Tuesday, December 31, 2013

...Earth Calling Adam Smith....hiss...

by Zach Neal

Earth calling Adam Smith. Earth calling Adam Smith…

Come in, please.

,,,,,hisss……………………………………………………………………….  …………     ……..    ….


He’s been called away or something. We’ll try again later.

So anyways, Wikipedia has a little article on Adam Smith.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

And of course my interest lies in having dinner. I give the butcher money, he gives me some meat, the brewer gives me beer, (hey, this is fun) and so on and so forth.

As aphorisms go, that one seems fair enough.

I’m only going to discuss one of his points, just to show how it’s done:

“Agriculture is less amenable than industry to division of labour; hence, rich nations are not so far ahead of poor nations in agriculture as in industry.”

The last part of the sentence holds true. There are plenty of undeveloped parts of the world where agriculture is still conducted with a low level of technology, not much better than Smith’s time, with predictable results.

Things are a little different now.

The gulf between the developed nations and undeveloped nations in terms of agriculture is vast.

That spread, that ratio has changed since Smith’s time. Back then, the gap in technology between the developed and undeveloped world was much narrower. The world has changed, and to the nth degree.

Nothing written hundreds of years ago on the subject of economics is Gospel. Too much has changed. 

Another of his points supports this thesis by saying, ‘manufacturing lends itself to the division of labour more than agriculture.’

That’s probably still mostly true. Partially true…

That’s due to the complexity of the processes, for example making steel—and feeding raw materials, labour and some kind of motive power into the plant that makes it.

But in the 21st century, agriculture is more than just lambs in a field and a wife drawing the iron plough with the baby in a bowl at the end of the furrow, which back then was divided up to approximately what a man and an oxen could plow in a day. The fields were common land, narrow strips that were rotated in terms of crops, fallow and pasture.

Now, agriculture includes a certain amount of high-technology industrial plant for producing corn starch. It includes a plant for making vegetable oil, and it includes the makers of combines, tractors, specialty tires and the chemical industry. It includes distribution warehouses, transportation systems by land, air and sea, and buyers scouring the world for new and marketable flavours. All of it is now connected digitally in a system that allows instantaneous communication globally, something that would have taken months, back in Smith’s time.

The visualization required by the modern commercial landscape is inconceivable to a man of Smith’s day. 

They didn’t have the electronic and digital terms of reference. They wouldn’t have known what we were talking about, and yet we have the advantage of knowing what they were talking about.

They are history and we are the future of their agricultural knowledge of the time—some of the speculative philosophers of Smith’s time might have theorized us, but only in the most limited fashion.

The division of labour would seem to be fairly complex, when you consider the GPS and the onboard computers, engine and brake and transmission control, and all the cell phones and hearing aids, spectacles on the farmer’s eyes and in the farmer’s pockets and the satellites in space needed to make such a vast information and communication system actually work.

In that sense, agriculture is totally integrated into the overall economy. It’s not that it wasn’t before, but now it is more complex and more far-reaching in the sense of global commerce. This might include a sixty-cent New Zealand apple, shipped and trucked 12,000 miles, ending up in your supermarket, (and how much of the food in there doesn’t have some kind of agricultural basis?)

Someone had to figure out how to make that happen, and surely it’s not a farmer, it’s a specialist.

We are so much more specialized now, and in that sense the system has evolved into something new.

Our food chain is un-recognizable to our ancestors.

That process, from start to finish, has mushroomed, and in a sense flourished, all based on some motives of enlightened self-interest and mutual benefit, all based on that simple notion of a division of labour. Division of labour causes efficiency in this great economic engine.

There is also such a thing as division of rewards, especially when labour is exchanged for money, as this isn’t exactly the same as an exchange of commodities.

Anything Adam Smith said, way back when, is only of historical note at this point in time. He set the art of formulating economic theories on a rational basis, a scientific basis, one using measurable quantities, and leaving out all supernatural and mystical elements.

Also, I doubt if he foresaw globalization, or if he could account for a sort of fungus-ring effect, like ripples going out in a pond from a rock being tossed in. The way industry and jobs were farmed out and outsourced and ultimately exported to less expensive labour markets, even in the face of growing prosperity for an ever-increasing number of people.

Maybe free trade is a good thing, but unregulated free trade might not be such a good thing. Unsupervised and uninspected free trade might not be such a good thing.

According to Thomas Hobbes (or somebody) ancient men led lives that were ‘nasty, brutish, poor and short.’

Their lives were pretty simple back then. The human condition has improved by all statistical measures, and with the increase in population we can take a better sample even.

You have to be able to measure things, even such things as progress.

Are we making progress?

Are we backsliding, or is this just a temporary glitch in a system that works?

What causes such glitches?

When all this has worked itself out, what comes next?


Back then, Smith knew virtually nothing of ‘entitlements,’ everything from the GST rebate here in Canada to pensions, home heating grants, student grants, all kinds of government largesse. Although he would have recognized patronage, even corruption, as some of the Prime Ministers of the time (back then, when the whole notion of party was coming into being) governed by patronage, handing out key appointments, and they somehow kept a government going. Some would forget that that’s what a government is for—to manage and run a country. As to whether Smith had any great philosophical notions about social questions, such as the rise of social capital or the welfare state, or secular humanism, or social democracy, that is unknown to me. These entitlements are a tool of government fiscal policy, make no mistake. The government has a social agenda, and well it should have.

“A monarch’s greatest glory lies in the health and happiness of the people,” still holds true today although I forget who said it—probably some monarchist somewhere.

