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An Israeli Soldier's Story
also available: Hardcover
tagged : military
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Nights on the hill were unusually long. They were inhabited by shadows flitting among boulders, by bushes that assumed human form, by viscous mists that crept in and thickened until all the sentries were blind. Sometimes you took over one of the guard posts, checked your watch an hour later, and found that five minutes had passed. 
     The enemy specialized in the roadside bomb artfully concealed, in the short barrage, in the rocket threaded through the slit of a guard post. We specialized in waiting. An honest history of this time would consist of several thousand pages of daydreams and disjointed thoughts born of exhaustion and boredom, disrupted only every hundred pages or so by a quick tragedy, and then more waiting. 
     At night four sentries waited in four guard posts that were never empty. Four crewmen waited in a tank, searching the approaches to the fort. Ambush teams conversed in whispers and passed cookies around in the undergrowth outside, waiting for guerrillas. A pair of soldiers drank coffee from plastic cups in a room of radio sets, waiting for transmissions to come through. 
     Before the earliest hint of dawn each day someone went around rousing all of those who weren’t awake already. Groggy creatures dropped from triple-decker bunks, struggled into their gear, and snapped helmet straps under chins. Now everyone was supposed to be ready. Lebanon was dark at first, but soon the sky began to pale through the camouflage net. Sometimes first light would reveal that the river valley had filled with clouds, and then the Pumpkin felt like an island fortress in a sea of mist — like the only place in the world, or like a place not of this world at all. There was a mood of purposefulness at that hour, an intensity of connection among us, a kind of inaudible hum that I now understand was the possibility of death; it was exciting, and part of my brain misses it though other parts know better. 
     This ritual, the opening act of every day, might have been called Morning Alert or some other forgettable military term, with any unnecessary syllable excised. It might have been shortened, as so much of our language was, to an acronym. But for some reason it was never called anything but Readiness with Dawn. The phrase is as strange in the original Hebrew as in the English. This was, in our grim surroundings, a reminder that things need not be merely utilitarian. It was an example of the poetry that you can find even in an army, if you’re looking.
     The hour of Readiness with Dawn was intended as an antidote to the inevitable relaxing of our senses, a way of whetting the garrison’s dulled attention as the day began. It was said this was the guerrillas’ preferred time to storm the outpost, but they didn’t do that when I was there. I remember standing in the trench as the curtain rose on our surroundings, trying to remember that out there, invisible, was the enemy, but finding my thoughts wandering instead to the landscape materializing at that moment beyond the coils of wire: cliffs and grassy slopes, villages balanced on the sides of mountains, a river flowing beneath us toward the Mediterranean. Things were so quiet that I believe I could hear the hill talking to me. I’m not sure I could understand then what it was saying. But now I believe it was “What are you doing here?” And also “Why don’t you go home?” 
     That hill is still speaking to me years later. Its voice, to my surprise, has not diminished with the passage of time but has grown louder and more distinct.  
     This book is about the lives of young people who finished high school and then found themselves in a war -- in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war, but one that has nonetheless reverberated in our lives and in the life of our country and the world since it ended one night in the first spring of the new century. Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today would do well to look closely at these events. 
     Part 1 is about a series of incidents beginning in 1994 at the Israeli army outpost we called the Pumpkin, seen through the eyes of a soldier, Avi, who was there before me. Part 2 introduces two civilians, mothers, who helped bring about the unraveling of the military’s strategy. Part 3 describes my own time on the hill, and the experiences of several of my friends in the outpost’s last days. The final part recounts my return to Lebanon after these events had ended, in an attempt to understand them better. 
     Readiness with Dawn ended up being a time for contemplation. Look around: Where are you, and why? Who else is here? Are you ready? Ready for what? So important was this ritual at such an important time in my life that this mode of consciousness became an instinct, the way an infant knows to hold its breath underwater. I still slip into it often. I’m there now.

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Out Standing in the Field

Out Standing in the Field

A Memoir by Canada's First Female Infantry Officer
also available: eBook
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Living Up to a Legend

