Friday, December 1, 2017

A Christmas to Forget

I didn't know it that night, but this was to be the last time I’d see my father. We sat - he, my mother, my brother David and I - amid the over-the-top tinsel and decorations in a modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, probably the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be wearing a tie.
        This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, a seaside resort, sitting with his knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph, and wearing a wool serge suit and highly polished black shoes with sock suspenders. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.
        But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was 26, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before. It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of roast turkey with sage stuffing, Christmas pudding aflame in brandy, and mince pies. We pulled the crackers and blew the whistles and read and laughed at the bad jokes that spilled out of them, and we raised our glasses to the future. But the sad truth was that the four of us were strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.
          David and I never really knew our parents. We were both sent miles away to a boarding school when I was eight. I don't remember ever sharing a feeling or fear with my father or mother. It's not that they weren't kind to us, or even that they didn't love us. It was simply that neither knew how to show affection. The only time my father and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.
          Nor had David and I ever known each other well, even though we were together for endless years at boarding school. He was more than three years older than I, and while I had been outgoing, cheeky and garrulous, he was a quiet, solitary boy. My parents never seemed to notice that as a teenager, and later as a man, David had no women friends, and rarely brought home any of his many men friends, who seemed to have oddly diverse social and educational backgrounds.
          The meal ended, as Christmas and Easter family dinners always did, with what my father called ‘a nice healthy walk.' When he’d paid the check, counting out the one-pound notes and half-crowns and shillings with care and attention like the bank clerk he’d once been, we faced into the cold sea air, heading for the beach.
          It was dark on the steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front.  The tide had turned, and now dragged on the coarse, flinty shingle below us. Out on the horizon the beam of a lightship pulsed. Ahead of my mother and me, David and the old man walked more briskly.
          As we strolled along together my mother turned to me. "So how do like your new life, Johnny?"
          After nearly a decade as an officer in the British Army I was on my final leave, and in a few days would begin my first civilian job. In the service I'd had excitement in action, world travel, comradeship and the company of friends. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in a rented attic room in London, and about to start a new life. Though I didn't admit it, I felt lost, and a little wary of the future.
I lied in reply to my mother's question. "Fine, Mum. My new life's fine."
        "But are you happy?" she asked.
        "Happy enough," I said. "What about you?"
        My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.
        "No," she said. "I'm not happy. But then I haven't been for years. Not since I married your dad. Surely you must know that."
        I didn't know. I was speechless. Had this happened today, were she still alive, I might have said "Do you want to talk about it?" But I didn't. We walked on.
      "What are you thinking?" she asked.
      By now we'd fallen back some way behind my father and brother.
      "I was wondering . . . well, why you married him," I said, "were things so different then?"
      "Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your grandfather had walked out years before.  There we all were. Mother, five unmarried daughters and two sons in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like a pressure cooker. Then I met your father at a friend's house. It seemed  . . ."
      "It seemed what?” I heard a sharp, involuntary edge in my voice.
      She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm sorry, I've upset you. But, you see, marrying him just seemed to be the way out at the time."'
      My mother changed the subject and we caught up with the others.
        "What are you two chatting about?" my father asked, smiling.
        My mother laughed. "Oh, you know. Shoes, ships, sealing wax . . .”

          Two days later David and I took the train back to London. For weeks I turned my mother's words over and over in my mind, but I never told David.
          My father died less than three months later. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. The circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and my parents slept in separate rooms. At least, that was the reason they always gave for sleeping apart.  And there was something else; he'd become almost miserly about money and had for years locked the bedroom door behind him, hiding his billfold under his pillow.
          Every morning, at seven, my mother would make a cup of tea and take it to his door.  A month or two later she knocked and there was no answer. She had to climb a ladder to the open bedroom window, and found him dead.
          Was it the wine on that Christmas evening that caused my mother's impulsive admission? Or did she need the release of this tragic secret to unburden herself, to share her load?  She lived for another 30 years, and died in her 90th year, but she never mentioned it again.
        And nor did I.       


