So what is Pink Floyd doing in Africa you ask? Well it all started with the “big breakdown” when King Kong died in the middle of the Sahara Desert, 200 miles from the nearest town. A valve had dropped through the top of the piston and we tried in vain to seal it off, but the engine just couldn’t pull the weight of the old bus over the soft sand. We were forced to camp at the only well for a hundred miles around while we waited for parts to be flown out from London. Ten days later we worked to rebuild the engine, and to help pass the time amidst the searing heat of the desert, I brought out my cassette tape player and put on the new Pink Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon”. Then I joined the drivers, Stuart and Joe, in making the repairs as Pink Floyd played on and on!
After that, every time we encountered a mechanical problem with Kong, and there were a lot of them, sometimes two or three a day, Pink Floyd was there to keep us company as we made the repairs. There were broken springs to replace, clogged fuel lines to fix, flat tires to mend, and even a broken engine mount which the manual said could only be replaced by removing the entire engine. But since we were in the middle of the jungle at that point, it wasn’t possible. Once again we came up with a bush mechanic’s solution to replace the broken engine mount, to the sounds of Dark Side of the Moon echoing in the jungle.
When we finally arrived in Nairobi, after traveling overland for almost five months, I gave my Pink Floyd tape to Stuart as a token of good luck as he prepared to do a return trip to London. Even now, after 40 years, whenever I hear Dark Side of the Moon I’m instantly transported back to Africa!
After a joyful reunion with my family in Illinois I bought a 1965 Mustang, packed all of my worldly belongings in the car and headed west on Interstate 90 through North Dakota, Montana and Idaho to the small gold mining town of Republic, Washington. The old town of 750 residents was located along the banks of the San Poil River, some 25 miles south of the Canadian border and over 75 miles from the nearest town of Colville on the other side of the Kettle River Range. When I arrived in Republic and checked in at the ranger station I was shown a small one bedroom house on the station that was provided for me, and that was very fortunate because there were very few places to rent in town. To give you an idea of just how small the town really was, when I went to the one and only grocery store for the first time, the clerk at the checkout counter said “you must be the new forester”! (So I suspect the whole town must have known I was coming)
Over the course of the next two years I became accepted into the small community as if I had always lived there. I made many good friends, especially on Friday nights when I was invited to join people for a few beers at the local bars, of which there were three, all within the space of two blocks along the main street. Winters were quite cold and snow usually arrived before Thanksgiving and remained on the ground until after Easter. My job involved mostly field work, so I spent a lot of time in the surrounding mountains supervising crews planting trees, thinning stands of young timber, clearing brush along trails, and fighting forest fires. During the summer of 1971 a young high school teacher named John from Tacoma took a seasonal job in the fire lookout tower on Bodie Mountain. Soon we became great friends and over the course of the next year I drove to Seattle many times to spend the weekend with John and his friends. I always loved the journey which took me across the mighty Columbia River and Grand Coulee Dam, through the sagebrush hills of eastern Washington, and over the summit of the Cascade Range into the dense forests of western Washington. (such a dramatic change in landscape)
In the fall of 1972 I decided to take leave from the Forest Service to study for a Master of Science degree in Environmental Planning at the University of Washington. Once again I packed all of my worldly belongings in my car, now a 1965 VW bug, and headed for Seattle. There I found a room in a communal house a few blocks from campus. (as an added note, earlier I had been given a beautiful Sealpoint Siamese cat named Ming by some friends in Spokane who had to find him a new home) So Ming and I moved into the huge old house and I joined 10 other students. Once every two weeks each of us prepared dinner for the house, along with the occasional guest or two. While I pursued my studies, John and I spent many weekends together enjoying the cultural delights of the city, especially plays at the Empty Space Theater and music festivals at Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World’s Fair. In addition, there were backpacking trips along the remote Pacific Ocean beaches on the Olympic Peninsula, hiking in the North Cascades, and sailing among the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound.
