The Former Yugoslavia, 1992

41FdSqn2ICI am getting older; a significant milestone just snuck up on me. Out of the blue, I just realized it has been 25 years since I wore the Blue Beret, providing engineer support to the first troops to deploy with the United Nations Protection Force in the Former Yugoslavia.

It seems surreal that the anniversary has sprung upon us so quickly and so silently. But given the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy, it is fully understandable. What we did pales in comparison to the deeds of those who fought in the Great War.

Operation Harmony, which started at the end of March 1992, was the United Nations’ response to the civil war that had torn the Former Republic of Yugoslavia apart. First Slovenia broke away; then Croatia. This schism was the start of the falling dominoes; the breakup of countries behind the Iron Curtain continued over the next two decades.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s eventual reunification led Ottawa to believe that Canada’s Army Brigade in Germany was better used to foster world peace than to stand on unnecessary watch for the Russian Horde. This decision led to a commitment that was to last for decades.

When the word came out that the Van Doos and the Combat Engineers would deploy, I was a 28-year-old captain, the second-in-command of 41 Field Engineer Squadron. Even though the Army trained me well, I was naïve and unworldly; I understood tactics, but only in the world of training exercises, field deployments, and simulations. This deployment was not training – it was the real deal. Ironically, given the pace of overseas operations that happened after, we thought that chances like this do not come often in an Army where a tour in Cyprus was rare and hunted.

Even though my ex-wife and I were expecting our first child in 8 months and I would miss most of the pregnancy, I was raring to go!

In the weeks before deployment, there were countless hours spent preparing for the mission. It was a frenzy of refreshing military skills, health checks, preparing and loading equipment and creating list after list after list for headquarters all  over the world – New York, Ottawa, Lahr, Croatia…14390997_1812611432353853_8031978281664538878_n

But the preparation is not what creates the memories.

Most importantly, I  remember that Sergeant Cornelius Michael Ralph, CD attached to thePhoto of Cornelius Ralph 4 Combat Engineer Regiment from 22 Field Squadron, Gagetown, New Brunswick, died when his vehicle struck a landmine on August 17, 1992 – tragically, the first casualty of many in that theatre of operations.

I remember my bewilderment and dismay at seeing how horrible humankind can be. We were emotionally battered by signs of how merciless, how cruel, and how callous one human being can be to another. The barren, scorched earth harboured the sights and smells of untold horrors inflicted on the innocent, and perhaps, the not –so-innocent.

14370443_1812611409020522_6749738250785751572_nI remember the utter destruction of the town of Vukovar, which suffered the most vicious fighting of the war.  Mindless destruction and ruination caused by vengeful actions and spite filled the town. Factory chimney stacks with strategically placed tank rounds and destroyed bridges, defiled places of worship, ruined houses, businesses, hospitals, schools – all raped by high calibre weaponry and shells.  It was an old-time Hollywood war movie set – except it was real.

I remember the sites of mass graves – rows and rows of temporary markers: Christian crosses or Muslim crescents on the markers. I remember memorials near wells and in relatively open fields kilometers from villages; these spaces having witnessed acts that were unfathomable to young, trusting Canadians.

I remember sad looking people trying to scrape together a meagre existence. To them we were a glimmer of hope.

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The Yugoslav Flag draped among the ruins.    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/451204456395012969

And I remember my first, first-hand experience of coming face to face with men who had fought and were still fighting with real bullets – dispensing and experiencing death with their own hands. Their cold eyes, their swagger, cockiness and disregard for life were scary.  Their open disdain was a result of combat experience, and they took every opportunity to prove their machismo – every meeting punctuated by shot after shot of caustic plum Slivovitz brandy washed down with tetra packs of orange juice or a can of Orange Fanta. To refuse the glass of liquid fuel was an insult to their pride and created an imbalance they were always willing to exploit. They treated us as interlopers – and questioned our capacity to use force to stop them.

