Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Relaxing in our little isolated club

The Port Officers Shore Mess,

Fao, Iraq, circa 1948

Our fleet of five big, ocean-going suction-dredgers each had four deck officers and four engineer officers, for a fleet total of twenty European, mostly British, officers. So when all five dredgers were in port together, tied up to the mooring barges, we played a lot of snooker in the Fao POSM, our nice little club. Our version of snooker was called twenty-one because we used to add the white-spot billiard-ball to the table. It was a wild card item and was worth 21 points and made the game much more unpredictable than usual.

During the usual ten-day periods when the dredgers were thirty or more miles away out in the far outer reaches of the gulf or away to Bombay for boiler cleaning, the club was largely deserted. Apart from myself, the doctor, the communications officer and the odd visitor, the club was deserted.

Except for our remote compound's two most senior and elderly gentlemen: Mr Gray, the Dredging Superintendent, and Mr McKnight, the Workshop Manager. They sat together every evening at the same table in virtual silence in the big, empty, polished tiled hall.

These two strong silent bachelors lived together in the 'monastery', a nice bungalow so named because Mr Gray and McKnight had lived there in seclusion for a very long time. Abood, the barman kept a close watch on them as it was beneath their dignity or too tiring for them to call out to him. Or even look at him. One or the other would just lift a hand without even turning his head and at once two of the same drinks they’d been drinking for years would be placed before them. And unless something really out of the ordinary had taken place that day that small hand motion was their total communication to each other or anyone else. They had said it all long years ago. Pointless to repeat it. They just smoked their pipes and drank their drinks amid the quietness of the hot Iraqi night and thought their secret thoughts.

They remained silent and placid even when the ships were in and a dredger officer would wander woozily and noisily from the bar to their table and slap down the resignation he had just written out with a few choice words as to the reasons he was right now reneging on his contract and somehow getting up to Basra to get the next plane out.

Mr Gray would calmly murmur a few words of agreement to the complainant and put the resignation in his pocket. Sometimes, if the ultra humid Shurgi wind was particularly bad and had been blowing for some days, he would end up with a full handful of these scribbled signed notes by the end of the evening. I don’t know why a convenient resignation box had not been put up on the wall somewhere so that Mr Gray could be left in peaceful silence. Because nothing ever actually came of these performances. The aggrieved ones would sail off in their ships the next day and I expect at the same time old Gray just chucked them into the office waste paper basket.

Hal Roach, the chief engineer of one of the dredgers, was a true gentleman. Hal never used coarse language, was always neatly dressed and polite to everyone and had a small dog. He was interested in photography and puttered about in his large cabin, lit only by a low-wattage red light bulb, with developer and fixer. When Hal came into the club he came into the bar for a drink or two and then usually went over to Gray and McKnight’s table where he was welcomed as another silent partner. Invariably Hal’s little dog, relieved to be free and off the dredger for a while, would start running back and forth across the width of the hall. Skidding on the polished red tiles the little dog went from wall to wall to wall to wall for long exhausting periods. Hal would proudly follow his dog’s performance like a spectator at a slow-motion tennis match, his head turning slowly from side to side and only stopping to take a sip from his pink gin and soda mai or water. But after several gins Hal’s head movements and glazed eyes encountered difficulty in being synchronized with the frenzied movements of his back and forth racing dog. Slowly but surely the dog would get ahead of his eyes so that by the time Hal was looking at the wall on the left the dog had already been there, had now turned around, and was on his speedy way back. So Hal’s eyes would start tracking towards the right wall but by now the discrepancy in space time was even more enlarged and the dog would race to the left, pass through Hal’s laggard gaze which was just now returning to the wall on the right. After several more runs the dog would be a complete lap ahead of Hal’s eyes and so all would be in sync again for a brief moment. Then the whole business would start again. None of this seemed to bother old Gray and McKnight at all. Probably they never noticed it.

Sometimes, before he went out into the hall to sit with old Gray and McNight and watch his dog exercising, I enjoyed listening to Hal Roach’s list of the the many hundreds of the best pubs in Britain. I think he had been in every one of them.

Unfortunately, we lost dear old Hal for a while when he had to go to hospital up in Basra. One night after going back to his ship from the club he decided to do a bit of dark-room work and in the gloom mistook his glass beaker of developer or fixer for his glass of gin and drank some of it.

A year or two later, poor Hal wending his way up the steep wooden walkway up to his ship very late one night, disappeared over the side of the mooring barge into the Shatt. The noise of the splash awoke the nearby sleeping watchman but it was too late. There was a strong ebb tide running. Hal's body was fished out of the water several miles downriver a couple of days later.

One of the people my friend Dr. Maclean, the Port of Basra's Chief Medical Officer, had befriended was a fellow doctor who was a member of an Iraqi family which was very prominent during those years. This doctor’s prosperous relations were important in government, commerce, agriculture and most every other aspect of Iraqi life. So when doc McLean told me of a hunting party that was being arranged by this family with the ambassadors of Kuwait and some other countries as guests and said he and I were also invited I, John Ough, was happy to go along.

