Rule # 1 – just because you have one injury doesn’t mean you can’t have another
Rule # 2 – just because you have two injuries, doesn’t mean you can’t have a third
I know that these are contentious times but can we all agree at least, that Holly Trees are malevolent and dangerous beasts? From their poisonous red berries to their skin-piercing needle-festooned leaves they are a menace for all seasons. They seem to grow incessantly and beyond reason, and if you are one of the unfortunates – like myself – that has two of them in his yard, you will inevitably be called upon to tame their unwelcome expansion through pruning.
I don’t think I’m a particularly accident prone guy, but, those who know me well may agree that I lack a certain amount of caution and forethought. I sometimes take risks – wittingly or unwittingly – and don’t always preface my activities through the filter of self-preservation.
And I’m not bereft of tools, being quite well-equipped for the job of pruning…I’ve got Pruning Shears, Bypass Lopper, Saws, Hedge Shears and even an 8’ Pole Pruner…and of course, for the task of fighting with my Holly Tree, heavy leather work gloves. As it turned out, the only thing I was really lacking on this day was… Safety Goggles.
Rule # 3 – Never try and prune a Holly Tree without Safety Goggles
You get where I’m going with this, right? It was Sunday, Father’s Day in fact, when I found myself – without Safety Goggles – standing on a chair, stretching to prune branches over my head…not a good idea. A cautious, safety oriented person would have – while wearing protective eyewear – switched to a ladder to be able to prune above the falling branches thus avoiding potential injury. Not I, or should I say, not eye?
The falling holly branch scraped across my eye on it’s way to the ground leaving me with what is known as a Corneal Abrasion. On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was about a 7, but of greater concern was an immediate reduction in vision by about 50%. The eye closes involuntarily and through the tears, painful blinking and blurred vision I knew that the bad haircut I’d given the Holly Tree would have to wait …”OK fucker, you win this one, but even if I have to finish this job looking like a pirate with one eye, I’ll be back!”
With my one good eye, I went inside and consulted Mr. Google to see what I should do – hoping to avoid Doctors… on a Sunday…during a Pandemic…on Father’s Day. But no, beyond a little rinse in Saline solution, the risks – blindness – were too great and a trip to emergency was in order, where I expected to see a room full of hapless Dads, bleeding and broken from their various ill conceived yard duties.
As I was unable to drive, my lovely partner Cathy volunteered to be my ambulance and risk-management adviser, reminding me – once again – of the benefits of precaution. I promised I would heed her good advice.
At Emergency, it turns out that bleeders, strokes and organ failures get fast tracked through “Emergency Room A” whereas those who are just broken and in pain – like myself – get put into “Emergency Room B”…with it’s lengthy waits. We are there to endure and build character.
After my obligatory four and a half hour wait I was able to consult with a specialist who informed me, while looking deep into my eye –and my soul – that my injury was not very bad and should slowly heal over the coming weeks. “It’s a rather small scratch Mr. Bathgate, you’ll be fine, here are some drops” It’s all I really wanted to hear, even though it still felt like my eye had been slashed with a bayonet. The next day I went and bought Safety Goggles.
Despite my ongoing discomfort (mild pain, blurred vision and an eye that wouldn’t stop blinking and weeping) I needed to get over to Mayne Island to work on my Gallery, which had been shut since October. The yard was an overrun mess of waist-high grass, weed families, and a long-neglected California Lilac that was in dire need of…pruning…I stuffed my Safety Goggles into my back pack, and made my way via public transit to the ferry.
Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, my Gallery/Café will likely remain closed for the season. Where I would have normally done all my spring-cleaning, gardening and preparatory work in March and April for a May opening, I only started to make tentative forays to Mayne Island in mid to late June. The extra 3 month absence has allowed my yard flora to run riot and I have my work cut out for me. This is good as it gives me focus and a sense of productivity as I self-isolate on Mayne.
Rule # 4 – You can never wear enough protective gear to prevent all possible injuries
The California Lilac is a beautiful bush and the bees love it. I love it and I love the bees. It has grown considerably since last year, gaining height and breadth to give us a beautiful display of its fragrant, buzzing, blue flowers. It seems to allow its lower branches to die out, creating a canopy of support for the upper display, and has gained enough width to prevent us from accessing our path into the back yard without ducking. It is this barrier, and the tangled mess of dead branches which I have to tackle…luckily I have my Protective Eyewear.
Crouching under the Lilac to gain access to the dead branches, sometimes on my hands and knees, puts me in some pretzel-like yogic positions for pruning. Although I’ve got my protective eyewear, my injured eye is still weepy and not giving me clarity of vision…and here, on Mayne, I don’t have the complete contingent of tools…all I have are pruning shears, which are like pliers… with sharp blades. It’s all going well until I encounter a rather thick branch which requires two hands to apply enough pressure to make the cut. Where’s a Bypass Lopper when you need one? While exerting maximum pressure, my thumb slipped into the crushing/pinching fulcrum as the cut was made and I gave myself a nasty blood blister.
Swearing comes fairly naturally at these moments…I’m under the bush with my weepy damaged eye, holding my injured hand between my legs with my teeth clenched going f…u…c…k! It hurts but I know the drill, I’ve had these before, all you can do is wait, grimace, and clench your teeth…the pain will subside in 5 or 10 minutes. Some choose to lance the blister to let the blood and pressure out – and I may do this later – but at this moment I’m looking at piles of pruned dead branch debris thinking, “OK…I can do this…I’ll just clean up this mess and then wrap up for the day and have a look at my wound”.
I start to gather up handfuls of dead branches and ponder where I’m going to toss them. It’s a 10 acre parcel of land and we don’t have an official burn pile so I decide to throw the organic material into the bushes. All I have to do is wander through a small patch of innocuous-looking waist high plants to chuck my load.
Rule # 5 – Know what poisonous plants thrive in your region – avoid them
There are two kinds of people in this world – those that recognize Stinging Nettles and avoid them and those that don’t and suffer accordingly – I fall into the latter category. Maybe if I hadn’t been wearing shorts and sandles it wouldn’t have been so bad. I’d never had an encounter with Stinging Nettles before and, it truly is, an unforgettable experience. By the time I was 10 feet into the patch I knew something was seriously wrong…my legs were on fire and, as a novice to this problem, it took me a moment to understand my plight and make a plan of escape. The pain was so great it dwarfed my earlier injuries, but all I could do was ditch my armload of debris, turn around and rush back the way I’d come, adding further injury.
The Stinging Nettle is covered with thousands of filaments that pierce the skin of the unwary and inject poisons that result in burning, itching painful sensations. Hundreds of mosquito-bite like blisters form on the exposed skin and even with washing can remain with the victim for up to 18 hours.
I felt like I’d just experienced medieval torture with my nasty thumb pinch followed in such short order with my blistered burning legs. I was reminded of Ving Rhames as Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction when he asked his homies to “bring pliers and a blowtorch” to deal out rough justice to his hillbilly tormentors.
Bruce Willis & Ving Rhames in “Pulp Fiction”
Luckily I have a sense of humor and was able to sit back with my damaged eye, blistered thumb, and ravaged legs and laugh…at myself and unforeseen circumstances. And, due to “The Rule of 3” (not to be confused with Rule # 3 above) from the Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete…I’d had my three perfect accidents and was now complete – I was safe from further harm.
I’m writing this from my home/office in Kitsilano on April 22, 2020. It’s a good day to sit down and write because, well, it’s raining out and I have little else to do. It’s not yet time to go out for my furtive human-avoidance daily walk, nor am I ready to venture out on my weekly life-threatening shopping excursion. Although the Coronavirus arrived locally in January, its impact was not felt – personally – until voluntary self-isolation & social distancing kicked in on March 19th…the beginning of this minimized and repetitive, Groundhog Month existence we all now share.
We British Columbians are – uncharacteristically – grateful for the rain, as we’ve just experienced the driest April in recorded history, and, as a forested province had begun to worry about our summer fire season. As we are not, as yet, experiencing complete societal lockdown, walking – albeit furtive, fearful and weird – has become one of our primary pleasures – a chance to leave the house/apartment and get much needed fresh air and exercise. This blog/journal is my attempt to keep a record of photos & observations from these local excursions, during this longest of months.
Luckily, I’d returned from a holiday in Mexico on March 6 – before the chaos of airports closing and airlines shutting down had begun. By March 13 though, everything had changed. Friends flying into Vancouver from Ottawa cancelled on the 13th, and my son and his partner Nekita had to cancel a trip to Peru, scheduled for the 14th. Another friend’s son made it to Peru on the 15th just as the airports closed and the country shut down, and Nekita’s mother is still trapped in Hungary with no hope of getting home until late May. I stumbled across these images on my my daily walks, which seemed to reflect the news. Chaos was coming closer to home, “Should I Be Worried?”
If I wasn’t worried previously, early forays into stores with depleted shelves set off some primal inner alarm bells that created a fear-based urge to stock up. My inner lizard had been unleashed. The media were stoking this fear with stories of “toilet paper hoarding” (still not sure what that was all about), and images of vast lines at grocery stores and people greedily clutching at their overloaded carts. I didn’t become one of the human-locusts, but my behaviour was definitely modified to make sure that Cathy and I had enough supplies at home to last for a month if the whole thing fell apart ….hence the Legume Shelf, our protection against the feared collapse of supply chains, and also a great food to assist with social distancing 🙂
I have a lot of faith in the essential goodness of my fellow citizens…it’s humans that I sometimes worry about. Knowing what they are capable of under duress adds a certain edge to ones decision making process in such times. Until rules were put in place by grocery stores ( socially-distant lines, entry limits), and people overcame their initial panic-buying, shopping was unpleasant, slightly fearful and greedy – and quite likely fraught with danger due to the proximity of potentially Covid-infected, clutching hordes of shoppers.