Then early in 1974, John approached me with the idea of travelling around the world after I completed my degree. Not having made any plans beyond that point, I said “why not”! After that, every time he and I got together he always talked about the places we would go and things we might do on our trip. As time went on and I was approaching the completion of my research project and the writing of my thesis I became more consumed in my studies. So John took on the role of travel agent and went about making the arrangements for our trip that he planned to start in Africa. At that point for me, Africa was not much more than a huge piece of the world map, thousands of miles and a whole world away. At the beginning of the summer John announced that he had signed us up with SIAFU, an overland expedition that would be travelling from London to Nairobi, departing in September, just three months away. In the meantime there were visas to be obtained, several inoculations required, and gear to be purchased. Time seemed to fly by as I madly rushed to finish my thesis and submit it to the Graduate School before the time came when I had to board the flight to Europe where I would meet up with John. Finally the day came for my departure, which by strange coincidence was also my birthday! Over the next several days there was an Eastern Airlines flight to Chicago, an overnight flight to Luxembourg aboard Icelandic Airlines, an overnight train to Madrid, and a ferry to Tangiers. As I stepped off the ferry and into the chaos of Morocco, the realization finally hit me that I was beginning a journey into the unknown for who knows how long. Follow me as I share my experiences of facing unexpected challenges, meeting new people in strange cultures, and trying to make sense of my emotions along the way.
I would like to invite you to read an article that was just published in the Magic City Morning Star newspaper about my travels in Africa. http://tinyurl.com/oorebqx I hope you enjoy reading it!
Here are a couple of excerpts from my book.
An encounter with Monsieur Gabey “We camped just outside of town (Meiganga) next to a small hotel and zoo. Actually it was more like someone’s front yard, or to be more specific, Monsieur Gabey’s place. He was an eccentric old fart who had been in the Cameroons for over 40 years after coming from Paris. He bordered on being an alcoholic and could be quite moody, sometimes very happy and friendly but at other times cold and unresponsive. However, he was a great cook and fixed us some delicious French dishes from the fruits and vegetables he grew in his garden. For dessert we had fresh mandarin oranges picked from a tree just outside the dining room window while we were seated at the dinner table. It was quite a nice time despite the negative feeling on the last day as we were leaving. I think he was sad to see us leave.” (November 1974)
Catching grasshoppers on a Sunday night “In search of an evening’s entertainment, four of us headed down the street toward a local bar for a couple of beers… where dancing was going on to the sounds of James Brown. We ordered some beers and watched the local people dancing, as well as the large crowd gathered outside on the edge of the bar observing the scene and listening to the music. Then all of a sudden, out of the night sky came a horde of large grasshoppers that were attracted by the bright lights. Everyone stopped dancing and started grabbing the grasshoppers, putting them into bottles or stringing them on long twigs, so we got into the swing of things and did the same. It was really a wild scene to see people picking up grasshoppers from the tables, snatching them out of the air, and grabbing them from people’s hair. And all the time the music was blaring out of an old dilapidated speaker from a scratchy record. The people in the bar were just great. They were having a marvelous time and wanted us to as well.” (November 1974)
So what is ADM you ask? Well, now after 45 years it’s no longer classified and I’m able to tell you. From Fort Leonard Wood I joined my fellow soldiers, newly initiated combat engineers, on a flight to Fort Belvoir, Virginia where we spent the next 8 weeks learning how to maintain and detonate Atomic Demolition Munitions (ADM). We were segregated from the rest of the post for obvious security reasons. The ADM’s were basically nuclear land mines designed to destroy bridges, dams, and other large infrastructure, but not to be used directly against enemy troops, thank goodness. The process of arming an ADM involved a specific sequence of steps that required “two man control” to ensure that the weapon could not be armed and detonated by just one person.
Following successful completion of ADM school I was stationed in West Germany at a small, remote post in the Rhon Mountains on the East German border by the name of Wildflecken, which translated in German means “the wild place”. During WWII the post was the main training site for Hitler’s mountain troops and was discovered by the Americans only after the war. When I arrived in the spring of 1969 the post served as one of the three major US Army training sites for armored and artillery units. Winters were very cold and snow remained on the ground from early November through mid-April, so the troops training on the post did not have many good things to say about Wildflecken. But I loved the place since it was located high in the mountains and surrounded by forest. There was also a very historic and sacred monastery nearby where the monks made cheese, baked black bread, and brewed a delicious dark beer. During the summer months many of us would hike up to the monastery, known as the Kreuzberg, to savor the delicious food and beer.
