Ever Been Penniless?

Have you ever been in a situation when you were penniless? Without a dime in your pocket! Without a credit card with you!

If it was not for those humans who understood your situation and helped you, you will never understand the value of a good neighbour. Such ordinary citizens make you feel that the world is worth living.  You too must have faced similar situations. You too must have turned into a good Samaritan.

About a decade ago, Mississauga Transit, Toronto Transit and all other city transits in Canada accepted cash.  The passenger had to put the correct change for the ticket value into the fare box placed adjacent to the driver.  Today, they do not accept cash.   They work on Presto Card.

After the cash was deposited, the driver issued a Transfer Ticket in case the passenger had to undertake further bus journey.  The Transfer Ticket was valid for two hours from the time of issue. Nowadays, the Presto Card keeps track of all transfers.

On that afternoon, I had an appointment with our family physician and our son Nikhil had to be at the city’s swimming pool where he worked as a lifeguard, to attend a reorientation training. I asked Nikhil to drop me off at the physician’s office and take the car and drive to the swimming pool.  I was to ride the transit bus for my return trip.

As I stepped into the bus and searched for my wallet, I realised that I had left it at home. There I was – standing penniless and embarrassed.  The driver, a young lady, smiled at me. She must have realised my dilemma. Is it that she had come across similar situations earlier?

I apologetically said “Sorry! I do not have my wallet on me.”

Not a problem. Come in,” she said with a smiling face and handed me the Transfer Ticket.

Thank you. I can walk home from the stop where you will drop me,” I thanked her.

Recently while driving to work to audit one of the pharmacies of our company, I drove into the drive-through outlet of Tim Hortons and ordered my favourite Medium Coffee Double-Double.

Tim Hortons Inc., commonly referred to by Canadians as Tim’s or Timmies, is a Canadian multinational fast food restaurant chain. They serve coffee, doughnuts, and other fast-food items. In 1964, Tim Horton, a National Hockey League Legend, opened his first store in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Today, it is Canada’s largest quick-service restaurant chain, with over 5000 restaurants in 15 countries.

Double Double, a Canadian classic coffee brewed at all Tim Hortons restaurants is coffee with two shots of cream and two shots of sugar. It gives the right creaminess and sweetness to the coffee and is the most common coffee ordered at the Tim Hortons. The two magic words ‘Double-Double,’ from being a vernacular expression is now part of a bonafide vocabulary in the Canadian Oxford dictionary.

After placing my order for coffee at the ordering station, I pulled up to pick-up window.  That was when I relised that I neither had my wallet nor there was a penny in any of the car’s cervices. I was literally Penniless.

I sheepishly said to the girl at the window, “Sorry!  I neither have my wallet nor a penny on me.

She smiled at me and said “That’s OK.  You can have your coffee.”

I cannot take it as I have no money to pay.  You can give it to the next customer,” I said.

Our company’s motto is ‘Always Fresh. Always Tim Hortons.’  If you do not pick it up, we got to drain it out,” she said.

I picked up the coffee and drove ahead.

Two weeks later, I pulled into the parking lot of the same restaurant and walked in and ordered my coffee.  “Two weeks ago, I did not pay for my coffee.  I want to pay for it now,” I said.

We cannot accept it now as our accounts are closed everydayIf you insist, you can donate the money for the Tim Hortons Camp Day,” the girl at the counter said.

Since 1974, Tim Hortons have worked with more than 300,000 young people, using camp experiences to develop social and emotional skills and learning and innovation skills. These camps aim to equip the youth with the skills and opportunities needed to thrive, pursue their education, find meaningful jobs, enrich their communities, and lead fulfilling lives.  Tims Camps programmes run year-round in the community, at school and at seven camps across North America.

I thanked the girl at the counter and Tim Hortons in my mind as I placed a $2 coin in the Camp Day donation box.

I substantiated my belief that these ordinary citizens make the world worth living.

On returning home, I activated Google Pay on my cellphone.

Disc Identity

Mortal remains of Lance Naik Chandra Shekhar of 19 Kumaon Regiment, who died in Siachen in May 1984 was found in an old bunker on August 13, 2022. 

He was part of a team that was tasked to capture Point 5965 in the glacier. This was one of the earliest actions by the Indian Army as part of Operation Meghdoot to occupy Siachen Glacier. The team, while halting for the night, was caught in an avalanche in which 18 soldiers led by Second Lieutenant PS Pundir, were killed.  Chandra Shekhar’s body was discovered on August 13 at an elevation of over 16,000 feet. It was identified with the help of a disc with the army number found on the skeletal remains. 

This incident goes to prove the necessity and functionality of the Disc Identity used by soldiers world over.

