This spring a dozen Canadian entertainers played the strangest circuit in show business — the desolate and desperate Arab-Israeli frontier

DOUG MacDONALD July 14 1962


This spring a dozen Canadian entertainers played the strangest circuit in show business — the desolate and desperate Arab-Israeli frontier

DOUG MacDONALD July 14 1962


This spring a dozen Canadian entertainers played the strangest circuit in show business — the desolate and desperate Arab-Israeli frontier


FOR TWO WEEKS this May a dozen Canadians strummed guitars, twirled batons and cracked jokes along one of the world’s most unlikely show business circuits, the EgyptIsrael frontier. Under armed escort they traveled across a desert of hot sand and hotter political tensions to remote military outposts. They sang popular ballads and cowboy songs to soldiers from seven nations—including 850 Canadians and a battalion from behind the Iron Curtain—who man the United Nations Emergency Force, or UNEF.

Canadian troops arrived in the Middle East in November, 1956, three weeks after the UN General Assembly voted to establish a peace force in that area. It is bleak and lonely duty, and a few years ago the UN undertook to boost the morale oj^the 5,000-man watchdog force here by sending them professional entertainers from home. In Canada’s case, our department of national defense transports, feeds and shelters the entertainers, and for the past two years the CBC has recruited the talent.

That’s why the noisy RCAF North Star that landed at El Arish UNEF Air Station on May 9, 1962, carried fifteen civilians called the CBC Concert Party. Tommy Hunter and a trio called the Rhythm Pals were in the desert to sing popular and country-style songs; Wally Traugott and AÍ Harris to fiddle and play guitar music; Peter Appleyard to play vibraphone and drum jazz; four girls to sing

folk songs, play violin solos and twirl batons: and Alex Read to host the show. Like the Mexican Army, we carried some nonperformers: CBC technician Jim Nihda; the tour supervisor and stage show producer, Ken Dalziel; and me. I was there to produce Tommy Hunter Show and Variety Showcase radio programs, on tape, to broadcast in Canada.

The Gaza Strip has a history of conflict beginning in Biblical times. But since the establishment by treaty in 1948 of Israel there has been a succession of raids, battles and minor wars between Arabs and Israelis; the living casualties, a million Palestinian Arab refugees, are camped just beyond the borders of Israel. Since 1956 and the coming of UNEF there has been an uneasy truce on this frontier, and it was here we had come to do our

Camp Rafah is a forty-mile drive from El a bumpy paved road roughly paralleling the Mediterranean. The camp spreads over 260 acres of Sinai Desert, enclosed by barbed wire and lookout towers. Camp Rafah was built by the British in 1917 and was later used by the Egyptian army, then the UN. Most of the Canadian truce force is billeted there, and we joined them. From here, during the next two weeks, we traveled by bus, jeep and airplane from camp to outpost through the Sinai Peninsula, giving concerts that were pretty much like the one for the Canadians in Camp Rafah itself. We played the Blue Beret Outdoor Theatre — nicknamed The Rafah Drive-In. Hundreds of men sat on long wooden benches and on top of a whitewashed concrete enclosure facing a wide stage. One soldier put a live chameleon on our main microphone and it had changed colors twice by the time Alex Read plucked it off by the tail and the concert began.

The cast sang Let’s Get the Show on the Road. One of the girls, Merla Lehman, sang and played a violin duet with Wally Traugott; Appleyard joined them on vibraphone in Holiday for Strings; the Rhythm Pals clowned, sang, and accompanied Barbara and Joan Lounsbury's baton routine and Tommy Hunter’s country songs; almost everyone did a solo, including guitarist AI Harris. Alex Read introduced the acts, did CONTINUED OVERLEAF

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impersonations, played ragtime piano, and drew some laughs spoofing his own military experiences: “During

wartime I was the only Canadian soldier who received a medal for extreme precaution whilst under cover; imagine, you won the Second World War — with me on your side!"

Much of the material in the concert was especially prepared for the tour; Ken Dalziel wrote several songs, and near the end of the evening Denyse Ange sang one of them by picking out men in the audience to sing to, in the best night-club tradition. Bobbing in an ocean of blue UNEF caps, she sang

I'm partial to your blue berets . . .

She leaned in to a grinning corporal;

Y our happy smites and friendly ways . . .

An embarrassed smile from her next victim — a lieutenant — brought a guffaw from the ranks;

Yoa‘re the reason that / made this trip for . . .

