Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rough Justice

David, Kibbutznik at Red Sea 1974
This piece of my travel memoir writing was originally published in Harvest, the 2017 Anthology of  the  Past Tense Group at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre, Greenmount, Western Australia

Rough Justice

I look up from my breakfast in the kibbutz dining room to hear Ruth, one of the community leaders, addressing me.
'I read your account of the Sinai excursion in the newsletter. Goodness me, how gruesome! I'm glad you're all safe.'
'Thanks, Ruth. We're still recovering from the shock. Very glad to be back.'

In the winter of 1974, a year after the October War in the Middle East, the atmosphere in Israel is uneasy. I've volunteered at Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar, nestled in the fertile Hula Valley, 35 kilometres south of the Lebanese border. The idyllic landscape of orange groves and snow-capped mountains, belies the danger of the place. Walking past the kibbutz kindergarten, I can hear the deafening screech of fighter jets overhead, flying north towards Lebanon. The children continue to play hide and seek, not even looking up. These sorties have become a regular occurrence, but no one explains why.

We volunteers, who have decided to stay for the winter season, are offered a four-day excursion to the Sinai Peninsula. The plan is to cross Israel from north to south and back again. Our final destination is the ancient monastery of Santa Katerina at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we'll explore the Red Sea coastline and the inland oases of this sparsely-populated region. Our group consists of fourteen kibbutz volunteers and David, the kibbutznik, who will be bus driver and guide. David is a tall, friendly Yemeni man with dark bushy eyebrows and a long black beard. He's never been to the Sinai either and is keen to explore the area.

On the first day, we leave Upper Galilee and head south through the Jordan Valley to Jericho, Jerusalem, Hebron and Be'er Sheva – names steeped in Biblical history. By nightfall we reach the desert town of Eilat, located at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba. The lights of Eilat's twin town, Aqaba, twinkle a semaphore greeting from across the border in Jordan – a world away. We pitch our tents on the beach to the sound of lapping waves, and inhale the pungent aroma of barbecued fish. The crescent moon rising behind the Jordanian mountains evokes romantic images of Lawrence of Arabia with his band of Arabs, crossing desert and mountain range to seize Aqaba from the Ottoman Turks in 1917.

At dawn on the following day, we are up early and continue south, following the Red Sea coastline. To our left in the distance, across the Gulf of Aqaba, stand the stark red mountains of Saudi Arabia. The beaches of the gulf are pristine, white and deserted. From the bus we glimpse our first nomadic Bedouin – a man in a long-flowing garment, kneeling on his prayer mat, laid out on the beach.

The next day our path takes us inland into unknown territory. Israel has a tenuous hold on the Sinai, which it occupied after the Six Day War of 1967. David's tone is serious as he imparts our instructions for the day:
'We'll be stopping at several spots before we reach the Santa Katerina Monastery. Please stay with the group and don't go wandering off. We don't know much about these parts.'

The road takes us along the main pilgrim route from North Africa to Mecca and past a deserted quarantine station. Further along we reach the green Wadi Fir'an – a pleasant oasis of date palms, fragrant vines and crops, which springs unexpectedly from the rocky landscape.

Our bus stops again for afternoon tea. In the narrow valley behind us, several hundred metres away, there's a small village shadowed by rugged, stony mountains. Two men in long robes are crossing the valley floor, making their way towards the village. We keep our distance. David pulls out a stack of camp chairs and we find a spot near a thorny acacia tree and unpack thermoses of tea and slices of sweet-smelling lemon cake. A light dusting of snow covers the mountain tops. The air is dry and sharp. I sit in a reverie with the sun warming my back, while a lone eagle circles overhead, lifting high on the thermals.

David stands up, stretches and looks around to do a head count.
'Hey! Two people are missing. Did anyone see them leave?'
The Bedouins we saw earlier have vanished into the landscape.
'I'll go and search in the village over there,' David says. 'Wait here.'

