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If anyone would have told me, a Liverpudlian lad of 13, that less than eight years after moving to live in Israel, that I would join the Mossad, one of the most prestigious, if not THE most prestigious intelligence agency in the world, I would have said they are nuts. Shall I make a confession? I sometimes wonder 'was I hallucinating?' But no, I was not...
Asbestos hut... but on the beach
We arrived at our new home in December 1963. That's John, Rose, Judy, and myself. She was already old and suffered from the heat. Judy, I mean. Not my mom.
The new home wasn't anything special unless you consider 'asbestos' as being special. It was small, no furnishings except 3 single metal beds, called 'succnut beds' because they were supplied free to immigrants by the Succnut. They had thin straw mattresses. In addition, we had a 'cold box'. What's a cold box? It's a box that looks somewhat like a fridge but without electricity and, if you put ice inside, it keeps things cool. A tray for collecting melting ice needed tipping every so often. Dare I say, we had no air condition. If lucky, there was a breeze off the sea and if we opened two windows, we got lucky with the breeze flowing through. Even though it was December, it was impossible to keep food out on the table. Besides the creepy crawlies, the nights were cold but the days were too warm to keep things fresh. A fridge, even one of those office type counter fridges, would have been a luxury in those days.
Ice and fuel deliveries
Once or twice a week, a guy would come round with his donkey pulling a cart (don't laugh) and ring his bell to let us know he'd arrived. He had huge blocks of ice on board and would grab one with a hook and pull it down onto the road. It was then up to me, or my dad, to get it inside into the cold box. That was enough to keep things fresh for a few days. Other days, a guy came round selling paraffin for small household heaters. He had a donkey too. I missed that start-up didn't I. 'Pj's Rent a Donkey'. They were in fashion those days. There was nothing else in the house. No curtains, blinds, furniture of any kind. Nothing. We did have these great big cockroaches pop in on a regular basis. I'd left one kind of Beatle in Liverpool only to end up with another kind running around the house. These things were disgusting.
From Beatles to cockroaches
This little pest is about 2 inches long but it is a cockroach on steroids. First of all, you jump when you see these things running around your house. They fly in and then run like mad all over the place. They are so damn fast and difficult to catch. Besides, who wants to catch them anyway? You send them to cockroach heaven with the sole of your flip flop. I'd never seen anything like that in Liverpool.
My first years
I'd just turned 13 and was not in the system as yet so school wasn't a topic. We lived within 100 meters from the shore and I could easily hear the waves breaking. I wasn't old enough to appreciate the serenity and beauty if the moment. This was a typical sunset I witnessed of an evening. Not a chimney billowing out smoke in sight. I spent a lot of my time at the water's edge watching guys fishing with floats and triple hooks they dragged through the water. Eventually one of the fishermen taught me how to make my own floats using bottle corks and burnt wax. It was all done in sign language. He didn't speak a word of Liverpudlian and I didn't speak Hebrew. Making my own floats saved on buying those red and white plastic floats which I couldn't afford anyway. I used to go nearly every day because there was little else for me to do. Obviously, I turned from snow white to bright red in no time, including sunburn, peeling all over and suffered in agony. The itching was driving me nuts. Don't know why but ended up covering myself with yoghurt. Yes, yoghurt. Not the flavoured kind. Normal white yoghurt. Apparently, it helps to calm the itch from sunburn.
Once I learnt all the tricks from the locals, like making my own bait from flour, correctly tying the hooks to the line or making new floats from the many bottle corks found on the beach, I'd walk up and down the coast to find my own places to fish. For tackle, I'd found a very small shop, not exactly 'shop', more like a space between shops, where an old guy used to sell used rods and accessories. Strange as though it may seem, never once did my thoughts take me back to my time in Liverpool. I didn't miss anything and I wasn't feeling homesick. I was home. I find this extremely strange. I was born and raised in Liverpool. Everything about me was Liverpudlian. My accent, my social life, the food I ate, my hobbies, even to the degree that I supported one of the two local football teams. Those in blue and white. Just lost half my readers. And yet, the moment I discovered Israel, it was as though the board was wiped clean. None of the above remained. I've never contacted my past friends, my accent has completely disappeared, I'm not into the hobbies anymore and have lost interest in football. Just ruined my cousin's day too. I do like British food and cod is the only fish I ever eat. It doesn't have a head and tail and eye staring at me.
