The exchange of salutes generated a wave of greeting to me from his men, as they rushed to say “Jambo, Bwanna,” a greeting in Swahili that would become familiar in the days to ahead. Walking forward toward the flight deck, it was apparent that every soldier held his weapon, a rifle, most likely old US M1A1 carbines, long gone from our own arsenals.
I entered the flight compartment, separated from the passenger compartment by a thin wood bulkhead with a door closer to the left side than the middle of the fuselage, and I set to the task of preparing to navigate the flight from Monrovia, Liberia, to Leopoldville, the largest city in what had been the Belgian Congo, but was now the Republic of the Congo. Unbeknownst to our passengers, we were carrying them from purgatory to hell.
I wondered if they had any idea what lay ahead; we Americans at least had the daily news which constantly spewed gruesome stories of the atrocities being committed by all sides of the power-seeking tribes and factions. Pictures from the scene said what thousands of words, unwritten, could not begin to tell.
Now, three days after getting my shot to protect me from the Black Plague, I sat at my navigation table, synchronizing my chronometer with radio station WWV, the official time of the US government, broadcast continually from Washington, DC via high frequency radio, available to all, worldwide. I wondered if any of our passengers had ever seen a watch.
During the engine start, the third of four engines backfired, emitting a loud belch with a corresponding sheet of orange flame shooting out of the engine cowling, like a huge blowtorch, lighting every window on the right side of the plane, and instilling great fear in the troops. I could hear murmuring behind the bulkhead as the flight attendants yelled, “It’s okay. Just a backfire. It’s okay.”
I listened for the translation of backfire into Swahili, but it never came, and now all four engines were running, their big propellers, gigantic fans, blew mothers and children to the ground as they waved their men goodbye, men taken into the gleaming machine, men to be put against the varied rebel groups in The Congo.
Knowing the plane was full of fuel, every seat occupied, and the lower compartments stuffed with baggage, weapons, and ammunition, I decided to stand behind the flight engineer, who sat on a fold-down seat between the two pilots, and look over his shoulder while the plane gathered momentum, seeming to seek the air and leave the ground, like a Gooney Bird, ungainly on the ground, sublimely graceful in the sky. And so I saw the distance remaining markers along the runway pass our windows, each more quickly than the last, until the plane seemed to spread its wings and fly; another miracle, eighty thousand pounds lifted away from earth and carried to a destination below the equator.
During the climb to altitude, I scanned the now dark sky for my friends, my guiding lights, all named by the Ancients, Alioth, Alkaid, Betlegeuse, Canopus, a few of the many used to guide mariners across oceans, and now aviators across skies. Quickly locating the Big Dipper, I was able to spot Polaris, dim, as always, but never moving. It was the one star, the North Star, about which the globe beneath our plane spun. If the night sky remained cloudless, these many stars would bring us safely to the mouth of the Congo River, where we would finally tune in a radio beacon that would guide us to Leopoldville.
Leo, in 1962, had become a hell on earth, and the United Nations had decided it was time to act.
A year earlier, the Belgian government had decided to grant independence to its colony, and their departure left a power vacuum, leading to a free-for-all between the several ethnic tribes, with the diamond mines supplying the money for arms and favor around the world. While the New York World Fair flourished, the Congo saw its land soak in blood. The world hoped our passengers, joining a contingent from Denmark, along with additional troops arriving periodically from other countries, would stanch, possibly stop, the flow.
Now at our cruising altitude of twelve thousand feet, still too heavy to safely climb higher, I leaned into the cockpit doorway, handed the pilot a small slip of paper, and I said, “New heading, skipper. Left turn of three degrees to one-six-eight degrees heading. No change in estimated time of arrival.”
“Okay. I’m coming left to one-six-eight. Let me look at your nav charts and log. I want to see which way I want to go when we get closer to those thunder storms ahead. They look pretty bad on the radar.”