Our Special Weapons Platoon was divided into 6 teams, and besides our daily routine of ADM training, each team pulled 24 hour guard duty at our nuclear weapons storage site near the post. So every 6 days I would spend 24 hours with my team at the site, known as NATO 17. Every so often we would receive a phone call from NATO headquarters giving us a code that we had to match with a code stored in a safe at the site. It always required two of us with separate keys and combinations to unlock the safe. Luckily all the codes we received were practice and not the real thing! But with the Cold War and Russian troops stationed only a few kilometers away along the East German border, every phone call was an anxious moment.
But all was not work and I spent many hours in the woodworking shop at the USO Service Club on post building furniture for my room in the old German barracks. Our rooms had walls 3 feet thick and triple paned windows to deal with the harsh winter weather. I also loved to spend time in the photo lab developing my pictures of the lovely German countryside and small villages.
In the summer of 1970 I took a 2 week leave to visit the historic and cultural sites of Italy and France, which sparked in me the adventure of travel to far off places. Then in September of 1970 I was discharged from the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey, having served my two year commitment. Following a reunion with my family in Illinois, I took a job as a silvicultural forester for the US Forest Service on the Republic Ranger District of the Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington State. Little did I know at the time that I would meet a guy named John who would transform my life forever. (stay tuned)
Upon arrival at Fort Leonard Wood on an Ozark Airlines flight from St Louis, I was marched to an old wooden barracks along with 60 other new recruits and assigned a bunk in the squad bay. As I climbed into my bunk that night and lights out was called, I lay awake for a long time amid the anxiety of what might be in store for me over the next 6 weeks, not to mention the next two years! The next day I forfeited my civilian clothes for Army issue, even down to my skivvies. Soon I was humping a heavy duffel bag of gear in formation with 120 other recruits to another barracks that be our “home” for the next 6 weeks. No sooner had we stowed our gear than we were marched to the Post barber shop for a mandatory #1 haircut, which is basically a shaved head. (there were pictures on the wall of 3 other haircut styles but we were given no choice)
Over the next 6 weeks we endured 6 and a half days a week of training from morning til night, with only Sunday morning free for church services, and virtually everyone took the opportunity to get out of the barracks for 4 hours. Don’t mistake it, boot camp was physically and mentally challenging, but I was fortunate to be able to put up with it and not risk the wrath of the drill instructors who showed no mercy in harassing any weak or overweight recruits. Eventually I “graduated” from basic training and was fortunate to get a week of leave for Christmas with my family before reporting back to Fort Leonard Wood for AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at the Combat Engineer School. During the next 8 weeks I learned how to build bridges and field fortifications, place and detonate demolitions, and fire various weapons. Being the middle of January our field exercises were conducted in snow, ice, and frigid temperatures which is not very comfortable when you’re camped outside for days at a time.
Then two weeks before the end of AIT we received our orders and the entire company was to go to Vietnam (1969 was during the height of the war), so when I called my parents it was not what they wanted to hear. The next day, Saturday morning, 24 of us were called out from the morning formation and the Post Sargent Major offered us the opportunity to “volunteer” for ADM school at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Since no one in their right mind would ever volunteer for something in the Army, we were all pretty skeptical. Finally someone asked the question that was on all of our minds – “what is ADM?” The response from the Sargent Major was “I can’t tell you because it’s classified, but I need your answer by Monday morning!” So all of us spent the weekend asking everyone on the post “what is ADM”, to which they all replied “I don’t know”. Finally on Sunday afternoon we met a drill instructor who said he had served with an ADM unit. At last we might have an answer to our question, however his response was “I’m sorry but it’s classified”. Seeing our forlorn faces he said “but I can tell you this much, there are no ADM units in Vietnam”! Wow – that was good enough for us, so Monday morning 24 of us volunteered for ADM school, and unbeknownst to us, it would spare us and our families from the horrors of the Vietnam war.
