Fear can be a horrible thing, paralyzing you in your moments of greatest danger. Fear comes from many sources sometimes you can get away from whatever is causing it simply by running. In other cases, your fear is right there beside you, reminding you every moment exactly why you should be terrified. The kind of fear you have when I Tiger comes out of the bushes right beside you or in my case watching the fuel gauge of a plane slowly drop to zero when you’re in midair.
I had started my flight in the middle of the deep-dark Congo jungle. The shot-up WW2 surplus transport plane I was flying hadn’t been fueled since I had left Leopoldville that morning. I had them put in enough fuel to get me from the city air-strip out to the Jungle clearing that was to be our base-camp and to then get us back with maybe a half and hour leeway. Heading south in the direction of British Africa I was going towards the unknown and not entirely sure I had enough fuel to get there.
First I raised the plane up to its optimal altitude, well over the lowest tropical clouds. The reason was twofold; I would get the greatest possible distance out of the remaining fuel and should I have run out in mid-air, with the height I would have been able to glide a fair distance to find a place amiable enough to put down with maybe even a chance of living (I was very optimistic in my youth!). As I pressed on, I took the opportunity to look out, the whenever I could to check out the window at gaps in the cloud deck. I figured that if I could still see jungle then I was probably still over Belgian territory and likely still likely to be shot should I land. I watched the window and the fuel gauge and as the needle passed below one tenth left I could still see just an expanse of green through the white. I was starting to get nervous.
There was now not enough left to even think about going back to the airfields that I knew about so I had no choice but to continue on. As I passed further on the clouds started to thin more and the ground itself changed.
Gone was the never-ending green forest and instead was more open country. I was out of the rainforest but I still had much further to travel.
With the fuel gauge starting to play chicken with the empty mark the open country itself gave way to a more agrarian scene with patchwork of cultivated fields and small villages. I figured by then that I must have gotten far enough away from whoever had attacked my friends that I could use the radio and call for help. I switched on the wireless and spoke into the ether.
“Hello!” I pleaded “Is there anyone there? I..I.. Need some help! I am flying due south and running low on fuel. Does anyone know a place to land?”
I switched to receive and peeled my ears for any response. There was a blast of static and some garbled words came out of the speaker. I only made out one word but it was clear and unmistakable “Jackeen!” I was talking to a Corkman.
It had been so long since I had last heard another Irishman I was almost willing to ignore that he came from the pretender city to the south. I switched again to send.
“Not reading! Please repeat!”
There was laughing from the speaker and the accented voice said “Only a Jackeen would be flying all the way out here with no fuel or clue where he was going. Isn’t that right boy?”
I asked him where he was and he asked me “Tell me! Can you see a great big lump of rock that looks like a bald man’s head?” I looked around and sure enough there was a great big granite chrome-dome sitting in the middle of the landscape. I told him I could see it and he said “Our airstrip is about three miles Northwest from that. Follow the river; you can’t miss it!”
That was to the left of me so I banked the plane in that direction and looked frantically for the airstrip. I found it quickly enough, a narrow cut in the loose bush of sub Saharan Africa and I immediately lined myself up for a landing. It might have been my nerves but I swear I could hear the engines starting to stall as I hit the runway. I was on the ground again, and very thankful not dying in the process.
The airstrip was a very simple affair. It consisted of a dirt runway and a small shack with a small fuel tanker parked beside it. It looked like one of those quick-build bases for fighters during the war, I strongly suspected that was exactly what it was. There were a number of other planes parked along the scrub verges of the strip. Most of them were single seaters, crop dusters and the like. My transport was easily the largest plane there.
As I stepped down the ladder of the plane I noticed movement by the door of the shack. There was a shout “Good Afternoon!” and I could see a middle-aged man in grubby overalls step out into the Sun. He came over and introduced himself as Gerald, he stood back from the plane. “Jaysus! Look at the size of her!” He breathed out ” I don’t think I have enough to fill her up but I can sell you enough to get her to the big airport in Harare.”
It was at that moment that I made the sickening realisation that once again I was out without nothing. My money and all the rest of my possessions had been left in the hotel Royal in Leopoldville and were probably in the hands of whoever had killed the rest of my friends. Apart from a few pieces of gear on the plane I had nothing to buy fuel with or anything for that matter. I told this to Gerald.
“Hmmm!” He had his hand on his chin in the manner of a man contemplating existence, “I could buy it off you, that should give you enough money to get home maybe. How does three hundred pounds sound?”
Three hundred pounds was a lot back in those days but I knew for a fact that a plane like mine could have fetched over three grand in the condition it was in. If I could have I would have flown away and got a better offer but I had no fuel or money for that. As they say “Beggars can’t be choosers” so instead I looked around. There was a number of reasonable looking vehicles parked around the shack so I said “Throw in one of the cars over there and we have a deal.”
Over the two years with James I had driven worse than the old Jalopy that Gerald had shafted on me, but not by much. I think on down-hill slopes I might have been more scared than I was in the plane running on empty. But somehow I made it to town and from there I was able to sell the car for scrap and get myself a ticket, second class, nice enough for a train to Cape Town, South Africa.
The journey was uneventful and thankfully so. I spent it going through what had happened, contemplating what had changed and what now I was going to do.
Cape Town and beyond would provide its own problems dear reader, new challenges and opportunities for me to find. I would go into greater detail but that is all for the next part of my story.