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"Mr. Pilot! Oh, Mr. Pilot! Where are you, Mr. Pilot?" the nuns called as I squatted in the tall grass that grew around the airstrip. I had been on a trip up country to an area known as the Bomi Hills, which is about ninety miles north of Monrovia. On my way back from the diamond mines with an empty airplane, I felt it — the unmistakable cramping of an attack of diarrhea. Most whites develop intestinal problems if they stay in West Africa long enough. It is accepted the way getting a sunburn is accepted.
"Not here, not now," I muttered to myself. I knew from experience that when it hit you like that, you had maybe ten minutes.
I frantically looked around for a place to land. A large mission run by Catholic nuns should have been close by, and they had an airfield. Like some miraculous apparition, I saw the airstrip through a parting of the clouds — and I dove for it. I flew the airplane straight onto the runway with a couple of hard bounces, pulled it to a dusty stop, and set the parking brake. Leaving the engine idling with the prop turning over slowly, I bailed out of the cabin. I ran to the bush, which was mostly grass and weeds about chest high, and, with only moments to spare, relieved myself.
While this relief was occurring, I heard the distinctive wuush, wuush, wuush of dung beetles crawling through the grass. I had been told that they could hear a mouse break wind from five miles away and could follow the scent. With my pants around my ankles and the sun beating down on my head, I started a little hippy hop, hippy hop movement to keep away from them. And here came the good sisters in their Land Rover.
"Oh, Mr. Pilot! Mr. Pilot, Mr. Pilot! Where are you?" I crouched lower, but now the dung beetles were visible, beelining toward me. I had hoped to spare the good sisters the sight of my naked bottom while trying to clean myself with my handkerchief, but then the dung beetles were upon me, crawling around my feet, and I didn't want them to start up my legs.
"Mr. Pilot! Oh Mr. Pi —!"
The nuns must have figured out what was happening because there was a pause, then they all waved like a car load of school girls and drove off. I got my pants up, shook a cluster of dung beetles off my boots, and got out of there as quickly as I could. Once airborne, I gave the nuns a wing wag as I climbed away.
On the flight back to Monrovia I thought about how I had gotten here. Not long ago, I had been a clean-shaven, ambitious college student at Cornell. Now I sported a three-day stubble, was badly in need of a shower, and had just finished scuttling around the bush with my pants around my ankles trying to avoid bugs and nuns.
I can't say for certain that it wasn't a damp, drizzly November of the soul or that I wished to be called Ishmael, but events had reached a turning point. I had made it to Cornell, and while I had been a good student in high school, this was a different environment altogether. For the first time since I had read it in tenth grade, Moby Dick started to make sense. I understood, or thought I did, why Ishmael ran away to sea and why Richard Dana left Harvard to join a whaling ship and later write Two Years before the Mast. I suppose it was because for nineteen years I had been encased in a world of security, protection, and expectation. Maybe I simply wanted to take some real risks of my own. I wanted to know what life was like outside of the silk cocoon.
I don't know when this process started. I think it was not long after Arthur's death. It was the summer of 1961; I had finished the first semester of my sophomore year at Cornell and had begun to realize that my future as a physicist was in considerable doubt. It wasn't that I could not have persevered and gotten my degree. It was that I knew if I continued, I would be a mediocre physicist at best. For reasons I've never been able to resolve, being mediocre seemed worse than failure. Then, too, winters are frigid in that part of New York State, and I was tired of being cold — bone chillingly cold. I didn't know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, but I knew I no longer wanted to attend Cornell and that I wanted to go somewhere warm — warm all year round.
I tried my best to explain this to my father. He listened, unmoved, expressionless. He seemed to almost shrug, followed by a sip of coffee and a careful placement of the cup on the table. He always did everything carefully, as though every move was calculated. He then looked up at me accusingly, much as he had for the past year. A pall had hovered over our family since my brother's death.
