by Steven Craig
The little motorcade had been crossing Mali for several days. Travel on the track was not difficult if you stayed out of the sand, avoided sudden ravines, kept a constant eye open for large rocks, and the occasional sand drift blocking the track. The wind here blows from the east, pushing the sand slightly away from parallel to the track.
The track sometimes weaved between encroaching dunes from both the north and even more so from the south. At times, it tracked a hundred yards and more wide across low, undulating sand hills. Occasionally, the track flatten out for miles with only a clinging plant of some kind of brush dotting the reddish landscape in all directions.
Steven liked to travel the backroads and desolate country back in the states, but this trip was giving him a different feeling. This was everybit the meaning of the word “remote”. Here, there were no roadside filling stations, stores, signposts, not even any broken bottles marking the way along the side of the track. And the track moves with the wind from year to year, just following the barren ground of hard pebbles and stones that is left when the sand moves on.
To the north and the west, there were distant hills, reddish in the haze of a layer of dust blowing up their flanks in the heated air. To the south and west, were darker hills that could be seen through the breaks in the dunes, likely volcanic in origin, and a long way off. The track veered from time to time a little to the north, or a little to the south, but always back again in a general direction to the west. West 2000 miles and more, to Senegal.
As on the previous days, the track revealed nothing. Though all the men looked about, there was no item of interest to look at. The threat of bandits was always there, but the searches of the dune tops, their flanks, looks back into the leeward sides would not should anything of concern. No other traffic, no marks of any other traffic, no tracks in the sand, just more of the same.
A little excitement was always there for the point vehicle leading the motorcade. When a blind area presented itself on the track, cresting a dune area, a ridge, or a ravine, the point would scurry off ahead of the rest for perhaps a half mile or so, and scout about for trouble, track conditions, weather changes, camp sites, just to play it safe but also to get the blood flowing. On any given day, John and Steven swapped taking the point and then early one morning...
John had driven ahead on point to take a hulldown position on a fairly high ridge of red sandstone, partly enshrouded within a dune. Steven heard him utter a single word over the command set ... “Flicka.” Steven looked up to the top of the ridge to where John was standing, next to his Rover. He had his right arm straight up. He’d seen something.
Steven signaled for his driver to slow to the side of the track, then motioned back to the other drivers to slow down and pull to the side. He watched as the Brits pulled off the track to the dune side, he then swept both arms sideways, a simple signal to spread out away from the trucks and take-up watchful positions. As they began to deploy, Steven got back into his Rover and nodded his head toward the uphill track. His driver began the climb up the track to where John was waiting for them.
Steven was watching John with some interest. He didn’t call back any thing else on the command set, and his posture did not indicate any immediate danger. But there, Steven thought John would stand in the same fashion in front of a New York cabby to flag him down. Steven also made note of the climb. The track was steeper than he would like, and it tilted a little to the right, away from the dune side of the sandstone hill. The big tracking van would likely make it up, but as on previous hills, he wished he had a chopper to carry it around. The trouble with choppers out here in E-ZERO-land, no spare parts. But that was not the issue as the Rover pulled up a little behind Johns. Steven pulled the sand goggles off his eyes as he got out and walked over to the side of Johns Rover.
“Aye, Sir. Its a good morning to be up and about the sand, isn’t it Sir.” John had his good morning smile on his face. He’d taken a small break as he would say. Steven walked up next to him, nodding his head just perceptibly, and retained the smile.
“You know, sergeant, we’re double parked here.”
“Aye, Sir. Its a condition the law would never tolerate” He winked another smile, and pointed out to the west. There, the rolling dunes unevenly scattered their presence mainly to the south of the track. The rocks and boulders became more numerous, encroaching on the track from the north as it wound through them toward a crossing of a large dune nearly due west of where the two men stood. Steven brought his glasses up to his eyes and looked along the track to the top of the dune. There a flash of metal was just perceptible though the heated air rising off the east face of the sand.
Steven glanced over at John without moving the glasses. John was now standing there stoned faced, staring at the distant dune, only his eyes moving to the right and left as he looked over the dune line. Steven noted that he was chewing on something. Steven squinted another look though the glasses. That shining metal reflection wasn’t moving, it was just there, on top of the dune.
