as published in the California Writers Club Literary Review 2015
For three days, my father, three other men and I, just turned fourteen, drove up the muddy broken way that sometimes passed as a road connecting the Congo and Ogooue’ river basins in Central Africa. Stationed in Leopoldville in the early days of independence and revolution, my Dad had always dreamt of visiting noted philanthropist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his Lambarene hospital in “nearby” Gabon. At my age, I did not fully appreciate who this man was or what he had done, only that he impressed my Dad and that was enough for me.
The Michelin map clearly indicated the road leading to our destination in the thick red lines that denote highway, and for the first ten miles or so the description was accurate, if a bit exaggerated. Reality set in as the single tarred lane began to show significant signs of deterioration, became intermittent, and finally ceased completely, replaced by two parallel ruts approximately as far apart as the wheels on a car or truck.
Our convoy consisted of two Jeeps and a painfully unstable trailer in which we packed supplies, water and, most important, gasoline for the trip. The rough nature of the road loosened almost every bolt on the vehicles and continually shredded the pre-steel-belted tires, forcing stop after stop to change them or repair some critical component that had fallen off a mile or so back down the road. Somewhere during the second moonless night, as we drove through the dense jungle, the generator on one Jeep died, leaving us to drive two vehicles with only one pair of headlights.
Given the limited visibility, we almost drove straight into the pitch black Ogooue’ river, slurring to a halt near midnight inches from the short ramp used to load vehicles and passengers aboard the ferry. The raft and its crew slept at night on the other side, where we could see the lights from the town of Lambarene glinting just out of reach. Exhausted, we fell asleep in the Jeeps, the only souls on this dark side of the river.
In the morning, now surrounded by dozens of locals all staring in the car windows, we started the healthy Jeep, then jump-started the generator-failed other as soon as the primitive ferry approached. This success was followed by a satisfactory slamming of heavy hoods and self-congratulatory shouts of “piece of cake” and “c’est rien” from the men in the party. Little time was lost in maneuvering the Jeeps and trailer onto the perceptibly overloaded boat. Bodies pressed against glass and steel and hung on wherever they could as the crowd sought first passage with the mondele – white men – travelers.
The boat’s captain, or so I assumed due to the khaki shorts, blue sweater and tattered Yankees baseball cap, waved his arms and shouted at late-coming wannabee riders to get off, too many, danger. I understood without knowing the language and peered about anxiously for any evidence of the crocs I had heard slithering and splashing in the water throughout the night. No sign of the cold predators in the bright morning light, but I knew they lurked in the mud-brown depths, lusting for tender young American flesh.
On the other side of the river and several miles from town, Doctor Schweitzer’s hospital was a complete village, with whitewashed cottages and structures scattered about in several groupings. For the staff and visitors such as ourselves, a collection of sleeping cabins formed a compound nestled within the dark and humid trees of the jungle forest.
In cages and running free throughout this area and the rest of the hospital grounds were all manner of domestic and wild animals, many bobbing along on three legs or lacking a wing or arm, thanks to poachers’ snares. Among the Doctor’s many missions was the retrieval and recovery of these hapless victims before they became cooking pot fuel and tourist trinkets. A dozen or so chimps, goats, antelopes, wild fowl and other beasts roamed throughout the compound, totally unconcerned with the humans who worked at or were visiting the site. After our stay, I never again saw the need to hunt or to purchase pieces of animals as souvenirs in the many markets and bazaars we were to visit.
The apparent indifference on the part of the animals to humans in the compound was not entirely universal, a key exception was a large, white-feathered male turkey, which – perhaps as some cosmic metaphor for the fading colonial powers in Africa – had self-determined ownership of the entire compound grounds. One could almost see the dotted lines etched in the hard-packed earth that defined his territory.
Here, in this place and with this most American of holiday symbols, I was to find my greatest challenge within that jungle clearing.
