The trip from Japan to Pakistan when I was transferred to the American Embassy in Karachi was like a trip through a storybook.
First came the Philippines, where I stayed only a day, barely enough time for a quick pilgrimage to Bataan and Corregidor.
Then Bangkok, the Venice of the East. I had just 19 hours there. I wasted none of them on sleep.
Calcutta, where I almost missed the aircraft because I could not sit out a three-hour intransit stop at Dum-Dum Airport while a city I had read of since childhood stood only miles away.
New Delhi, where I was so worn out from trying to take in everything in Bangkok and Calcutta that I sat down on my bed in the Imperial Hotel at two in the afternoon to await the dinner hour and found myself waking up at four, ravenously hungry.
I pressed the service bell. A bearer came. I asked when the dining room would open. He said eight o’clock. I asked if I could get something right then, ordered a ham sandwich and a bottle of beer, ate, drank, and sallied forth to see Delhi.
It was 4:30 in the morning.
That afternoon we landed in Karachi, where Col. Guelich and his wife drove me in from the airport and listened to the odd little sergeant who was thrilled to be there and could hardly wait to visit the excavation at Bambour, 30 miles out of Karachi, or to get up north to see the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, the fabled cities of the vanished Harappan Civilization.
Well, I saw Bambour, and I even got to see Delhi, and even the Taj Mahal, north of it, but my travel plans were forgotten when something else came along.
Two things actually.
One of them wonderful; the other, I suppose, educational.
First came the evening of Nov. 17, 1959, a day my life changed forever. I had been in Karachi for about two weeks, and after a quiet supper in the staff house where I lived, Sam McNutt, one of the other single NCOs, turned to me and said, “Hey, Tom. How’d you like to meet a couple of nice British girls?”
He did not have to ask twice.
And so, at precisely 7:15 that evening, I walked up a set of steps onto the shaded veranda of a small stuccoed house and promptly fell in love.
Seven months later, in a small Catholic church, Lolly and I were married. No longer did I need to travel. Everything I wanted was now in my arms.
Fate stepped in a few weeks after our wedding and granted me a second life-changing experience. Lolly’s sister Betty was engaged to a young Caltex refueling supervisor named Peter Best. Pete and I became good friends. He was my best man, and I his, and I’m happy to say that Betty and Peter now live here in Arizona.
Betty and Peter came for a visit one day. As we sat on our veranda enjoying the breeze, Peter pointed at a field just visible through some trees. “I see you’re near the pattycake factory.”
I followed his finger and saw a bullock cart just pulling off the road at the top of the sloping field. A large sheet of dirty cotton covered the cart. As it trundled along on its wooden wheels the stuff under the sheet swayed back and forth like a mound of jello. Peter pointed again, at a place where 10 or 12 rail-thin women sat patting something into flat tortilla-sized cakes.
“Pattycake factory?” I asked.
“They shape it into pattycakes and dry them in the sun. They sell them 12 to the anna.”
I suppose I looked stupid. “For cooking fuel,” he explained.
It dawned on me. Cow chips! I did a mental calculation. Six rupees to the dollar. Sixteen annas to the rupee. It came out to a penny apiece for the dried dung cakes. It didn’t seem like a very profitable business to me, and I said so.
Peter frowned. “Trust me, it’s good money for them.”
I suppose I looked doubtful because Peter, who was wearing his gray Caltex uniform, frowned again. “I’m on my way to the airport and I have to pick up one of my men,” he said, pointing through the trees. “In a hutment area over there. Care to come?”
Ten minutes later Peter led the way through a tangle of shoulder-width alleys running between mud huts, each barely the size of a small walk-in closet. I later learned that there were over 2,000 huts and 10,000 human beings jammed into an area the size of a football field.
Somewhere amid that tangle of huts reeking of human waste we stopped. Peter pulled aside a black, rotting flap of ragged burlap that served as a door.
“Look in,” he said, “but don’t go in.”
I got one quick look, all I needed — or wanted. Mud walls. A black floor that became airborne and buzzed around. A hole scratched at the base of a wall where a dark pool of human waste lay half in and half out of the hut.
Later, Peter explained. Before India was partitioned into Pakistan and India, Karachi was called “The White City of the Orient,” a city of 100,000 where plastered buildings gleamed in the sun near the mouth of the fabled Indus River. After the partition it became home for over 5 million refugees.
With no shelter and little food, they died like flies. And now, 12 years later, they were not much better off than back in 1947.
“The problem will eventually solve itself,” Peter told me. “Hundreds still die each day. Of cholera, typhoid fever, smallpox ... and starvation. We hire as many as we can. Five times what we need. So do all the foreign companies.”
“Helpless. No money. It does what it can, but ...”
I grew up during the Great Depression, and my father died when I was 5, leaving Mom stranded with four boys to raise. I thought we were dirt poor, but you know what? Try as hard as I can, I can’t remember ever going to bed hungry.
As horrifying as that moment was, as I stared open-mouthed past a blackened shred of rotting burlap into another world and saw what life can do to the innocent when politics and religion separate men and women into armed camps and make them forget that we are all God’s children, it was a lesson that I needed to learn.
One I will never forget.