A private collapsed in a mock faint on his friend's shoulder;

You’re the hind of men / flip for!

This seemed to be the kind of entertainment the men had been waiting for. The work day in Camp Rafah begins early in the morning, to avoid the desert heat. Except for men on patrol or shiftwork, work usually ends around one in the afternoon. The rest of the day is free, and the UNEF' Welfare Office tries to fill in time. Besides bringing in troupes like ours, the office runs tournaments in most of the usual sports but rarely under the usual conditions. There is a crosscountry relay race, in which thirty men from each national contingent run a twenty-two-mile course — along the Armistice Demarcation Fine. There is a golf course in Gaza and another in Camp Rafah, The Bedouin Golf and Country Club, where the ground rules are a player’s best friend: in the scorpion season, remove the ball from the cup with a golf-club, not a hand; if a drive goes through the barbed-wire camp perimeter, play another ball. Marc Wald, one of the Rhythm Pals, is an excellent amateur golfer. After a game at the Bedouin, he said, “It’s one of the few courses in the world where grass is a hazard.”

We had an eyeful of the Sinai Desert early one morning. We were driven straight down — or rather up and down — the hilly International Frontier between Israel and Egypt, by the Reconnaissance (Recce) Squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons. They are responsible for patrolling a 24'/2 -mile sector of the frontier allotted to Canada. Where their sector ends, soldiers from another national contingent take over, and so on for over one hundred miles, in an almost straight line from the Mediterranean to the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Leaving Fort Worthington — the Recce Squadron base within Camp Rafah — we followed a track through the hard-packed sand and small stunted bushes. To our left was a similar track patrolled by Israeli soldiers, some of them women. Our nine white UNEF jeeps were radio-equipped and mounted with bren guns and special fat sand tires, on which we skittered like sand fleas up and down the steep dunes. Then we reached a road through a mine field and approached

Fort Landell, where we gave a concert in the heat of noon. Our outdoor stage was a small platform for jeep maintenance beside a radio-lookout tower, which I climbed to take photographs. Inside, a young radio operator with his hand in a cast leaned out the observation window. A song ended on stage below, and he applauded by banging his cast on the outside wall of the tower, showering a trooper below with plaster.

The forty-odd men we had come here to entertain were two of the four Recce Squadron troops keeping an eye on the Canadian sector of the •frontier. Jeep patrols go out each day from Landell and Fort Mann, a second Canadian outpost, following the oil-drum reference points marking the border running through the sand dunes. The drums have names painted on them like Pembroke, Bracebridge and Quebec. Guns arc still heard along the frontier, but they are only occasional warning shots, fired in the air to remind Bedouin nomads not to step over the line. There have been no large-scale raids since the coming of UNEF.

Late that same evening, back at Camp Rafah, the sergeant who had been Merla Lehman’s jeep driver edged over and handed me a brown paper envelope addressed to Merla. Inside were a gold RCD badge, a small UN flag, and a poem:

My jeep will never he the same hi heart I will recall your name Thou art a grand and gorgeous dame

— / hope we didn't bend your frame.

The Reconnaissance Squadron patrols are not the only ones who watch Canada’s sector of the International Frontier. So do met) from the RCAF I 15 Air Transport Unit, who fly along it on a regular schedule. We had met some of the RCAF men on the flight from Canada, and on the night of a concert at their base near the El Arish Air Station. So we recognized some of the crew of our plane, the day we flew south from the Gaza Strip, to go to Sharm El Sheik.

On maps (it’s not marked on many) Sharm El Sheik is at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It is one of the most desolate spots on earth. There is no vegetation, because the grey-yellow sand and rock has not had rain for years. The night before we arrived, the desert's usually cool evening air stayed at 120 degrees, and even the men who took pillows to the roofs of the barracks got little sleep.

The sixty or so Swedish troops stationed here are responsible for observing and reporting ship movements from the Red Sea, through the narrow Strait of Tiran, and up the strategic Gulf of Aqaba. A dozen Canadians also work at Sharm El Sheik, mostly as signalmen and engineers.

After a concert in their small hospital building, we ate an incredible meal. Working four days and nights, the camp’s cook. Sergeant Howie Parkinson, had created in the desert a buffet supper of glazed hams, freshcaught garnished tuna, roast beef (cooked on a small fuel stove), salads, stuffed eggs, and canapes made of army rations. The day before we arrived the cook’s huge refrigerator broke down, but he saved everything by pulling drinks out of coolers all over the camp and rushing the food into the coolers. He blushed violently at compliments.