"You mean to say that you are just going to give up, drop out of Cornell, and throw away two years of work?" His voice was measured and deliberate. I had heard this tone many times growing up, and it always made me tremble.
I took a deep breath. "Not give up. Postpone," I said. "I promise I'll go back and finish my degree — later. As for now, I love flying. I have a commercial pilot's certificate. I'm a rated flight instructor, and I know something about aircraft maintenance. I can use that. And I want to go someplace warm."
After that, he didn't say anything. He just stared at me. He knew.
Finally he said, "Well, maybe it's for the best." Then, "What did Jenny say?"
"She doesn't know," I said. "I'm going there now."
* * *
I had called earlier so it wasn't a surprise to anyone when I rang the doorbell. Jenny answered. Her long blond hair fell below her shoulders and seemed to shimmer in the backlight of the doorway. She was tall with sky-blue eyes. Her face looked as though it had been carved, very carefully, from flawless marble. At that moment she seemed more beautiful than ever. I thought of turning back, of not going through with it. She seemed, in that moment, the most important person that I would ever know.
"Want to come in?"
"Let's go to Bright's for a coffee and Danish," I said.
"Sure." Her voice elevated a little with uncertainty and concern.
We walked the block and a half to the coffee shop holding hands. Her hands were always warm and soft. She had long, elegant fingers that seemed more like beautiful decorations than simply fingers.
We each got a coffee and a cinnamon bun oozing with thick frosting. The coffee, as is said, hit the spot and had an immediate relaxing effect. I watched as Jenny bit gently into the cinnamon bun, getting just a little frosting on her upper lip. What was I thinking? Every time I looked at her, she was all I wanted. But I knew this wasn't the time for us. There was just too much history and a too uncertain future.
She smiled and looked up at me with those huge blue eyes. "Did you want to talk about something?" she asked, wiping the frosting from her lip.
"I've dropped out of Cornell."
She kept looking at me, waiting for me to explain.
"I'm still going to finish. I've promised my parents and myself that. It won't be in physics, however. I'm thinking more of math or engineering."
"But what will you do now?"
"I'm going to look for a flying job. I'm a pretty good flight instructor. I'll find something."
"Around here? There are a lot of small airports in this area," she said.
"That's just it. I don't want to stay here."
Jenny froze momentarily then looked at me with a wounded stare. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know. I just need to get away for a while."
"I'm in your way then," she snapped.
"Jenny, I'm not dumping you. I love you. I've never loved anyone like I love you! And besides, I'm not really leaving you. We can stay in contact."
"And for how long?" she interrupted. "A year? Two years? Five? These things never work out. And what am I supposed to do while you're out finding yourself?"
"Jenny, you're a free woman. You can do what you like."
I sensed immediately that I had said the wrong thing. Her eyes narrowed. I'd seen that look before.
"I do love you," I protested. "You mean everything to me."
"Then why are you leaving?" She hesitated then said, "I think it has more to do with Arthur. You've never forgiven yourself for his death."
"Yeah," I said, "and I know he loved you."
"And you feel guilty about that?"
"Don't you, just a little?"
"What happened between Arthur and me is long over. He is dead and will never come back. His death silenced everything and took away everything. But it was an accident. You have no reason to feel guilty."
"Maybe," I said. "It's just something I have to work through for myself."
"So you're running away? Christ! Why don't you become Catholic? They at least have a belief and a rite of absolution."
"Please believe me," I said. "It will only be for a short while. I'll be here for your graduation."
"Promise?" Her face relaxed and there was a flicker of a smile.
"Yes, I do promise."
It was one in a string of promises that I had no idea how I was going to keep.
* * *
A day in the public library looking through international employment publications and classifieds produced nothing. I knew that it would be a wasted effort, but I felt that I had to start somewhere. I went home. Sometime around 4:30 my dad came home, which was early for him. He was carrying a bunch of rolled up sheets of paper.
"Son," he said.
I looked at him.
