The Christmas tree was manufactured from a desert bush George Bernard Shaw wrote, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food,” so chances are that he had never served in the British army. The soldier in this story can honestly say that he only enjoyed two meals during the 2½ years of his military service and they were both on Christmas day. The celebration at Moascar Egypt was the most memorable, because of the relaxed atmosphere and warm weather. If everyday in the army was like Christmas in Egypt, there would be long lines of men attempting to enlist and they wouldn’t have to bother non-believers like our hero. In 1948 the men of the 139 Static Bakery unit assembled in the cookhouse where they anxiously awaited a meal delivered to them by officers, which was the tradition in the British army for generations. Prior to the meal officers placed Stella beer bottles on the tables in front of every soldier and when no one was looking four of them transferred the bottles onto the floor beneath the table. Within seconds the efficient officers replaced them and as soon as they turned their backs, the second four went underneath also. This could have probably continued all afternoon, except that there was no more room for bottles under the table and they had to be satisfied with 28 plus the 4 on the table. The meal consisting of turkey with the trimmings was absolutely delicious and fit for a king. Being waited on by officers in addition to the generous amount of Stella completed the perfect day.
After dinner they carried the bottles to the tent in relays and
on the last lap they noticed the Old Man and CSM Akins chewing the fat outside
the cookhouse, where they had been slaving away. The men completed the transfer
of bottles and decided to go back and chat with the Old Man who they greatly
admired. Normally it would be considered a no-no for a private to talk to an
officer before being spoken to, but they felt differently about the Old Man
and were comfortable approaching him on Christmas day. Their feelings were not
misplaced; the Old Man and the CSM greeted them cordially and to put things
into prospective, it appeared that their superiors had been dipping into the
Stella while conducting their duty as waiters and not wishing to hold these
transgressions against them, the soldiers invited them to their tent for more
drink. Somebody swung the lamp and everyone sat around for about 20 minutes
on the beds with a bottle in their hands shooting the bull. Finally the Old
Man announced that it was time for him to have his own dinner and the two gentlemen
shook hands with everyone and departed.
Fifty-six years later, Billy tried to express his feelings about that afternoon in the tent on Christmas day 1948 and every time he thought of things to say, tears came to his eyes and he had to move on. However he was then compelled to go back and ponder the reason for his emotions about a meeting, which normally he would have avoided like the plague. Could it have anything to do with the fact that although the Old Man never actually let his hair down, so to speak, he also never exhibited the swaggering arrogance, affectation, pomposity and self-importance prevalent with younger officers at the time. Or could it have been something to do with the aura of serenity and humility about the Old Man, which was unusual in the army and particularly in a person of authority. The Old Man also reminded the soldier of his father, who was an RSM during the war and had a similar disposition. Another comparison was the Commanding Officer who read Rudyard Kipling’s poem in the movie Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet I’m later on
In the place where ‘e is gone----
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen
E’ll be squattin’ on the coals,
Givin’ drink to pore damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din.
Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you,
By the livin’ gaud that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
Terrible things happened on the New Years Eve when Billy and his friend Pat Hughes went for a drink at an establishment in the garrison. They entered a large bar room where soldiers were making merry and passing out all over the place. To avoid stepping over drunken bodies lying in the beer suds covering the floor, the two men went into a smaller sergeants bar in the belief that they wouldn’t be questioned in civilian clothes on New Years Eve. They drank with an amiable sergeant whose company provided a certain amount of credibility that they belonged there and the bartender was too busy to pay any attention. For reasons Billy will never know he decided to drink Martells Three Star Brandy and before he knew what hit him, he was as drunk as a skunk. Apparently the sergeant suggested taking him to his tent, which was nearby and they half carried and half dragged him over the sand. Arriving at the tent the sergeant gave Pat some money to return to the bar and buy a bottle of whiskey.
The next thing Billy remembered was the sergeant taking out a pair of ladies
panties from a cupboard drawer and insisted that he put them on. The seducer
was so aggressive that the drunken soldier miraculously sprang back to life,
knocking the amorous one out of the tent and proceeded to strangle him on the
ground outside. While the sweet sergeant was screaming for his life as loud
as he could with the limited amount of available air, Pat returned and attempted
to pull his friend off the sergeant. Within minutes the military police arrived,
arrested Pat who they thought was also attacking the sergeant and began to beat
Billy on the head with a large torch. Apparently there was an immediate concern
for the sergeant’s safety, whose demeanor suggested an aversion to the
activity. In short, the bugger was having the life throttled out of him! Fortunately
or unfortunately the sergeant survived and the two soldiers were literally and
unceremoniously thrown in the local guardhouse.
Within a half hour of being in the cell a CSM entered, ordered Billy to stand
up and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of him. Fortunately he passed
out and didn’t feel most of the punishment.
The following morning he could hardly see out of both eyes because of the swelling on his face and running his fingers over the lumpy pulp, he realized that he could easily be mistaken for Freddy Mills the boxer after one of his losses. A prisoner in another cell informed him that he saw the brutal one beat him up the night before and gave him the attackers name. He also agreed to be a witness if Billy decided to bring charges against the unpleasant CSM. Later the sergeant in charge of the guardhouse, but absent the night before, indicated his strong disapproval of the beating, which didn’t help, but was a little comforting under the circumstances.
By mid morning the two soldiers were marched in front of a Major, the camp’s OC who informed them that the offending sergeant’s peccadilloes were known to them and in the OC’s exact words, “We have been keeping an eye on him for a while.” The Major then went on to say that the sergeant would be shipped back to England and they were free to go.
Our hero wanted a redress in the worst way and although he felt he had enough evidence to prove an unprovoked attack by the CSM, he was concerned that if he brought charges he would also face similar ones involving the sergeant, because the two cases were entwined. He also realized that the only thing to be gained was satisfaction and it wasn’t worth the risk, considering he was so close to being de-mobbed. Also the surprise and pleasure of being able to walk away from this latest misadventure overshadowed everything else and it was time to close the book. What he was tempted to tell the Major and really wanted, was another round in the cell with the bully after he had rested, but he knew it would never happen, so he bit his tongue adding to his discomfort!
In April of 1949 Billy departed Egypt with a kitbag full of cigarettes in cans, which was given to him by a corporal who dispensed cigarettes from the Nuffield fund, which was established for troops serving overseas. During and after the war troops received 50 free cigarettes and were offered an additional 50 at half price every week. At the exact time Billy was going home the Nuffield fund in Egypt closed down and he was fortunate to enjoy a share of the remaining inventory in storage.
Before leaving for Blighty the Old Man invited Billy into his office to discuss his aspirations for Civvy Street. The Major then wrote a glowing reference, which the soldier will always cherish. - More watery eyes!
In the twilight of his years, Billy considered how wonderful it would be if
he could send the Old Man a thank you letter now! - It wasn’t difficult
for him to visualize the Old Man with his white hair and mustache sitting in
his wicker chair in the tent surrounded by small palm trees and fruit bushes
in the big desert in the sky.
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance.
They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom,
and make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon.
Some people stay in our lives awhile, leave footprints on our hearts and we are never,
ever the same.
---- Flavia Weedn.