We didn't bring anything with us and certainly no money. Dad was desperately looking for work so he could at least bring food home. Eventually, he found a job picking grapes in a vineyard. They took me on also. His daily income was 10 lira and mine was 5. This is what the local Lira or pound looked like. Together we earned 15 lira a day. It was not a lot but it helped us survive. I don't remember being hungry. John and Rose seemed a lot more relaxed and I don't remember the kind of arguments I witnessed back in England. Not saying everything was perfect but they had settled down considerably. During that first year, I went to a kibbutz not too far from Nahariya. Kibbutz Kabri. One of my aunts lived there and two of my cousins, Yael and Noga. I attended what's called an ulpan. That's a kind of school for new immigrants to learn the language. I lived in a dorm with other foreigners from around the world. During the morning, we would study the language for 3-4 hours and have a lunch break. After lunch, in return for the accommodation and studies, we had to contribute to the kibbutz work. That could be anything from washing dishes including huge pots and pans.
Kibbutz dining room
I mean HUGE pots and pans. Cooking for 300/400 people at a time meant commercial military type utensils. These utensils were from cheap aluminium so maybe that's why I'm starting to forget things. Back then nobody talked about the effects of aluminium on health.
There wasn't a set time for meals but depending on how many people, there were usually two sittings. The seating was simple. Long tables and benches. You sat wherever you wanted. After the meal, you would take your cutlery and plates and place them on a conveyor belt which took them off into a hole in the wall. I eventually found myself the other side of that hole and found out what happened to the used cutlery and plates.
30kg bunch of bananas
Another job we had was to sit on a tractor-trailer and drive off into the banana plantations. Sometimes I drove the tractor. We worked in pairs. I was tall and looked strong and grabbed one of the stems while someone else cut the stem above the bananas. They weighed about 30kg or 50lbs. With that on my shoulder, I took it to the cart and sent it off on it's merry way to the supermarket for someone to complain about the price of bananas. Did you know that the word banana originates from Arabic? In Arabic, the word for finger is 'bana' and that's where the name banana came from.
Catch a turkey
Another job was catching turkeys at about 2 AM and putting them in cages. Why 2 AM? I can assure you it wasn't to catch them while they were still asleep. Yes, they are quieter at night so I guess they take a turkey nap because for sure, come dawn, they start making a racket like there's no tomorrow. No, it was so they could all be loaded on a truck awaiting transport to the processing factories at about 5 AM. If you want an experience you won't forget, go grab a turkey and hold it upside down while it is squawking like mad and flapping its wings. If you think that's bad, grab four of them, two in each hand and do the same. It was hard, noisy, and smelly work. After 2-3 hours of that in the middle of the night, my arms were dropping off and I was making funny squawking noises.
Language lessons or not...
I didn't learn a lot Hebrew. I liked being in the class but was more interested in one of the French girls than the language. My previous years back in Liverpool were spent in all boys school so having girls in the class was quite a change. My time there was limited and they kicked me out. Apparently, I got my priorities wrong.
It was at that time that a film crew came into Nahariya and began recruiting locals for the various jobs. John got a job as a grip meaning, doing most of the odd jobs. I was taken on as an assistant clapper boy with the camera crew. Never once did they let me do the clapping bit with the scene number. Most of the time I was carrying boxes one way or another if not being google-eyed by Sophia Loren's beauty. But I did get an 'extra' role at Stella Maris as mentioned earlier.
I finally ended up in school. I don't think I had a choice in the matter. I guess the school district heard there's a stranger in town and they made themselves known. I'd missed the beginning of the term which is split into 3 sections and I joined the 2nd section of the term. I didn't speak Hebrew as yet but was put into a class with teenagers my age, boys and girls.
It was a repeat of that Godzilla experience in the schoolyard back during my visit in 1961 but this time I was a little older. Again I was the focus of attention. I was from Liverpool. In '65, that was big news. I spoke fluent English even though I had a weird accent. Liverpudlian accent is weird to anyone not from Liverpool. I'm led to believe that the girls liked me.
Friday night parties
Very quickly I dived in to the way of life. Developed friendships, some of which I still have today - David, Judith, Victor and more. Every Friday, someone else would host the party. The parents were usually out and the class took over the house. These weren't wild parties that Americans are notorious for. There were no drugs, no alcohol, and no wrecking of property.
'45 vinyl records, that's speed, not size. Everyone brought their own favourites. Beatles, Elvis, Platters, Cliff, Matt Monroe, Paul Anka, Neil Diamond and so many more. The dances at that time were the Limbo rock, Twist, rock n roll, and sloooow dancing—the most popular one. Besides, we had a Chinese guy in class and nobody could compete with him on the dance floor. Nisan!
