National Service Soldiers

Port Said, known as the 'Gateway to the East' was Billy’s first port of call in Egypt after being banished from the British Empire as a result of his misadventures during his army service in Yorkshire. You will sense the aroma of Port Said 3 miles out, he was advised, but the wind must have been blowing extra hard that day, because the sweet pungent objectionable air normally associated with garbage dumps filled the nostrils and heralded in another world 10 miles away.

The large transit camp in the desert, just outside of the town, conveyed a resemblance of the infamous POW camp in the American civil war called Andersonville. A sprawling lawless tent city with large menacing groups of soldiers wandering around aimlessly. Billy attempted one meal at the cookhouse and lined up holding a large compartmental aluminium tray - As he passed each item of food a server plunked a portion onto the tray with a ladle and when he got to the end of the line the tray was piled high with the days specials all mixed up together in a big heap. A queasy feeling in his stomach signalled all was not well, so he placed the tray down and bolted before there was an embarrassing accident. After that he lived on chocolate and Mars bars for a few days until he was posted.

Billy had hoped for a less regimented life the other side of the ocean and was disappointed to find that guard duty and marching about also existed in the desert.

One day a large contingent of unfortunate soldiers including Billy were marched up and down in rows of four for no apparent reason, unless the army felt that they would forget how to walk if they didn’t practice it enough.

After at least 20 minutes of this gruelling punishment, with rests in between to soak up the 100 degree sun, a quacking sound came from somewhere in the ranks as they were marching. The large 6 foot tall corporal brought the marchers to a halt and demanded to know who the comedian was and of course no one accepted responsibility. The marching continued and the quacking sound was heard again - Once more the corporal demanded to know who was making light of his drill. This routine continued until the corporal, who was also exposed to the sun, lost his cool, so to speak. He stood in front of the men and with obvious frustration announced that he would be willing to accompany the offending individual behind the latrine one on one and guarantee no charges would be brought. Billy wondered if the invitation was better than marching about in the sun, but the corporal was awfully big and looked very mean. His flat nose indicated that he had gone a few rounds and was not a stranger to the pugilistic world. Billy realised that he was no match for the corporal and would lose any advantage he might have with his footwork in the sand. Along with everyone else, he declined the generous offer to convene behind the latrine - Not that he had anything to do with the rude noises anyway! Could it be Donald?

Port Said has a large population primarily made up of shoeshine boys, watch vendors and naughty postcard sellers who were lacking in taste and propriety. The shoeshine boys did very well, because the streets were so dirty that you no sooner had a shine, when they require cleaning again - It was like a revolving door with brushes. Probably the most interesting of the bunch were the watch vendors; a jolly lot displaying great selections of timepieces all the way up their arms. The only guarantee they assured you is that you would never see them again, because they all look alike in their white night shirts.

The first time he purchased a watch; the negotiating lesson alone was worth more than the timepiece. The price started out at 50 quid, with Billy offering 50 cents and after much hard bargaining an exchange was made for an even quid. It was a really impressive looking wristwatch and Billy couldn’t wait to evaluate his bargain by counting the jewels inside. Opening the back he was transfixed in amazement, as the pieces of the movement jumped out like a Jack In The Box, suggesting he was a victim of unscrupulous merchandizing.

Unable to put the pieces of the movement back together with half of them missing anyway, he closed the back and considered his position. The next time he was in town and sitting at one of those open-air bars enjoying a little libation, he made sure the impressive looking watch on his wrist was on full display. As expected many vendors were eager to do business and offered to exchange one of their watches for his. However most of them became cautious when they noticed that the hands didn’t rotate and soon reneged on the deal - Cynical bunch! Finally a less suspicious gentleman of commerce offered an exchange for any of the watches on his left arm, which no doubt were of questionable valuable, if Billy included 20 quid.

After holding out for the appropriate period of time, the negotiation shifted to the watches on the right arm with an eventual even exchange, which didn’t include money. As soon as the vendor departed with what he thought was a valuable English watch in need of repair, Billy bolted. The watch he finished up with, which worked for a number of years, would be of considerable sentimental value had he retained it!

The atmosphere at Port Said was disturbing to some of the young soldiers, who were not comfortable being in a foreign country for the first time and dealing with hordes of vendors in night shirts. As darkness fell hundreds of young soldiers would congregate in one place waiting for the trucks to transport them back to camp. The vendors would circle the crowd like Indians around a wagon train and the soldiers would become very nervous. Some of the soldiers on the outside of the crowd would work their way to the centre, forcing new ones to the outside, who in turn did the same thing. It was like a penguin colony in the Antarctic, where they take it in turns on the outside of the group to keep those on the inside warm.

One night a group of young soldiers in their nervousness started to march around the streets while they waited for the transportation back to camp. The crowd was singing away to their hearts content, like whistling in the graveyard, so to speak! As they marched more soldiers joined in until there were at least 200 of them. They were having a great old time and the town folk must have wondered what a strange lot they were. Up and down the streets they marched getting more boisterous and noisy as they went and before you could say "boo", a strange looking Arab jumped out facing the front the marchers with his arms held high in a bear type pose and screaming in a loud voice. He nearly frightened the bejesus out of the nervous young soldiers who scattered in all directions and the parade was over.

The troop train transporting them from Port Said to Ismailia was definitely left over from Queen Victoria’s era, with large square openings where windows would normally be. Hard bench type seats and a round hole in the floor for you know what.

One could just imagine the soldiers of yesteryear in their red tunics and white pith helmets, firing away through the square openings at swarming fuzzy-wuzzies in the Sudan. However there was no conflict and commerce was the order of the day whenever the train stopped, which was frequently.

Large groups of venders, who appeared to be an extension of the Port Said syndicate would appear every time the train came to a halt and offer wonderful merchandise including watches, jewellery and of course the inevitable rude pictures. There were military police on the train with large dogs that were so effective with crowd control that whenever they appeared the men in nightshirts beat all records for the 100-yard dash. When they were not being chased away by the dogs, which they really didn’t appreciate, these gentlemen conducted business in the traditional barter fashion. It was really a risky business, because you never knew who would be in possession of what when the train started up and getting off to resolve the problem was not an option.

As the train passed hamlets of tin and cardboard huts grouped together in the desert by the railroad line it was obvious that many Egyptians were still living in the dark ages. Farmers could be seen in their traditional garments working the land with oxen by the side of the Sweet Water Canal, which they had been doing for generations. Females covered in black material from head to toe walked about carrying clay containers of water and other items on their heads. They were what is commonly known as beasts of burden.

Even in those days men had blue birds tattooed on their temples believing that it would help their eyesight. Their ignorance was a terrible shame, considering they were human beings like everyone else. It was like a scene out of a biblical tale, which hadn’t changed one iota over the years. Although it was not fully appreciated at the time, it was a fascinating experience and like going back in a time capsule to another era.

Billy can’t remember traveling from the railroad station at Ismailia to the garrison at Moascar, but it was only a few miles away and had to be by truck. Some details just refused to be recalled and hopefully they are all as inconsequential.