Image for Flying in the Face of Old Age (6): The Cop Who Hated Yanks

“My home is over Jordan…”
Paul Robeson 1933

Chapter Six

The Cop Who Hated Yanks

It took all night but we finally warmed up.  The sun was not yet burning into our heads as it can in the tropics.  Greasy bike clothing had dried into irritating salty creases.  Life on a bike could only get better.  Being on a long bike hike one has to learn that each day is a new excitement and you must start out with a daily sense of optimism.  I started each of my days with Cliff’s song.  It helped.  In fact, a wonderful day stood before us and the clicks of my knees in rhythm with my bike had ceased as well.  Joan followed in her own biking world.  She has this superb ability to ride her bike and be totally within herself and part of the landscape at the same time as well.  At the end of the day she could recite everything she saw or smelled in great detail.  “Did you see that large green tree frog on that mimosa as we went by that old farmstead…the one with the blue roof?” was a typical end-of-the-day question.  I had already been singing robustly and the country road we travelled had a wide asphalted verge.  We moved easily and happily.  There is something special about a good day in the tropics…before it gets hot.

Perhaps today would be one of those great and positively memorable days on a bike.  They do not happen often but when they do the event is haunting…like the whirlwind ride in a typhoon on the island of Okinawa.  We were coming around a headland into the teeth of the gale.  I prepared for the blast of the 90km wind.  The gust blew us across to the other side of the road.  Fortunately we were the only people on the entire stretch of highway.  That was an experience one could do without.  Then there was the day we had a sixty mile an hour wind on our back on the Trans Canada Highway.  I was passing cars on the freeway…what a ride!  That might have been our best day as we made almost 300 kilometres before nightfall.

We were intending to camp at a park for a few days and enjoy a tropical beach.  We had to travel a mere one hundred and fifty kilometres today.  Piece of cake.  A cop car followed us for about ten.  When we stopped for a drink the cop car pulled up.  He asked very brusquely, “You people lost?” 

Having been confronted by police in Mexico, Turkey, Germany and many other countries, I am always a bit guarded.  My guardedness, this time, appeared to unsettle the very young cop.  He had not yet started to seriously shave.  His uniform was just a bit too big for him…like he was going to have to grow into it.

“Nup…know where we are going…to Sydney.”  This was obviously taken to be flippant.  How a sixty-year old bike rider could appear to be flippant I did not understand but it unnerved him.  Somehow it was a wrong statement.  By now I had spoken enough words that my North American accent could be deciphered.  We had learned from many experiences across the world that somehow American accents (even if they were Canadian) brought out the bulldog in many policemen. 

“Oh…” (slight chuckle hidden behind a gloved hand)… “I see by the flag on yer bike pack that yer from Tasmania.  Ya sound like a bloody Yank.  What the hell you doing so far from home?  Sometimes this is not a friendly world for people on bikes.  Especially old people yer age.  Been a lot of troubles with you folks up here.  Have you seen the movie Easy Rider? Yer a Yank ain’t ya?” he queried as he tilted up his blue sun glasses.  His glasses were perfectly clean.  Then he did a most curious thing, he took out his ticket pad and examined it.  “Oh my, I am in trouble, I mused.  We have an American hater.  Be careful Buck, he will have you for breakfast if he can.  This bozo is nothing but trouble.  Shut up! I counselled myself.”  At police times like this Joan becomes a perfect chameleon .  She froze and became the colour of her surroundings.  Young cop peered intently at his ticket pad.  I was sure that there were no catagories in his pad for “Yank and partner appearing lost in National Forest” so he closed the pad and put it back in his jacket.  He obviously had not yet had raw meat for the day and he was hungry.  And he was big.

We had met cop Yank haters before.  The highpoint of experiencing American haters was when I was about to be arrested in Serbia (Yugoslavia at the time).  The traffic cop pulled us over, examined our US military licence and pulled out the dreaded pad.  I knew I had done nothing illegal so jumped out of the car and decided to front him up.  A crowd gathered quickly.  Evidently they wanted to witness a street execution.  They gathered around.  Someone in the crowd shouted out in English.  Vatch out man!  It is especially bad when Yank hating comes in the form of a difficult policeman.  These haters are all over the world.  Like a drowning man whose life flashed in front of him I had immediate recall of a few of ‘I hate Americans…’ incidents; one in South Australia, one in Turkey and another in Korea.  This Serbian cop was particularly difficult.  He told me he wanted money.  I told him no money unless I got a receipt.  A receipt meant that he could not keep the fine.  I acted out the word receipt and then began to speak to him in German.  He leaped to attention.  German is such a wonderful language with which to show anger.  Joan called out, “Buck, for goodness sakes give him some money!”  Not now, the street carnival was getting larger and noisy.  Yank hating cop unhooked his pistol holster.  I was about to pay.  The crowd began to shout.  I thought they were on my side but probably they were yelling, “Shoot the pig American!” or “Long live Tito!”  He pulled his gun and waved it in the direction I was supposed to be going and not the way we were travelling.  Evidently I was on a holy, sacred military route and some big political bug was going to be going by soon.  I thanked the cop in German and escaped…unshot.