However, the point I am trying to make is that a marketplace, which is what Smith was talking about in his book, is certainly social, but it is not a government in any sense of the world.

These are two different things, no matter how closely intertwined in mutually dependent self-interest.

It is a dichotomy, and a struggle at times to see which system will rule the other.

It is cause and effect, supply and demand, but it is up to the government to manage the equitable redistribution of excess wealth—and the wealth of nations was the subject of his book after all—for the market seems incapable of doing that fairly and equitably.

Surpluses and excesses that are not reinvested into the marketplace end up being hoarded and essentially dead to the economy when its reinjection would do much social good. Cash flow trumps bullion held in reserve any day of the week.

A nation’s wealth consists not in its visible wealth, the result of seven or ten years output, but in its actual output at any given moment in the instantaneous digital world we now inhabit.

As for pensions and the like, which tend to stimulate local economies, (and everything is politics, and all politics is local politics,) rather than the government develop an infrastructure of arbitrary redistribution (strictly merit-based) they have delegated the supervision of aforesaid monies to me.

Maintaining the health and welfare of the people, and without people a state has little or no reason (or right) to exist, creates its own commerce. Adam Smith, I think, would have, or at least should have, been opposed to austerity. To him, the ideal marketplace was a model of rationality, but of course real life isn’t like that all of the time.

I choose to redistribute the funds to a local grocer. They are the most efficient local grocer—hence their prices are lower and I get more bang for my buck. They have merit. Some folks patronize other stores—based on their relative perceived merits.

The citizen subsists, commerce flows, the progress of civilization continues, and the state is perpetuated in a symbolic dance.

The interconnection between commerce for all, and prosperity for all, is easy enough to see.


Check out ‘The Vatican Caper,’ my debut thriller at Barnes & Noble. Available as an ebook or in 5 x 8” paperback.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hearts and Minds.

Secl. (Wiki.)

by Zach Neal

Community journalists have always faced the challenge of objectivity.

There’s no real litmus test for it and we should probably always assume that we ourselves have some kind of bias or prejudice towards one point of view or another.

There are two sides to every question. It’s an unfortunate truism because there is a third side, an uncommitted side.

On the question of global climate change, there are believers and disbelievers. There are also the uncommitted.

This helps to explain all the time, money and effort in the quest to sway public opinion, always the surest guide to changes in the political, social, and economic landscape.

It is nothing less than a battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

We all have a stake in its outcome.

I, personally, do not have a string of thermometers all over the globe, reporting back in real-time to some heavy duty algorithm-crunching hardware, in order to determine if global warming is real or not. And I’m smart enough to know that I can never really find out the truth for myself. And there is no good reason for any other person to take my word for it, even if I could do so.

Unless I was prepared to present my evidence, one way or another and they were prepared to accept the data.

That works both ways.

I don’t necessarily have to take someone else’s word for it, either. I don’t have to accept someone else’s data.

I could just shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes and say I don’t know.

I can remain uncommitted.

Interestingly, the uncommitted hold the balance of power. This is why both sides court, educate, attempt to persuade, or even just intimidate the uncommitted into a state of apathy.

Sometimes just muddying the waters helps, especially if one side or the other isn’t clearly winning the battle.

If the water is muddy, it must also be deep, or something.

No matter who you are talking to, no matter what the subject matter, no matter what the time and place, you will never, ever be getting more than half the story.

If the person doing the talking is lying or mistaken, then you are not even getting that much—you’re getting a lot less than half a story.

That’s why a good journalist listens to both sides—and this requires a certain amount of objectivity. It’s a good skill to have, because it works as a full-time bull-shit meter.

Little warning bells go off when things don’t add up and you recognize that maybe someone has an interest.

And when you figure out whose interest is best served by facts and truth, and whose interest is best served by lies, half-truths, uncertainties and smoke-screens, then basically you just need to ask more questions.

The more specific the questions, the more specific the answers should be, and if a speech full of rhetoric ensues then you are onto something.

One side has facts, figures, measurable statistics, long-term studies and the other side has a smoke-screen and a lot of rhetoric.

What you do next is your call as a journalist, but if you’re any kind of a writer at all, you’ll get your point across in a professional manner.

Other than that, brevity is king.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Soloing on a Henry Farman Shorthorn.

Henri Farman Shorthorn training aircraft. (Wiki.)

by Zach Neal

A group of us stood watching on the badly cracked paving outside the hangar. This lad by the name of Harry volunteered to be first, in fact he insisted.

He had a strong desire to prove he could fly. That’s what the rest of us thought.

We all thought we could fly, although a good number did show some signs of a very rational nervousness. The instructors had given us all about two or three hours of time in a dual-seat Farman. These planes, the ones the instructors used, had slightly more powerful motors, and they were a lot newer to boot.

When the instructor took off, we sat and watched how they moved their hands and feet as the plane responded. It wasn’t exactly dual control.

Harry was quickly strapped in. There was some nervous chatter as we patiently waited our turn.

The motor was running loudly in our ears, and the blast from its prop put up a lot of dirt and crud in the air. It stung the eyes. You could feel the grit, and it was necessary to blink and turn away.

Our classmate Harry put on the gas and she moved away. He was blasting it as hard as it would go. This was a tired old machine, and the supposedly seventy horsepower motor was marking time as it built the revs. Harry trundled along, and you could see the wing tips going up and down in some syncopated beat, a tin-pan-alley kind of beat.