Most were shy I guess so guys would bunch up at one end of the room and the girls the other end but as soon as the lights were dimmed for a "slow" dance, everyone was shooting in different directions to grab a partner. and yes, I too had a partner at that time. For about 3 years. She was my first girlfriend.
Dropping out of school
Towards the summer of '65 and the end of the school term, I was told that I would need to stay behind another year and not progress with my class. The reasons were obvious but unacceptable to me. I didn't speak or write Hebrew as yet, got along based solely on my English and maths and that didn't qualify me to continue. Even if I had continued, I would have eventually dropped out.
Back then, I was way ahead of my class in maths. Maths, remember, was more of a hobby for me back in Liverpool and it was my top subject. My age group in Israel was slightly behind so I was able to hold my own. English was a second language being taught but the English teacher and I didn't get along so well. I used to argue with her to the amusement of the class. She was teaching English and I was speaking Liverpudlian English. Not exactly the same. Besides, I was bored and she wouldn't excuse me from lessons and again, the class enjoyed every minute.
British history v Israeli history
I was determined to make a go of things at the end of term exams. I sat in a friends house all night preparing for a history exam although history in Israel was not the history I knew from Liverpool. They weren't teaching Cromwell, King John, the Stuarts, the Tudors, The Crusades etc. Maybe the Crusades yes. Can't remember. I'm wasn't sure what they were teaching. My Hebrew was minimalistic, to say the least. But I tried. Victor, we are still the best of friends today, assisted me but I couldn't write in Hebrew so while I studied hard that night, I ended up doing the exam in English. I was excited and hoping for a good result. I know I'd done a good job but when the teacher came back with the marks, all I got was 'would have been better in Hebrew'.
It totally devastated me and it crushed my confidence. I couldn't accept the failure. I'd lost that winning motivation that came to me naturally back in Liverpool. There it was a competition and I was jostling for top place in the term. All of a sudden, I was being told I had to stay a year behind. I felt ashamed in front of my class friends. It's not an excuse for not finishing school I know. Israel is made up of immigrants and many like myself arrived in their early teens. A lot of them went on to make a success of themselves. I created the biggest chip on my shoulder of all time - I had to prove myself. And I did so time and time again and continue to try. I lost the will to compete. I left school. The biggest regret of my life. There were other mistakes I would make and regret.
Travel the world
What does any 16 years old want to do? Travel the world, right? Rose and John were settled into their new life and Rose had given up on her cigarettes finally. That may have proved significant in the 29 years of additional time she had after being told '3 months'. John began working for my uncle, Dov. In the family, his nickname was 'Buby'. John was responsible for preparing shipments for export. My uncle owned the most prestigious factory anywhere for manufacturing baby clothes. Everyone was buying from him. All the big names like Mothercare, Marks, and even countries who didn't have diplomatic relations with Israel. The quality was second to none.
An experience of a lifetime
To realize my dream, I joined the merchant navy. I was 16.5 years old. Reminds me of the stories from the previous century where kids forged their ages on paperwork so they could join the navy. In my case, John and Rose just had to sign. But, it wasn't just 'joining the navy'. It was called a 'floating course'. What that meant was that I would serve for 18 months on board as a cadet, first as part of a group (of six) and then as a sole cadet and I would learn the all the ropes, literally, about sea life. The Israeli merchant navy in the 60s was desperate for manpower and they ran a course, in English, in order to qualify their own homegrown crews, especially officers. Within 18 months I was scheduled to become a deck officer.
The MV Shiqma, MV standing for motor vessel, was a 6000-ton cargo vessel working mainly the West Africa line. From Haifa, she would sail the length of the Mediterranean and around the coast of West Africa stopping at places like Las Palmas, Sierra Leone, Abidjan, Lagos, Douala, Pointe Noir and Lobito. This was my first trip and it lasted three months. A long time but it was an adventure all the way.
One of the experiences that I will never forget was when we were making our way back from West Africa. The ship was lying low, meaning we were down to that waterline you see all ships have. Usually red in colour. We were low because we had a full load of logs, timber, from West Africa. They were piled high to the level of the bridge and then chained down as can be seen above. It was a very stormy night and the ship was pitching and rolling in all directions. Ships have been lost when the stresses broke the restraining chains and the ship lost the load all of a sudden. I was on the bridge that night. One minute I was looking into the sea from the port window (left) and next into the sea from the starboard (right) bridge window. I was holding the helm (steering wheel) to correct for the rough seas that wanted to take us anywhere but home. I was not yet 17. I have to admit, I may have been a bit concerned but tried not showing it. The second mate was on duty with me and I wanted to keep my composure. And then a loud alarm bell started ringing and he shot off the bridge into the charts room. OMG. Now I was alone, bell ringing and ship rolling from side to side big time. I'm fortunate I've never suffered from seasickness but that moment I was pretty scared. The bell ceased ringing and he came back. That was a relief I told myself as I held the helm and just kept looking ahead into the dark night. He asked if I'm ok? I said sure. He then went on to explain the alarm bell. If the ship rolls too much to the side, to a dangerous angle, the alarm goes off. Oh, how reassuring. Now I should be more relaxed I suppose. He went to switch it off. No point in going to Davy Jones Locker with an alarm ringing all the way, is there?
