In the early 60’s, I read Rudyard Kipling, Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights from the original Arabic and Robert Service’s poems of the Yukon, Paris back-alleys and ambulance driving in WW I. My local library yielded up numerous descriptive journals written by or about the explorers and military commanders of the nineteenth century. In Baton Rouge it was not uncommon, on Sunday afternoon TV to see Alec Guinness in Tunes of Glory or William Conrad in Leiningen Versus the Ants or Carry On Up The Jungle with Sid James and Jacki Piper or even Carey Grant and Joan Fontaine in Gunga Din.
When I arrived in North Vancouver, my sixth grade teacher at Lynn Valley Elementary had been a personal friend of the famous Canadian flying ace, Buzz “Screwball” Beurling. Between bouts of punishing sarcasm, brow-beating and shaming, us students were treated to and inflicted with daily stories of the Falcon Of Malta and his 39 kills from the cockpit of his RAF Spitfire.
An eleventh grade teacher I had at Argyle Senior Secondary was a soft spoken Scot who taught algebra. That silver haired gentleman used to regale his students with a never-ending story of his personal adventures as a tail-gunner in a Wellington bomber. Each tale was perfectly timed to require attendance the next day in order to find out if the port-side engine did in fact explode or whether or not the bombardier managed to stop his arterial bleeding. No one ever skipped that class.
By the 80’s when Message In A Bottle fought for airspace with Night Moves, most young folks were on UIC. A minority of persistent ones eventually found employment. Those who were in their mid-twenties were typically thrown together with others forty years their senior who were nearing their retirement, especially in the Public Service and Trades arenas.
Several times, I found myself paired up with one of these old fellows as a work mate, as an apprentice or as a trainee. Looking back, I realize that had I lacked the celluloid and literate grounding that I’d managed to glean in my boyhood; I would have been completely out-gunned in those short but intense inter-generational work relationships.
I did a pastiche of jobs that involved everything from deep fryers to brick-work scaffolds, drop clothes to jack-hammers, ship’s hulls to Police cruisers and carpenter’s belts to bank vaults. This potpourri eventually came to a boil at Canada Post. Many of the silver-back males at that establishment had seen war in a variety of theaters that visited everything from the freezing rain of the heartless North Atlantic to the malarial monsoons of the steaming jungles of Burma, from the sub-zero bomb shattered mountains of the Korean Peninsula to the corpse strewn shattered rubble of a pulverized European infrastructure. Many matriarchs I worked with had also been in those same theaters but were much less likely to speak of their adventures than the men. Back then, men mostly did the killing and destroying while women mostly did their best to save lives and to comfort the casualties.
I met men from Naval, Air Force, Merchant Marine and Army backgrounds. Though Canadian, they were of British, German, Yugoslav, Dutch, Danish, Italian, American, Scots, Irish, East Indian, Japanese and First Nations heritage. After hearing their stories, I easily understood their attitude towards our relatively soft duty of stuffing paper through door slots for the Queen, rigging up gas-fired boilers, painting apartments, sculpting lawns, cooking meals and riveting hulls. Of those men, the Germans were the most philosophical, the Slavs were the most poetic and the Brits, by far, were the loudest and the proudest.
As a young gas-fitter in North Vancouver, I was assigned to ride along with a British war vet for two weeks prior to his retirement. The mission was for him to impart some of his knowledge of servicing older gas fired heating equipment. I only had experience installing new piping and devices. I remember the look our boss gave me as we drove off to that first shift.
It seemed to say, “We’ll just see how this works, kid. If you can make it for a day or two, it’ll set a new company record. Either way, its bound to tie your shit in a knot.”
My mentor had been resident in India in a military capacity during the very last tumultuous days of the Raj. He was old school. If he’d been a glass of wine, the first sip would have been described as abrasive, opinionated, prejudiced, racist, fastidious, narcissistic, elitist, caustic, manic, acerbic, impatient, uncompromising, rude, ignorant, misogynistic, prone to outbursts of fury, humorless and unimaginative. I knew better than to judge him without taking into consideration the soil he’d sprung from and the cask he’d matured in.