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Clip Joints

I read recently that an average man grows about ten yards of hair during his life, so I guess I’d look like an Afghan goat-herd if it weren’t for generations of barbers and hairdressers who’ve washed, cut and dried my hair.
 And what an incredible cast of characters they’ve been! I can't remember my earliest haircuts, but the first barber I recall, long ago in the mid-1930s, had a shop on High Street in our country town in Southeast England, between a pie shop and a movie house. He was a dapper little man with a neatly trimmed mustache and, believe it or not, his name was Mr. Tidy.
        Mr. Tidy’s barbershop was always busy. His customers sat in cane chairs along a mirrored wall, reading newspapers that my father, a staid and serious man, would never have allowed in our house. These reported little real news, but spicy stories about society divorces, or bishops running off with actresses. But for me there were also comic strips and, when I could read, I met Dagwood Bumstead and Popeye, and Dick Tracy.
Mr. Tidy’s barber’s chair was a miracle of chrome and leather on a swiveling pedestal that could be pedaled up and down, and had the words ‘Made in America’ emblazoned on a panel in its ornate silver filigree. When it was my turn, Mr. Tidy put a wooden box on the seat and lifted me onto it.  He worked quickly and I watched, fascinated, as the hair clippings fell on the floor around the chair. When he’d finished, he’d stoop and lift a wooden trapdoor by its tiny brass doorknob, and sweep the clippings under the floor boards.
When I was eight, I was sent to a boys-only boarding school miles from home, and later to another much bigger one. At both schools, barbers came from the town at regular intervals, carrying their equipment in black leather suitcases, and set-up shop in the sports changing rooms. After the quiet orderliness of Mr. Tidy’s shop, these sessions were rowdy and boisterous. The visitors clearly didn’t think enforcing discipline was a part of their job, and the older boys fought on the floor and elbowed the younger ones aside in the waiting line. For the smaller, younger boys, having a haircut could be an ordeal, and often took a long time.
        At Sandhurst – Britain’s version of West Point – there was a full-time barbershop among the stables and stores tucked away behind the Academy’s elegant buildings. Haircuts were free, probably because the authorities thought we’d mutiny if forced to part with real money to have our hair cropped like convicts. It was little comfort to know that distinguished former graduates such as Winston Churchill, Field Marshall (‘Monty’) Montgomery and other greats had sat in those very same oak chairs.
        The years passed and I suffered the attention of regimental barbers in half a dozen countries. But at least we were now officers, and could grow our hair slightly longer and indulge in a little individualism.
        Later I left the army to join a London public relations firm as a trainee. By then I expected to be able to pick and choose who cut my hair. But on a monthly salary of 41 pounds – today worth about $62 – my choice of hair cutters was limited to men who practiced in small back rooms behind tobacconists’ stores. The result was often little better than the clumsy attentions of a regimental barber.
 But in 1959, on my wedding day in London, I had the most exclusive trim and shave of my life. I’d spent my last night of bachelor bliss at the apartment of a friend of my father-in-law who was shaved daily at Harrods, the venerable store that sells anything you can imagine at unimaginable prices to unbelievably wealthy people. In its low-lit, walnut paneled barber shop, respectful, speak-when-you’re spoken-to experts shaved my host and me with badger-hair brushes and cutthroat razors. We lay side by side on what seemed more like operating tables than Mr. Tidy’s chrome, all-American barber’s chair back in the 30s. There were hot towels and cologne to follow, and a massage of the neck and shoulders. The faintest sound of baroque music drifted from invisible speakers.
Nearly twenty years later, in the late 70s, came haircuts and shaves that were at the same time a wide-awake dream of fair women and the best barbering of a lifetime. South East Asia has turned a normally humdrum experience into an all-but erotic fantasy. Men’s hairdressing shops in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are a blend of an Arabian Nights harem and an Upper East Side beauty shop. It’s not that there’s any back-room impropriety going on, but simply that – however sexist this may seem – the dozen or more geisha-like young women in these places are recruited as much for their beauty and vivacity as for their tonsorial talents. Their deft, perfectly manicured hands seem not so much to work on one’s head and face, but almost to caress them, and any full-blooded male pulse quickens with their warm proximity. I wonder whether, now that I’m past my mid-eighties, their welcome would be half as seductive.
Nowadays, accompanied by Lynn, my wife, I take my gray head to her place in Greenwich Village. The hairdresser is attractive and well-groomed, but the place somehow lacks the mystical sensuality of the Orient. And, in place of the racy daily papers with their comic strips in Mr. Tidy’s shop, there are mostly fashion magazines, and books on hairstyling.
Things have changed. But so, of course so have I.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Okay, I’ll admit it. When we rode out into the dark on those long ago 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 successfully 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 on the walls of the narrow streets of sleeping villages along the way. 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 our 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 private soldiers followed closely behind, their rifles and 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 barely 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 because 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 an unfinished 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, well into my eighties, and I don’t care anymore. After all, at least in our own minds, didn’t each of us have right on his side?