A quick glance at the scope confirmed his statement. Fledgling that I was, it was obvious we would have to pass through the line of thunderstorms that stretched across our path, a glowing, green, irregular line that seemed thirty miles deep. A look out the windows revealed distant flashes of lightening across our path, as far as the eye could see. The flashes reminded me, again, of fireflies, and summer nights spent catching and bottling them, only to find them all dead the next morning. I wondered how my bottled fireflies behind the bulkhead would fare when we released them in a strange land.
I dreaded crossing the line ahead, knowing our safety depended on the skipper threading the plane through the eye of the needle. No matter his skill, the passage through the towering mass would be extremely rough, and I knew the guys in back would shit, or puke, or both, when we dove head first into the pillars of water and fire.
“Ian, secure your navigation station, go back and tell the flight attendants to get everybody buckled in, including themselves, and to remain strapped in until I send you back with the all clear.”
“Aye aye, sir,” and I scurried to get everything battened down.
Just as I returned to the flight deck to strap in, the plane hit a down draft and I found myself floating a few inches off the deck; as quickly, the plane bounced upward hard enough to flatten me on the deck, where I cut my chin and gasped for breath. Petrified, I crawled the few feet to my seat, inched into it, and fastened my seat belt.
High in pitch, the copilot’s voice squeaked out, “These goddamn things seem to be up to sixty thousand fe…,” as his head was slammed into the throttles that lined up in front of the radar scope.
“You shouldn’t swear like that near thunderstorm, Rudy,” said Hank, the pilot, you might piss off God.”
This sentence finished with a flash of lightening, like an exclamation point, and a clap of thunder.
Hank, the skipper, his right hand on the turn knob of the autopilot, stared into the radar scope, occasionally turning the airplane to skirt a storm’s center, cautioned the copilot and engineer to keep a steady watch on the airspeed and engines. Every few minutes, he flicked on the wing illumination light and looked back to see if any ice was accumulating.
The frequent flashes of lightning illuminated their sources, the individual storms, just long enough to give a visual picture of dark, gray canyon walls, seeming to narrow or widen as we went deeper into the squall line. The radar, constantly adjusted, gave Hank pictures of the canyon walls, and he constantly turned the plane to move away from them. It seemed a game of cat and mouse, and we were the mouse.
Gradually, as the metal of the plane rubbed the vapor laden air, Saint Elmo began his light show; the edges of the windows, where the glass met the metal, opened the show with sparkling green ribbons and dots dancing all around, and a look out the side window, back toward the wing, showed the ghostly light full along the wing, and, amazingly, all along the propeller blades. It was stunning until the electric buildup over the airplane discharged itself with a horrendous bang. Then Saint Elmo began the show again, now to an audience fearing the grand finale. Would the next discharge blow off a piece of the plane?
Minutes seemed like hours until the air gradually calmed itself and settled down, with one last bump spitting us out into a clear, moonlight sky. “Jesus H. Christ, skipper, I aint seen nothing like that before. You done good getting us through,” said the flight engineer, whose balding head glistened with sweat.
“Thanks, Johnson. Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then. I guess we lucked out this time; let’s hope this crap is gone when we head back north in a few days. Ian, get up here in my seat. I need to take a leak, and Rudy can give you some on-the-job training.”
Johnson stood, folded his seat, and backed out of the opening to the cockpit, followed by Hank, and I stepped up to enter. Clumsily, my foot pushed down the fuel lever of the number one engine, which instantly quit, causing the plane to swerve to the left as Rudy grabbed the controls, and Johnson bumped me out of his way so he could restart the engine. It all took only seconds, and my embarrassment was complete as everyone on the flight deck had a good laugh on “Brown Bars.”
I felt lucky to be with Hank, an easygoing former enlisted man, now an officer and unimpressed with his rank, but very knowledgeable about aviation; and ready to impart what he knew to anyone flying with him who was willing to accept it.