Self-isolation has unique challenges for couples, individuals, and parents at home with children. Emotional strain is being experienced by all. I feel fortunate, during these times, to share these duties – and my life – with my pragmatic & lovely partner Cathy. Whereas my own proclivity is to ignore, forget, or pick and choose from the growing list of rules that are designed to save my life, Cathy’s cautionary wisdom is there to help save me from myself. If not for her, I’d likely be SOL in an ICU at VGH 🙂 ❤
I suffer from mild Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) …this, coupled with my first attempt to do my own taxes in…oh…30 years, using unfamiliar software, while the rain drizzled down under a grey sky and the Canada Revenue Agency was inaccessible due to the Covid-19 outbreak, made self-isolation and the prospect of Global Pandemic especially…….fun. Every now and then – in life- we get to experience new shapes and flavours of misery that we never even dreamed existed…this was one of them 🙂
Coffee…learning to adjust to a coffee-shopless world
I love coffee, and coffee shops. So much so that I run one called Shavasana Art Gallery & Café on Mayne Island, where I, in fact, live when I am open for business…6 months of the year. So I can truthfully say that “I live in a coffee shop”, albeit part time.
One of my personal disappointments that has arrived with the Covid-19 shutdown, has been my need to close my business til further notice. I love my little endeavour and the wonderful community of friends that I have made there. Due to a shortage of medical professionals & facilities on Mayne Island, and a demographic dominated by seniors, the island is especially at risk for the Coronavirus outbreak, and has asked those of us who have alternate accommodation (as I do in Kitsilano) to remain in place.
One of my favourite coffee shops in Vancouver is Bruno’s Corner Cup, which is a short two blocks from my home and is – under normal circumstances – my first stop of the day where I grab my morning coffee and sit with “the boys” to discuss…”important things”. Bruno makes a great cup of coffee, best in Vancouver by my reckoning, and has had to repurpose his place since the shutdown, as indoor seating is disallowed. He’s a very resourceful guy and after a 3 week closure is now selling bags of coffee and doing takeout.
In his absence I played the daily game of trying to find those rare coffee shops that were still selling takeout. It almost felt like a drug deal…furtive and dangerous. I would take the occasional photo to send to my good friend and morning coffee buddy Jordy as a kind of game, “look what I found”. It’s good to have Bruno back …when the shutdown is over and we all return to some semblance of normalcy perhaps I’ll introduce Bruno’s blend to my Mayne Island audience.
Finding Joy During Crisis
Despite the weirdness & worry, and the upset of our comfortable routines, we adapt and find new or forgotten joys to replace what we have lost: We were very lucky to have 2 – 3 weeks of sunshine, which made walking so much better; I found great pleasure (all winter) feeding birds (my new little friends) on a ledge outside my office window; Traffic was cut back which made the city quieter, easier to navigate, and less polluted; Acts of kindness sprung up everywhere, including appreciation for our essential workers & health care professionals, hearts & signs everywhere and random individual acts like the “Table of Freebies” in front of someone’s home; Moments of tranquility at Lolly’s bench where songbirds abound; the joy of access to golf courses – which are closed to golfing – but open to walkers; and, lying down in a field of daisies.
Nature & solitude can be excellent companions during this – and any – time, and are great substitutes for whatever self-important things I may have been doing previously. Just one recommendation though…if you have an opportunity to lie in a field of daisies, by all means do so…just check for Canada Goose poop first! 🙂
The rewards of running a Gallery Café on a small island are not always financial…as I think about it, in my own case, they’re not financial at all, because I really don’t make a lot of money at this gig. What the Art Gallery Café may lack in remuneration though is more than compensated…well, mitigated perhaps…by a depth & breadth of experience that I have come to cherish…tolerate…endure…and fear.
Mostly it’s been good…fabulous actually…how can you not love it when friends and neighbours drop in with fresh baked scones and home-made preserves just out of a spirit of generosity. It’s a very giving community and I’ve been the happy recipient of so much largesse…food of all sorts: smoked salmon, various teas and coffees, baked goods of all kinds, numerous bouquets of flowers, award winning sunflowers, canned items from homegrown gardens, and perhaps one of my favourites, the friends who showed up with an entire ice-cream maker full of freshly made blackberry ice cream…God that was good, perhaps the best ice cream I’d ever dipped my spoon into.
And the fearful? Well, at the moment the bucket of ice cream scares me as I try and shed 20 pounds after my winter excesses. All kidding aside though…it’s people. When you run a retail operation, as I do, it’s a public space open to all, and you never know who is going to walk through the front door. I’ve been fortunate, I know, as I can safely say that 99%+ of those who have graced my Gallery with their presence have been kind, funny, happy, bright and engaging.
And the <1% ?…mostly a garden variety of quirky individuals whom we all encounter from time to time who trigger our awareness mechanism in a way that speaks of unpredictability. We know that our ability to communicate and understand might be challenged and may try our patience. But these individuals are – ultimately – harmless and wander off on their quixotic journeys. Then there are the in-your-face recovering drug addicts who generate wariness and, of course, the irritating drunks who wander in eliciting anger, wariness and thoughts of self defence…
….and then there’s Colin*. Colin was the “1 in a 1,000” deeply troubled individual who walked in one fine spring morning and stayed for a year and a half. I’m not going to go into detail but suffice it to say that Colin’s depth of personal pain had created a malevolence filled with hair-trigger anger, paranoia and threats of violence which I became privy to on an almost daily basis. His appearance, and my exposure to his toxicity made me seriously consider closing my shop…and then, one day, he was gone!
The experiences I have come to value the most (next to buckets of ice-cream) are those which feel unique and fresh and unlike anything I’ve previously encountered. Situations or events which arouse my sense of the absurd….friends who drop in by horse, performance artists appearing with giant puppets, phone calls to help move a giant pot-bellied pig to a Church Fair, a friend showing up with a truckful of retrievers, a hunter coming in with a bag full of bloody deer hooves for “my art”, and, one of my faves, an elderly friend dropping off her late husbands collection of retro leatherwork magazines which I’ve captured in this short video “Adventures in Leather”
The magazines went to a good home as I decided against a new career in leatherwork. The adventure – now in its sixth year – continues 🙂
*Colin is the name I have given to “He who shall remain nameless”…
It was there, waiting for me, when I got back from Vancouver. Black, lustrous and imposing, it now occupied the space I’d left for it against the far wall between the two cabinets. Possessing a certain presence and grace, it sat there patiently, as if expecting me. My new roommate had arrived – the Blüthner was here.
The movers had obviously found the “secret key” and managed to access my Gallery and wrestle its awkward bulk into place, without my assistance. For this I was grateful as pianos are notoriously difficult to move. Three-men with a truck, a special dolly and straps is still no guarantee of safety – for the piano or the movers. This is why you’ll find many pianos being offered for “free”…if you pick up the moving fees.
In fact, the piano was not mine – a friend had received it, for free, when the local Community Centre on Mayne Island decided to divest themselves of their two pianos. His impulsive agreement to take the piano was short-lived though, when he realized that he didn’t have space for it. Pianos are beautiful instruments and have an intrinsic allure, even if you don’t know how to play them – like myself. When offered a chance to “store it indefinitely” in my Gallery Café, I readily accepted, and now, it was here…what to do?
It looked lovely in its new home, fitting perfectly between the two cabinets, allowing for stylish art displays on the wall in the alcove above, and on top of the piano too. But what of the piano itself? What is a Blüthner? A name I’d never heard, before one showed up in my Gallery. I was curious.
It all starts with a little Wikipedia…
“Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik manufactures pianos in Leipzig Germany. Along with Bechstein, Bösendorfer, and Steinway, Blüthner is frequently referred to as one of the “Big Four” piano manufacturers. Established in 1853, Julius Blüthner, a deeply religious man, spoke the defining words that would allow his company to survive and flourish for the next 167 years, “May God Prevail”. The age of any particular Blüthner piano can be determined by matching its serial number to the age table freely available on the Blüthner website”
Blüthner pianos have won international awards consistently since their inception, and have been prized by pianists all over the world, including Rachmaninoff who said, “There are only two things which I took with me on my way to America…my wife and my precious Blüthner”.
“Hmm…impressive pedigree…and I can determine the age of my Blüthner?,” That’s cool I thought…I had to look. Lifting up the lid, and exposing the Hammer Action I saw the Serial number stencilled on the metal frame, “92989” Returning to the computer and the Blüthner website I was able to determine that my Blüthner was built in 1914 – exactly 100 years earlier (I was doing all this sleuthing in March 2014).
100 years. I paused to reflect for a moment on this significant date. I think we naturally accredit a special respect for anything that is celebrating a century of life on this earth. If the Blüthner was not technically alive, it had experienced a lot of life at the hands of its various owners. And, significantly, it was born in Leipzig Germany at the start of World War 1 which began on July 28th of that year. Where did it go? How did it get here?
My curiosity about the Blüthner’s journey was piqued and I wanted to know all I could about her…but all I had was the piano sitting before me – and she wasn’t speaking. I grabbed a flashlight and a screwdriver and started to explore.
Removing the bottom panel just above the piano pedals I peered in with my flashlight and saw the Serial number again, handwritten in pencil along with what appeared to be a signature. My first thought was of a young German piano maker leaving his mark for posterity – a little Saxon graffiti – and immediately wondered what might have happened to him with the advent of War.
Without knowing for certain though, I sent a photo to my German friend Rainer Schroeder (Valhalla Tours ), for translation. Rainer said that although “it’s definitely a word…the font is in Old German “Suetterlin” …but I’m not sure”.
Undaunted, I went online and found Katherine Shober of SK Translations who works in this field to see if she could help. (Chasing this one word translation becomes a story in itself: Katherine was too busy but directed me to Geneologist Dr. Ellen Yutzy Glebe. She too was busy but gave me three Facebook Translation Groups – which I joined – and within hours had a viable translation from Georg Patrzek – “Tschempel (or Tschumpel/Tschampel)” which is a family name…God I love the internet)
I was glad that the word I’d discovered was a family name and didn’t mean “right piano leg” in Sütterlinschrift . Knowing that M. Tschempel decided to sign this instrument upon which he (or she) worked creates, for me at least, a whole thread of historic inquiry to ponder or pursue. Was he young, old, married with family? What happened to Tschempel? World War 1? 2?…in a last grasp at trying to understand, and complete this circle, I found one Tschempel reference online – again on Facebook, a Marie Lea Tschempel whom I have messaged…I await her reply.