Friday, September 1, 2017

Tough Assignment

Looking out over that calm lake at dawn, with its fishing boats and flying cranes, it was hard to believe that this beautiful place had been the scene of the worst industrial accident in history.
But months earlier, at about midnight on a cold winter night in December 1984, an airborne blanket of poison gas fell over a sleeping city. By dawn, 1,750 men, women and children were dead. More than 500 people suffered injuries, many of whom died of cancers and other diseases.
            The city was Bhopal, in northern India. By the time the case came to court nearly two years later, almost 4000 people had died, 40 were totally disabled and more than 2600 others had lasting partial disability. The agricultural chemicals plant was owned by the giant and now defunct US chemicals firm, Union Carbide, that made an arguable case for sabotage.
            At Carbide’s Connecticut headquarters, chairman Warren M. Anderson pledged
his company’s moral commitment to the victims and their families, and flew to India a few days afterward, accompanied by some technical experts and a medical aid team, only
to be arrested and sent home by the Indian government before he and his colleagues had
even visited the site of the catastrophe. The US and Indian Carbide companies offered nearly $2 million in immediate emergency relief, and afterward pledged more than $20 million more in funds and services. Carbide employees and its retirees voluntarily raised more than $120,000 for the relief organizations working in Bhopal.
            But UCIL, the Indian company, was less quick off the mark. While it did much to provide relief for the victims’ families, and endured national ostracism with a brave face, it was almost as though its entirely Indian management had been paralyzed with shock. In particular, it had failed to tell its side of the story adequately.  This was why, about ten months after the tragedy, I and my colleagues met Warren Anderson with Carbide colleagues at a working lunch at the company’s impressive Danbury, CT, headquarters. He was seeking help for the local directors in Mumbai, then Bombay. As a member of a New York firm of public relations consultants that advised Carbide, I was assigned to fly to India to develop and implement an India-wide program to better explain the situation to the public at large, to its 23,000 Indian stockholders, Parliament and the many communities where it had numerous plants, five operating divisions and 9,000 employees.
Although I’d worked all over the Pacific Rim, I’d never been to India, but within two or three days of that first meeting with Anderson I was flying to Mumbai, on a solo as-long-as-it-takes assignment.  On the weekend I arrived there was a meeting at my hotel. The meeting was attended by the Carbide company’s Indian board of directors and the managers of their 13 facilities based all over India.
My chief contact was UCIL’s chief executive, Vijay Gokhale, a handsome, intelligent and civilized man who’d had the misfortune to be promoted CEO only two or three months before the Bhopal catastrophe. Within hours of landing I found myself giving, at Gokhale’s request, a ‘reassuring presentation’ to his discouraged audience.
Having met and talked with the worldwide managers in Danbury, and now to the earnest directors, all Indians in Bhopal that weekend, it seemed to me tragic and ironic that, in India and the many other countries where it operated, Carbide had always acted as a company that cared. A major player on the Indian sub-continent since the early 1900s, it looked after its employees and retirees well, and was a good neighbor in every country and city in which it had operations. Carbide’s people were convinced at the time, and its veterans still are, that the Bhopal disaster was caused by sabotage. How else, they asked, would it be possible to pour, at dead of night, as much as 200 gallons of water into underground tanks of poisonous methyl isocyanate, in defiance of warning signs and color-coded faucets, causing gas to erupt and escape?  Since Anderson and his emergency experts were denied access to the Bhopal plant by the Indian Government, they could never carry out their hoped-for search for evidence.
But there was still an untold story to tell.  On the following Monday morning my new Carbide colleagues and I set to work. Over the next few weeks we produced a series of reports, each aimed at a special audience, describing what we were convinced had happened in Bhopal, the social, economic, human and other ramifications, and what action UCIL was now taking. While putting these together, we trained the directors and other managers to handle interviews with newspaper reporters, and on radio and television. Oddly, what I remember most vividly of those long, videotaped training sessions in a stuffy top-floor conference room was the constant squabbling and scrabbling of a flock of vultures that had settled on the flimsy iron roof directly above us.
When we were ready, we issued this new material to the Indian media. There are no fewer than 14 Indian languages, yet English is the lingo of government and business, and most educated Indians speak it well.  And since India is a true democracy, its media are unfettered and outspoken. While they were generally unsympathetic to Carbide after the disaster, and skeptical about the sabotage claim, the national and regional press, radio and TV generally gave fair space and airtime to the company’s viewpoint.
            Several times during the assignment, I made the 450 mile train journey between Mumbai and Bhopal, to see the community and the victims and meet the few remaining Carbide managers there. It was a tough journey alone. Late one night, after an abrupt stop, I woke and found myself looking down from the train window as two railroad workers, lit by searing arc-lights, carried a headless man away on a stretcher. He was presumably the hapless cause of the delay.
Because of the risk of a revenge attack, no one associated with Carbide was allowed to stay at any of the hotels in Bhopal. Instead, I lodged at a company-owned guesthouse in a compound that included their research laboratories, which were still operating near the now-locked and otherwise abandoned pesticide plant. The guesthouse and the laboratories were protected by dense barbed wire, patrolled day and night by armed security men with sub-machine guns. The buildings stood on the shore of the placid lake, across the water from the city’s huge mosque.
The job took two months. Before returning to New York I spent several days in Bhopal meeting with the overseas news reporters who returned to India during the first anniversary of the disaster, to write about the city and the continuing plight of the casualties. At that time, angry crowds milled outside the barricades around the lakeside guest house.
Fax machines and computers were uncommon even in the US at that time, and probably didn’t exist then in India. I wrestled with obsolete copying machines, typewriters and teleprinters that broke down almost daily. There were few telephone lines between Bhopal and the outside world, and those that were available were nearly 50 years old. Our telephone lines were also tapped, which made security difficult, as did the fact that the time in Bhopal was ten hours later than in Danbury and New York. Then there was the heat in Mumbai, heart-rending poverty, and endless, pathetic begging on every street. Above all, there was the touching resignation of the people of India to their intolerable condition.  
            But for all that, a movingly warm, almost affectionate relationship grew between us. These men -- and they were all men -- were in such desperate straits in a company that was now India’s public enemy. Some of them were expecting criminal indictment, and they all so desperately needed help, encouragement and advice. When I left, they gave me a memento, a bronze effigy of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. It has little intrinsic value, but is still one of my most cherished possessions.
I returned to India a year later for a further two months. This time, among other things, my mission included handling local and foreign media relations when UCIL faced criminal trial by the Indian government. It was a strange, anachronistic ritual. The law, and all the trappings of the court, from the judge himself to the barristers and solicitors and their robes and wigs, were reminiscent of nothing more than Public Television’s then popular Rumpole of the Bailey.  Yet there was nothing laughable about the prosecutors, and the cross-examinations, nor about the sentence. UCIL was found guilty and fined $470 million.