The plane staggered into the air. I checked my watch again, out of habit, the man had taken so long to get going. He was waiting so long to pull up. He had taken off at ten fifty-three a.m.

We watched the back end of Harry’s plane. It bobbled in left and right bank and with wings waggling, he beat through the turbulence over the long line of trees at the aerodome’s verge.

“Hold her, laddy…”

“How high is he, sir?”

“Shush, boys!”

“Looks like about one fifty,” I murmured to tow-headed little Dicky.

Dick Littlehampton, nice fellow from Exeter. He was nineteen, I was seventeen and a half, but had lied about my height. Hah! That’s a joke. Yet I stood as nervous as anyone else as we watched Harry diminish in size over the south. Then he tried to turn.

He almost made it.

He must have been about a hundred eighty feet.

“NO-o-o-oh!” ground out the instructor. “Shit!”

Harry had turned left, and was diving into the turn, he was ninety degrees through the turn and coming back around. The top of the wings and tail were about all of the plane
that was visible, as the booms are just framework.

The tail wind. The tail wind was such that the plane had dropped out of its flying speed range…it would only go so fast, and could only go so slow without falling out of the air.

Harry smashed into the tree line after disappearing in a heart-thudding beat of time. A frozen mental image that will stick with me forever. Harry crashed at about ten fifty-four and thirty seconds a.m.

We stood quiet as the instructor slumped his shoulders and wouldn’t look at us for some long moments. We could hear a siren’s wail and the sound of engines and voices calling from three quarters of a mile off, but the voices carried on the wind.

Smudges of black smoke streamed up and over the windbreak of tall spruces or firs or something. There was a farm over there. We used to go over to the fence and talk to the horses sometimes, at least I did.

“All right, who’s next then?”

He looked at the list on the clipboard in his hand.

“Alexander.” A quiet lad of rakish slenderness stepped forward.

He snapped off a quick salute and pathetically stood to attention, and it looked as if his knees were about to give out on him. He’s ready to shit his pants.

“What did he do wrong, Alexander?” sighed the instructor. “And relax, would you?”

“He turned too soon,” said the boy. “Not enough height.”

“Do you think you can do any better?”

He didn’t want to send anyone that’s not ready. Or didn’t he care anymore? He seemed kind of burnt out to me, but then I’d seen it before.

The rest of us paid rapt attention to every word, every comment, every inflection, every nuance. We moved along the line to another machine that the mechanics were busy preparing.

Alexander took a hell of a long time to fasten up his flying suit. To get the gloves, and the fastenings just right. The poor guy was borderline hyperventilating.

“Next one better get ready,” suggested the instructor.

A boy started, flushed, and looked guilty. A lot of eager beavers here today.

Alexander was in the hot seat. The prop was flipped over and it was time for his initiation.

We watched it warm up for a while, it was a strangely subdued bunch of lads. We know this had to be done, and that it would be our turn soon. Yet we felt curiously detached from Alexander.

It’s like watching a lab rat.

His engine revved up and he was moving across the grassy aerodrome.

The plane pulled up to ten feet, and dove down five, then back up to about fifteen or twenty. The engine burbled along, and we all thought he was smart to pick up as much speed as he could.

He was approaching the tree line, and just when we expected him to pull up and out, the engine note died down suddenly and he flopped the plane down and it went sliding towards the trees.

There was a crunching sound, and there was the impression of a big heavy object, dark and limp, flung out of the machine as it hit.

“Fuck,” said the instructor.

It’s difficult to say if Alexander throttled back in panic, or if the motor just coughed at a bad time.

All right, who’s next?”

We moved along to the next Henri Farman.

It was one of our reserve machines, a spare we kept around in case a plane broke down and was taken out of service. Soon another lad strapped in and with heavily-beating hearts we watched his takeoff.

This time the man got it right. He made the turn from an altitude of at least five hundred feet, although we held our breaths when he lost a good two hundred or two fifty in the turn. His plane roared overhead as he passed down the runway at about three hundred feet.

“Yay!” some guys yelled.

“Shut up!” bellowed the instructor, but they couldn’t restrain themselves.

“Shut the hell up!” he barked in anger.

Finally the noise faded into sullen silence, a silence which became suddenly ominous with the realization…

The lad did not return. He’d gone behind us somewhere, muffled or blocked by the hangars lined up in a row. He must have made the second turn, right?

But we never saw him again. The next two guys seemed to do better, and made a successful take off and circuit. They both made a successful landing. Then it was lunch.

After lunch, it was a couple of more boys, with one more crash, then it was my turn.

Well. I must say, it had in fact been quite educational. Watching all them other guys, man, if I have to fly a dozen miles, I don’t plan on doing that. My guts flipped over a few times when he pointed at me, but then the calm came. I noticed a new sticker on the side of the engine casing, and it somehow reassured me. A little.

When you stand beside a plane, you can hear certain things in the engine noise, when you sit right in it, it’s pretty loud and anonymous.

Tweaking the throttle a few times, I waved the men away from the front of the wings.

As she idled, I pulled my mask down and gave the instructor a big smile.

“Relax, you’ll live longer,” I told him in a shout.

He didn’t smile, just nodded.

“Make us proud, boy,” he mouthed at me.

I could barely hear him. I had my motivation, as the actors say.

They really are just children, aren’t they.


I checked the windsock, advanced the throttle gently, firmly and in a linear fashion.

Not jerky. Feel the power and watch the little clumps of grass begin to pass by under me.

At some point the breeze begins to tug at your clothing. Watch the speedometer.

