THE DUCKS OF FAYID
By the time the Yom Kippur war broke out, the old-timers in our reserves company who had been together in the Sinai Campaign and the Six-Day War were pushing forty. We were sent to the Sinai again, and things went badly for the first two weeks, our company losing more killed and wounded than in the two previous wars combined. Then the paratroops crossed the Canal, paying for the pontoon bridge with two hundred dead, and started fanning out into Africa, and we followed, on half-tracks over the swaying pontoon bridge, under some more Egyptian artillery fire (they missed), and did some mopping-up around the Fayid airfield, near the Bitter Lakes, which the paratroops had captured.
When the ceasefire finally came, we were put to guarding a part of the northern perimeter of Fayid, out in the sand dunes, facing in the direction of Cairo. The sand stretched to the horizon and the Egyptians were somewhere out there, among the dunes, invisible. Now that we were safe it didn't take us long to start getting enormously bored. There was only sand all around, and, far behind us, the airfield. We would take up battle and ambush positions at dusk so that nobody could observe where they were, and creep back to our tents behind a line of dunes at sunrise to sleep, leaving observation posts behind just in case. Nobody seemed to be in any hurry to send us home. There were no home leaves, and you could only take so and so many hours of sleep, poker games, and cups of coffee during the day before going bonkers. The only occasional escape for a lucky few was when they borrowed a squad for a distant patrol or escort duty for the airforce technicians dismantling Egyptian anti-aircraft missiles in the desert. They brought back stories of luckier troops, positioned near the abandoned villages on the other side of Fayid, feasting on ducks which, unlike their owners, had nor run away when the war started. One paratroop platoon in a particularly blessed spot was even roasting the livers only and throwing the rest away.
One day Shabtai brought back a live duck captured on such a mission. They had stopped near an abandoned mudhut village, and Shabtai crept up on the duck as it slept or rested with its head under its wing by an irrigation ditch. We rejoiced, and Shabtai's closest friends, including me, grew even more friendly.
A day passed, then another. Shabtai was keeping the duck tied by the leg to his two-inch mortar during the day and to a tent peg at night when we went out into the dunes, feeding it field-rations maize and replenishing its water supply in an empty conserve tin. The duck was various shades of grey, quite large and fat, and quickly settled into the new routine. Finally one of us gently broached the subject of an intimate little grill behind a sand dune.
"Nothing doing," said Shabtai. "I am taking him home alive. I have a ten-year-old son who keeps all sorts of pets and he'll be delighted. We live in a little house with a backyard, perfect for a duck."
We talked to him about the comradeship of fighting men who had lain side by side under enemy fire but it didn't work. Then we offered to buy his son a guinea pig, a budgerigar, or a rabbit instead, but he said it wouldn't be the same. Then we started talking, in his hearing, about amoebas, bilharzia, cysts, cholera, and leprosy, all transmitted by ducks, and succeeded in convincing ourselves but not Shabtai. Now that the culinary option was out, we had to admit that the duck, wobbling contentedly on his tether, giving a little quack from time to time, and sharing our field rations, added a nice rural touch to our austere trenches in the sand, and the bird finally gained the sympathy of the whole platoon and became something of a mascot.
After almost two months, we were finally sent home to demobilize. We had heard that at the Canal crossing the military police were carefully searching the returning troops for any sort of loot, and Shabtai put in a lot of work making a hide for his duck. It was a small empty wooden two-inch-mortar shell crate in which he pierced some breathing holes. The duck sat comfortably inside on a folded Egyptian army shirt, its bill taped shut, leaving the nostrils free for breathing but making sure it wouldn't quack at the wrong moment. The crate sat on the floor of the half-track, surmonted by another identical crate with real two-inch-mortar ammunition, and on top of that sat the mortar itself. We crossed the Canal late at night, with the military police too busy and tired to search us.
A month later I ran into Shabtai in town. We hugged each other and slapped each other on the shoulder, and went into a nearby pub for a glass of beer.
"And how is the duck?" I asked.
His face fell.
"Please don't ask about the duck."
"I am asking."
He shook his head sadly and took a long sip of beer.
"Well, I got home in the morning, just after the family got up. You can't imagine what joy. We built the duck a little shelter, and then untied it and gave it a good breakfast of maize out of a tin. It ate the maize, and drank some water, and then spread its wings and flew back to Fayid. Imagine, the son of a bitch could fly all along. It must have been asleep or something when I caught it, and after that it stayed tied by the leg, so how was I to know? I tried to look it up in my boy's birdwatching book, but some domestic and wild ducks look so much alike I couldn't quite place it."
We were in too good a mood for me to say that we should have roasted it while we were there, and for him to reply that in the next war we will know better.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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