Our large caravan of vehicles set off across the desert north-east of Basra. After a couple of hours skirting the swamp areas and shooting a couple of gazelle we went further into the deep desert. One of those large station-wagon-bus-type vehicles took the lead with several men holding falcons sitting on the vehicle’s roof. I was amazed at their complete control of their birds of prey which they set off to fly about five hundred feet ahead of the lead bus and about 100 feet high in the air. If the column was about to change course to left or right the falconers had but to whistle and their birds would turn in the new direction before the vehicles did. Also they could call particular birds back to the bus for a rest while other birds took their place. Until then I had always understood that falcons could only be flown after being starved for a couple of days so that when they caught a prey they would stay with it until the falconer could recover his valuable hunting bird, or, if no prey was caught a piece of meat was swung on a piece of cord around the falconer’s head to entice the bird back. Therefore any particular falcon could only be flown once every two days or so.

In case we inadvertantly wandered into Persian territory and encountered an army patrol, our party leader had obtained a ‘to-whom-it-may-concern’ letter from the Iranian consul or ambassador explaining who, why and what we were doing out in their desert. They made the error of telling our guides about this letter who promptly took us miles away across the desert straight to an isolated Iranian army outpost. It was very scenic, biblical and ancient, built on a rise of ground and with mud walls about twenty feet high and thick. Over the massive gate of this lonely outpost of the Peacock Throne was pinioned not a peacock but a dead eagle with outstretched wings that must have been eight feet across.

The garrison inside this fort must have thought we were an invasion task force approaching because they closed the big gate and took up defensive positions atop the battlements. When our leaders asked to speak with the fort’s senior officer they were told by a sergeant that their officer was off somewhere for the day and that he, the sergeant was in charge. Unfortunately he couldn’t read or at any rate couldn’t get the sense of the letter our diplomats showed him. He said we were to remain where we were until his officer returned as we were now under arrest.

Well, we didn’t think anything of that but we were happy to hang around a while as the old fort was interesting to look at. On every hand the desert stretched absolutely featureless to the horizon twenty miles distant. Absolutely featureless. Flat. Not one stone atop another.

After a while we thought we’d be off. When we told the sergeant that he said he had a couple of trucks in the back of the fort with machine guns mounted upon them and if we went off he would chase us and fire on us.

Doc Maclean and I went wandering about in innocent fashion and not only saw no sign of a machine gun but came to the conclusion that the dozen Persian soldiers that had come out to gawk at us as we were gawking at them comprised the total establishment of that lonely outpost. We also reckoned our party not only had an advantage in numbers over the garrison but we had twice their fire power.

Our caravan was just about to drive away when a man atop the battlements called out that the officer was returning. After several minutes we saw a small cloud of dust a few miles off and as the sergeant was getting pitifully worried and tearful by now we waited until his officer, with a couple more soldiers, finally drove up in an American army leftover jeep. This young officer also was at a loss as to what his duty was but at least he could read and he made a few notes from the letter and asked if we would stay to coffee. Then someone gave him a small souvenir and we took off westwards.

Not long afterwards the falcons caught half a dozen turkey-bustards and then we stopped in the middle of that featureless desert to have a rather elaborate lunch spread out on the ground between two of our vehicles. A very large blanket spread from roof top to roof top made a welcome shade. And as is usual, within a few minutes a small band of wandering Arabs seemed to magically rise up from a hole in the sand to share our luncheon party. Maybe it was a desert but not a deserted desert. All in all, it was a pleasant little outing.

I was still a little naive when, with the El Ghar undergoing some repairs for a couple of weeks, I took over another survey vessel, the Kamala, which was usually engaged on river work between Abadan and Basra. I was sounding cross sections of the river when the body of a young girl floated past the ship. The Kamala crew showed some animated interest for a few moments but were surprised, if not amazed, when I told the serang to stop and pick up the body. I suppose they wondered what I wanted it for. I told the serang we would take it to the police post a few miles upriver so they could look into the matter.

At the police post a couple of crew members placed the girl on the little wharf and had some words with the policemen who appeared. The police looked strangely puzzled, then amused, shrugged their shoulders and kept pointing at the river, obviously saying that my men should chuck it back in. When I leaned out from over the bridge and called to my crew to get back aboard the police desisted from this un-Sherlock Holmes attitude and seemed more positive in manner. For the moment anyway. I suspect that soon after we disappeared up river that poor little body was tossed back in the water.

Every day and every night I was metaphorically and literally immersed in the tides. Apart from the constant soundings I took of the shipping channels and the whole surrounding area, I recorded the directions and speeds at differing depths of the tidal currents. Also I studied and made approximations with simple instruments of the amount of suspended silt being carried down the river and estuary. So the tides ruled my life. Especially my wake-up time. Because the global tidal wave is 50 minutes later each day the El Ghar would usually depart from Fao in cycles. One morning we would cast off at four o’clock, the next at five, then six and so on until about 10 o’clock when we would jump back to about four o’clock again. This enabled us to leave with the ebb, work most of the day on the flood and chase slack water up the river home to Fao. Then I would perhaps go to the office for an hour or plot my soundings on the bridge. But of course this routine was not routine. Weather, tankers aground, special assignments, religious observances, political disturbances, visiting VIPs and other odd visitors who wanted a trip down to salt water—all these would make my days varied and unpredictable.

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