Hmn. I should have asked the mechanics if it was a good one. No time for thinking, things are beginning to happen.  She felt light, and I wanted to hold her down till she reads forty-seven on the dial, if not even a little more. But she was definitely up now.

The wings rocked but it’s insignificant. I don’t even try to steady it, for the plane has dipped first one way then the other. But it almost corrects itself. The plane is a smooth four feet up from the grass, and so I took it back another notch on the elevator. Smoothly, yet pretty slowly she picks up more altitude. At this point I was looking at treetops about one hundred yards away, and realized the thing has made it up to about twenty five or thirty feet. I risked taking a look down and over the side.

It was deceptive. I certainly wouldn’t like to fall from even this low height. Yet it was also clear to me that I would in fact clear the trees. The speed picked up a smidgeon, and the trees passed below me. The thing bucked a little. My heart skips, but no problem.

I already knew there’s bumpy air here.

The altimeter wasn’t even registering, so I just held the throttle tight against the stops and waited some more. The speedometer registered an even forty-eight, so I nudged just a tiny little bit of up elevator out of it.

The engine roared. Sitting there, I risked a backwards glance. I wondered if those other guys felt this sense of triumph. My altimeter showed about two hundred feet, and so for a moment I studied some houses below me. What an odd perspective. And how small they get so quickly. The buildings seem flat from above, a two-dimensional world.

The plane achieved an altitude of about three hundred feet. The village was coming up. Without even really thinking about it, just a touch on the rudder pedals. Zoom directly down the full length of the High Street, past the church steeple. I wished I had more throttle, it would be nice to make more noise if possible. It was possible to see a number of people coming out of doorways and looking up at me. Children in a lane-way, under a line of trees, waved and shouted. I could see them jumping up off the grass as if to reach out and touch me.

Glance at the clock, forty-nine knots, four hundred feet, two-fifteen p.m. The village is about two miles down the road from the gate. We walked it once or twice.

“Focus, Mister!”

I felt like God up there. I knew I could do this, everyone else showed what not to do. The plane seemed strong, and the Henri Farmans weren’t known for their neck-snapping acceleration. The key thing is not to panic. To stay ahead of the plane. To anticipate that it stalls if you go too slow, or turn too tight…

The altimeter said six hundred, better keep an eye on that thing. Yet I had a full tank of fuel. I knew exactly where I was. There was a girls school up there somewhere, where the little stream went under the trees and entered the forest.

They were out playing field hockey and I wished I could tip my hat to them, but it was too tightly strapped on. I waved and a couple of girls waved back, and I could see the matron sternly stride forward with her mouth opening up. Nothing wrong with my eyes.

I’ve been up for what seems like ten minutes. I doubt the instructor will give me shit if I bring it back in one piece.

At this point, it might just make his day...

A gentle turn, wide, maybe a quarter of a mile wide, as I centred up on the road that led to camp. Soon the guardhouse and the gate were in view. On my left the aerodrome proper, with its long line of hangars, and a small and intense group of individuals standing in front of a row of aircraft just like this one.

I gave the rudders a kick and waggled at them briefly. Hope they saw me.

I put down and then up into it, and bucked like a steer being roped or a horse being broken. I put in left rudder and did a circle over the field, and came out of it again right over the guard houses. To be honest, I was delaying my landing for some reason.

I just didn’t want to come down. And then to have to stand there, and watch the others fly. One at a time, will he live or will he die? Very depressing, very hard on the back and legs. Your feet just ached sometimes.

Finally it was time to reduce the throttle. With a thrill I recognized that she responded like any other machine. She does what should be expected. She began to gently and slowly descend, and I stared at the throttle lever, trying to memorize just where it should be set.

Might need that information tomorrow. And ‘we’ touched down about seventy yards from the class watching on the concrete. I throttled way back, there was no sense in crashing into them or the hangars. I brought her gingerly to a stop, only ten yards from where it had started.

And that was my first flight in a Farman Shorthorn. Ultimately it turned out to be a very dangerous plane, for our side, anyway. I think the Germans should have pitched in and bought us a lot more of those trainers. They might have won the war.

The first Canadian Division loaded up thirty thousand men and sailed across the Atlantic. And due to training accidents and a lot of sickness, they had suffered ten percent casualties, more than ten per cent, before they even got to France.

The Allied flying services took about fourteen thousand casualties during the war.

They say about eight thousand of those casualties were in training. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of them. 

Judging by what I saw, the figures seem accurate enough.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Christmas 1915

by Zach Neal

Joy to the world. The words echo in my head, a mockery of the vista that greeted my eyes. 

Already the cold had soaked into my very soul, into every pore, every cell, muscle fibre and bone.

Christmas 1915. Have you ever spent Christmas underground? Or in a trench, gazing out at midnight over No Man’s Land? When the only Christmas illumination is a flare, hanging in the sky for a brief moment, throwing into sharp relief every pimple, every pus-filled wound in the bosom of the Earth?

I was glad to be on guard duty. Christmas Eve, it was so much easier to take than sitting in our cold, smoke-filled dugout where everything, every little piece of garbage and trash ended up in our home-made stove. Where everyone smoked all the time, from dawn to dusk. Where your eyes literally stung all the time.

Where everyone took turns to read a letter from home, except me.

Where every one tried so hard to cheer everyone up. Where fake smiles tried to tell lies that the eyes could not conceal.