I also remember the thrill and confusion of dealing with different nations – Belgians, Danes, Egyptians, Fins, Kenyans, Dutch,  Nigerians, Norwegians, Swedes, Russians, – a mosaic knitted together in a common purpose but with differing capabilities and differing objectives. Strange ethos and ethics – some good, some not so good – was part of my education that some parts of the world were very different than where I was from.   Communicating was a constant game of charades or Pictionary dotted with a dash of pidgin English.

Sharing our garrison with a company of Russian Airborne months after the fall of the wall was bizarre. Our former enemy, the Russian Bear, shared the same barrack block, ate in the same mess, used the same fuel. This new union contradicted every instinct driven into the Canadian solder since the start of the Cold War.

And I remember, oh so vividly, the scene of Russian officers beating young Airborne soldiers to a pulp for minor transgressions. Leadership through fear was a new concept for me – but as we learned, it was  a common tactic amongst those with whom we now soldiered.

I remember applying first aid as a young Yugoslavian conscript blew his hand off playing with munitions he did not understand.  I remember his youth, and his anguish. I still feel guilty as I remember my relief that it was him, and not one of our soldiers.

But tossed in between the challenges and obstacles, I remember good things too.

I remember Vukovar Vern’s Bombed Out Basement Beer Emporium.  A bit of Canada carved out of the basement of a Yugoslavian National Army Barracks Block, a place where I suspect several interrogations that crossed the bounds of human decency took place before the United Nations showed up.  In this dark basement mess, we drowned our bad memories with unripe local beer; it was a time when alcohol on operations was an uncontrolled commodity.

VWFI remember the Vukovar Wrestling Federation, our weekly pantomime to exorcise the discomfort of being in an unhappy place.

I remember losing the innocence of my Canadian prudishness as the Fins invited me to
spend an evening in their portable sea container sauna, drinking aquavit during the Summer Solstice. Pressed sweaty thigh to sweaty thigh with completely naked Scandinavian military observers, being flogged with fresh vihta (silver birch branches) flown in from Finland was something I had never experienced before.  And if I am lucky, I will never experience again.

I remember how one calm evening, we abruptly stood-to and prepared for an attack, and how our immediate action and apprehension turned to disbelief, relief, and laughter when the abundant machine gun and automatic fire outside our camp turned out to be the local population celebrating the Yugoslavian Basketball Champions.

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(L-R) Sgt Mike Gariner, WO Norbert Dreaddy, me, Sgt Brock Durette, Sgt Vic Nielsen Vukovar, June 1992 (and yes Mom, I am smoking…)

But more than the good times or the hard times or the loss of a fellow Sapper, I will always remember the hatred and fear that was now Croatia and Serbia. It was not hatred of the Blue Helmets. It was the sheer evil of indiscriminate hate of wanting a person dead because of their ancestry,  their religion, their race, or their name. I will remember the livestock slaughtered for no other reason than someone thought that it belonged to “them” – those who had no reason to exist in their country. I will remember the graffiti of death squads painted onto scorched houses. I will remember some of the vacant looks that I saw on people, only disappearing when replaced by the look of fear when they saw soldiers.

And I will remember how I will always appreciate my circumstances in life; how lucky I am to live in a country where regional differences exist, but are not handled through unbridled violence or genocidal acts or war crimes.  As Canadians we are gifted with one of the best places to live and to love.  My tour twenty-five years ago reminds me of that forever.

To those that I served with, I hope you realize it has been 25 years since we served together in Yugoslavia. I hope you raise a glass to our shared experience. And  I hope you suffer no demons from the tour – some things just never go away.

The Hip says “Bye, Canada.”

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The stage at Rexall Place, Edmonton, July 30, 2016

The Tragedy in Being Hip

First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life.”

–        Ahead by a Century, Trouble at the Henhouse
2016-07-30 19.39.58Like the loss of a Canadian NHL team, or the closing of Eaton’s, another Canadian icon will write its final chapter in a few weeks.  And just like almost all Canadians were glued to their television sets almost 44 years ago to watch Henderson jump into Cournoyer’s arms, a generation that was just in grade school back then will tune in Saturday night to watch five Canadian boys take the stage one last time, right back where they started in Kingston, Ontario.