Relieved when Hank returned to his seat, I walked aft to the lavatory, a tiny space behind another thin plywood bulkhead, and relieved myself using the aptly named relief tube – a very small metal urinal mounted to the wood bulkhead, with a metal tube that ran out its bottom, through the deck of the plane, and exiting into the atmosphere. A small opening, it caused the pressurized air to be forced out, and it constantly gave off a high pitched whine, unless a large volume of urine covered it momentarily. One guy in the squadron claimed he could make it whistle Dixie when he went.
Stepping out of the lavatory, I was confronted by the Liberian officer, standing astride the aisle, talking to one of his men. He spoke in a comforting tone of voice, and I wondered if he calming the man after the storm, or convincing him that all would go well while in the Congo.
Standing, wondering, not wanting to break the conversation, I saw the man motion to his officer that someone was behind him, and he turned to face me. His mouth spread into a beautiful, white, toothy smile, and he said, “Thanky you, sir. Thanky you.” His broken English had a British accent, and I wanted to know something of him, his home, and his men.
“You are welcome, sir, but what have I done for you?”
“You take big plane go safe. Now all is quiet. Men very scared, but now safe. They thanky you too.”
Stupidly, I said, “No thanky me. Other pilot fly plane. I hang on to seat. He good pilot.”
I heard stifled laughter behind me, and, turning, I found Rhule, the loadmaster, doing his best to be quiet. I asked him what was so funny, and he said, “Sir, you just sounded like Tarzan talking to Jane. I’m sorry, sir, I couldn’t help it.”
“Think you can do any better, Rhule?”
Without waiting for a response, I returned to my halting conversation, learning some about Liberia, some about the army, and a lot about the officer. He had attended a school in Monrovia funded by American dollars and staffed by British Army personnel. His entire family worked on the Firestone rubber plantations, and their earnings had bought him, the eldest son, a commission in the army; now, he was a Major, in command of this contingent, and had three junior officers under him. He knew some of what was happening in the Congo, but had been assured by his seniors that they would be nothing more than military police, and the violence would diminish as more troops arrived. His men were indeed as young as they looked, with only one over nineteen, and he was a twenty-two year old sergeant. “He good soldier, my sergeant. He good as my officers. He help me all time.”
I asked him the meaning of “Jambo, Bwanna,” and he told me “same like hello, boss.”
Smiling, I told the major I could now speak Swahili, “Jambo, Major.” He began to laugh, and, as if on cue, all his men began to laugh. Probably in a show of his power, he held his hand up, then dropped it to his side, and the silence returned.
Thanking him for his history story, I excused myself, and returned to the flight deck, to my charts and chronometer, the sextant and the pencil sharpener, and prepared to make another celestial observation so I could tell the skipper we were somewhere along the coast of the southern part of Africa.
The hours passed, the dark began to lighten, and finally the sun began to rise from its slot in the ground, causing our eyelids to droop, almost to close, when we were startled to hear the Morse code identifier begin its repeated dots and dashes, letting us know we were about where we should be, approaching the Matadi radio beacon, from which we would turn toward Leopoldville airport for our descent and arrival.
With a call to the control tower, Rudy received permission for us to approach and land, and we were to maintain a sharp lookout for small arms fire in the area where we crossed the Congo River. Suddenly, we were in a war zone, and the guys in back were here to stay, at least for six or seven months.
On final approach to the runway, we saw white-painted and blue-numbered armored cars, the official color scheme of the United Nations, sitting, scattered along the runway, and only three transport aircraft parked at the terminal. One was marked as Danish Air Force, the other two, Russian IL62’s, bore large letters along the fuselage, “CCCP,” in Cyrillic letters, which we all knew translated to USSR. Back home, the press accused the Soviet Union of supplying the belligerent factions with weapons. The Swedes, in control of the airport, parked us next to the IL62’s, and we watched forklifts unload wood crates, about the size of coffins, but probably containing rifles and machine guns. Being so close, I asked the others in my crew if they had any idea what the words over the cargo door, in Cyrillic lettering, might mean. Rudy, a second generation Yugoslav-American, said it probably read, “We’re here to help,” and gave a cynical little laugh.
