Final Preparation, Publicity and Commencement
The week before we left, Al dragged me around to picture agents who wanted to market our photos, magazine editors who wanted to buy our stories, and sponsors who wanted to discuss our assignments. Most of the sponsors were reasonable, but a few of them came up with some weird projects. The public relations man on the Sea and Ski account shoved 500 mimeographed questionnaires into my hand and told me to “make a survey of what the natives use for suntan oil along your route. Also what brand of sunglasses they wear.” The press agent for Creslan fibres asked us to take pictures (to illustrate the wash-and-wearability of the clothes she had given us) whenever we came to a photogenic waterhole. “Especially the ones with crocodiles and elephants and interesting things like that,” she added.
But perhaps the wildest ideas of all came from Jane Kohler, the cute young publicity director of the Elgin National Watch Company. Jane wanted us to submerge our hands in snow to show how well her watches resisted the cold, and later reach into our campfire to show how well they resisted the heat. Then she wanted us to get ourselves lost “in the middle of some big desert” and find our way out by using an Elgin wrist watch as a compass, employing a Girl Scout technique she said she’d show us.
Her last idea was for some photo of us in New Guinea (which wasn’t even on our route), getting some shrunken heads (which they don’t have there) from some savage natives (which they certainly do have there), in exchange for one of her watches. “Those savage tribesmen are fascinated by little mechanical things,” she assured us with the authority of a National Geographic regular. “We’d like some good meaty pictures and movies of them threatening you with their spears until you make friends by giving them your wrist watches and one of our nice dashboard alarm clocks. Then ask the savages to give you a shrunken head in return. And then ship the head back to us. It will make a real eye-catching display.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said to Al when Jane had left the room for a minute. “We can’t go through with that contract.”
“It does have weak points, doesn’t it?” he admitted. “I’m worried about that shrunken head bit. How do we figure out its declared value for import duties?”
“Shrunken heads, suntan surveys, crocodile holes-” I muttered.
“Bourbon,” Al said.
“Bourbon?” I said, forgetting the head hunters.
“That’s right. We have an appointment over at the Bourbon Institute. I’ve arranged for them to ship cases to us all around the world.”
Jim Beam in Paris Old Granddad in Madrid … I.W Harper in Singapore What a life!
The three days before departure were the most frantic, and no matter how thoroughly we thought we had planned, there remained things to be done: cables to be answered, addresses to be changed, bank accounts to be closed, bank accounts to be opened, more vaccinations, shipping forms filled out, tickets picked up, traveler’s checks bought, equipment boxed, forwarding addresses distributed, and, of course, sponsors to be humored. The hours were not long enough, and Al and I worked through the nights. On the morning of the day before our departure, I’d barely gotten to sleep when the phone rang. I fumbled for the receiver.
“Schistosomiasis,” the voice on the phone shouted. “You must have the wrong number,” I answered, and was about to hang up.
“No, no. Schistosomiasis. It’s me, Krinski.”
“Krinski? Good God, man, you know it’s six o’clock in the morning.”
“I know. I know. But I had to read this to you. I wrote the AMA and told them about your trip and they sent me a list of all the diseases you and Al can get. Just listen to this: schistosomiasis, trachoma, typhoid fever, malaria, phlebotomus fever, amebiasis, filariasis, fasciolopsiasis, encephalitis, smallpox, yellow fever, clonorchiasis-“
I hung up. I was asleep less than an hour when the doorbell rang. I stumbled to it and a Western Union boy shoved a yellow envelope in my hand. It was a cable from Madrid:
- MEET YOU ALL IN CHERBOURG
BON VOYAGE WILLY
I was happy Willy Mettler had gotten my letter about our arrival date and could meet us, but I was even happier to get back to bed. I’d been there only a few minutes when Al came dashing in waving a special delivery letter.
“It came. It came,” he shouted. “Operation Termite is on the move.”
It was the first I’d heard of Operation Termite, Al’s plan for getting us into Burma. It seems Al had convinced a curator at the American Museum of Natural History that he was a proficient, although amateur, entomologist. The letter was from the curator, authorizing us to collect termites on our expedition around the world, and especially in Burma, where the museum’s collection was weak. In truth, Al didn’t know a termite from a piece of fried zucchini-and I hoped the Burmese didn’t either.
I also hoped I could get some sleep, but in ten minutes Al was poking me awake. He told me he had to run some last-minute errands, and he asked me to have the car polished and to meet him in front of the main library on Fifth Avenue at exactly 10:30.
“Be sure to wear one of those Creslan sheepskin jackets,” he said, “and your Dobbs safari hat. I want to show some friends our gear.”
As I was leaving to get the car waxed, I heard him on the phone with Bob Levy, a publicity man at Ruder and Finn: “What’s that, Bob, another sponsor? Manischevitz … Matzos? … pictures with Arabs in front of the pyramids … no problem . . . gefilte fish … right!”
As I headed toward the library, I thought back to December and my wish for the unencumbered freedom of the open road. Now Al was turning this almost carefree vagabond into a traveling salesman, but at least I talked him out of his more grandiose schemes, like holding a pre-departure press conference.
At 10:25 I turned down Fifth Avenue from 50th Street. A block from the library I spotted an enormous traffic jam ahead and slowed down. Two men came running up, followed by half a dozen others, all waving their hands frantically, shouting, “This way. This way. Over here!”
People crowded the front steps of the library. The street was jammed with trucks and station wagons from radio and TV stations and newspapers. The sidewalk was packed with news photographers. Radio interviewers shoved mikes through the window, reporters jumped on the running boards, newsreel cameramen shouted for me to move forward, and there, in the middle of everything, jumping up and down, directing the whole operation, was Al decked out in a Mexican serape.
What was the purpose of our trip? one reporter asked. How many countries would we visit? asked another. What did we carry? How would we cross the oceans? How long would the trip take? What languages did we speak? Was I married? Did I think this would be my toughest trip? How much would it cost? Was it true I was collecting termites? Would I mind holding my head up for a picture?
That afternoon, after Woodrow had flown in from Illinois, the three of us drove the Land Cruiser and camper to the Cunard pier and photographed them as they were put aboard the Queen Elizabeth. We’d packed everything we could into the camper, but we still had 47 boxes and cartons of equipment at Al’s apartment which we’d have to take to the ship by taxi caravan the next day.
The next day was March 24th, our sailing date, and the New York newspapers carried the story of our trip. But they also carried another story. On the front page was the headline: WILDCAT TAXI STRIKE HITS CITY. There wasn’t a taxi on the streets, nor could we rent a car at any price, and our ship sailed in a few hours. It looked for a while as if the Trans World Record Expedition would be stuck in the middle of Manhattan, a notably inauspicious beginning for a trans-world record expedition.
This time it was I who awoke Krinski. “Schistosomiasis,” I shouted. “You can’t win your bet if we never get out of New York. You have to drive us to the ship!” And so he did.
After the hectic sailing party, Woodrow and Al and I walked up on deck. I leaned against the rail and watched the massive towers of Manhattan slip by. How long before we’d see them again? We were bound for strange lands and exotic places. What adventures lay in store for us?
I waved a last, long farewell to grand old Lady Liberty as we headed toward the Atlantic.
I turned to look at Al, and he was talking to a young blonde oil heiress from Texas.
I looked at Woodrow, and he was seasick.
I looked at the deck steward, and he handed me a radiogram:
- DON’T DRINK THE WATER-KRINSKI
The Trans World Record Expedition had begun.