But the most distressing thing of all is that now, more tthan 30 years after the tragedy, far too little of that litigation money has ever reached the survivors of that now distant nightmare.      


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Duck Shoot

            Tel el Kebir, known to the British troops in Egypt in the 1950s as Tek, a sprawling mass of sheds and tents shimmering in the heat, rose out of the desert as the jeeps came over the crest of the hill. The sentry recognized Lieutenant Pete Roberts, saluted, and waved him through the camp’s main gate. Roberts looked up at a nearby searchlight tower where, up on its platform, a bored Mauritian soldier scanned a part of the camp’s 17 mile barbed-wired, mined perimeter with binoculars. Another, stripped to the waist, his black body glistening with sweat, languidly polished the searchlight’s reflector.
            Driving the leading jeep, Roberts heard the soldier behind him unclick his weapon’s magazine as they raced down the tarmac strip into the center of the camp, incongruously signposted Oxford Street. He swung his vehicle onto a rough track, at the end of which another sign read PDF, which stood for Perimeter Defense Force.
            Roberts turned onto the uneven rock-hard sand vehicle park behind the building that housed the battalion’s headquarters. It was quiet in the yard. Most of the unit slept in the afternoon, since all the patrols and ambush teams that watched over the perimeter operated at night. In the park a lone mechanic, dressed in greasy shorts and canvas shoes, lay on his back in the dust under another jeep. At the armory, the store man, clearly half awake, leaned on the counter behind the closed lower half of the stable-like door, and jerked to attention when Roberts put down his revolver.
            “Sorry, sir, I’d just dropped off for a moment.”
            Roberts lowered his voice, so as not to be heard by his crew waiting in line behind him.
            “It’s not good enough, Banks. I know it’s bloody hot, but I ought to charge you for sleeping on duty. You know that, don’t you?”
            The man nodded. “Yes, sir.”
            “Well, watch it.”
            Roberts handed over his revolver. “Clean this, will you? I’ve just used it.”
            He thought again of the injured dog that had leaped in front of the jeep an hour earlier in Tek village. Crazed with pain, it had spun around in the hot road. A few villagers, sitting at coffee tables under a jacaranda tree at the curb, jeered and threw stones at the animal that was dragging itself toward the canal, trailing its crushed leg. Roberts leaned out of the jeep, took hasty aim at the dog from about twenty feet and squeezed the trigger. But he’d only wounded it. Now the locals mocked the English officer, catcalling and shouting to their mates in the village street.
            For the dog’s sake, but also to save face, he was determined to finish off the animal. He scrambled out of the vehicle, and walked a few paces back to it. The villagers were closing in a little and Roberts, glancing back, was relieved to see that his armed men in both vehicles were covering him.
            A young Egyptian dressed in grubby khaki with neither hat nor shoes, had moved between Roberts and the agonized animal, making a sneering pretense of shielding it.
“Don’t kill the dog, mister, please don’t kill it!”
He called to the excited crowd and they closed in, quieter now, watching intently. The dog lay maybe a yard to the right and a little farther back from the youth’s feet, and the men all but touched Roberts when he took a few quick paces forward and shot the dog dead. A roar went up from the crowd of villagers, and then they quietened down and scattered, keeping a wary distance from the jeeps.
            Roberts walked back to the jeep and his watchful escorts at a deliberately casual pace, revved the engine to an angry roar, and drove away.