The next and most obvious clue in the Blüthner’s journey was a small metal plaque attached to the keyboard lid which read: “Bowran & Co. Ltd – Newcastle on Tyne”
I knew that Newcastle on Tyne was in England, so the Blüthner had to have made it’s way safely between two warring countries, but I had no way of knowing when it made that perilous trip. Mr. Google was there to help and gave me a little tidbit from the Newcastle Journal August 4th, 1916…a small classified ad indicating that E. O. Bowran was indeed engaged in piano sales, representing several makes & models of new & used pianos. Bowran survived the war but not the great Depression, and had to be “wound up due to liabilities”, as published in the London Gazette, February 5, 1935
So, somewhere between 1914 and 1935, the Blüthner made it’s way to England, sat in a Piano Shop in Newcastle upon Tyne and was sold either new, used or as part of a bankruptcy liquidation.
Sometime during it’s long life, an aspiring pianist, or perhaps a child who didn’t know better, sat down at the piano with a pen and piece of paper, and forever scarred the keyboard cover while writing out the notes and lyrics to a song:
Their scribbling moved around too much for me to identify the song, or tell what era it’s from. I visualize a young student or budding musician from the 60’s or 70’s copying or creating a piece for personal enjoyment or to entertain family and friends. I find these words add a human element to the Blüthner’s almost indecipherable journey.
The trail goes cold here until August 10, 1986 (or perhaps October 8) when the Blüthner was tuned up by Cliff Brownlee of Penticton, BC.
I’ve attempted to fill in some gaps with the Blüthner’s history but have been unable to do so beyond the plaques, stickers, and graffiti that were left attached to the piano. The 50 year gap between Newcastle & Penticton is long so I decided to take a chance and call Cliff Brownlee in Penticton to see if he could remember anything about the piano – 28 years after his tuning job. It was a long shot.
Much to my surprise, there he was in the directory, no longer listed as a piano tuner and living at a different address but I felt compelled to call him. What possible harm could it do? Again, surprisingly, Cliff picked up the phone after a couple of rings. I could tell by his voice that I was not dealing with a young man. I explained who I was and why I was calling, that I was on a crazy mission to try and understand the life of a piano. How did it get to Pentiction?…and then to Mayne Island?
Cliff was friendly but admitted that – after this length of time – he really had little memory of working on my Blüthner, but – again with the surprises – he would look into his files, and call me back. He did just that. Two days later I received a call from him, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to elaborate much more on my pianos journey. He did recall coming to Mayne to tune David Hodges Grand Piano back when he was still in business, so we speculated that perhaps the Blüthner was here at that time, and not in Penticton, and that Cliff had picked up some additional tuning jobs.
I had one more lead to try – call the Community Centre and see where they got the piano and talk to whomever donated it. A chat with Lauren led me to Lise who gave me the final word on my quest. A couple named Don and Nina Thompson had made the donation to the Community Centre but they were now both in a seniors care facility in Victoria and should really not be disturbed. The thought being that perhaps they would be dismayed to know that their “donation” had changed hands and was now in a Gallery Café.
After all my sleuthing I certainly wanted to call them, or their family members but I honoured the suggestion. If Don and Nina’s intent when they made their donation was for the Blüthner to be cared for and played lovingly, I’m sure this little video that I made: “Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner” would warm their hearts and assuage any concerns they may have…
“an old person whose mental faculties have declined, but not enough to dissuade him from telling short stories about himself”
From the “Bathgate Book of Puns & Portmanteaus”
I suffer from the occasional bout of depression. Although it’s not clinical or chronic, and usually dissipates within a day or two, while it lingers, it can have a nasty crippling effect upon my productivity and sense of accomplishment. I don’t medicate – anymore – as I have assembled tools & techniques, from years of self-work to help me deal with the down. A little reading and self-awareness, a little counselling, and a little Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have been the Hardware stores from which I have filled my emotional toolbox. Luckily, these discouraging feelings are oft times mitigated, as well, by a zany sense of humour, which I have in spades.
It usually starts with some kind of self-critical observation.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing recently (and not so recently) and have had the disquieting thought that a lot of my current writing lacks substance and depth and is merely anecdotal in nature. This is the crack in the door through which the depressive thought tries to gain a foothold.
“Of what lasting value are your anecdotes…old man?” Sneers the cruel inner critic as the crack of despondency widens further. It’s the same accusation of meaninglessness that my demon has conjured up anytime I’ve picked up a pen, a paintbrush or a musical instrument. “Gee…am I just an old guy writing his memoirs?” I ask myself glumly. “Limited talent and minimal lasting value I can accept…but old?…I still have red hair for fuck sake” My “Sensei of Humour” arrives with a pun and some self-deprecatory thoughts, to teach me a valuable lesson and deflect the cruel blows of self-doubt. “That would make you an Anecdotard, Seito” he says, “an old man with diminishing mental acuity, telling amusing stories about himself.”
Despondency lifts as I comfort myself with this playful pun. But self-doubt has not released its grip and returns with a pointed remark which casts doubt on my knowledge of language, “That’s not a pun” he oozes, with thinly veiled contempt …Anecdotard is a portmanteau!” Like a deer in the headlights, paralyzed by self-doubts’ cocky certainty, I slowly reach for my cell phone. “What the fuck is a portmanteau?” I wonder. “Sounds like a French overcoat….I need to reach out to a higher linguistic power” No, not Google or Wiktionary – higher than that – I text my friend Jon Steeves, creator of “Moot – The World’s Toughest Language Game” and pose my question.
“Ahhh, I’m not wrong”… I ponder, optimistically, as I lean back in my chair with my hands clasped behind my head…“I’m half right”. Depression and self-doubt are – for a time – vanquished, and I return to my normal happy-go-lucky state.
Friends and an appreciation of the absurdity of life – two of the most important contents of any depressive’s toolbox.
I’ve been writing a few short stories recently, most of which have been gleaned from experiences I had back in the early 70’s as a young long-haired traveller. I’ve enjoyed the process – thus far – feeding these stories to my website and friends on social media for general consumption. For some reason, as I tackle this story about my time in Afghanistan, in December, 1973, I’ve been hit with one of those occasional moments of self-doubt about my motivations for writing…at all…or the value or purpose of what I’m doing. Seeds of creative doubt and purposelessness creep in. To spare you my current angst I’m going to forge ahead with this story, and save my pathos for a subsequent article, tentatively titled, “The Anecdotard”.
It’s Wednesday December 12, 1973 and we are trying to get into Afghanistan. We had picked up our Afghan Visas in Mashhad, Iran, the day before and boarded the bus for the 3 hour trip to the border, blissfully unaware of the hassles we were soon to face as we negotiated entry at the crossing…from my journal:
“Super cold, some guys are just in rags. Desert. They have a “So Long” sign (at the border) in Iran. Crazy system at the two border posts. The Afghani one is insane. The bus stopped because we were being ripped off. Driver refused to pay. Then we had to go through 6 people to see our passports….a real hassle, it took us 5 hours to get across. Men are always praying to Mecca”
The drive to Herat should have been a breeze but was punctuated with potholes and Toll-roads, which took an additional 2 or 3 hours to navigate the remaining 100 km. Once in Herat we found a Hotel for 20 Afghanis (the unit of currency…about 40 cents) and dinner for about 30 cents…
“…and we got about 10 – 14 grams (of Hash) for $1. I was elated but it turned out to be bad – paranoia inducing – shit…we heard of a jam session (of Afghani musicians) so we walked to it. All was well until the manager asked for 200 Afghanis for the show, we started to leave and he was going to kill himself. He was begging and getting really ugly so we paid 10 Afghanis each and got tea and music and dope. The vibe was edgy and we all got super paranoid so we left. Insane”
Thursday 13th – Day two in the land known as “The Graveyard of Empires”…”a notoriously difficult country to govern. Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan”…1973 was a time of relative peace, a window through which we travellers could pass unscathed. Allah willing…
“Woke up and everybody has a bad cold. Steve and Brad the worst, they will probably sleep today. Omelette, bread, yogurt & tea for 40 cents. Prices here are quite appealing…got stoned, no good, worse cold and paranoia.”
We are all young. The oldest of our travelling companions is likely 25 and I was clocking in as the youngest at 18. None of us are well-versed in moderation or proper self-care. The rigors of the road are demanding, eating is sporadic and getting high is chronic. We are in the legendary land of Black Afghani Hashish. Some hippies on the road have travelled specifically here for this latter reason – inexpensive, accessible, and powerful dope.
“Friday 14th – Very cold here, and I feel pretty sick. I vowed “no dope” but I did and regretted it. The manager taught us to say “Chulta Bukharum” as a way to say thank you but it really means “lick my ass”. Smoked more dope…no good”
We discovered fairly quickly what Chulta Bukharum meant by the uproarious laughs of the manager and staff when he encouraged us to say it to anyone who came in. To this day, I still use it as a form a greeting with Brad, the last of my fellow travellers that I am still in contact with on a regular basis.
“Saturday 15th – Went to the Bazaar, really strange, hard to believe you are really there”
Was this culture shock? Delirium from my nasty cold? Or, the combined effects of the aforementioned and chronic hash smoking?
“Donkeys, garbage, everyone in rags. My cold is worse – sore throat. No dope tonight. Went and listened to music and danced. The old man with one tooth looks like he is out of an insane asylum – but he sure could dance”
Sunday 16th – We catch the 9 hour bus for Kandahar, getting in around 6 at night. My cold persists as we acclimatize to our new surroundings…
“nice looking spot. Found a cheap hotel (30 cents). I felt rotten so I went to bed while the others smoked…wild dreams about Jesus, revenge, lightning and death”
Monday 17th – Arose and had tea on the mud veranda overlooking town. Our party of eight is now seven as our British friend Jackie decides to leave.
“Moved to another Hotel – Bamiyan – nice place, good menu. Lazed around & walked to the bazaar where Steve & Knute bought shirts. Great brownies and apple turnovers. The people sell their dope just like a market, anything you like is in their shops. Went back and got high and ate a great vegetable stew.”
Tuesday 18th – “1 week til Xmas and we are all fairly sick. Graham is in bed and I walked the streets in a stupor – really weird, the two girls are fine. No dope til I’m better.”
Wednesday 19th – The imminent arrival of the comet Kohoutek was a much-hyped celestial display that we were all anticipating. It was billed as the “comet of the century” on its “once in 150,000 years” flyby, and was scheduled to reach perihelion on December 28th while we were in Afghanistan. Every night in this clear, pollution-free country, with its arid but cold December evenings we would go out and scan the skies for its presence.
