Dad always loved a road trip. From my perch in the back seat, unfettered by any seatbelt, I would see dad’s tanned neck, his neat, short gray hair, his steady hands, and bronzed muscular arm leaning casually out the window. He would often glance over at my mother, dozing in the passenger seat, emitting little purring noises, her sun hat on her lap, its blue grosgrain ribbon neatly crossed. During so many summer holidays, as we travelled to New Brunswick, across the Prairies to British Columbia and down to Ogunquit, Maine, I amused myself flipping through my books, puzzles and practicing magic tricks.
When I was 13, in 1968, Dad was posted to Ankara, as Canadian Military Attaché to Turkey and Iraq. Our Turkish road trips were very different. Dad now had a chauffeur, tiny fierce little Ahmed. Ahmed was barely 5 ft tall, in late middle age, clad in a beige uniform, with an impressive black moustache and a serious expression. He had been in the Turkish military service and still performed weekly in a janissary band, beating a drum and clashing on cymbals, wearing a red tunic, and cloth sash which housed his powder horn and sword, finished off with a tall Bork hat.
Ankara, our home for three years, was a dull modern capital and we travelled frequently: to Istanbul for shopping, culture and history; to explore the archeology of Ephesus and to marvel at the whirling dervishes in Konya.
In Istanbul, we dined at simple outdoor restaurants overlooking the Bosphorus River, the Hagia Sophia and the beautiful Dolmabaçe Palace. Dad always ordered the same thing: fresh fish served straight out of the oven on a brick, lemon dill soup and crème caramel. My mother and I loved the Grand Bazaar, the Kapali Çarsi or covered market, with its jewellery, spices and cool leather coats, bags and skirts.
I would while away the time on our 8-hour drive to Istanbul, counting the car wrecks along the dangerous highway. On average there would be at least six bad ones. We drove through endless fields of red poppies swaying in the wind, through medieval villages and fields with donkeys and farm labourers hard at work. Was it my imagination that the women were often at work while their men snoozed under an olive tree? Dad assured me that they enjoyed raki, or Turkish anise-flavoured alcohol, a little too much.
One trip stands out. Çanakkale! I believe we had lunch there. I loved the sound of Turkish works like hos geldiniz, (welcome) güle güle (see you later) or the best was yok, meaning no.
There is much about that day that is unclear in my memory. Dad asked Ahmed to pull over at a desolate place after lunch. Were there poppies? I don’t believe so, but they were all confused in my mind with the fields of Flanders made immortal by the poet John McRae and the swaying red flowers we had just driven through. I don’t recall if my mother was there, but she must have been. Was Ahmed dozing in the car?
What do I remember of my visit to the World War I killing fields of Gallipoli with my dad where 56,000 Allies died, 120,000 wounded, with at least a similar number from the Ottoman Empire? He is a few steps ahead to my left and we are like two lonely figures in a Jean-Paul Lemieux painting. He is staring out at the vast expanse of graves, at the cliff, at the beach. There is wind, flies, silence and a feeling of desolation.
This was long before I watched the brilliant Peter Weir film entitled Gallipoli, inspired by his visit to the battleground and discovery of a bottle of Eno on the beach. The film depicts young Australians who volunteered for what they thought was a noble cause, huddling in trenches and being senselessly led to “go over the top “to certain death at the hands of the Turks.
Dad and I stood there for what seemed to me an eternity. Dad was in another world. What was he thinking of? Was he in the shoes of those young soldiers mowed down in the prime of life? Or reflecting on his own war experiences in the Liri Valley of Italy during World War II, the liberation of Holland or the muddy slime of the Korean War?
I do not recall Ahmed’s reaction. He was always reserved and laconic. Had his father or uncle faced the British and Australians in this very place?
We climbed back in the car and continued our road trip and did not speak of this experience again. We must have gone on to Istanbul and enjoyed the views of the Bosphorus, the Topkapi Palace and the shopping in the Grand Bazaar. But it was Gallipoli that remained with me.
My dad and Ahmed, the tiny Turkish driver.