The Identity Discs bear the personal number, name, regiment, religion and blood group of the soldier and serve the twin purpose as both a recorded evidence of a soldier’s death in action as well as for the eventual recognition of the body, in case there is a need. When there are a large number of fatal casualties over a short duration, it serves a purpose of keeping a record of death.

On a philosophical note, the Discs remind every soldier that martyrdom is just around the corner. However, at the practical level, it has a specific purpose.

It must be sounding a bit eerie to the uninitiated.

These discs hanging close to the soldiers’ chests, remind them as to who they are. It gives the soldier facing death, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, the confidence that He will not be forgotten. Some spouses of US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq wore their soldier-spouse’s discs as a  reminder of their true love and commitment.

In the Indian Army we had to wear these Identity Discs while on operations and during various training exercises.  Actually, there are two discs – an oval disc with holes punched on either end and a round one with a single hole.  Our soldiers wore the oval disc on their left wrist and the round one around their neck.  On inquiry they said that it is to ensure that one disc will remain with the body even if the hand shears off.  The logic did not appeal to me at all, but I could not find any instructions regarding the proper way of wearing the discs. Surely we were not fighting a battle with swords to have either our heads or hands to shear off. I had no difficulty wearing the round disc around my neck, but the oval disc around my wrist was always a worry.  I lost them during most training exercises and had to get a new one made every time.  Obviously there was something amiss – I thought.

When we joined the Regiment, the Armourer had a punching set for punching the blank Identity Disc issued to soldiers with their particulars.  Of late, the soldiers got them engraved by the unit contractor who used the engraving tool he used to engrave steel vessels.

In 1988, I had to appear for a promotion examination in which ‘Military Administration’ was a subject.  Disposal of the mortal remains of a soldier killed in action was an issue on which I often had many questions.  Our Battery Commander was Major VN Singh, a 1971 Indo-Pak War veteran.  He was well known for his knowledge and meticulous military administration skills and had just been posted to our Regiment after a stint as an administration and logistics staff officer of an infantry brigade.  I approached him and he clarified the mystery and explained to me the procedure and the proper way of wearing Identity Discs.

The oval disc, through one hole a cord 24 inches long  is passed through and the chain is worn around the neck.  Using a small cord of about six inches, the round disc is attached to the bottom hole of the oval disc.  In case of death in war, the round disc is removed to identify the dead and the oval disc is left on the body for identifying it whenever the body is recovered.  The round disc along with the soldier’s personal belongings is despatched to the Depot Regiment of the Regimental Centre of the soldier and the oval disc is removed at the time of cremation/ burial or despatch of the dead body to the soldier’s home and kept for records.

Identity Discs of the Indian Army owe its origin to the British Army.  The first British ‘Disc Identity’ was introduced in 1907.  It was a single identity disc, fitted with a cord to be worn around the neck underneath the clothing.  The single-disc led to many postmortem problems in identification of the dead in that the disc was being removed for administrative purposes, leaving the body devoid of identification.

In May 1916 the second disc was introduced – octagonal in shape – known as “Disc, Identity, No.1, Green,” with the original disc becoming “Disc, Identity, No.2, Red.” The No.1 disc was to be attached to the long cord around the neck, with the No.2 being threaded on a 6 inch cord from this disc. No.1 Disc was intended to remain on the body whereas No.2 Disc was to be removed for administration.

US Army Identity Discs consist of two discs. One disc is on a 24 inch chain and the other is attached to the main chain by a four inch chain.

There is an interesting history to the US Army Discs. During WWII the discs were rectangular shaped with round ends and a notch at one end with name and details stamped by a machine. It was rumoured that the notch was put on the disc so that the disc could be placed in a dead soldier’s mouth and would hold it open so that the gasses would escape and prevent the body from bloating. In reality, the stamping machine required a notch to hold the blank disc in place while it was stamped. During the Vietnam War, new stamping machines were used and the notch was eliminated. Soldiers realised that the clinging of the metal discs gave away their location. Hence rubber covers were provided to keep the discs silent.

During the Vietnam War, some American soldiers tied one disc to their bootlaces. They believed that it could facilitate identification in case their body was dismembered.

Canadian soldiers’ Identity Disc is scored by a horizontal groove so that the lower portion may be detached. If the wearer becomes a fatal casualty, the lower portion of the disc shall be detached and returned to the Headquarters with the soldier’s personal documents. The chain and upper section of the disc shall not be removed from the body.

In the case of Lance Naik Chandra Sekhar, the Identity Disc helped identify his skeletal remains.  In future, Identity Discs may become more symbolic as technology advances in the days of DNA sampling to identify deceased soldiers.

