Not for chicken-hearted

The year was 1966, and we were on our way to Gaza. I was the doctor of a battalion, which was going to be a part of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). The thrill of a sea voyage was infectious, and all of us were excited about it. The entire ship had been contracted to take our battalion, from Bombay to Port Said. It was to be our ‘home away from home’ for a few days!

Thank God, both the sea and the nausea settled down in two days time, and then the sailing became pleasant, for all of us. We all took time standing on the deck with the wind blowing in our face, looking at the blue of the Arabian Sea, and the dolphins, that at times accompanied us. For most of us it was our first time at sea.

Seeing the horizon 360 degrees around you, with nothing but water in between, was an enthralling, and at the same time a humbling experience. The captain of our ship, the SS Muzafri, was Capt Weatherill. He was a formidable man with a florid face and a booming laughter. He was amused by our discomfiture at the start, until we got our ‘sea legs.’ He regaled us with stories of earlier voyages, at dinner time. I am sure we were the butt of jokes for later passengers! It was all in good fun and taken in good spirit, with a lot of spirits too!

We docked in at Aden on the sixth day, and had 24 hours there, when we managed to get out and see a bit of the town, then still under British control. We were invited to dine in the British battalion officers’ mess there. One of the officers we met was Major Slimson of the legendary Field Marshall Slim of  WW II fame.

The next day we rounded the Arabian peninsula at Babal Mandab, sailed the Red sea, and were finally at Port Suez at the entry of the Suez Canal. The voyage through the Suez Canal in a troop ship was an experience in itself, but that is another story.

We disembarked at Port Said (now Bur Said) and got on a train to Khan Unis and then on to Gaza. We settled down to life in Dar el Balah, on the Gaza strip, where we were stationed. Being on the Mediterranean coast, the weather was really wonderful. The locals grew some cereals and millets, but the main cash crops were almonds and the delicious Mediterranean maltas, both of which we had our fill.

We got on to our duties and life assumed a different though pleasant routine. As the doctor, it was part of my duties to supervise the food the troops got. Being part of the UN troops, our rations came from some of the western countries. It was excellent in quality and nutritious too. Chicken was part of the daily menu for non vegetarians. In those days (1966) broiler chicken was not yet common here, and since we had our own cooks and masala, our plates and palates were well looked after! Everybody enjoyed the food.

Early in our stay, on one of my rounds, I reached the kitchen just as the chicken packets were being cut open, and the chicken put in hot water for thawing. Out of sheer curiosity I picked up one of the packets and was reading the printed matter. I still get goose pimples when I recollect what I read!  ‘Chicken Fresh. Packed for the...Packed in 1942. Stored at minus 70 degree C.’     This was in 1966. The chicken was chronologically older than many of the men eating it!

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