Living Up to a Legend

My Adventures with Billy Bishop's Ghost
also available: Paperback
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On November 10, 2010, the night before Remembrance Day, my father called me.
“Hello, helloooo. Are you there?” he bellowed into the receiver. At eighty-seven Dad was going deaf, and he thought everyone else was, too.
“I am here, Dad, but it’s 9:30 at night. Is anything wrong?” I asked, raising my voice a little to make sure I didn’t have to repeat myself. I was already in bed reading, but with an aging father in a nursing home, a late-night phone call always put me on edge. Normally, Dad would be fast asleep at this hour. Tonight he sounded as though he was on high alert.
“No, no, nothing wrong,” Dad chimed. “Just wanted to call and let you know that I got myself all dressed in my suit. I have put my medals on and am ready to go.”
Now I was confused. What was he talking about? My first thought was that he was giving himself a little dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s activities. After recent eye and dental surgery, the only Remembrance Day service and speech for which my father could summon the strength was the one he intended to give at breakfast to a room full of sedate nursing home “inmates,” as he’d dubbed them.
“Yes, sir, I am going to show these peasants what Canada is all about.”
My father had grown up in a world where, as he put it, “God is an Englishman” — quite different from the socially and ethnically diverse population he lived with at the nursing home — even if it was called Kensington Gardens after the Royal Park in London.
I knew that the thought of having the floor in the nursing home’s dining room, however brief and unsolicited the moment would be, was still enough for my dad to dress up proudly with his medals — a symbol of his most glorious era — above his heart, and, of course, to remind all of us who he was. But Dad needed no rehearsal. He had attended so many Remembrance Day ceremonies in his lifetime that I knew he had it all down pat.
Did he plan to sleep in his clothes so that he would be ready to go in the morning? In his old age, Dad often fretted that he might sleep in and miss something — hard to imagine, as he was still the nervous ball of energy that he had always been.
My biggest worry whenever my father called was that I might have to get up, get dressed, and go over to see him. My presence was often the only thing that would calm him down. Despite my complex relationship with him over the years, I had an unwavering sense of duty to my father. I felt it was my responsibility to step in and take care of him after my mother died. I was Daddy’s girl, loyal to a fault.
I was trying to formulate some response when Dad boomed, “Got to go. I have to get to the dining room before breakfast is over.”
In that moment, as Dad hung up and left me on the line, holding nothing but silence, it hit me: my father was leaving me, bit by bit. I knew it; I had known it for some time. And yet that moment stunned me, stung me, and wrenched at my heart.
My whole life I had watched my father, Arthur Bishop, the only son of Canada’s and the Commonwealth’s most famous First World War flying ace, step up to various podiums around the country on Remembrance Day. A former fighter pilot himself, flying Spitfires in the Second World War, Dad was invited to scores of military and aviation events, and he revelled in his stardom at each show. He was masterful, playing a part that he had been born into — though it was not one he had selected for himself.
On many of these occasions, he told a captive audience that, between them, he and his father had shot down seventy-three German planes. “My father shot down seventy-two, and I shot down one!” Dad would proudly joke.
I can’t recall the first time I heard Dad use that line. Like so many stories about my grandfather and my father, it felt as if I had always known them. I do remember that Dad always delivered the quip with a wonderful mix of humility, pride, and humour that people loved.
Of course, it was a joke that masked a difficult truth for my father: he had grown up as the son of Billy Bishop, a legend, a Canadian icon. Dad had a lot to live up to.
In fact, his father’s mythical status had only grown over the years. There were books, documentaries, and a highly acclaimed play about him. There were also stamps bearing his image, as well as streets, bars, cafés, an air force building, a museum, a mountain in the Canadian Rockies, and a couple of airports named after him.
I admit readily that it took me a long time to fully appreciate both the blessing and the burden that my father carried around with the Bishop name. Children only have their own experiences to rely on, and my experiences with Dad as a youngster were something of a roller coaster ride. Although there were things about him that were quite wonderful, there were many others that were awful. I battled internally and at considerable emotional cost trying to reconcile these two sides of his character because, more than anything else, I so desperately wanted my father to be a hero to me like my grandfather was.