I could well imagine that when he looked in the mirror each morning he saw the last hope of civilization looking back at him through pale blue eyes. His chief physical characteristics however were ear and nose hair tufts like paint brushes and breath that would stagger a charging rhino.
In his estimation, my accent alone betrayed my abject hopeless stupidity. When added to the other demerits imposed by my place of birth, mixed heritage and youth, I’d wager he felt like a Lord with a fear of germs being told to share a glass of Claret with a wet leper at sword point. Foam formed on the corners of his grim blueish lips when he was particularly agitated and his hands shook when not wrapped tightly around something.
By the infinite wisdom of the universe we became unlikely work-mates for a time. I learned nothing of my trade via verbal tutelage, and gleaned what I could from pure observation at safe distance. It was like working with my Swedish grandpa in his East Texas garage workshop. Questions were an unmanly sign of weakness, sitting was forbidden, touching things was actively discouraged and permission to actually undertake a project lived in some mythical distant future that shrunk back farther in time the closer you got to it like a Saharan mirage.
Lunches at the Third & Lonsdale Army and Navy Veterans Club helped us find some common ground over bowls of soup and pints of ale during this time. Once in a while, after such a good feed and several dust cutters, a strange light would come into the old man’s eyes as we drove to the next boiler job in the post-war neighbourhoods of West Vancouver. Once the old boy got started reminiscing, the smoking light was green.
“Mick, it was in the last days of the Raj. I was stationed in Cawnpore. My wife and daughter lived there with me. We had a pet mongoose to deal with the cobras that were always slithering up from the Ganges and into the house. Our dhobi-wallah was nearly bitten while sorting out shirts for starching one afternoon. The mongoose was brought in and the girls stood on the table to watch the fight. Two minutes under the piano bench was all it took for little Georgie to do his job. That was all before the partition. Nasty bit of work, that.”
Our arrival at the next job would always trigger an end to the stories and my mentor would retreat back to his scarred shell like a hermit crab poked with a stick. After two long weeks, I attended the grand occasion of the old soldier’s retirement party at the Army and Navy Club. I had typed up a passage from Kipling’s poem, Gunga Din for use when the toasting and story-telling got underway. When my turn came, I rose and delivered the piece.
I won't forget the night
When I dropped behind the fight
With a bullet where my belt plate should have been.
I was choking mad with thirst,
And the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinning, grunting Gunga Din.
He lifted up my head,
And he plugged me where I bled,
And he gave me half a pint of water-green:
It was crawling and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I've drunk,
I'm most grateful to one from Gunga Din.
It was "Din! Din! Din!"
Here's a beggar with a bullet through his spleen;
He's chawing up the ground,
And he's kicking all around:
For Gawd's sake get the water, Gunga Din!
He carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
And a bullet come and drilled the beggar clean.
He put me safe inside,
And just before he died:
"I hope you liked your drink," says Gunga Din.
So I'll meet him later on
At the place where he is gone--
Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
He'll be squatting on the coals,
Giving drink to poor damned souls,
And I'll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
When I finished and everyone had drained their raised glasses, the Englishman rose from his seat and gave me a crushing handshake and two stout claps on the shoulder, his wife smiled and his daughter agreed to my request for more stories of the intrepid Georgie.
Our boss just grinned and said, “Shit! Mick. Cheers to that.”
Later, as a letter-carrier at Station O, I worked with ex-Navy and Merchant dudes. Out on the streets between Fraser and Main, I got to know some vets of the South-East Asian theater and yet others who had seen very recent action in the Middle East. Over time, my hair deserted most of my scalp and my beard sported a distinctive pewter tone. My ear and nose hair took on a new enthusiasm as did my eyebrows. The quickening was upon me! All this while, new blood flowed into the Armed Forces, across battlefields and into the Crown Corporation that had once been the Canadian Postal Service.
At a certain point, in a particular Sortation Facility, I started to feel well and truly old. I looked at the fresh faces around me, thumbing their cell phones with one hand and sorting mail with the other. Everyone was pierced, tattooed and gender ambiguous. Green, blue, purple and orange had replaced blonde, brunette, red and black for ladies hair colours. Many of the new hires washed out long before their training periods were over. Morning sortation began to be filled with the plaintive mewling of reality-seared newbies as they tried hard to come to terms.
“You mean, we have to deliver it too?”
