Holiday in Peshawar
As a service brat, or military dependent in the official parlance, one grew up with an understanding that the winter holiday season might be missing a few ingredients. Those ingredients might include a fir tree, fresh milk, or even Dad. (In today’s military there might be no Mom.) Sometimes, there was even a question as to whether Christmas would be celebrated at all.
The latter situation arose in my family in 1965. In summer 1963, my father, who was in the Air Force, had been sent to a small post located near Peshawar in what was then West Pakistan. The primary purpose for the post’s existence was to eavesdrop on the Soviet Union and China, two of Washington’s chosen foes. To facilitate this, there was a group of radar dishes on base. Sometimes, U-2 spy planes launched their missions from the airport shared by the US and Pakistanis. Indeed, Gary Powers’ ill-fated flight began at that airport. The jobs of most military and civilian men on the post had something to do with the analysis and transmission of the data the radar picked up.
In the summer of 1965, the ever simmering conflict over Kashmir erupted between Pakistan and India. Both sides went into battle mode and a series of skirmishes became a full scale war. On September 13th of that year, the Indian Air Force bombed Peshawar and some nearby villages. Our family, like most other Americans there, huddled in the hallways of their homes until the all-clear siren sounded. The next day, while the children were at school, enlisted men moved from house to house, digging six-foot deep trenches in every other backyard. Each trench was anywhere from ten to twenty feet long and some, like ours, were curved. After the trenches were dug, sheets of one-inch plywood were place across the tops. The plywood was then covered in dirt. These trenches would serve as our bomb shelters until we were evacuated or the bombing stopped. Earlier, the GIs had painted every window black in every building on base. Furthermore, fires of any kind, including cigarettes, were banned outdoors after dark. All of this was to prevent providing a lighted bearing for the Indian bombers or, even worse, a target for a confused Indian pilot.
Sleep was intermittent at best the next six nights. Even my brother, who slept through the quarrels and other loud banter that was a constant in the room I shared with him and two other brothers, was unable to sleep soundly. Each night, after we had climbed into bed and begun to sleep, the air raid siren would go off. Within minutes we would be in the hole in our backyard listening to shelling, the ack-ack of anti-aircraft guns, and our parents whispering with other adults that shared the same hole. By design, I was usually the last person into the trench. That way I could look out the entrance and watch tracers light the sky and the shadows of giant aircraft fly in formations across the sky. Each morning before school, the students would compare notes about the previous night and repeat rumors about who was winning and whether or not we would be evacuated.
The news came to us kids at the end of the week. Those who had not already made arrangements to go back to the US would be evacuated on Sunday, September 19th. That morning, everyone was to meet at the base athletic fields with a certain amount of luggage, passports and so on. Once there, we said goodby to our fathers, boarded military buses and headed towards the Hindu Kush mountain range, the Khyber Pass and Kabul, Afghanistan. As we drove toward the border, I looked out the bus windows thinking I would see the destruction caused by the fighting. There did not seem to be vast amounts, but I do remember seeing some homes near the road destroyed and even some bomb craters. When we arrived in Kabul my mother and siblings spent the night at the home of an official of the US embassy. I recall very little, just his wolfhounds, the great Pathan food, and the low slow-turning fans in his home from the age of the Raj. Early the following day, the lot of us boarded C-130 cargo planes outfitted for troop transport. Motion sickness pills were distributed (I did not take mine) and we were prepared for takeoff. After a brief stop in Beirut, Lebanon where USO and Red Cross women gave us each a bag lunch, helped the mothers with the younger children, and gave every kid who wanted one a stack of comics, we returned to the planes. That night we landed in Istanbul, Turkey and within days everyone was safely located in military barracks forfeited by servicemen stationed at the Karamursel Air Station.
For the next three months we lived in those barracks. My mother gave birth to another child; we attended school in temporary classrooms and ate our meals at the mess hall. Mail call for the adults came every weekday morning and teletypes came when they were required. Rumors flew about the end of the war, truce talks in Tashkent (in what is now Uzbekistan) and when we would return to Peshawar. Meanwhile, US military dependents in Vietnam were being sent home as that war continued its spiral into the further circles of hell. My father would end up spending a winter holiday season in that war zone in four short years while my disgust with war became open opposition. My mom told me to prepare for the possibility that we would be spending Christmas in the barracks. I was relatively unconcerned, being somewhat enthralled with the adventure of it all, but it was clear that life without Dad (and in the barracks) was taking its toll on her and my siblings. I imagine this heartrending scenario was being played out in every family in those barracks.
As it turned out, the truce talks were successful, the US military was efficient enough to arrange travel, and the planes got us back to Peshawar in plenty of time–December 15th to be exact—to celebrate Christmas. I have to admit spending the holiday with the family together in our little tract home on base was much better than attempting it in the barracks and mess hall. Peace on Earth was still more or less an empty Christmas wish thanks in part to the very powers that got us home, but at least we could ignore that just like we seem to every year.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.