Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
More Trade-off, and a Final One
After a minute of silence the lieutenant confessed: ‘Tm afraid I had to promise him more than the shoes.”
The officer explained that the nomads wanted us to help them hunt a gazelle. They didn’t want to kill their sheep or goats at that time of the year, he elaborated, but they wanted meat. They couldn’t hunt the gazelles on foot, because they’d grown wary and wouldn’t let men get that close, nor could they hunt from their camels, because the gazelles were too fast. So the nomad chief told the officer they wanted to hunt from our car.
I told the officer I thought it was ridiculous. He said the nomads didn’t think so.
I told the officer I wouldn’t do it.
He said I would. “You can’t refuse, or the nomads will be angry. I have already told them you were a great hunter in America. The chief expects you back as soon as you give the food to your men. But don’t worry, I’ll go with you. I would let them use my Land Rover, but the top doesn’t come of and the chief wants to be able to shoot from the car. Besides, the Army already warned me-here, have some milk.”
Not without misgivings, but without much alternative, Al and I took the canvas top off the Land Cruiser and emptied our the supplies, leaving the others behind to guard them and the crippled trailer. When we drove into the encampment the nomads were hopping happily up and down as if l were some sort of brown-bearded Santa Claus about to give them a ride in his sleigh.
In a twinkling, eleven of them had jammed into the back of the car, all chuckling and talking and joking and spitting on the upholstery. They smelled as if they’d had scampi and garlic bread for dinner, and their last bath a year ago. They were all jammed together in the back, all trying to stand up at the same time, all ready for action, their guns bristling in every direction, so that the Land Cruiser resembled nothing so much as a red porcupine. They had a specimen of almost every piece of armament in the books-270’s and 30.0’s and 30-30’s and even a twelve-gauge shotgun. I expected one of them to go running back for their trench mortar. The chief had the best rife in the bunch, a shiny new Magnum Express that could easily dispatch an elephant. One little old nomad who reminded me of Sneezy the Dwarf came running up with a blunderbuss that looked as if it must have been left over from the war-the War of 1812. There didn’t seem to be any room for him, so he scooted over me and wedged himself right behind the driver’s seat, his powderhorn swinging against the back of my neck as we headed off into the desert.
I drove, Al scouted from the window seat, and the officer sat between us up front, pointing out the way through a haze of cigar smoke.
When I complained that I didn’t really think it was ethical to shoot an animal from a moving car, all I got for my trouble was a lecture from the lieutenant about the survival of the fittest and the laws of the desert and that the animals belonged to the nomads and that Americans couldn’t understand because they were always fat and well-fed.
Al cut in to point out that our nomad friends had far from empty bellies and probably enough treasure stashed away to buy a controlling interest in IBM, when the officer turned out the headlights. The light could be seen for fifteen or twenty miles in the clear desert air, he explained, and would spook any game around.
He might as well have blindfolded me, the thin slice of fading moon gave so little light. I was soon driving more by touch than by sight, and I seemed to be touching every ditch, rock, mound, bump, and hole west of El Alamein. I was down to fifteen miles an hour, but the results were still devastating.
I was cinched in tight with my safety belt, but still seemed to be steering with my stomach and shifting with my knees most of the time, with the little nomad swaying back and forth over my head like a yoyo, spilling gunpowder down my neck. The car sounded as if it would break apart, and I began to wonder if this was a technique our khakied friend taught at his demolition school.
After a shaken-up eternity, someone spotted a gazelle, far to the southwest, silhouetted against the night sky. I reluctantly increased speed, heading toward it, my lights still out, wishing I’d installed radar in the car instead of a Ramsey winch. When the nomads opened fire, first I thought a small volcano had erupted under us. Then the little nomad behind me discharged his blunderbuss, sending smoke and fumes and grapeshot all over the place. I knew it was Vesuvius. The nomads urged me forward, but with the bouncing of the car in the dark, I don’t know how they hoped to hit anything edible. Half the shots were winging off in the direction of Uranus, and two or three peppered the dirt in front of us. I couldn’t see a thing through smoke and smell, and the only thing I was certain of was that the gazelle was a lot safer than I.
Later, as we drove back toward our camp, Al said to the lieutenant, “I hope the nomad chief wasn’t too disappointed about not getting a gazelle.”
“I don’t think so,” the officer smiled. “He’s always wanted a ride in an automobile. And-oh yes-he wonders if you might have another pair of shoes. A little smaller.”
All the next day, we toiled in the scorching desert sun, nailing and boarding the camper floor back together, pounding the buckled sides into place, straightening the struts underneath. The following morning, I took the axle and one of our spare spindles to the welding shop in Tobruk. It was late afternoon before the work was finished and we were ready to roll. We’d lost two full days, and the undercarriage still had three bad cracks that we’d have to weld in Cairo, but at least we were back on the road. Our Sahara adventure was finished. We’d overturned the small trailer twice, smashed the camper, broken an axle, snapped a spindle; we’d been attacked by leeches and flying crabs, looted by robbers; we’d fallen out of moving cars, been caught in sand traps, baked by the ghibli, and stranded in the desert. But we were pushing on.
Just as we were leaving, the little nomad came trotting over to our camp on his camel. The chief had sent him. Did we happen to have any shoe polish? Brown?
Arrival in Cairo in the next Chapter…