She gave us smokes, nice little tins. The Queen Mother. Embossed, stamped with a design, a gift from the monarch to her humblest servants. You know: Georgie Porgie’s mum.

Smoking keeps up your morale, it’s warm, familiar, and you control when you smoke.

No one can tell you not to smoke when you advance at twelve paces to the minute.

No one is there to tell you not to smoke as you huddle in a hole, wondering where the rest of the company might be.

Is there a company left? Are you the only one? Is the enemy going to use gas again this time? When will we be able to smoke again? Only living people can smoke, and so we smoke as a reminder that we are not dead yet.

Who is that?

Just a friend, going to use the latrine, our concession to “sanitation.” It only works a certain times -- no rain, for example; or no recent bombardments. “Cold, eh?”

“Tough shit,” he replies without a trace of humour or “good cheer,” yet neither is there any rancour. It is simply a fact.

“Tough shit,” I agree. May as well skip the small talk.

The moon is out. Clouds scud by, and shadows creep across the land.

On the one hand, I like to keep my head down. German snipers don’t take Christmas off. A guy in the next company found out the hard way this morning.

He was drunk. He stood up carelessly, thoughtlessly. That’s all it takes. Now he is dead.

There is somebody out there, yet the nature of the noises they make tells me it is a Boche stretcher party. Sometimes I wish I dared to go out there and talk to them.

“Take your time,” I would tell them.

“I won’t start anything.” It would be appreciated, by the German stretcher party, I’m sure. It must be nerve wracking to wonder who’s on the parapet tonight and what kind of a mood they might be in.

They are brave men, undoubtedly frightened men. They try to get their comrades out of the muck, and to bring them back, alive, wounded; or dead.

They wish to give the dead a decent Christian burial. That’s right; the Huns are Christians too, just like us. Just exactly like us…don’t tell anyone I said that.

There is no such thing as a “Christian” burial out here, but they try.

I don’t understand people some times. Well, they try hard.

Several days ago I saw a cemetery that had suffered during a bombardment. Not a pretty sight, for most of the corpses were recently buried…”and the dead shall rise again.”

Who would have thunk it?

Will angels fly over the battlefield tonight? Will my mail come someday? Will I get shot? How about a nice little leg wound? That would be nice, take me out of here. Any goddamned place. Any place at all, except a prisoner of war camp. I have too much hate for that. I doubt if I could swallow it all and survive in there. Who would want to?

I squat down for a smoke. You can see a man smoking for miles, under certain conditions, I have shot at the most indirect little glow a hundred yards away. It reminds them.  Be careful. I ain’t always so nice. God, let me out of here. Any fucking way…

You can’ t be too careful around here. Even the smell of tobacco can help a man who wants to kill you. I never pop my head up over the same look-out spot twice.

Fuck, it is cold. Luckily for us. The crap in the bottom of the trench freezes, it is easier to lay the duckboards. Things around here smell better. Not much, but better.

Christmas. Jesus. Where was I a year ago? I thought I was lonely then. Now I’m lonely.

Scared, too. Not many guys are going to live through this one. The numbers don’t lie. Ten percent casualties…that’s a lot. Especially once or twice a week…how long can it go on? Twenty per cent casualties? Once a month? How long can it go on?

A major campaign is coming up. Casualties of 50% in some units are expected? How long can it go on? Don’t ask me. I know I will not be there to see the end of it all.

Some guy, I can’t remember his name told me to think like that. It is easier, and he was right.

He died soon after of some flux or pneumonia thing. I am not a doctor, so there you go.

The hours pass, and I just keep moving. Exhaustion is a constant companion. The enemy knows we need to sleep. We know he needs to sleep. The artillery rounds go back and forth, messengers of hate. Somewhere they have it written down, the policy on shelling.

“Strategy is when you never let the enemy know you are out of ammunition, but keep on firing,” it’s probably in the “General’s Handbook.” I like that one, I’ll tell it to Pete later. Anyone else who’s awake. It seems genuinely funny. Not good to be seen or heard giggling out here, your friends have enough worries.

Never let them see you low on shells. How do you do that? Never let them see you stop firing. And they played by the same rule. Lots and lots of bombs and shells sitting around in the rain, snow and sleet, gathering rust, no good to anyone that way.

That’s something I can tell you for sure about our enemy. They have enough shells on hand to “waste” several an hour. Our boys send back several an hour. Plenty of shells for everyone, no need to panic, you’ll get yours. Just be patient. Sign up early, avoid the June rush, as some wag had said, once upon a time.

We know they’re still there. Haven’t run away in the night. Haven’t gone home to be with their families for Christmas.

I wonder what mom is doing, my dad, where is he right now. My brothers will be with Mom, I hope, no way to know for sure. My mail isn’t getting through, most of the other men have been getting theirs , but several of us are in the same  boat. “Up shit creek without a paddle,” as the boys used to say when we smoked in the woods beside the school house at our lunch hour. Don’t get caught boys; there are snipers out here now.

Did I run away from home to escape something? What about my Uncle Ed? When his dad died, he was quite a young man. My grandpa died, Uncle Ed was seventeen. He took over the little family business, the family tombstone business, that seems fucking ironic, here in northern end of the battle line. He looked after his mother, (my Grandma) helped her to raise his younger brothers and sisters and now Uncle Ed helped look after my mom. My brothers and our little piss-pot of a farm.

Ed never got married, never had a home of his own. Never even changed the name of the business; it still had grandpa’s name up there. Never moved the location, never even got rid of the old wagon or bought any new tools.

He just picked up where Grandpa had left off and got on with it.