When we played the foreign camps the language problem was partly overcome by translators. An interesting result was that Alex Read’s jokes got two sets of laughs — one from the men who understood English and another from the men who didn't, after the interpretation (which didn’t always coincide with what Alex had said).

At the Yugoslavian camp, the first part of the show drew polite applause but no cheers. When the Lounsbury sisters in glittering pink tights pranced on stage and filled the air with electric and flaming batons, the audience roared. The girls had jumped the Iron Curtain. The men of the “Danor” battalion (Danish and Norwegian troops, sharing the same camp) were a contrast to the dark, serious-faced Yugoslavs. Light-skinned, blond and

boyishly handsome, they whistled and yelled even before the opening song, especially when Jack Jensen of the Rhythm Pals was introduced as “Yacku Yensen!” The Danors had an odd way of showing appreciation. They would clap rhythmically in unison— as do impatient hockey fans in Canada when a game slows down — but they meant it as a sign of approval. So did the Brazilians, the night they hissed us. In one of Peter Appleyard's solos he launched a furious Latin beat on his bongo drums. The rhythmic Brazilians made the metal roof ring with applause and ping with hisses.

We played on an odd assortment of stages during the tour, but the most picturesque was that of the Swedish battalion in their camp on the outskirts of Gaza. The stage was on the brow of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. The camp’s barbed-wire enclosure was only a few feet from the stage, and when the music began, a dozen curious townspeople gathered outside it, tying up their camels while they watched the show. They mumbled loudly during the quieter songs and tapped their bare féet in the sand during Wally Traugott’s hoedown.

Gaza is in Egyptian Palestine, and many of its residents are Palestinian refugees. Several of the people watching the concert from beyond the barbed wire were wearing UNWRA-donated pyjamas.

The town of Gaza is a sprawl of thatched huts — each surrounded by a high wall to prevent thievery — open - air shops, a few attempts at modern architecture, and a thousand smells. It is where, according to the Bible, Samson lived, and an unpretentious concrete mound on Gaza’s main street marks one of the three tombs — take your choice — in which he is supposed to be buried.

Despite the timeless picture - book quality of Gaza and the surrounding country, Canadian soldiers stationed at Camp Rafah usually cease being wide-eyed tourists long before their year is up. Sanitation is almost unknown. Local food — especially leafy green vegetables — is taboo. Natives have an inborn immunity to local viruses, but the soldiers do not. Many of them contract gastroenteritis, a relatively harmless but painful disease known in Camp Rafah as Gyppo Guts. It causes severe stomach cramps and several other side effects. Most of our party contracted it at some time. It made me miss a two-day holiday in Beirut.

Thievery is a way of life with some of the Bedouin tribes who roam the desert, and this is another source of friction for the troops at Camp Rafah. Some Bedouins will leap over the barbed-wire fence at night, in search of loot. In the daytime, they prod their camels laden with water-jugs to the camp’s water tower, where they cry loudly for cigareetes and mix unprintable English words with a stream of Arabic if they get none.

In spite of all this, some soldiers have a sneaking affection for the strange, robed Bedouins. The day we gave a brief concert at the UNEF Hospital in Camp Rafah a score of native children under treatment watched bright-eyed. Afterward a Canadian medical officer talked about one of

the new cases — a seriously burned Bedouin child — with almost parental concern. Members of the Recce Squadron who patrol the desert have more direct contact with the Bedouins than men who work in camp. Their commanding officer. Major John Malone, told us that Bedouins, like Canadian Eskimos, have a strong sense of humor. He recalled once casually mentioning to a visiting sheik that he admired the sheik’s Arabian stallion. The sheik began immediately

to bargain with the Major; the Major was welcome to the horse — in return for one UNEF jeep.

A Bedouin sheik, who might have been exercising an identical sense of humor, was our only hostile audience during the tour. The morning before we returned to Canada, some of the troupe went to the International Frontier to visit the leader of a large Bedouin tribe. Sheik Selmi ordered his wives and children to wait with the camels. He was taciturn as the enter-

tainers cautiously sipped tiny cups of tea. When they offered to sing for him, he shrugged. Tommy Hunter and the Rhythm Pals sang a popular song called Little Bitty Tear. At its end, there was only the sound of the desert wind.

"Would the sheik like to hear more?”

The sheik would not. They packed their instruments and silently stole away. It was a losing day for Western culture. ★