These ‘hate Americans incidents’ are always delicate and difficult moments and require negotiation skills and extreme cowardice; but sometimes total condescension or arrogance as well…and now we were experiencing a new type of hatred: geriatric hatred could be added.  Many people do not like those of us who happen to be old.  Perhaps they think we are weak and they can prove there are stronger by picking on us hapless, helpless oldies. 

Like the drowning man, other incidents flashed before me.  It was just for a quiet beer in a quiet pub in a quiet South Australian village.  The big bozo, leaning over the pool table, cigarette ash two inches long, red and sickly blue tattoo covered hairy arms and a blue faded singlet betokened a man who liked to muck around with people’s heads.  He would have made a perfect character in a Truman Capote murder novel.  I turned my back so as not to engage his eyes.  “Never look a dog in the eyes, son,” were father’s early words in my home town village of many rabid dogs.  This time we were in a small, rural village on a trip to the Outback.  I was already gob-smacked by the new and strange beauty of the desert: the animals in such abundance, the birds in flocks of thousands and most interestingly the flightless emus that raced faster than horses at full gallop.  Joan and I chatted with the barman.  As usual my voice projected well…too well. 

“I hate bloody Yanks!” came the first volley.  Silence.  “Don’t engage him Buck”, Joan whispered.  Boy, did I know not to engage someone like this.  “I hate all Yanks!” came the second volley, this time a bit closer to my ear.  I had to turn around to see where the door was so I could run away.  Joan was on her own.  This protecting the damsel was Middle Ages stuff to me.  Father had told me that the only time he lost a fight was when he slipped going around the corner.  Besides, men like this do not punch women…unless they are married.  Somehow they see themselves as protectors of the fair sex.  I turned around defenceless, there he was, billiard cue in hand and a bit of snot running down his upper lip.  He smelled as bad as he looked…stale beer.  I would meet this animal a few years later in the form of an African Lion Dog when the beast tried to eat me.  Bozo was about the size of the James Bond ogre with the iron teeth. 

I made myself as blonde and blue eyed as I could and spoke to him in Swedish, “Ursakta mig, jag hater Bjorn Olson. Kanna du?”  (Excuse me, my name is Bjorn Olson, do I know you?)  Then I cunningly switched to a fractured English/Swedish accent.  Uncles Con and Emil would have been proud.  I sounded yust like dem.  “Ya, vee dunt like the Yankees eider.  I am a Svede from Canada.  Vonderful countryside ‘ere.  So many yumping kangaroos…by yiminy!”  Joan choked on her beer.  “I lift in Canada for fife years and de sound yust like da yanks sometimes.  Vi must go now but I vant to puy the par a peer…you call it ‘shout’ do you not?”  I put ten dollars down on the bar.  Joan was already out the door…coward that she was.  When I used my fake accent Bozo tilted his head just like a puppy does when it first hears a radio.  He actually scratched his filthy head.  “Farvall,” I said as I quickly walked out the door into the hot dusty village.  “Vi go vatch the kangaroos yump some more…”  The next hour was talking to each other with fake Swedish accents.  Perhaps that was my finest hour of outright cowardice.

The most dangerous confrontation with Yank hating cops took place at the Greek/Turkey border and had the makings of a very difficult outcome.  We could have been put into a Turkish prison and having lived close to one in Adana on the far south Mediterranean coast we knew the dead wagon collected many tightly bound bodies every morning.  We discovered this Adana prison was the same featured in the movie, “Midnight Express”.  Turks are like every other group of people in the world we have known.  They are normal, fun and quite easy to get along with.  However, there are some special people in all countries who become border guards.  We met this one on our way back from a short holiday on the Greek Island of Samos.  We had just had a brilliant full plate of moussaka plus a full bottle (blessedly the Greeks have one litre bottles) of Greek ouzo, the licorice tasting national drink which was given to ancient warriors to make them brave.  Perhaps consuming that bottle of ouzo saved our car from being stolen by the border guard.  I was certainly brave.  Mr. Turk’s near perfect English took us off guard for a moment but I used it to our salvation.