“Well, what’s your opinion sergeant? A bus stop sign on the camel express maybe?”
John now had his hands on his hips, and the smile had returned. He gave off a feeling of satisfaction that only John could radiate.
“I think its a car, Sir. Aye, Sir, a car.”
Steven looked carefully now at the shiny spot, but with even the 7x50’s, it was just a shiny spot on the top of the sand in the hot desert air.
“A car? How can you tell its a car, John?” Steven handed him the glasses, but John waved them off. He was still staring straight at the luminous spot.
“Aye, Sir. Its neither coming nor going. In this sand, Sir, its a car.”
He had now turned to face Steven, with that lets-get-on-with-it look.
Steven was chewing lightly on his right inside cheek, looking a bit sideways at John.
"Stone has been chapping at the bit to do some riding. Tell him to get his BSA off the rack and run out there for a look."
John broke out a wide grin. "Aye, Sir..." he looked up at the blue of the sky... "a fine day for a ride, Sir." He started for his Rover to radio down to the motor bike enthusiast as Steven took another look at what he would call the car.
"Sergeant, you wouldn't happen to have an idea what kind of car that might be, now would you?"
"A Volvo, Sir. Yes, Sir, a four door Volvo" John called back over his shoulder. He reached the Rover, opening the door, reached in and keyed the handset. From the Rover, he could see back down the track where the rigs were arrayed to one side, but other than that, it was dead still.
"Hughes here. Would you be so kind, have Stone stop his educational reading and wheel that crusty BSA of a machine up to the top here where the officer would be begging his attention. Right, now. See him off. Break." John tossed the handset onto the drivers seat and looked down the track at the sudden activity as several of the men were now moving to the big Rover, unloading the motorcycle from its rear mountings. In less than 2 minutes, the roaring and popping of the big BSA could be heard coming up the track, cresting the top as John was walking back to Steven's position.
"Sir, Private Stone." John cocked his head in the direction of the dust settling about the breaking, side skidding cycle.
"Carry on, Sergeant. You know the drill."
"Sir." John saluted briskly, and walked over to Stone to brief him on his reconnaissance.
Steven had nodded the salute. Anything for the benefit of the men, as John would say.
Steven watched for a few moments as the BSA surged down the west of the rise, kicking up sand and pebbles, and began to hurry across the track to the far dune. He then turned back toward his Rover.
"Sergeant Hughes. Have the rest of the column be brought up."
"Sir!" John shouted back, and began keying the handset again to get the rest of the vehicles rolling up the rise.
It was some minutes by the time the little column began moving up the rise, by which time Stone and his BSA had reached the far dune.
Steven had moved over to Johns Rover and was looking at the far dune though the glasses. He had seen the rooster tail of sand kicked up as the BSA reached the crest, and circled about for a bit before coming to rest.
"Stone, Sir." John handed Steven the handset.
"Go ahead Stone, over."
"Sir. There is this old beatup Volvo in the sand, not much else to report. Its no good to us, Sir. Over."
Steven was looking at John with a bit of a grin. A Volvo in the sand... "Right, Stone. Keep a lookout from your position there. We'll be up to join you in a bit. Out."
Steven was slowly wiping the dust and sweat from the left side of his cheek as he turned toward his Rover.
"OK, sergeant. Lets go see your Volvo."
As the column came up, John motioned for it to follow Steven’s Rover. He stood there and watched as each wheeled by, and then followed the group down the slope. He was about to have some fun.
The column was pulling up the far dune, cresting it as evening was just coming on. Steven could now see that it was a car, and it did indeed have the odd shape of an old Volvo. All the paint had been sand-blasted away by the while to bare metal, explaining the shine. The front hood and the rear trunk were open. All the windows were broken out of it all the way around, and the right rear door was completely gone as was anything that might have once been the interior.