No Canadian band has burned itself so deeply into my psyche than The Tragically Hip.  Their music has intertwined with my entire adult life.  As a young cadet at the Royal Military College in Kingston, I remember them – not so much as the eclectic, metaphoric group they grew into – but rather as a gangly group of wannabes. Their frothy cover songs and unripe originals did not do much to capture the imagination of a young lad who was more interested in the heavy metal riffs of Zeppelin, the mythological lyrics of Rush, or the guitar solos of Eddie van Halen.. The intended sarcasm of their name escaped my young mind, and we the sometimes showered the fledglings unkindly with the little bones of half-eaten 5¢ chicken wings during King’s Town Happy Hours gone awry.

51lg+oujt-LOnly a few years later, while serving in Germany, I fatefully unwrapped the cellophane from their second CD – Up to Here –  recommended by a mate.  Feeling a little homesick for my old stomping grounds, I gave it a listen – a deep, deep listen. The album and the Band struck a chord, in fact several pleasing, appealing chords. And the lyrics were clever, melancholic poems with a deep sense of Canadiana about them. The album made me feel for home.  I was hooked like a pike in a Northern Ontario lake.

I guess that is what The Tragically Hip has done for millions of us throughout the last 30 years – forming the soundtrack of a generation expressed through a strangely overt, yet unsurprisingly subdued sense of national pride. Through the national glue of hockey and canoes, of flora and fauna, of places and things they shouted, “We are Canada!” in a way that was an inside-joke – something you just could not understand, unless you knew about toques and pucks and Bobby Orr. Unless you understood Canada.

Canadians are a unique collective – so humble, so self-effacing, yet so proud. Only we understand experiences like Paul Henderson’s winning goal, or righting David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction, or that once there was a fishing fan named Barilko; only we celebrate places like Golden, Thomson, Bobcaygeon, Lake Memphremagog,  and Mistaken Point – or lay claim to the 100th Meridian where the Great Plains begin.  Many of us only began to understand the beauty of our country through the words of the Tragically Hip. They brought Canada to life in a way school atlases never could.

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Sadly, I had written off seeing them live this last tour as the free enterprise vampires sucked the tickets up in seconds after they went on sale. I was angered and dismayed that lifelong fans like me would not get a chance to celebrate them again. And, after hearing the hue and cry, I was jubilant that the CBC recognized the significance and would broadcast the final show from YGK live. Like the 1972 Summit Series final game, at least this unforgettable moment in Canadian history would be experienced live, even if on television.

2016-07-31 06.23.00But out of nowhere, my brother who understood my affinity for the Band – because his may be bigger than mine – surprised me with tickets for the final Edmonton show.  And so my wife, Sue, and I became part of the half million or so lucky Canadians who will see the last tour live.

As one of my friends rightly noted, my words cannot do justice to the experience. The concert and the mark it left on those who were there, are indescribable. The emotions inside the stadium were beyond any live event I have ever felt – perhaps because I am a Leafs fan.

Gord lived up to his legendary antics, thrilling tens of thousands of animated and lucky fans in his metallic suits and feathered hats, in turn like a metallic pink or turquoise or silver crayon gone wild.

I did not hear every Hip song that holds deep meaning to me. How could I hear them all? There are just so many.

But from the opening chords of Blow at High Dough, to New Orleans is Sinking, to the poignant refrains of Courage , Grace, Too,, and so many more to the end of their second encore and Bobcaygeon, it was an emotional roller coaster. Each song brought back so many memories and reminiscences…it was a dry ice-, light- and sound-filled travelogue through my last 30 years.  Happy times, sad times, challenges, triumphs all rolled up into one evening.

And each time we thought it was over, the musicians of The Hip demonstrated the classy humility that we all strive to display. Knowing that Gord Downie is their voice and the recognizable tip of the Hip’s iceberg, they surrendered the stage repeatedly to their lead singer to absorb our love – fully and completely. And as we shouted ourselves hoarse and clapped until our hands were red, he looked back at us all with many emotions: sorrow that it was likely the last time that he would thrill an Edmonton crowd, and joy that he left us so fulfilled.