            Roberts looked into the officer’s mess on his way to his tent. Inside, Mike Drayton, Bravo Company commander, was sprawled in an armchair dozing under a whirring ceiling fan, with an empty beer glass on the table beside him. He looked up when Roberts came in.
            “Hello, Pete. Everything OK?”
            Roberts decided not to mention the dog because Drayton, known to be a tartar when he wanted, might well have given him an earful for putting himself and his men at risk.
            “No problems, sir.”
            “How are your men handling this heat?” Drayton asked.
            “They swear about it, but they can take it. The temperature out there’s a hundred and twenty-two.”
            “Like a beer?” Drayton asked.
            “No thanks. I’m going to get some shut-eye for an hour or two.”
            “Good idea. By the way, I’m putting a new man on your patrol tonight. He’s a National Service kid called Cash, straight out of officer cadet school back home. Don’t scare the poor little bugger too much on his first time out.”
            Roberts grinned. “We’ll try not to.”
            Outside the mess hut, he realized how tired he was. In his tent a cheap tin alarm clock ticked away the afternoon. He sat on the end of his bed and slowly unwound his puttees. The black shining leather where they’d been made a tidemark against the dusty uppers of his boots Then he undressed, lit a cigarette and sat naked on the bed, winding the clock.
            “Boy, you get more alluring every day we’re out here!”
            Chris Pollard’s face emerged from under the mosquito net on the other bed. “And you’re smoking too much. Know that?”
            Roberts laughed. “I thought you were asleep.”
            “I was,” Pollard said.
“Jesus, you look worn out, Pete! Take a break. Why don’t you let me do your turn tonight?”
            “No thanks. I appreciate it, but I’ll be fine after a couple of hours kip.”

            Pollard had gone when Robert’s batman woke him at five, with a mug of tea and a canvas bucket of hot water. He shaved in the tent and then showered outside under a galvanized iron tank perched on stilts in the sun. The air was a little cooler outside now. He dressed in a fresh set of khaki drill. In the compound near the mess four jeeps stood in a row, each with a Bren machine gun and a spotlight on the hood.
            The officers’ mess was almost empty at six, since everyone who wasn’t on perimeter patrol normally dined an hour or two later. Major Drayton, captain Hugh Lunt – his second-in-command – and two subalterns were already at the table when Roberts sat down. Cash, the new arrival, had been seated between Drayton and Lunt.
            Roberts leaned across the table and shook his hand.
            “You must be Cash. Welcome to Tek.”
            Cash was slightly built, with a white, vulnerable face and close-cut ginger hair. He seemed a few years older than most of the National Service officers who came out to serve their eighteen-month stint with the regiment.
            “Where are you from?” Roberts asked.
            “Bristol, but I’ve been in London for the last four years getting my degree.”
            “Slade,” Cash said.
 “So, you’re an artist?”
            The young man smiled. “One day, maybe. But I’m not sure a BA in Art’s going to be relevant for the next year or so.“
            While they ate, Max Barstow, another subaltern who made a habit of intimidating young newcomers, and who was one of the least liked officers in the regiment, turned to the new arrival and said, “Done any duck shooting, Cash?”
            The newcomer faced Barstow. “No, why?”
            “Shooting ducks is better experience for this place than painting pretty pictures.”
            Major Drayton glanced at his watch.  “That’s enough, Max. Gentlemen. Let’s . . . well . . .let’s go shoot a few ducks. I want you and your men in your vehicles out there and ready in ten minutes.”
            It was getting dark. Roberts, at the wheel of the jeep with Cash beside him, led a column of six vehicles.
            “So, what’s the routine?” Cash asked.
            “Same old thing. As always, the mission’s to keep these brown bastards from creeping in and stealing our stuff. We take each team to its start point a few hundred yards back from the perimeter. They leave their trucks there and manhandle their weapons and gear up to the wire on their flat feet in the dark. If they’re quiet about it, anyone breaking in will find it harder to know where we are.”
            “What then?”
            “Then you and I cruise the seventeen-mile perimeter a few hundred yards back from the wire. From time to time I’ll accelerate and speed up to the points where no PDF team’s lying there, the dark spots between the searchlight towers. At the same time, I want you to sweep the area with your spot lamp, and if we find anyone sneaking through we shoot ‘em. Of course, if we’re near enough to one of our teams that puts up a parachute flare and starts shooting, we’ll go in and give ‘em some extra fire power.”
            After a year of perimeter patrols, all this was routine for Roberts. He remembered his own fervor in the first weeks and months out here. It may not have been the action he’d hoped for in terrorist hotspots such as Malaya and Kenya, but it was as close as he could get to real action for now. After getting what his fellow cadets at Sandhurst had jokingly called “a degree in killing people,” he’d relished the promise of putting his training into practice. But for Cash, it must be starkly different. This just wasn’t his thing. He was fresh from the secure routine of his art school in London. How would he react to what happened out here?
            Cash had been reticent and diffident in the mess room, but now, as they drove out to the perimeter, with the radio operator and his gear wedged in the narrow seat behind them, he seemed far more self-confident.
            “I met a bloke in Port Said yesterday,” Cash said. ‘He said the stuff behind the barbed wire in here’s worth millions of pounds. Is that true?”
            “Absolutely. It must be the one the biggest army supply places in the world – hundreds of acres of small arms, ammunition, radio, telephone equipment, vehicle parts, tanks, trucks. You name it, and it’s probably here. The wogs come in looking for things they can carry away, especially weapons and ammo. And would you believe they pinch tons of blankets? They get a good price in the street markets. Fancy risking your life for a few bloody blankets!”
            Cash didn’t reply for a moment. “But then, they’re as poor as anything, aren’t they?” he said. “I mean, it’s pathetic. They’re on their uppers. They live in little mud houses . . .hovels, really. I saw a lot of people when we were on the train coming down to Ismailiyah today, out there in the fields. The fellahin. Most of them have arms and legs like scarecrows. Mustn’t there be something wrong with their society if they have to risk being killed for a few blankets? And they must have a lot of guts, too. You can’t help being sorry for them.”
            Roberts was taken aback. Something wrong with their society? Guts? What sort of talk was this? It was lucky the radio operator was busy netting-in with his headset on to hear him. He couldn’t believe it. Here was a newly commissioned officer fresh out from home, trying to justify the sins of their enemy. But then, he was an artist, wasn’t he? He was probably a damn poet, too. Arty people tended to be like this, radicals, a bit left of center. He’d pronounced fellahin like a bloody Arab. Where had he learnt that?
            Now he had a very different view of the bastards. Not long ago they were crawling through the wire and over the mines and blowing up trucks, burning down the storage sheds and sniping at the searchlights. And he just couldn’t get this morning’s incident with the dog out of his mind. That was what these people were really like. They loafed in the streets, spat at the soldiers whenever they were stuck in traffic. They stole from strangers, and even from each other. And guts? Forget it. They had as much courage as the pye-dogs slinking in the village streets.
            “Listen, Cash,” Roberts said. “You’re entitled to your views, but if I were you I wouldn’t air them to your colleagues. It won’t go down well.”
            Chastened, Cash didn’t say anything, but occupied himself with loading the Bren gun that lay in front of him on sandbags on the jeep’s hood, and connecting up the leads of the spot lamp on his lap. Minutes later, the two arrived at the first team’s start point.
            As in the other four teams, there were four privates and a non-commissioned officer, equipped with two medium machine-guns, three rifles with sniping sights, a spot lamp, a two-inch mortar for parachute flares, an Alsatian killer-dog and its handler.
            The men didn’t like the dogs. Too many had seen them tear out the throat of an intruder in a few seconds. They tended to snuffle in the dark, giving away their positions to the intruders. There was also a prevalent belief that, after killing their real prey, they’d sometimes come padding back and attack the team.
            Roberts and Cash watched as the men, laden down with their weapons, ammunition and heavy spot lamp batteries, set out on foot for the perimeter fence, and fading into the dark. An hour later, with their lights and engine off, the two officers were parked in the shadows. Across the sand from the Nile Delta drifted the constant barking of village dogs and the throb of a water pump among the palm trees, like a giant human pulse. Half a mile away a searchlight beam swept languidly to and fro across the desert, like a lighthouse on some dangerous coastline.