With a few days to spend at Dr. Schweitzer’s hospital, my father and the other men decided to replace the failed generator, parts being available, or as close to such as was possible in deepest, darkest Africa. The spectre of another forced night drive with one set of working headlights and two Jeeps was enough incentive to spur my normally repair-avoiding father into the unnatural and uncomfortable role of mechanic’s assistant.
The hood was raised, the wrenches located, the replacement generator displayed on one fender as proudly as any twelve-point buck in North America, and the operation began. Soon the sounds of clanking metal, shredding knuckles, and words the good Doctor no doubt would have found distasteful began to emerge from the ailing vehicle to hang redolent and informative in the hot, humid air. Repairs “a l’Afrique” were underway!
Unfortunately, the Jeep was parked in the middle of the turkey’s primary zone of control. At first, certain these new visitors simply did not understand the rules, he hinted at his displeasure, strutted about, shook and spread white, rustling feathers, shifted communicatively-colored wattles from happy fleshy pink to resentful deep red. Hisses emerged as he moved closer and closer, protesting the violation of his self-proclaimed comfort zone and warning of imminent action.
Like the grandstandings of some puppet dictator whose territorial claims Western powers chose to ignore, these tactful warnings received no attention from the gentlemen buried to their waists in the engine bay of the Jeep, their minds more closely focused on getting that #$%^%$## bolt to loosen or they would #$%^&&^%$## break it off. Yes, while everything else on the vehicles had loosened during the bumpy ride, this one particular bolt had locked tight.
Offended by the obvious snub, the turkey escalated his efforts. He shuffled closer, shuddered and jerked about, shook feathers and again shifted wattle spectrum, this time from resentful deep red to pay-attention-to-me dark violet. His feet stamped harder on the packed earth, raising small puffs of dust. The hissing became a growl as the beast demanded satisfaction, obeisance or at least our attention. The bird’s eyes hardened into a violent, angry stare. He was one mad turkey.
Despite the ramped up avian display, the stream of cursing and clanking and thumping continued unabated from the bowels of the Jeep. To the turkey, no doubt, the inattention of the mechanics, or, to be more precise, their unmoving legs and rumps, were more than he could stand. The outrage contained within the animal’s small heart overwhelmed the nonviolent teachings of his hospital host, and he began to apply focused energy to the violators. He pecked at ankles and calves as the mechanics struggled with the resistant generator bolt. If nothing else, the turkey provoked a sudden increase in the volume, if not the quality, of their conversation.
“Keep that goddamn turkey away from here,” the command rose from the engine bay, no name attached to the command, and yet—inevitably, as Excalibur was intended for Arthur—I knew it was meant for me.
No instructions, no suggestion on technique or approach. Just a demand for results. A classic request from my Dad comprising a call for immediate action, a definable goal, and little on how to accomplish the desired end.
Such commands, while frustrating at times and often subject to gross misinterpretation and confusion on all sides, no doubt have been fundamental to the development of my willingness to accept responsibility and overcome a wide range of challenges. The long-term value of the instructions was, however, momentarily overshadowed by an innate sense of panic on how one handles an irate turkey in a hospital – no, The Hospital – compound setting.
Today I know that somewhere, perhaps lurking in one of Konrad Lorenz’s books, there must exist directions for this precise situation. Chapter 3, Section 4, “Appeasing Turkeys While Maintaining Your Honor.” At the time, however, I found myself clueless on how to keep that “goddamned turkey away from here.”
Distraction, I thought. Coax the maddened beast from the vulnerable underparts of the hard-working mechanics. I dug for worms and grubs, but he ignored the food offering while his beady, hot eyes dared me to come just a bit closer as he shivered wings, hissed and continued his attack. Bribery, so effective on other occasions – past and future – with strutting human turkeys met with abject failure.
Just to make sure I had not forgotten my sonly duties, Dad’s voice again rose from the depths of the engine bay and promised in concept and innuendo, if not specific words, the consequences of failure.