He handed me the mass of documents. "West Africa."
I stared at him.
"You know I am concerned about this about-face of yours, so I called up some friends of mine in the aviation industry and told them about your wanderlust. We all agreed that West Africa is the place for a young man looking for a change. The economies are growing by leaps and bounds, most of the governments are stable, and it's warm. If I were young again, I'd be tempted to give it a try myself."
The rolled papers were maps and charts of West Africa. We spread them out on the floor. The charts covered all of the coast of West Africa down as far as the Congo. I found the northern part around the big bulge particularly interesting. It was obvious that these documents had been drawn a long time ago by people who were unable to penetrate the actual interior and survey it. Inland, there were many large, blank areas with no detail or relief data. This meant that no data was available, the modern equivalent of "here be dragons" found on some medieval maps that marked uncharted waters. Only the general locations of towns or villages were shown in white areas with no indication as to their size. The national borders were clearly marked but few rivers or roads. The best way in or out of the interior seemed to be by air, but no airfields were marked except on the coast.
I focused on Liberia. I knew that the US had a relationship with the country, and I was fascinated by some of the city names, like Sidi Ifney, Gbarnga, and others that I couldn't begin to pronounce. Looking at these maps, I felt I was looking at the edge of the world.
My dad thought it was exciting. I did too. I think he knew that a young man only gets one shot at freedom before living has to be taken seriously.
Fortunately, with his help, support, and connections, all the technical details went smoothly. I got a letter from a company that he had found through old friends, assuring me that they would leave "no screw unturned" to get me into the country. To me, it sounded a little ominous.
The next step was to get a passport and visa. I caught the bus that ran through our neighborhood of Silver Spring and joined the daily commuters. They had made this bus ride so many times that what went on outside the bus no longer interested them. They quietly occupied their time with crosswords or reading the latest romance novel. My only objective that day was to secure a visa at the Embassy of the Republic of Liberia. Soon I would be on my way to one of the few remaining blank places on the global map.
The bus rambled its way through the crowded streets of Washington, DC. It was a warm spring day and the bus windows were open, admitting a faint breeze as we accelerated between stops. The bus stopped near the supposed location of the embassy, but after walking up and down the block several times, I couldn't find it. At the address I had been given, there was a house of faded yellow brick with no markings of any kind indicating that it was anything but an unkempt, fully shuttered residence. After walking around it, I finally knocked on the door. Minutes passed, and then a child of about ten years old opened it.
"Do you know where the Embassy of Liberia is?" I asked.
"Yah, dis here," she said.
"I need to get a work visa for the country."
"Wait, yah." She let me in and disappeared. Inside I was thrilled by the strong, exotic cooking odors. I waited in the poorly lit foyer listening to the laughter and music that drifted into the room. Eventually, a very large woman dressed in a multicolored caftan and ragged flip-flops appeared in the hall and asked me my business. I explained my visa requirements and said I had all the required paperwork and pictures. Making no reply, she slowly shuffled back down the hall. I heard muted voices in a dialect that I did not understand, and soon a small man with a yellowish complexion appeared, smoking a cigarette.
"Visa cost money, ya know," he said.
I had, in my pocket, two envelopes. The first contained all of the appropriate application forms, signed and notarized. They had been procured for me by a Mr. Haddad, who I assumed was the deputy manager of the company that had hired me. He was the one who had promised to leave "no screw unturned" to ensure my prompt arrival into the Republic. The other envelope, which was sealed, was also for the embassy and bore official looking stamps and logos from the Republic's Ministry of Interior. I was to give this second letter to the embassy official only if visa problems arose.
The small, jaundiced man soon made it clear that the visa was indeed going to be a problem and might take much more time and money than the embassy had first stated. I handed him the second letter. He read it slowly then rapidly straightened up to his full height.
"Come back tomorrow. You will have your visa," he said. Of course, he indicated, it would require him to work overtime and would double the cost, but I could have my documents tomorrow.