Just at this moment the two volunteers appear in the distance, like tumble grass blowing across the rocky terrain. By the time they reach us, they're sweating profusely, wide-eyed and gasping for breath. They stop in front of David, bent with the exertion, their blue jeans dusted in red.
'Oh God! Something horrible! A dead man!'
'A body hanging in the tree – a rope around his neck.'
'Over there, behind the rocks, at the edge of the village.'
'Quick!' David says. 'Pack up! We need to leave.'

Grabbing our bags and half-eaten cake we pile back into the bus and take off in a cloud of dust. Our friends relate a garbled description of the grisly scene – a bare-footed young man, fully clothed, swinging from a tree with a thick hemp rope around his neck.
'Who would have done this?' We ask David.
His brow furrows as he looks out the bus window. 'I don't know. It could be some sort of tribal feud.'

Later that day, when we reach the Santa Katerina Monastery, David makes enquiries about our shocking discovery. The Orthodox monks maintain good relations with the local Bedouins and sometimes step in to assist in resolving conflicts. The Bedouins have their own system of justice, they explain. Decisions of law are made by the village elders, according to honour codes. In this case, the dead man had probably committed a capital crime and therefore paid with his life. To us it seems like rough justice.

In 1979, after the Camp David peace agreement, Israel handed back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. In the intervening years the region we traversed has opened up to tourism and the tribal justice systems and traditional ways are disappearing. The brutal death we stumbled upon in 1975, cast a pall over our remaining travels in the Sinai Peninsula and the memory lingers still.

Bedouin children Sinai 1974

Monday, April 30, 2018

They Shall Grow Not Old, Bud's Story

Photo of Bud Baggs from his RCAF enlistment record in 1941

My family first history book, 'They shall grow not old', Bud's story was published in 2016. 

The book is written as a quest, describing my journey to find out about the uncle I never met. Herbert Gerald Baggs died aged 21, while on active service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1943. If he were still alive today he would have just celebrated his 96th birthday!

Copies of my book are available in the State Library of Western Australia and the National Library of Australia. A copy has been sent to Library and Archives Canada.

Here are some lines from the beginning of the book:

"On 19 April 1943, just three days after his 21st birthday, our Canadian uncle Gerald died while on active service with the Royal Canadian Air Force. A few days later Gerald's name appeared among the list of air casualties, one of the grim announcements published regularly in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Four other Canadian Air Force personnel lost their lives that day in 1943 – a sobering reminder of the fear and dread families lived through during wartime, not knowing who might be next.
As children growing up in sunny post-war Australia, we three sisters had heard little about our Canadian uncle – he was somewhat of a mystery to us. We knew he had died in a plane crash during the war, but the circumstances of his death remained hidden from us for many years. Both our parents, like so many others who had experienced those harrowing war years, kept their painful war memories to themselves and we hesitated to press them on that subject. As a child I imagined uncle Gerald would suddenly appear at my school and announce himself to me. I couldn't fathom that he could have just disappeared. Maybe someone had made a terrible mistake in declaring him dead?"

Grave of Herbert Gerald Baggs in Toronto

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember him.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Raid

This piece of my memoir writing was originally published in 2017 in  Harvest, the Anthology of the Past Tense Group at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Wrters' Centre in Greenmount, Western Australia

The Raid

Viewed from the front, there was nothing unusual about my grandparents' house in Strathfield, but to me as a seven-year-old, around the back was a place of intrigue and mystery. A towering brick wall formed the boundary fence between their house and the row of shops beyond. Shards of broken glass had been cemented along the top of the wall, like a row of sharp brown fangs to scare off intruders.

'Why are there broken bottles on the wall, Gran?' I asked.
'Because they don't want people climbing over.' She folded her arms across her bony chest and stood tall.

Curiously, the window of the room above the shops had been plastered over with brown paper.

'Do people live over the shops, Gran?'
She shrugged and turned to go inside. 'I'm not sure.'

But Gran was dodging my question. Sometime later, I discovered that my grandparents often heard shouting, late into the night, behind the browned-out window.