While I remain grateful for the opportunity I was given, I also remain in debt to those who served our country in Vietnam, and who did so with distinction and valor! (to be continued)
On September 6, 1945 I was born in the third floor flat at No. 16 Cambridge Gardens near the top of Portobello Road in Notting Hill Gate, a centuries old neighborhood of London, England. Eighteen months later my mother and I boarded a flight to New York and then a train to Pana, Illinois to join my father who had served as a radio operator on a B17 bomber based in Peterborough, England during WWII. We lived in Pana for 11 years where my father worked as an electrician in the coal mines. My sister and I attended a very small elementary school where there were two grades in every classroom. It turned out to be one of my best educational experiences. Then we moved to a farm north of Bloomington, Illinois where I spent some of the best times of my life, surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybeans. There was always work to be done on the farm, and it was during these years that I formed a deep bond with the earth, a bond that would last a lifetime.
Upon graduation from high school our family moved to Champaign and I entered the University of Illinois to study for my Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry, which seemed a bit strange as the campus is in the heart of the “corn belt”. But over the next four years I fell in love with forestry and dreamed of someday living among the mountains in Montana. During the summers I always had a job and one summer I spent 3 months stationed on Selway Mountain fire lookout tower in the Beaverhead National Forest of Southwest Montana. The experience of being alone (I had just 5 visitors all summer and 4 of them came the same day!) at the top of the 10,000 foot summit of Selway Mountain on the border with Idaho, and views for 100 miles in every direction was one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of my life.
Following graduation in 1967 as one of the “centennial class”, I spent the summer in Bonners Ferry, Idaho on the Kaniksu National Forest fighting forest fires. Then it was on to Oregon State University in Corvallis where I studied for my Master’s degree in Forest Engineering. After graduation I took a summer job in Ennis, Montana on the Beaverhead National Forest conducting a timber survey in the Madison Range on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. During that summer I had the opportunity to join a group that climbed the highest peak in the Grand Teton National Park at over 13,500 feet. (this was my introduction to mountain climbing that would later follow me to Africa, British Columbia, and Alaska)
Then near the end of the summer I received my notice to report for the draft, something I had been expecting since my college deferment had expired upon my graduation from Oregon State. I was ordered to report to the “reception station” in Butte, Montana where I was formally introduced to what would become the next two years of my life. After signing several documents, without much choice on my part, I was handed a ticket for a flight to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri where I would spend the next 6 weeks in boot camp. As I boarded the Northwest Orient Airlines flight to Chicago via Great Falls and Minneapolis, I had no idea what lay ahead of me for the next two years. Little could I imagine at that point just how much the Army would transform my life. (stay tuned)
In 1971 I was working as a forester on the Republic Ranger District in the Colville National Forest of Northeastern Washington State. That summer a young high school teacher named John, from Tacoma took the job of fire guard on Bodie Mountain lookout tower and soon we became good friends. Little did I know at that time that 3 years later the two of us would embark on a journey around the world. While completing my Master of Science degree in Environmental Planning at the University of Washington, John began planning our around the world trip, starting in Africa. Since I was consumed in my studies and writing my thesis, John made arrangements for us to an overland expedition that would be traveling from London to Nairobi. But before we could leave Seattle there were visas to be obtained, several inoculations needed, and gear to be purchased – not to mention the submission of my thesis to the graduate school.
In the late summer of 1974 I rushed feverously to complete the final draft of my thesis, pack the essentials I thought I would need for traveling across the Sahara desert and through the jungles of the Congo, and not to forget to book my flight to Europe where I would meet up with John. It all happened in such a mad rush that it wasn’t until John and I stepped off the ferry in Tangiers that I finally realized I was headed into the unknown for who knows how long! A few days later we met up with the overland group camped on the beach south of Tangiers. This was where I met King Kong for the first time – he was an old British Army bus, and little did I know then that he would hold a lifetime of memories for me.
Join me for an incredible journey through the heart of the Dark Continent!