After a ten-year hiatus, Irish troops return to Lebanon. The conflict is age-old and the same problems will face them… but my, how things have changed…
This morning, 200 Irish soldiers headed for Lebanon as part of a UNIFIL peacekeeping mission. Next week, another 200 will join them.
From the bottom of my heart, I wish them well. I hope they have a safe and successful tour of duty. But, more particularly, I wish their families well. Spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends of these troops will go about their daily routine as usual when their loved ones are away – but, waking and sleeping, part of them will be constantly on the alert. They won’t have a proper, decent night’s sleep again until their particular trooper comes home safe and sound. I know exactly what it’s like because I was that soldier (if you’ll pardon the pun).
This time 25 years ago, I was in the throes of a six-month stint of single parenting. The other half was in the Defence Forces and was completing his second tour of duty in Lebanon. His first tour was as a young, free, single person in 1978; second time round, he was one half of a couple and a two-times daddy. He was away for a little over six months and it’s a tough station for everyone. No picnic, I’ll grant you, to be working in a war zone. But no cakewalk either to be home alone with kids.
Compared to 25 years ago, though, there is one enormous difference that makes life easier for everyone. Communications. When I think of what it was like a relatively short time ago, it’s hard to believe the advances in that time. Everyone heading on overseas missions these days has smart phones and/or laptops. Texts fly back and forth with photos of growing children attached; emails abound and phone, Skype and face-time calls are regular. Generally, keeping in touch with family is instant and easy.
Twenty five years ago it was a different story. In the six months that he was away, I got one phone call. One. Mobiles or the internet just didn’t exist. Landlines, even, were rare as hens’ teeth. It wasn’t possible to phone from where he was based and he had to wait until he went on leave to Gaza to get to a phone. He’d written to tell me he’d get to a phone on a particular date at a particular time. I was cleaning the house with the excitement of it all. Totally irrationally, I got all dressed up to take the call. I had looked forward to it for weeks and, on the appointed day, I had a colony of butterflies in my tummy.
When the call came, it was a disaster. He was in the company of a chaplain who was almost as excited as himself at the thoughts of a phone call and never left his side. Zero tact. It’s not easy to talk to your wife with a priest on your shoulder. It was a dreadfully stilted, what’s-the-weather-like-with-you kind of conversation. I’d spent weeks looking forward to it and it was miserable. At the time, I didn’t know about the sticking-plaster priest – that only emerged in a subsequent letter – so I was left with a dreadfully flat feeling after the call and worrying that there was something wrong. Altogether a miserable experience.
The only other means of verbal communication at the time was what they called a phone patch. Don’t ask me to explain the ins and outs of it because I haven’t a clue. All I know is that it was routed through McKee Barracks in Dublin and it operated like a radio link. The trouble with it was that a third party in McKee had to operate it. And you had to say “over” when you finished your sentences… “How are you?… over”. The “over” indicated to the operator that you were ready to receive. Presumably, he’d flick a switch or something and you’d hear the reply… “I’m fine…over”. Slow and tedious, to be sure, but the worst of it was that you knew there was someone else listening. You couldn’t get all soppy and lovey-dovey or whinge or anything. I think I had just one of those calls and it was enough.
The only real means of communication then was letters. Snail mail. There were special blue aerogrammes that could be posted to our boys for the princely sum of 1p. I wrote at least once a day. Sometimes twice. Getting the girls to write was a challenge. I’d spend hours with them (one aged 6; one aged 4) getting them to write “Dear Daddy. I love you”. Invariably, it came out as “Dear Dabby” but I was blessed if I was getting them to re-do it. They would draw little hearts and flowers and the whole masterpiece took up an entire evening. Then he’d write back to me and say “Why don’t the girls write more?”. I could have throttled him.
And the letters could sometimes be troublesome. We learned eventually to number them so that they’d could be opened and read in their proper chronological sequence. Once, they went out of kilter and caused a degree of worry. I’d been to a barbecue at the military base and was out dancing with our coalman. The music was loud and he bent his head to hear something I was saying. Unfortunately, he straightened himself up sooner than I expected and his head whacked me on the nose. It pumped and swelled and left me looking like a boxer. I wrote, of course, and told himself all about the funny incident but that particular letter got delayed somewhere along the line. The first he heard was a later letter that said “Gerry’s feeling awfully contrite. My nose is getting better; the swelling is going down and the doctor doesn’t think it’s broken”. After that, we made sure we numbered the letters and prayed there wouldn’t be hiccups in the mail.
So I’m delighted for the families who now enjoy such advances in communication technologies. It really is mind-blowing to see how far we’ve come in that short 25 years. It’s a long, lonely time to be separated from friends and family and it must be an enormous boon to be able to get in touch so frequently and so easily.
Still, I shouldn’t complain. Snail mail served me well. When he was there in 1978 as that young, single person, we wrote to each other. What started out as friendly, infrequent correspondence blossomed into twice daily (who remembers the days of two mail deliveries?), warm and wonderful, honest-to-God letters.
He proposed a week after he got home.
Over and out.