Did Ed ever think of “running away?”

Did Ed think of “joining up” and going off to war? I bet he did, I thought with a curious, silly grin.

No one can tell you the truth if you don’t want to listen.

My old man, when I went to see him in Richmond, at the farm equipment dealership where he was the sales manager and part owner; he told me, “Don’t be a fool.”

“They’ll ask for you when they need you,” (he was right about that.)

All my friends were signed up, were about to sign up, or hoped to obtain parents permission to sign up, or had devised; or where in the process of devising; all sorts of stratagems to get past any block or hindrance to signing up.

There is a momentary sucking sound, about fifty yards in front of me. It stops, starts, stops, starts, then fades away. Sounds like the German stretcher party found yet another one. Good for you, take him home to where he belongs…no one who has seen it considers that any man should have to bear this, yet bear it we must.

There is only one way to go home, for most of us here.

Every so often I move to another position, wondering if this is the time when some cagey bastard will have his sights lined up on this particular notch in the indistinct wall of sand bags, tree trunks, and earth, earth, earth.

I smoke about eight cigarettes for every four hours on guard.  I don’t smoke at half-hour intervals. I might smoke one now, one in fifteen minutes…or better still, seventeen minutes, then another in forty-two minutes.

You know me, “Always thinking.”

I listen well. Indistinct as a sound may be, if you carefully and quietly move your position, maybe you can hear it some more, and triangulate the source.

If it gets too close, then worry. What if a flare pops off behind my head, and silhouettes me against the sky? Your ears are very important, more than some will ever know. I worked one summer in a sawmill. I wore ear plugs. Most of the guys didn’t. Most men are fools, aren’t they? I have noticed that. Don’t get me wrong: it’s all just a part of the grand spectacle of life. I love them just the same, in spite of all the trouble they have caused me and sometimes you have to kill some of them. That’s just the way it is. There is no morality anymore, and why pretend otherwise?

So don’t try to fucking lie to me. Lie to someone else. But not me.

Always aware. My heart pounds, and I try not too breathe too loudly. Someone might hear.

My very breath can give me away. If an enemy raiding party is out there, they are being  damned quiet about it.

I relax and move on somewhere. It is not a game, I do not do it to pass the time or keep warm. Our very lives depend on it. I know too well, from experience, just how a trench raid is conducted. Oh no, it is not a pretty thing. Carried out in a quiet and efficient manner, it is short, sharp and brutal.

You don’t need guns if you get up close. A rifle is useless at night in close quarters, unless a man really knows what he is about. A shovel is best…a shovel, sharpened like an axe. In the trenches, the shovel is man’s best friend, not the dog, not the pipe, not the rifle, that’s for sure.

A rifle is not much use against the enemy artillery, or our own, for that matter. Only the shovel can save us.

We read the “Merchant of Venice” in school. Shylock, he couldn’t get justice, because the magistrate ruled, that he did not have a right to spill a drop of blood in the taking of it. Even though the magistrate admitted Shylock was entitled to the “pound of flesh.”

The teacher taught us; “you can’t get your pound of flesh without spilling a drop of blood,” i.e. revenge is bad. Well, tell me something I don’t know.

Did she miss the point? What is justice? A man is arrested for burglary…he is sent to jail. Maybe he did it, let’s say.

Now his wife and kids have to go hungry. There’s your drop of blood, Your Honour.

There’s your drop of blood. And why did he have to steal in the first place? Is it because he couldn’t feed his wife and kids? Every crime is a political statement. Even Jack the Ripper knew that. Shakespeare knew it too.

There is no justice, that is the truth. And that is why wars happen.

Without looking, without counting, I would bet there are ten thousand guys out here all within a half dozen miles each way. Yet the night is deadly still, as I feel the tiny lick of snowflakes on my face, up around my eyes which are the only things exposed.

And not one of them had any choice in the matter.

Right here, right now, I am the only justice, I am the only God. And I choose…to hold my fire. I think I’ve seen that fat-faced mutt before, he was kicked in the butt by a “Fritzie” corporal one day. I almost feel like that one’s a buddy.

The moon has gone again. You ought to be more careful, fat-faced man.

The enemy stretcher party has moved away, and now would be the time for a raid; they probably co-ordinate things like that, it only makes sense. But I hear nothing.

The sergeant passes by. He never talks to me out here, but he has to check on some of the men, and it is his duty after all. He would prefer not to have to, no doubt. Sarge isn’t such a bad guy once you get to know him. He has a wife and three kids…and would like to see them again.

My watch, it tells me there is one hour to go, then I can sleep for a while, and thank God for that.

Sleep is the last refuge of the truly unhappy.

I wonder when my mail will come. Maybe never.


They say – I think it was St. John of the Cross, “Salvation can be gained through suffering.”

Are you sure? Times like this a man would welcome a transfer to submarines…it would be warmer and drier. A transfer? Where would I go? Out of the frying pan and into the fire…right? Who knows. It just might be worth it, to be warm and dry for a while.

Even if it’s just for a little while.


Friday, November 29, 2013

A Sickly, Yellowish Cloud.

Second Battle of Ypres, Richard Jack.

by Zach Neal

Ultimately heroes are not born, not made, but manufactured. I won the Military Medal at Ypres. April 22, 1915. I was one of the few left standing with a rifle in my hand when
relieved. Almost everyone else was dead, wounded, missing, gone insane, or had run away.

Can’t say as I blamed them, wish I had run myself.

