My alarm goes off just before 5 a.m. I pull on my bathrobe, pad down the hallway and open the plywood door to a gravel road and a line of large rounded tents surrounded by concrete highway dividers. The sun is already up, and hundreds of birds have congregated in the few trees to bid the morning welcome with their cheerful chatter. It is almost cool, but the promise of 50-degree heat hangs in the air.
I walk over sand and gravel to the shower trailer. This early in the morning I have the place to myself, which doesn’t happen often. The trailer is ripe with the smells of chlorine and disinfectant, and I hurry back to my tent where I’m living for six months and change into my uniform. I put on sand-coloured pants and a shirt, my name tag and a desert camouflage hat. As I arrive at work, there’s already a lineup, so I hustle in the side door. My coworkers are bustling about, making coffee and stocking cups. I grab a hairnet, put it on under my cap and take my place as the doors open.
Not an average job
This is no ordinary Tim Hortons. I work on the Kandahar military base in Afghanistan.
The store is roughly in the middle of the base. In the centre is a large sand-and-gravel field where the Americans play football and the Brits play cricket. There’s a ball hockey rink right outside our store where we watch the Canadian troops play enthusiastic games of hockey in the sweltering heat. Other food outlets and stores line two sides of the boardwalk in the sand.
The store is actually a trailer and in the mornings, with six people behind the counter, it’s a busy place. We rush about in a practiced ballet of coffee and doughnuts, calling out orders and dodging the bakers as they come to fill up the showcase. Sometimes I marvel that we don’t crash into one another.
Page 1 of 4The usual
We can often tell what someone will order just by looking at the uniform. The Canadian troops usually just want a double-double, known as a NATO Standard over here. Sometimes we tempt them into an apple fritter.
The Americans prefer honey dips with a regular coffee, whereas the Brits can’t turn down a Boston cream or a Canadian maple. They’re also partial to French vanilla cappuccinos. When the cappuccino machine is temporarily out of service, we almost have a mutiny on our hands.
“No French vanilla?” a group of four British soldiers gasp and moan. “What are we supposed to do?”
“What will you do when you go home?” I ask. “You’ll have to start a franchise in Sussex.”
“Oh, we’ll just order the French vanilla online then.” They grin and buy two cans of the mix to tide them over.
I enjoy seeing our regulars as well as the new faces that arrive all the time.
“Good mornin’, m’love! And how’re you today?” one of the older soldiers from Newfoundland lilts. His face is tanned and his blue eyes sparkle as he smiles. I return the smile and say, “Just great! And you?”
“Oh, livin’ the dream,” he laughs and orders his morning coffee. I know he’ll be back three or four more times before the day’s end.
The Tim Hortons caps we wear are perhaps the most in demand.
“Can I have six double-doubles and a hat?”
“How much for your hat, darlin’?”
We hear these questions all day long. Conversation is mostly casual and lighthearted.
“Make my coffee better than his,” one soldier jokes, pointing to his friend. “Give him the old stuff.”
“Are you still here? I thought you’d be home by now! When do they let you out?”
‘We’re prone to rocket attacks’
Of course, we’re the only Tim Hortons where the majority of customers come in fully armed. But by now I’m used to the sight of a soldier with a rifle in one hand and a coffee in the other. We’re also prone to rocket attacks on the base, and when the alarm sounds, we have to get all the customers out of the store and sit in the back until the all clear sounds. There’s a heavy thud, a feeling of impact and then the eerie wail of an old air-raid siren. That’s the signal to get to a bunker, or to the back of the store, if I’m working.
The first time I experienced this I wasn’t really scared, but it gave a note of seriousness to my job that hadn’t been there before. We sat on the floor and waited until the all-clear alarm went off like a British police siren.
Page 2 of 4Some days are harder
Because of the hot weather, we make a lot of iced cappuccinos, and I often dance a little when I make them. I sway back and forth, moving my hips to the sound of the mixer. I tell the customers it tastes better that way. It never fails to get a smile.
There are days when it’s hard to be upbeat, though. We’ve had six ramp ceremonies since I’ve been here. A ramp ceremony is when we send soldiers home in the very way we don’t want to – in a coffin. It’s a very formal event, with the troops marching out in formation. Those of us with the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency are put in our own ranks. We march behind our troops and take our place on the tarmac in front of the plane that will fly the bodies home. Other than the sound of marching feet, all is silent.
A brief service is usually conducted by the padre, a military minister. We pray, then the troops salute the caskets draped in Canadian flags, which are carried high on the shoulders of other soldiers. A bagpiper follows behind. I don’t think I’ll ever hear the sound of bagpipes again without remembering these ceremonies. Sometimes I cry, a little – for lives lost, and for families I’ve never met.
When we get back to work the mood is somber; soldiers come in with grief on their faces. They give their order quietly, avoiding eye contact. I can sense that tears are close for them. It can be hard to speak in those moments. Yet most of the soldiers appreciate our smiles and jokes. When we celebrate life, it helps us all deal with death a little easier.
In need of a change
I applied for this job in August 2006. I was wrapping up a contract job with an arts festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., processing donations and sending out membership packages. I was looking for something different to do with my life; something that would feel like I was helping out a larger cause. I didn’t think I would get this job.
I’m 35, and although I’m not married and don’t have children, I assumed I’d be bypassed in favour of younger adventurers. But I found a range of ages and experiences when I was accepted into the two-week training course. One of my coworkers, Chantal, 24, from Timmins, Ont., signed up because her husband is a soldier here and she wanted to support him and their friends who are serving in this mission.
We work long hours, and there are no days off. By the end of a shift, I’m tired as I walk back to my tent. My little room is home, for now, and though it’s only the size of small car garage, it’s comfortable. I have a bedsheet for a door and a curving tent wall above my head. When it rains hard, as it sometimes does, the tent often leaks.
Page 3 of 4Missing home
I miss simple things, like having a bathroom in the same building as my bedroom and walls that go all the way up to the ceiling. I miss picking berries and making pies and jam. I have a friend who recently died of cancer, and I wish I could have visited her, or at least called her more easily and frequently. I have even missed winter. But at night in Kandahar, I look up and see the same familiar constellations that hang over the sky in my hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont., and I know I’ll be back there before long.
I rest easy knowing that my home is where roadside bombings and landmines are unheard of. I have a huge appreciation for Canada – I always did – but this experience is magnifying it.
Making a difference
This job has given me more patience and shown that I can live through difficult circumstances with a smile on my face. I came here with very little understanding of the military culture, and I will leave knowing that our soldiers are proud to serve us this far from home; they want to make the world better for their own families and their country.
For the soldiers, being able to feel normal by ordering “the usual” helps make their tour more bearable. Just the other day, a soldier told me, “If it weren’t for this place, I’d have gone crazy by now.” So when a young soldier comes in and gives me a thankful grin because he can finally get an iced cappuccino after six weeks out in the desert, I feel that, even by just serving a coffee, I can make a difference.
Page 4 of 4
Jennifer Jones worked at Tim Hortons in Kandahar for six months. When she wrote this essay, she was a month away from returning home.