“David Berg, founder of the religious cult, Children of God, predicted that Comet Kohoutek foretold a colossal doomsday event in January 1974. Children of God members fled in anticipation to existing communes, or formed new ones, around the world. Because Comet Kohoutek fell far short of expectations, its name became synonymous with spectacular disappointment.” …Wikipedia
“The girls and Steve leave for Kabul tomorrow. Graham had the shits and I’m about the same…walked over to the Indian and Pakistani consulates. Lazed around. Looked for the comet – only small”
Thursday 20th –Life on the road – even in Afghanistan – develops its own routines. Unless something remarkable occurs, Journal entries can be a little repetitive “got up, ate, walked around” or mundane “Brad broke the tape player and fixed it”…”played poker, won 100 Afghanis”, “traded my Asimov book for another Asimov”, or bizarre & lacking explanation, “most people have some disfiguration.” Some of my entries – such as this one – leave me mystified as I don’t recall, now, people being disfigured. Maybe this was the day I bought oranges from a young boy with leprosy who was selling them from a donkey, also with some facial disfiguration. A mystery…maybe Brad will know.
Friday 21st – We’re off to Kabul – we must’ve left quite early because it’s a 10 hour drive and my Journal notes a 3 o’clock arrival, with only one stop at “a crazy café with green-looking meat”.
“Got into Kabul about 3, swarmed over with hotel men (hawkers), each one competing for our business. I stood in the mud to escape. Got a ride into town with me holding the door not to fall out. Our first impressions of Kabul are lousy…dead rat in the road…meat hanging off carts onto the ground. Getting sick of chai. Have to stay a couple of days, at least, to get our visas for Pakistan. Met a guy named René who told us of his times in jail for hash busts”
Saturday 22nd – Moved closer to the Embassy section of town, into the “Friends Hotel”. We met up with our other friends Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and Steve (…“a real hypochondriac, always on pills”…). We are being accosted by an armada of beggars “Baksheesh mister…please!”, and another reference to disfiguration, “one with a really diseased puffo face”.
Rumours of a “really great restaurant called Sigi’s” has piqued our curiosity, as we haven’t encountered anything but basic food – flatbread, rice, yoghurt, meat, eggs, occasional fruit – for quite some time. Sigi’s, as it turned out, was to Kabul, as the Pudding Shop was to Istanbul…
“another legendary place among travelers in the early seventies… one of those western traveler-oriented places (with) great ambiance. …It was all very surreal. Taking off our shoes at the door, we entered one of the large, carpeted rooms, sat down on cushions and ordered our meal. We were briefly greeted by the owner, Siegfreid, a tall German in his forties with blue eyes and short blonde hair. Psychedelic music was playing and people were sitting in small groups swapping road stories …There were two house rules, no dope smoking and no sleeping. You would be asked to leave if found doing either”……from “On the Hippie Trail” by Tony Walton…( I highly recommend this fellow’s blog if you are interested in stories about the overland trip from Istanbul to Nepal/India in the early 70’ – great photos and writing (either a great memory or a detailed Journal) – I read his site to see what I did….and then pretend that I did it. 🙂 )
“…had Weiner Schnitzel with potato salad, green salad and bread. Banana shakes! All the free mint tea you could drink and beautiful music. A really great place, easily the best in months.”
Sunday 23rd – Spent a good part of the day at the Indian and Pakistani Embassy getting permits (No visas necessary according to my Journal) and planning our Christmas Eve party for the 24th. Taking advantage of Sigi’s food & ambience oasis, again, was a unanimous decision. (I was so taken with Sigi’s use of Afghani style carpet & cushion seating that I would adopt this style – on several occasions – when I returned to Canada.)
Monday 24th – Party planning involved tracking down alcohol, which is always problematic in a Muslim country. There are no liquor stores so one has to ask around, and make furtive under-the-counter purchases. My efforts produced a bottle of brandy for the nights festivities, while the others went out on similar hunting and gathering excursions. We all enjoyed another fabulous meal at Sigi’s. “We” at this point in the journey includes my six travelling companions: Knute, Steve, Graham & Brad (young American guys), Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and myself – the token Canadian.
After Sigi’s we returned to one of our Hotel rooms for a little party – which, in fact, was not unlike parties anywhere that young western kids congregate…
“Started drinking and smoking, took a pic of us all. Got pretty destroyed, had to work to keep straight. Lots of fun was had. Bought flowers and a tree branch (for decoration) and lots of goodies. Passed out about 12:30 along with all the others. The people next door have been here 1 year because of a death, so they were all decked out for Xmas. Knute scored with Sally, so that’s good”
Tuesday, December 25th – Merry Christmas! I have no idea why I thought Knute “scoring with Sally” was good. Perhaps, as a young red-blooded male I was glad to know that – at the very least –someone was getting lucky.
“…the girls (Jill & Sally) treated us all to a new pair of socks for Xmas. Steve, Graham, Brad & I walked to the top of a local mountain – fantastic scenery. Everyone was hungover.”
It was a low-key day of recovery. Cleaning up our room from last night’s party. Another meal at Sigi’s, fattening up on inexpensive delicious food after weeks of lack, and not knowing what lay in store for us further down the road in Pakistan, India & beyond.
Wednesday 26th – “Not much happening. Went to the American Library, no big news, just bad – 20-30 million predicted to die in India. Girls across the hall have scabies”
I find some of young George’s entries hilarious – so matter of fact & devoid of explanatory information…”20-30 million expected to die in India (where I am headed). Girls across the hall have scabies.” Apocalypse juxtaposed with an irritating rash. In fact, I was probably more alarmed by the scabies.
Thursday 27th – We are slowly preparing our exit from Afghanistan. Steve, who had borrowed money from several of us, received $$ from home and paid us all back. I wrote a few letters, and, from the Journal:
“Knute has no passport and we all have tickets. Steve leaves Tuesday, Graham, Brad & I leave Saturday. It’s very cold. René is having bad problems, Mike is accused of spying. Our poor Afghan, “Good Morning Mister” friend says passports are too much for his 40 cent job to handle.”
Friday 28th – It seems that, from my journal, I take some issue with Steve, “he lives off his parents but hates the system”…in fact, most of our group is soon to split up. Steve will head for parts unknown, Graham will go to Nepal, we’ll part with Jill and Sally in northern India and only Brad & Knute and I would make it all the way to Goa. For our last evening in Kabul though, we go to the Star Café which had decent cuisine and a fabulous musical group playing traditional Afghani music on Tablas and the 21-stringed Rabaab. A beautiful way to wrap up our unforgettable (thank God for Journal-keeping) time in Afghanistan.
“The comet is supposed to come out now…I think I’ll paint a picture of the beautiful scenery – planets, star, moon, comet, dark blue sky & mountain…beautiful…Got up at 7 and headed for the bus”
In all likelihood, we offended every Iranian that was on that late-night bus to Mashhad. Those that were making a holy pilgrimage to the Imam Reza Shrine – one of the holiest sites in Islam, dubbed “the heart of Shia Iran” – could have been justifiably upset by our display of boisterous disrespect, others may have simmered quietly while trying, unsuccessfully, to get some sleep on their ten hour journey. My only defense is that I was a follower, not an instigator – Knute knew all the lyrics, I was only there as part of the Chorus.
“Every night I sit here by my window (window)” he bellowed drunkenly to our assembled, and equally drunk or stoned choir.
“Starin’ at the lonely avenue (avenue)” We all jumped in on the call and response.
“Watchin’ lovers holdin’ hands and laughin’ (HaHaHa)…with loud exaggeration.
“And thinkin’ ‘bout the things we used to do”
Little did Bobby Darin know that when he wrote the song “Things” in 1962 it would be used as a form of sleep deprivation on unsuspecting Iranian pilgrims ten years later. It was around this time that we started to receive the “withering glances” from passengers in the forward section of the bus.
“(Things!)Like a walk in the park!”
“(Things!) Like a kiss in the dark!
“(THINGS!) Like a sailboat RIDE!
WHAT ABOUT THE NIGHT WE CRIED!…everybody now! etc etc.
We were young, high, and unstoppable. At some point, hijab-covered women would turn and go “Shhhhhh!”…it didn’t work. Even young mothers sporting swaddled babies pleading for quiet had little or no effect. We were having too much fun. “Hmmm”, pondered Knute, “perhaps they are not Bobby Darin fans…how about a little Marty Robbins.”
“A white sports coat and a pink carnation!”
“I’m all dressed up for the dance!”
Knute stood in the aisle swaying and singing as the bus careened through eastern Iran. We were all spellbound by his human jukebox ability to conjure up familiar songs and engage us in rousing renditions. The choir had broken ranks and was now jumping in wherever memory of lyrics allowed…
“A white sports coat and a pink carnation!” “I’m all alone in romance!”
“Ohh, I love Marty Robbins” (said no Iranian pilgrim ever) “can you sing…“El Paso”?” “Of course, a song of intercultural love, as a metaphor for the abiding respect & love shared between the American & Iranian people”, said none of the young culturally insensitive hippie travellers.
“Out in the West Texas town of El Paso” “I fell in love with a Mexican girl!”
“Night time would find me in Rosa’s cantina”
“Music would play and Feleena would whirl!”
After a time, the pilgrims seemed to accept their fate and stopped shushing our singing and laughter. Perhaps it was resignation to the forces of youthful exuberance, perhaps through 20 years of – involuntary – pro-Western leadership under the Shah, they had acquired enough tolerance to know that “this too shall pass.” Maybe they just succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep, or, as I noted in my journal, “The people here are so much more friendly than the Turks” …elsewhere, Knute may have been physically restrained.
Was our rude behaviour enough to sway the opinions of some of our co-travellers? Did we tip anyone over into sympathy for the anti-government forces which were growing? “Enough is enough!”…”let’s kick the bums out!” The Iranian Revolution occurred several years later…how many indignities does it take to start a revolution? Knute, Bobby Darin, and the Law of Unintended Consequences.
30 Years later – 25 years after the Iranian Revolution – Knute would rob a bank in Beaverton, Oregon…and get caught. His heist made news under “stupid robber tricks.” Evidently, he brought a gun, a bandana for his face, and a bag for the $188,655 he walked out with – a good haul for a bank robber – but he forgot a getaway car. As a result, he demanded keys from a customer, very politely saying, “I will leave them under the front seat.” The only problem was, Knute couldn’t figure out which key opened up the owner’s car, according to reports, so he took off the mask, and went back into the bank to inquire.