But mostly what I saw on Gord’s face was a deep, deep gratitude. Gratitude that we have appreciated the poetry, the music, the showmanship, the enigmatic persona – the whole musical adventure and journey.  That we grew from six people in seedy pubs and taverns to almost thirty-thousand in the shrines of hockey all across Canada.

And after what possibly seemed like an eternity for him, but only a moment for us, he left the stage… leaving a vacuum in the moment and quite possibly forever.  Though others did, I did not cry, but I did feel a well of sadness.

I felt for him, and for all those that know they face a shortened future because of some incurable illness.

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And selfishly, I also felt a tiny bit of me slip away, too…30 years of memories seemed to fade slightly with The Hip’s departure from Edmonton’s and Canada’s stage. It was an evening of ups and downs that left me hoarse, ringing, and emotionally drained. I would not have missed it for the world!

And for those that are not fortunate enough to see them live one last time, the broadcast of their final concert is not something to miss. I know like the majority of Canada, I will be glued to the set, with a beer in hand, watching history. Just as they would like us all to be.

It will be Tragic, yes; and it will also be epic.

In the end, I have a feeling we will all be saying, “The Hip shoots and they score!”

Later,

ASF

 

 

Day 21 of 100 Happy Days – Extend your table…

 

Day 21-100Day 21 of 100

I have a comfortable life. I love, and I am loved. I am safe. I have a job, and a place to sleep. I can keep warm when it is cold, and I can eat when I am hungry. I can travel to places to which many, many people can only dream of visiting. I entertain myself when I am bored. I walk only because I want to, not because I have to. I could have more, but I don’t need it.

And as I look around, there are those who do not have what I have. Maybe they started with a disadvantage. Maybe they have had bad luck.  Maybe they are not loved as I am. Maybe they have troubles and challenges that I could never ever imagine

Happily, many of them are not alone. Some have caring, generous people who are trying very hard to give them a helping hand, to provide assistance – be it time, or money, or skill, or food, or shelter.  But many of these helping people are sadly overstretched, woefully under-resourced and simply wondering how to keep the doors open one more day.

Big charities make big money with their big campaigns and big reach. I know, I have given to the big ones through workplace deductions and cash donations. I have even given some of them my time.

But small, unknown charities limp along painfully, wondering where those that they care for are going to find help tomorrow, if things do not improve.

They say charity begins at home. And maybe it does…community kitchens in the temple, alms to the church, dropping a few coins in the hat, shovelling the neighbour’s driveway. You do it when you are young. Maybe  you continue all your life.

Or maybe you stop. Maybe you are wrapped up in taking care of your family and working hard to make ends meet. Maybe you look inward instead outward. Maybe it is hard to provide for others because you can barely take care of yourself.

Or maybe  you never do it. Maybe you are too busy collecting things…too busy building walls to protect what you have so no one can take it away from you. Too busy wanting more.  Maybe you do not feel the need to help others.  It happens.

But, we all have a chance to become part of something bigger than we are.

One day you realize that if many of you can band together, each giving up just a little bit of their bounty – the cost of good meal, a tank of gas, a month’s worth of lattés – that you can give a lot. At least enough to make a huge difference to those that have nothing.

$100 from 100 men.

And so, it was with a happy heart that I took part in my first meeting with 100 Men YEG.  It is a simple concept that gives the small charities a huge boost. We are like-minded, big-hearted people who want to share a bit of their plenty with others.

We are men, and women, who want to extend their tables rather than build walls around it.

100 Men YEG…it is the Power of 100.  ( 100MENYEG.COM )

Later,

ASF

Day 20 of 100 Happy Days – Good times…

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“Letting the hair down” with old and new…

Day 20 of 100

So, it was just a short few days ago that I mentioned it was hard to unlock the social code since retiring a couple of months ago. Well, this weekend we came a step closer to learning a combination that could let us through at least one one door, if not all the doors. And again, like so many times in my life before, a true, blue friend – one I have known since we weer just puppy Officer Cadets – came through. And funnily enough, he had a number of friends over to celebrate Australia Day a few days early.