In Canada and USA, some military spouses and fiancés wear their partner’s Identity Discs as a symbol of love towards their partner deployed in a far away land. Some Veterans post retirement continue to wear their Discs.

Having had a look at the Identity Discs worn by soldiers, isn’t it high time, Indian Army designed a meaningful Identity Disc worthy of being worn by the soldiers with pride – and even their spouses?

Jerricans

An object that fascinated me while in military service was the Jerrican.  This 20 Litre can was used for storage of fuel and lubricants and at times for water.  As a young officer in 1984, it was the time of Operation Meghdoot when India gained dominance in Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield. In the glacier, kerosene is the lifeline and was delivered in jerrycans by helicopters to various posts. The cost of each jerrycan with its precious contents can well be calculated with each helicopter sortie ferrying about 10 jerrycans. It must be the costliest fuel in the world!!

Jerricans get their name from the Germans who invented them. The original steel fuel cans (Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister, in German for Armed Forces Unit Canister) were a huge improvement over the square cans used by Allied Forces.  These jerrycans were easier to carry, easier to pour and more durable.

The term ‘Jerry,’ is a slang term for Germans used by Allied forces. In preparation for the war, the Germans had thousands of jerricans in stock and they effectively used them during the war. In 1942 the British Army in North Africa captured some of these cans from the Germans. These cans were sent to England, where they were soon reverse-engineered and put into production. 

In preparation for the war, Hitler came up with a novel idea of holding a design competition for the slickest can for carriage of fuel and water.  Hitler realised the need to keep his men and machines effectively lubricated and hydrated.  He also knew how critical a smoother, more efficient way to move fuel and water would be to win the war.

Vinzenz Grünvogel, chief engineer with the firm Müller of Schwelm, is credited with devising the winning can.  This simple looking can has more to the design than meets the eye.  Developed under the utmost secrecy, the jerrycan featured flat sides that were rectangular in shape and was made in two halves that were welded together like an automobile fuel tank.

It had three handles, which allowed it to be easily passed from one man to another.  The handles were designed in a way of enabling four empty cans to be carried by one person using the outside handles, or two full cans using the middle handle.

An air chamber at the top ensured buoyancy and a short spout which was secured by a snap cover and could be popped open for pouring, eliminating the need for a funnel. A gasket made the mouth leak-proof.  An air-breathing tube from the spout to the air space facilitated easy and smooth pouring.

The design ensured that it was easy to make, easy to handle, easy to stack, easy to transport, durable, and efficient. 20 liters capacity made it easy to calculate bulk amounts.

The two flat sides of the can were stamped with a large X shape, providing better strength and ability to weather changing temperatures, along with the gas volume fluctuations that came with them.  It facilitated up to five jerrycans to be stacked in a row.

The Allied forces used containers nicknamed flimsies. It was made of light-gauge sheet metal pieces poorly welded together. They were a hassle to carry and ruptured quite easily.  The flimsies required a wrench to open, a spout to pour and a funnel to receive the liquid.

There is an Indian connection to the jerrycans landing in Washington. Paul Pleiss, an American engineer who worked in Berlin, persuaded his German colleague to join him on a vacation trip overland to India by car. As they prepared to leave on their journey, they realised that they had no provision for emergency water. The German engineer took three jerrycans stored at Tempelhof Airport and mounted them on the underside of the car.

When the two were halfway across to India, Field Marshal Goering sent a plane to take the German engineer back home. Before departing, the engineer gave Pleiss complete specifications for the jerrycan’s manufacture. Pleiss continued alone to Calcutta where he put the car in storage and returned to Philadelphia.

Back in the US, Pleiss told military officials about the container, but without a sample can, he could stir no interest.  The risk involved in having the cans removed from the car and shipped from Calcutta seemed too great, so he eventually had the complete vehicle shipped.  It arrived in New York in the summer of 1940 with the three jerrycans intact. Pleiss immediately sent one of the cans to Washington. The War Department looked at it but unwisely decided that an updated version of their container would be good enough.

As the Americans did not listen to Pleiss, the British showed keen interest as they were scavenging all the jerrycans they could.  Pleiss got the second of his three jerrycans flown to London. The British immediately reverse engineered the jerrycan and commenced production on a war footing.

Meanwhile, the US was using flimsies with slight modifications to the previous versions, but they still leaked and exploded and required a wrench to open and a funnel to pour.

It was reported that 40 percent of fuel was lost in transport because of the cans. It raised an alarm and the flimsies were scrapped as the US conceded production to Britain, which by 1944 had set up many factories manufacturing jerrycans out in the tens of millions.

In 1944, President Roosevelt stated that “without these cans it would have been impossible for our armies to cut their way across France at a lightning pace, which exceeded the German Blitz of 1940.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Benjamin Franklin included a version of this proverb, preceded by the words, A little neglect may breed great mischief, in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1758.