“What SPF does the Post Office provide us?”
“I didn’t bring lunch. It’s snowing so hard. Aren’t they going to send us home?”
“Dude, seriously, it’s raining.”
“We have to take all those flyer thingies too?”
“Are we gonna die?”
“This is brutal!”
“I though slavery was like, banned-uh.”
“How do they even expect us to do this shit?”
“Of course I brought it all back! For your information, there were dogs-uh.”
Girls were losing gym time and man buns were coming undone. Earbuds were getting lost, batteries were dying and cell phone screens were getting scratched. Sometimes the negative weight of this commotion annoyed the seasoned troops, curdling the milk of their human kindness while undermining everyone’s resolve. Schizophrenic customers, bi-polar dogs, drive-by shootings and tainted contract negotiations were already contending for space on everyone’s plate, even on good days.
One morning, I’d had my fill. Standing idly by while the troops were tightening their grip on the shit rope was no longer an option for a man of honour. As any watcher of the Trailer Park Boys knows, the tighter you grip the shit rope, the faster you slip. Our sortation cases were made of hard maple and likely over one hundred years old. They stood higher than your head and were usually arranged so you could only see the person to your immediate right or left. As compensation for this visual limitation, one could hear a thousand conversations at once like a dress rehearsal for the Tower of Babel scene in a bad movie.
As in a dream, I found my voice that morning and I addressed the work floor from where I stood while continuing to sort my own mountain of mail. Within seconds, all other voices stilled. Only the staccato of envelopes whacking the blue metal backing of the cases accompanied my oration like spent bullets raining onto a car hood.
“Reminds me of the time we were setting up Postal Services in Equatorial Guinea. I was a Postal Clark in Francistown at the time. The telegraph lines had all been sabotaged a fortnight prior by the Mau-Mau uprising and the Crown had to rely on natives to get their signals through by drum. We were tasked by Home Office with capturing a live specimen of the Cleora nigrisparsalis moth for subsequent engraving and use for a commemorative First Day Cover postal stamp in Guinea proper on the West Coast.”
“Let me say it’s a long, long way to Conakry. Most of the lads contracted dysentery, malaria and somnolent fever on the jog up from Botswana through the Okavango Swamp. Beastly hot! Not two days out we were engulfed by a ghastly cloud of blood-sucking, fever-carrying Tsetse flies. Our ranks now decimated, we were forced to halt while bribing new porters. The rinderpest outbreak had just been contained and most of the available workers were busy burning the diseased cattle. Jolly difficult to find any helpers, as it were.”
“Our search for the elusive insect took us up to the headwaters of Zambezi River. We approached the Congo by overland trek and after burying our dead we turned North-West and set our compasses for Kinshasa. From there, we popped down the coastal route to cross the Gabon and traverse the Cameroon. Two days out of Douala, just south of Calabar, the porters became very uneasy. The drums had been particularly incessant that night before after the thunder and lightening finally stopped. Something of ill omen was in the fetid wind.”
“Plagued by Black Mambas for several weeks, we had lost those men who hadn’t remembered to cover their heads when passing under the trees. A pride of male lions in musk had scattered the crates of tinned peas and the hyenas had savaged our corned beef. I told the remaining porters to gather up these provisions and to report on what items had survived. While they worked, I sent young Jenkins off with two wildebeest bladders in search of a water source.”
“Our gin hadn’t survived the crossing of the Congo. The quinine had been stolen by a deserter. We found his scattered, bleached bones several days later but the medicine was gone. A herd of heat-maddened hippopotami had rushed the supply boats and capsized the lot into crocodile infested rapids. After, we had to make do with gathering moisture from bromeliads into hollowed out ostrich eggs.”
“As the men carried out my orders, the blood red hammer of the sun rose over its blistering forge of savanna promising another soul sapping, wit destroying day on the waffle iron that was the Massif lying to our North waiting to be crossed. I poured the last greasy drops of protozoan laden water from my canteen into my shaving mug. I fixed a bit of polished steel onto a crotch of a thorn tree and after evicting several large scorpions from my ruck sack, I drew out the mummified monkey’s fist that served me as a shaving brush.”
