Friday, July 9, 2010

Chapter 11 - Escape

About noon one day I was listening to "Voice of America" on the radio when I heard that the president of the United States had ordered all Americans to leave the Belgian Congo. I was so excited I ran all over the compound telling everyone. I wanted something to happen, like for us to leave. Things were bad and getting worse. We should have left long before now. I was scared, but that's not the only reason I wanted to leave. I just wanted to be back in the U.S., where there was TV and candy. Besides, America was home, at least it felt like home. I hadn't felt at home for many years. I wanted to feel home again, see Hossburg again.

Dad didn't believe me when I told him, although everyone else did. He made me sit by the radio with him in the living room. He glared at me. He was waiting to be able to punish me when the news didn't tell what I had been spreading around the compound. He warned me, "You shouldn't be scaring everyone like this." He waited till the next broadcast and then he heard it too. He wasn't as excited about this news, as I was. It would interfere with his work, his progress educating the natives. But there was no way he could keep us here now, he had orders. Dad, being a person who loved authority, now had to yield. He had a job to do. Get us out. He had orders.

I wanted out right away. Cotton candy, rock n roll music, and bubble gum were calling. Africa was a nice place but I had been here long enough. My mother operated the ham radio on the station. Sitting in a stiff backed steel folding chair, hovering over the crackling gray radio, she got the final instructions on our evacuation. I stood next to her watching the sweat slide down her cheeks and onto her neck. It was hot, and this was an exciting moment. We were given a date and told to be at the top of a certain hill in the village at noon that day. The notice over the ham radio informed us a helicopter would land and take us away. We were told we could have only one suitcase per family. That made deciding what to take very easy. Basically, one set of clothes per person, including underwear. That's all one suitcase would carry for a family of seven.

The day arrived looking like every other day this time of year. We hadn't told the natives we were leaving. We didn't want the natives to be upset, or get in the way. They had no idea. They weren't told, for no one knew what they might do. I wondered what they would think when they saw when the helicopter land. But I was ready, even if my  parents were not. At fifteen minutes before noon on the given day, the missions' three vehicles made a quick round of the mission station and picked up all the missionary families. We tried to look normal, and dad told us to look leisurely as we drove up the dirt road to our appointment on the hill.
Sure enough, just as we topped the hill we heard a rumble in the distance. It was a sound we hadn't heard before. It was the roar of helicopter blades. Soon a small spec was seen off in the distance, below the clouds. It came in from the horizon and became clearly a giant two bladed helicopter. The big blades, one on each end. made a low roar as it approached. It was wide bodied and slow.

It was an exciting thing to watch. By now a crowd of natives had gathered. The helicopter landed right before us on the dirt. As dust flew, my dad told some of the natives that we were all leaving for good. They took it in hurt surprise. Through the glass at the front of the helicopter I could see the pilots in their green fatigues. They were United States Marines. The cargo door flew open and I could see the sweaty foreheads and tight faces of young marines. Each had a machine gun pointed at us and the crowd. The mounted guns on the ship moved, and looked truly serious. The young men jumped out and motioned us in. They pushed and pulled us into the bay.

It didn't take two minutes to get us all in and up and away. As we soared into the air we were motioned to seats on either side of the craft. They were like little orange cots, strictly functional. I sat transfixed at the window looking at the world we were fast leaving behind. One minute we were missionaries in Africa, the next refugees. We had no idea where we were going. But it was exciting. I was happy to oblige.

I saw our little town with it's tin roofs, vanish into the distance. The jungle passed beneath me, green and unknown. It all looked so peaceful from up here. The marines told us the we were headed for Kikwuit, the capital of our province. They told us the airport there had been taken over by Belgian paratroopers the night before. It had been a quick takeover. One paratrooper had been dropped at each corner of the airfield. With machine guns in hand, they had covered the air strip, while their plane landed with the rest of the troops. There was little resistance. This was no the forward line of civilization, an operating base to get Westerners out.

Our helicopter landed on the strip and we were shown out and led to the main building where we waited with other missionaries that were being evacuated from other stations in the area. I was thrilled to be around real live soldiers, with real machine guns, and live ammo. This was the real thing. Everyone had an air of seriousness. You could see it and you feel it. There was an alertness in the soldiers eyes. No one had died in the takeover, the African troops had left without a fight. No one knew if they would attack. We didn't know if they would return.