Most of the days when I visited, I spent the time in my grandparents' bedroom at the front of the house, playing with my little sister. While Gran toiled in the kitchen, preparing her famous coconut-ice, we would be getting into mischief, bouncing up and down on their big old iron-frame bed. We'd crawl under the bed and explode into fits of giggles at the large porcelain chamber pot, hidden there. I don't know why they kept a chamber pot, because they did possess an indoor toilet. Maybe because they were country people at heart and old habits die hard?

Grandpa was semi-retired and spent his leisure time growing vegetables in a garden bed along the side of the house. We'd trail behind while he pulled up a fresh crop and couldn't wait to sink our teeth into the juicy sweet carrots, still smelling of earth. During the school week, I took the train to Strathfield Station and dropped in to see Gran and Grandpa on the way to school.

The peace of my grandparents' suburban life was shattered late one night when they were rudely woken from their slumber by a sharp knock at the front door. Grandpa stepped into his felt slippers, pulled on his chequed, woollen dressing gown and, still half-asleep, shuffled to the front door. Gran padded after him, gathering a shawl over her tall frame. They turned on the veranda light and cautiously opened the door, peering out into the gloom. Standing there on the front veranda was a uniformed policeman. The light caught his sandy-coloured mustache as he smiled reassuringly. Behind him, in the dim light of the front path, were several more policemen, one of whom held a long wooden ladder under his arm.

'Sir, we're sorry to disturb you at this late hour, but we need to cross over your backyard to gain access to the shops behind you.'

Grandpa led the way down the driveway and the men tramped behind him, their black leather boots leaving deep imprints in the garden soil and squashing the precious carrots. Gran retreated into the house and emerged at the back door in time to witness events from a safe distance.

The police propped up the ladder and scaled the fence, avoiding the spikes of glass. They climbed to the covered window, and tried to force it open. When it wouldn't budge they took a mallet and crashed through the glass.

My grandparents couldn't see inside the upstairs room, but they heard the commotion and voices shouting: 'police raid!' – followed by the muffled footsteps clomping down the timber staircase as men were being frog marched out. And so, that night, another Sydney Two-up school was busted.

Over the next few days Gran pored over the morning newspapers, searching for juicy details of the late-night raid. Shoppers at the local butcher shop winnowed through the husks of the story, searching for the precious grains of truth. It transpired that more than a dozen men had been apprehended at the Two-up school above the shops. They were taken to Strathfield Police Station and charged with being found in a common gaming house. The mystery behind the backyard fortress was revealed. The next time I visited Gran on my way to school, she regaled me with the whole thrilling saga.
In the postwar years, Two-up schools were common across Sydney. From Kirribilli to Surrey Hills, if you were keen for a flutter, the local taxi driver knew where to find the action. Usually a man, known as the cockatoo, would stand guard to warn of an imminent raid. On the night of the Strathfield raid, the hapless cockatoo, like the guns defending Singapore, must have been facing the wrong way.
Law enforcement never did stamp out the evil of Two-up and eventually they surrendered the fight. By 1954, the era of clubs and pokies had already begun. In the 1990s, the New South Wales government legalised Two-up and in so doing, eliminated a long standing element of Australia's larrikin tradition. My grandparents dined out on the story of the Strathfield Two-up raid for several years, until they moved away from the neighbourhood in the 1960s.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Northwestern campaign Europe 1945

Bede's photo of the German coastal fortifications along the Atlantic sea wall, 1945

The piece below is a first draft of a scene from my book about the life of Bede Smith

Oldenburg, Germany, May 1945  

In early April, the Fourth Division advanced into northwestern Germany. A campaign of targeted bombing by the Allies cleared the way for them to seize the medieval garrison town of Oldenburg. Meanwhile, less than 300 miles to the northeast, in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the streets of Berlin, the Nazi leadership imploded, and on the 30th of April Hitler put a gun to his head.

Events moved swiftly towards Germany's surrender, until the guns fell silent on the 5th of May. Bede was 10 miles from Oldenburg when the news came through of Victory in Europe (VE), and the celebrations began. For him, it had been 276 long days since he'd set foot on the four-mile stretch of grey sand in Normandy.