After he finally got the car open, Knute took off, passing a Beaverton police car along the way. The officer received signals from the tracking device planted in the stolen loot, and tracked him down within minutes – and arrested him.
The last we heard he was cooling his heels in an Oregon Detention Facility – no doubt entertaining his cell mates with his Karaoke command of Golden Oldie pop tunes.
The Nice Pakistani Shopkeeper Gave me a Little Head
I had considered the above subhead as a title for this story, but after the deepest of ponderings I felt that it might adversely affect my political aspirations – don’t want to lose the shopkeeper vote…also, it is New Year’s Eve 2019 as I write this so the reference to dates and times and locations seemed apropos.
The bus trip from Kabul to Peshawar is only 300 kilometers and, depending on the mechanical worthiness of your bus, the number of eyes that your bus driver has (ours had one), the number of herds of goats that cross the road, and the general mood of the border guards (ranging from angry and uncooperative, to indifferent and distracted) the trip should only take between 6 and 10 hours. And this is in the days before roadside bombs and ambushes.
My travelling companions and I arrived in Peshawar mid-afternoon on December 29th…enough time to find a hotel, unload our backpacks, and wander around a bit before grabbing a bite of dinner. We’d been on the road since 7am with limited access to food and only intermittent washroom breaks – there were no washrooms on buses then….and in fact, often, there were no washrooms at the various “rest stops”. Relieving oneself involved stepping over feces on an open field behind a wall, squatting and pooping.
As it is winter the countryside here is sparse, arid and brown and we are cold. Everyone (we hippie travellers) was wearing all their clothing to stay warm. The first Pakistanis we meet seem slightly more affluent than the impoverished Afghanis, and are more fluent in English. Due no doubt to 100 years of British influence during the Raj.
It’s December 30 and we are exploring our new neighbourhood, and according to my Journal, the effects of the world renowned local hashish, “…these are the craziest days of my life…man we are getting so zonked, bought 1 ounce for about $2.50 from a really paranoid type guy.” The cultural & sensory differences here, for a young Canadian, are so vast and complete that getting stoned is really unnecessary. Why dilute the intensity of the experience? Why not maintain one’s wits in a foreign land where unknown danger lurks? Chalk it up to hippie culture and blind youthful invincibility – it’s what we did…no harm could befall us.
But dangers abound in foreign lands and they take many different forms and seek out unexpected opportunities. The “paranoid guy” related a story about his cousins “bust” in a chai shop for possession. Apparently he was stuck continuing to sell drugs to foreigners to help pay for his fine because he had no money. Running afoul of the law in a foreign land is never fun and can be made much worse by corrupt police and officials.
Inappropriate and unwanted advances can also be dangerous – for both parties. When our hash dealer told me that “I had a pretty face” my young straight male desire to defend my sexuality with violence was barely suppressed by my emerging tolerance and worldliness. According to my journal I considered “cutting my hair…. but, decided not to because all the guys were getting hit on.”
New Year’s Eve 1973. Pakistan and India had been at war 3 times in 30 years and there was – at that time – a much more noticeable military presence in Pakistan than there was in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was, largely, at peace and would remain so until the Russians invaded in 1979, whereas Peshawar, and Pakistan, felt edgier. It was common to see armed Pushtuns wandering around, and hear random gunshots going off in the near and far. Our hotel was only a short walk from an Arms Bazaar where merchants hawked guns of all kinds and young boys could be found working away at various weapons manufacturing/assembly jobs.
Our route also took us past open slaughterhouses where children, bathed in blood, would be up to their elbows in entrails, with large knives cutting edible/saleable pieces of lamb and sheep. Nothing gets wasted – except for we hippies experiencing this carnage through a hashish-addled fog.
We were smoking a lot of hash as we went about our day. Played snooker – smoked hash. Had Lunch – smoked hash. Met a guy selling hash in Campbell soup cans for us to smuggle back to Canada – decided it was a bad idea, smoked more hash. Eventually our journeys led us to a carpet shop where we met our new best friend Karwan, the shopkeeper. Graham bought a $17 carpet so Karwan showed his appreciation by smoking some hash with us and taking us to his warehouse where he had a section of floor covered in ancient artifacts that he had dug up from a local archaeological site….”Have a look at these old pieces I have dug up…if you see something you like, please take it…it is my gift to you.”
As backpackers on a long-distance trip, every ounce of weight has significance. I looked around at the various pieces and found a little head that I liked, while Brad picked up an equally attractive small piece that would fit into his pack. We thanked Karwan and he insisted that we join him back in his shop for brandy. It’s quite easy to get hash in Pakistan but – as a Muslim country – alcohol is forbidden. Of course we joined him, adding booze onto our already stoned perspectives.
“Hey Karwan”, I asked, “do you know where we can get some booze for tonight? It’s New Year’s Eve and we’re going to have a little party back at our hotel…you could join us…Our other friends will be there too – just bring some of your hash” Delighted by this invite, Karwan happily gave directions to the store where alcohol could be purchased – just a few blocks away in a little bakery. We told him the name of our hotel and that he could drop in after 8, then we set out in search of the bakery…and alcohol.
It was a nondescript little shop with a few baked goods displayed in the window. We ascended the two stone steps, opened the door and walked in. The owner greeted us warmly, it was late afternoon and most of his wares had been purchased except for some flatbreads and a few sweets. He spoke a little English so we said “Karwan at the carpet shop said you might have some alcohol for sale?” Immediately, his cheerful demeanor darkened, the smile left and his brows furrowed. His eyes darted from Brad to myself, then he came out from behind the counter, opened the front door and looked up and down the street before shutting the door, pulling down the blinds and locking it. “One moment please”, he said as he disappeared into the back. He soon reappeared with a bottle of brandy in a bag which he handed to us in exchange for about $5.00. We thanked him and left…gaining some insight into the paranoia of yesterdays hash dealer…but not enough to make us stop.
We smoked a bit more hash, ate something somewhere and made our way back to our hotel to begin our little New Year’s Eve celebration. Graham, Knute, and Brad and I convened in Jill & Sally’s room to share the brandy, followed soon after by the arrival of our new friend Karwan the carpet merchant. We are doing what young people at parties do in the west…drinking, smoking, sharing laughs, flirting with the girls – vying for their attention while keeping an eye on the competition. It’s a small intimate group and we’ve been travelling together for a month through these foreign lands. Karwan seems be having fun, drinking & smoking & telling awkward jokes, he could be the foreign student in our college dorm trying to fit in, to be one of the guys & impress the girls.
As midnight approached, we decided to have some kind of countdown on Graham’s watch… 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 Midnight! Happy New Year! Spontaneously, we all gave each other hugs, high fives and handshakes…until I noticed that Karwan wasn’t participating in our little celebratory group hug, instead he was sitting on one of the beds looking around rather furtively, with his hands clasped between his legs. “Go on girls, why don’t you give Karwan a hug too?” I said.
As Jill reached over to embrace our shopkeeper friend he stood up with a full-blown erection ballooning out from under his very baggy & loose-fitting white cotton pants. He grabbed Jill, pushed her onto the bed, lay on top of her and began squeezing her breasts vigorously. Without hesitation the boys grabbed Karwan and peeled him off Jill, and sat him back on the bed so she could escape. “No, no man, that’s not good”, we said to him, “It was just a friendly hug, nothing else intended”…have another drink, it’s ok, man”
Someone splashed a bit of brandy in his glass, but between the mistaken expectation of what Karwan thought was happening with two western women in a hotel room, and the embarrassing reality of our collective reaction, he was both humiliated and angry. He lifted his glass to his lips, drank the contents and then smashed it on the floor. At this, we decided that Karwan had overstayed his welcome…we four guys grabbed him by the arms and lift-walked him out the door, down the stairs and outside where we released him and he fell – unconscious – onto the street in front of our hotel.
We stood there for a while wondering what else to do. Karwan was indeed, passed out on the street. Horses, cars and people slowly made their way around his immobile body. Eventually, the manager of the hotel came out, looked at Karwan, shrugged his shoulders and went back in….according to my journal, “the hotel guys were supposedly trying to kill him so they let him lie in the street…” As we grabbed Karwan by the legs and tried to haul him away from the worst of the traffic, a freak bearing free beer approached us and said, “What’s all this Brouhaha?, “Brouhaha? I retorted, and then together, “Ha Ha”…and he was gone. Maybe I need to cut down on the hash, I thought. Happy New Year!
I was 17 and I’d been hitchhiking for 55 days – and I was coming home. It was August 28, 1972 and my trans-Canadian adventure had taken me from Victoria to Charlottetown, P. E. I. and back…almost. This was my last full day on the road and I was a consummate pro at the art of travelling by thumb. I’d had some close calls and near misses in the previous two months but this was the home stretch and I was confidently optimistic of making it back to Victoria by the following day – maybe even this day if all went well.
Aunt Alma was a sweetheart and offered to
drive me to the highway outside of Lethbridge to begin my day, but she was
prone to worry. “Ohh George….I just don’t feel right leaving you out here by
the side of the road…all alone” she said. Her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes scrunched and
her mouth turned down with a look of great concern, “In the middle of nowhere”.
“Don’t worry Aunt Alma”, I said, “I
won’t have to wait long…and I’ve got that sandwich you made me”…”Thanks for the
lift – see ya!” she gave me a hug, I grabbed my backpack, and hit the highway
with my thumb out.
It was a hot, dry August Monday in southern
Alberta – rolling plains of grasses, scrub and crops, where my Grandparents had
settled sixty years earlier to grow sugar beets. I didn’t have to wait long for
a ride, catching a lift in a truck with
a young farmer with a pronounced stutter, who took me past Fort McLeod and
Pincher Creek to the small farming town of Cowley on the edge of the Foothills.
The next lift was with a heavy equipment
operator who was willing to put up with my company for the next five hours all
the way to Trail, BC, where he worked. We breezed through the Crowsnest Pass
and the BC-Alberta border into the Kootenays along Highway #3 – one of the most
scenic drives in BC and a personal favourite of mine. This was a great ride as
it took me almost halfway home. I sat back and enjoyed the view, engaging in
small talk with the driver, regaling him with stories from “the road”.
