Some weeks ago I mentioned that I stayed awake thinking most of New Year’s Eve because I knew the bottom was going to drop out of the thermometer and I was worried that something might happen to Lolly. That was time well spent.
Staying awake and alert when there’s a reason for it is a good thing. Ask anyone who was asleep in bed when he should have been up and awake.
But I’ll have to admit that when I stayed awake a few nights later it felt like a waste of time. You know what kept running through my mind? Two things that happened over 50 years ago.
Both happened in Pakistan while I was on my way out the airbase to offload an aircraft. I was driving my little blue Air Force jeep. I exited a public square in Karachi and turned onto a road leading to the airbase. The road had four lanes, but as usual, they were jammed by a mix of cars, trucks, motorcycle rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, fast-pedaling bicyclists, and molasses-slow four-wheeled camel carts. And that day there was even a little donkey cart creeping along, fortunately not in my lane.
The donkey cart wallah sat perched atop a pile of wood ashes, why I don’t know. I passed him, grinning at the sight of someone balanced on a five foot high pile of ashes, struggling to maintain his grip on the reins, and spurring his donkey along with a long thin stick. And just as I passed, as if to widen my grin, the donkey cart wallah lost his grip on his reins and went sliding backward down his heap of ashes.
A hundred feet farther on I looked in my mirror, ready to bust out laughing.
And I did as I saw a driverless donkey cart.
But I quit laughing when I saw that the poor guy had fallen off the back of his cart, dropped five feet onto hard asphalt, and split his head wide open.
And I mean — sadly — wide open. The top of his head was open and his brain was clearly visible.
That image, the image of a human being who was active and healthy one minute and broken and dead the next, has stayed with me for over 50 years. It will be with me forever, along with an odd sense of guilt. I know it’s silly of me to feel guilty. It’s even stupid. What could I have done? What could anyone have done?
Makes no difference. I still feel a pang of guilt every time I think of it.
Why? Maybe because I was laughing as he slid back.
On that sleepless night a few weeks back I could not get that image out of my head no matter how hard I tried. And then, to make matters worse, thinking of the poor donkey cart wallah led me to thinking about something else that happened the very same day.
Ten miles past the spot where donkey wallah fell, I stopped so my Pakistani workers could catch a meal. Parked at the restaurant they piled into to was a garishly painted dump truck. Like many of the trucks over there, it was a hand-painted, one-of-a-kind — a crazy quilt of bright colors, mostly reds and yellows painted in curls, and swirls, and Arabic words, and heaven only knows what.
I watched seven or eight satisfied looking Pakistanis emerge from the restaurant, hop into the truck bed, and sit down on a wooden bench mounted between the cab and the load. That brought my attention to the load, a large pile of rocks and boulders.
One of my jobs over there was to tie down the loads on our aircraft so they wouldn’t shift during flight. Pilots get a little testy if they hit the runway, tap the brakes, and have the cargo come flying into the cockpit. So aircraft loads are well secured.
All loads, even on a truck, should be tied down. Here in our country, a load of boulders like that, taking up only part of the truck bed, would be very strongly restrained from moving forward.
Curious how the Pakistanis had done that, I strolled over ...
Holy mackerel! What a shock! Those huge rocks weren’t tied down at all. They were just sitting there. There wasn’t even a paper clip holding them back.
And there were eight guys sitting right in front of them on a bench, directly between a loose load and the cab of the truck. A sudden tap on the brakes, a pothole, a swerve to one side to miss a pedestrian — almost anything — and that load could have rammed forward and turned human beings into pulp.
I walked away shaking my head, wondering how anyone could be so careless about human lives. But it wasn’t my truck. And it wasn’t any of my business what some pack of crazy foreigners did. So I just climbed back in my jeep when my men were done eating and tootled off to the airbase.
That should have been that, but on the way back from the airbase six hours later, as I was going around a curve, I saw — you guessed it! — the very same truck nosed into a deep ditch. There was no one around, and most of the load of rocks was gone, but there was one thing that grabbed my attention as I drove by. The cab of the truck had been battered out of shape and ripped clean off the frame.
Needless to say, I took a hard look for blood as I went by that mess, but with my colorblindness and all those colors ...?
The next day I searched the Karachi Times for news about the accident. But a truck wreck? That took place 10 or 12 miles outside the city? With maybe a few peons killed? Not big news over there. Try as I might, I never learned a thing about that accident, and by the time I drove the same road a week later the truck was gone and everyone I asked about it said they had no idea what happened to the men in the truck when the load shifted forward.
You know something? I would have been a lot better off if I had seen a report, or if someone had told me the whole grisly tale. It would have forestalled a lot of unpleasant speculation. As it is, I’ve thought about that truck dozens of times, including — as I said — one night a couple of days after last New Year’s Eve.
Is is stupid to worry about something like that?
Yes it is. It happened 50 years ago. It wasn’t my truck. I didn’t know the people. I wasn’t involved in any way. If there was any blood on the side of that multicolored monster as I drove past it, I sure didn’t see it. And for all I know, no one was badly hurt.
In fact, I don’t know for certain that anyone ended up with so much as a hangnail. All I have is %$#@! speculation.
But it still bothers me.
Because it does.
And I’ll tell you something, Johnny. I’m glad it does.