On the return bus, a small red convertible passed and the two very pretty girls in it smiled and waved to me. I waved back. I was soon going to be on my way. It had been a good day after all.
The next day, the visa was ready, signed, and in order.
Jenny had just started a job as an administrative assistant at the Smithsonian and had agreed to meet me outside their offices on the Mall. I waited on one of the benches across the street. It had rained the night before and the grass on the Mall had turned to a richer, more translucent shade of green. I watched as office workers hurried past on their way to parking lots or bus stops. A few tourists in casual clothes, followed by weary children, ambled by looking at the buildings. I saw Jenny descending the stairs and walk toward me, her long blond hair flowing around her neck. I felt a sudden tightness in my chest and a near blinding realization of how lucky I was to have her.
"Would you like to sit?" I asked.
"No," she said, "let's walk — toward the monument."
We joined the others walking at a rambling pace, taking in the attractions tourists had come to see. The Washington Monument dominated the horizon.
"My new office," she said, "or shall I say desk, looks out on the monument. I was staring at it this morning and couldn't remember why it is made out of different kinds of stone."
"I think it was a combination of a number of things," I said. "They ran out of money, for one. Then there was the Civil War. The sad truth is that when work was finally resumed after the war, the builders couldn't find the same quality of stone. Like so much in this city, the monument has a long history of political and financial wrangling."
"And how do you feel?" she asked.
"Oh, I just think it was unfortunate — maybe a lesson to people in charge that when you start something, you should finish it."
We walked for a while in silence. She slipped her arm around my waist. "You didn't come here to talk about the Washington Monument, did you?"
We walked on a little farther.
"I'm going to Liberia," I said.
She stopped, her face blank. She bit her bottom lip, but her flood of words couldn't be contained. "Liberia! Do you know how far away that is? Do you know anything about it? Why Liberia?" she said, drawing out each vowel. She was just as angry as I expected she would be.
I took a breath and said, "It's about five thousand miles away. It's like a small version of America, I think. It was settled by former American slaves, now known as Americo-Liberians, in 1820 and was founded as a nation in 1847. They have a federal republic. The Americo-Liberians are in control of the government. Monrovia is the largest city and the capital." I paused to catch my breath, then continued. "William Tubman is president and has been since 1944. It's about the size of the state of Virginia and is covered in forest. It has mountains in the north and east, hardly any roads, and is rich in mineral wealth. How about that?" I exhaled grandly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dung Beetles of Liberia"
Copyright © 2019 Daniel V. Meier, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Ishmael,
Chapter 2 Africa,
Chapter 3 Liberia,
Chapter 4 Deutsch Piloten,
Chapter 5 Mandingos,
Chapter 6 Too Fine,
Chapter 7 President Tubman,
Chapter 8 Ana,
Chapter 9 Belle Yalla,
Chapter 10 Septro,
Chapter 11 Froehliche Weihnachten,
Chapter 12 Juju,
Chapter 13 I Put You Down,
Chapter 14 Parachuters,
Chapter 15 Nouga,
Chapter 16 Dead Man Walking,
Chapter 17 Sheenery Mon,
Chapter 18 Big Palaver,
Chapter 19 The Major,
Chapter 20 Crazy Man in the Big Belly,
Chapter 21 Sister Angelina,
Chapter 22 The Sande,
Chapter 23 Sick Like Hell,
Chapter 24 Little Billy,
Chapter 25 Small, Small Ting,
Chapter 26 Him Humbug Me,
Chapter 27 Coffee Run,
Chapter 28 Jenny,
Chapter 29 Sam,
Chapter 30 Voinjama,
Chapter 31 Pineapple Beach,
Chapter 32 Take Down,
Chapter 33 Cape Town,
Chapter 34 Dung Beetles,
Chapter 35 The Glass House,
Chapter 36 Guinea Worm,
Merico English Dictionary (Liberian English),
About the Author,