True, blue, friends are special. There are no pretensions, no defences, no shields – what you see is what you get.  And as I recounted earlier, while my career has created wide, shallow roots, I have had the distinct pleasure of making some lifelong friends.  Many I do not see for long stretches, because of the vagaries of distance. Canada is a large country.

The opportunities to be with these gems of gentlemen seem to pop up just when I need it – a five-year reunion at my alma mater in Kingston, an unplanned dinner in Victoria while on course, or an unexpected business overnight in Ottawa. All it takes is a few emails or phone calls and there are good times to be had.  Because the network is wide, there are chances for more “chance” meetings with more good people – like a couple of adventurous days in Yellowknife, or other places that I would not normally think to visit…with the prospect of great food, good drink, happy company, and epic stories about common experiences.

Back to this weekend…it was a great evening. In some ways, it was just what we needed…the chances to hit it off with friends of great friends. The chances of having a few things in common are pretty good. It is funny how a multitude of different beginnings, with their twisted and turning roads can converge in one spot. How people who went to different schools, in different cities and countries, who worked in different fields, at different times, can share so much in common.

It was a great night, with great people. And as we celebrated the land down under, we met old and new alike. Jokes told, laughs shared offer a potential of more to come.

Here’s to old mates who “have your six”.  Thanks for the happy time and the belly laughs.

Later,

ASF

Day 19 of 100 Happy Days – Spice for the Ears…

Day 19-100

The King of the Groaners…a little bit of Sosatie for the ears!

Day 19 of 100 Happy Days

We are gifted with several senses…smell, sight, taste, touch, sound. If you are fortunate, you have all five; but the human body is extraordinary and adapts, and some people have super senses to compensate for a weakness in another.

Much like my post on smelling the roses, there are probably similar sayings for the other senses. Visual feasts, sound smorgasbord, the sweet smell of victory, the gentle touch of a loved one…all provide a picture of what potential your senses can achieve.

Life offers a lot of variety…and we can treat our senses to an array of spectacular experiences.  But often we get stuck in a rut.

We could be experiencing the curiosity of exotic cooking…serrano peppers, saffron, tangines, wine infused cassoulets, vindaloos, wursts, suchi….so much more than meat and potatoes and gravy (don’t get me wrong, these three have their own place in the culinary repertoire- and sometimes it is just what  you want!).

We could be experiencing the perplexity of modern art, or the bewilderment and astonishment of performance art. Maybe they are not your cup of tea, but you come away feeling something – even if it is a “WTF?” moment.

We could really pay attention to what we are touching…I mean actually pay attention and determine what it is that pleases or displeases us. Similarly, we can take in all the smells – some are offensive and need to be avoided, but some are so wonderful…a medley of smells that evoke some emotion. I can still remember the smell of Noxzema cream; it reminds me of my first few years in Canada. Sometimes I can catch the faint remnants of my wife’s perfume, on clothes, on the pillow, on a towel…and it smells wonderful and reminds me of how lucky I am.

So it is with music. I do listen to everything…but I have my favourites – my meat and potatoes stuff. Most of it is anglo-american and involves electric guitars and classic lyrics – Zeppelin, The Who, GNR, Pearl Jam, Floyd, The Stones, The Boss, blah blah blah.  Yet, while there are so many great bands and artists that I listen to, sometimes it just feels like the same old, same old.  It is the same aural menu of meat and potatoes and gravy, over and over.

And then, this Christmas I tapped into one of those music channels available with my cable package…World Music…and oh, my goodness it was like tasting bruschetta, or bourgignon, kimchi, or tandoori for the first time. I am experiencing fusions, and artists, and styles, and instruments I have never heard before.  I am listening to artists from Africa, the Maghreb, South America, the Balkans, Asia…artists I had no clue even existed: Adelaide’s Shaolin Afronauts, South Africa’s “King of the Groaners” –  Intombi Emnyama himself, Tanzania’s Vijana Jazz Band, The Poly Versal Souls from Berlin.