On the one hand, he was a very funny man. Everyone thought so. Dad could walk into a room and have everyone laughing in no time. He was endowed with the perfect sense of timing, and he could really tell a joke. In fact, I was convinced he was the one who came up with new jokes — usually dirty ones — because he was always the first to tell them before they made the rounds.
Dad was always full of surprises. You never knew what he might do out of the blue, but you knew it would have you in stitches. He could give everyone real belly laughs — once at a resort Dad got up when they were playing Mexican music. He was in his mid-fifties by then, but he took the floor in front of a large dinner crowd to do the most energetic hat dance you have ever seen. As the music got more intense, so did Dad’s dancing. Ten minutes later he was still at it, with the crowd cheering and madly clapping. I was convinced he was headed for a heart attack, but no, he went on and on until the music finally stopped. He ended his big solo by taking a bow.
All his life my father had been wiry and compact, with unbridled vivacity; you could almost see sparks flying off of him in all directions. Surprisingly, dementia had not taken away that fire in his belly or the twinkle in his eye, but his body had diminished, a much tinier version of its former self. In casual and sports clothes Dad had always looked messy, but in a suit and tie he could really put it together — a bit of a metaphor for his life in general, or so it seemed to me.
As I held the phone, I knew Dad would be drowning in his navy-blue suit jacket. But my heart burst with respect, knowing that he would have expertly knotted his tie with the tiny Spitfires all over it. He would have remembered to wear a deep red poppy, the familiar emblem of Remembrance Day, and his breastplate of war medals would be in place over his heart.
I imagined him determinedly working his way down the long hallway of the nursing home using his walker and arriving at the dining hall, perplexed to find it dark and empty — it was 9:30 at night, after all. That was if he even made it that far; it’s likely the evening nursing attendant would be surprised to see him up and dressed at that hour, and, as diplomatically as possible, would try to coax him back to bed. There would probably be quite a scene.
It was at that moment that I felt an overwhelming sense of panic. I knew that my father would not be here much longer, and I needed to face the facts: For all my devotion to him, particularly in his waning years, I had spent much of my life not only struggling to understand this larger-than-life force that was my father but also trying to resolve my own complicated feelings about him, feelings that had burdened me my entire life. I had to reconcile the fact that a man who could do a Mexican hat dance long enough for a Guinness World Record and keep a room full of people in stitches could also be so very cruel to those closest to him.
I felt I needed to understand more deeply the forces that shaped my father’s life and, ultimately, my own. Not surprisingly, it all seemed to lead back to my famous grandfather.
Our Billy Bishop was not just Canada’s war hero; he was our hero, too. As his family, we worshipped him — who he was, what he did, what he stood for — even when it didn’t always make a lot of sense. Billy certainly wasn’t perfect, yet we still held tight to our unshakeable super-human image of him. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that Billy Bishop has been one of greatest influences in my life, propelling me to be adventurous and courageous, but also haunting me to try too hard, be too hard on myself, and feel like I could never measure up. That impact is what I needed and wanted to understand better.
I think we all struggle to find ourselves in our family narrative. I certainly did, realizing that, like my father, I had grown up feeling that I must live up to a legend. When I think about the years I spent as a journalist, telling other people’s stories, and then as a communications and branding specialist, helping people to tell their own stories, I understand that all along I have been searching for a way to tell my own story.
These are the factors that sparked this journey to explore the forces that were unleashed with my proud military heritage and the impact it has had on my life and my family’s life because living with the memory of Billy Bishop has been like living with a ghost — a friendly ghost, yes, but one that has always been there with us in spirit, shaping our lives in particular ways, and challenging me to contemplate what is a hero? And what role do heroes play in our lives?