From my experience, it usually didn’t take
more than an hour between rides, maybe two if there was a long line-up or you
were stuck in a particularly conservative, redneck area where kids with long
hair – like me – were frowned upon. As a
blue-collar town with it’s fair share of hippie-kid bias, I expected that
leaving Trail might take longer than usual, but was surprised that three hours
lapsed before someone decided to stop and pick me up. Finally some “heads”
(counter culture term for Hippies) stopped to give me a ride.
“We’re just goin’ to Christina Lake, where
ya off to?” they asked. “Heading home to Victoria so anywhere further west is
great – thanks.” I threw my pack into the back seat and climbed in. It’s about 6pm and the drive to Christina
Lake is about an hour. The unexpected delay in Trail has changed my plans.
“I’ll try and make it to the Okanagan tonight, maybe Osoyoos or Penticton to
find a Hostel.” I said. The driver and his friend were American draft dodgers in
their 20’s, living on a commune near Christina Lake. Canadian roads, communes,
and hostels were full of young American men fleeing the draft and the Vietnam
war during these years, and the Kootenays seemed to be a particularly popular
They dropped me off at what is now known as
the Tempo General Store & Gas Station shortly after 7pm in “the Village” of
Christina Lake. The spot looked like it had good hitchhiking Feng Shui – it was
close to a store/gas station with access to food and drinks and washrooms, and it
was on the Village strip where cars would have to slow down and abide by the reduced
speed limits. Slower cars usually translated into more rides. I imagined that
I’d be in Osoyoos by sundown in time to grab a bed and maybe a bite of food at
the local hostel.
There was no shortage of traffic, it was
summertime and Hwy 3, officially known as the Crowsnest Highway, was full of
holiday travellers. By 8 o’clock, as the evening light began to wane, and many
cars had passed, I became slightly concerned
– “I don’t like to hitchhike at night” I thought, “Things can get
weird”. By 9 o’clock it was dusk and, despite
striking my most pathetic and needy hitchhiking postures, I hadn’t had any
bites – except for the increasing number of mosquitoes. By 10 o’clock it became
clear to me that something was wrong. People were certainly driving by slowly –
too slowly – and looking fearfully at me through their rolled-up car windows.
“I wonder what’s up, this is just as bad as Trail,” I thought. I was resigning
myself to hauling out my sleeping bag and finding shelter in a nearby park.
“I’ll give it another 15 minutes…a bed would be nice.”
Then, an Old Dutch Potato Chip Truck pulled over to the side of the road ahead of me. At first, I wasn’t sure if this was a ride or if the driver had to
deal with an emergency. He opened the door of his cab, got out, and walked towards me. “I bet you’ve been stuck here for a while, haven’t ya?” he asked. “Yeah, Jesus…3 or 4 hours I replied, as I picked up my gear. “What’s goin’ on?” “Well…There’s a murderer loose in this area…killed some people in a campsite…just walked in and shot ‘em.” “The RCMP and local police are looking for the guy…happened this afternoon…anyways, I’m driving to Kelowna so I can get you that far” “No wonder it’s been such a shitty day for hitchhiking” I replied, “I was stuck in Trail for 3 hours this afternoon too…I appreciate the lift man, I just wanna get outta here.” Rather than admitting me into the passenger side of his cab though, he opened the back door to the windowless compartment and said, “Hop in.”
The voices in William Bernard Lepine’s head
told him that he was chosen to save the world from a nuclear holocaust. Although he’d spent time in the East Kootenay
Mental Health Unit and the Riverview Mental Hospital in Coquitlam, from whence
he escaped on July 30, he did not exhibit any violent behavior. On this day however – starting around 9am
August 28, 1972 – Lepine, armed with a
22-caliber rifle and a 30-caliber rifle, walked into an orchard outside Oliver,
BC, where Willard Potter (16) and Charles Wright (71) were working on some
irrigation equipment, and shot them both – dead.
Lepine was a 27 year-old American who had
worked for a time in the orchards near Summerland, and doing maintenance work
for the Municipality of Creston before his slide into schizophrenia. Symptoms typically come
on gradually, in young adulthood, and can include delusional thinking,
hallucinations and hearing voices that do not exist. Today, Lepine’s tragic internal commands
dictated that he kill random innocent people to stave off Armageddon. He put his
first victims bodies in their landrover and drove northeast towards a
campground off the Kettle Valley Road. Around 11am he discarded their bodies in
the bushes off the road and entered the campground.
The Clarks and the Wilsons had been friends for a long time and liked to go camping together. The Kettle Valley Recreation Area was one of their favourite places to park their motorhomes and spend a weekend hiking, picking huckleberries, and sitting around the fire at night drinking a few beers and sharing some laughs. Around noon on this day, William Lepine entered the campsite, chatted briefly with Lester (58) and Phyllis Clark (61), and Allan (62) and Mildred Wilson (55) and then left. Shortly thereafter he returned, armed with one of his rifles. He ordered the two couples into one of the motorhomes and started shooting, killing Phyllis Clark, and wounding the other three. While Lepine escaped in his car, the Wilsons – bleeding profusely and in shock – managed to get into their vehicle and drive towards Westbridge in search of help. Lester – also severely wounded and suffering the additional trauma of witnessing his wife being shot and killed – managed to follow the Wilsons in his motorhome with his deceased wife in the back.
critical medical care in Westbridge, the wounded survivors were able to give
the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) the information they needed to begin
their manhunt, in which about 25 officers participated. Patrols went out, road
blocks were set up and radio stations were alerted to warn the public that an
armed killer was on the loose. By 3:00 as I was being dropped off by the roadside
in Trail, the hunt for William Lepine was moving into high gear. And then he
How many murders does it take to stop a nuclear holocaust? As he went about his unfathomable mission, neither Lepine nor his internal voices could provide an answer. It’s over when it’s over, when the shooter is either caught or shot.
Lepine had driven several hours north to
the small village of Edgewood on the shores of the Upper Arrow Lake. It was late afternoon on a beautiful summer
day at the end of August, and Herbert (57) and Nellie Thomas (56) were enjoying
life and each others company when the young unshaven man approached. Nothing
could prepare them for what was to follow. Without warning or explanation,
Lepine pulled out his rifle and shot and killed them both. After hiding their
bodies nearby he escaped in their car, drove 30 miles north and shot and killed
Thomas Pozney (24) who was enjoying a little quiet fishing time on the Lower
Arrow Lake near Nakusp.
I was surprised
that the driver of the Old Dutch Potato Chip truck was putting me in the back
of the truck, in the windowless box with all the merchandise, but it was a lift
and I’d been languishing by the side of the road for hours…and there was an
active shooter, a murderer, on the loose. I hopped in and he closed the door.
When the driver
closed the door, every last bit of light was gone. It became absolutely,
completely dark and I became blind. I
had to feel my way with toes and outstretched hands, between the boxes of
chips, pretzels and pepperoni sticks to a place against the wall where I could
stretch out. It was a 12 x 6 x 6 box…432 Cubic feet of pungent Old Dutch
product line aromas – Salt n’ Vinegar, Barbeque, Sour Cream n’ Onion, Cheesy
Puffcorn, Ketchup Flavoured…and Original…saturated the air. Just as I was thinking that the driver
wouldn’t miss a couple of bags of chips, a male voice in the darkness said, “Hey
man…where ya goin’?” I didn’t know that I had company in the box.
Momentarily startled by this revelation, I
tried – with no success – to determine exactly where he was inside the cube…and
if there were others. “Heading back to Victoria” I replied guardedly, my
thoughts turning from chips to murderers. “I didn’t know there was anyone else
in here…where are you goin’?” “I’m trying to get to Penticton…pretty wild about
the murderer” he replied. He sounded
young, maybe about my age and seemed amicable. I wasn’t getting a strong vibe
of “crazy serial killer in the dark” so our conversation turned to comparisons
of our experiences on the road. He was from Winnipeg and was going to the
Okanagan to pick fruit or find other work. He too had been stuck for hours this
afternoon, in Salmo, before catching a lift with the Potato Chip samaritan. Or
at least…the driver seemed like a
real Old Dutch Potato Chip Truck driver…maybe he killed the real driver and was
impersonating him, we speculated jokingly…and then, in the middle of nowhere
the truck slowed down…and stopped.
muffled voices outside. Moments later, the door flung open and two powerful
flashlights beamed in, hurting our eyes, which had become accustomed to the
dark. “OK, gentlemen” said the authoritative male voice, “…I’ll have to ask you
to get out of the truck.” We hopped out, smelling like potato chips, into a
cordon of Mounties holding shotguns at the ready, near a roadblock of police
cruisers with lights flashing. My initial fear that the driver was the murderer
and was stopping to kill us was now replaced by the fear that the cops would
search my backpack and find my small stash of marijuana and my pipe. “I’ll need
to see some ID…no doubt you’ve heard that there’s a murderer on the loose,
we’re just checking to make sure you aren’t him,” he said.
had been set up at the junction with Hwy 41 to the States in case our fugitive
decided to flee south – he was after all American. This was the first time I’d
seen my travelling companion, another young, long-haired denizen of the
hitchhiking culture that was so popular during the late 60’s and early 70’s. We
didn’t talk much while we were being scrutinized by the cops – I found out later
he too was worried about them finding his stash of hash and two hits of
mescaline. But the police had larger concerns than the contraband of teenage
hippies – a second murder victim had been found and four other missing persons
reports had been filed. It was bad and appeared to be getting worse, they had
to find Lepine.
We were back in the windowless potato chip truck talking about the weirdness of our situation and whether or not we should do the mescaline. We decided that it might be a bad idea in the off chance we might have to disarm a psychopath or brave another police roadblock. The driver had decided to shorten his trip to Kelowna by taking Hwy 33 through Westbridge rather than the longer Hwy 97 route through the Okanagan. My choice was to get dropped off on the side of the road near Rock Creek around midnight – with a mass murderer on the loose – and try and get a ride to Osoyoos, or continue to Kelowna…which would put us at the hostel around 2am. It was not a difficult choice.
We arrived at the hostel shortly before 2am fully expecting that it would be closed, and that we’d have to sleep outside. Luckily, two of the long-haired volunteer Hostel staff were up, quite stoned and playing “Go”, and they let us in. We thanked the driver for delivering us from evil and he gave us a box of Pepperoni sticks as a parting gift which we, and our hosts eagerly devoured…think “munchies”.
