in October I heard news of him by the most remarkable and unlikely means. I was attached to the staff of COSDO, the office of the Chief of Staff and Director of Operations. Sitting in a trailer, my colleagues and I were collecting and acting on reports of incidents that came in by radio and telephone from Army units and police stations all over the Island.
         That night, amid the babble of voices and the buzzing and ringing on the lines in that smoke-filled vehicle, I heard Gallagher’s name. The message was indistinct, coming and going over the ether. But it described, in detached, matter-of-fact detail, his murder by men with shotguns at the house outside Boghaz. There was mention of a dog, and a “home-made warning device made out of tin cans.”
         But there was a revealing postscript in The Times of Cyprus  two days later. A brief report claimed that Gallagher’s death had not been a political crime, but a “domestic” one. It alleged that “unidentified assailants” had killed him, “in revenge for his alleged abuse of young men and boys in and around the village of Boghaz.”
        
* * *