Steven pulled up and got out for a closer look as the rest of the column pulled up, and the men got out to take-up lookout posts. He walked over to the drivers side door that was fully open, leaned over and looked inside at the sand piled up where the seats would have been. A few steps forward, he could look into the engine compartment. The engine and the transmission were gone, loot for a fortunate traveler. Another look around showed sand deep in the wheel wells, the wheels and tires also long gone. A few feet in front of the Volvo was Stone and his BSA. At the Volvos rear was John, staring into the empty truck and wiggling the truck lip up and down.
"Look, Stone. Take a little ride on down the track here..." Steven pointed down the dune toward the west "... just about 5 miles, look for soft sand, ruts, rocks, anything that might give us grief in the morning, and report back. We'll make camp here."
"Sir!" Stone saluted, kicked the BSA twice to start it to life, and rode down the dune.
Steven was looking with re-newed interest at the Volvo. This would make a good, clear siting point.
“Sergeant Hughes. Have the men setup camp here. We’ll get the van running and take some fixes.”
“Sir!” John had turned and listened with satisfaction, then turned about and began barking orders and waving his arms to designate positions for the van, the other vehicles, tenting arrangements, cook stove position, and a place down wind for a latrine site.
Steven’s driver had begun to empty the Rover of the needed items for the afternoon, and had first provided Steven with the fold-up bench. Steven thanked him and sat down to look at his map, which was mostly a sad and empty blank. After a while, Sergeant Hughes walked over, and Steven motioned for him to have a seat.
Steven looked out at the sand and then at John.
“You know sergeant, this is a good point to take a good fix. That Volvo is not going anywhere for a while, so it is likely to be he and visible for some time.” Steven was looking up into the clear, blue sky as if something was already there. “A good ground control point, wouldn’t you agree sergeant?”
“Aye, Sir. It would test them just a little, but they’d be able to use it in need, Sir.”
John was looking at the Volvo, pulling the sharp spines off a long twig he’d picked from the bushes nearby.
"You know, Sir, there is a story about this Volvo here, and its former occupants. There were three of them Sir, three gentlemen from the continent. A French gentleman, an Italian gentleman, and a gentleman from Warsaw."
At the mention of Warsaw, Steven sucked in his breath, rolled his eyes all the way up to his eyebrows and as he exhaled, he rolled them over to the right, fixing them on John.
"Sir, bare with me on this. These continental gentlemen were motoring across this great expanse of desert just as you see it here in front of you Sir, when, upon reaching this height, the Volvo experienced a mechanical problem of an origin unknown to its drivers. They waited here in the car for some hours, and just as we have recently, they did not see anyone else on the track, coming or going, that would hopefully render them aid and comfort, Sir." Through all this, John was looking straight at the Volvo. In his right hand, he held onto the twig of brush, using it to jab and point at the car to emphasize his points.
"Finally, the driver, a rare French gentleman that can make decisions in only a few hours, got out of the Volvo, and started walking around to the boot, explaining 'enough, enough, no one is coming to give us aid, so we will have to walk out the best we can.' Sir, he opened the boot reached in, and moving and tossing things about, finally produced a basket filled to the top with a cargo of wine. The other two gentlemen had by this time left the car and approached the Frenchmen, who upon seeing them looking at the basket, explained 'at least, my dear friends, we will not thirst in the desert for some days to come.' With that, he started off walking down the dune to the west, just here Sir, the very path we are to take I might add." as he jabbed with the twig toward the down side of the dune.
Steven was sitting absolutely stone still, listening to the unraveling of the story John was telling. He had pulled his lips together very tight into a tiny pucker, and with the fingers of his left hand, he was squeezing his lower lip even tight trying to hold back the coming laughter. This was a good story, one that John had planned for some time, that was certain.
"Sir, the Italian gentleman and the gentleman from Warsaw looked in awe as the Frenchman began to march off, bottles ringing in the basket. They had never known him to be so decisive. And just then, Sir, the Italian gentleman had a stroke of genius. He, too, approached the open boot of the Volvo and rattled about for a few moments, producing a basket of breads and sausages, throwing several towels on top which would serve them well. He looked at the gentleman from Warsaw and winked, and shouted after the Frenchman 'wait, sir, that we may go on together, for I shall bring a basket of delightful tastes, that we will not starve in the days to come.' And he moved off after the Frenchman..."