William Lepine was caught and arrested the next morning at Galena Bay and taken to the RCMP office in Nakusp before being transferred to Nelson, bringing his murderous rampage to an end. He was ultimately tried and found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and placed in the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam, where he remains to this day.
I made it back
to Victoria the following day despite having to wait another three hours
outside of Kelowna for a lift, likely “because of the fucking murderer”
according to my journal. My immersion in the darkness, fear, and potato chips
has not diminished my enjoyment of Old Dutch products – my favourite is still
Nearly 30 years later, I would meet Jackie B. and her sister Barbie B. who would both become very good friends of mine. As it so turned out, they are the granddaughters of Allan and Mildred Wilson who had been shot and wounded in the campsite in the Kettle Valley on August 28, 1972, and who drove those desperate miles to Westbridge for help. Jackie and Barbie have attended parole hearings for the past 25 years to speak of their family’s pain, and help prevent the release of William Bernard Lepine.
Apópse tha Pethánei o Fasismós! (Tonight Fascism Will Die!)
“Kathy and I are getting kinda low on cash so we’re thinking of going to Israel to work on a Kibbutz…we get free room and board if we work on one of their farms…it’s kinda like a commune or something”
It’s Saturday, November 10, 1973 and I am in Athens with my two friends and travelling companions – Keith and Kathy – who have just decided to go to Israel to extend their overseas trip by exchanging labor for food and a bed. Our round-the-world trip together has lasted barely 2 months and we haven’t even left Europe. “That’s kinda crazy”, I said, “Israel just had a huge war with all of her Arab neighbors barely two weeks ago. It’s pretty dangerous there right now Keith, thousands were killed and you guys don’t know what you’re getting into.”
I’m not sure if K&K’s motivation was genuinely to save money, or if their foray into a war zone was driven by Kathy’s desire to calve her malleable boyfriend Keith away from his high school chum – myself – so she could have more one-on-one quality time with her guy. If so, it seemed like a fairly extreme money-saving solution, or relationship building exercise. (I guess I could call them and ask, 46 years later, although they are no longer a couple, we are still friends) In any event, I chose not to join them, preferring instead “to go to Istanbul” , according to my journal, and carry on with my global adventure. They left without fanfare or delay and were gone the following day, Sunday the 11th, flying off into Armageddon as I remained in Athens, eighteen and alone…according to a journal entry from that day though, their departure left me somewhat nonplussed, ““Said goodbyes to Keith and Kathy, sorry to see them go but I think I’ll get more accomplished now. Lazed around playing chess and cards” …evidently my ideas of accomplishment lacked a certain get-ahead quality – even then!
I was staying at the “New Youth Hostel #4”, at 3 Hamilton Street (now Chamilton), 97B Patision (now 28th Octovriou (October) Street) in Downtown Athens,
just a few short blocks away from the Polytechnion (the National Technical University) where a
student uprising would explode within
the next few days, resulting in much
death, destruction, and ultimately, the overthrow of dictator George Papadopolous.
I’m not sure if I should say that my days leading up
to the revolution were blissfully unaware, or admit that they were pathetically
uninformed. I was completely oblivious
to the political upheaval which was brewing in my neighbourhood. My fellow travellers seemed unconcerned, the
Athenians with whom we engaged were not discussing it, and I was preoccupied
with my travel plans, petty concerns and pleasures.
On Monday November 12, just three days before the students went on strike and occupied the Polytechnic, I was busy assembling the illegal documents I would need – primarily fake student I.D. – to get discounts on my flight to Istanbul. From my journal: “went to a “Crazy spot called Antonios” for fake student id “
(my Journal entries were often vague, as I have no
recollection of why Antonio’s was “crazy” – I guess my younger self thought
that it would be sufficient descriptive for my older self to remember and
interpret – no)
I was much more concerned about cold showers: ”the energy shortage is giving us cold
showers…what a drag”, …eating: “Went
for food with Pearl and Dave “, …drinking: “Met some insane Australians” (which probably meant that they drank
more than me), and… playing “cards &
chess” . Eat Drink Play…the book. And, perhaps the greatest example of my
complete detachment from the political turmoil unfolding around me, my entry
from Wednesday November 14 – the day of the student occupation: “Nov 14 – Wednesday “When I don’t write every
day I find I really forget what’s happened anyway. It’s kind of a drag,
reading, sleeping, eating”. My self-indulgent ennui was about to change.
Student protest is not a new thing. Wikipedia lists 49 such demonstrations going all the way back to the University of Paris Strike of 1229. My favourite being The Great Butter Rebellion at Harvard in 1766…just for the name alone, “Mr. President we must do something about this Butter Rebellion…it’s starting to spread!
The late 60’s and early 70’s were a time of much student unrest…1968 was particularly tumultuous ( Protests of 1968 ) with a worldwide escalation of demonstrations, sit-ins, riots and revolutions taking place in well over 20 countries. These uprisings were mostly directed against military and bureaucratic elites, who countered with greater repression. This is exactly where Greek students of the Polytechnion found themselves in the fall of 1973.
Greeks had been chafing under the repressive regime of
the military junta since 1967. Known as
The Regime of the Colonels or just “The Dictatorship”, leader Georgios
Papadopolous abolished civil rights, dissolved
political parties, and exiled, imprisoned, and tortured politicians and
citizens based on their political beliefs.
An assassination attempt in 1968 and a student self-immolation (Kostas
Georgakis) in 1970 failed to change history.
Despite further clampdown on their rights and freedoms, and American
support for the Dictatorship, by late 1973 students in Athens were angry enough
to make their move. On November 14, 1973, while I was evidently dealing with
the hardship of endless reading, eating, and sleeping, the students of the
Polytechnion – blocks from my bed at Hostel #4 – decided to take their lives in
their hands and occupy the University.
On Thursday, November 15, the second day of the occupation, thousands of citizens from Athens and the surrounding area, headed towards the Polytechnion to support the students. A radio transmitter had been set up on campus demanding the restoration of democracy, acting as a magnet for the disaffected. Still unaware of the magnitude of events that were unfolding around me, I arose, ate breakfast and decided to wander up 28th Octovriou Street towards the American Express office where I was expecting some mail (in those days, Amex was one of the only ways to receive snail mail while overseas). Within a few blocks of the Hostel it became apparent that “something was going on”…the streets became more and more crowded the closer I got to the University, traffic was down to a trickle or stopped altogether, and there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. My first journal reference goes thus, …“Watched a demonstration, very interesting, not enough leaders, publicity or organization…” my one experience attending an anti-nuclear (Amchitka) demonstration in Victoria some years prior had evidently made me an expert, or at least a critic, qualified to provide such astute political commentary.
I do recall, on this day, being able to get fairly
close to the barricaded gates of the Polytechnion. There were placards and
protest signs stuck everywhere, while people milled around and the crowd
swelled. I recall watching from the sidelines during the day, as different
groups allied with the students started to arrive – third parties such as
construction workers and farmers joined the demonstration and at one point a
large throng of “suits” showed up which were reputed to be bankers and
businessmen. By this point I had gleaned
– through conversations with some English speaking protesters – what the
demonstration was about and what was at stake.
As a young, long-haired, left-of-centre traveller my
sympathies were definitely with the students, but as a non-resident just
learning in real-time what was happening in front of me, I felt emotionally
detached from the passions I was witnessing. I was a concerned spectator, a
witness. It was fascinating and exciting
but I got hungry and I left, carrying on with my evening routine of exploration
and the quest for food friends and fun.
I may have gone to the Plaka (entertainment district),
perhaps I climbed up to the Acropolis or Filopappou Hill to watch the sunset, these
details escape me and are not really germane to the story – I do know that my
journey back to Hostel #4 at days end took me once again past the Polytechnion
and what I am now referring to in my journal as “the riot”.
“…went back to the riot.. got talking to a bunch of students, took a couple of dangerous pictures” Night time brings an edgy quality to the angry passions of young males. There was now a sense of lawlessness on the street as the government had not – as yet – decided to respond. Lots of clenched fists and mass chants of “Bread Education Freedom”, or one which has stuck in my mind since that evening “Apópse tha pethánei o Fasismós!” (Tonight Fascism will die!). Maybe the uprising was going to work, maybe the demands for justice, freedom, civil rights and democracy would prevail – or maybe American V.P. Spiro Agnew would parachute naked into Syntagma Square spewing more pro-junta drivel like “the best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in ancient Athens”…I know, I know – the junta was installed at the height of the cold war during America’s fight against Communism, and Greece had fought a divisive Civil War pitting left vs right in what is considered the first conflict of the Cold War – it’s all so complex… but could all be resolved so easily and amicably with the “Bathgate Solution”…better “leaders, publicity (and) organization”…
I edged my way into the crowds of protesters and decided I would take a picture with my shitty little 1970’s Kodak Pocket Instamatic Camera and its weird little flash attachment.
I stood out like a sore thumb with my long strawberry-blond hair, patched jeans, foreign culture coat, and large caulk boots with their spikes removed – a remnant of my brief career as a tree-spacer with Macmillan Bloedel. When the protesters saw that I was a foreigner with a camera they encouraged their compatriots to sit on the street so I could get a better shot of their protest (this was only a fraction of what was going on) and tell the world what was happening in their country.
At the same time, I was told that what I was doing was
dangerous and that there were secret police keeping an eye on the protesters
and would not think kindly of someone recording it, and even worse, being
mistaken for an American …”got asked if I
was American – never say yes (even if you are)”. Given American support for this unpopular
regime, and considering where I was standing this was definitely not an
auspicious time & place to admit to being American. I flashed the Canadian
flag sewn onto my day satchel and apologized – to prove I was Canadian – and
escaped the wrath of the mob.
Friday November 16 – Morning arrived, the uprising had
not yet coalesced into revolution, and Papadopolous was still in power. For we
hostelers there was really nothing to do but go about our day. None of us knew
what the final outcome would be, although it seemed likely that there could
only be one of two possible outcomes – the students would prevail and democracy
would be restored, or they would be crushed and the regime would cling to
power. The final outcome would prove to be much more Machiavellian in the
complex calculus of Dictatorships and great power politics.