Greeted on the tarmac by the Danish U N commander, we secured the airplane, entrusted it to the care of the UN forces guarding the airport, and were trucked to Lovanium University for a rest well deserved. But before departing for Lovanium, we stood at attention and saluted the Liberians, the fireflies, as they armed their weapons and marched off to fight an African war. Out of the airplane and into the bottle, I hoped the next days didn’t find them dead at the bottom.
Early the third morning of our layover, which was spent inside the fenced and heavily guarded grounds of what appeared to have been a beautiful campus, now pocked everywhere with bullet holes and small bomb craters, Our aircraft commander, Hank was summoned to the UN command center and given a teletype message from our headquarters back in the States. We were directed to depart as soon as possible, carrying passengers to Monrovia, and await further orders upon arrival there.
Every one of us was packed and ready to hit the road ten minutes after Hank gave the order. We couldn’t wait to get out of there; the accommodations had not been quite five star rated. We bitched the entire time. We complained to Hank that we had no air conditioning, no running water, no screens on the windows, and the mosquito netting over the beds were, at best, ragged. About noon of the second day, fed up with the latest complaint, looked at us and said, “Wah, wah, wah. All you guys do is cry. What the fuck do I look like, your mothers? If you don’t like it here, maybe the Liberians have room for you in one of their tents. Be happy we have purified water to drink.”
Riding to the airport in the back of a UN army truck, sweating, we sat in silence as we moved downstream in a river of black refugees, all headed for the safety of Leopoldville and its growing force of UN peacekeepers. Every little black child reminded me of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I could almost believe these god forsaken refugees trudging the underground railroad.
From the truck, now on the tarmac, we could see our plane, guarded by blue-helmeted UN soldiers, was the only plane in sight. The airport was as quiet as a graveyard at midnight, and nothing was moving except our truck.
Alongside the plane, we tossed our gear to the ground and dispersed to do our jobs; officers went to the tent marked, “operations,” and the enlisted men began the ritual of preparing our bird for flight. They maneuvered a wheeled set of stairs up to the personnel door, and prepared the cabin for our passengers.
Forty minutes later, walking toward the plane, we watched the lame, the meek and the halt struggle up the stairs. There were babies on hips, boys on backs, and bundles in arms, and, as we got closer, we saw the living definition of atrocity.
Each and every one was skinny; half starved. You felt that if the sun were at the right angle, it would shine right through them. They were weak, wobbly, barely able to climb from one step to the next. One man, old looking but young, struggled mightily on the steps. One of his feet had been cut off. Unbandaged, it looked healed, but grotesque. Johnson, our flight engineer, a giant of a man, came around from the far side of the plane, saw the man struggling, bounded up behind him, picked him gently off his foot and crutch, and carried him into the plane.
One person, probably a mother, carried a baby in a sling, with only its head visible, so small that it might have been only days old. The mother’s face was pocked with what appeard to be cigarette burns; she sobbed as she started to climb the stairs, and had no offers of help from her fellow refugees. They could barely manage for themselves.
Holding hands, three boys, all the same height, barefoot, shreds for shirts and filthy, ragged pants; or maybe shorts. Brothers, friends, we had no communication, so we never knew. They scrambled up the steps, nimble because they were almost weightless; they carried nothing.
But they must have carried something. Everyone carries something, I thought; you just can’t see it. They carry it in their heart, or their head, or both, and the weight is not measureable on a scale, but it is oftentimes registered in their eyes and on their face, in their stance or in their walk. The mother carrying the infant carried the weight of the world; her head was flanked by her sloping shoulders, while her eyes stared blankly, unheedful of her surroundings.
A bearded man stood in line holding a long, straight stick, about the diameter of a broom handle; not pointed, not sanded, but just a worn-smooth branch. It could have been a weapon, or a walking stick, and when he turned and cocked his head to the side, it became obvious it was both weapon and walking stick, and a blind man’s guide. Both of his eyes had been burned or gouged, His sockets would never again be the mirror of his soul. He carried the will to live.
