In earlier columns I mentioned that a great old guy named Abdul taught me the meaning of wisdom three separate times while I was working in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.
I've told you about two of those times. As requested, here's number three.
My job in Pakistan consisted, among other things, of seeing to it that any U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft that arrived was expeditiously loaded and unloaded.
Often, the time allowed on the ground was just two hours. The Air Force, considering the cost of buying an aircraft and paying for a crew of six to eight members, gets just a mite upset when one of its cargo planes is delayed.
The trouble was we had virtually no equipment in Karachi, other than the willing hands of eighteen unskilled workmen. Nevertheless, we still had to meet the same very short deadlines.
The average load we placed aboard a cargo aircraft, every piece manhandled into place, was about twenty-two thousand pounds. Because of the time required for other things, such as refueling, the actual time for loading and tying down cargo came down to about an hour and a half. Not much time at all.
To facilitate matters, I used to calculate in advance how much cargo we were putting on and where it had to be placed and tied down on the aircraft. I then had the workmen arrange the load on the ground near the tarmac so that it was stacked upside down and in the reverse order of loading. That way I could have a crew stacking cargo on the forklift while I stayed on the aircraft and supervised the tying down.
The system worked quite well until the first time we had to load a plane at night. I parked my jeep with its headlights shining on the cargo and we set to work. Things were going fine for a while. Then everything stopped. Most of the men spoke Pushtu and I only spoke a little Urdu, so I asked Abdul what was wrong.
"The men are afraid of a krait, Sahib," Abdul told me (krait, by the way, is pronounced krite). "There was one hidden among the boxes."
"What's a krait?" I asked.
He showed me a pencil-thin, dust-brown snake about a foot long. A very dead snake, I noted. Well, I wasn't going to let some snake with a head the size of a cough drop delay an aircraft for which I was responsible. So, I put myself at the head of the line, picking up each box and handing it to the next man.
That satisfied them and the aircraft got off the ground on time.
A week later I was half asleep in my jeep, waiting for an aircraft to land. Some workmen were cutting grass between the two runways. Suddenly, I heard the most horrifying scream. I looked up and saw one of the grass cutters running toward the tower.
He was still screaming when he made it about halfway to the tower and dropped. My men ran to him while I waited in the jeep, very curious to know what had happened.
Finally, Abdul returned, looking pretty much his usual placid self.
"What happened?" I asked.
"He is dead, Sahib," Abdul told me waving his hand in the way they have of doing it in India and Pakistan, the casual gesture of a swiveling wrist indicating an acceptance of life as it is.
"Yes, Sahib. A krait bit him."