I recall standing on the parapet, looking through our set of  periscope binoculars.

The horror sticks in your mind forever, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Having joined the Royal Army, and then finally transferred back into the Canadian Army, having luckily gotten into a good unit, the strange thing is that I had become somehow comfortable.

The Brits are all right, don’t get me wrong, but it was good to be back with Canadians.

We had a different outlook, there wasn’t such a great gulf, neither social nor intellectual, between officer and enlisted men. Having discovered incompetent officers in every army, ultimately, what difference does it make? A truly competent officer is a rarity.

My platoon was fortunate enough to occupy a very small rise in the earth. We were close to the French Colonial troops; when we heard yelling and looked to see what was what.

And there it was, the first gas attack in history.

A sickly, yellowish cloud, a hundred yards high, and a half a mile long, was being slowly pushed by the light breeze towards us. The Germans had waited a long time for the wind to be just right, but at first, there was only an uneasy feeling. It just seemed to spring up out of the ground over at the enemy side of the lines; long, thin streamers merging into one hellish, foul, fog.

While it was certainly far from benevolent looking, there was a little sense of dread.

But we also wondered, “What’s the big deal? Smoke is just smoke.”

Dread, fear of the unknown, a queasy, sinking feeling in the guts. A watery, gassy feeling in the guts…

Firing reached a crescendo as the rising cloud of bilious, horrid gas rolled over the French, and the Canadians on our left.

We could see the tops of heads bobbing along in a traverse behind us and off to our left.

“Where the fuck are they going?” someone asked even as the sound of shouting, screaming, yelling came to us; and more of that terrifying cloud obscured our view.

Darker now, blocking out the sky, cutting off the light. Behind us.

Confusion. Had they been ordered to retreat? What were our orders? We began to shoot into the front of the cloud as it rolled onwards, coming inexorably towards us.

A faint smell…like a public swimming pool? Household cleaner? Horrible recognition, that we are all about to die. Like a hammer in the guts. Heart pounds, out of control. A smell like really bad medicine.

The sounds of rifle and machine gun fire beside us reached a peak, then rapidly began to drop. Nowadays, just doing a little house-cleaning can bring back that day in a strange, fragmented clarity.

There was a huge, great silence to our left, as our own fire slackened…

Whoever was retreating along that trench, they were screaming in mad panic now.

A sense of dread. Hell is upon us.

Fifty yards.

Certain death looms before us, we know that now.

The man beside me dropped his rifle,  the was shooting quite far away, on our left.

He got up, and tore at his straps, the nearest escape trench only five yards away.

He took off down the trench, and I stared at his back, bemused by this strange and bizarre sight. Coughing, off to the left. A half a dozen black troops, in their colourful kepi or fez hats, the bright uniforms, staggering along, clutching, tearing at their throats.

They shouldn’t have come this far into our area…were they lost? I remember that thought.

A couple of more guys got up and ran, but took their guns with them. The black men were falling down in the trench twenty yards from my position, eyes bugging out, choking, coughing, retching, and the smell was stronger. A wisp of foggy, dense vapour. The view to the left was blocked, and thank God.

In those few short seconds, I saw more than enough to last me a lifetime. A lifetime of nightmares.

I could hear our Colonel shouting something incoherent.

Don’t remember going there, but I found myself and a half a dozen other men in a field, shooting into the flank of the German advance. Huge clogs, bulky gobs of mud made it hard to run. My feet felt like lead, my heart pounded in my throat. It was hard to get enough air…fear almost overwhelmed me.

The sheer horror of the unknown.

This is when I learned that fear turns a man’s guts into a liquid.

I have no idea how I survived that day. The gas must have been thinner, for I only gagged once or twice, feeling the sharp tang in my throat. Holding my breath, I just tried to sidestep around the wispy patches as they passed around our little clump of men, busy loading and firing, loading and firing. Some guy beside me, hoarse with fear…

A man I had never seen before, but wearing my unit’s patches, falling down.

Writhing in agony, again the tearing at the throat.

The look, as he stares in my eyes, he wants me to help him, help him, and there is nothing I can do, just load and fire, load and fire. A cloud envelopes me, and I stagger out of it, eyes running with tears, nose and mouth burning…I puked up, it was all over me; I don’t think it was much gas, I think it was sheer horror, fear, the fear of breathing.

I have never known anything like it, before or since.

Cursing, quavering, quacking in sheer terror, stuttering and stammering out defiance and loathing, as my shaking hand rams another clip into place…my left arm so tired the rifle kept lowering itself against my will. Puking and crying and trying to stay upright.

Firing down into Germans…must have been another little piece of high ground, this time about twenty of us, load and fire, load and fire…the Boche scream and shout and we just ignore the pleas and keep on firing…

I have no idea of how I survived that day.

I have no idea why they gave me that fucking medal.

But I will say this: Don’t use our pain to justify your degeneracy, don’t defile our graves with your lousy posturing, and don’t use our sacrifice to back up your mealy-mouthed fucking hypocrisy.

I heard a man say once, “The press takes a photo of a burning village, and it gives ‘destroy’ a bad name…”

The press is not entirely useless, it seems.

Someone, some men led me to a rear area.They pried the gun out of my hands.

They cut my clothes from my body, led me to a field shower, and scrubbed me with rough brushes in the bitterly cold water. There was some pain as the dried shit pulled some of the hair off my legs. And then they put me on a stretcher.

Someone gave me an injection.

I was asleep in about four seconds.

I think I’d had enough, for one day.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Paddling Under the Aurora Borealis.