            “Just keep your eyes open, and listen for noises,” Roberts said, his voice lowered.
            Another hour passed uneventfully. From time to time they sped to a new position, while Cash, behind his gun, raked the sand across the wire with the spot lamp. The night dragged on, each successive hour longer than the one before. After midnight, a brilliant half-moon rose on the horizon, and it grew colder. With the vehicle parked again, Roberts shivered suddenly, and felt the telltale drooping of his eyelids. Next to him the new man, was wide awake, and sitting bolt upright, watching the moonlit wire through glasses. He’d been as keen himself once, he thought. But now, it was dull routine, with two incidents a month at most.
            Roberts glanced at his watch. Three-thirty. It seemed it was going to be a quiet night.
            But a few minutes later, Cash turned to Roberts.
            “Listen! What’s going on over there?”
            There were raised voices, and then shouts from a nearby observation tower. The searchlight had stopped sweeping, and now concentrated its beam on a point maybe fifty yards beyond the outer ring of the wire. One of the Mauritians was scanning the illuminated area with binoculars.         
            “They’re onto something all right,” Roberts said.
            The men on the tower had swung the beam away for a few seconds and then quickly back to the same spot, hoping for a change of shape – something to identify, maybe someone running.
            “Let’s get over there,” Roberts said. He ground the jeep into gear and drove the hundred or so yards to the foot of the tower and, cupping his hands, called up to the men on the platform.
            “What’s going on out here?”
            Nobody answered, but seconds later there was a rifle shot, and then another, and a third. The shots echoed from the Delta and then, from the platform above, came a burst of convulsed laughter.
            “Hey! I said what’s going on?”
            A head appeared over the railing.
            “Who you?”
            “The PDF officer. What happened?”
            “We shoot him, sir.”
            “Who did you shoot?”
            “A fox, a big one.”

