STATION C – SAHARA – 1978
One evening in the bar a newcomer was lounging at a table, a bottle of vodka in front of him with three other hairy pipe-liners playing five-card stud poker. It was the Company pilot, Dan. He was an American in his early forties with a youthful face, prematurely white hair and cold eyes. He was a bit of a hard case and there was a rumour that he had flown helicopters in Vietnam; an old leather combat flying-jacket on the back of his chair testified to this. I knew why he was here: he’d brought a senior engineer down from Algiers and then in the morning he was flying down to Station A to collect another engineer to return to Algiers.
As it happened I needed to go down there myself and drifted diffidently across to the table (where I usually played myself) Tom, said one of H.P-Ls, do you know Dan and he said pull up a chair and let’s play cards. As a matter of fact is it OK if I hitch a ride with you down to A tomorrow? Sure, no sweat old sport. Then he proceeded to efficiently relieve us of our easily earned Dinard allowance.
The next morning we rode to out the air-strip where the little twin-prop aircraft had been tethered, guarded by a handful of nationals seated round their fire. Dan didn’t look so boyish in the cruel sunlight, (neither did I for that matter – eyes like piss-holes in the snow). The mechanic fiddled with the engines while Dan settled into his pilot’s seat. I was the only passenger and he waved me forward to the co-pilot’s place: ready to rock and roll, sport? He took a swig from his half-bottle of vodka and then, without even bothering to taxi, just took off and climbed to about five hundred feet before levelling out and taking another comfortable swig he passed the bottle over to me and, though it was only 10.00 in the morning, I also took a shot. I was getting a buzz off the experience; you know the scene in all those movies of the small plane flying over the desert, its shadow sliding beneath you? Well, I’ve actually done-that-been there-bought the T-shirt. Dan produced a ready-rolled smoke from his vest pocket, lit it and took a couple of hissing gulping drags before handing it over to me. The dope made him talkative. He told me of his time in the ‘Nam; he flew choppers during the Tet Offensive, ferrying in fresh meat and taking out dead meat to and from the combat-zone.
There was a caravan of loaded camels plodding along in their swaying majestic way beneath us … let’s go check out those rag-heads down there, said Dan, and he banked his wings and went into a shallow dive over them – the stately Berbers took no notice.
Next he offered me a half share in a worm-farm in his native Missouri. It’s a sound business, he urged, my uncle already has the half-field we would need. We throw in $500 each for start-up equipment (six large tin boxes with gauze lids, two dozen prime worms and a few lumps of cheese) and they just reproduce themselves in the dark; my uncle would harvest the worms once a month and sell them from his farm-shop. I reckon that in a year we could get a return on our investment, and then … (he carried on with his ramble) … I also drifted away in my thoughts as we flew over the sand. It came to me that in the olden days in the southern provinces of China people would do the following: they would take a small carved wooden box with a lid, throw in a dozen maggots and a lump of cheese, close the lid and then put it aside on a shelf and wait for about a week. Upon opening up the box there was a single giant maggot, the champion of champions – a great fat über-maggot measuring six inches long – cook’s delight. Hasten to the kitchen, slice it finely into little roundels, lightly fry in butter, season with salt, pepper and a touch of garlic, a sprig of parsley and voila ... caravans … caravanserai was a lodging on the silk road
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.
We came down to earth at Station A with a bump – Station A, what a dump! It made Station C seem as though it was set in a Swiss valley. It was situated in a totally flat and featureless place and on that particular day a vicious little wind whipped up miniature twisters in the dusty compound.