A.Y. Jackson.

The first time I ever saw the Aurora Borealis was many years ago. My buddy and I were going to Algonquin Park. 

Somewhere north of Huntsville, Ontario, we pulled over briefly at three a.m. for a call of nature.

“Whoa! Look at that, Willy!”

“What is it?” he asked.

It took a minute to click in, as he’d never seen it before.

This was a full-color array. It was surprising how fast the darting swirls of bluish-green, yellow and red light started up, moved around, and faded. We’ve all seen pictures, but the speed of it was impressive—the way the bands of light seemed to dance to some music of the cosmos, heard only by themselves.

Now, the first night paddle we did, we set up a flashing yellow light on the beach at the south end of Opeongo Island. This is in the north arm of Algonquin Park’s Opeongo Lake. We paddled due south, with a diaphanous, ghostly-white moon ahead.

The water was flat, with little lacy bits of froth, from all the soap people use; the south shore clearly visible in the moonlight. It was easy to navigate. Never losing sight of the beacon, after an hour’s circuit, we safely returned, flushed with a unique experience. On another occasion, Willy and I went for a night paddle on Cedar Lake, also in Algonquin Park. With a few drinks, overcast skies, warm night, exhaustion, and the gentle swell, the floating sensation; Willy became disoriented, and said he had nausea, or vertigo. So we went back to shore.

Years later, my brother and I went up to Aura Lee Lake, connected to the west end of Cedar Lake. I often go down to the shore, away from the fire at night. It’s worth it; I once saw the most awesome meteor at four bloody a.m., and my brother was snoring in the tent! No one to tell it to…anyhow, this time I was completely stunned by what I saw.

So I nipped back to the fire, grabbed up my lifejacket and smokes.

I suggested a night paddle, and he jumped at it. My brother had never seen anything like that in his entire life. It’s impossible to describe, there were beams shooting up out of the horizon. Quite narrow at the base, they were veritable sword points in the heavens. And they slid around the horizon, left and right, even as swirls, whorls, and vortexes floated around in the centre of the sky. Throw in a few stars, Jupiter and Mars, a tiny sliver of the moon down low in the west.

It was pretty sublime, maybe even surreal, to drift around looking up at it. There was even a meteor or two for good measure. Sometimes it seems like God is talking to you.

I haven’t been up there in a few years. Once we pretty much had our fill, but still one night all paid up. My brother talked me into going to Wendigo Lake. This is a long, skinny lake oriented cross-wise to the generally prevailing summer winds. We motored about some, with my 1.2 horse-power motor on the back of the canoe and then went south down the lake to find a campsite.

A ‘Wendigo’ is a person possessed by demons in ancient Algonquian folklore. The demon often possesses them in a dream. Once taken over, they become obsessed with eating human flesh. The best-known way to get rid of the demon was to perform the wiindogookaanzhimowin, which was a highly-satirical dance which involved wearing a hideous-hilarious mask and dancing about the drum backwards.

People who understood that they were possessed would often request that they be put to death before they could do harm to others, including their own families and friends.

True Wendigoes were gaunt, emaciated creatures, with their pallid skin tightly-stretched over their bones, sunken eyes and an ‘ash-grey’ complexion. It was believed that those who had consumed human flesh were in danger of becoming Wendigoes themselves.

This taboo is perfectly understandable in terms of any hunter-gatherer culture where seasonal famine was all too well known. The Wendigo myth is like all stories of its kind, a sort of moral lesson, where symbolism takes the place of factual, historical material.

Speaking of the consumption of human flesh and blood; as we cooked and gathered firewood, it became clear we were in a bad mosquito zone. The smoke from the fire didn’t help. The breeze died at sunset. We used all our repellent. About ten o’clock at night the zipper on the tent broke after a dash to the bushes for a nature break..

We were in trouble. It was truly amazing. There were hundreds of mosquitoes on us, maybe thousands. It was bad. I don’t know how the couriers de bois did it, or how early peoples could stand it. We tore down the tent, chucked everything in the boat and paddled out a hundred yards.

It was really dark. Overcast. No lights anywhere on shore, the perimeter of the lake pitch black. The water was crystal clear, surface almost invisible, as I held the flashlight.

Steve got the motor on the mount, fueled it, and luckily for us, it ran first pop.

It was disorienting. He put his little light on the floor ahead of him. I held my light over the side, pointing down and ahead in the water—sometimes in the middle of the lake a submerged rock rises up within inches of the surface. And I didn’t want to sit on one all night, holding on to a broken boat, and wait for an early fisherman. Over time, our eyes adjusted, but only the overcast had any lightness of color.

The car was across the lake, and north two or three kilometers. After twenty minutes we found the opposite side and followed the pale glimmer of the boulders on shore.

“Go dead slow,” I told Steve. “Keep your feet in the center of the boat, relax your hips, don’t grab the gunwales under any circumstances…look straight ahead, focus on the rocks along the shore.”

After a trip of about an hour, it seemed forever, my light picked out a reflector from a vehicle. The boat launch! Thank God. And my navigation. It’s always an adventure to travel in Algonquin Park. It has its allure—its dangers can be seductive. The decision to go to Wendigo Lake was made in haste. The tent door was ripped in haste. Jumping in the boat was done in haste. In a situation like that, have your life jacket fastened tightly.

The key is to relax, and think about what you’re doing.

Know your limitations. And don’t do anything stupid.

Night paddling is for experienced paddlers using proper equipment and not under the influence of alcohol.