Herding. Maybe I could herd it from the Jeep and the now totally-irritated legs of my father and the other men. Slowly I edged closer, spread my arms in what I naively believed was a credible herding motion but, upon later reflection, may have appeared more as mimicry or perhaps madness to the turkey. For a moment it seemed to work, although herding the rotund ball of fury felt like pushing string across a rough surface. Every move I made was easily countered by the bird.
Serendipity, they say, is the true reason for most success in this world. It certainly was that day. While unable to herd the wily creature, I did succeed in my primary mission. The Jeep and its mechanics were completely forgotten as the violet-hued wattles and flashing beak focused on the pesky little mondele kid. The charge was on, and I found myself dodging and moving about like soccer’s Pele on speed, transformed immutably and instantly from herder to herdee.
The turkey, having the home field advantage, soon cornered me between two small cabins. There I seized a woefully small stick and prepared for the assault as seriously as any British soldier trapped at Dunkerque. He readied himself, shaking feathers and increasing the violet in his wattles. Fiery red eyes told me of past victories and threatened no mercy. I raised my stick and prepared to meet the enemy in the final encounter.
At the far end of the compound, a screen door slammed and, from the corner of one terrified eye, I saw Dr. Schweitzer walk toward us. Dressed in white, as always, and sporting his pith helmet and a small cane, for the first time I truly saw him as a savior of the underprivileged, of the endangered, of me. The turkey held his charge, no doubt sensing that a higher authority had entered the conflict.
The Doctor approached, shaking his head and clucking softly. “Well, little one, you seem to have a situation,” he said in French, a glint of humor in his eyes and his voice. Tall, his face wrinkled with the years and the climate and filled with a huge bushy white mustache, Dr. Schweitzer was the quintessential model of a colonial doctor in Africa. Say what you will about paternalism, boy, I was glad to see him at that precise moment.
I stammered and stumbled over my words and tried to explain to a man known worldwide for his undeviating insistence on nonviolence why I was ready to beat this poor turkey senseless with my diminutive “club.” Even I was not convinced of the need for such mayhem, much less my ability to carry out the threat.
“Not like that,” the Doctor explained gently, gesturing for me to lower my stick. “Like this.”
He doffed his hat and held it in front of the turkey, which, without hesitation, proceeded to attack, savagely raining machinegun rapid pecks at the wide, thick brim. Oh, merciless gods in heaven, would it never end? Then magically, the pecking slowed and the beast’s wattles changed from purple to deep red and finally to the glowing pink of a contented fowl. With a few haughty pecks and several feather shuffles, the turkey stopped, turned away and strutted James Dean-cool across the compound.
“Violence only makes more violence,” the Doctor said and showed me his beak-scarred pith helmet. “He did not hurt me, and my hat doesn’t care.”
I nodded, fingered my small, soft baseball cap and wished that I, too, had a thick-brimmed hat like him. The Doctor nodded and strode back toward his cabin, no doubt reassured that peace had once again broken out in the world, or at least in his corner of the world. I sighed and started back toward the Jeep and generator bolt, which, based on the continued torrent of expletives was still resisting extraction.
Safe at last, or so I thought.
Just as the good Doctor entered his hut, the very moment the screen door slammed shut behind him, the turkey turned, beamed an evil gleam my way and charged, shifting his wattles from pink to purple on the fly.
Napoleon or someone once said it was important to know when to fight and when to run. This turkey suddenly was my Moscow, and it didn’t require a cruel winter to help me select an appropriate action. Clutching my sad little ball cap in one hand and dropping the stick from the other, I abandoned the field and dove into the hut we had been assigned for sleeping with the best of hopes that the vulnerable legs of the hard-working mechanics no longer needed my protection.
Violence only makes more violence, I told myself as I ran, and that damn turkey wasn’t going to start with me.
© 2015 Gene Jeffers