And though I may not understand the lyrics, I get the vibe…just like I may not know how to make butter chicken, but I enjoy the taste. (Well, actually I do know how to make butter chicken…bad analogy, but you get my drift. How ’bout Peking duck? I do not know how to make that…)

The variety, the texture,the feel, the sound  is intriguing and exciting. Music, something I love deeply, has spiced up a bit.  And how can you not be happy with that!

Later,

ASF

 

 

Day 18 of 100 Happy Days – Cozy Socks…

Day 18-100

Old, wooly, winter warfare socks, my cozy trackies, heat from the fireplace, and pablum on the TV…makes a tired guy happy….

Day 18 of 100 Happy Days

Days are busy. Early morning workouts, followed by commuting, then meetings, emails, briefings, questions, presentations, interviews….

And sometimes evenings are full; if you are lucky, it is with your best mate with dinner and laugh as you look into each other’s eyes lovingly, or a fun filled evening and drinks with friends.

Regardless of what it is and even if it is challenging and invigorating, entertaining and enjoyable, it takes energy and effort. To maintain that happy face, the telephone voice, the “I can do it” attitude, and to look like you have it all together can be exhausting some days.  Even in the best of jobs with the best of colleagues, some days and weeks can be draining.

And once home, you can put down the shields. You can take off the tie, slip off the shoes, and relax. Sometimes it is about crawling into a pair of sweat pants and cozy socks, and hunkering down on the couch to watch TV.  There is no pressure, no expectations, no demands…the mind can go into neutral, and recharge.

And the TV can be banal and clichéd and trivial…sometimes the mind needs the cerebral equivalent of junk food. It allows for defragmentation… it soothes…it relaxes… it lulls. The mind takes a nap while you don’t.

It is hard to be “on” all the time. Coming home, putting up the feet, and just doing nothing is sometimes just what is needed.  Sometime the thought of coming home and unwinding, kicking back, and loosening is something to look forward to and can make for a happy end to a busy day.

Enjoy your cozy socks and sweat pants watching Netflix, or slippers and pyjamas in front of the hockey game, or your tatty bathrobe and the evening’s shows…whatever makes you happy!

Later,

ASF

Day 17 of 100 Happy Days – Smell the Roses…

Day 17-100

The simple majesty of frosted trees creating the archway for an early, early, brisk morning walk with my silent canine friend. Appreciated solitude to mentally rehearse the day’s activities.

Day 17 of 100 Happy Days

The hustle and bustle of those you love creates a feeling of happiness, fulfillment and joy as you take stock of the beautiful things in your life.  Their love, laughter, jibes, noise and silliness fill your heart and your soul with wonder and enjoyment.  Time with others is beautiful.

But….

Sometimes the deafening silence of solitude is what your heart, mind and soul need. It is time to reflect, to unwind the complex knot of thoughts in your mind – whether they are positive or negative – to just enjoy your own being.

Time with books, with vinyl, with my guitar or piano or harmonica, is lovely.

But it is the time that I am alone…running, walking, having a cup of tea while staring out the window…when the simple beauty of what is outside the house makes me realize that there is something extraordinary within my grasp to take in and enjoy.

I suppose it is why we are told to stop and smell the roses.

Solitude, and nature. The hoarfrost on the trees, the wonderful buds of spring time, the dapple of sunlight on a thousand shades of green, the brilliant oranges and yellows and reds of chlorophyll starved leaves – all  are part of the cycle of life and majestic in their simplicity.

Hypnotized deer, rabbit footprints in the snow, birds in flight, fish in the water, the frantic transit of a scared chipmunk across your path, a noisy creek frog on a rock, a brave cricket holding his ground…seemingly irrelevant and inconsequential in the parade of humankind’s history and future, but still happenings that make an ordinary person’s day something special.

We can make our way through our day with our head down, moving from point to point to execute our tasks or chores or obligations as rapidly as we can; or we can move about with heads up, taking 30 seconds or 5 minutes  or a whole afternoon to enjoy what is around us. Choosing the latter reminds you that there is more to this world than your troubles, and makes your challenges so much more bearable.

All around you, so much to see, and so much to enjoy. Happy, happy.

Later,

ASF