            They were back in the shadows again
            “Are there a lot of foxes here?” Cash asked.
            “Quite a few, but I doubt it was a fox. More likely a damn pye-dog.”
            The young officer was silent again, and neither spoke for four or five minutes.
            “Aren’t we going to get any action tonight?” he asked later.
            Roberts was leaning back in his seat, gazing up into the sky at a moon that was almost dazzling, and a million brilliant stars.
            “I wouldn’t say that,” he said. There’s another hour or two before sunrise. A lot can happen in a couple of hours.”
            The faintest glimmer of dawn appeared on the horizon. Roberts glanced at his watch. In an hour or two, he thought, they’d be back in their tent lines, sleeping off another uneventful night on the perimeter.
            A few minutes passed, and then two short bursts of machine-gun fire broke the silence.
            “Well, Cash,” Roberts said, “you wanted action. Here it comes.”
            He started the engine and they raced northeast up the perimeter road. As they sped past one of the first observation towers, the crew on the platform pointed excitedly toward the next one. But oddly, as they came over the crest of the next slope, there was no sweeping searchlight beam at the top of the tower. Roberts stopped under the platform and yelled up to the men on the railing.
            “What’s wrong with your searchlight?”
            A Mauritian leaned over the railing. He spoke almost unhurriedly, as though there was no need for urgency.
            “They shot it, sir. Right out! There were four of them and we’ve killed one.”
            “Which way did they go?” Roberts asked.
            “Toward the Delta, I think. They have not gone very far. They went back very carefully through the minefield. I think we hit at least one.”
            They needn’t have bothered, Roberts thought. The mines, an unreliable and long obsolete early 1940s model, had been there in the heat for a decade or more, and they rarely detonated. Their value was now mainly psychological.
            Roberts knew the quick way out to the Delta. Several small, locked, heavily-wired wooden gates, known as Q-gates, were installed around the perimeter. These allowed PDF patrols to drive out into the desert through a ten-foot wide mine-free channel, and each was positioned in full view of a searchlight tower.
            “You got a Q-gate here?” he called up.
            “Oh yes, sir. I will drop the keys down to you.”
            The ring of keys pattered down, and minutes later Cash had unlocked the gate and they were through the fence. Although the sun had partly broken the horizon, it was much lighter now, but the dark belt of palm trees in the Delta prevented the fleeing men from being silhouetted against what little light there was. For a few uncertain seconds the patrol circled and peered around themselves.
            Soon they were no more than a quarter of a mile from the trees.
            “Look! We’ve got ‘em.”
            The three men, one of whom had a rifle, were making for the cover of the trees in Indian file, and the man in the middle was dragging his leg. He was clearly wounded, and his companions seemed to have slowed down somewhat so that he could keep up. Roberts veered toward them and, following regulations, he called out his only word of Arabic, ordering the men to stop.
            But the men kept running, stumbling on toward the trees.
            And now, to Roberts’ astonishment, Cash called the second warning, adding a few other words in Arabic. They sounded curt, peremptory. Immediately, the armed man at the rear stopped running and spun toward them. But he wasn’t raising his hands in surrender. He’d dropped on one knee and was taking aim.
            Quickly, Roberts barked a third warning when simultaneously, a bullet struck the jeep’s radiator with a ringing metallic clang.
            Roberts saw a jet of water spurt to the left from the pierced hood.
            “Kill the bastards!”
            To Roberts’ annoyance, even though the man with the rifle would shoot at any moment, Cash held his fire for a few more seconds, and instead yelled one last sentence at the Egyptians. His voice was hoarse, passionate. Roberts recognized only one word. Allah.
            Cash, who was already leaning into the butt of the Bren gun, flicked the control lever to automatic, took aim and opened fire. In a few seconds, at about forty yards, he’d felled the armed man with a quick, well-controlled burst, jerking him off balance so that he seemed to toss away his rifle, falling spread-eagled on his back. The man in front had stopped and turned, throwing his arms around his limping comrade. Then, in one long burst of fire that caused a juddering vibration in the vehicle, Cash swept the gun from left to right and back again, until the magazine was empty, and all three men lay dead on the sand.
            Roberts and Cash sat still, and neither spoke. The radio operator, his face white with shock, was calling for an ambulance. Not far away, from a dozen minarets behind the trees, came a plaintive call to prayer.
            A dazzling sun rose over the Delta. Roberts turned back to the radio operator to whom – though he’d been there with them for eleven hours – neither officer had spoken except to give the occasional order.
            “What’s going on back there?”
            “They’ll have the ambulance here soon as they can, sir.”
            For the first time, Roberts looked into the soldier’s baby face. He didn’t look a day over sixteen. Like Cash, he was probably fresh out from home.
            “So, what did you think of that little action, signaler?”
            The young soldier grinned. “Me, sir? I was friggin’ scared . . .I don’t mind tellin’ ya.’ I thought that little wog was goin’ to do us all in.”