We had been living in Turkey for a couple of years by this time and knew the culture fairly well and could carry on short, truncated conversations.  However, we had USA licence plates on our lovely Audi 80.  Trouble loomed.  Turkey border crossings at Greek border crossings are not known for their air of carnival frivolity and ease.  While not at official war with each other the Turks and Greeks have been emotionally at war for centuries.  When asked by Greek restaurant owners in Greece, “Where do you live?” and we answered, “Turkey”, they always gave us a lecture about the angst they have about Turkey and Turks could not be trusted.  Our Turkish friends said the same about the Greeks, the same as the Swedes tell about the Norwegians.  We learned to tell people we were from Canada, Sweden or Australia.  Mr. Turk carefully examined our passports…then he examined them again…this time minutely.  Then he brought them to a higher official at the small outpost.  I heard, “Rich Americans…”  High laughter echoed.  I did not like the feeling of the laughter’s edge.  Mr. Turk returned.  He said, “Get out of the car, we are confiscating.  You have been in Turkey too many times in one year.  You must be smugglers or are with a secret military group.”  Two very young soldiers were called over (their rifles and their uniforms badly needed cleaning) and stood at ragged attention.  “Get out!  Now!”  Here is where arrogance and condescension can work.

“I will NOT get out!  Do you have any idea to whom you are speaking?”  I continued before he could respond and shouted at him something in Turkish I had no idea what it meant.  Our language teacher had put the sentence on the blackboard in Turkish class the past week and I remembered it because of the word “Masada” which was where hundreds of Jews had committed suicide at the top of the old Roman fortress about 70 AD rather than giving in to the Roman legions camped below the massif.  Remembering ‘PWSL’ from a speech teacher in university or ‘Point Weak Shout Loud’ I screamed in feigned anger: “Masada kibrit yok kutuda on kibrit var!” which meant something like the chalk on the blackboard is squeaking…and then I added even more loudly, “Kemal Ataturk is the greatest general and politician the world has ever known and you challenge THIS!  Ataturk was a friend of my father’s!  What is your name Arkadas?”  Meekly Mr. Turk said, “Mehmet Dag, sir (a common name).”  “Well, then, Mohammed of the Mountain…”  Amazingly, this was the name I had adopted for myself when Turks asked me my name…the last part of my name, being ‘berg’ meant mountain in Swedish.  Mr. Turk’s name meant Mohammed of the Mountain in Turkish.  It was just another example of dumb luck.  Mother used to say that the Lord takes care of drunks and fools. 
“Return my passports immediately!”  I got out of the car and stood as straight as a Mexican saguaro cactus and just as prickly.  Mohammed of the Mountain obediently handed them back and saluted smartly.  I snapped an irritated salute back.  Cok, iyi,  Memhet Dag, iyi gunler(‘very good, Mohammed of the Mountain, have a nice day’) I said and we drove off into Turkey with our restolen Audi 80 Diesel and our restored dignity.  We sincerely hoped two things: one that he felt chastened and two, we never saw him at a border crossing again.  It is important when you travel in many countries to be humble, friendly, look at your left foot when negotiating and remain firm, even aloof.  This is especially true with police dealings.  In a foreign country knowing a few words helps immensely. 

Being the object of anti-American feelings was especially difficult.  It was tricky in South Korea to know if one of the locals liked, hated or simply tolerated you…especially if they thought you were American.  Koreans were always polite.  Always smiled.  Always bowed slightly with eyes cast down when you were introduced.  Mr. So, our good landlord (we never did know if he liked us even when we all were into his potent plum wine and singing Hollywood songs) did not like dogs.  Our next door neighbour kept three dogs for breeding and eating during the winter time when dog eating was considered good medicine.  We had lived in Korea long enough to no longer get upset seeing shoppers carrying the skun carcass of what was a middle sized dog.  We were sure that some of the meat we ate in restaurants was Fidoburger.  Next door dog Fido barked.  And barked.  Mr. So, after telling the neighbour about the troubles came in one day and said, “Mr. Neighbour is gone.  He working.  Geh no more problem.”  With that he climbed out onto the roof of the neighbours, called over Fido and broke his neck…with an expert and quick twist.  The dog made a slight yip.  Then he pushed the dog over the edge of the roof onto the cobble stone street below.  He came back into our kitchen, took out a bottle of his fire water and said, “Geh have bad accident…he fall off roof and he no more bark!”  The Wild West was alive and well on our street in Korea.  The reason I tell this story is because Mr. So kept saying something like ‘gae’  or ‘geh’ and then followed it with what was obviously a curse.  He had told us before that about the worst thing one can be called in Korean is “dog”.  I filed the information.