During World War II, this verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London to remind everyone the importance of seemingly trivial repair
parts and inventory replenishment.

Reasonable Reasons

We attended the Junior Command Course at Mhow, India in 1993 and after the course went to our home at Kottayam, Kerala for a month’s vacation. In those days, we travelled on vacation by train and the journey took over 48 hours and two train changes at the most awkward hours of night.  You can imagine my plight with Marina and our two-year daughter Nidhi in tow, with paraphernalia of assorted baggage – in all sizes and shapes.

We reached home and my next ordeal was to get a return reservation from Kottayam to Delhi and onward to Jammu.  During summers, the seats in the trains from Kerala to anywhere in the country were lapped up the moment the reservation counters opened on the exact 60th day before the date of journey.  The only option for me was to contact our Member of Parliament, Mr Suresh Kurup, who always obliged with his emergency quota.  Mr. Kurup is well known for his soft corner and respect for all soldiers.

Armed with the allotment of Emergency Quota and my Warrant (Military form authorising travel by Indian Railways,) I reached Kottayam railway station.  At the reservation counter the booking clerk refused to book the seats – Why?  Our Regimental clerk had committed a grave sin!! He spelt KoTTayam with one T.

I contacted the Station Master and the Reservation Supervisor.  All expressed both sympathy and empathy a soldier deserved, but the cardinal sin of spelling KoTTayam with only one T, they could not condone.

While at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Thamizh Nadu, our nearest railway station (NRS) was Udumalaipettai – with one P and two Ts. In Thamizh and Hindi, it has two Ps, but in English only one – Any reasonable reasons?

 The town was known amongst the locals as (உடுமலை) Udumalai and all the buses boards read so.  The British called it Udumalpet and that too caught on, but no one ever used Udumalipettai, other than the Indian Railways and some Military clerk sitting in the remote border, preparing a warrant for a soldier from Udumalpet – counting the Ps and Ts.

When we filled our application for the National Defence Academy (NDA,) our teachers insisted that we spelt Udumalaipettai with the correct number of Ps and Ts as the Indian Railways insisted.

To return to the Regiment on time, the only option to me was to buy two tickets and claim the cost later from the Comptroller Defence Accounts (CDA.) I requested the Reservation Supervisor to block the seats until I either got a fresh warrant or bought the tickets by paying cash. He agreed saying that he got to finalise the reservation chart two days before the date of journey.  

I shot off a letter to our Adjutant, narrating my agony.  Major Ranjan Deb (now a Veteran Colonel,) an Aviator with an uncanny sense of humour was in chair and he despatched a soldier to Kottayam with a fresh warrant with two Ts for KoTTayam. Unfortunately, the soldier could reach Kottayam a day prior to my journey and by that time, I had to buy the tickets by paying cash.

On reaching the Regiment stationed in Jammu & Kashmir, I sent the forms for claiming the cost of the tickets to CDA, explaining the reasons as to why I had to buy the railway tickets by paying cash.  The reasons I stated appeared beyond reasonable doubt to the powers at the CDA, but how can they allow such a claim without raising any objection?  It will go against the ethos of the Accounts Department anywhere in India. 

My claim was approved in principle, but the CDA raised a query “How did the Officer and his wife make the onward journey from Jammu Tawi to Kottayam?”

Beyond reasonable doubt, Major Ranjan Deb promptly replied “By walking.”  In a week’s time my bank account was credited with full reimbursement for the cost of tickets.

Now let us fast forward to 2016.  Our family is in Canada – Marina, Nidhi, Nikhil and myself – all Canadian citizens. 

Nikhil decided to travel to Kolkata to serve in Mother Teresa’s Ashram for a month.  I said to him “If you find time, visit Veteran Colonel Ranjan Deb, our Regimental Officer who lives in Barrackpore.”  I had narrated many incidents about Colonel Deb, especially when he was our Battery Commander with 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.) 

On a Wednesday, when Nikhil had a day off from Mother Theresa’s Ashram, he took a cab to Barrackpore.  Colonel Deb and Nikhil spend a day together and at the end of it Colonel Deb remarked “Reji, I spent a few hours with Nikhil. I was amazed at his all-round development at his age. No Indian student will be able to match up with Nikhil’s thought process. His education in Canada stands out distinctly. I am 63 and he is 19 years of age. I did not get bored for even a second of the six hrs we were together. Healthy engrossing discussion.

This is what is called Regimental spirit.  A kid, not born – why – not even planned while we served together, comes all the way from Canada to meet us – a Veteran Colonel and his wife.  What else can we ask for in life?  What other recognition do we need? He made our day!!”