Slowly but surely, every seat was filled, with babies and young children in laps, and in the gloom I was reminded once again of the fireflies; until I started forward and could see the eyes closer, each pair with its own river of tears. This twenty-two year old boot was astonished at what man could do to his fellow.
Falucco, the loadmaster, stepped past me, leaned into the cockpit and said, “Skipper, ever seat taken, all strapped in. We’re ready to button her up.”
“How many souls on the passenger manifest, Falucco?”
My mind jumped to the few times I’d radioed a controlling facility, like London Approach Control and said, “London Approach, Flight six-zero-six, we have an emergency and require immediate landing clearance.” The first reply was always, “Roger six-zero-six, how many souls on board?” After a crash, the Manifest gave an exact list of all on board, and allowed an accounting of who died or was unaccounted for. You never left the ground without your copy of the Manifest.
“Sir, that UN major that was directing the loading said we didn’t need one. Just told me to let him know when we were full.”
“Shit! Falucco, you ought to know better than that. We can’t depart an airport without the names of everyone on board. What the fucks wrong with you?”
“Skipper, I’m just a sailor. I’m a Petty Officer Second Class. He’s a major. With all due respect, sir, there’s nothing wrong with me. When I get an order from an officer, I follow it.”
Hank leaned forward in his seat, rested his head on the control column between his knees, and said, “Falucco, I apologize. What I’ve seen here, what we’ve all seen here, has put us near the edge. It’s not your fault. I apologize again. Don’t close the door yet. Thanks. You’re number one in my book, and I’m lucky to have you in this crew. Go aft, but don’t button her up till I tell you.”
“Aye aye, sir”, and Falucco, beet red in the face, turned and left the flight deck.
“Ian. Get on the radio and call those assholes in operations and ask them where the hell the manifest is. Tell them we won’t leave until we get one. You got that, Ian?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve got it.”
I adjusted my head phones to cover both ears and called Leo Base on the radio, “Leo Base, MATS 5875. We need a copy of the passenger manifest, and the skipper says we are not leaving until we get it. Do you understand? Over.”
Several seconds elapsed, and I was ready to call again, when, loud and clear, a deep voice, calm, in heavily accented English said, “MATS 5875, this is Colonel Wachtmeister, Swedish Army, commander of the UN task group. I wish to speak to the aircraft commander, over.”
I quickly slipped the headset off, leaned forward, and said, Skipper, the head man for the UN, Colonel Wachtmeister wants to talk to you. He’s on the number two VHF radio.”
“OK. I’ve got it, Ian.”
I left my switch in the on position and listened to the Colonel, calmly, smoothly, decently, in English speckled with what seemed to be French, that there was no manifest, they were refugees, and they had no names, or numbers, or addresses. They were crippled, raped, beaten, defaced, and they had no hope. Until now, mon Capitan. You, monsieur le Capitan, were their hope; your plane and your crew were their hope. You must take them to Monrovia; we will have clearance for you by the time you arrive. Trust me, Capitan, you are their hope, sil vous plait. I ask you as a homme. Merci.
Once again, Hank rested his head, sitting, and he looked like he was bowing; when he sat upright, he shook his head, said, “This will be my ass. Ian, tell Falucco to button her up. We may not be a phoenix, but maybe we can carry these folks out of the ashes. Rudy. Read the Start Checklist. Let’s get the fuck out of this hell hole.”
Rudy began to read the litany of the engine start procedure, and within minutes we taxied to the runway, lined up for takeoff, and Hank pushed the throttles full forward the instant the tower said, “Cleared for takeoff, 242.”
As the airplane roared down the runway, Hank shook his head and said quietly, “I hate this fucking place.”
Again, the miracle of flight; throbbing engines, rushing air, a gradual diminishing of objects on the ground, and finally, clear blue sky above the haze and smoke and smell of death. Rudy said, “Dante aint got nothing on that place. It’s got to be the bottom layer of hell.”
