Gallipoli: a road trip

The author’s father and his Turkish driver Ahmed   Credit: Courtesy of C. Sutherland-Brown

By Carol Sutherland-Brown

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 a 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 Ogonquit, Maine, I amused myself by flipping through my books and puzzles and by practising 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 Ahmed. Ahmed was barely five feet 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, his outfit 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 Ephesus to explore the archeology; and to Konya to marvel at the whirling dervishes.

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 Carsi or covered market, with its jewellery, spices and cool leather coats, bags and skirts.

I would while away the time on our eight-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 explained to me that they enjoyed the rake a little too much.

One trip stands out: Çanakkale. I believe we had lunch there. I loved the sound of Turkish words like hos geldiniz (welcome), gule gule (see you later) and, best of all, 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 my mind may have been confused by thoughts of 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 I do remember was visiting the First World War killing fields of Gallipoli where 56,000 Allied soldiers died and 120,000 were wounded, with huge casualties on the other side as well. My dad 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 Gallipoli that was inspired by his visit to the battleground and the discovery of a bottle of Eno on the beach. The film depicts young Australians, who  had 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. He was in another world. What was he thinking of? Was he putting himself in the shoes of those young soldiers mowed down in the prime of life? Or reflecting on his own experiences in the Liri Valley of Italy during the Second World War, the liberation of Holland and 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 into the car to continue 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.

Carol Sutherland-Brown lives in the Glebe. She greatly enjoyed participating in Anna Rumin’s memoir writing workshops at the Glebe Community Centre.

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