Several days after VE Day, Bede entered the smoke haze of the officers' mess, the notes of Lili Marlene still ringing in his head from the previous night's entertainment. He wandered over to the notice board and stood, arms folded, scanning the announcements. One flyer outlined the three options available post-VE: soldiers could remain in Europe in the Army of Occupation, volunteer for the Canadian Pacific Force, or apply for a discharge. While Bede was examining the fine print, a separate headline suddenly caught his attention – "Australians Land in Borneo." He adjusted the glasses on his nose and bent lower to read the details. The news item reported a military landing at Tarakan, an insignificant island near Borneo, where the Japanese were still dug in. His middle brother Noel would be there with the Australian Eighth Division. And younger brother Kevin, as far as he knew, was serving in the Solomon Islands. For them, the ordeal continued.

Bede's thoughts were interrupted by a burst of raucous laughter coming from a corner-table in the mess. Despite the sore heads from days of celebration, nothing daunted their spirits. He sauntered over to join the group. The men had copies of the Canadian Forces newspaper, The Maple Leaf, spread out on the table.

'Have you seen this?' his colleague said, holding up the front cover of The Maple Leaf Victory edition. One word filled the full length of the front page – "KAPUT."

'Yes,' Bede laughed. 'The cover's a beaut!' He pulled out a chair and sat down to join the men.

'What else have you found out?' asked Bede
'Some more information about volunteering for the Pacific.'
'You going to volunteer?' Bede asked.
'I'm not sure yet. Are you?'
Bede hesitated. 'I haven't decided. No one can say we haven't done our bit.'
'You've got a wife and child at home. You're off the hook, so to speak.'
'That's true,' Bede said. 'Still, the job's only half done.'

His colleague reached into his uniform pocket, tapped out a few cigarettes and offered them around the table. Bede reached over for one and dug into his pocket for a match.

'Some of us are applying for leave,' his colleague said. 'Going to try and see Paris while we can.'
Bede's eyes brightened. 'That sounds terrific!'

He took a short puff on his cigarette. He'd need to make his decision about the Pacific soon. How would Marg react if he volunteered? All this time in the Europe campaign amounted to a 20-month separation from his family. He'd missed out on Pat's first birthday, and her second birthday. His daughter wouldn't know him when he returned home.

Bede worried about his parents in Sydney who had endured the last five years with fortitude. James and Alice Smith had three sons in the military. As well as Bede, their middle son Noel had served in the North African campaign and was now in Borneo. Youngest son Kevin was a pharmacist with 17th Field ambulance in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Their daughter Nora worked for the government in Canberra, leaving youngest child Joan (Kevin's twin) as the only one at home.

Towards the end of May, Bede's Division relocated south to Almelo, a town in the eastern Netherlands, where they helped distribute food to the starving population. For the Dutch, after the famine and the flooding of parts of their country, the peace was sweet indeed. At a victory parade in The Hague on the 21st of May, Queen Wilhelmina was welcomed back from exile. Dutch red, white and blue flags flapped in the breeze, and the Canadians were hailed as heroes.

After breakfast on the 25th of May, Bede marched across the quadrangle and joined a queue of soldiers filing across the barracks' yard in Almelo. He stood with the morning sun warming his back, as the line inched slowly towards the entrance to a large canvas tent. Behind the perimeter fence, a flock of starlings roosting in a tree chirped loudly, reaching a celebratory crescendo.

When Bede reached the head of the queue, he paused at the entrance to wait his turn. A dozen officers were lined up in a row inside the tent, seated at makeshift tables, each with a pile of papers in front of him. The pug-faced lieutenant at the next available post looked up, raised his hand and summoned him forward. Bede sat opposite the lieutenant and handed over his completed questionnaire.

'I'm volunteering for the Pacific,' Bede said, confirming his intentions.
'Good to hear, Captain,' he said. 'We're short of dentists.'
'So I'll be in the Sixth Infantry?'
'Correct. All volunteers from Europe will be assigned to the Sixth.'
'What happens next?' Bede said.
'You'll be demobbed and sent back to Canada. Then you'll start training for jungle warfare. Very different from what you've been through here.'
'Yes. I have an inkling.' It was not a welcome prospect either – the heat, the rugged terrain, the tropical diseases.
'So, how long before we sail?'
'It could be a while yet, Captain. Word is, they're having trouble locating enough carriers to ship you guys back across the Atlantic.'