Another unforgettable moment at sea included this magnificent picture. As a cadet, I had to slot into the regular ship schedule which is split into three-time slots and still exists today. 8-12, 12-4 and 4-8. whenever those times came around, you had to be on duty. I got the 'graveyard shift'. In sea terms, that's 12-4, day and night. During the day, at that time, it usually meant work on deck including rust removal, painting, cleaning etc. Our lessons, including ropes. maps, navigational charts, morse code and flag signalling was usually from 8-12 noon with either the 1st Officer or the Captain. My nights were not conventional at all. However, what made up for my nights was this scene sailing the length of the Med. A smooth sea and the moon reflecting on the surface. Sometimes, you could see two moons as the reflection included the moon itself. It's hard to believe such a gorgeous picture could be made without colours. Black and white are not considered colours.
Starry starry night
Other nights, especially mid-ocean when there was no moon or clouds to be seen, stars stretched from horizon to horizon. If you can't get onto the deck of a ship, go out into the country, away from city lights and you will see what I mean. Again, a picture that is mind boggling and made up without true colours. Just black and white. There's no suitable word to describe the number of stars. Millions, billions, a billion billion. Who's counting? It makes you wonder just how small and insignificant we are.
West Africa is like no other. I have travelled a lot including all of most European countries and quite a few of the old 'East' European countries, North and South America, the Middle East (not just Israel), Asia, Far East and that's about it - for now. Africa is totally different and no one picture can describe it. First of all, there's an odour. Not a bad odour but something particular to that part of the world. It may be something to do with the heat and smells coming from the jungle or from the desert plains but, it is unique. Then there is the music. I remember docking in Pointe Noir and walking into the city. It was at least several miles in. The darkness wasn't black but a kind of crimson darkness. The smell was in the air but, then there was the drum beating in the far off distance and also what I can only describe as African music. Wherever it was, it was there in the background and accompanying us as we walked along in the dark. I loved it. I've never thought about it until now but, I've no idea if we were doing something utterly stupid walking along a dark dusty path with no street lights and not really knowing where we were going. Could have been followed by a hungry cheetah or lion. I think they are more inland or towards East Africa but there were gorillas in West Africa. I was in West Africa. Not Oxford St. All I remember is we went to some bar, had something to drink (I don't touch alcohol) and I had my coke. Then we went back to the ship.
Less than a minute left
The following day I went to the beach by myself to do some swimming. Swimming under incoming waves. Know what I mean? Next minute I was close to drowning to the point that two French guys ran along a jetty and jumped in to pull me out. There was an undercurrent and it was pulling me out. I lost all my strength fighting it and was gasping for air. The pressure on my chest of the seawater felt like a sumo wrestler was sitting on my chest. I was literally a minute from drowning. Not two minutes, one minute. I was lucky they saw my frantic arm waving.
Africa was an experience. Something I'm delighted to have had a chance to have in my life. It was unique and not something I would like to have missed. The trip home took us approximately 12 days. It's a long journey and the days were always the same. Apart from Las Palmas where we restocked rations and water, there were no other stops. We passed from the Atlantic into the Med with Gibraltar on the left and Morocco on the right. Just after Crete, we experienced that storm I described earlier. Before arrival in Haifa, we had to take on-board exams to see if we qualified to proceed as sole cadets aboard another vessel as a full member of staff. I returned home and after approximately 3 weeks, was assigned to the Etrog (II), a relatively new vessel built in 1964. I wasn't aware at the time but it was the 2nd vessel under that same name. Maybe the (II) after the name should have told me that.
End of Part 2.
Part 3 will cover my second trip aboard ship and my second serious mistake, which I regret having made, albeit, paradoxically, I wouldn't change a thing. That's a contradiction I know but hopefully, you will understand. I will cover also my three years in the army and the thoughts of shooting down a Mi8 Egyptian helicopter.
* I would like to mention that any and all information mentioned herein is publically available information.