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.