Despite being less than a kilometer from the uprising, Hostel #4 was still a place of relative calm. This could not be said of the rest of Athens. Sometime during the day, a proclamation was announced that the students intended to bring down the junta, demonstrations and attacks against neighbouring ministries took place, central roads closed, fires erupted and Molotov cocktails were thrown in Athens for the first time. The Junta decided to reply firmly, and repress the rebellion. Battle lines were drawn.
As evening descended
I met two friends – Betty & Anne – from a nearby hostel who wanted to walk
to the Plaka for dinner. A little
Moussaka, Retsina and music sounded good. It was Friday night after all and, thus
far, we had not witnessed or experienced anything that gave us pause in our
normal activities. The most direct route would take us – once again – past the
Polytechnion, ground zero of the revolution.
There was little or no automobile traffic so we were able to walk on the streets on our way to Omonia Square. Crowds of Athenians, students and otherwise, milled about. There was garbage in the streets as one might find after a parade or festival. As foreigners, we were certainly being watched but no one seemed hostile and there was – at this point – no government presence. No police or military in sight. This was soon to change.
got to Omonia without incident and veered left onto Stadiou on our way to
Syntagma Square which is a few short blocks from the Plaka. Suddenly, halfway
up Satadiou Street, the crowd started running towards us. Behind them was a
phalanx of policemen with clubs, charging down the street beating pedestrians indiscriminately.
We could see their clubs rising and falling of the backs and heads of those
that were fleeing towards us. It took a moment to grasp what was going. Moments
before the mayhem reached us I grabbed Betty & Anne and pulled them into a
store hoping to avoid being clubbed or run over by fleeing pedestrians. One of the young policemen, rushed into the
store after us wielding a club over his head as if to strike as we cowered on
the floor, screamed something unintelligible, then abruptly, turned and left
and ran to re-join his comrades. We gathered ourselves and exited the store to
find broken windows and people clutching their bruised and bloodied heads,
while some tended to the injured.
were all shaken by this new, violent display. Not wanting to follow in the same
direction the police had taken, we carried on with our original plan to head to
the Plaka, find a taverna, have a drink, and gain insight into what was going
on. No more leisurely Friday night stroll. People ran furtively to their
altered destinations or gathered on street corners deep in conversation while
casting fearful glances. It was around this time that we began to hear the
first gunshots echoing in the distance.
is the night of the Revolution” said Dmitri, owner of the little Taverna that
we liked to frequent. “I suggest you
return to your Hostel… it is going to get too dangerous on the streets for you.
The police are out now beating people and taking some away” “We think
Papadopolous will send in the military…already there is shooting but we don’t
know who is shooting who”. “How should we get back?“ I asked, “The Polytechnion is directly between us and
the Hostel?”. “Don’t go back the way you came” he said, “you will have to make
a big detour”.
headed out, unsure of our route but knowing that we had to give the University
a wide birth. It seemed wise to avoid major routes so we chose a series of
narrow streets which hugged the slopes of
Lycabettus Hill. We headed roughly northeast to avoid the turmoil,
asking people for directions and guidance as we went. It’s about 11pm now and
gunfire, including automatic fire was being heard more frequently. Apparently
the regime had sent snipers into the city near the Polytechnion to assassinate
students. We were running into other people who were fleeing the conflict –
some of which were suffering from tear gas exposure. “Here is some vaseline for
your eyes” said one Athenian we encountered, “it will protect you from the tear
gas”. We applied it as directed and carried on.
& Anne were staying at a different Hostel than myself, several blocks
farther away from the University, so I decided to get them home safely before I
returned to #4. After what seemed like an extremely long, arduous and
nerve-wracking detour through the side streets and back alleys of Athens we
arrived – safely – at their Hostel, hugged and said our goodbyes. From here it
seemed worth the risk to take the main road – Patision (28th
Octovriou) – back to Hostel #4.
is now Saturday the 17th around 1am. Patision was unrecognizeable.
City transit buses had been hijacked and overturned all along the main drag,
acting – I imagine – as barriers to the anticipated military assault and as
protection against police attacks which were now ongoing. Students would run from behind overturned
buses to hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails, and then retreat to the relative
safety of the barricade. Often it was not enough, as small groups of police
would corner a student (or a citizen) and beat them mercilessly and then drag
them off to awaiting police vans.
route back to Hostel #4 was not far but it was an obstacle course of broken
glass, small fires and avoiding the wrath of the police. By the time I got back
to the Hostel most of the other inhabitants had returned and were either
sitting together in the common areas with worried, fearful looks, or had
ascended to the roof for a better view of the mayhem on the streets below. I
decided to join the rooftop crowd.
There were around ten or fifteen of us on the slippery red-tile roof, clinging to our positions so we could witness the fight between the protesters and the police – and avoid plunging to the street below. One fellow had a professional-looking Nikon camera and was taking night photos which required no flash, whereas I, with my cheap Kodak Pocket Instamatic decided to try my hand at a night shot using my flash at perhaps two or three hundred feet (as you can see from rooftop shot below…this really doesn’t work)
I don’t know if my flash alerted the sniper to our presence, but within minutes a hail of bullets passed within inches of our heads – I could have reached up and caught one. Everybody let out a collective “FUCK!” and rolled, slithered and crawled – as fast as was humanely possible – off the roof and back into the relative safety of the Hostel. Some of the women were in tears, and everybody was agitated, fearful, and excited. No one knew if the sniper missed intentionally or if we had just “dodged a bullet” but the adrenaline was pumping – it was 2 in the morning and sleep was not an option. And then the military moved in.
I remember the distant rumble, you could hear the tanks and military vehicles coming down Patision Street from many blocks away. I and several others made our way to the second floor balcony on Chamilton Street where we had a good view of Patision to see what was in store for the protesters. Within minutes a giant rumbling AMX-30 tank came into view heading towards the Polytechnion.
Whichever buses and cars the tank could not push aside with its massive weight and bulk it drove over and crushed. On top of each tank was a soldier with a pivoting machine gun firing indiscriminately. Big chunks of plaster flung off the buildings across from us as the bullets whizzed. From my journal: “Saturday November 17– “Late at night most people are awake (early Saturday) the sound of guns is so loud and close it’s deafening. The tank carried on down 28th Octovriou, making it’s way inexorably to the gates of the Polytechnion – bringing down the main steel entrance to the campus, to which people were clinging.
At this point, Spyros Markezinis (Prime Minister…briefly) had to request that Papadopoulos reimpose martial law. A radio station had been constructed on campus (using laboratory equipment) which repeatedly implored Athenians to join their struggle. As the military entered the campus “a young man’s voice could be heard desperately asking the soldiers (whom he calls ‘brothers in arms’) surrounding the building complex to disobey the military orders and not to fight ‘brothers protesting’. The voice carries on to an emotional pitch, reciting the lyrics of the Greek National Anthem, until the tank enters the yard, at which time transmission ceases.” (wikipedia)
The uprising has been crushed. There are some disputes over the size of the military
operation and the number of people killed. Wikipedia notes: “An “official investigation” …recorded
casualties amount(ing) to 24 civilians killed outside Athens Polytechnic
campus….the records of the trials held following the collapse of the Junta
document the circumstances of the deaths of many civilians during the uprising”.
The Athenians I spoke with said that up to 200 had been killed.
“Daytime. The tanks and armoured cars arrived today, it’s a real freak-out. The papers say 4 dead the people say 200…who knows? Not us, I wouldn’t walk out in the streets to look. Started work today, 50 drach and a bed, the manager is a real ass, he pinches pennies and is never satisfied…50 Drachmas and a bed for janitorial work at the Hostel. I left this tidbit in as a nod to how rapidly life returns to the commonplace. Soldiers are still shooting at people blocks from where I am, yet toilets still need to be cleaned, beds made and floors washed, and I’m angry with my cheap manager. Atrocities are being committed, tragedy is unfolding, yet interpersonal exchanges still provide fodder for comedy – would you like some more pita with your tzatziki? ….Today they started curfew after 4 o’clock, no food til Monday so we shop now. Prices raised, streets deserted, some windows smashed. Came back to tear gas after breakfast, one guy has two kinds of bombs(tear gas canisters that he picked up) both American makes…Tonight the streets are dead. No action, scattered shots with occasional machine gun bursts. Some people got stuck across town after curfew – tough luck.”
In the days following
the military clampdown it looked like the Junta had won. The rebels had been killed,
injured, captured or had fled. The rest of the city was on edge and we were all
subject to a 7pm curfew. I was still trying to arrange passage to Istanbul in
this new restrictive environment. . “It’s scary downtown, at 6 the people are all hurrying home…Just made
it but I can’t get comfortable here…And then, on November
25th, the day before I was scheduled to fly to Istanbul, in what
seemed -at that time – to be sweet poetic justice, Colonel Georgios
Papadopolous, the Dictator, was overthrown in a coup d’etat. On the surface, to
an outsider like myself, it appeared to be cause for celebration – the students
sacrifices had not been in vain, their efforts had indeed led to the fall of
this repressive regime. The truth, as it turned out, was much more complex and
would take many twists and turns over the next 7 months. I couldn’t stay to
find out – I flew to Istanbul the next morning.
One critical piece of this story – which
was not revealed to me for many years – was that Papadopolous had actually been
attempting to liberalize the regime in the late 60’s and early 70’s prior to
the student uprising. Many restrictions had been lifted and the army’s role
significantly reduced. His attempts at “gradual democratization” had failed,
however, and hardliners within the military were looking for a pretext to
return the country to a more “orthodox” military dictatorship. The student uprising gave Brigadier Dimitrios
Ioannidis a casus belli to oust Papadopolous
and replace him as the new strongman of
the regime. Thus, the student revolt had an opposite effect – it led to even
more repression and further suspension of rights and freedoms.
But all was not lost! In the Machiavellian labyrinth of Greek Politics, Ioannidis made a fatal miscalculation by staging an abortive coup against Archbishop Makarios – the President of Cyprus – in July 1974. This resulted in an invasion of Cyprus by Turkey which subsequently caused the military regime to implode. These events ushered in the era of metapoltefsi (Greek for “polity/regime change). Parliamentary democracy was restored, and the elections of 1974 were the first free elections held in a decade. Although it took 7 months after their attempted revolution had been crushed, the students sacrifices had not been in vain – the law of unintended consequences was on their side.
And Keith and Kathy in their Israeli kibbutz in
a war zone? They stayed several months and passed their time in peace and