John took a noticeable pause here, and Steven rightly figured it was for effect. For now was the time to explain the need for the Pollock. John began to speak just a bit slower, and bit more softly, either one a hard thing for an Irishman.
"...And the gentleman from Warsaw walked over to the left side of the Volvo, and stood there several minutes, watching his two compatriots walking off and down the dune aways westward. He then turned and looked at the Volvo ..." another pause for effect "..., and then began circling the car..." he was gesturing with his twig again
"... first one way for a while, and turning, going the other way for a while, just looking at the car. And this he did with great concentration for over two hours."
Steven moved his hand away from his mouth for a moment, opening his fingers in a helpless gesture to continue with it.
"Sir, the gentleman from Warsaw suddenly went around to the right rear door, and opened it, and grabbed it tightly, and began pulling and yanking and straining and pulling and pulling ... he put one foot against the hinge post and pushed and pushedand pulled and pulled, and finally with a moan and a cluck, he managed to pull the door clear of its hinges. This effort had tied him considerably, but none the less, with only a brisk wipe of his brow, he flung the door onto his back, and started off down the track following his friends."
John again paused, and turned to look at Steven and gestured with his twig toward a dune on the western horizon. Steven turned, too, and looked along the direction of the twig.
"Sir, the Frenchman and the Italian had walked for some considerable time and had made it to the top of that far dune there, Sir. And on the top of that dune, they dropped down exhausted from the walk and the climb, and made ready to partake of the items in the baskets which they had brought with them. From the top of the dune, they had looked back for their gentleman friend from Warsaw, but for the longest time, they could see no trace of him.
But finally, as evening began to approach, they spied this little dot, way back down the very track they had walked, and it was slowly getting closer."
"Closer and closer, until it neared the bottom of the dune, and they could see that it was indeed their gentleman friend from Warsaw, and he was carrying something large upon his back, but what could it be? They both stood up, and looked down the dune as the gentleman from Warsaw began his climb up the dune in the soft sand. They were astonished, they could not believe, he was carrying a door from the Volvo on his back. It took another 20 minutes for
the gentleman from Warsaw to crest the dune..."
Steven thought it likely to take another 20 minutes to get to the punchline...
"At the crest of the dune, the gentleman from Warsaw was noticeably distressed by his effort, his eyes were nearly flat out of their sockets, his face was a flaming red, his tongue hung directly out of his mouth, which he used to gasp ever more quickly for lings full of hot desert air. His clothes where totally soaked with perspiration, this pants where torn to rags about his knees, the sole of one shoe was flapping from the toe to the arch, and his hands were bloodied from door edge as he had held the door upon his back all those miles."
"The Frenchman and the Italian had sat down again, mouth agape at the spectacle before them. The gentleman from Warsaw looked at them both. He was nearly bowled over, still holding the door upon his back, gasping for breath, his tongue swollen and white. Finally...".
'Finally', thought Steven.
"...he slowly lowered the door from this back, moved it about until it was upright in front of him, and he let the lower edge drop heavily into the sand. He then rested heavily himself over the top of the door, his wrists dangling over the top edge as he looked again at his two friends. Able to control his curiosity no longer, the Frenchman motioned at the gentleman from Warsaw and the door before him 'ahh, tell me my friend, ahh, for what good reason did you bear so great a load as this ... door ... so far across the desert just to bring it here before us?'
And the Italian gentleman nodded his consent to this question as he looked at both the door and the gentleman from Warsaw."
"And the gentleman from Warsaw looked at both of them, the Frenchman, and the Italian, as if they were ignorant children on Byanst street. 'My friends, it should be obvious that I have saved us in the coming days from great and considerable dis-comfort, for which I will accept your belated thanks.' He continued to look at the two men, hoping that they would realize his revelation, but seeing them stare only ever more blankly at him, he leaned around the door, smiling with great satisfaction and pride, grabbing a handle, explained 'Tomorrow, when it begins to get too warm for us, I shall roll down the window."
Satisfied with his fun, John stood up. "If you will excuse me, Sir, I'll see to the making of the afternoons tea." John snapped a quick salute, and moved off.
Posted on 10/13/2017
Copyright © 2020 Steven Craig