Bede's face broke into a broad smile, buoyed by the news. Chances were he'd be in Europe a while longer – time for a trip to Paris.

More than 60,000 volunteered for the Canadian Pacific Force. Bede spent another six weeks in Europe and visited Paris. He also inspected the remains of the massive German fortifications along the Atlantic Sea Wall. The beaches were still covered in barbed wire and discarded military hardware and the once palatial seaside hotels remained boarded up.

Bede sailed back to Canada, on the troopship SS Pasteur and disembarked in Halifax on the 7th of July, 1945. There was much talk among the soldiers on board as to how much longer Japan could hold out. He prayed that this next stage of combat could be averted.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Family History Writing Challenge 2018 starts Feb 1

Every February for the last several years Lynn Palermo has run the Family History Writing Challenge.

Lynn Palermo, who is also known as The Armchair Genealogist   sets out some good reasons to join the challenge:

Why Should You Join the Challenge? 
•    Do you have a desire to turn your ancestor’s dry documents into exciting stories? 
•    Have you procrastinated for far too long?
•    Do you want to start but not sure how to begin?
•    Have you been writing sporadically never finishing a story?
•    Do you need to polish those stories making them more interesting, less of a yawn?
•    Do you need that nudge to finish your stories and finally publish?
•    Are you overwhelmed and need some support in getting started?

I'm so glad I stumbled across Lynn's Family History Writing Challenge  several years ago. It has helped me complete two family history books. I keep coming back and have done the Challenge three times now.

This time around I will be writing about my father, Bede Smith and I have several posts about him already on this blog. I've been working on my book about Bede for about 18 months and hope to finish this year.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A stranger in town

Henry Lawson in 1900. Portrait by John Longstaff in the Art Gallery of NSW collection
A stranger in town

In the early days, Leeton was accustomed to welcoming outsiders. But one stranger who arrived in the district in 1916, attracted particular attention.

My father Bede was only seven at the time. He and his mother Alice were on the main street of town, when a curious disheveled man approached from the opposite direction. He was tall, thin and stooped over a cane. His coat hung loosely on his back and a baggy felt hat covered his head. A drooping, handlebar moustache extended out beyond his jaw line.

'Mum,' said Bede. 'Look at that man's huge whiskers!'
'Sssht, Bede. Don't stare.'

Bede's eyes locked onto the stranger's penetrating gaze. A pungent cloud of tobacco smoke enveloped them as he passed. Alice remember the man from her home town of Gulgong, but he didn't recognise Alice.

'Son, that's the famous author, Henry Lawson. He lives in a farmhouse by the river, down on the Daalbata Road.' Bede turned to look back at the faltering figure receding down the dirt road.

Henry Lawson's friends from Sydney had helped him relocate to Leeton, a dry town, where he could get off the grog and pick up the pen again. Henry stayed two years in Leeton from 1916 to 1917. Among the orange groves by the Murrumbidgee River, his writing bore fruit, producing important new works: Leeton Town and A Letter from Leeton.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Family History Writing Challenge

Bede Smith in 1909.. The ancestor I will write about in the Family History Challenge

Every February for the last several years Lynn Palermo has run the Family History Writing Challenge.

I'm so glad I stumbled across Lynn's Family History Writing Challenge several years ago. I keep coming back and have done the Challenge three times now.

It really doesn't matter what stage you are at – whether you are starting out or are more experienced at writing family history, you will benefit. It's all about setting goals, staying focussed and sharing results with a friendly bunch of fellow writers.

This time around I will be writing about my father, Bede Smith. There is a sad story behind the baby photo in that Bede's twin brother died at birth. His mother, Alice Smith was living in rural New South Wales where medical care was not close by. Bede survived and went on to live a fascinating life which I hope to capture in my writing.