Growing up, my maternal grandfather, Poppa, slept nights in a tent on the smallholding of his parents.
“All through the winters?” I said. (Canterbury, New Zealand has frigid winters.)
“It was a nice tent,” he assured me, “with a wood floor built in.”
During the depression, he was lucky enough to land a job at age 14 as a photo engraver for a daily paper. Lucky again a few years later, he landed a better job in Invercargill – likely the rainiest, most remote provincial city in the world. His girlfriend from Christchurch married him and joined him there, but soon after the birth of their second child, Poppa’s luck changed.
In 1939, dog-faithful New Zealand declared war against Germany from the opposite side of the globe, and soon enough, Poppa found himself in a uniform with the lowly insignia of corporal and shipped off to Egypt. (A British colony provides men to keep Britain’s other colonies in line during the supposed fight against fascism. Go figure.)
Now, if you must contract typhoid fever, as Poppa did, a canny time would be a day or so before your battalion is sent off from Cairo to actual and very deadly battle in Cassino, Italy. Poppa’s health was touch and go for a bit, but luck had his back again. He recovered and spent the duration of the war as a driver for the “muckety-mucks” – officers of the Australian, New Zealand and British forces. He drove across a large swath of Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria and had the time of his life. Recently, a few of his letters home were found, and my cousin kindly transcribed them.
He visited Tel Aviv, “the largest city in Palestine” and his tour guide also took him on “a quick run through the poorest part of Jaffa”, the Palestinian city next to Tel Aviv. “It was hardly a fair comparison,” Poppa wrote, “when one has been built recently and the other dates back to the days of Jonah and his whale.” But another tour guide noticed his curiosity and offered him a stay on a Kibbutz in Nisharot. He was fascinated by the communal eating, childcare and finances, and by the “scientifically fed” fowls.
In Lebanon, he stopped at Baalbek, named for the sun god of the Phoenicians, and marveled at the 400-ton blocks of slave-hauled stone of the Roman temple to Jupiter, which was built on the ruins of the Phoenician temple, and was in turn later partially destroyed by Christians to build their churches.
He swam once in the Dead Sea and frequently in the Mediterranean. In Palestine, he wished he’d been a better bible student.
So the New Zealand country boy who lived in a tent and milked his dad’s cows by hand was yanked by global forces out of his small pocket of contentment — to watch the moon rise over the pyramids from his army tent in Egypt, and milk cows by hand on a Jewish kibbutz in then Palestine.
When the war was over, he returned to Invercargill (he liked that damp, distant city until the day he died), quietly built a photography business, joined Rotary, gardened, and played golf. Generally, Poppa was a conservative man, but I believe that Syria, Lebanon, the Mediterranean, Palestine and Egypt fired his dreams. That involuntary overseas trip gave him experiences he never asked for, but which opened doors in his mind that would otherwise have remained, not only locked, but completely unnoticed.
Poppa returned to the Middle East on a trip with my grandmother in his sixties, and then again to the Mediterranean alone at age 93. Had he not died last year, yesterday would have been his 100th birthday. — What a life, what a world. and how strange the junction of the two.