I was returning from a military base near Panmumjeon where I had been teaching a university course about the American Civil War.  Even though there was no war going at the moment it was always tense to be at a military base within a few hundred metres of North Korean artillery.  The blasting of their bugles and the strident war music did not make it easy to teach young men and women academic disciplines.  They were all ready in an instant for war.  They frequently wore their combat gear in class and knew exactly what to do.  It was not unusual to have a siren go off and within fifteen to thirty seconds the room was empty and war may have been about to arrive.

The khaki coloured school bus rolled in under the battle netting to pick us up for the two hour trip back to Seoul.  I was the only civilian.  The rest were young male and female American warriors going on R and R or back to their barracks or families.  Most were quite exhausted from the long hours of intense war-waiting.  The front seat was usually kept for lecturers.  All got on the bus and I nodded to the bus driver who smiled broadly and said, “Amnyeonghaseyo Amelikan” (Hello Mr. American) or something like that.  Then he added in a soft voice, “…gae baeseolmie…”  I recognized the word gae, (or was it ‘geh’?) for dog from the dog accident on the roof next door.  The other had to be something bad.  I guessed it mean ‘shit’ or ‘droppings’.  I was right.  Here was one young dude of a bus driver that did not like me or anyone in the bus.  We were all American dog shit.  He was to prove it from the ride back to base.  I decided to study his face in his rear view mirror.  I hoped he was not hiding an AK47. 

Most soldiers were standing in the isle passing comments and getting off their winter overcoats.  Mr. Yank hating bus driver slammed the bus into low gear and lurched forward, knocking just about everyone over.  Curses abounded from the roughed up warriors.  Mr. Busdriver shouted, “Solly…transmission not work too well…solly!  We be velly late so I quick.”  That was only the beginning.  It was obvious he was trying to give us the worst ride of our lives.  He did.  Two cars nearly collided at an intersection and he swerved hard left and then hard right.  I was thrown onto the floor and excruciating pain shot through me.  Some of the warriors in the bus thought we were having a great ride and hollered “Ride ‘em cowboy!”  I was thrown off my seat again and onto the barrier bar behind the driver.  I ended up in hospital with a severely torn shoulder which is still with me in cold weather and all I could say to the adjutant as we arrived in Seoul was that I fell off my seat.  Oh, I knew anti-Americanism had many guises.  Not all are from Yank hating cops.

The tough Queensland cop stood with legs spread.  Father, an ex heavy weight boxer, said to watch out for legs-spread dudes.  They are looking for trouble and getting ready to attack. Oh! Oh! I thought, we are in potential trouble.  Toughie pulled his dark blue glasses back over his eyes.  That means trouble as he now was hiding his eyes.  To give it to him, Toughie was perhaps one of those bored rural Queensland cops…

Dear Rockie,
Remember, at the last family gathering, you said you wanted me to write and tell you about what Grandma and I are doing and you wanted stories from our past…good and bad…and you also wanted to know about what it is really like to get old… and decrepit. 
Such began this book, an inadvertent letter to a lovely grand daughter who is filled with hope for the future and planning a future filled with freedoms and fraught with frets unknown.  I have come to realize that growing old has taken every moment and action of my life; and I am still totally involved in the process.

Buck Thor Emberg
 
Buck is a traveller.  He and his wife Joan began their travelling life together 37 years ago.  They have lived in twelve countries and travelled in 126.  Buck sees himself as a humourist with a philosophical bent.  He recently completed his PhD in Tasmanian History and holds other degrees in Philosophy, History and Theology but still sees himself as a boy from a dirty little railroad village close to the border of Canada…on the USA side.  He has been a cleaner of railroad spitoons, brick carrier, football player, teacher, city planner, clergyman and has been trying to retire for decades.  For this he has always failed as the next book or work has already started and he has never been able to keep a job.

In this work, Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, Buck takes us travelling with him and Joan across Australia and North America as they attempt to retire.  His humourous philosophy is scattered throughout the book as bits of home-spun truths and gleanings from other writers and thinkers.  He refers to himself as a Kierkegaardian Existentialist…which essentially mean his mind and life come straight from the Chaos Theory. This is a work about how to or how not to retire.

Buck is deeply involved in the environmental problems of Tasmania and belongs to a number of conservation groups in which he is very active.

We would like you to take these trips with Buck and Joan and certainly respond with comments or additions if you wish.  He may be reached by email at:
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

These installments of the serialized book continue fortnightly.

Get on your philosophical bicycle and join them.