The American soldiers were kind to us. They opened their backpacks and gave us what we wanted. I ate C rations. Real crackers and cheese, peanut butter, stuff I hadn't had in several years. It was wonderful. Still I wanted to see some action. But not be in it, just be able to see it. The marines told us that we wouldn't see a thing because we were leaving soon. Shortly we were herded towards an old DC-3, a decrepit looking silver hulk. There were no seats in the plane. It was a cargo plane, used for bulk carry. It could hold a lot more without seats, and they had all been taken out long ago. We all sat on the floor. The doorway into the cockpit was open and I stood there as we took off into the cool African evening air.

Once in the air we were told that we were headed to Brazzaville, capital of the neighboring French Congo. We were overloaded but the old bird still flew. The pilot told me that we were flying at night so that we wouldn't be shot down. Flying at night was interesting in that there were almost no lights, just an occasional fire below. We were in the air for about three hours. Long enough or me to be ready for the next stop. Then we landed, slow and easy, the same way these old planes flew.

We landed in Brazzaville and stepped out into the night, standing in the shadows of large planes. We stood in groups, some of sitting on suitcases. We all waited. We weren't immediately told what would happen next. There was a very large plane nearby being refueled. I thought that would be our next ride. While we waited we kids started running and playing hide and seek under the big planes. I hide under the wing of the one being refueled. It said United States Air Force on it. It was a Globe Master, the largest plane in the world at the time.

As we waited, more planes and helicopters landed. Each had a load of missionaries or other foreigners being evacuated. They formed their own groups and waited too. By late evening there were more than twenty denominations represented on the airstrip. Each having left their respective enclave in the jungle. Some had some very bad stories to tell. Some had seen lives lost or taken. I was glad Bangala had no stories to tell. We were among the lucky ones.

An army jeep came barreling down the tarmac and stopped next to the Globe  Master. Army pilots got out and went into the nose of the plane. Another man in a green uniform came over and told us we would be leaving soon. There had been some delays. We were glad to be leaving. Jeep lights turned on and marked a path to the large plane. We followed the headlamps to where they pointed. We climbed aboard the Globe Master in the eerie unnatural light and found our seats.

Again, we were seated on cots all across the sides of the large open body. The long road down the runway made a deep impression on me, it was a great flying machine. It was amazing to see the city lights beneath us as we left. By morning we were flying over the Sahara desert. We were flying Northwest to the coast of Morocco. There was another army base there.

The Globe Master rode very high in the sky. I could see ice form on the wings, and although it was interesting, it was also scary. I pointed it out to the pilot, but he didn't seem to think it mattered. He let me sit in the co-pilot's seat for a few minutes as a reward. It was exciting and I was glad I had warned him about the ice.

Because of the high altitude several people fainted due to lack of oxygen. My mother was one of them. That was hard to watch. She never complained much, so when she got sick, it was frightening. I thought it was serious. This was not a good time for me to loose my mother. She was given oxygen and that revived her. She stayed quiet and didn't have any more trouble.

One of the children close to me vomited on my flight bag. Carl lost his glasses in the bomb bay and we never found them. Those were a couple of memorable moments. We landed mid morning in bright sunlight of Morocco.

We stayed in Morocco for several days. We stayed in army housing, little one story block homes. The weather was warm and dry, the sun bright and cheerful. I recall my mother washing clothes and hanging them outside. We flew from Morocco to the Azores, islands in the Atlantic. They were beautiful to see and fun to land on, but we didn't stay any longer than it took to refuel. From there the last leg of our flight was to Washington D.C.

It seemed like we were foreign dignitaries with all the film crews and reporters crowding about the tarmac. We were all interviewed, even the kids. The reporters asked us kids questions, trying to get an angle on the story, or find out something that the adults weren't telling. One of them asked me what I liked to watch on TV. I said "cowboys," he assured me that he would have his company show a cowboy show that afternoon, just for me. I felt very important. When we finally got to our hotel, and settled in, I spent the whole afternoon switching channels on the TV trying to find a cowboy show. None ever came on. I was very hurt. I didn't think a reporter would lie to me. Our relatives arrived the next day and we were taken home to the hills of Pennsylvania.

End -  chapter 11

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