Without the agents of war, the machine guns, mortars and grenades in the belly compartments, and passengers weighing, on average half that of the soldiers we carried into Leo, we were able to climb and maintain twenty-one thousand feet, where the air was cold and the engines drank less, and the crew settled into its routine; Johnson adjusted throttles, Rudy made position reports on the VHF radio, I navigated, and the skipper turned the plane when I handed him the little slip of paper. He acknowledged my statements with a nod of his head or the navy pilot’s universal sign of readiness, a clenched fist with the thumb pointing up.
Almost an hour after takeoff, where silence hung over the flight deck like the ugly brown haze we’d left behind, Hank took his eyes away from the instrument panel, scanned the white punctuation marks of the clouds on the blue stationary of the sky and said, “Just another war. But it looks different. The view was different through the gun sight. I never saw the results of my strafing passes at Jap soldiers on the hillsides in Okinawa. Now I, we, get a close-up of what we did, or will do, or might do in combat. Maybe this flight will make up for what I did in Okinawa.”
Johnson fiddled with a throttle, bumping it forward a bit, then pulling it back some invisible distance; Rudy rummaged around in his documents bag, I worked at plotting a current fix, our latitude and longitude, and Hank, after a sip of cold coffee, pursed his lips, lit a cigarette, and went on. “But you know what; we didn’t do it to civilians. They were off limits.”
I thought about Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, but knew better than to question Hank’s statement; He was three grades senior to me, I was a boot Ensign. What could I know?
I requested permission to leave the flight deck, and Hank’s familiar thumbs up answered my request. Standing at the nav table, I tucked in my shirt, cinched my tie, and walked the several steps to the door from the flight deck to the passenger cabin. With a deep breath, my shoulders squared, and my head high, I entered a cave of the Neanderthal era.
With only the upper lobe of the sun still above the horizon, the cabin was bathed in a reddish glow, and all human movement resulted in gigantic shadows projected on the far sidewall of the fuselage. Once colorful clothing, now long unwashed and laden with the reddish-brown dust of the Congo, gave an appearance of Neanderthals to the occupants, an appearance greatly amplified by the unintelligible mumblings between humans I would learn later were complete strangers. Like cattle, but gently and with good intent, they had been herded to, and then through the Leo airport terminal and finally aboard our plane.
My walk aft to the lavatory caused a stir among the fireflies, as heads turned and eyes blinked; however, there were no smiles from this fearful bunch. I was sure there was no communication between any of them and the white people who herded or flew them. What were the thoughts of people strapped to a seat inside a machine they could have only imagined a few months earlier? Had they ever seen or used a seat before? Were they strapped in for some diabolical purpose? Had any Swahili-speaker given them the slightest idea, or briefing, on what might happen to them? Were they wondering where we were taking them, would they be reunited with some lost relative? Would they be thrown out of the machine they were in? The thoughts of these people could run to infinity, or they had no thoughts at all.
A hand, more like a claw, reached out and brushed my arm, the touch like electricity shocking me. I stopped and looked down at what seemed, actually was, a human. The claw moved to its mouth, and simulated drinking, and, without a sound, repeated the motion. I nodded acknowledgement and held up one finger to indicate a moment; there was no reaction from the living skeleton. I say “skeleton” because I couldn’t see anything that might disclose gender or age. A black cloth purse, the items inside, bones, all pressing, stretching, folding the cloth, and a ageless face, home to fading fireflies. The skeleton was living, breathing, thirsty, but barely living.
I marked the sleletons location in the now dark cabin, found the flight attendants handing out C-rations, and told one of them to get me a large cup of water. I received a look as if to say, “Get you own goddamn water, Ensign.” I quickly added it was for a passenger up toward the front that seemed in bad shape. The sailor handed the last packet to a boy in that row, turned, and went to the large containers strapped to the bulkhead, and filled a paper coffee with water.
“I’ll take it to him, sir,” said the sailor, but I said no, I would. I wanted to see the skeketon closer, watch it drink, watch for some flicker of understanding of its situation. There was none. The cup was taken by both claws, lifted like the chalice of salvation, and sipped. Then sipped again, birdlike. But no reaction; it was either unable or beyond reaction. I couldn’t wait, I had to use the lavatory, then navigate us to our destination.