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Refuge in the Black Deck

Refuge in the Black Deck

The Story of Ordinary Seaman Nicola Peffers
tagged : military
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A Boy from Botwood

A Boy from Botwood

Pte. A.W. Manuel, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 1914-1919
also available: Paperback
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Chapter One
Botwood, 1908

When I had reached what my teacher said would be the equivalent of the seventh grade in a regular public school, my poor dear old father, with tears in his eyes and his voice filled with emotion, broke the bad news he could no longer afford to pay any further tuition fees. I was twelve years old at the time, but I sobbed myself to sleep that night.
Next day I began work in a sawmill, where I received the magnificent sum of fifty cents — not fifty cents an hour, but fifty cents a day. The workdays were ten hours long in those days and included Saturdays. We worked a full sixty hours each and every week, fifty-two weeks a year. Christmas and Good Friday were the only two so-called holidays, but we weren’t paid for either.
My first job at the mill was carrying wet and heavy water-soaked lumber from the saws to the drying yard, two hundred feet away or more. It was work that in most civilized countries was performed only by trucks and horses. When I had been there for about a year or so, one of the owners came over from England to look the place over. I suppose that because of my age, he came out to where I was stacking the lumber and asked me a whole lot of questions. He wanted to know whether or not I had attended school and for how long; how many brothers and sisters I had; what kind of work my father did for a living; and if I intended to remain on the Island, or to migrate to the U.S.A. or Canada, as most of the young Newfoundland people were doing.
He took both my hands in his, turned them palms up, and began prodding at them with his thumb, but they were so thoroughly and deeply calloused from the friction of so many planks sliding through my hands day after day that the prodding could barely be felt.
“Why don’t you wear gloves?” he inquired. “Because I can’t afford them,” I replied. “Oh yes, that is so,” he said, “and something must be done about it. I have been talking with your foreman and he tells me that you are a very hard and conscientious worker, so I am going to ask the manager to increase your salary.”
Oh boy, for the next couple of weeks, I was walking on air with my head in the clouds. But when payday came at the end of the month and I was told by the big, fat, pot-bellied Scandinavian manager that Mr. Crowe (the owner) had only recommended a ten-cent per day raise in my wages and in future I would be paid the grand total of sixty cents per day, I could not believe my ears. Whether he was lying or not, I had no way of knowing. In any case, there was nothing I could do about it as there were plenty of others, both men and boys, waiting to take the job if I dared to make a complaint.
After two years, I was sent by the mill bosses to mine some limestone for the Grand Falls Paper Company.1 The father of the woman I boarded with during my six weeks stay there was ninety-three years old — he had never seen a genuine banknote of any description prior to his eighty-fourth birthday. He told me that for his entire catch of fish during the year prior to his retirement, he was paid a mere one dollar per quintal.2 Therefore, he received less than one cent per pound for the very same kind of sun-cured codfish that I have paid as much as $3.98 per pound for today. We poor old Newfies, as the mainlanders call us, always get the small end of the stick and more often than not, the dirty end as well.
There were no modern, quick, frozen-fish plants in those days, where an independent fisherman could sell and be paid for his quota of fish on the day it was caught. It took a whole summer, or the better part of one, to prepare fish for the market. From catching, cleaning, and curing the fish, a monotonous, back-breaking routine was followed day after day until the entire summer catch had been processed and made ready for market. In the meantime, the poor individual family fisherman was required to buy everything he needs in the line of food, clothing, and fishing supplies, from the multi-millionaire merchants who bought his fish. Like the poor, hard-working miners and lumber mill men, he was robbed on both counts.
Our life was relentlessly hard, whether a family lived from the land, the woods, the mines, or the sea. In a way it prepared me for starvation and near-death when I was a prisoner of war. Sharing with others the little I had was neither new nor unusual. To borrow, loan, or give outright had been, for a high percentage of the people belonging to England’s oldest, poorest, and most neglected colony, a regular and recognized way of life. Down through the centuries, our neighbours had always been our one and only insurance (as we were theirs) against both hunger and disaster. None of our people ever felt embarrassed or inferior when circumstances beyond our control compelled us to seek help from our neighbours. It was an accepted and confirmed way of life at that time, and in all probability, in the far northern section of Newfoundland where I was born, it still is to some extent. This would be particularly so during the long winter months when, due to the ice and stormy weather, ships (still the only means of transportation to some of the northern towns) are forced to remain in port.
In my childhood days back home, if one of the villagers shot a moose, caribou, or any other kind of game, he never embarrassed his neighbours by asking if they wanted some. He simply cut it up into equal portions and delivered it to the various homes as though they had all bought and paid for it. In a sense, they had, for next time it would be their turn to keep the account sheet in balance.
While no community of people were ever more dependent on each other than were those of the little outports where I was born and grew up, the words dole, relief, welfare, or any kind of government handout as it is generally understood today, were altogether foreign and totally without meaning to our people. Admittedly, we were poor and by today’s standard of living, we would be considered very poor indeed. Nevertheless, nobody ever went hungry (at least not for long) and we prided ourselves on being one of the nation’s most free and independent people.3
Despite our lack of riches and luxury, we were content to make do with what we had. I would say that it was just another case of “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” In other words, what one has never had, one has never missed. Perhaps our biggest and most important consolation was the fact that we were all in the same boat together. There were no Joneses to keep up to, nor to envy. Although without choice, we were an absolute 100 percent classless society — not that I would recommend it for others, or that I would prefer to live it all over again myself.
Speaking of the devil — our newspaper boy just handed me the morning paper, and one of the headlines on the front page reads, “A family of four with an income of less than seventeen thousand is living on or below the poverty line.” Good God, I thought, that is as much or more than my dear old father made during his entire lifetime of eighty-eight years, and he fathered a family of twelve …4
These piecemeal Botwood recollections are ones that Manuel regularly intersperses among his Great War accounts. These memories reveal the practical reasons why he was quick to enlist with the RNR when war was declared in August 1914. Manuel had worked in a variety of difficult, often dangerous jobs for very little pay. The army promised a uniform, regular meals, better pay, and adventure — powerful lures for the rural and outport Newfoundlanders for whom the description hardscrabble would be appreciated as an understatement. And, after all, the British political leadership and their Newfoundland representatives assured the newly enlisted colonials that the war would be over by Christmas. The ceaseless, hard-grinding Botwood life could be suspended, if only for a time. It would be a shame to miss the fun.

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