“Shirtless, I stood in my last pair of starched khakis, stirring the soap briskly. I hung my pistol belt on a low branch of the thorn. I checked the action, chambered a round and left it in the holster with the clasp undone. I had traded my razor weeks ago to a toothless Portuguese rubber trader for a year old sports section of the London Times. I drew out the Zulu knife I kept in my boot and regarded its jagged, sweat-rusted edge and zebra covered acacia wood handle. It would have to do until I got to Conakry. I stropped it as best I could on the back of my mouldering, Postal Issue pistol belt and leaned toward the reflective steel.”
“I laughed ruefully when I remembered that my Bay Rum astringent had been lost on the Zambezi, spirited away from our camp by a troop of murderous, blue-arsed baboons, baring their fangs. I was just about to commence my toiletries when men and boys came running higgledy-piggledy from the bush. They dropped the supplies they had managed to salvage near the dying embers of our elephant dung fire. Midst their agitated vocalizations, I recognized one word from a previous and still painful experience. Marabunta! Marabunta come! Aiiie!”
“I ordered a porter to bring me the rubbing alcohol and I ordered Jenkins to take a folding spade and cut a small trench around our pile of provisions. He put down his water skins and got cracking immediately. Only four porters held their ground when that living river of ants spilled out of the jungle and flowed like Satan’s pancake syrup, devouring everything in their path. You could hear the insane snapping of their mandibles and cries of the frightened animals that had succumbed to the ravenous frenzy. I tossed a coal onto the alcohol moat with only seconds to spare.”
“As we watched in horror and relief, the reddish-brown river of misery split into two lethal branches to avoid the flames. One of the lads began to gibber and had to be soundly slapped before he regained control of his faculties. Two hours later, it was over. I dispatched the four remaining porters to scour the hills for the deserters and bring them back to justice. Happy to have at least our few remaining supplies, I returned to resume my shave.”
“Jenkins, three paces to my left, was massaging a suppurating ulcer on his withered bicep. Presently, he began teasing out a reluctant bot-fly larvae with a paper clip while whistling a Zulu lullaby. I heard a twig snap in the distance. The schizophrenic call of the White-Crested Turaco floated over the undulating heat shimmer like a mentally unhinged Welsh lighthouse keeper shouting down a storm. It was wart-hog mating season and I hoped to avoid any confrontations with the hormone-driven, godless, porcine threat.”
“Jenkins stood now furiously cleaning his spectacles with a stained piece of gun cotton. I turned away to begin once again the work of lathering my soap and I smiled. There, happily perched on the tepid sticky cake of soap was an extraordinarily robust female Cleora nigrisparsalis. I summoned Jenkins to ready the small cage we had brought from the Francistown Depot and to fetch the net. Soon we had the little perisher safely and suitably housed. This turn of events seemed to cheer the young squire. Whistling softly, he shuffled about gazing at the prize through the ventilation holes.”
“A few minutes later the whistling trailed off and then stopped abruptly. A darkening stain formed and crept down Jenkins khakis into his puttees. The moth cage fell onto the tick infested saw grass and turned on its side. I squinted hard into my mirror and saw the glints of a thousand points of light in its reflection. I slowly drew my service revolver from the holster and cocked the hammer back. I turned smoothly around where I stood.”
“Jenkins…Jenkins, steady lad.”
"I lifted my gaze to discover that we were entirely surrounded on three sides by a numberless, naked horde of gesticulating pygmies, chanting a hellish, poly-rhythmic cacophony and brandishing their spears with unbridled ferocity. Leveling my weapon, I searched fervently for the leader. Stinging sweat ran into my eyes, attracting clouds of gnats and causing me to draw my arm across my face. In that instant, a shot rang out.”
Well, folks, at this point in the story, it was time to go and deliver the mail I had been sorting and bagging while I orated. Over subsequent days, different supplements were trotted out to the amusement of some and the mild annoyance of others. Overall, it served to build a bridge across the River Kwai of misunderstanding between the different generations and heritages all thrown together by work. By redefining what suffering is and how it is perceived, people may begin to make allowances for their differences of scale and culture, eventually coming to respect each other. Old prejudices, stripped naked and thus deprived of their power serve admirably to remind our current menu of accepted prejudices that their day too will yet come.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.