memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘station C’

The salt of the earth

Salt, also known as table salt, or rock salt, is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride NaCl, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts.

The time that I spent in the Sahara desert in the late seventies was during the hottest part of the year, between April and September.

Every morning the sun rose suddenly over the rim of the eastern desert. By midday it was implacable, shining fiercely down on all our endeavours. We used to move slowly from place to place like zombies, with our Ray-Bans and our low-brimmed caps. Only twice did I see to the south the rolling clouds of a sand-storm, driven by the fearsome winds of the Sirocco. Sometimes the sun was obscured by a slight haze but usually it was a great white ball of light burning from a clear sky.

At least that was our assumption; the truth is that one never really looked. There’s usually a sort of literary convention in descriptions of the sun in the desert. One of my favourites is from The Seven Pillars of Wisdomand the sun rose to greet us like a drawn sword.


Salt is not only an essential mineral, a sine qua non for the body’s survival but it also forms part of our linguistic heritage, serving as a metaphor for something fundamental – he’s just not worth his salt or she’s the salt of the earth.

During the Middle-Ages noblemen used to carry a small pouch of salt at their belts to feed to their falcons.

Thousands of years ago merchants and traders, tracking through the deserted wastes of Africa and Asia, would be paid in salt (hence the word salary).

At times our bodies would dehydrate to the point where we were urinating only once a day – time for some salt pills!

The camp medic would issue them on demand and anyone with an ounce of common sense would drink a commensurate amount of water to absorb the extra minerals.These salt pills were really heavy-duty, the sort that would give your average horse severe cholesterol problems, and yet some of the men would recklessly gulp them down (presumably guided by the precept that you can’t have too much of a good thing).

Sometimes there were dire consequences:

–          Station C calling Algiers, Station C calling Algiers, over.

–          Go ahead Station C, over.

–          We have a man down, suspected jagged kidney/gall stone, over.

–          We’re onto it Station C. tell the man to just hold on to his britches, help is on the way, over and out.

What happened next was impressive.

About six hours after the radio-signal to Algiers about the pill-guzzzler who’d been found behind the sanitation cabin (shit-house) lying in agony in the sand clutching his stomach, a neat little air-ambulance, a Swiss Red-Cross Lear jet, landed delicately at our landing-strip (in a cloud of dust) and disgorged the pilot, a doctor, a blond nurse and a stretcher and, while we were gaping at the nurse, transfer-documents were signed and exchanged and lucky, lucky, thicko Joe was stretchered onto the little aircraft which then took off, turning back north, it’s lights winking in the sudden desert dusk and whisked Jammy Joe into an operating theatre in a private clinic in Switzerland (all covered by the expensive Company insurance plan).

Dan the Man


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.

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