We droned north, skirting the African coast, the hours hanging like the pages on a calendar, lightning, not close enough to distract us from the slowness of time. I wondered what type of men spent months at sea with a festering black cargo, keening and screaming and crying and dying beneath their deck, their hammocks, and there galley.
If the engines kept running, if I navigated surely, if the stars stayed visible, if the weather didn’t close the field, if…
“Hey. Ian. What’s our estimated time of arrival at Monrovia?”
“Hasn’t changed, skipper. Still zero seven three seven, if the fields open.”
“You know, Ian, IF a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass. We’ll just continue to our alternate at Dakar and land without telling them our cargo.”
“Roger that, Skipper.” I just learned to keep my “ifs” to myself.
About the same time the sun began its slow climb to the top of the sky, that time when all our eyelids began to feel like lead curtains starting to close, the Morse code identifier for the Monrovia airport, named Robertsfiel, began its repeated dot-dash-dot, then dot-dot, and finally dash-dot-dot-dot, spelling out “ROB.”
“We’re getting the ROB beacon, skipper. It’s a good strong signal. Request permission to secure the nav, sir.”
“Permission granted. Nice job, Ian, for a boot Ensign.”
“Thanks, skipper. I’m going aft. Anybody want coffee before we land?”
With no takers, I opened the door to the cabin just as the skipper pulled the throttles back to begin the descent, and the minute change in sound, speed and pressure caused a slight stirring among the passengers. None rose or left their seat, and I could see the flight attendants standing, stretching, and rubbing their eyes. I walked to them and told them we had started our descent to land, and got the usual looks of, “Tell us something we don’t know, boot.” But they were good sailors, and they acknowledged me, told me they’d prepare the passengers for landing and let the cockpit know when all was ready, about ten minutes.
I used the lavatory, which now had urine and stains of excretement on the pot, the walls and the deck. I saw it would take a hose and a lot of scrubbing to make this plane flyable again. I got out as quickly as I could, and started forward.
The skeleton reached out and touched me as I came alongside, held out his empty cup, and nodded his or her head while expressing a hint of a smile; I nodded in return, saying almost to myself, “You’re welcome.”
The approach and landing were uneventful, and our arrival beside the little cinderblock terminal was anticlimactic. Three white military ambulances with the large blue letters, U N, stood in a line behind the fence, and a platoon of blue-helmeted soldiers stood about, some holding what appeared to be stretchers. One person stood out, a tall, slender blond man, in army uniform, holding a blue beret in his hand, and he was talking and gesturing to a much shorter white man, dressed in a black suit, with a white clerical collar circling his neck.
On order from the skipper, I opened the small entry door just behind the cockpit just in time to see the cleric wave and the army officer salute. Thinking he was saluting me for some reason, I attempted to return the salute, and started to fall from the doorway, only to be saved by Johnson, the giant. I was humiliated, but in one piece.
A few minutes later, the senior flight attendant, Falucco, came forward and announced the Swedish army Colonel, commander of the UN detachment here in Monrovia, who greeted us with news that all passengers would be accepted by Liberia, and they would be housed, fed, and medicated by the UN detachment. He said he had instructed the flight attendants to disembark all passengers, and the crew should report to operations inside the terminal. The last passenger to leave was the skeleton; he or she was on a stretcher, completely covered with a blanket, except for one claw, dangling over the edge of the stretcher.
We had just completed the first round trip for the United Nations task force, and the enormity of what was happening in the Congo was now apparent. We brought the first load of refugees to be viewed by the media of the developed world.
The colonel looked Hank in the eye and said, “The UN thanks you and your crew for your valuable service. Your superiors will be duly notified. Thank you.”
Turning to leave the plane, the colonel sniffed the air and asked, “My god, how did you stand it?”
Once the colonel had departed the plane, Falucco asked Hank, “Skipper, who’s going to clean the plane, or should we torch her?”