            Though it was only seven-thirty, the temperature must already have been in the upper eighties.
            “How’d you feel?” Roberts asked Cash, who’d still said nothing since the incident.
            “I’m all right,” he said, but his voice was lifeless and he was shaking uncontrollably, as though he was chilled with cold.
            Roberts had been puzzled by Cash’s apparent fluency in Arabic. What an odd fish he was!
            “What did you say to them the first time?”
            The young man shrugged. “I said, ‘stop or we’ll fire.”
            “And the second time?”
            Cash hesitated. “It was, well . . .a kind of blessing, I suppose. It was . . .’may God protect you. Something like that.”
            What was this all about? Roberts couldn’t think of a suitable response.
            “Where did you learn Arabic?” he asked.
            “My uncle taught me, he’s a professor at Oxford. And, we speak it all the time lot at home, of course.” Cash said.
            “How come? And who’s ‘we’?”
            “Well, my mother’s Egyptian, and a lot of my relatives speak Arabic.”

            A cloud of dust was billowing near the perimeter behind them, and the ambulance was coming.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Banana Split

There was something almost ritual and ceremonial about it all, and even though there were fewer than two hundred of us, it seemed like some kind of re-enactment of the biblical Feeding of the Five Thousand.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start at the beginning. The year was 1942, and Britain was in the third year of World War II. The place was Cranbrook School in Southeast England, and I was eleven years old.
The most frequent topic of conversation at the school during those dark days -- and especially during our dull school meals -- was food. We were, well , consumed by it! Later on, of course, the subject changed to girls, but we hadn’t discovered them yet in our non-co-ed school. We talked wistfully about food because it was severely rationed. Nazi U-boats and battleships were attacking and sinking our merchant ships bringing food from countries in the British Empire. They destroyed an incredible 3000 cargo ships during the war. Besides this, during the enemy occupation of Europe, we were deprived of food or anything else from other countries.
What we missed most were commonplace things that we'd blithely taken for granted before the War, but were now in short supply, such as cheese, sugar, eggs and chocolate. Then there were all the fruits that don’t grow in Britain’s sun-deprived climate: oranges, lemons, tangerines, pineapples, dates, figs and, missed most of all, bananas. We hadn't seen or tasted a banana for nearly three years. We yearned for banana fritters, sherry trifle with bananas on top, bananas and cream, banana sandwiches in the carefree days when you could simply pick up a banana, peel it and chomp on it.
Then, out of nowhere, a boy called Lou Taylor came into our lives and, just once during the six years of the War, enabled us to savor the taste of bananas – and in the oddest circumstances.
Lou Taylor was a shy, gangling, floppy-haired beanpole of a kid in my class, the son of an American diplomat. We took to him at once, but mimicked him mercilessly, and nicknamed him Long Island Lou. Unlike the rest of us, he often received parcels from his grandparents, aunts and uncles in America, and I have to admit that he owed a part of his popularity to the fact that he always shared these goodies with us. For the first time we discovered such trans-Atlantic wonders as Twinkies, Hershey bars, Oreos, bubble gum, Pepsi and Coke.
One morning, a Studebaker with Diplomatic Corps insignia drew up outside the headmaster's elegant Queen Anne house, into which a chauffeur carried a big cardboard box. Lunch was nearly over a few hours later in the big dining-hall, when two kitchen maids brought in an armful of bananas, and set them on the table in front of Dr. C. Russell Scott, the headmaster and his wife. Immediately, Mrs.Scott – known to us all because of her bird-like appearance as The Crow – began to peel them and heap them around a chopping board that was by now on the table in front of her husband.
What was going on here? Scott rose to his feet and, grasping his coat lapels with both hands (a habit that had always made him easy to imitate) announced that the bananas had been sent by Lou Taylor's parents, who’d suggested they be shared with all the boys in Lou’s house. However, the headmaster told us, Lou had generously suggested that this rare, unobtainable fruit be divided not only among the sixty or so boys in his house, but with all of the school's nearly two hundred boarders.
While everyone watched, intrigued, Scott and The Crow began slicing up the bananas into pieces about one inch thick and, in a few minutes, bowls of these were passed around the tables. The headmaster, his wife and the staff at the top table seemed to have made a generous and selfless gesture, because none of them partook of this divine dessert.
It's surprising how long you can take to eat a one-inch slice of banana when you put your mind to it. Some of the boys sliced each little portion into four or five smaller slivers, while others chopped off tiny pieces with a teaspoon. A few less impressionable boys gobbled down their share in a single mouthful.
When we'd all finished, the headmaster led a round of applause for Lou, who shrank, blushing in his seat.
Anyone hearing this story about 70 years later must think it weird that so many people of any age would share so small a collection of bananas in such an earnest and solemn way, as though receiving some sacrament. But in wartime even the most everyday thing becomes a luxury. We’d all grown a little obsessive and fixated about our long lost pleasures.
Look at it this way – what little daily luxuries do you enjoy most? Coffee, perhaps, or cognac, chocolate chip cookies, champagne, caviar or Camembert? Now, whatever it is, imagine you’ve been deprived of it for three whole years, and have absolutely no idea when or whether you’ll ever see it again. Then you’ll begin to fathom what that nostalgic ritual was all about.